New York Embraces Old Idea From Britain To Evaluate Schools

By Robert Rothman — September 09, 1992 6 min read

Borrowing a 150-year-old school-improvement idea from Britain, New York State officials are developing a new method for evaluating schools’ effectiveness.

In contrast to traditional evaluation methods, in which schools are judged on whether they meet state rules on such topics as class size and library holdings, the new system encourages them to monitor their own practices to determine if they match goals for student learning.

As a key part of the plan—modeled on the British “inspectorate” system—outside teams of educators and community members will periodically visit schools and intensively study the teaching and learning that takes place.

The project is set to be piloted in seven schools this fall.

The initiative is aimed at “holding a mirror” up to schools to enable them to ensure that students can achieve the higher standards for performance that the state is developing, according to David Green, a British education official hired by the state education department to help launch the project.

“You can reorganize schools until the cows come home,” Mr. Green said. “But unless you really address the central issue of teaching and learning, the chances that they will be able to support students’ achievement of the standards of performance everyone is talking about is limited.”

“You need not only to clarify standards, but also ways of supporting teaching,” he continued. “The last way to do that is through regulation, exhortation, and speculation.”

Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor of education at Teachers College, Columbia University and the chairman of a state panel charged with redesigning curricula and assessments, said the quality-review initiative is “very, very compatible” with the reforms her panel will recommend.

“If you don’t have a way of helping schools develop practices that will lead to the [student learning] outcomes, you have a lopsided system,” she said. “The danger is that the onus is on kids to reach the standards without schools’ providing a way for them to get there.”

Complementing the ‘Compact’

The school quality-review initiative grew out of a four-year partnership between schools in the United States and Britain that was underwritten by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate, an arm of the British Ministry of Education, and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

The joint project, which introduced American educators to Britain’s inspectorate system, attracted the attention of Thomas Sobol, New York’s state schools chief. According to Mr. Green, Mr. Sobol saw the system as a potential companion to the “new compact for learning,” a major reform plan adopted by the state board of regents in 1991.

To develop a quality-review plan, Mr. Sobol hired Her Majesty’s Inspector Green as a consultant. Mr. Green has been working since May with the Rensselaer-Columbia-Greene Counties Board of Cooperative Education Services, which is developing the plan under a grant from the state department.

The department held a workshop on the proposed plan in July and selected seven schools to participate in the pilot. A second workshop, with teachers and administrators from the pilot schools, is planned for later this month.

‘Culture of Review’

Mr. Green emphasized that, although the idea came from Britain, the new plan was shaped by New York teachers and administrators and differs substantially from the original.

“This isn’t something brought from England and plucked out of the air,” he said. “What New York State is doing is taking the experience of inspection, not the English model.”

The New York system, he noted, places more of an emphasis on schools’ self-evaluation, rather than the review by outside inspectors. In Britain, Mr. Green noted, inspectors visit schools every four years.

“That can achieve only so much, and little more,” he said. “What it can’t do is establish within a school a ‘culture of review.”’

Gilbert Blum, who served on 24 committees for the Middle States Association of College and Schools, said the internal review will be similar to one schools undertake when seeking accreditation from a agency such as Middle States.

“A lot of schools that do not belong to Middle States, and do not have the opportunity to go through the self-study, will benefit from that,” said Mr. Blum, a retired high school principal from Great Neck, Long Island.

But he noted that the review will focus more sharply than the accreditation agency does on teaching and learning.

“We will not in any way use a device similar to Middle States and go into a check list of thousands of items,” Mr. Blum said. “A lot of that is meaningless.”

“We’re trying to devise just a few questions,” he said, “and permit schools to [answer them] in a meaningful way.”

Such a review would shed light on issues that tests and other information sources often miss, added Carl P. Mangee, the superintendent of the Tonawanda school district outside of Buffalo.

“I don’t know what instruction is,” he said. “I don’t have the information. We make assumptions about it.”
“If we are able to get non-evaluative information--strictly observational information--about what is taking place in classrooms,” Mr. Mangee said, “we will be able to address the needs of children and further the training of teachers.”

‘Seeing the Water’

In addition to the self-review, the New York plan calls for periodic inspections by an outside team of teachers, principals, parents, and members of the community. Under the plan, the team will observe schools closely for one week every five years.

Such visits can provide a perspective on school practices that those inside the school may lack, Ms. Darling-Hammond said.

“When you’re a fish in the ocean, you can’t see the water around you,” she said. “You need another perspective that allows you to see things in an external light.”

The outside observers can also show a school’s faculty aspects of its educational program, such as the way students perceive the system, that they are unable to see on their own, noted Fred Hemmer, a biology teacher at Tonawanda High School.

“They will be able to see that a student might be having different types of experiences during the course of a day,” he said. “Teachers don’t always recognize those types of things. We’re sensitive to what we do in class; we’re not cognizant of what other teachers are doing.”

To gain such perspectives, the team members will spend most of their time in classrooms, rather than reading documents about the school’s program, Mr. Green said.

The direct observations will ensure that they see an accurate picture of the school, not the “best face” teachers might put on for a reviewer, Ms. Darling-Hammond said.

“If what a teacher knows how to do is give students worksheets every day to keep them quiet, she might do that with the biggest smile on her face, but the teaching practice isn’t going to change,” she said. “It’s impossible for the wool to be completely pulled over their eyes.”

Teachers may also be put at ease by the fact that the outsiders’ visits are not aimed at evaluating schools or teachers for accountability purposes, Mr. Green suggested.

“This is not about teachers, it’s about teaching,” he said.

Nevertheless, Mr. Mangee said, those involved in the pilot project must establish among teachers a “level of comfort” to ensure that they are not threatened by the process.

“Training is so important,” Mr. Blum added. “If the team goes in [with the understanding] that they are there for a helping partnership, I think it can work very well.”

“We’re there to help them achieve what they want to achieve,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the September 09, 1992 edition of Education Week as New York Embraces Old Idea From Britain To Evaluate Schools