May 15, 2016

Education System Accountability Begins with Students

By Lydia Burns & Jamie Smith

Congressional reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act with the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) last fall sparked the interest of policy experts and educators hoping to see a fresh wave of education improvement. They were excited by the prospect of overhauling the current problematic school accountability systems and envisioning ways to replace them with a collection of well-researched and thoughtfully-designed systems for states to use as models.

Aware of the quickly approaching need for new ideas about what makes a school successful, the Fordham Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based education policy think tank, created the ESSA Design Competition. The idea was for teams, individuals, and organizations to submit a proposal for a school accountability system that involved new ways to measure the success of schools and jump start a national conversation. 

As members of the Student Voice Team, we were compelled to respond to the call. We already had begun compiling evidence on the value of using student voice in measures of school climate; from our conversations with hundreds of students across the state on a range of education issues, we knew students had a lot to contribute.

Our team of students quickly mobilized, researching states that requested waivers under No Child Left Behind, different types of growth models, studies, surveys, and anything we could get our hands on. Through Google Drive and conference calls, we worked tirelessly until we had our 13-page school accountability system, just before it was due. The next morning, we had an email from the Fordham Institute, inviting us to present our proposal in person.

Just two weeks later, we found ourselves on a stage in Washington, D.C. before a panel of four highly-accomplished judges. We presented and defended our idea for measuring school success, which centered around student surveys as an indicator of school climate.

Specifically, we advocated for easy-to-understand models that are accessible for all stakeholders. This was a common goal of many proposals; however, as students who have yet to earn our high school diplomas, we felt uniquely qualified to separate the complex educational jargon from what could actually be used in the average learning community. Additionally, we were able to express our concerns over other measures of school climate such as attendance measures.

We marveled at the fact that not only did we share the stage with nationally-recognized policy experts, but that we were taken seriously. And we appreciated the irony that we had to miss a day of school to participate in such a high-level academic showcase.

But our participation in education policy events like these should not be an anomaly. Students everywhere know what is happening in our schools, and we have some sense of how to make them better. We notice when a specific teaching method is clear and effective, and we notice, too, how the culture of our school affects student achievement in real time.

We think it makes sense that those who spend over thirty-five hours a week on the front lines of classrooms interacting with teachers be tapped for some expertise. And we think it makes sense for more students to serve as partners in Kentucky education policy making.

For a school accountability system to be truly effective, not only does it need to be built for us, it needs to be built with us.

This op-ed ran as part of a package with several other Student Voice Team op-eds in the Courier Journal.

Lydia Burns

Lydia Burns

Lydia is a Yoda Corps Advisor of KSVT and former member. She was previously the Chair of the Academic Standards Committee. Lydia graduated from West Jessamine High School in 2016 and the University of Louisville in 2020.

Jamie Smith

Jamie Smith

Jamie is a Yoda Corps Advisor and co-founder of KSVT. She is a former member and was previously the Chair of the Postsecondary Committee. Jamie graduated from Henry Clay High School in 2016 and Brown University in 2020.