Creating a Public Accountability for California Schools
by John Rogers - 2004
This article explores the role of the public in California’s educational accountability system. Drawing on a review of state policy and case studies of two school communities, it examines whether California’s accountability system draws on and supports an informed and engaged public. The analysis points to a disconnect between a rhetoric that upholds public engagement and policy structures and practices that limit or distort educational information and thwart public efforts to participate in accountability. The article calls on California to nurture an informed and engaged public that will both enable and demand high quality schools.
In southeast Los Angeles, where public schools are overcrowded, poorly staffed, and undersupplied, an organization of parents calling themselves Parent-U-Turn is advocating for better educational data. Parents dont receive enough information about what is going on in their schools, explains the groups executive director. Until more parents become empowered with knowledge to advocate for better schooling, the system will continue to fail our children.1 Parent-U-Turns demand for public data speaks to the heart of any credible and legitimate education accountability system. Such a system must both support and respond to informed public participation in educational accountability.
What, then, does the public require to participate vigorously and democratically in a system that takes account of and is accountable for educational conditions? In the literal sense, this means a system that allows parents and others to reckon with available information and count in their own knowledge and experience so that they can call school officials to answer for [their] responsibilities and conduct.2 Public participation in such a system entails (a) learning about the conditions students experience in school; (b) contributing information about these conditions based on observations or the experience of local children; and (c) encouraging the system to use this information to respond to presenting and potential problems. For these purposes, data about school conditions are a tool for leveraging participant and official knowledge to accomplish reforms that improve schools capacity to provide high-quality education to all students.
This understanding of public participation in accountability complements, yet pushes beyond, common practices of parent involvement. Schools often call on parents to volunteer in classrooms and the school as a whole, support homework and other school activities, and encourage children to obey school rules and embrace the schools goals. These modes of participation contribute valuable labor, extend the schools curriculum into the home, and promote student engagement.3 An extensive body of research over the last two decades establishes that these practices of parent participation enable some well-functioning schools to enhance student learning.4 Yet these activities alone cannot reliably redress substandard school conditions. Parents and community members are most likely to contribute to the schools program when they believe the educational system serves their childrens interests and when they believe in their own efficacy for contributing to change. This sort of confirmation requires a transparent and responsive system. It demands a two-way flow of information between educational officials and the public, processes that ensure that the information is acted on,5 and when those process are lacking, leverage for change that is built into the accountability system.
Whereas we expect parent involvement to focus narrowly on local schools, public information and participation must be nested within a statewide accountability system. Many of the conditions that the public needs to know about or to weigh in on are shaped fundamentally by state policies on taxation, teacher credentialing, curriculum standards, and assessment. Parents and community members today need access to information that allows them to compare their schools with other schools in the state as well as to the states own standards. The public needs to be able to share its knowledge about educational problems with education officials who have the power to address these problems across the different levels of the state system. Finally, parents and community members need to know who to hold responsible, again at all levels of the system, for ensuring decent conditions for all students. Of course, it is the states responsibility to provide a system of professional oversight that ensures all students adequate and equitable learning conditions. Public participation in accountability can serve as both a critical source of information for, and an essential check on, this oversight system.
Does Californias accountability system draw on and support an informed and engaged public to ensure quality educational conditions for all? To answer this question, I examine Californias framework for involving parents in educational accountability as well how this framework plays out in two school communities. My analysis points to a disconnect between a rhetoric that upholds public engagement and the structures and practices that limit or distort educational information thus thwarting public efforts to participate in accountability. The final section of this article explores policies that are needed to build and sustain a robust flow of public information and a vibrant public in educational accountability.
THE PUBLIC IN CALIFORNIA PUBLIC SCHOOL ACCOUNTABILITY
The state of California has long acknowledged the general role of parent involvement in enhancing student learning as well as parents involvement in educational accountability and school improvement.6 In a variety of official documents, California articulates three compelling state purposes served by parents who are involved in educational accountability. First, the state sees parent participation in accountability as critical to sustaining civic life. In 1998, the legislature declared, It is essential to our democratic form of government that parents and guardians of school-age children attending public schools and other citizens participate in improving public education institutions.7 Second, the state suggests that broad-based parent participation enables parents with different experiences and information to contribute unique perspectives and knowledge to the system. This principle grounds the states commitment to engaging broad and diverse groups of parents in the local improvement plan process mandated by the federal governments Elementary and Secondary Education Act.8 Third, the state holds that including parents as stakeholders in the accountability process promotes a broad sense that the schools are legitimate and deserving of public commitment.9 In its Consolidated State Plan, California argues that successful educational reform requires that members of the community literally have a stake in and are accountable for the planning, implementation, and evaluation of [these] reforms.10
Californias Public School Accountability Act of 1999 (PSAA) signals the importance of an informed and engaged public through its introductory findings and declarations. The opening statements of the act claim that the active involvement of parents and guardians is a cornerstone of any promising and effective accountability system. Such involvement requires easily accessible and understandable information about the local schools. It also calls for the public to be provided with opportunities to share their insights about the causes of pupil failure and their ideas for designing programs for remediation. The PSAA suggests that these conditions create a public press that enhances civic life and fuels educational improvement efforts. Parents who are informed and able to communicate their concerns to school officials will be more likely and more able to support and sustain high quality educational programs. In addition, they will have the opportunity to shape the development and implementation of school improvement plans in line with their interests and experience.11
The PSAAs model is that of an informed public spurring educational improvement. The model requires that the state take on three roles to ensure a comprehensive and unimpeded flow of information about school conditions. First, the state must report high-quality information that allows the public to assess conditions, make meaningful comparisons, and identify remedies where needed. And it must report this information in ways that can be accessed by parents who do not speak English or who do not have the capacity to acquire information through the Internet. Second, the state will ensure that parents have meaningful opportunities to share their knowledge, experience, and interests with educational officials charged with improving the schools. Third, the state must encourage educational officials to be responsive to the ideas and concerns raised by parents.
REPORTING ON SCHOOL CONDITIONS
Californias most notable effort to inform the public about school quality is its School Accountability Report Card (SARC) first created in 1988. The legislature substantially revised the SARC in 2000 to make it a more effective tool for enabling the public to compare schools within and across districts.12 Today, the SARC includes school-level information about (a) educational outcomes such as student test results, graduation rates, and drop out rates and (b) conditions of student learning such as teacher qualification, availability of Advanced Placement Classes, and quality of textbooks and school facilities. The legislatures intent was to ensure that all parents receive a copy of the SARC and that it be easy to read and understandable. Yet, in practice, the SARCs are neither widely accessible nor comprehensible to most parents. Schools can choose to notify parents that the report is available online, rather than sending out a printed copy.13 Given the unequal access to the Internet across Californias communities, Web-based reporting translates to no access for many parents.14
Schools report selected data on student outcomes (mostly, test score results). However, they typically provide only minimal information on the conditions of student learning. The states voluntary template for the SARCs includes broad prompts asking schools to provide information on Quality and Currency of Textbooks and other Instructional Materials and School Facilities. Yet comparisons with other schools are not encouraged and neither are there standards for adequacy. Instead, schools frequently offer general statements that parents cannot use to determine whether their children are receiving an adequate and safe education. For example, Luther Burbank Middle School in San Francisco reports Burbank has received new textbooks in math, science and social studies. Textbook inventory is presently being computerized to assist in determining textbook needs.15 The report card does not mention how many texts the school received, when they arrived, what other texts are in short supply (according to the current non-computerized tallies), when the new inventory system will be in place, or how the schools textbook status compares to other schools.
Data posted on the SARCs often are unreliable and difficult for parents to use. California Department of Education official William Padilla acknowledges, Schools are required to do School Accountability Report Cards. We have never monitored whether or not theyve done it, and secondly, weve never monitored, if they did it, what the quality of the reporting categories would have been.16 Thus, with no accountability for their SARC responsibilities, schools have little incentive to publicize their problems and frequently ignore selected reporting requirements or provide false or misleading responses to the states questions about school conditions. Many SARCs contain an amalgam of testing data unique to the school and boilerplate provided by the local district. For example, every high school in Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) posts the same Message from the Principal, as well as identical information on finances, school facilities, and textbook quality.17 Each LAUSD school reports that Our school makes every effort to provide a safe, clean environment for learning. Classroom space is used to support our instructional program.18 The best that can be said for this dissembling is that it is not entirely untrue, but it certainly does meet the spirit of states accountability objectives. If taken seriously, the report would lead the public to a false impression that school facilities are at least adequate and the same across the districtfrom relatively new schools like Palisades High School in Los Angeles affluent Westside to schools scheduled to be torn down, like Belmont High School in the predominantly immigrant community of Pico Union.19
Even when schools do provide some information on school conditions, the public may have no way to compare across different schools or to judge schools by a common standard. For example, schools report the number of uncredentialed teachers on staff, but offer no figures on average numbers of uncredentialed teachers in neighboring schools or in the state as a whole. Parents have no way of knowing trendswhether the school has more or fewer uncredentialed teachers than the year before. Neither do the SARCs explain the states expectations for teacher qualificationswhy the public should care about the percentage of uncredentialed teachers. It is interesting to contrast the lack of data and information about qualified teachers with the abundant data parents receive about the states standardized achievement tests. Whereas the state compares schools test performance to state standards as well as to a set of similar schools, only noncomparable qualitative responses are reported for all areas of student opportunities to learn.20 The state does not require schools to use a common reporting format for opportunity to learn conditions. Parents and community members cannot know whether to be satisfied or concerned about the conditions in their schools.
GATHERING AND SHARING INFORMATION ON SCHOOL CONDITIONS
California has endorsed a model of parent involvement that follows the National Standards for Parent Involvement in encouraging two-way and meaningful communication between the school and the public about school conditions and programs.21 However, the state steadfastly maintains that it has no constitutional or other obligation to oversee the fidelity of local enactments of this model. So, despite its endorsement, the state neither knows about nor contributes resources to parent involvement in local schools and districts.22 Because local districts and schools bring different levels of interest and capacity to their work with parents, schools across the state enact very different forms of parent involvement. For the most part, these policies emphasize forms of parent involvement that add value to local schoolsvolunteering, supporting student learning at home, and so onand few policies that encourage parents to gather and communicate information about school conditions.
California does acknowledge the right of parents to gather information about their childrens schooling. The legislature created a set of Parent Rights in 1998 (amended in 2001) that establishes parents rights to observe their childs classroom and review curriculum materials, student records, academic standards, and school rules.23 Yet these Parent Rights provide parents with only limited tools for monitoring school conditions and practices. The legislation offers no standards by which parents might assess the quality of their childs learning experience, nor does it encourage parents to look beyond the experiences of individual children to the conditions of the school as a whole. Further, even if parents wished to share information on school conditions, the legislation does not provide any structure for that. It offers no sense of how the information gathered by parents might be counted or used to hold officials accountable. Finally, the Parent Rights lack specific assurances that parents can access classrooms and school facilities in a timely manner. In short, parents rights can be said to be mildly permissive, but with no imperative for schools to encourage and facilitate (and be forthcoming with) information, parents only have limited ability to gather information about the everyday school experiences of their children.
Californias most substantial commitment to engaging the ideas and concerns of the public is demonstrated in its school improvement and school-based governance structures. Schools that volunteer for the Immediate Intervention/Underperforming Schools Program must solicit parents input on action that should be taken to improve school performance.24 In addition, the state requires all schools to create school site councils that are responsible for developing and then assessing the schools improvement plan.25 These councils must include parent representatives, selected by other parents. Membership is supposed to create parity between educators on the one hand and parents and community members26 on the other.27 Although the councils can allow parents to voice their concerns and contribute to school improvement, the degree and quality of parent participation varies greatly. In some schools only a handful of parents are aware of the site council process. Betty Malens research suggests that parents often are not allowed to discuss provocative issues. She explains that on school councils that include parents as well as teachers and principals, conflicts regarding the proper role of parents in policymaking, fears associated with intrusion by outsiders and anxieties about the schools ability to withstand scrutiny set the stage for a protective politics. These tensions tend to be managed by ceremonial exchanges that reflect and reinforce a traditional pattern of power wherein professionals, notably principals, control school policy, teachers control instruction, and parents provide support.28
Malen does not dismiss site governance out of hand but suggests that states need to create conditions for what Gary Anderson terms authentic participationparticipation that enables parents voices and concerns to be taken into account.29
RESPONDING TO PUBLIC CONCERNS
The state channels public questions and concerns to local school officials who often have little incentive or capacity to respond. For example, the states parent brochure on the Academic Performance Index (API) recommends only that parents direct their questions to their principal or other school administrators.30 In a similar fashion, Californias Department of Education (CDE) encourages parents to ask school officials about the High School Exit Exam and about the conditions that enable students to succeed on the test. The CDE Parent Notification Kit includes handouts that inform parents that their children will need to use their knowledge of the . . . state content standards, to pass the test and graduate from high school. The parent handout continues, (in bold letters):
How do parents/guardians find out if their students school uses the same or similar standards as state content standards? Parents/guardians should ask their students teachers or principal if the school curriculum is aligned to state content standards in English-language arts and mathematics. Parents/guardians also should ask how teachers are helping students achieve these standards.31
The CDE offers no guidance on what the public should do if local school officials are unresponsive or if their responses do not comport with the publics observations or understanding. And, in the hard to imagine event that an official were to inform parents that teachers are not teaching to the state curriculum standards, the state does not offer a course of next steps. When particularly efficacious parents communicate problems to the California Department of Education, the state routinely redirects these parents to local school officials. Susan Lang of the California Department of Education reports that after her office has determined that there are no local remedies, they tell parents only that there are no remedies.32 The state thus neither collects information from local parents nor responds to them with state actioneven when the presenting problem is beyond the scope of local action. Of course, parents can seek to influence local district and state policy through the ballot box. But voting for local school board members or state officials who address education policythe governor, assembly and senate members, and the superintendent of public instructionis at best a slow way to communicate that your child is receiving substandard or unsafe education. Further, these officials, perhaps offering a sympathetic ear, will typically defer to long-standing structural and policy impediments to fixing problems. As Katheryn McDermott argues in her recent study of local participation in Connecticut districts, citizens power not to vote for a member whose policy stands they disagree with is too blunt an instrument for parents to remedy immediate and pressing problems.33
CASE STUDIES OF PUBLIC PARTICIPATION IN ACCOUNTABILITY
California policy expresses a commitment to an informed public while its policies subvert the flow of public information. This contradiction finds its way into the foundations of its educational accountability system. This section looks to two case studies of public participation in accountability to explore these contradictions and their effects on the capacity of the educational system to prevent or detect and correct substandard learning conditions. The first case examines public participation in an underperforming elementary school that boasts high levels of parent involvement.34 The case focuses attention on parents access to high quality, reliable, and comprehensible information on student achievement and learning opportunities. The second case builds on an ongoing collaboration between this author and community members in Lynwood, California. It highlights strategies for providing parents with the knowledge they need to participate meaningfully in school improvement as well as the obstacles knowledgeable parents face in making their voices heard.35
INFORMATION FLOW AT FREMONT ELEMENTARY
Fremont Elementary is a K-8 school serving low-income students of color. Sixty-eight percent of the student body is Latino, 21% are African American, and 9% are Pacific Islander. Roughly two thirds of the students are designated English language learners (ELL) and four fifths of the students are eligible for the federal governments Free and Reduced Lunch Program.36 By most measures, there is a good deal of parent involvement at Fremont Elementary. Many parents attend cultural events such as the schools annual Cinco de Mayo celebration.37 Also, many parents regularly volunteer their time to support the schools program. Every classroom benefits from one or more room parents who tutor, chaperone field trips, assist teachers in supervising events at the school, and provide translation between monolingual English speaking teachers and students and parents with limited English skills. Parents also monitor student bathrooms and supervise the yard during recess and after school.38
Fremont Elementary parents can access information about student learning and school quality in four waysregular communication from the school, unofficial parent observation of classrooms and school programs, information shared in school site council meetings, and official state, district, or school reporting on student learning and school quality. Fremonts monthly newsletter provides the broadest diffusion of information to the school community. Four fifths of the parents say they read the principals newsletter.39 The purpose of the newsletter is not to give parents information about student learning or school quality but to inform parents about upcoming events. A few parents learn about school programs through their participation as volunteers or in school governance committees. Room parents and yard or bathroom monitors learn a lot from their observations, but their number is a small percentage of Fremonts parent population. Similarly, knowledge about school governance is largely limited to the handful of parent participants in the school site council.
Significantly, Fremont parents are least able to access the information that the state deems most important to educational accountabilityofficial reports on student performance on state standardized testing and on school quality. Parent volunteers report that they are familiar with the SAT-9. Their childrens teachers inform them when the test will be administered. Apparently, this is the only information the school communicates about the tests. The state reports test scores in English and provides no explanation of their meaning or translation to Spanish, the first language of the majority of parents.40 Neither the teachers nor the school as a whole offers any further explanation about the SAT-9 scoresnor do they provide parents with any other official information about the schools academic program or facilities. The state intends for parents to receive this information in the SARC. Yet none of the parents interviewed has heard of the SARC.41 Fremonts principal explained that the SARC data is on the web, but we havent given it to the parents directly.42 (While this practice is technically allowable within CDEs regulations, it clearly violates the spirit of the legislative intent to ensure that all parents receive a copy of the SARC.)43 Further, although the state has designated Fremont Elementary as an underperforming school, the parents only have limited information about what this designation signifies. In fact, the lone parent who reported familiarity with the term, II/USP is on the II/USP governance committee where she learned only that the schools test scores were very low and the school might be taken over by the state.44
Even when parents at Fremont Elementary learn about their schools quality and program, the information does not lead to positive action. For example, many Fremont parents draw on an array of observational and experiential information in making sense of teacher commitment and quality. This information leads the vast majority of the parents to indicate approval of their childs teacher. Such positive assessments are not to be dismissed; they reflect important parental beliefs about which factors determine quality teaching. Yet they also might reflect a lack of familiarity with state standards for qualified teachers. It is telling that one Fremont parent comments favorably about her principals decision to replace a teacher, who consistently missed 1 day a week, with a long-term substitute. This parent does not know that long-term substitutes, like the one third of Fremonts faculty without teaching credentials, do not meet the states standards for teacher quality and likely would not be viewed as acceptable hires in an affluent school community. Nor do Fremonts parents know whether a recent 3-month delay in the distribution of math and reading textbooks represents a minor snafu common to all schools or a major infringement on their childrens ability to learn the state curriculum standards that would not be tolerated in many other schools. As one of the parent volunteers reports, I know about this school, but I dont know anything about the other schools around here.45 The point here is not to criticize engaged parents for not knowing about conditions in different schools. Rather it is to highlight the way that the quality of information provided by the state determines whether parents have a meaningful opportunity to understand whether their children are receiving the same opportunities as other children in the state.
Fremonts parents, along with their children, may be best positioned to assess the quality of the school bathrooms and other facilities. While there certainly are standards that can be used to compare such conditions across schools, there also are absolute standards of decency that shape parent and student beliefs about whether a bathroom or piece of yard equipment is clean or safe. The majority of respondents to Fremonts parent poll said that the schools bathrooms are not sanitary. Two thirds of the parents indicated that the playground equipment is not safe. Parents in the focus group echo these assessments, as do Fremonts teachers and principal.46 Yet the conditions persist. The parent volunteers, who believe they have an open invitation to raise concerns with the principal, may have concluded that these facility problems cannot be resolved. They have no way of knowing what would constitute reasonable expectations for addressing their concerns. They know only that the schools bathrooms and play equipment continue to pose a threat to their childrens health.
INFORMATION AND LIMITED ACTION IN LYNWOOD47
Lynwood Unified, a district located south of South Central Los Angeles and east of Compton, serves one of the poorest communities in Los Angeles County. Over 80% of the districts students participate in the federal governments Free and Reduced Lunch Program. Of the students, 84.3% are Latino, 11.8% are African American, and 3% are Filipino. More than half of students across the district are designated as English learners.48 Lynwood schools lack qualified teachers. At least one third of the teachers at every elementary and middle school in the district are not fully credentialed. This figure is far higher in many Lynwood schools; two thirds of Abbott Elementary teachers do not have a clear teaching credential.49 Lynwood schools also have a poor record in ensuring student safety. Two students were killed by automobiles in two separate incidents at Lindbergh Elementary during the 1999-2000 school year.50 Unsafe and unsanitary facilities pose more regular, albeit less extreme, threats to student safety. These conditions contribute to patterns of low academic performance and low college-going rates across the district. All of the districts four secondary schools place in the lowest decile in the state on the SAT-9. Fewer than half of Lynwood High School graduates have taken the sequence of courses required to be eligible for admission to Californias 4-year public universities; only 2% of these graduates enrolled in University of California campuses in Fall 2000.51 In short, Lynwoods schools face many of the problems the state hopes to redress.
The UCLA Parent Project began work in Lynwood in the fall of 1998 as part of a broader partnership between UCLA and Lynwood Unified aimed at raising college eligibility rates.52 When the project started, few parents participated in Lynwood schools. Moreover, although many parents felt a general sense of dissatisfaction with their childrens schooling, they did not have sufficient knowledge about curriculum and instruction to assess the quality of Lynwood education in relationship to the education provided in other schools in the area and around the state.53 The Parent Project thus sought to get parents to understand what these schools should be doing to educate their kids. Parent Project Director Laila Hasan created a 13-week Parent Institute to help parents understand what good teaching and learning looks like.54 Attending class twice a week, parents studied the state curriculum framework and assessment tools.55 Class activities modeled the curriculum and instructional practices recommended by the state, so parents could tell whether they saw similar practices in their childrens classrooms. Lynwoods parents have become increasingly knowledgeable about educational policy and practice. Many continue to take seminars with UCLA instructors and regularly seek out information from elected officials, researchers, and policy makers on issues they deem important. Yet despite their efforts and their unique learning experiences, they find it very hard to access information about the schools. They receive a monthly newsletter from the district that includes positive stories about Lynwood schools and a list of upcoming school activities.56 The parents also receive the results of the SAT-9 test in the mail.57 But the information parents want most is not easily attainable. When asked about what information parents receive from the school aside from the SAT-9, Parent Leader Mary Johnson replied:
Its sort of funny because at this time, and Ive been in this system for a long timeI have four kidsI really havent gotten any information regarding that at all. . . . In the years Ive been raising my kids from Kindergarten to 12, I havent had any other information but the SAT 9 as a way of saying where our kids [are] at.58
Johnson would like to have access to information on the availability, quality, and age of student textbooks, and the stability of the schools teaching force. This information is not included in Lynwoods SARCs, even though the states voluntary SARC template asks districts to include information about textbooks.
Nonetheless, many Lynwood parents have developed a strong degree of sophistication about the educational process that they would like to use to improve their neighborhood schools. They have encountered many obstacles, however, in their attempts to share their knowledge and hold the system accountable. None of the parents surveyed indicated that their school actively seeks ideas from parents on school related issues.59 One explanation for this failure of schools to reach out to parents is that school leaders are not accustomed to working with parents in a collaborative way. Hence a Lynwood principal became irate when she learned that the Parent Institute had trained parents to observe classrooms and then write notes about what they observed. She viewed this process as training parents to be oppositional, rather than part of an accountability process.60
A second explanation for the schools failure to work with parents is that school officials do not have sufficient capacity or autonomy to respond adequately to parental concerns. For example, school and district officials dismiss parent calls for high-quality teaching and learning that meet state standards, as unrealizable goals beyond district control.61 Through their work with the Parent Project, many Lynwood parents have begun questioning their childrens teachers about whether they are teaching toward the standards. Instead of asking, Is my child doing well at back to school night, parents like Emma Street have used the standards as a way to question whether their child is receiving appropriate instruction. None of the teachers have provided a direct answer to this question. They offer only that they use the textbook and the textbook is representative of the standards. When Lynwood parents shared these responses at a district meeting, the assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction explained that most of the teachers do not understand the standards since so many of them do not have credentials. District officials have expressed concerns that when parents ask teachers about standards, they intimidate teachers and create a hostile environment.62 Lynwoods parent leaders have assured the district that they are not trying to intimidate but rather to ensure their children receive a decent education.63
Whether for structural reasons beyond their control (such as funding and policy constraints) or inability to look to cooperative models outside the current administrative and teaching cultures (such as top-down, centralized habits and practices), school officials in Lynwood regularly ignore or undermine parents. So even among individuals with the best of intentions, we see the immediate creation of oppositional relationships when parents seek to add their voice and participate in their childrens schooling. It is a failure that bears great costs. For example, in 2001 a group of parents at Mark Twain Elementary School became concerned about the quality of the cafeteria food when a number of children took ill after each lunch period. The parents requested that they be allowed to inspect the food preparation facilities. When they were denied this request, the parents asked their children to sneak food out of the cafeteria so that it could be tested. The parents found that the meat had not been completely cooked (some of the meat served was still partially frozen) and that the milk contained unsafe bacteria. The school principal agreed to make sure that the meat is cooked longer, but still will not let parents supervise the lunch preparation and service.64 Further, the costs are not limited to the immediate health or education consequences that result from the schools failure to engage parents. Equally devastating to the opportunities for student learning is the resulting climate of conflict, distrust, and unaccountability that makes the improvement of school opportunities seem hopeless. Frequently, schools label parents who raise concerns trouble makers, further quelling democratic participation.65 Parents, interested in improving health and learning conditions for their children, feel caught within a system that offers them no timely process for meaningful appeal. While Lynwood parents can work over the long term to change the governance of the local school board, they want a state accountability system that includes their voice and ensures decent conditions in the here and now.
TOWARD A VIBRANT PUBLIC IN EDUCATIONAL ACCOUNTABILITY
Californias failure to establish and enforce clear standards for reporting on school conditions leaves the quality of public information to the whims of local education officials. Many local education officials want public support without contentious public voice. They reach out to the public for taxes, volunteer labor, and forms of parent involvement that advance school goals. Yet they worry that greater transparency will lead to increased public disappointment. These worries are most acute in communities with the poorest learning conditions. In such communities, education officials often feel least ablefor want of resources or capacityto address problems brought to the publics attention. The point here is not that local officials are callous to the needs of their students; many care deeply about the conditions for learning in their schools. But even well-meaning education officials are wary of sharing information that reflects poorly on the local community, its schools, and themselves. This wariness is hardened into protective silence when they do not believe reporting additional information will improve conditions.
The poor quality of information about school conditions in turn degrades the capacity and engagement of the public. Members of the public need information about school conditions relative to a set of standards so that they can readily assess whether any public action is required. When parents and community members lack informationfor example, about whether students have received textbooks in a timely fashionthey are left with no meaningful role to play in accountability. Similarly, members of the public need to know that education officials will listen and respond to their ideas and concerns. Without confidence that their voice matters, parents and community members tend to become disengaged from the accountability process and from the school itself. Such disengagement, taken together with poor learning conditions, erodes public confidence in local schools. It undercuts public willingness to contribute to the school and support the schools goals.
Quality information and enhanced public participation have the potential to improve school conditions in several waysproviding educators with timely insights about student needs; creating a press for remedial actions; and encouraging public commitment to and support for the schools program. To realize this promise, California must reengage education officials and the public in sharing and responding to information about learning conditions. Two levels of state action are required. First, the state needs to resolve large structural problems that demand state or regional actionsuch as the uneven distribution of qualified teachers or the lack of sufficient school facilities to adequately accommodate students. By addressing these structural problems, the state will allow local education officials to focus on ensuring decent conditions under their control.66 Second, the state needs to nurture an informed and engaged public that will both enable and demand high quality schools. It must foster this energized public in part with transparency provided by clear standards and reporting. It also must establish what political theorist Archon Fung describes as public-creating policies. Such policies invite citizen participation in, . . . organize that participation, . . . and empower these citizens to prompt state action.67 State officials must not assume that any and all empowerment is oppositional or that all oppositional empowerment is contrary to the interests of the state or the officials themselves.
AN INFORMED PUBLIC
Parents and community members need access to reliable and comprehensible information to play a meaningful role in accountability. School Accountability Report Cards could provide much of this information. But to do so, the state must create opportunity to learn standards, provide meaningful indicators of whether schools meet these standards, and monitor school reporting. A recent report on school report cards by the Center for Community Change in Washington, D.C., offers several examples of what opportunity to learn indicators might look like. To assess teacher quality, Kentuckys School Report Card provides information such as the percentage of classes at a school taught by teachers with an undergraduate major or minor in the subject being taught. (See Appendix 2, Figure 1.) Hawaii and Connecticuts School Report Cards score the quality of each schools different facilities on a likert scale and provide a quantified measure of the degree of overcrowding in each of these facilities. (See Appendix 2, Figure 2.) Further, Delaware reports on the year each school was built, the year of the last remodeling, and the number of classrooms with air conditioning.68 In each of these cases the state first established clear criteria for what should be expected of every school and then required that each school report on the extent to which they live up to this standard.
Beyond reporting information, the state needs to provide support to enable parents and community members to understand what the SARC says about the quality of education in their local school. New York provides a useful service in this regard by publishing a Parent Guide to the school report cards that explains how to use the bar graphs to judge if your childs school is doing well or improving. The Parent Guide also includes an extensive glossary of educational terms used in the report card.69 But many parents, particularly parents with limited experience in American schools, need more than written guides to make sense of the large body of complex information included in the SARC. They need training and personal guidance to understand the SARC. The state of Californias Community-Based Parent Involvement Grant Program provides a model of how a state can ensure that parents receive such training. Through this program, the state funds nonprofit community organizations to train parents in school governance.70 By similarly contracting with community groups to provide training on the SARC, the state would enhance the capacity of parents to understand the conditions in their schools. (The UCLA Parent Project in Lynwood offers a powerful model of how independent organizations can work with working class and immigrant communities to promote new parent understanding.) Because nonprofit community groups are independent of the schools, they can more effectively guide the public in assessing both positive and negative indicators of school quality than school officials who might feel pressure to downplay school problems.71
AN ENGAGED PUBLIC
California should provide systematic opportunities for members of the public to share what they know about conditions in their local schools. The states six million students know a great deal about learning conditions by virtue of experiencing these conditions on a daily basis. They know, for example, whether bathrooms are clean, play facilities are safe, or books are distributed on time. Parents learn about these and other conditions through their children as well as through direct contact with the school and its staff. The state can gather this valuable participant knowledge with regular student and parent surveys. Rhode Island conducts an annual survey of students, parents, and educators and then publicly reports the results for each school as part of its state accountability system. Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District in California has recently adopted the Rhode Island modelcollecting comprehensive data [which provides] a mechanism for making important decisions by raising key questions.72 In his recent book, Making Schools Work, William Ouchi argues that such surveys strengthen accountability by motivating officials to attend to customer satisfaction.73 Certainly the surveys encourage educators to heed student and parent input. But they also potentially foster a more informed and empowered public.
The state also needs to create meaningful opportunities for the public to gather and share information on school quality. Toward this end, existing California legislation on parents rights needs to be expanded and strengthened. Individual parents and groups of parents must have the right to observe students wherever students learn, eat, and play. They must be able to inspect play equipment, learning materials, bathrooms, and other school facilities. The state will want to establish general guidelines to guarantee that schools respond to parent requests in a timely fashion and parents do not disrupt student learning. It will also want to designate school officials who are responsible for these conditions of access. California law now calls for local governing boards of school districts and community college districts to appoint oversight committees to review and report on school construction spending. 74This legislation could be expanded to create similar oversight committees that would periodically review the quality and condition of school facilities.
A RESPONSIVE SYSTEM
Education officials must listen and respond to public concerns. New legislation should require schools, districts, and the state to publicize the names of individuals responsible for rectifying substandard conditions. Parents and community members need mechanisms to lodge complaints at every level of the educational system and for officials to publicly report these complaints and responses to them. All of this information belongs in a state accountability system.
Finally, the state needs to provide training for educators and school officials to view parents and community members as a resource in the educational accountability system. California currently provides grants under the Parent/Teacher Involvement Program to support teachers to visit the homes of their students. Participating teachers receive training in strategies for communicating effectively with parents.75 To date, this program has received only modest funding ($15 million per year) and thus has touched only a small percentage of Californias schools. By expanding the programs scope, the state could provide training to a wide array of education officials and parents in order to marshal productive participation in the accountability system.
Many parents, such as those in Lynwood, already go to great lengths, at much personal sacrifice, to secure decent educational conditions for their children. They deserve an educational accountability system that works with and for them. California can only gain from a free flow of information and democratic relationships between education officials and members of the public. Certainly, such a flow of information will generate passionate responses, some of which are sure to be acrimonious, but many of which will be highly productive. Just as surely, students will gain from the passion, knowledge, action, and even anger of their parents, about whom no one would dare say, Those parents dont care. As John Dewey noted more than 70 years ago, Only through constant watchfulness and criticism of public officials by citizens can a state be maintained in integrity and usefulness.76