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School Inspections Eyed as State Strategy in Post-NCLB Era

At a time when policymakers across the political spectrum are rethinking the test-driven accountability system at the heart of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, a new case study suggests that English-style school inspections may be worth a closer look.

"Inspections offer a way to make much more nuanced judgments about school performance," writes education consultant Craig Jerald in a report just published by the think tank Education Sector. He notes that such inspections can "leverage expert judgment rather than relying solely on spreadsheet formulas."

To be clear, though, Jerald does say test scores should still be part of the accountability mix, and indeed they are factored into the determinations made under the English system.

(Full disclosure: Jerald previous served as the research director for Editorial Projects in Education, which publishes Education Week. He's also a friend of mine.)

I learned a little about school inspections in England and elsewhere when researching a story for the 2012 edition of Quality Counts, which will be released tomorrow. My story looks at how U.S. accountability practices compare and contrast with those of other nations. And school inspections, which a variety of countries use, from England and the Netherlands to Singapore and New Zealand, certainly offer one clear contrast to the approach brought by No Child Left Behind and state accountability systems.

In the new Education Sector report, Jerald suggests that inspections could be well-suited as a state strategy for accountability. He does not, however, say the federal government should conduct them or require them.

"As they begin to ponder their options for the post-NCLB era, state leaders should take a close look at England's approach to inspections," he writes, "a method that suggests there are ways to ensure rigor and consistency while not sacrificing diagnosis and feedback."

Although school inspections have taken place in England for more than a century, the inspection system as it stands today was launched in 1992, when the English Parliament created the Office for Standards in Education, Social Services, and Skills—or OFSTED. That office now oversees all inspections of English schools. The intent of the system is to give parents better information about schools and to hold them accountable for performance.

The way the system works, inspectors generally visit a school for two days. The frequency of inspections varies, but typically they occur once every three years unless a school receives a poor rating. Schools are rated "outstanding," "good," "satisfactory," or "inadequate." Test data are used in the evaluations, but so are other factors, including classroom observations to determine the quality of instruction.

To illustrate the English inspection system, Jerald tells the story of Peterhouse Primary School, in Norfolk County. The school got a dose of bad news in early 2010 when it failed to pass muster under the government's accountability scheme. In addition to getting an accountability rating, the school also got a 14-page narrative report, based on an inspection, about its strengths and weaknesses in key areas, such as classroom teaching and leadership. Fourteen months later, he says, the school boosted its rating substantially.

What's attractive about the English inspection system, Jerald says, is how it deals with the "multiple measures" issue of accountability by using on-site observations in schools.

"In England, professional inspectors consider standardized test scores when evaluating schools," he writes, "but they also gather first-hand observational evidence on a variety of other factors before judging a school's overall effectiveness and offering a diagnosis for improvement."

He then describes the 2010 report on Peterhouse Primary School.

"Written in a bracingly frank and direct style, the report left little doubt about why the school had been deemed 'inadequate' and how it needed to improve," he writes.

In fact, here's a quote from that inspection report:

"Teaching is too often pitched at an inappropriate level as assessment of pupils' attainment is not used sufficiently well to plan effective lessons. Pupils are not given adequate academic guidance to move their learning on, and the quality of feedback in marking is inconsistent across the school. Pupils' books show that, in some cases, the teachers have low expectations, especially regarding the quality of pupils' written work."

Jerald anticipates some of the concerns about states embracing school inspections to help drive accountability, and tries to address them.

Perhaps the most obvious: Can inspections be relied on to provide fair and consistent judgments?

"Of course, relying on human judgment rather than strict rules and formulas can carry risks," he writes. "Successful inspection systems minimize these risks by taking steps to ensure that judgments are guided by common standards, informed by rigorous training, and steeped in professional expertise."

Another question: Won't these be really expensive?

To answer this, Jerald actually came up with "back-of-the-envelope" estimates of how much they would cost, state by state. His 50-state estimate ranges from a low end of about $635 million per year to $1.1 billion at the upper end, depending on how the system was structured and how frequently inspections would occur.

I should note that England's inspection system is not universally embraced in that country. In my reporting, I heard complaints that the inspections cover far too many issues and are seen by some critics as "formulaic." I also heard complaints that actual time for classroom observations has declined significantly in recent years. (To address some of these concerns, OFSTED last fall announced a new inspection framework that would narrow the scope of inspections and allow more time for classroom observations.)

Peter Tymms, an education professor and the head of the education school at Durham University in England, told me in an interview last fall that he believes the verdict is still out on the value of England's inspections.

"The question is: Does the inspection system improve schools?" Tymms said. "And actually, I think we don't know the answer to that, because serious investigations have not been carried out."

For his part, Jerald says American schools "deserve the same kind of diagnostic guidance and feedback that Peterhouse Primary School enjoyed on its journey to improvement."

He continues: "If American policymakers expect U.S. schools to make vigorous efforts to improve, they must develop accountability systems that can diagnose, inform, and encourage schools rather than merely 'rate' them."

Education Sector has invited a variety of experts next week to explore the merits of school inspections through a series of guest posts on its blog, The Quick & the Ed. I expect the subject will spark a lively debate.

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