Off the Bandwagon in Nebraska: A Local View

by Stephen C. Joel

The landscape of school accountability across America is not a pretty picture. It is littered with threats of punitive measures against schools and districts by state education agencies, widespread use of teaching to the test, hostile state takeovers and mounting distrust between local superintendents and state authorities.

That's the portrayal of accountability painted for me by state commissioners and superintendents of public instruction nationwide. Last summer, I had the good fortune to attend their professional organization's three-day institute in Wilmington, N.C., where I heard abundant stories about the negative impact of high-stakes testing on certain student populations and the exodus of local school leaders and staff who no longer felt they had control over student learning.

At the same time, I never felt prouder to be an educator from Nebraska, where we have largely resisted jumping on the national bandwagon of using a single state test with punitive implications to measure accountability. In front of "the chiefs" attending the summer institute of the Council of Chief State School Officers, I joined Doug Christensen, Nebraska's education commissioner, and other invitees in describing our state's unique approach in which all students are pushed to meet high standards, school leaders are trusted to do what they've been trained to do and school districts aren't held accountable through the threat of punishment.

Realistic Expectations

I have been a superintendent for 18 years, the last nine in Nebraska. I cannot remember another time when we have had the conversations that are presently taking place in schools and communities regarding student achievement.

From the board of education to the classroom teacher, there is little doubt that our priorities have shifted dramatically to place the emphasis where it should be: student learning and accountability for that learning. School leaders in our state no longer spend the same amount of time talking about budgets and buses for they now are discussing teaching and learning strategies to improve student achievement. Standards, assessment and accountability have put classrooms in the forefront.

Nebraska school system leaders have risen to the challenge of increased accountability brought on by the introduction of state content standards in 1998. While many of us gnashed our teeth when Christensen unveiled the High Performance Learning Model 10 years ago, we have moved ahead collaboratively to make it work at the district level. As a result, most superintendents would say the changes taking place in our state's classrooms have benefited all children.

Nebraska is considered a rural state with a high-achieving, relatively homogeneous and stable population. However, many Nebraska school districts now educate much larger minority populations and special-needs groups. These demographic changes will require many districts to rethink their educational delivery.

Nebraska also is a local control state with minimal bureaucratic interference even in this day of increased statewide accountability in many places. In fact, the state's expectations for its schools are both reasonable and realistic: Schools must be able to demonstrate to their constituents that they have cohesive and aligned curricula, that they are able to measure what they teach and that academic growth is evident. These are achievable expectations that the state has set for every school district.

The fact that our data needs to be reported locally and will likely be displayed across the state comparatively has created a window for leadership to think "outside the box" when creating strategies and interventions to promote student learning. Many of these interventions-calendar alterations, summer and other extended programs and summer jump starts-are a response to the state's use of school improvement data. Interventions can work only when decisions are driven by student learning data.

Standing Tall

Healthy debate is continuing in America over the best approach to improving student learning. At the CCSSO conference this summer, a lively but respectful argument took place between proponents of a single test to measure student success and those who support approaches using multiple assessments, including some measures developed locally. Both sides did their best to convince the other.

Those of us from Nebraska left the meeting with a greater resolve to continue our work at the local level that emphasizes value-added growth for students. We have stood tall in resisting federal pressure and remain committed to accurately measuring our students' learning in classrooms. We believe this is the most accurate gauge of what is successful in our schools and what needs to be improved.

Yes, we had our early concerns about the commissioner's High Performance Learning Model, but we harbor no doubts now. Nebraska has created an environment where conversational synergy between educators and their communities will ultimately benefit all students through better teaching and learning and the improvement of schools.

Steve Joel is superintendent of the Grand Island School District, P.O. Box 4904, Grand Island, NE 68803. E-mail: sjoel@esu10.org