Editor’s Note: Last week, Education Sector released On Her Majesty’s School Inspection Service, which outlines how school inspections have become part of the accountability system in England. Would such a system work in the U.S.? We asked a variety of education experts to weigh in with their thoughts. We’ll share them throughout the week, and we encourage you to share your reactions as well.
Craig Jerald’s “On Her Majesty’s School Inspection Service” is a compelling and informative piece that has given this skeptic of the model, at the very least, some pause for thought. I’m not sold that it’s a replacement for current accountability systems. But it is arguably a potentially useful complement.
Part of the model’s attractiveness stems from Jerald’s characteristic thoroughness in describing how the model works and where, in anticipation of certain flaws or obstacles, the designers built-in standards, safeguards, and countervailing forces to maintain rigor and protect against ideologues. My worries about the model’s application in the United States stem less from the model per se and more from the cultural and political uniqueness that separates public education in the U.S. from that of other countries like England, where it was developed.
Complex Educational Governance Structure. Having inspectors emanate from a national office in London and disperse throughout England is more logistically realizable culturally congruent undertaking than it would be in the United States. Here, the number of education policymaking bodies from national to local is long, labyrinthine, and prone to in-fighting. In a large U.S. state, the capital (e.g. Sacramento) is farther away from its biggest district (e.g., Los Angeles) than London is from Paris or Amsterdam.
Furthermore, the United States has far more intervening bodies – quasi-governmental bodies like the National Assessment Governing Board, the government-blessed Common Core Standards Initiative, various state and local entities – plus formal government entities like state education agencies, county and local boards of education, Educational Service Agencies, locally elected school boards, etc. – each with specific roles to play and turf areas to defend.
It’s actually a wonder that any policy that starts at the top of the hierarchy can have any impact at all after it negotiates the intervening levels. Of course, we know that such entities can and do work in sync as part of a system. So while a School Inspection Service would have its work cut out for it, it is by no means out of the realm of possibility that it could have an impact, and a potentially significant one at that.
Checks and Balances. It is the second, much more daunting, challenge for the United States in instituting school inspection teams that would be the most difficult to translate from “Her Majesty Inspectors (HMI)” and “AI (Additional Inspectors)” – and to succeed in assessing and rating the schools they are tasked to inspect.
Some of the inherent obstacles are not specific to the fields of education. Whether the issue is education, health care, oil rig inspection, or the carcinogenic potency of Love Canal, a perennial problem in U.S. inspection teams designed to protect the health and safety of citizens has been the development of overly friendly and/or cordial relations between the inspectors on one hand, and those whose work they are tasked to inspect on the other.
Education is generally not a field that is adept at presenting negative feedback, even when it is offered in a facilitative fashion and is aimed at helping educators improve their craft. Work by The New Teacher Project (now TNTP) shows that typically, across all school districts, teacher evaluation systems report 99 percent of teachers as “satisfactory” and less than 1 percent as “unsatisfactory.” The percentage of teachers who were not videotaped, even once, during their pre-service training is simply astounding.
It takes a system with lots of checks and balances, and an ethos of impeccable integrity tied to the interests of the intended beneficiaries of the education system (i.e., parents and students) to deliver unpleasant news toward positive ends. And, as simple as it sounds, this is easier said than done. It’s not just a technical change. It’s a cultural one. And, though there was a time when the term was over-used, in education it is not an exaggeration to say that it will require nothing less than wholesale paradigmatic change.
And that’s one reason I have my doubts about how school inspections would fare in the United States. Delivering unpleasant news creates a lot of discomfort. And in education, as in lots of other fields, I’m not sure we’re ready for it, at least not at this moment. Which means it’s probably exactly the right time to begin.
A famous incident where raters did not keep appropriate, professional distance from those they were expected to evaluate occurred about 10 years ago in the Washington, D.C., area; the incident occurred not in public education, as it turns out, but in the life and death field of health care. In 1999, the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations (JCAHO) – the federal government’s arm for inspecting and accrediting facilities that receive Medicare funding (of which the English School Inspection Service is a logical parallel) – visited the highly-reputed Shady Grove Hospital in Rockville, Md., and, after multiple personal inspections, equipment diagnostics, and personnel interviews, gave it a completely clean bill of health.
Once the report was published, however, a public uproar ensued whereby workers, nurses, patients, and doctors at the hospital were so outraged that they went to the Washington Post, which, in turn, subsequently did a multi-article series reporting abuse and neglect that included patients being housed in hallways, individuals with no attending physician assigned for days after admission, and more than one reported patient death. Beyond the immediate crisis for Shady Grove’s patients, is the more far-reaching, fundamental flaw in the system by which Shady Grove received a top rating from JCAHO from which it was forced to make a hasty retreat, reverse its decision, and to submit to suspension of the hospital’s Medicare eligibility until the identified violations could remedied.
It’s hard to imagine JCAHO missed patients being held in hallways and, had they talked to nurses and other hospital personnel, it’s hard to imagine they would not have heard such reports firsthand. One can imagine how uncomfortable it can be to raise such issues over dinner when JCHAO employees and hospital personnel typically meet after hours as part of the “interviewing” process. It’s almost like throwing a skunk on a friend’s birthday cake. One fears how similarly cordial relations between school inspectors and school personnel could, no matter how much personal integrity the participants had as individuals, lead – deliberately or unwittingly – to a compromised set of findings and conclusions in the final school inspection report.
Sadly, the fact of the matter is the Shady Grove debacle does not seem to an isolated incident. Media reports suggest that it is widely known that JCAHO officials are much too cozy with those they are required to evaluate. A GAO study in 2002 found that JCAHO did not indentify 70 percent of the serious deficiencies identified by state level inspectors (who, in turn, one must imagine, are subject to their own peer pressures with regard to airing dirty laundry that threatens local reputations and jobs), including and especially those that threaten patient health. What’s clear from the report is that political jockeying to reduce obligations for hospitals to undertake improvements in health and safety policies and practices is a major obstacle (i.e., it doesn’t take much reading between the lines of the GAO report to discern that, to GAO’s dismay, Congress intends to give JCAHO the final word on remedying hospital safety practices which, intentionally or not, is the least costly and least disruptive course of action, albeit it one that heightens the potential harm to patients).
These, and other, incidents, suggest that if it is the quality of instruction offered to, and the well-being of, children that we want to ensure is held paramount, multiple checks and balances – including but not limited to inspection teams – are needed to take an unvarnished look at, and make the necessary changes to remedy, the conditions in some of our nation’s most poorly performing schools. It must be kept in mind that as imperfect as current testing regimens are in most school districts, one of the key purposes they were intended to serve was to foster reliance on objective numerical indices and to minimize opportunities for adults to massage or rationalize observations and conclusions to make such findings less troubling and concerning than they might otherwise appear to be.