Brown favors school inspectionsOne model is working in his backyard
Call it the right-brain complement to the left-brain world of standardized test accountability. In his State of the State address on Wednesday, Gov. Jerry Brown called for a new “qualitative system of assessments” and specifically cited, as an example, a system of “school visitation, where each classroom is visited, observed, and evaluated.” Brown has given the State Board of Education, led by his adviser Michael Kirst, the job of developing what he wants. (Read the education section of his address.) (see update below)
Brown first broached the concept of qualitative measures last year in his veto message of SB 547, a state accountability reform bill that Brown criticized for broadening quantitative indexes used under the Academic Performance Index.
Why not instead “focus on quality?” Brown asked. “What about a system that relies on locally convened panels to visit schools, observe teachers, interview students, and examine student work? Such a system wouldn’t produce an API number but it could improve the quality of our schools.”
The largest and most famous school inspection system is in England, where for two decades the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted) has deployed a professional corps of inspectors to periodically visit every school for two or three days and then publish their graded findings within a few weeks. Earlier this month, the think tank Education Sector released a report “On Her Majesty’s School Inspection Service” that encouraged states to consider creating their own versions of it. The track record in England “suggests that inspections offer a way to make much more nuanced judgments about school performance, provide richer information to parents and the public, … and accelerate timelines for school improvement,” concluded author Craig Jerald.
Here in America, New York City and Ohio have adopted narrower versions of the Ofsted inspections, with Massachusetts inspections exclusively dealing with charter school renewals. But Brown doesn’t appear to be proposing anything as centralized, formal or expensive (the Education Sector report estimated it would cost California between $64 million and $130 million to replicate Ofsted.).
Instead, the model he may have in mind, ironically, is operating right under his nose, in Sacramento City Unified. I say ironically, because Superintendent Jonathan Raymond said Wednesday that he has never spoken to Brown about the district’s School Quality Review (SQR).
Tool for school improvement
Raymond was the chief accountability officer with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District in North Carolina when the district hired British-based Cambridge Education to develop the School Quality Review process, and then brought the idea to Sac City three years ago when he became superintendent.
Sac City’s school reviews serve a distinctly different function than Ofsted’s public accountability inspections – and one possibly closer to Brown’s purpose. “It’s toward our goal of continuous improvement – to improve the nuts and bolts of teaching and learning,” Raymond said.
Principals and assistant principals trained by Cambridge Education do school reviews in teams of two or three. They use a complex rubric that the district developed along six areas of inquiry: progress and student achievement; quality of learning, teaching, and assessment; curriculum; leadership management and accountability; school culture and personal development; and partnership with parents and guardians and the community.
As an example, one standard under partnership with the community asks the extent to which “parents, guardians and families are encouraged to participate in the decision-making processes within the school.” There are extensive definitions that match the following categories: exemplary, established, requires support in targeted areas, and requires intensive school-wide support. (Click for the full rubric.)
The school reviewers grade the school on a total of 49 standards. The combination of qualitative measures, said Raymond, provide a much more holistic way of viewing what goes on in a school.
Reviewers spend two or three days in each school, observing classrooms and interviewing teachers, staff and parents. Before they visit, they review the schools’ self-assessment and test results, including standardized tests and the district’s own benchmark tests. By this spring, the district will have completed the first round of SQR for all 78 schools.
One advantage is that SQR gets administrators out to other schools, exchanging ideas and learning from other schools’ experiences. While there was an initial question whether principals could judge one another objectively, it turned out not to be an issue, said Mary Shelton, Sac City’s chief accountability officer. Principals would rather hear criticism from their colleagues than from an assistant superintendent or an outside evaluator, she said.
Raymond said that the district is creating a parallel SQR for the community, in which parents will be trained to do the same assessment so they can have a better understanding of their school and provide feedback.
The district shares the SQR report with the school site council but does not publish the findings or a grade online, Raymond said, because it’s not intended to be “a gotcha tool.”
Brown and the State Board, however, may view school visits as an important piece of a school accountability system, with results included as part of a School Accountability Report Card that every school publishes.
Raymond’s advice for setting up such as system: Be clear up front whether the review is “a formative or summative tool.” Train staff to be skilled reviewers. Allow each district to develop its own rubric. And, don’t be prescriptive and top-down.
Update: The Sacramento Bee reports that in comments in San Diego today, Brown gave further indication of his vision for school visits. He said he wants schools to be evaluated by outsiders, not district personnel, and envisions the process to be a “mini, mini-regular accreditation.” (Turning to outsiders would make this a formal process and raise the cost.) He said teachers and experts could be the evaluators and that every classroom should be visited: “It should be a balanced panel of people who can say, ‘Hey, this teacher is cutting it and this teacher is not, and here’s why we think that.’ “