In the Huffington Post yesterday, Fordham’s Mike Petrilli throws his support behind adding a UK-esque school inspectorate system into school accountability – a topic Craig Jerald explored in Education Sector’s On Her Majesty’s School Inspection Service and in subsequent chatter on this blog. Petrilli writes:
To the extent that school grades (and consequences linked to them) drive policy and behavior, we ought to make sure that those grades are informed by more than just numbers.
I completely agree that numbers – specifically test scores alone – cannot paint a complete picture of school quality. There are numerous other pieces of information – whether they are quantitative measures like AP success, postsecondary enrollment, and college remediation rates, or qualitative observations made by professional inspectors – that could inform our perceptions of school performance. And I am a firm believer in the value of the latter. Prior to my time at Education Sector, I managed the pilot of a quality rating and improvement system (QRIS) for early learning programs in Virginia – a pre-K analog to inspectorates. The centerpiece of the QRIS was direct classroom observations by trained evaluators. These observations were used not only to evaluate each program, but also to inform mentors, program directors, and staff as they worked to improve quality.
But I am also skeptical whether UK-style inspections can – and should – be applied in our US-style high-stakes accountability system across the board. Currently, school accountability is missing a human element, and the metrics we use are not nuanced enough to capture all of the dimensions of student learning and effective teaching. But there are so many logistical and political challenges in the way of implementing a UK-style inspection system – all of which I encountered with the QRIS.
Petrilli writes that the inspectors could be former principals and teachers. That’s certainly true, but there is a finite group of people with the qualifications and direct school experience to carry out the observations at the level policymakers should strive for. Many of these individuals already have jobs as consultants, turnaround specialists, professors (maybe even edu-wonks) that they enjoy and wouldn’t want to leave. And then there’s conflict of interest – a big problem, potentially, if inspections are used in a high-stakes way as it could undermine the system’s credibility with educators, politicians, and the public.
Identifying and recruiting enough of these individuals is one challenge – especially if we are going to have multi-day inspections in every public school on an annual basis. Paying them is another: without any new increases in education funding, the money will have to come from somewhere (most likely, existing education programs). Creating a cadre of well-trained, highly-qualified professionals should not be done on the cheap, especially if the results of these observations are used to make high-stakes decisions and if we want them to be meaningful to educators as they improve their practice. There also needs to be a system to provide for training, on-going support, and reliability testing of the inspector cohort: each inspector needs to apply the quality standards faithfully and consistently. This has also been a challenge with new teacher evaluation systems.
Given these practical concerns, I think it makes sense to focus on where school inspections can add the most value. And to me, that means focusing less on their use in accountability and more on how they can inform school improvement. Instead of inspecting every school, why not prioritize inspections in the lowest performing schools? This could mean the bottom quarter of schools or all schools receiving low grades in an A-F system. These schools would then receive an inspection visit to better diagnose their overall performance. Perhaps, the quantitative measures did not capture the positive impact a school was having on its students. Based on the inspector’s professional judgment, this school could then be removed from turnaround status (or moved to a less critical status). In other cases, the inspection would form the beginnings of a school improvement plan by helping to specifically diagnose why student performance on the quantitative measures was subpar and identify remedies and strategies to improve. Inspectors could subsequently monitor schools’ progress in addressing their specific issues.
Each element that makes up the UK-system may not work within a US-context, but this approach could be one way to start incorporating a human element into accountability and school improvement.