The Inspector Will See You Now

by Robert Pondiscio
April 11th, 2012

If we look at more than just test scores to determine teacher effectiveness, shouldn’t we do the same for schools, asks Fordham’s Mike Petrilli.  The best accountability systems, he argues, “take various data points and turn them into user-friendly letter grades, easily understandable by educators, parents, and taxpayers alike.”  Petrilli wants to go one step further adding a human element to accountability in the form of “school inspectors” modeled on Great Britain’s inspectorate system.

Under Petrilli’s proposal, a group of inspectors would visit a school at least once per year. “They would mostly look for two things,” he writes.

  1. Evidence that the school is achieving important outcomes that may not be captured by the state accountability system. For example, the school’s administrators might show them test score data from a computer adaptive exam like NWEA’s that demonstrates progress for individual kids (especially those well above or below grade level) that isn’t picked up by the less-sensitive state test. Or perhaps a high school has compelling data about its graduates’ college matriculation and graduation rates that put its mediocre test scores in a different light.
  2. Indications that the school’s culture and instructional program are inculcating valuable attributes in their students. This is to guard against the “testing factory” phenomenon. Is the school offering a well-balanced curriculum (and extra-curriculars), or engaging in test-prep for weeks on end? Is it focused on teaching “non-cognitive” skills and attributes, such leadership, perseverance, and teamwork? Character traits like empathy, honesty, and courage?

Petrilli’s first point is deeper data that probably doesn’t require on-site inspections; the second is more interesting.  I’m all for a more nuanced view of school performance.  If you’ve been in a school lately and haven’t come away dispirited by the sheer volume of test-prep and frustrated by curriculum narrowing, you’re likely engaged in a form a denial or willful ignorance.  Anything that broadens the lens is a step in the right direction.

I certainly agree that you can tell a lot about a school by walking its halls and sitting in its classrooms.  The trouble is that the higher the stakes, the less likely you are to see—or to be allowed to see—the school as it actually is, warts and all.  I’m reminded of the spitting and polishing we used to do in my school when we were having a Superintendent’s walk-through or preparing for our “quality review.”  Suddenly fresh student work bloomed on every bulletin board.  Daily agendas were posted.  Aims and standards in child-friendly language were omnipresent on the blackboard.  Records and planbooks spruced up and made ready for review.  Amazing, engaging lessons were planned and delivered.  No boxed macaroni and cheese when company’s coming.   Dirty dishes went into the oven and dust bunnies were swept under the rug moments before guests arrive.

In short, it’s not hard to master the art of displaying “visible evidence” of teaching and learning, while the underlying practices remain disappointing.  If you think that test prep is a waste of time, try getting your lesson plans, student data, running records and myriad other bits of housekeeping presentation-ready for the Inspectorate.  Is this really what we want teachers to focus their energies on?

Some years ago, I proposed a system of random testing whereby the students to be tested, testing dates, grade levels and subject matter was a matter of chance.  The only way to perform well under such an accountability system would be to actually teach all of the students well in all subjects.  That still strikes me as the right impulse.  Any accountability measure with stakes attached to it will inevitably come to dominate classroom practice.  It’s simply human nature to want to put your best foot forward when your reputation or your job is on the line.  This is fairly obvious.  The most likely response to the accountability mechanism should be precisely the practice you want to see in classrooms.  Anything else misses the mark.

A good inspection system can add significant value.  A thoughtful review diligently considered can lead to constructive suggestions and improved outcomes.  It needn’t be a “gotcha” game.  But the same is true of pure test-driven accountability.  In theory, the best outcomes should come from a well-rounded curriculum, effectively implemented by well-trained teachers.  It just hasn’t seemed to work out that way in practice.