Education Opinion

For NYC Schools, the Ultimate New Year’s Resolution

By Sam Chaltain — January 03, 2014 4 min read
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Judge if you must, but I like the fact that each start to a new year provides a chance to start thinking and acting in new ways. And although I’ve already made my own list of personal and professional resolutions (more exercise and Op-Eds, less take-out and ESPN.com), I have a big wish outside my control that I’d like incoming New York City mayor Bill de Blasio to seriously consider - and it’s a wish that, if fulfilled, might even change the face of modern school reform.

First, the context: de Blasio is beginning his tenure with a long list of issues and concerns to sort through - from successfully negotiating a new contract with the unions to peacefully resolving the thorny issue of charter/district school co-habitation. When it comes to actual teaching and learning, however, one issue looms larger than the rest: finding a better way to judge the effectiveness of students, teachers and schools.

De Blasio has already indicated his displeasure with the modern testing culture - but a mayor can’t do anything about existing state and federal mandates. He’s also said he’ll do away with the contentious A-F school rating system of his predecessor - but what the new mayor will put in its place is still, at this point, anybody’s guess.

If he’s willing to think boldly, de Blasio can kill two birds with one stone by setting up a citywide school inspection system - one in which the primary measure of accountability will no longer be letter grades or student test scores, but richly detailed reflections of a school’s overall culture, climate and outcomes. And it may surprise you, but there are already several illustrative examples for de Blasio’s team to pull from in creating their own.

In healthcare, for example, an organization called the Joint Commission has been accrediting and certifying health care organizations and programs throughout the United States since 1951. To receive the Commission’s highly sought after Gold Seal of Approval, organizations must be evaluated on site by a team of trained evaluators at least every three years - and they can’t become eligible for Medicare funding until they do (a nifty little policy lever).

This level of analysis and accountability makes perfect sense in a field where the sign of a job well done is dependent on such a complex interplay of qualitative and quantitative inputs and outcomes. And its existence underscores the ridiculousness of our current efforts to evaluate our public schools. (Imagine hospitals being held accountable solely by the death rate of their patients!)

There are useful examples in education as well. Back in 1996, the state of Rhode Island launched the School Accountability for Learning and Teaching (SALT) initiative, a rigorous school visit system that was supported by state and local schools for twelve years. And in other countries around the world, inspectorate systems already provide the primary measure of accountability. In England, for example, the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (OFSTED) provides an independent window into the health of the country’s schools - and reports directly to Parliament.

What, then, would an inspection system look like in New York City?

The mayor could set up an agency specifically tasked with evaluating all 1,700 schools in the city. A small number of regional directors - only the best and the brightest, please - would then be responsible for conducting all training and certification, and for ensuring consistent inter-evaluator reliability. But the best part would be to require that each school’s external evaluation team be staffed in part by educators from other city schools - the logic being that the experience of evaluating someone else’s school will have myriad benefits on each participant’s ability to help drive improvements at their own.

With such a system in place, Mayor de Blasio would cure the most enduring riddle of modern American school reform - how to measure success - and do so in a way that deeply affirmed core progressive values. All inspections would be mandatory, all reports would be publicly available, and any failure to be accredited would have direct accountability consequences. Best of all, this new system would demonstrate - both to the schools themselves and to the larger public - that the mark of a healthy school goes far beyond individual test scores, and requires a level of investment akin to the type being made in other fields. Surely, our public schools deserve that.

How, then, would the new mayor pay for such an ambitious plan?

Option one would be to reallocate some or all of the $100 million currently being spent on New York City’s support networks for the inspectorate. I know many school leaders are fond of these networks, and eager to see them remain. I also know that you’ve got to give something to get something, and I bet that if those leaders were assured that the change would result in more useful, holistic forms of improvement and accountability, they’d change their tune.

Then again, there’s also option two - appealing directly to the myriad deep-pocketed foundations whose primary goal is to improve American public education, and whose efforts have largely, to this point, been little more than buckshot. They can fund a five-year pilot phase, with the caveat that if it’s successful, their dollars will eventually need to be replaced by public funds.

Hey, it’s New York City. “If it can happen here . . .”

Bill Gates, are you listening?

Bill de Blasio, are you willing?

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The opinions expressed in Of, By, For: In Search of the Civic Mission of K-12 Schools are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.