School Inspections Offer a Diagnostic Look at Quality

Aiming to get beyond just spreadsheets and test scores, Vermont and other states experiment with inspections to scope out schools' strengths and weaknesses

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Educators have gotten used to poring over spreadsheets filled with test scores to get a sense of their students'—and schools'—strengths and weaknesses.

What they don't often see: feedback from other teachers, administrators, and students who can offer a fresh perspective on where a school stands when it comes to instruction, resources, climate, financial efficiency, and more.

A handful of states—including, recently, Vermont—have worked to change that, using a model borrowed from other countries and known in Great Britain as "school inspections," in which a team of experts or educators visits a school and offers objective feedback on teaching, learning, management and more.

Several states have experimented with the model for their lowest-performing schools, including Kentucky, Massachusetts, and New York, said Craig Jerald, the president of Break the Curve Consulting, who has studied the strategy.

Vermont, by contrast, plans to eventually conduct inspections, which it calls "integrated field reviews," in all its schools, whether low-performing or not. The state began piloting the program last school year in about 40 schools and is continuing to test it this year in about 50, with the ultimate goal of reviewing each school every three years.

Refining the Process

Vermont is still figuring out how the reviews could be used to support schools under the new Every Student Succeeds Act, said Josh Souliere, the state's assistant director of education quality reviews. The reviews aren't expected to be used for federal accountability, but they could be a component of state-level "technical assistance" for low-performing schools, he said.

But the true purpose of the reviews is to help educators and district leaders get a sense of how a range of factors—including curriculum coordination, instruction, personalized learning, and the social and emotional health of students—affect the overall success of a school and its "supervisory union" (Vermont's term for local education agencies).

"These reviews are intended to measure the things that we can't measure quantitatively, making sure students are experiencing an equitable education, both across the district and within a school," said Lori Dolezal, an education quality manager at the Vermont education department, who took part in some of the reviews conducted last school year. "It's not punitive, it's exploratory. It's OK to find problems of practice. That's the whole point."

Personalized Look

Under Vermont's pilot, a team of 15 to 20 reviewers—among them teachers, specialists, central-office staff, officials from the state education agency, and even students—visit a particular supervisory union. Then they break up into teams of about three or four people and head out to individual schools.

Those teams will spend about half a day at a school collecting "evidence." That can mean conducting interviews with teachers, students, and parents, and observing classes. Teams also consider supporting documents that get at how well the school is implementing the state's education quality standards, including local tests, curriculum materials, budgets, and policies and procedures. A second team will visit the school for the second half of the day and perform a similar review.

A school can rebut anything in the formal report that leaders think is unfair or inaccurate.

At least for now, it's up to local administrators and educators to decide what to do with the information.

School officials who took part in last year's process generally say the feedback was illuminating and felt supportive—even if the prospect of reviewers coming in and judging a school made some educators nervous at first.

"It felt very personalized," said Emilie Knisley, the superintendent of the 450-student Blue Mountain district in northeast Vermont. "It felt like you could take the recommendations and take action on them in a way that you can't when you're just getting a set of test scores."

Knisley also served as a reviewer herself, visiting schools in other parts of the state. That was eye-opening, too.

"It ended up resulting in a lot of people being able to share experiences across schools" and get ideas they could take back to their own systems, she said. "It's rare that you get to talk to people in other districts."

Already, in some cases, the reports have helped nudge school boards, which often oversee supervisory-union budgets, to provide funding for resources reviewers felt were lacking.

For instance, the team visiting Knisley's district noted that some students didn't have access to the same classroom technology as others in the same school. That gave local leaders ammunition to ask the school board for money to install new interactive white boards in elementary classrooms.

ESSA Connections

Experts see plenty of potential for the reviews in the ESSA era. The new law requires states to consider multiple measures of performance, not just test scores, in evaluating school performance.

"It's an elegant way to handle a lot of things that people now want out of an accountability system," including gauging school culture and support for teaching, said Jerald, who has examined school inspections in Great Britain and elsewhere, but not specifically Vermont's system.

And the reports are most valuable when reviewers are blunt and don't seek to spare a school leader's feelings, Jerald added. "Improvement begins with honesty," he said.

Inspections can "give you a real diagnosis of what's going on in a school" in a way that test scores alone can't, said Linda Darling-Hammond, the president of the Learning Policy Institute, a research organization in Palo Alto, Calif., and in Washington. But they are not enough on their own as a turnaround tool, she cautioned.

"For this to work, you need to have a good improvement strategy to follow up the review," she said.

Vol. 36, Issue 06, Page 31

Published in Print: September 28, 2016, as At Vt. Schools, a Look Under the Hood
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