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Voices: My not-so-good school accountability experience

Littleton mom and author Angela Engel says parents and teachers need to be involved in solving schools’ problems in a meaningful way, not just reviewing data.

As a children’s advocate and education innovator, I’ve been a strong proponent of school decision-making at the local level. So much so in fact, I designed the Colorado resolution to oppose No Child Left Behind and put an end to federally centralized control over neighborhood schools.

The resolution had bipartisan sponsorship and was passed in the Senate 27-3. The resolution was adopted unanimously by the House Education Committee but never brought to a floor vote.

So last year, I decided to put my time where my mouth is and join the School Accountability Team at the Littleton middle school my two daughters attended. These teams are selected by the administrator and comprised of parents, teachers, students and the principal.

We met once a month for an hour and a half. Our team had three parents, three teachers, the principal and two students. One representative then serves on the District Accountability Team. This was a role I shared with another parent, alternating each month for the two-hour district meetings.

My expectation of the team was that we would make collaborative decisions and explore solutions to various challenges with the education experts – teachers, parents and students. Instead, the SAT served as a function for reporting, not problem-solving. Littleton has prided itself on decentralized management and school-based decision making.

However, when I got to the District Accountability Team meeting, it was even worse.

What about the kids?

The first meeting was a full room of approximately 50 people representing the various schools in the district. We were given a Power Point presentation on everything including district budgets, enrollment, ratings, policy compliance, testing data and calendars.

The first district meeting dealt with how Littleton was complying with the federal requirements of No Child Left Behind. The second meeting was about how Littleton was complying with the Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids, the state law.

It was obvious department folks had spent a lot of time and money on point systems, labels, timelines and pie charts. Each meeting I came away with pretty, colored handouts attempting to explain overly complicated, conflicting and redundant policy mandates.

So at the last meeting I attended, I held up my hand and said, “You know, I joined this committee to support kids learning. All I’ve heard about is how the district is managing federal, state and department requirements. I feel like this is a waste of my time and more importantly my daughters’ education. When do we get to talk about children?”

I think we could do a lot better in education if we spent more time listening to kids and parents too.

There is a major disconnect between what we value as parents and what is passed in department policies and legislation. That disconnect became more evident when I attended the school district policy meeting.

These are the meetings where the decisions are made about which of the 80 education bills introduced by the Legislature will be opposed or supported. At the 7:30 a.m. meeting I attended, there were four school board members, two district personnel, the superintendent and the district lobbyist. Public input is not allowed.

Parents need to be part of policy decisions

There are all these efforts to engage parents, except for the most important decisions. Even more shocking was the absence of teachers – those who know most about students and education.

Here the education priorities and policies were being determined and not a single professional educator was present. I began to see first-hand why many of the state and federal education policies work counter to the goals of schools and the needs of children.

For example, the Colorado Legislature, with unilateral support, passed the law known as the Colorado Achievement Plan 4 Kids or CAP4K. The first two phases will cost $384 million to implement revised standards, new databases and more tests.

Meantime, due to budget cuts over the past four years, $1 billion has been cut from what school districts would otherwise have received.

So while the Colorado Department of Education’s management budget has doubled over the past 10 years, district budgets have been significantly cut. In the last decade, the state department has grown its staff by up to 41 percent as districts have been forced to lay off teachers, in some cases by 30 percent.

What this means is that we are trading teachers, smaller class sizes, computers, counseling services, transportation, after-school programs, athletics, arts, student services and electives for department ratings that can now tell us our children are worse off than before.

The school accountability team was a frustrating experience. By the last district accountability meeting, there was one-third the number of people who had attended the first two meetings.

Schools and communities do not get better through neglect. Parents and teachers need to focus efforts at the policy level for real investments, opportunities and resources instead of punishments and sanctions, innovation instead of standardization and the educational well-being of every child.

Engage, engage, engage. It is the only way.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.