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.
Yesterday I proposed that the best place to start a school inspectorate system is where it is needed most: Among new and alternative educational models where current quantitative measures, such as test scores and graduation rates, are most lacking. These new models include not only fully-online “cyber” schools, but also the many emerging competency-based approaches that use technology in their work with under-credited and over-aged youth.*
Still, the inspection process as practiced in England and other nations would surely need to be adapted to the online world. Here are four tricky issues that need to be overcome for an online school inspectorate to be effective:
1. Replacing a Physical Visit: For fully-online schools and components of many blended or alternative programs, an inspection “visit” cannot rely on physical observation. It’s important to remember, though, that the physical observation is not about feelings or impressions, but instead, it is a means to collect evidence. So, the key questions are around the evidence to be collected and the ways to do so. Some evidence, such as student data or artifacts of student work, may actually be easier to examine in digital format. Likewise, some processes, such as the use of assessment to support learning, may also be more easily documented and demonstrated. Some interactions among teachers and students — particularly those that are written or recorded — will also be easily accessible. Offline interactions, such as those via phone call or student work occurring at home, would be hard to gauge. And, others, such as impromptu conversations with students, parents, teachers, and administrators, would just be different. Ideally, inspectors would also figure out ways to collect evidence around issues of student support, motivation, and socialization.
Developing and modifying for online use the type of rigorous evidence framework used in England would also be difficult. While iNACOL, the International Association for K-12 Online Learning has published standards for quality online courses, teaching, and programs, these would need to be further developed into an inspection framework and rubrics. More importantly, this would all have to be done in a way that did not overly standardize and constrain the very innovation that the inspectorate model was designed to support.
2. Implementation: Many of the implementation questions for online schools are similar to those for schools in general. British inspectors are well-trained, experienced, and monitored to ensure consistency and forthrightness. Developing a cadre of inspectors — particularly those with expertise in online learning — will be a challenge. Likewise, our country’s federal system will almost certainly demand a state-based approach. Accreditation, which is a poor model in many ways (see below), may though, be a good model for regional cooperation to share infrastructure, expertise, and take advantage of economies of scale.
3. Integrity: A new inspectorate must avoid regulatory capture, which Charles Barone ably describes as 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. This will be particularly important to avoid, given the heavy lobbying presence of not only traditional school district interests, but also those from large, for-profit corporations. Accreditation, as currently practiced, also fails this test. As author Craig Jerald describes in his report, accreditation team members are minimally-trained volunteers that are often sympathetic to the schools they are evaluating, have little experience in evaluating schools, rarely pass negative judgments, and do not make reports available to the public.
4. Cost: Jerald estimates that a school inspectorate might cost approximately .2% of current public school expenditures. To inspect all schools in a state like Colorado would cost over $15 million per year. Online schools enroll a small percentage of the student population though, so the overall total will be much less. However, given that fixed costs of an inspectorate will be spread over fewer schools, we can expect the percentage of total expenditures to be higher. One option is to add inspectorate costs into online school funding allocations. Most states already spend much less on online students — these small additional costs would be part of what they need to spend for quality assurance. Likewise, online providers — particularly those districts and companies that are using online schools to either subsidize traditional schools or provide returns for shareholders — could be required to devote funds toward the inspectorate. In turn, schools under an inspectorate could be relieved from the costly burdens of accreditation. Finally, costs will also be lower if they can be shared in a consortium across many states or incorporated into the programs of other organizations, such as charter authorizers.
The bottom line? Building an effective inspectorate for online schools will neither be easily agreed to or accomplished. But the status quo in online schooling — inadequate and inappropriate performance measures, highly variable quality, and a field of innovation defined by statehouse lobbying, rather than educational outcomes — should not be acceptable to anyone.
* The adaptations will be different for programs with a physical location, but there is also considerable overlap here, as in the case of high tech/high touch blended models like Performance Learning Centers.