A New Approach to Accountability: What PA Schools Can Learn From the U.S. Women's Gymnastics Team

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Americans today are celebrating the astounding success of the U.S. women's gymnastics team at the summer olympics in Rio. The team won the gold medal last night, finishing nearly twice as far ahead of silver medalist Russia as Russia finished ahead of eighth place Brazil.

Believe it or not, the success of the U.S. women's gymnastics team contains within it a powerful suggestion for improving Pennsylvania's schools — a new approach to "accountability" that could result in gold-medal performances by more and more Pennsylvania children over time.

What was the secret of the U.S. gymnasts' success? Coach Martha Karolyi put in place a "semi-centralized" system. Gymnasts around the country still had their personal coaches, as they always have. But gymnasts and coaches also attended monthly, weeklong national team training camps at the Karolyis' ranch north of Houston. According to Aly Raisman, the team captain, “It’s where we are evaluated and compared to each other, in a healthy way. We wouldn’t be here without that system.”

"At camp, gymnasts stay in cabins together, eat meals together, hang out together. Coaches also socialize, which they rarely did in the past, and share training tips,"

“Once you install a system and unite the gymnasts and the coaches, you will be improving every year, and we have improved every year under this,” Karolyi said. “I think at this moment, that’s why we can say that United States dominates the world of gymnastics.” Even with intense competition among individual athletes and coaches, the focus has been on the success of the overall enterprise — winning gold medals for the team.

Compare Karolyis system with "performance (mis) management" and accountability in Pennsylvania and most U.S. schools. For  teachers (i.e., coaches) accountability has focused on the individual. Many public-school critics champion merit pay for individual teachers and pay-for-(individual) performance based on how much children improve while in an individual teacher's classroom. These suggestions carry with them the idea that teaching is a highly individualistic enterprise, the implicit prescription being that we should drive out the slow or lazy teachers by paying them less than others.

As in gymnastics — as demonstrated by the success of the U.S. women's team — overall excellence and improvement in schools is an inherently collaborative enterprise. It is a collaborative enterprise that most "pay-for-performance" approaches sabotage, at the cost of children's intellectual and social development.

Imagine a different approach to accountability and performance management in which all Pennsylvania educators are encouraged to seek a "gold medal" for all our children. To be sure, we don't have one single indicator of success quite so simple on which to focus as the "team gold" in women's gymnastics. But we can certainly imagine a dashboard of indicators that is relatively simple, such as third-grade reading levels, graduation rates, Pennsylvania rankings on the most respected multi-state assessment (the National Assessment of Educational Progress [NAEP]), and the share of children in buildings with high levels of children in poverty (a predictor of low performance, so this share needs to come down).

To support collaboration to improve success, the focus of attention should be on the school, the school district, the county, and the multi-county region. The focus should also be on narrowing gaps in performance, just as George W. Bush's Texas education reforms evaluated achievement by race and ethnicity as one step in narrowing achievement gaps.

Providing some discretionary resources at the county and multi-county regional level could enable a team effort to lift up lower-performing schools. (Remember Karolyi's approach required the funds to support get-togethers at the national level every year.) Such pots might provide supplemental salaries for the best teachers and mentors to focus on the places of greatest need — a form of "merit pay" that reinforces, rather than undermines, the team effort. There could also be funds available for multi-district (did someone say public school choice?) or regional efforts to ensure no school building has high proportions of children in poverty. Focusing on lifting up lower-performing schools also makes sense. Pennsylvania does well overall on NAEP tests, but could do better if we clased the gap in funding between the state's most affluent and lowest-income school districts. After all, Pennsylvania has the widest gap in funding between the wealthiest and poorest school districts.

A team effort to make all Pennsylvania schools the best that they can be would give Pennsylvania teachers a new lease on life and more of a sense of mission after two decades of public attacks. Now they would be valued members of a "semi-centralized" effort to apply well-known global best practices for schools. (Such best practices have just been documented yet again in this bipartisan study released by the National Conference of State Legislators).

The Pennsylvania legislature could also consider linking increases in total school funding to statewide school performance -- pledging, say, the additional $3.2 billion in state funding needed to fully fund Pennsylvania's new fair-funding formula as long as that is matched by movement in the state's "dashboard" indicators. How about we aim to have the nation's highest-performing and best-funded schools just 10 years from now?

Now that would be a real gold medal for Pennsylvania's children and families, and for the businesses who employ our public school graduates.

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