The Politics Of School Accountability

Mar 20, 2015

Education Committee works on accountability.
Credit Bob Beck

Five years ago the Wyoming legislature embarked on its latest attempt at reforming education in the state. Lawmakers said Wyoming was spending a lot  of money on education and students were underperforming. After rejecting drastic changes such as getting rid of teacher tenure, the legislature settled on coming up with a way to score school districts, schools, teacher leaders, and teachers themselves.

The plan was that the State Department of Education would oversee all of this. While some are still excited about the idea, a growing number of school districts and legislators are not. 

Truthfully, the legislature should be further along with accountability than they are. Former State Superintendent of Public Instruction Cindy Hill strongly opposed having the state oversee how things are being done in local school districts and refused to work with legislators to craft an accountability plan. 

That led the legislature to try and remove her as the leader of education in the state. That distraction pushed things back until last summer. Lawmakers did approve an updated accountability measure during the recent legislative session, but plenty are skeptical, especially in the House of Representatives where two thirds of the members were not there when the original bill passed. Among them Pinedale Republican Albert Sommers. 

“I understand now why it evolved the way it did, I didn’t for a while, but I do think things are changing.”

The biggest change is that a number of the new House members came to the legislature opposed to having the state tell local districts what to do. Here is Newcastle Republican Hans Hunt.

“I think that the local districts understand that there needs to be accountability, that there needs to be a certain level of oversight, but with enough leniency to let those individuals districts and those individual communities fix that for themselves.”

Senator Chris Rothfuss of Laramie is a strong supporter of school accountability. He’s heard the local control argument many times in the past.

“You can only say that so long before you have to show results and show that you’ve made positive gains and improvements.”

The state at the end of the day is the one has to do the heavy lifting if you believe strongly in our kids getting the best education possible. We aren't getting it done right now.

  Rothfuss said it is important for the state to take a very active role in making sure that students are being taught the way they should be. Senate Education Chairman Hank Coe says districts, schools, and teachers need oversight to make sure things are be done correctly.

“The state at the end of the day is the one has to do the heavy lifting if you believe strongly in our kids getting the best education possible. We aren’t getting it done right now.”

Coe said that he believes most people in the state agree. 

“I think buy into accountability in education, particularly with the amount of money that we spend here in Wyoming which is really higher than anybody else.”

But despite these simple concepts, there is still a lot to do. Sue Belish is a member of the State Board of Education and she’s on the accountability task force. Belish said that while it’s good to say you want to measure these things, the question is how?

“Creating something that is robust enough to get a good sense of how a school is performing, but to be able to explain it to parents, to community members, to teachers.”

And then there’s how to provide assistance to teachers and schools. 

“And sometimes we keep doing the same things we are doing because we might not know a better way, or we think this is working, or perhaps this is not working the way that we thought.”

Senator Coe believes that support should come from the state, but Belish pointed out that it’s quite possible that local districts might be better equipped to handle improving their own teachers. Belish said this will be something the task force will need to iron out.

How to measure student performance is another issue. Legislators would like to use a student test known as an assessment to gage how students are doing and how teachers are teaching. But Wyoming’s current assessment is unable to judge all areas of education, such as Physical Education or the arts. Belish said that will need to be addressed.

Senator Rothfuss added that agreeing on an assessment could be their biggest challenge, because it’s controversial and there is a lot riding on it. The legislature voted to delay phase two of school accountability until 2019. But at least one Representative thinks that all of these accountability discussions have had an impact. Casper Republican Steve Harshman, who is a teacher, said that educators are aware that things need improve. He believes they have. 

“All that stuff has served to focus schools more and focus leaders in school districts I think, at least in Wyoming I think there is so much good going on, it’s really incredible.”

Lawmakers hope to make progress on a number of the accountability issues in the next few months.