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Reviewing External Quality Reviews, or: Consultant Whack-a-Mole!

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I teach at a college that periodically commissions external reviews of the institution and its academic programs. Sometimes these external institutional reviews are "high stakes," such as regional accreditation reviews (e.g., North Central Association, Middle States, etc.) or professional accreditation reviews (such as the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education). Out of the corner of my eye, I've been seeing an increase in the reliance of large urban school districts, such as New York City and Washington, DC, on external reviews (sometimes labeled "quality reviews.") I'm intrigued by the similarities and differences I'm observing.

Most external reviews begin with a self-study, which typically has three major dimensions: (a) What are your unit's goals? (b) How well are you meeting these goals, and what's the evidence? (c) What are you going to do about it? This is then followed by the proverbial "site visit," in which an individual or team from outside of the institution reviews the self-study, comes to the campus for a day or two, pokes around and asks questions, and retreats to write a report which is shared with the institution and its leaders. Often, the institution then will write a response to the report. Then the report goes on the shelf.

The composition of the site visit team can arouse some passion. In postsecondary institutions, site visitors typically are conceived of as peers of the faculty; but who counts as a peer is a matter of debate. How can someone from Eastern Podunk College ever understand how we at Elite University do business? Is a site visitor who studies 18th-century English literature really a peer of the faculty in an English department that focuses on contemporary American fiction?

I'm intrigued by the fact that in New York City and Washington, DC, the site visitors are external management consultants who are not educators within the system, and in fact may not be teachers or administrators in other systems. Consultants such as these would be laughed out of the room in a review of a college department; but nobody's laughing in large urban districts. I think this is because college faculty are assumed to have stronger claims to disciplinary knowledge and expertise than do K-12 teachers and administrators, and because the shared governance model in colleges and universities give faculty more control over academic decision-making than K-12 educators are typically granted.

Scholars of organizations make sense of external reviews by drawing on institutional theory. Institutional theory focuses on the relationship between organizations and their external environments, including the ways in which organizations are perceived to be legitimate by their external environments. An organization (e.g., school, district, or college) that is perceived to be high-performing generally doesn't have to worry about its legitimacy. But many educational organizations are not seen as high performers. In this case, they have to rely on some other way to be seen as legitimate than a demonstration of good outcomes. A common strategy is to imitate the practices of other social institutions that are seen as legitimate, in the hopes that the legitimacy will "rub off."

Many cases of education imitating the business world can be explained in this way. (Not that the business world has such a great track record to warrant serving as the ideal standard.) So, for example, because it's seen as rational for organizations to set goals and measure progress towards them, this is an integral part of most external review processes-much more so than direct inspection of what the organization is actually doing to meet those goals. This would account for the use of management consultants as external reviewers in New York City and Washington. In this sense, external reviews are mostly symbolic, rather than substantive.

This is, of course, a highly cynical view of external reviews-perhaps more than is warranted. I'd like to pose a couple of questions to eduwonkette's readers: (1) What are some legitimate purposes of external reviews of K-12 schools? (2) Based on these purposes, what should the composition of an external review team look like? The purpose in asking these questions is not to play whack-a-mole with consultants (although that may be a consequence), but rather to introduce a topic that I hope to post a bit more about over the next couple of days. I'm also curious if readers know of any evidence of external reviews actually improving teaching and learning in K-12 schools. Please feel free to e-mail me at skoolboy2 (at) gmail (dot) com to point me in a fruitful direction.
3 Comments

I served on the Chancellor's Quality Review Team for a high school in Washington DC. While I think our team could have offered insights, all we did was visit classes and fill out rating forms. The whole process was without a context -- a plan for school improvement. So you make a very good point, Eduwonkette, questioning the purpose of these reviews. Our team was made up primarily of central office personnel -- just three outsiders: one from the PTA, me, representing the community, and a consultant from a firm called "Insight" who seemed to be in charge becasue he was writing the report on his little laptop as we spoke. The Consultant from the outside firm knew nothing about the district and, although he had been a teacher in a past life, he hardly came across as having much expertise in education reform or school improvement. We, the team, will never see the report being written in our name. We will never interact with the staff at the school over the written report.

The whole purpose seemed more about making judgments that justify intervention, or worse, contracting the management of schools out to third parties, than it is about improvement in the quality of teaching and learning. There was no context for our review team visit to the school. There is no plan in DCPS under the new Chancellor for improving teaching and learning or even a clear definition of what good teaching is. How could the team be clear on what they were seeing and how could the school staff process the feedback they might get? These Quality Reviews only make sense in the context of a clear professional growth system -- a commonly shared definition of an effective school and of what good teaching looks like that the school system is implementing. Otherwise they are just random acts of judgment. Or worse, they are part of an abdication of the Chancellor's responsibility to nurture good schools and good teaching. I have participated in and helped to design Learning Walks that have a lot of legitimacy and can be very useful, in another school district. The devil's in the details -- the make-up of the teams, knowledge of the standards by the school staff, a language of improvement in the district, collaboration by the teachers' union -- and we need some groundrules or at least criteria for what needs to be in place to make these useful and not an insult.

I believe the quality reviews in NYC are conducted by Cambridge Education, an education consulting firm from the UK, not management consultants. Moreover, it is my understanding that these reviews are targeted to specific domains, namely the school's effective use of data to drive instruction.

You should also consider the review processes used by charter school authorizers. I'm familiar with charter school site visits in NY and Massachusetts and have found them to be conducted by knowledgable educators using specific frameworks for evaluating schools. These school evaluations are part of a high stakes process where evidence is collected to determine whether schools will remain open or be closed. And their reports are posted on the Internet for all to see.

Hi Gideon,

That's a great idea to look at external evaluations of charter schools. Yes, the NYC quality reviews are contracted with Cambridge Education, which I would characterize as a management consulting firm. You'll be able to see my take on the content of the NYC quality reviews tomorrow.

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