Toward the end of his provocative message last week vetoing a bill creating new quantitative measures for school accountability, Gov. Jerry Brown made what seemed like an off-the-cuff suggestion: “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,” Brown wrote, “but it could improve the quality of our schools.”
Brown hadn’t talked about this idea before, and he has made bare mention of it since. State Board of Education Executive Director Sue Burr told me not to expect the governor to come forth with a statewide proposal for such a system.
And yet Brown’s suggestion for school inspections is credible, and it didn’t spring out of the blue. In talks leading up to the veto of SB 547, the alternative to the API, Brown and State Board of Education President Michael Kirst discussed the concept of a statewide system of inspections, which progressive writer and education researcher Richard Rothstein recommended in his 2008 book, Grading Education: Getting Accountability Right. (Kirst has read the book; it’s not clear whether Brown has. No one from Brown’s press office would ask him for me.)
Four years ago, Gov. Schwarzenegger’s Committee on Education Excellence, chaired by Ted Mitchell, also endorsed formal school inspections as a way of discovering what a school is doing well and where it needs improvement. Turning the superintendent of public instruction’s office into an inspectorate was one of the Committee’s novel ideas. But Schwarzenegger buried the Committee’s report, and its recommendations have been largely ignored. (You can read the section on the inspectorate – Recommendation 3.5 – starting on page 25 of the 31-page section on school governance.)
Both Rothstein and the Committee on Education Excellence based their recommendation on the English model, the Office for Standards in Education, or Ofsted, which has been inspecting schools for nearly two centuries. Unlike the “locally convened panels” that Brown referred to, Ofsted consists of a corps of professionally trained educators who spend days in each school, observing teachers, examining student work, and looking beyond test scores to include students’ workplace skills, their personal and emotional development, and their “spiritual, moral, social and cultural development.” Inspectors publish the results but don’t rank schools; they’re graded pass, in need of modest improvements, or in need of serious intervention to correct problems.
Rothstein, a researcher with the Economic Policy Institute who spends half a year living in Oakland, shares Brown’s dislike of the use of standardized tests as the sole measure of schools’ achievements and teachers’ performance. In his latest blog entry, Rothstein praised Brown’s “eloquent” veto message, in which he “articulated an alternative to the narrow standardization of schooling and the promotion of misleading quantitative test score measures that have characterized American education in the last generation.” SB 547 would have created other indices beyond results on math and reading tests, but still could not have addressed whether schools had been effective in developing “character, inquisitiveness, citizenship, civic awareness, historical reasoning, scientific curiosity, [and] good health habits.”
Inspections can address these less quantifiable attributes. “If the panels that Brown advocates are constituted with appropriate experts in curriculum and instruction, and include members of the public as observers, they have the potential to finally provide citizens with the ability to distinguish effective from ineffective schools in their state and communities,” Rothstein wrote.
More than accreditation visits
In brief comments in Beverly Hills on Friday, Brown said that he favored, as a complement to existing standardized tests, “more on-site evaluation of teachers, following the model of accreditation.” But in Grading Education, Rothstein dismisses the nationwide accreditation process of K-12 schools – done in California by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) Accrediting Commission for Schools – as an inadequate system of accountability. It’s useful as a self-evaluation tool by peers and perhaps, with changes, can evolve into such a system, he wrote.
Rothstein lays out the criteria for adapting Ofsted to American schools. (New York City also has its own version, known as Quality Review):
- Every school should be inspected once every three years;
- In addition to using test scores to verify whether students have acquired basic skills and knowledge, inspectors should determine how students are doing with regard to critical thinking, the appreciation of arts and literature, social skills and work ethic, preparation for work skills and college, physical health, and emotional health;
- Inspectors should be professional evaluators, not volunteers, but also include members of the public and representatives of the business community;
- Inspections should occur with little or no advance notice;
- Inspectors should look at student work as well as test scores;
- Reports should be published;
- There should be consequences, including state takeover of schools where improvement doesn’t occur following repeated failed accreditation reports.
Brown has said he would meet with Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, author of SB 547, to create an alternative accountability system. Brown has given no indication he’s interested in a statewide, mandatory inspection system, which could cost several hundred million dollars in California (Rothstein estimates the cost nationwide as 1 percent of spending on K-12 education).
Rothstein recommends that California try a pilot program. “Pick a few districts,” he told me. “No one has worked out how to do this.”