Halfway through a get-acquainted dinner at a midtown Manhattan hotel in late February, the principal arrives. She apologizes. Construction, she explains, heavy traffic. But when she gets up to speak, it is clear that being late has upset her. From her meticulous dress to her carefully chosen words, this is a woman who likes to remain in control of events.
Although it's nearly 9 P.M., she spends the next 2-1/2 hours taping charts to the wall of the hotel dining room that explain what her school is all about. Over the next five days, the state's "school quality review'' team, of which I am a part, will camp out in her school. We will visit classes; interview students, parents, faculty members, and community representatives; and attend schoolwide meetings and activities in an effort to understand the school's mission and how it is being met.
Our goal is to act as "critical friends,'' holding up a mirror to the school that will reflect the quality of teaching and learning in the building. In the end, we will produce an oral and written report that the school can use as it sees fit. The report will remain confidential. But the expectation is that it will encourage a culture of self-examination in the school that will continue long after we depart.
After years of exhorting, regulating, and monitoring public schools, New York State officials have concluded that neither threats nor cajolery leads to the development of good practice. So they're trying a different approach: What happens if schools are encouraged to engage in a process of self-reflection and continuous improvement, with the support of outside observers? The review is strictly for school improvement and plays no role in the accreditation process.
Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor of education at Teachers College, Columbia University, has described this model of school reform as "one in which policymakers shift their efforts from designing controls intended to direct the system to developing the capacity of schools and teachers to be responsible for student learning.''
I'm here both as a reviewer and reporter, after agreeing that the school, which includes grades K to 6, will remain anonymous.
Earlier in the day, the review team met for the first time. There are 13 of us. By design, the majority are current or former classroom teachers. In this instance, the majority are also people of color. The school we will visit is located in one of the poorest neighborhoods in New York City, and almost all of its students and faculty members are black.
We spend most of the afternoon going over the values and assumptions that undergird the review. These are based on the state's goals for students, as described in the "New Compact for Learning,'' New York's education-reform plan. The school has also sent us some written materials, ranging from a handbook for teachers to a list of its goals and objectives. The documents give us some sense of how the school sees itself and will help frame the review.
Three key members of our team have already been to the school twice to meet with the principal and pave the way for our visit. Jackie Ancess, the senior reviewer, is responsible for the overall conduct of the review. She's a short, whirling dervish, with curly, auburn hair; big, dangling earrings; and a joking, self-deprecating manner. She's spent more than 20 years in the New York City school system, first as a teacher and then as the founder of an alternative public school in East Harlem.
"This process fascinates me,'' says Ancess, now a senior research associate at the National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools, and Teaching at Teachers College. "It's a way of falling in love with teaching and learning and schools all over again.''
The roots of the School Quality Review Initiative date back to 1987, when 10 cities in England and the United States agreed to an exchange program that would allow educators to explore common issues. In 1990, Commissioner of Education Thomas Sobol of New York State was part of a group that traveled to Britain. Sobol was particularly struck by the English experience with school inspection, which dates back more than 150 years.
Under the British system, until recently, full-time inspectors engaged in the evaluation of schools throughout England. Often described as a "faithful witness,'' they spent the majority of their time in schools, observing teaching and learning. Their visits lasted from a day to an entire week.
The result was typically a written record that was available to whomever requested it. Inspectors did not work from a template or check list. Instead, they asked for a school's aims and objectives, inspected its work in light of those goals, and then developed a perspective on the quality of what they saw. Schools were expected to take the reports seriously and to act on their perspectives. The 1992 Education Act, which incorporated a number of school-reform efforts, modified the inspectorate's functions to place more emphasis on inspection as an accountability measure, rather than as a developmental approach to school reform.
Sobol liked what he saw in England. When he drafted the "New Compact for Learning,'' he proposed that New York create a school-improvement process based in part on the British experience. David Green, a member of Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Schools, arrived to help develop the initiative. An expressive speaker with a twinkle in his eye, Green insists that he is not a "transplant specialist. What New York State is doing is taking the experience of inspection, not the English model.''
In July 1992, more than 100 teachers, administrators, parents, business leaders, and school board members gathered in Albany to design the program from the ground up, along with members of Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Schools.
Schools volunteer for the program. They spend one year undergoing an external review by a school-quality-review team and four years in a self-review process. Then the five-year cycle begins anew. Schools can join the process anywhere in the five-year cycle.
As my team will soon discover, the procedure is as much a learning experience for the reviewers as for the schools. But tonight, when the dinner breaks up shortly after 11, people look dazed. We are already exhausted, and we have yet to see the school.
Early this morning, we load into a van outside the hotel and head for the school. As we travel away from midtown Manhattan, the skyscrapers give way to low, two- and three-story buildings, many of them shuttered. Whole sites are overtaken by rubble and broken glass. The school, a large brick building with blue doors, sits across from a housing project that is home to most of its students. Later, the principal will tell me: "They're in a war zone. They go to sleep by gunshots and sirens. This is the reality of where they are.''
Inside is a sanctuary. The floors are spotless. Most of the 725 children are in uniform. Kente-cloth designs and the African national "colors of liberation'' adorn classrooms and offices. There's a photo of Nelson Mandela in the main office, and the stairwells are hung with the inspirational sayings of famous African-Americans.
Stopping in the bathroom, I temporarily get separated from my group. In an effort to catch up, I stumble into the parent-resource room. At 7:30, it's already crowded with parents, who are chatting over cups of coffee. The school is a community hub, through which families can obtain counseling, continuing education, food and clothing, and access to social services. Eventually, a student is found to escort me to the library, which will be our operational headquarters for the week.
It's a large room with few books, most of them outdated. Against the windows, our team leaders have placed nine huge charts that resemble the strategic plans of some Fortune 500 company. There are teachers' schedules; a chart to keep track of the subjects and grades visited; and a master schedule for recording interviews, group meetings, and activities reviewed. Next to the charts sits a small table, on which the teachers have thoughtfully left muffins, juice, and instant coffee.
We are supposed to be here as peers and colleagues--hence, the importance of having teachers on the team. But when the faculty members begin trickling in to meet us, half an hour later, we face off across the room like girls and boys at their first dance, a six-foot divide between us. Later, one of the teachers will admit, "I don't think that I had a good concept of what this was about. You get a little nervous.''
Jackie Ancess explains that we will be looking for patterns of teaching and learning in the building. We are not here to evaluate individual teachers. And we will not answer questions about a teacher's performance, if asked. Any teacher has the right to refuse us entry into her classroom (although, as the week goes by, no one does).
Today, like most of the days to come, we will spend the bulk of our time in classes, observing instruction. We've been told to record what we see and hear--not to make judgments. An observation protocol reminds us of what to look for: an environment supportive of students' learning, with learning resources available and accessible; a range of teaching modes; a variety of learning opportunities and an allowance for students' creativity; and the extent of children's participation, among other things.
Many forms of monitoring schools rely heavily on data and written documentation. In contrast, the School Quality Review Initiative focuses on firsthand experience and observation. "The evidence will amass and amass, and it will topple us into our conclusions,'' Ancess reassures us. "So you have to resist the inclination to categorize. You have to resist the urge to make judgments.''
As a journalist, I'm on relatively familiar terrain. I've spent hundreds of hours crouched on pintsize chairs in the back of classrooms. But for some of the reviewers, the first day is the most difficult.
Deborah Harris, a guidance counselor at University Heights High School in the Bronx, worries: "When I'm observing in classes, I'm really not sure what to look for. Some people are taking copious notes. I'm pretty much writing down what strikes me. Caught in the moment, I'm not really sure what I'm seeing.''
Still others are grappling with what David Green calls "the infuriating success of the wrong methods.'' Doris Bedell, the assistant director of elementary education for the Albany city schools, confesses, "Observing a way of doing schooling that is opposite to my philosophy--and coming to grips with its working--and being able to step outside of all the things that I think should happen and say what's really happening is tough.''
I spend the first part of my day in a 4th-grade class, where the teacher is finishing up a unit on colonial New York. She asks students to list objects they might find during that era to prepare for writing a story. They then share their list with a neighbor.
"What do you think life may have been like then?'' she prompts. "What about some of the jobs that people may have had?'' After a brief conversation, she reads them an essay about some of those jobs. Then, they begin jotting down notes for their stories. It's a tightly organized, fast-paced lesson. And, at the end, she calls students' attention to the goals and objectives on the board. "What did we do today in social studies?'' she queries. "Why are we doing this? What's the purpose?''
I also spend time in a 2nd-grade mathematics class, where the teacher is doing a unit on measurement. She tells her students she is going shopping to buy them gold bracelets. But first, they have to provide her with their wrist measurements. The students work in teams, measuring with strips of construction paper; then, in groups of four, they construct a graph that compares the circumferences of their wrists. The room is noisy and filled with energy.
Toward the end of the day, another member of the review team and I interview the assistant principal to gain a broader perspective on the school and its history. The administrator has spent more than 20 years in the building observing its ups and downs. "This school was ideal'' when she first arrived, she recalls. "People envied it. We had really seasoned staff. You heard people couldn't get good teachers, and you'd say, 'Ha, ha, ha.'''
But during the past five years, the school has been hit by a wave of retirements. Today, many of its teachers are new and inexperienced. Some of them lack teaching credentials. Others don't stay for long. Two classrooms have each had four teachers come and go since September. She's worried about what happens to students while new teachers are learning their craft.
Even so, she tells us, there is a profound dedication and sense of commitment among the staff. Everyone tries hard. It's a family. It's a model school, an inner-city school, and it wants to do better. Like the principal, she never goes home before 5 P.M. and often works weekends. "We're so busy,'' she sighs, "that we don't really know if we're doing what we say we're doing.'' That's one of the reasons they looked forward to this review.
At 4:30, back in our conference room at the hotel, the review team begins what will become a daily routine: a group "debriefing'' on everything that we have seen and heard so far. This is the primary vehicle for reaching the collective perspective that will characterize the final report, which will include no dissenting opinions or minority views.
Norm Fruchter, the program adviser for education at the Aaron Diamond Foundation, and Carole Lippold, the parent-involvement coordinator for the Bronx high schools, are the two partnership reviewers on the team. Their primary responsibility is to look at the school's relationship with the broader community. Both cite numerous examples of parent involvement. But they have yet to find evidence of parent-initiated activities, as opposed to those created by the principal. They agree to check this out.
As a group, we have seen some well-executed examples of cooperative learning and of students engaged in lively discussions. But we have also seen lots of teacher talk. This observation raises a further avenue for exploration. In the coming days, we will try to record students' responses to various forms of instruction.
After dinner, we review a sample of students' work. As part of the review, each school is asked to select some representative products from a cross section of its students. Ancess has warned us that schools do not really understand how to do this well. Most schools are not familiar with keeping portfolios of student work over time. And they seldom use such portfolios to reflect on teaching and learning.
This school has selected an assignment from one class at each grade level. All of the work centers on the theme, "What is beauty?'' It's primarily a combination of drawings and short, descriptive essays, with little variety. But because the context for producing the work is so unclear, it's hard for us to draw any conclusions. "In the past, this has not been the most productive exercise,'' Ancess sighs.
Tonight, the meeting breaks up around 10. I go to my room, write a few observations for my article, and stumble into bed, dead tired.
Today we're in for a treat: Each of us gets to shadow a student for the entire day. It will give us a perspective on what teaching and learning look like from a child's viewpoint. It also provides a better sense of a school's rhythms, to stay with one child all day, instead of dropping in and out of classes.
Before we meet our students, we file into the back of the school's auditorium for morning assembly. The auditorium, like everything else in the school, is old. Old wooden seats, a green linoleum floor, green walls. A small, portable blackboard sits forlornly on stage. Taped along one wall are signs reading, "patience,'' "trust,'' "respect,'' "determination,'' "friendship.''
Once again, I am struck by the importance of this school's culture, an aspect of schools that is virtually ignored in most evaluations of their performance.
The principal designed the morning assembly to provide teachers with a common planning time and a chance to meet with parents. Typically, the principal handles the schoolwide assembly with the help of the assistant principal. The meeting also provides a safety net for children who arrive at school late or upset. They can slip into the auditorium anytime before 9:30 and still not miss a lesson. In many ways, we all agree, it's an ingenious idea. It also gives the school a real sense of community.
The gathering has all the feel of a Sunday church service. The students sing spirituals and civil-rights songs, the national anthem, and "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing,'' sometimes called the "black national anthem.'' They also recite a daily affirmation: "There is a voice inside me, greater than me, and I listen to its silent words.'' On another day, the whole auditorium chants: "I am ready to respect myself. I am ready to respect others. I am ready to learn. I am ready to have a good day.''
Afterward, we meet the students, who, it quickly becomes apparent, have no idea why they've been singled out. Several of them look petrified, as if they've been called up for an infraction. When they discover they're supposed to be our hosts for the day, they look visibly relieved. My student remains shy and withdrawn. But by the end of the afternoon, a few students are joking and calling reviewers by their first names.
Following my student around, I stumble across an unusual professional-development activity at the school. The 4th-grade teacher whose class I'm visiting has prepared a lesson that integrates science and social-studies instruction and focuses on questioning strategies. Her colleagues in grade 4, the principal, and the assistant principal come to observe her teaching. Later in the day, they meet to discuss what they saw. I'm invited to sit in.
They ask the teacher to reconstruct the lesson and her goals for the students. The principal asks her to talk about the children's responses to her questions. Is there anything that she would have done differently? One of the teachers praises something she liked.
Like most inner-city schools, this one has few resources for professional development, but it makes use of the tools at hand. Every third Saturday, the teachers meet for staff training from 9 A.M. to noon. It's not required, but most attend. There's also some training available through the district. But the school's primary resource is its principal, who views herself as an instructional leader and model. She's begun this peer-observation among teachers as a way for them to share strategies and problems. During the debriefing that night, we agree that it's a promising practice that we will want to highlight.
Slowly, through the debriefings, we're starting to identify themes that will appear in the oral report. The culture of the school, we all concur, is deeply rooted in African-American traditions and in the surrounding community.
There's an ethnic-studies room, with a display of student-made African masks. A "brotherhood'' group for the boys is led by a black male teacher. There's also a "sisterhood'' group for the girls. Students' experiences in the community are sometimes woven into lessons. "On every day in every way,'' we will later write, "you tell your children they can and they will. You tell them they can grow up to be successful because that is what you want them to be. ... Yours is a powerful community.''
But we also observe some practices that raise deeper questions for the school. One of its stated goals is to respond to the diverse needs of learners. "If children do not learn the way we teach them,'' a sign reads, "then we must teach them the way they will learn.''
Teachers willingly give of their time after school to tutor students and meet with families. Yet, in many of the classes, we see the kind of teacher-driven instruction known as "chalk and talk.'' All of the students are expected to do the same thing at the same time. And when they can't--or won't--some of them act out, causing discipline problems that consume teachers' attention. Yet, teachers don't seem to be making the connection between the problems they're having managing the classroom and this dominant teaching strategy.
We all agree to look for more evidence of the variety of instructional materials in the classroom and how they are used--things like math manipulatives and hands-on science materials. Again, we promise to note students' reactions.
Tonight, most of the team goes out for dinner at a small Greek restaurant. It is the one break we will get all week.
The high point of the fourth day for me is an interview with the principal for the article that I'm writing. She has grown up in this community and has taught here her whole career. Why, I want to know, did she let all of these strangers into her building? What does she hope to learn from it?
"I wanted to have the school-quality review so that I could obtain impartial information, objective information, that would help me plan a program of school improvement,'' she says. "I have many visitors that come in and are here an hour to get a picture of the school. Now, you can't really make recommendations coming in and out. You get something very cursory, very superficial. But the fact that they stay a week and they bring a team--not one or two people--and they deal with every facet of school life impressed me.''
But what does she hope to get out of it personally, I press? She pauses. "I think it will reinforce, maybe, some of the things that I've been doing--validate some of the approaches that I've been using--and really give me the direction that I need for my own professional development.''
"You know,'' she reflects, "you like to know that you're on the right road. But, then again, there's a fork in the road. Which way should I go? What should I concentrate on? Being a principal, you're pulled in a million different directions. But you must prioritize what you're going to do. And it would help me do that.''
For her, the success of the review will be measured by whether she gains any new insights into managing the instructional process. "If I just hear what I already know, and what I'm already working on--no new perspectives, no new slants--then it will have been nice,'' she says, "but it will not have been productive.''
I don't know if we'll meet her expectations. She's a formidable woman who constantly pushes herself and her staff. She knows the name of every child in the building and every child's mother. She regularly buys school supplies and professional-development materials with her own money. "I feel I'm on a mission,'' she tells me earnestly. "I know that if I keep directed, with my eyes on the prize, that I can make the changes that are necessary.''
Back at the hotel, the atmosphere has changed. For the first time, members of the team laugh and joke freely. We are compatriots now. We work over take-out dinners. Tonight, in a more purposeful way, we begin to flesh out the framework for the oral report that we will present on Friday.
We give examples from our notes of the variety and lengths of student assignments and the ways in which students are asked to demonstrate their knowledge. Everyone has noticed that homework is central to this school, and that most children complete their assignments. We wonder how to build on this in the final report.
We've also noticed that teachers ask students a lot of questions, but mostly in search of the "right'' answer. We have seen few instances in which students were asked to explain their responses or to give an alternative solution. In some cases--like math--reviewers also have observed a lack of content knowledge on the part of some teachers.
Another troubling pattern is that most of the lessons, as team member Delrosa Marshall puts it, are "short, short, short. The teachers seem to be almost a prisoner of time.'' How do we deal with this? Marshall, the science coordinator for District 30 in Queens, N.Y., and a woman with an innate need for order, tries to keep a list of whose turn it is to speak. But sometimes we jump in at once. People are looking very tired. Virginia Hammer, who works in the state education department's curriculum bureau, stands up to keep awake. Finally, about 11, we break to get some sleep. Tomorrow, we will start writing.
When we wake up, it's snowing. Large, wet flakes. Students filter in late to morning assembly. The principal spends part of the time discussing a fight between two children, asking them to think of alternatives. Despite the weather, more than 60 parents show up for a 2-hour orientation to the standardized tests their children will take this spring. This is an annual test-taking workshop, one of many parent meetings during the year.
Today, the parents visit classrooms to observe lessons geared toward the exams. Then, they regroup in the cafeteria, where the principal walks them through sample test items. Talking about the morning, she prompts, "Did you see something that you could take home and use with your child? That's important.''
She also says a few words about Saturday school, which will begin soon and run for eight weeks. It will focus on test-taking skills for children who need extra help. Afterward, the parents are encouraged to visit the school's first science fair, located down the hall.
What strikes me is the difference between what parents typically learn about schools from test scores and what they could learn from something like the School Quality Review Initiative. As Carole Lippold, a reviewer who has been a parent-activist for years, complains: "The information parents usually get about their schools is no information; it's just word of mouth. If you're an educated parent, you can push for the school profile, but then you have to read it and understand it.''
Parents and other community representatives are interviewed as part of the school-quality review, so it's assumed they'll learn about the results. But Lippold feels strongly that schools should be required, rather than encouraged, to share the final report with parents. "They'll have more ownership knowing exactly what the strengths and weaknesses of their school are,'' she argues. "There won't be any secrets.''
During our review, we have paid very little attention to standardized-test scores--or to attendance rates, graduation rates, or other data that are the core of traditional accreditation reports. I leave the school early in the afternoon for an interview back at the hotel with David Green, where I ask him about the use of data in the review process.
Green acknowledges that they're working on it. In Britain, direct observations are supplemented by a review of the actual work of students at all ability levels. A range of performance measures, such as test scores and attendance and completion rates, are used to complement classroom visits. But New York State, he argues, "produces more data on its schools, I suspect, than almost any other. And almost all of it is unintelligible. Much of it is of dubious accuracy.'' The state education department is trying to codify which information about a school is most useful and how best to analyze and present it. "We couldn't do everything at once,'' he explains.
We also talk about plans for expanding the School Quality Review Initiative, which is very labor-intensive. Only seven schools participated in the pilot project last year. This year, in phase two of its design and development, about 20 schools will participate. Another 35 or so are working on self-reviews.
Out of the nearly 4,000 schools statewide, Green says, "our intention, during this phase, is to work with somewhere in the region of 250 schools.''
He estimates that once the project is beyond the design-and-development phase, it will cost between $7,500 and $8,500 per school for a review. During the four years of self-review, the state might make available up to $2,500 a year in support. That adds up to about $17,500 per school over a five-year period, or about $3,500 a year. Multiply that by 4,000 schools, and you get about $14 million, which Green argues is not outrageous in an annual state education budget of nearly $22 billion.
Nonetheless, I know that some observers are skeptical. My team also worries about how to maintain the quality of reviews once they become more numerous.
Green also compares the cost of the reviews to existing professional-development activities, most of which bear no relation to school improvement. Based on evidence from Britain, he asserts that the quality reviews are a particularly effective form of staff development. They help educators devise a common language for talking about schools, and they get teachers out into each other's classrooms so they can better reflect on their own practice.
Still, I wonder about the logistics of it all: Thousands of reviewers, taking time away from their classrooms, crisscrossing the state to engage in this process. "You have to remember that I am really a simple Englishman,'' says Green, who is anything but. "My colleagues are having to manage 6,750 inspections a year, and 27,000 schools over a four-year period.''
"This state,'' he continues, "has fewer than 4,000 public schools. So you're talking about an infinitely smaller exercise than my colleagues in England are having to address: roughly, 800 schools a year. The state is divided up into 24 regional field-service teams. Simple mathematics tells me, on average, that will be 35 reviews that each of those teams would need to coordinate each year, in order to see that school-quality-review part of the initiative managed properly. That's roughly one review a week for each regional field-service team. I don't think that's a very difficult thing to do, provided that you get the infrastructure right.''
By the time the interview is finished, the rest of the review team is straggling back into the conference room to begin writing. On Friday, we will present our oral report--first, to the school's planning team; then, to the entire faculty. Anything that we want to discuss in the written report, which will be completed several months down the road, must be mentioned in this oral presentation.
We have been repeatedly warned that we are to use "measured language,'' although what this means isn't entirely clear. Several reviewers worry aloud that if we are too circumspect, some of our message will get lost. Joan Jarvis, a senior reviewer who comes to the interview with Green, says, "I think measured language for us, as reviewers, really comes out to mean being respectful in the way you criticize someone. ... It's all in tone and attitude.''
The idea behind school-quality review, she says, "is to develop a culture where people are so professional that they can be critical, not only of what they are doing but also of what their colleagues are doing. So you have built into your system that sense that we can put it all out on the table.''
Later, Ancess will argue, "This is a strengths model. The idea is to help the school move closer to achieving its goals by developing its base of expertise and achievement. So what we do is point to what's working in the school, so that people feel that the answers reside within. And they go outside for improvement, they go outside for expertise, only after they've searched in themselves and discovered that it's not there.''
Throughout the week, we have been asked to note evidence of best practice. These observations form the core of the oral report, which is divided into three sections: the school's roots in the African-American tradition and in the community, so that students develop a positive identity and self-esteem; its sense of family, so that children are nurtured socially and emotionally; and its academic and intellectual foundations.
There are no recommendations. Instead, every section ends with a series of questions. For example, "How can the school enhance the opportunities for students to demonstrate leadership skills in the classroom?'' "How can teachers further develop their questioning strategies to encourage independent thinking by students?'' And "How can teachers develop assessments that will give them rich and comprehensive information about the progress of their students?''
"The people who know the school best are the people in the school,'' Ancess says. "What we can provide are questions to think about and directions, not answers.''
To write the oral report, we divide into groups. Then, we come back together to read and refine. It takes some of us until 2 A.M. to come up with anything that satisfies us. The result is only a dozen, loosely spaced pages.
Over the week, we have observed 44 staff members teaching 128 lessons. We have conducted 26 interviews and attended 17 meetings and schoolwide activities. It is a remarkably rich, 360-degree view of a school and one hard to capture on paper.
Early this morning, we reconvene in the conference room to polish our final draft. There's a temporary panic. One of the sections has been lost in the circuitry of a laptop computer. The conference table is littered with coffee cups, candy wrappers, and papers. The walls are plastered with newsprint that we've used to keep track of our thoughts and observations. A few people, huddled in a corner, finally rescue the missing pages from the machine.
"It's interesting,'' says Virginia Hammer, after we finish rehearsing the report out loud. "It sounds like one voice, doesn't it?'' The collective perspective has been achieved.
Midmorning, we travel to the school one last time. First, we will present the report over lunch to a subset of the school's teachers and administrators, who are part of a schoolwide planning team. Later, we will face the entire faculty. Members of the state education department within the region are also present, as is the community school district's superintendent. In the report, we have decided to support the school's wish to expand through grade 8. Many of the school's children flounder in middle school, after experiencing such a warm, supportive environment. We also support its desire to create a residential program, attached to the school, for children who do not have a family of their own. This is the closest we come to making recommendations. And, to our surprise, the superintendent makes an oral commitment to support both goals.
"I am so proud of all of you,'' she says to her colleagues, after hearing the presentation. "You are a wonderful, wonderful school.'' To those of us on the review team, she notes, "You've raised some issues that have been concerns that other people have talked about over time.''
Even so, the vice principal is dubious. "In this report, the flavor was very positive,'' she says. "And I'd like to know, are you setting us up?'' Will the final, written report be much more negative in tone? "We know that we have room for improvement in some other areas that you didn't cover,'' she argues. "Why did you decide not to include the kinds of things you saw that we need to take a look at?''
Ancess assures her that there will be no surprises. In a week, she stresses, we can't see everything, "and we'll never get to know your school the way you know your school.'' But we have tried to set priorities, based on the goals and focus areas that the school first presented to us.
"Your visit will not be in vain,'' the principal reassures us. "Believe me, it will be worth it. I will look closely at the questions that have been raised.'' She also warns the team, "I don't expect this to be goodbye.'' Before we leave, she has pulled Ancess aside to ask her what she can do, starting on Monday, to help focus on professional development.
Because the school has engaged in a school-quality review, it will have more access to the professional training available through the state. Commissioner of Education Sobol has requested $30 million in new monies for professional development this year, although he is unlikely to get all of it. Members of the school community will also be invited to participate in a five-week training session over the summer on the state's new curriculum frameworks and assessments.
In addition, Sobol has pledged to make at least some resources available to schools to respond to the review teams' perspectives. Even so, it is clear that for such reviews to have a maximum impact, there is a crying need for capacity-building at both the school and teacher levels. Before we leave, at least 10 teachers sign up to be trained as reviewers.
For this school, it's too early to tell how useful the review has been. So I call up someone who's been through the experience before. Susan Kahl is the principal of the South Ocean Middle School in Patchogue, N.Y., which completed a review last year. She says the oral report had an "immediate impact.'' Because of the clout of the external review team, the school district found additional monies for professional training. "It also gave us a focus to put together a school-development plan,'' Kahl says, that includes five major aims for the school, with specific actions to be taken by each department over the next year.
"I don't think they told us anything that was brand new,'' she reflects. "But it brought to light what someone, as an objective observer, saw as needing to be addressed. For example, I knew very well that children would learn a lot better if there was connected instruction and interdisciplinary learning.'' But, having the review team point out that it was working well in the 6th grade and could be expanded to the upper grades helped. "And the nicest thing,'' Kahl says, "was no one was criticizing. They were saying, 'This is what you are doing. Is this what you want?' It was great. I feel like a disciple.''
For educators, what the school-quality review offers is a different understanding of school change and that dreaded word "accountability.''
"The understanding of change that underpins this initiative,'' Green notes, "is very different from the understanding of change that underpins some of the other initiatives you have, both in this state and elsewhere, for low-achieving schools. Many of those initiatives work with a very linear understanding of change. They say, 'You clarify your mission. You establish your goals. You develop a strategic plan. You implement it. And you evaluate it.' To be honest, none of the reading I do about change, especially in the corporate community, sustains that linear model.''
From what I've seen, the school-quality review is the antithesis of a check-list mentality to whipping schools into shape. During the entire week, I never saw anyone ask a question about how the school was implementing this or that rule or regulation. Instead, the focus was unremittingly--and refreshingly--on students and their learning. It was also a powerful educational experience for members of the team, several of whom aspire to become principals and instructional leaders.
Commissioner Sobol hopes the reviews will lead to the development of standards of practice in schools that could eventually form part of a broader accountability system.
New York State will continue to have student assessments across the grades, he says. It will continue to report on results. And when there are unacceptable results, the state will step in and provide some kind of remedy.
But, he adds, "I think a lot of our traditional check-list monitoring will fall by the wayside as we do this. And what we will do, instead, is that kind of monitoring by exception--where there is a problem, where we have reason to believe there may be a problem.''
"There's an analogy to the way the good teacher teaches a class,'' Sobol muses. "The good teacher does not organize and conduct the class so as best to prevent misbehavior by the few--with a lot of strict, confining rules and an air of intimidation. The good teacher creates a climate in which young people can discover their talents and discipline them and express them. And then deals with problems by exception.''
"That's the kind of accountability system that we think is
appropriate for the vast, vast preponderance of schools in the state,''
he continues. "It doesn't presume that someone in central authority
knows exactly how things should be done and the rest of you have to
shape up and do it that way. What it does is engage people at a
professional and human level that attempts to bring out the best in
them. When you have that kind of attitude and activity going on in a
school, you're likely to get good practice.''