Ep: 271 – The Accountability Myth

September 28, 2021

Drew Catt: Hello, and welcome to another episode of EdChoice Chats. I’m Drew Catt, EdChoice director of state research and special projects. And I’m here to talk about our newest research, a report called the Accountability Myth. I’m here today with author, Mike McShane, EdChoice’s director of national research to have a conversation about the report. Thanks for joining me today, Mike.

Mike McShane: Great to be with you, Drew, as always.

Drew Catt: Yeah. So, Mike, would you mind starting us off by talking about why we did this research and what inspired it?

Mike McShane: Yeah. If you are ever in a hearing where a new school choice bill is being discussed, you will inevitably hear an opponent say some version of the phrase, so “We can’t do this because public schools are accountable and private schools are not.” And sort of the implication accountability is a good thing. And if public money is going to be spent, et cetera, this is why we can’t have school choice. I think historically school choice supporters have contested the second part of that sentence, right? Which is that private schools are not accountable and they’ve argued, “No, of course private schools are accountable.”

Parents who have a better understanding of what’s going on in a school than anybody else does, they can vote with their feet. They have a huge amount of skin in the game. I mean, it’s their kid that’s in there anyways, right? So they’ve argued, and as I want to reiterate, correctly, they have argued correctly that private schools are in fact accountable. But I thought not necessarily enough work has been done sailing the first part of that statement of opponents, which is this sort of assumption that public schools are accountable.

I don’t deny that a huge edifice has been built up around these accountability systems and data is collected and all of those, but when the rubber actually meets the road, I don’t think that it’s true. I don’t actually think that it’s true that public schools are held accountable. So particularly sort of in the world of school choice advocacy, I think it is important for us to dispel this myth, both the way that school choice supporters have historically done it, and I think in this slightly newer way.

Drew Catt: Yeah. That’s awesome. I can remember from my first report here at EdChoice, public rules on private schools.

Mike McShane: It’s a perfect example of this. Yes.

Drew Catt: Yeah. All the regulations that private schools have to be under. In fact, I remember specifically like for Indiana’s voucher program, not only do the private schools have to follow every single one of the statutes in place for public schools, but they were even more additional ones like, “Hey, you can’t teach the overthrow of the government,” because they had to make sure that was explicitly in place, for program participants. But before we really get into that, who would you say this research is for other than putting in place something to reply to those people and the hearings?

Mike McShane: To be honest, when I was writing this, I was mostly thinking about legislators. I was thinking about that state legislator, that state representative, that state Senator, or potentially someone who works for a governor’s office or others when they’re sitting in these hearings, listening to this sort of rhetoric. I hope that maybe sometime between when the report is published and when the sort of next year’s legislative sessions come up, folks, staffers or legislators have the opportunity to read this so that when someone makes a statement like that, they can say, “No, wait a second. I don’t actually think that that’s true.” Or even if they don’t say that they can at least think it because they will have been informed on the topic.

Drew Catt: Yeah. Increasing awareness is a huge thing that we do around here. Now, would you mind telling the listeners a little bit about kind of, I guess the way you went about researching this and what the methods were like and what can people really find in this report?

Mike McShane: Yeah. So my argument basically unfolds in three steps, right? Or sort of three subsections, right? I argue that schools are not financially accountable. I argue that they are not democratically accountable and I argue that they’re not educationally accountable. And these are all in both the existing research literature, and I think just in the popular conversation about education, when we think about accountability, we tend to think of it in one of those three terms. Either you’re accountable for the money that you spend and you have to answer for it through accounting methods and others. You are democratically accountable. So elected officials hold you to account or you’re educationally accountable, which is like we measure how well students do, and then there are rewards and sanctions based on that data.

So the argument that I make is that across all three of those areas, that schools are not actually financially accountable. And we can talk about our polling on this. We can talk about our work with Project Nickel and others. I think EdChoice has actually done a lot of work that I really just sort of compiled existing work that already exists to do that. I don’t think schools are democratically accountable. Again, really compiled the work of other researchers and thinkers who’ve looked into things like off-cycle elections and the impacts that they’ve had and then finally educationally accountable.

I don’t know if it rises to the level of research, but this was where I actually did some digging into state accountability systems and just read them, like read in the paper. I talk about the state of Indiana’s plan, but to write the paper, I looked at several other ones throughout the past few years and various projects that I’ve worked on. I’ve had to look through these various programs. So that was sort of an original look at, hey, what is one of these programs actually look like in the real world? Not sort of theoretically talking about it, but how it actually operates. And I come to the conclusion that it doesn’t really hold schools accountable.

Drew Catt: Yeah. I even can think of when I’ve mapped out private schools and thought about, I mean, Indiana. So it’s perfect. This is what you actually looked at. But looking into the kind of equation that goes into place and all the variables that they use and the weighting that’s used and really wanting to know who came up with this and why are the cut scores where they are? Who set this is the best idea?

Mike McShane: Yes. So this is great. We’ll start with, educationally, we can talk about democracy and money next. But no, I think you’re right. These things have this kind of veneer of science, right? So anybody who’s listening to this, you can go, your state that you live in has to submit to the Federal Department of Education, a state accountability plan. This is to be in compliance with Every Student Succeeds Act, the most recent iteration of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the major federal legislation about education. And you can just read them.

So this isn’t something you… You don’t have to take my word for it. Frankly, most of what I did in the paper was just quote from Indiana. So I did that because EdChoice is headquartered in Indianapolis. But I could have done this basically anywhere. And exactly, as you said, Drew, there’s all sorts of… I think Indiana I think is a north of 100 pages long. There’s all of these different indicators and sub-indicators and different data that can feed into these.

You can choose between this metric and that metric. This is weighted this way and this is weighted that way. The point that I make in the paper is it has a couple sort of elements to it. One is that this is all in many ways arbitrary, right? Why one is weighted higher than the other. There’s no science to that. It’s just sort of people getting together, usually at the state board of education or the state education agency and coming up with those determinations.

But it’s not like it came down on stone tablets why academics should be 25% and high school graduation rates should be 30% or whatever it is. But then the second part of it was just the amount of choices that schools and districts often have. And what elements are included or not included. If you look at them, oftentimes some of them appear to be a lot easier to achieve than others. So you can concoct away. And I think if you look at the data, the way lots of schools and districts do it, you can see how by picking and choosing how you’re measured and what metrics you use, you can kind of carve a path for yourself.

Again, doesn’t really hold you accountable. And this is before… It was while I was working on this paper and thinking about this paper because of the coronavirus and everything, there’s been all sorts of changes that have happened. So in many ways, I write about these things the way they’re supposed to be. But even before the pandemic with the Common Core and changing standards, lots of states put on pauses or either didn’t test or that they weren’t going to count for those years.

So I’ve set all of that aside because that’s almost too easy of a case to make in the sense that states have said, “We’re not going to do anything with these numbers.” I’m saying even before that, it was clear that in most of these cases, because of how convoluted these things were because of all the various safe harbor provisions. They just really didn’t hold schools to account for how their students did.

Drew Catt: Yeah. I don’t know why, it just popped into my head that here at EdChoice, we talk about a lot, what parents want versus what parents are getting in terms of what school they choose. So as you’re well aware, education next out of PEPG, Harvard Kennedy School had their great annual poll. And the thing that really popped out to me, having a wife as a teacher, one little finding that I showed her is that for the first time ever, the general public and parents were saying that they wanted the focus of schools to be evenly split between academics and social, emotional learning.

So we’re just talking about educational accountability, and it’s mostly, we’re just talking academics. At what point does social emotional learning… I’m not advocating that we need to concoct some ridiculous equation that balances out academics versus social, emotional learning for schools letter grade, but at what point does that even become part of the conversation? That’s really fascinating.

Mike McShane: Yeah. This is one of those things where the paper could have been 10 times longer because it sort of turtles all the way down. Right? It could be, you’re right, where it’s what people actually want to measure on whether these things that we’re including or just because they’re easier to measure versus others. There are many long running debates within the school accountability system, which I tried to do a little bit of history in there. But in many ways in the paper, I kind of waved my hands at a lot of those just because that’s been done elsewhere. There’s other sort of discussion of it. I wanted to make a more narrow point.

But you’re exactly right. Just like these things aren’t necessarily scientific, they also aren’t necessarily aligned to what we actually want out of schools. It’s often what we can measure about school. So again, sort of compiling all of those things together, whether they don’t hold schools accountable on their own terms, but they also don’t hold schools accountable on the terms that we might want to hold schools accountable too. So, yeah, it’s a mess.

Drew Catt: Yeah. So let’s shift a little bit to a democratic accountability. I remember going to college in a different state and getting there and I don’t remember one of my classes. I was like, “Oh, yeah, back in my government class.” Everyone was like, “What are you talking about?” Aside from my roommate who took the AP government tests, which I did not know was a thing from my small town suburban high school. But some states don’t even require a government class. And that is fascinating.

Mike McShane: Yeah. So I mean the traditional way, and again, you hear this all the time when there’s a discussion of a school voucher bill or education savings accounts, or even charter schools where folks say, “Look, public schools are democratically accountable because they answer to the local school board. So all, 13, 14,000 school districts that exist in America are governed by a board of people who are elected by the community in theory to oversee schools.

And they’re supposed to do exactly what you’re talking about, decide what is taught in schools and how money is spent and how teachers are paid and what the calendar is, what the schedule is, and all of that sort of stuff. One of the things that I wanted to bring up in this paper that, again, is pretty widely known in political science and in other places is that school board elections across America are deeply broken. Like they don’t work. And the main reason is because they tend to be held, and I think in the paper, I cited political scientists who found something 75% of them are held off cycle.

What that means is election day is the day that all of us know is that the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November, but it’s a Tuesday in early November. It’s when you elect your governor and the president and your legislature and all of those things. It’s a well-known day for electing people. We see higher turnout on those days, et cetera. That’s when all of us come out to actually vote.

It’s not actually when we often elect our school board members. School board member elections are held at random times in the years. It could be in April, it could be in June and the effect of this, which again, I just cite the work of other people, other political scientists and others is that it dramatically drives down turnout in these elections. And as a result of that, organized interest groups are able to play a much larger role because when you have fewer people voting in it, if you have one organized block, for example, like a teacher’s union, but it doesn’t always necessarily have to be a teacher’s union. If you just have one group of angry parents who want a new football coach or something, they can sway that as well.

But you don’t see the full representation of the body politic reflected in schools. The number of people who vote in them, and I use some examples of places across the country, but are a fraction of what we see in other municipal elections. So they aren’t really democratically accountable because our school board members are elected in elections that are basically designed not to involve the entire community. So I just don’t really buy this idea that some school boards are some great paragons of democratic virtue because they aren’t.

Drew Catt: Yeah. We’re not going to get into this debate ourselves, but I have a theory and we’ll wait to see if it plays out that this next go around for school board elections, there may be a higher turnout just because of the mask versus not mask debate that’s happening all across America.

Mike McShane: There was a funny thing that the paper was basically already printed before it happened. But I think it was on social media in a couple places. I remember Jay Cutler, who was the quarterback for the Bears and he married some reality TV star. I think they have their own reality show or something, but I think he tweeted one day, like, “I want to run for school board.” And then it was funny because he said these series of tweets where he was trying to investigate when the school board elections are and when they meet or whatever.

It was hilarious for me to be like, “Yeah, man. No one knows when these elections are. No one knows who’s on the board. No one knows when these things happen.” Because of the way that we choose to elect them. It’s not like, “Oh, hey, I’m going to run…” If someone says, “Oh my goodness. I’m upset about something. So I’m going to run for the state legislature.” All of us know when that election is. We know when it is. It’s very easy to go on the secretary of state website and find out exactly when the filing deadline is, et cetera, et cetera.

But for school boards, again, we are all Jay Cutler and we don’t know when this is happening. And you’re right, I think we are going to see more people get involved in the school boards, which on balance, I think is generally a good thing. But I think it’s going to be weird because a lot of these places don’t have school board elections for who knows when. They might’ve just had them in April. They may have them at some random time. So it’s not like we’re going to ever see, hey, here’s like one day in which all of these elections take place and we’ll see what happens.

Drew Catt: Yeah. It just shows you that even those who go to a prestigious undergraduate institution crowdsource their material from social media.

Mike McShane: Exactly. Exactly.

Drew Catt: Let’s move on to really that first argument that you lay out in the paper and that’s the financial accountability. Do you mind filling in the listeners in on that?

Mike McShane: Yeah. A lot of this came out of… Or at least the impetus for it came out of the polling that we do. So in our schooling in America survey that we’ve been doing since 2013, as well as our work with Morning Consult where we pull a nationally representative sample of Americans every month. When you ask people how much American schools spend per kid per year, they usually guess about a third to half of what they actually do. Right?

So Americans don’t know how much we spend on schools. They dramatically underestimate how much we spend. And so why is that? Well, it’s because schools are incredibly opaque in how they report spending. It was only very recently with the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act and multiple years of rulemaking where schools and districts have had to actually report their spending at the school level. And even then, that’s super difficult to find. I want to commend and I do in the paper the work that our colleague Marty Leuken has done with Project Nickel, which is a website that anybody who’s listening can go to and you can find out what your local school spends.

So it’s not just what your district averages, but what your school spends, but even looking at school numbers or district numbers or state numbers as our colleague and friend Ben Scafidi will tell us, different agencies report different numbers. Like the US Census Bureau puts out numbers every couple years in like really easy to use forms. But sometimes if you look at the state’s website, it’s different because what gets included, whether it’s current expenses, whether it’s capital expenses, and what gets included in each of those, basically, there’s just like this tremendous opacity.

So people don’t know how much schools spend, and if you don’t know how much schools spend, we can’t schools accountable for what they’re spending. It’s a pretty basic idea there and we just don’t know. That’s evidenced in the polling data where people demonstrate that they don’t know it. And we see why, because it’s so opaque.

Drew Catt: Yeah. The fascinating thing in the polling is we started also asking what people think the private school tuition is. Lo and behold, Americans are pretty spot on with how much private school costs.

Mike McShane: Isn’t that wild? Because these schools, I have to very directly advertise, like every private school, you go on their website and there’s a tab for tuition and fees and you can see it right away. But you don’t see that in public schools. You don’t say, “Oh, hey, this is how much we spend per kid per year.” Yeah.

Drew Catt: Yeah, it’s wild. I think I heard our colleague, Jen Wagner say recently that she was working with a group of private schools in a previous, previous job or working for a public school district, I think. Regardless, it was saying, “Okay. Well, how much money goes to each school?” And they’re like, “What do you mean? Well, it’s really complicated.” She’s like, “If I get audited, it’s not hard for me to say, hey, here’s where all my money came from. Here’s where all my money went.” Why is that so hard for public schools?

Mike McShane: For sure. And again, I didn’t want to, in this paper… I’m a big believer in not trying to attack people’s motives, to not try and read people’s minds, to not be like a conspiracy theorist. I had no desire to do this. There may be perfectly logical reasons why these things are opaque, but I will say, it is not difficult to make just a very gentle hop, skip, and a jump to realize that there are advantages to opacity.

If you are currently operating schools and people think you spend a third of what you do, you shouldn’t be surprised if they might give you a little bit more leeway. Well, we can’t expect that much out of schools because they only spend $2,000 per kid per year. It’s like, well, if you found out that they spent a multiplier of that, folks might say, “Oh my goodness, I didn’t realize on average in America, we spend like 14 and a half grand per kid. Wait, how much money is going into each classroom? How much money is going into this school building?”

I think people would rightly be quite upset when they look out and say, “Wait, a second. I’m hearing these stories about how there are still schools that don’t have air conditioning or there are still schools that they…” In the year of our Lord, 2021, people would rightfully say, “Well, wait a second. If you’re getting this amount of money per kid, this is just not acceptable anymore.” So I tend to think that it would be good, and that’s why I love what was done with Project Nickel. But the sort of thrust of the paper is that unfortunately Project Nickel has not caught fire. It will. I know it will, but it has not quite caught fire enough yet to change public opinion.

And again, if folks don’t know how much money is spent, they don’t know how to figure out how much money is being spent, you can’t hold people accountable for spending.

Drew Catt: Yeah. And the hard part, as you mentioned earlier with accountability, well, it was educational accountability and hold harmless provisions. There are states that are still not in Project Nickel, because the states didn’t submit the data to the federal government yet.

Mike McShane: Right? Even then, I mean, it’s just like incredible that there are federal laws. And I would be willing to wager that even most of the states that did submit it, if someone really wanted to and knew the law well and knew what they were supposed to submit and how they’re supposed to submit it, I bet you there’s tons of stuff that’s wrong in there. But it’s going to take people who really, really care about that to dig in and who know the law and can figure all of those things out. Because again, there’s all sorts of incentives for opacity and there are not nearly the same number of incentives to try and root it out.

So it’s a huge challenge. But again, the purpose of this paper, and I get some folks I think who have read it and who’ve given me feedback on it. I understand that different people might take my argument and do different things with it. I get it. For me, I think after 20 years of educational accountability movement or more than 20 years now. There’s just been 20 years since no child left behind. The accountability movement started long before that. But after all of this time, and all of this money, and all of this political capital, if we haven’t quite figured this thing out yet, I’m skeptical that we will be able to find something that’s going to make this work in the future. So I tend to lean more to answers like school choice and others, because I think that’s the way to actually hold schools accountable.

But look, I recognize some people might say, “Hey, look. What we really need to do is figure out some better way to make these plans. And God bless them.” I try. I’m skeptical that it’s going to work, but I understand that people might take different things away from this. My goal with this paper wasn’t necessarily to try and present solutions to this problem. I was trying to just very clearly and thoroughly identify the problem.

Drew Catt: Yeah. And that’s amazing. So really, I guess the recommendations that you have is, “Hey, read this paper and think about these things.”

Mike McShane: Yeah. The purpose of this paper was you’re trying to bust a myth. Now, what you choose to do once the myth has been busted. So I don’t know if you think like the world is flat and someone bust that myth and you find out that it’s circular, you can choose to do whatever you want to with that information. The purpose of this paper wasn’t necessarily to say what we want to do with that information, it was more to bust the myth.

So I hope people read it. I hope they are compelled by the argument. So that when in the future they hear people say things like, “Oh, no. Public schools are accountable and private schools aren’t, whatever.” They won’t buy either side of that statement.

Drew Catt: Yeah. Let’s hope it’s not like something I saw, I believe yesterday on social media. It was like a flat Earther society that said, “We have membership all around the globe.”

Mike McShane: Right.

Drew Catt: Don’t just read it, but try to be open to it, and be open to thinking of things differently.

Mike McShane: I agree. Yes.

Drew Catt: Well, hat tip to our listeners for taking the time to learn a little bit more about this study. Just stay updated on the latest school choice research, legislative news and more. Please remember to subscribe to our EdChoice Chats podcast, wherever you get your podcasts, because we’re all about choice. For more of our coverage of new school choice research, education reform, policy chats and more. Social media is more your thing? Follow us on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. You can find us @edchoice. Mike, thanks again so much for your time.

Mike McShane: Great talking to you, Drew.

Drew Catt: Thanks again for listening, everyone out there. And until next time, take care.