Accountability or punishment? Atlanta board revisits measuring schools

The Atlanta school board is trying to balance a desire to assess how schools are performing with the concern that it could lead to punitive measures against struggling schools.

The delicate deliberation has resurfaced as the board develops a five-year strategic plan for Atlanta Public Schools and debates how to gauge schools’ success or lack thereof.

What for some is a way to hold schools accountable feels to others more like punishment.

Last school year, the board considered a school improvement plan — which it dubbed the "Excellent Schools Project" — that included a customized scorecard or rating system for schools. The idea was to evaluate schools and use new measurements not found in state-issued school report cards. The concept was billed as a way to give parents and others a clear idea of how each school is doing according to criteria developed uniquely by the district.

Draft versions used color-coded tiers or stars to distinguish high and low-performing schools and spelled out the kinds of support or consequences a school could receive if it did not improve. Those ranged from closing or merging struggling schools to outsourcing their operation to a charter-school group.

The rating proposal drew opposition, and the board halted that part of the discussion for months.

Now, it’s coming back in the context of the strategic plan. This time, language seems to have softened slightly.

Board Chairman Jason Esteves was emphatic about what he doesn’t want: “No report card, no stars, none of that.”

The board has taken early steps to use more positive-sounding language over terms that could be construed as negative. While wordsmithing a section of the new plan, for example, board members preferred the phrase “effective support strategies for continual improvement” over the phrase “effective intervention strategies for under-performing schools.”

Esteves said at a strategic planning session this month that he still thinks the district needs a transparent way of showing how schools are doing. The district and state already capture information to assess a school’s performance, such as standardized test scores and graduation rates, he said, and APS should define which criteria are most important.

A February draft of the “Excellent Schools Project” contemplated about 70 measures that the district could use to measure school performance. Many of those “indicators” would require collecting new data or developing surveys.

Cynthia Briscoe Brown told fellow board members at the recent planning meeting that APS doesn’t need “yet another system for measuring schools.” She reminded board members of the test score-driven culture that led to the cheating scandal.

“We know what happened in APS when principals were told: ‘You raise the scores x points or you lose your job,’” she said.

Esteves envisions adopting a “middle ground” approach to accommodate varying views of board members.

At the planning session, board vice-chairwoman Eshé Collins pointed out that what some see as “punitive” she sees “as accountability.”

Added board member Kandis Wood Jackson: “Accountability is a way of showing love and care.”

The board aims to vote in January on the final version of the strategic plan.

Community meetings on Atlanta Public Schools strategic plan

All meetings begin at 6 p.m.

Nov. 11: Brown Middle School, 765 Peeples St. SW

Nov. 13: John Lewis Invictus Academy, 1890 Donald Lee Hollowell Parkway NW

Nov. 18: Sylvan Hills Middle School, 1461 Sylvan Road SW

Nov. 21: Sutton Middle School, 2875 Northside Drive NW