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Rediscovering School Quality Reviews

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This post is by Adria Steinberg, a Vice President at Jobs for the Future.

As a high school administrator in the 1990s, I remember bemoaning the lack of time and space to reflect with other administrators and teachers on how our school was performing and what we could do to improve it. I was envious of the school "inspectorate" system in England that included periodic on-site assessments of school quality, which provided school leaders with a wide range of data on how well the schools were doing. And I applauded when several experiments in districts and states started in the U.S. to adapt such a system to circumstances here.

A decade later, working with--rather than in--schools, I witnessed the impact of the standardized-test-based accountability ushered in by No Child Left Behind, which made even the idea of reflecting more broadly on student and school performance seem quaint. It was difficult to find any sign of the earlier experimentation with school quality reviews or much support for looking at student outcomes beyond those measured by tests of a narrow set of language arts and mathematics skills.

Now, with public support growing for schools to help students develop a broader set of college, career, and civic competencies--including such critical skills as the ability to think critically to solve complex problems, communicate effectively, collaborate with others, and learn how to learn. And, with ESSA allowing states to use a broader set of assessments to measure student progress, education policy and practice leaders are once again turning to the idea of school quality reviews. Having heard interest in SQRs from state and district education partners, Jobs for the Future (JFF) commissioned Robert Rothman, a co-editor of this blog, to investigate the potential of such reviews as an accountability mechanism aligned with deeper learning.

The resulting paper, School Quality Reviews: Accountability for Deeper Learning, is one in a series of papers that JFF's Students at the Center initiative is releasing this spring. The series will highlight innovations in assessment now possible under ESSA that can contribute to students gaining the competencies they will need to be successful in further education, training, and careers. After a brief history of school quality reviews in England and the U.S., and a review of current practices in pioneering U.S. states and districts, SQRs summarizes evidence about their effectiveness and highlights promising features, while also identifying some remaining implementation challenges. It concludes with three practical suggestions for states and districts that are poised to take advantage of the opportunity offered by ESSA to employ broader measures that assess school quality more deeply.

The first suggestion--to use professional development funds to support SQRs --recognizes the fact that SQRs provide a lot of professional learning benefits to teachers--both those who serve on review teams and teachers in the schools being reviewed. As everyone who works in schools knows, professional development funds are still too often used to pay for "sage on the stage" events or, at the other extreme, a smorgasbord of offerings. By allocating a portion of the funds to offset costs of SQRs, districts and states could engage in a deeper focus on the central enterprise of teaching and learning and, at the same time, lay the groundwork for examining and adopting SQRs at the district level.

One of the stumbling blocks in spreading practices that support deeper learning has been the lack of understanding of just what such teaching and learning looks like. The second suggestion, based on best practice in places where SQRs are in place, is to develop rubrics that are clear about what observers should expect to find--both in terms of the quality of student work and the curriculum and pedagogy --in classrooms and schools that foster deeper learning. In the final suggestion, Rothman points to the approach in Vermont, where the state is trying a number of different approaches in a pilot phase before determining what a sound statewide system should look like. Other states could benefit from this example by developing their own SQR pilots, working out the implementation challenges in real time, and carefully evaluating what is learned.

Practically 30 years have passed since I first longed for a way to engage in a more thorough process for assessing the quality of the teaching and learning reforms we were trying to implement in my school. The work being done now to pilot and implement effective SQRs, in places such as New York, Cleveland, and Vermont, is an important step in the right direction. Of course, for the next generation of teachers and administrators to have in-depth information about how well their students and schools are doing, there will also need to be game-changing improvements in assessment. For more information on innovations in assessment, download this report from JFF's Deeper Learning Research Series.


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