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Innovations, Unintended Consequences and a Call for True Accountability

In the late 1990s, charter schools were sold to the country, in part, on the premise that they would be “laboratories of innovation”: freed from the bureaucracy of large school districts, charter schools could test new approaches that could then be incorporated into the traditional public schools. Reporting in his 10/25/17 Flypaper blog, Mike Petrilli, staunch charter school supporter and President of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute (which sponsors charter schools on Ohio), believes several of the best charter school networks  have discovered a new approach to education that may constitute “a sea change for U.S. elementary schools in general and charter schools in particular.” What is this exciting innovation these schools have discovered? They are embracing “a broad, well-rounded, content-rich curriculum, starting in the early elementary grades.”
In other words, they are embracing what many, if not most, public school teachers used to do before No Child Left Behind and charter schools swept the nation and test based accountability was imposed on Florida’s schools.
Ed Reformers pushed No Child Left Behind-Race to the Top-FLorida Accountabaloney on our public schools. These were top down mandates, created by legislators, not educators, and imposed on public schools across the country. No Child Left Behind began the high stakes testing era, requiring ALL students take annual state assessments and rating school based on student test scores on grade level math and reading assessment. Race to the Top encouraged the testing and offered incentives for adoption of the Common Core State Standards and assessments for math and reading. The results have been obvious to any parent or teacher paying attention: the focus on high stakes testing has disrupted the classroom. Parents watched as schools focused more and more attention on preparation for these tests, and less and less time on non-tested subjects such as art, music, science and social studies. 
In Florida, the A-F School Grades calculation is almost entirely based on math and reading test scores (for elementary schools the grade is entirely based on math and reading scores and calculated learning gains). Fearing the repercussions of low school grades, administrators in both traditional public and charter schools make decisions designed to raise or maintain school grades, often resulting in loss of a well rounded, developmentally appropriate child centered education, especially in our most struggling neighborhood schools, that parents could expect in public schools prior to this age of “accountability.” Parents have even had to fight (and are still fighting) for their small children to have regular recess! When parents and educators complained to legislators who created these policies, they have been repeatedly told “you just don’t want any accountability.”  
No. We want a well rounded, appropriate education for our children. We want their education to focus on more than just test scores. We want those who created these “unintended consequences” to be held accountable.
 
Petrilli points to the writings of Daniel Willingham, who has suggested the lack of science education in early elementary school is a direct result of the increased focus on reading and language arts (he cites papers showing 62% of classroom time for first-graders and 47% for third-graders is spent studying English Language Arts). Willingham recognizes such singular focus is counter productive:
‘The irony is that, by failing to include more time for science, history, geography, civics, etc., we are very likely hurting reading comprehension. Why? Because reading depends so heavily on prior knowledge… Once kids are fluent decoders, much of the difference among readers is not due to whether you’re a “good reader” or “bad reader” (meaning you have good or bad reading skills). Much of the difference among readers is due to how wide a range of knowledge they have. If you hand me a reading test and the text is on a subject I happen to know a bit about, I’ll do better than if it happens to be on a subject I know nothing about.”
Petrilli goes on to outline how KIPP (a national network of charter schools), faced with persistently large achievement gaps in their at-risk student population, is working to create a new curriculum focused on developing ““world knowledge”—science, social studies, art, and literature.”
First of all, good for KIPP for recognizing the error of singularly focusing on test based subjects, but this is not innovation. Trained educators know how to do this, they just need the freedom to do so. Florida’s superintendents and school boards should take notice and consider walking away from their test-focus, school grade-chasing policies, returning the classrooms to their teachers, encouraging a return to the well balanced education parents want for their children.
This is a repudiation of the impacts of test based accountability.  If “reform” policies in Florida have progressed to the extent that “a broad, well-rounded, content-rich curriculum, starting in the early elementary grades” is considered “innovative”, than legislators need to question the impacts of the current accountability system, which has encouraged the narrowing of curriculum at the expense of a quality education for our Florida children. 
In 2014, the Florida Department of Education’s “FCAT 2.0 Florida Statewide Assessments 2014 Technical Report” questioned whether “the state’s accountability program is making a positive impact on student proficiency and school accountability without causing unintended negative consequences” (page 137), calling for future studies:
“As mentioned before, there exists a potential for negative impacts on schools as well, such as increased dropout rates and narrowing of the curriculum. Future validity studies need to investigate possible unintended negative effects as well.”
As far as we can tell, the recommended validity studies have never been performed. Florida’s legislators should call for the complete analysis of the state’s accountability system, including the possible negative consequences, as recommend by the FLDOE.
Florida’s Accountability system has forced traditional public schools to move away from a well rounded, content rich curriculum. Do the reformers celebrating this “new” charter school “innovation” even recognize their role in the loss of such curriculum in the first place?
When school curriculum has narrowed to the point where teaching young children “science, social studies, art and literature” sounds innovative, we have an accountabaloney problem. It is time to address that problem.

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