Brown favors school inspections

One model is working in his backyard
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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 delivers the State of the State address.

Brown delivers the State of the State address.

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.

These are three standards that Sacramento City Unified adopted under the school culture and personal development category, with descriptions of what constitutes exemplary performance or in need of improvement. Click to enlarge.

These are three standards that Sacramento City Unified adopted under the school culture and personal development category, with descriptions of what constitutes exemplary performance or in need of improvement. Click to enlarge.

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.’ “

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24 Comments

  1. We partnered with Cambridge Education, and used their process and tools to design School Quality Reviews in 2008-09 when I was Chief Academic Officer in Oakland Unified. While mandatory for the lowest performing schools, many other schools volunteered for reviews because they sought the descriptive feedback that the reviews generated to support their continuous improvement. The reviews also helped these schools to see where they stood on internationally benchmarked criteria in the Quality Rubric. Based upon that experience, I believe that the School Quality Reviews are most valuable when they are used to calibrate what quality should look like across a school system, and to foster continuous improvement by using the reviews to inform and guide next steps planning that involves students, teachers, the district and the community.
    Two other quality review processes that should be discussed are the WASC, a requirement for all high schools in the state to remain accredited, and the Linked Learning Pathway Certification process, which career academies, small themed schools and other pathways can use to demonstrate effectiveness in preparing their students for college and career readiness. WASC and ConnectEd are working on how to align these review processes for high schools that are pursuing a Linked Learning approach. An early example of this partnership is in Long Beach Unified, which has set the goal of having 90% of their students in certified Linked Learning pathways by 2015.
    More information about ConnectEd, Linked Learning, and WASC can be found at http://www.connectedcalifornia.org, http://www.linkedlearning.org and http://www.acswasc.org

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  2. Public schools in England (or “private,” as they are called) have not benefited from Her Majesty’s School Inspection Service, as England has experienced the same free-falling test scores that we have.  Gov. Brown is really working around the edges, looking for the untried route that will at least retain an air of mystery until it too, doesn’t work.  I have sympathy for Brown- no one knows how to improve education for our at-risk populations.  Everyone wants to look for new ideas, but all the ideas have been tried (including wonderful standards).  We need a cultural change, and it’s just possible the GOP party doctrine that government can’t effect cultural change is correct.  At least not government as we know it.

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  3. Hats off to the Governor for shining a light on California’s “accountability” elephant.  While standardized testing data has a valuable place in a larger accountability regime, California and most other states have gone way off the deep end by placing all the eggs in the basket of a few, arguably-mediocre tests.  It would be very helpful to sharply moderate the amount of attention paid to these few tests, reduce the associated stakes, while using an inspectorate system to provide a more balanced picture.  This would not only provide a better system, but would also allow for a more nuanced and valid use of the standardized data.
     
    Better yet, such a system could allow for schools to diversify their goals and instructional programs, including allowing schools to emphasize real career/tech-prep programs, the arts, foreign languages, and deep/critical thinking, and other instructional goals that don’t count under the current, narrow test-based accountability regime.
     
    In addition to the Queenie’s Inspectorate, many charter granting agencies do this sort of work.  A very few in California do pieces/parts of it  well, including the Oakland School District’s Office of Charter Schools (FFI: http://www.ousdcharters.net/-renewal-protocol-2011-2012.html).  For over a decade, my organization (Charter Schools Development Center–pardon shameless plug) also has extensive experience in these matters, has developed detailed rubrics/protocols, and has used them extensively to perform dozens of school reviews and to train school district and other staff.  We’ve learned that the work is extremely challenging, but when done well is much more illuminating than standardized test scores.

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  4. There’s no harm in convening multi-disciplinary school visitation panels, but I have grave concerns about a parent panels (whether parallel, as in Sacramento, or exclusive, as we might expect in politically conservative environments).
     
    First, parents have a natural self-interest, which must be acknowledged. Parents will endorse schools where grade inflation is practiced (because their own kids get higher grades) and where attendance and discipline policies are selectively enforced (because their own kids don’t get punished, though the bullies who taunt them do). In my early teaching jobs, I quickly learned that children of PTA members are all A+ students with perfect behavior. Attempts to evaluate those students objectively and discipline them fairly result in calls to principals and superintendents. In weighing the advantages (child-development-related and ethical) of objectivity and fairness against the consequences (image-related and financial), decision-makers concede that doing the wrong thing is better for the health of the institution.
     
    Second, parents — more so even than professional educators and educational leaders — are biased in favor of schools that conform to their own schooling experiences. I know that, from a brain-based perspective, subtraction can be introduced more effectively as the complement of addition (4 + ? = 9) than as a new, unrelated operation (9 – 4 = ?). It’s hard enough to convince a superintendent, a principal, or an old-line teacher colleague (who will answer, with a straight face, that kindergarten or first-grade students just aren’t “ready” to learn subtraction). A parent, on the other hand, is likely to get angry, invoke the Math Wars, and start writing letters to the editor. Again, the safer choice is to give in and teach the standard algorithm, whether students understand what they’re doing or not. Schools using sense-making math curricula like Everyday Math, CPM, or to a lesser extent, enVision, will be penalized by parent panels. The same is true for other subject areas. Whither expository writing (“In my day, we analyzed literature.”), 20th-century history (“But what about Betsy Ross?”), and group work in any class (“Desks should be in rows, students silent.”).
     
    Parent panels sound a bit like grand juries — groups of citizens with no technical expertise, who are called upon to evaluate government projects and programs. Pick up a grand jury report on a subject in which you have professional experience, and see what you think of the process and the conclusions. Parents should have a voice in evaluating schools, but it should not be the only voice.

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  5. The report of the Governor’s Committee on Education Excellence includes some excellent recommendations about ways to make use of the inspection system that OFSTED pioneered.  It also includes comparisons to related approaches in New York and elsewhere. See http://everychildprepared.org/docs/6governance.pdf beginning on page 6-21.
    Inspections belong solidly on the list of things that are hard to measure but probably really, really smart to do anyway. This type of professional discourse is comparatively rare in the usual way of doing things, and that’s an important gap to step up to.
    Yet another reason to put the committee report on your reading list.  The report puts many recommendations together in a coherent plan that is greater than the sum of its parts.

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  6. Hi Paul, though the article was not completely clear about this, it appears the intent is only to train the parents in the assessment process so that they understand it, not to have them actually doing assessments (perhaps I am misreading that). I would also point out that the expectation should not be that parents have no experience. Not only would they gain some thought process from such a training, but any parent attempting to be involved at such a level must put in some effort to understand things better or they will essentially be useless. This is actually one of the reasons people want to encourage parents to get involved. That said, I do agree with you that relying on parents for things is always fraught with danger. Im not sure our schools can succeed without them though.
    Related to your other point about grade inflation and selective treatment, this is why I believe the ‘best’ schools in a district are rarely truly the best. In my experience, the ‘merely better’ schools are often much more sane and fair and productive and reasonable pedagogical environments.
    That said, I think there are also different reasons why the children of involved parents may do better at pretty much any school. The first is obviously that parent involvement is pretty correlated with academic performance. This does not have to be a function of selective grading but the fact that the parent is more involved in all aspects of the educational environment, including at home. Secondly, I have found that children whose parents are involved tend to take additional pride and even ownership in their school. This does not have to be limited to official involvement (ie PTSA or SSC or similar), but even being there on a regular basis, talking with other parents, with other kids, volunteering, etc. Students notice that and I believe it adds a subtle expectation for them that being at school is a normal and expected part of everyone’s life. Not only theirs. Granted, this is a subtle effect, but I feel an important one. And one that can and does contribute to a student’s success. IMHO anyway.  :-)

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  7. There already is a visitation panel – it’s called WASC. Most schools go through accreditation and the WASC self-study process itself is fairly useful. It can turn into a pedantic exercise of paperwork and “putting on a show”, but why doesn’t the state partner with a system that has been doing this work for years as opposed to ultimately screwing it up themselves and costing the tax payers millions of dollars in the process.

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  8. Robert: Michael Kirst mentioned to me that the State Board will approach WASC about exploring ways of cooperation. WASC is an independent entity so there’s no obligation on its part to change or expand its methods.

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  9. WASC is famous for having the lowest standards in the nation. When asked why their standards for colleges are more rigorous, they reply, “Colleges won’t let us get away with low standards.” WASC visits high schools, while accreditation bodies in 49 other states visit K-12. The basic method of a WASC visit is to ask, “How are you doing?” The teachers and administrators write a report saying, “We’re doing fine.” and the WASC team goes away for 6 years. I went through 5 WASC studies in 33 years of teaching and each one was a sham.
     

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  10. “Public Schools” in England are private, but are different from “private” schools. Schools that are funded by the state, and are therefore subject to Ofsted are in fact “not private” and are therefore totally free to the public.
    On the other hand, there are a host of more private/public/business funded schools – - – many of which accept students selectively. There are grant maintained schools, religiously funded schools … and so on.
    It’s kind of like cricket … or Alice in Wonderland.
    On a serious note, the Ofsted inspections have in fact been weakened of late, but are infinitely preferable to WASC. As for standards falling in England  - this is too complicated to explain because of the difficulty in separating out what is a “state” school, and what is not in simple terms. But, in the middle and lowest scoring areas, yes, the quality has fallen in many regions, but not in the higher performing “state” schools (i.e free schools). There are huge regional differences.  Cambridge, etc., continues to excel, some other areas to decline.
    School inspectors were much better educated and trained prior to increased political control, starting in England in around 1986? – 87? I knew several, and they were formerly outstanding teachers, who moved into deputy headships, etc., before inspector roles. I think a key difference overall is that the UK inspectors and reports are quite candid, are often a catalyst for necessary change, and have a function. I honestly don’t see such candor being accepted in California – CTA would never permit it!
     

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  11. Hats off to Jonathan Raymond. His School Quality Review reminds me of the process that I think used to be a part of California’s Categorical Program Monitoring (others will correct me, I’m sure).
     
    @Paul, please help me: who is saying that parents should have the ONLY voice in evaluating schools? True, the parent voice needs to be amplified and schools have a responsibility to help parents to develop the required skills, e.g., understand what questions to ask, how to monitor and evaluate programs and decisions, etc. In my work as a parent advocate, we have been having the same conversations about  “parent involvement” for years yet the culture of eduspeak and “parents aren’t the experts” persists. It is true that not all parents participate in the school community yet the knowledgeable and critical-thinking public school parents are most often feared. Where is it even safe to have conversations about evaluating staff or programs? In my district, no one actively monitors or evaluates much of anything for outcomes – even in this fiscal climate – and people are still arguing about what partnership with parents looks like on the one hand while often preventing parents from the very data, reports and even in-classroom visitations that would inform better decision-making and understanding. I have been arguing for years that parents and staff need to spend time each year training together and any effort to develop a school inspection process should recognize that need.

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  12. In this recession CA has “sunk” to 9th place, just ahead of the entire nation of India (#10), in GDP. CA, along with the rest of the US, has the resources to begin to turn the tide of childhood poverty. That is the issue with educational performance. We make endless pilgrimages to Finland to see how they have created their high performing schools and then don’t do any of the things they do. Finland set out to create an equitable society and school system and a by-product of that was high performing schools. No witch-hunts for “bad” teachers. No endless testing regimes No newspaper box-scores ranking and comparing schools. Just an investment in schools and children.
    I’m not sure how this suggestion for evaluating schools on “qualitative” indicators will work, but it’s sure to be better than the crude, economics based, quantitative methods now in place. The quantitative methods have diverted attention from the equity issues that have created significant obstacles for the state’s and nation’s poor children and those remedies for inequity that have driven Finland’s schools to the top of the heap.

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  13. @Paul, is that statement for real?  I have a hard time reading it and not thinking of the Yes Men.  The Yes Men go around masquerading as representatives of various governmental organizations.  They act reasonable to a point, but then throw in some really off the wall statements with the purpose of making the organizations they claim to represent look bad.  I know a number of teachers and I can’t imagine them making such over generalized statements about parents who belong to the PTA.

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  14. @TransParent, thanks for your reply. My comment was focused on Sacramento’s planned addition of parallel evaluation panels comprised of parents. This was mentioned toward the end of the article. I also anticipated the possibility that in conservative political environments, panels of parents might not operate in parallel, but might serve as the only evaluators. Consider charter school boards, whose members are not elected democratically by local voters, but are instead chosen by parents, mainly from the ranks of parents.
     
    Parents should certainly be involved in public school life. Their voice should be one among many, as I said. One parent on a 5- or 10-member panel (a multi-disciplinary panel, as I called it) is fine. A panel comprised entirely of parents is not.
     
    Employee evaluation and program evaluation are specialized skills. This is one of the reasons why managers of all types, including school principals and school district superintendents, undergo extensive training before they become managers. Do groups of patients visit operating rooms and write reports about doctors? Do groups of homeowners come along on plumbing calls and write reports about plumbers? Do groups of passengers occupy the cockpit and write reports about airline pilots? Why on earth should groups of parents have the authority to visit classrooms for the purpose of formally evaluating teachers and schools? And no, evaluation skills can’t be taught in an evening workshop.
     
    I once had the experience of consoling a colleague after the PTA chairperson came to her classroom unannounced and sat for an hour taking notes. Not only was this parent’s behavior rude, but it had the effect of undermining the teacher’s authority in the eyes of her students, and it was also illegal (Penal Code 627.2 says that visitors must register with the office and Education Code 51101 says that parents wishing to observe teachers must give advance notice).
     
    Alleging that your local school district prevents parents from accessing data is a distraction. In California, members of the public, including parents, have an established legal right to access all school district data (other than individually-identifiable student records belonging to other families, and closed session-type information, e.g. about real estate negotiations, pending litigation, and ongoing negotiations with employee groups). E-mail traffic, voice mail messages, the superintendent’s appointment book, and the salary and seniority of each employee are all subject to disclosure. This is another reason why I would object to parent panels. According to the article, “The district shares the SQR report with the school site council but does not publish the findings or a grade online, Raymond [the superintendent] said, because it’s not intended to be “a gotcha tool.’” It is a “gotcha tool”, because the law says it’s subject to public disclosure, whatever the superintendent says.

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  15. @Paul Muench, yes, my statement is for real.
     
    I don’t know whether you’ve ever taught in the public schools, but I have. I was once reprimanded for applying the standard bathroom policy to the PTA chairperson’s daughter. The anecdote above, about the PTA parent who barged in on a colleague’s class and took notes, is also true. And at a different school, the PTA chairperson complained of me to the principal when her son received a B on a standardized test furnished by a textbook vendor and consisting entirely of math computation questions with unique correct answers (it’s hard to get more objective than that). I later found out that a colleague, who had taught the student the year before, had been plied with gifts. He eventually gave in and upped the boy’s grade to an A-.
     
    This kind of nonsense really happens! In district-run schools, at least there are legal and contractual protections for teachers who enforce the rules, but can you imagine what would happen in a charter school, with at-will employment and a board comprised mainly of parents? The teacher would be out the door. And on a systemic level, so it would be if panels of parents could evaluate and publish reports about schools.

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  16. I think I’ve said this before: we did exactly this in SanDiego City Schools in 1997.
    Well-prepared teams of Board members, parents, teachers and community members were dispatched with rubrics to K-12 classrooms throughout the district. It was a collaborative, empowering and illuminating experience. But when the “needs improvement” label was publicly applied — often, but not only, to schools in low socio-economic neighborhoods — howls of protest and betrayal were heard before people settled down to work on needed changes.
    Within a year, however, the communal visitation experiment was shelved: a new non-educator superintendent was appointed and top-down business-model “reforms” became the fashion for the next six years. For the six years after that and to the present day, the pendulum  has swung to teachers’ union dominance of the public schools and the ex-Navy admiral non-educator superintendent, no more business-model anything and not enough money to operate in the black. And there has never been another community-based schools’ visitation/evaluation/inspection program.
    As for WASC, it’s conducted by outsiders, it’s only for high schools, it’s only for six years and it’s essentially the dog and pony show described above. That said, I do believe any oversight and review is better than no oversight and review, but enemies are legion.

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  17. @Paul, some teachers abuse their power to sexually abuse children.  But it would be an extreme generalization to say that reflcts on all teachers and hence we should give up on public education.

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  18. I was a teacher in Mrs. O’Neill Zimmerman’s school district, and I had no problems with observations, etc. I taught with an “open door”policy, as I had in England. I have invited parents into my classrooms, and never had one who abused the reason for observing. Those parents were of different ethnicities and SES, and I thought it a constructive, collaborative experience. I have had a team of principals arrive at 15 minutes notice to observe a very difficult class and program, and it was a good process for all of us. The students were exemplary, and they felt successful. Indeed, the praise of the administrators (who by right should have been turned away because there was no notice) was not forgotten by those students and they were rightfully proud of their work and conduct.
    Under the superintendent she mentioned, I was evaluated by two administrators who were not happy with me because I was critical of the segregation policies imposed – either by design or sheer ineptitude – but they couldn’t find serious fault with my work, we had a good dialogue, and off they went.
    As for the findings in the under-performing schools, Mrs. O’Neill Zommerman is correct. Instead of using the visiting and evaluation process to improve the lot of those students, there was hue and cry, and much more! So, another great idea that was designed for collaboration, positive leadership, and effective change for children was tossed out. After all, it is California, and heaven forbid that the school system (teachers, etc.) be found at fault. Let’s just abandon another generation of the most needy students.
    I once taught in one of the above schools, and was literally accosted one day by an “established teacher” for having shown up the teacher for whom I was a long term substitute. The principal apparently no longer believed that the ESL students were incapable of learning – as she had been informed by the  on leave teacher. After ten minutes trapped in my room, I understood the power of teacher unions in California, and have seen that power abused on many occasions. That’s one reason why parents want to be a part of the evaluation process – and a meaningful part!

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  19. @Paul Muench, your last comment is way out in left field, but let’s run with it for a moment. Since there is a risk of inappropriate activity in schools, checks and balances are built in to the system. For example, teachers are fingerprinted, and are required to answer questions about arrests and convictions every time they seek employment, renew their credentials, etc. Many districts provide either policies or recommendations for day-to-day interactions, including “no touch” and “door open when alone with a student”. Risks are acknowledged and mitigated.
     
    In the same way, in designing an evaluation system, we note that there is a risk that involved parents will exercise their self-interests, yielding biased views of teachers and schools. Accordingly, we fill our visitation panels with people whose interests and viewpoints differ — parents, teachers, taxpayers, business leaders, members of the public, school leaders, district leaders, technical consultants, etc., to achieve balance. Acknowledging and mitigating the risk of bias means not creating panels comprised exclusively of parents. At no point have I suggested that we just “give up on” the project, and that is where your far-fetched analogy breaks down.

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  20. in relation to all of the knocks on WASC – do people seriously think the state would come up with something better? These are people that have brought you the Commission on Teacher Credentialing (talk about low bars) and can’t get a statewide data system up and running. I’m just saying, if they’re going to go this way, let’s not waste billions of dollars and do something poorly when we can waste only hundreds of millions of dollars by contracting with someone to it slightly less poorly.
    Sorry – not much faith in our state government.

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  21. there are more people are the direct order in the systematic way in the daily way but some people are skill in the deputy manager sector in the particular way.

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  22. @Paul,  sure seems like you misread my comment .
    I’m glad you agree that parents are a valuable part of the inspection process.

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  23. Having watched WASC run an evaluation through our local high school, I have a somewhat higher opinion of it than others who commented here. I appreciated that the evaluation team for a small school was other administrators from other small schools with similar issues, and although people grumbled about putting together the documents, I don’t think it was wasted or wasteful. I felt the evaluation was accurate and appropriate, and some good networking and exchange of ideas occurred.

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  24. Teachers are well-enough protected in California by the law and their union that confidence about visits from outsiders — whoever they may be — ought to be  a pre-condition for employment. Whose kids are these? Whose classrooms? Whose schools? I’ve lived out here for 42 years and am still amazed at widespread paranoia about classroom visits. Anxiety is fostered by the union, IMO, and it serves the union — not school improvement. In the scenario I described, visitation-team parents were never assigned to their own schools. No one wanted skewed results from unfair judgements. People wanted to get a picture and to report their findings.

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