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.
The problem with big new ideas is often the very thing that makes them appealing: they are disruptive towards the status quo, making them extremely difficult to either imagine or implement. And, in the context of state accountability systems, school inspection is a big idea. So big, in fact, that it could help cut through many of the most thorny challenges around school accountability and improvement, including:
- Judging schools on a broader range of evidence without losing sight of the fundamental importance of student achievement, including standardized test scores;
- Leveraging expert judgment rather than relying solely on quantitative formulas, yet still ensuring sufficient safeguards against inconsistent or inflated ratings; and perhaps most importantly,
- Achieving a better balance between rigorous evaluative ratings and better diagnostic feedback to help schools improve.
But, in an era of fiscal constraint, states are hesitant to add an ambitious new program — and its associated costs — across hundreds, perhaps thousands, of schools. Before disrupting their entire accountability systems, states need a place to start. And, counter-intuitively, the best place to start an inspectorate may not even be a place at all.
Nowhere are our current oversight and school accountability systems more lacking than when it comes to assessing the performance of online and other alternative schools. While test score data and measures such as adequate yearly progress (AYP) have limitations for all schools — particularly those serving disadvantaged students — they are even more problematic for virtual schools operating on competency-based and other alternative educational models.
Combining credible, independent judgment along with quantitative indicators is particularly promising for addressing the unique challenges to assessing the performance of new modes of schooling. John Watson, author of Keeping Pace, the country’s most important annual report on the status of K–12 virtual learning, goes further, explaining that an inspectorate system actually “makes more sense for online schools, because many traditional measures don’t fit well.” Graduation rates on their own, for example, don’t tell us nearly enough about a program that serves dropouts and other disconnected youth. And, given the strong element of student/parental choice in virtual schooling, all of the results from an inspection could help to better inform these decisions.
Perhaps more importantly, school inspections may appeal to both sides of what are often Bizarro world-like accountability debates. Those often opposed to the federal No Child Left Behind Act and related school accountability systems, such as school administrators, teachers unions, and affiliated policy shops, have donned the role of accountability hawks when it comes to the performance of online schools. Online school providers, sounding more like their teachers union colleagues, defend themselves by lamenting NCLB’s poor measures and describing their unique circumstances and difficult student populations.
Both sides have a reason to push for a better system. Critics of online schools need to show that their new-found love of accountability is consistent across all schools. And providers are under pressure to respond to increasingly harsh media coverage. Rather than shunning or seeking to evade accountability, online school proponents have the responsibility to devise and propose new systems if current indicators are not accurate reflections of performance in specialized situations.
There are a number of hurdles to overcome prior to implementing a school inspectorate system for online schools. Most notably, the process would surely need to be adapted to the online world, particularly since an inspection “visit” could not rely on physical observation. And, indicators like attendance would need to be re-thought. But policymakers are looking for better ways to balance accountability with innovation. And, these can all be overcome. Tomorrow, I’ll tackle a few of the most tricky issues.