Opinion
Assessment Opinion

A Worthy Proposal for State Inspection Teams

By Diane Ravitch — June 30, 2009 2 min read

Dear Deborah,

The current effort to develop national standards in English and math is something to which we will surely pay close attention. I understand that you reject consequential curricular decisions made outside the school, but my view is that “it depends.” That’s my view of lots of things. Ideas that sound good in theory may turn out to be even better or worse in practice. If you live long enough, you become a devotee of “it depends.”

National standards, in my view, are a good idea, but it all depends on whether they are done well, whether they leave room for teachers to teach without dictating how to teach, whether they truly raise standards of practice across the nation, and whether they avoid narrowing the curriculum. In this country, with our strong tradition of federalism and localism, there are more ways to do national standards badly than to do them well.

The promise of national standards is equity and excellence. Equity because national standards should assure that students across the country, no matter where they live, will encounter the same expectations. Excellence because national standards should (hopefully) identify the learning goals that are common in high-performing nations.

I grant you that this is a tough order to fill. To make equity real, the resources available in poor communities must be sufficient (what used to be called “opportunity-to-learn” standards). One can’t expect kids in poor areas to learn more just because a document got published, nor can one expect kids to do better because officials set the bar higher. Indeed, if performance is already low, setting the bar higher will cause more students to fail.

And it seems paradoxical, if not impossible, to fulfill a mandate that serves both equity and excellence. Maybe this is a circle that can be squared by wordsmiths, but not by most teachers and schools.

So, I grant the good intentions of the groups that hope to create national standards. I know why they want to do it, and I wish them well. At the same time, I am cautious, perhaps even wary, because I see how many terrible state standards already exist and fear that the same dumbed-down, vague blather might be foisted upon the nation and called “standards.”

We will watch as this project develops. But in the meanwhile there was good news this past week. The group that we both support—the Broader, Bolder coalition—released its plan for accountability, after briefing U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan. This is indeed a valuable set of ideas that could easily be folded into the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act as NCLB rides off into the sunset.

I especially like the proposal for state-directed school inspection teams. People ask, “What could we rely on if we didn’t do all this testing?” Here is a good answer. Establish state inspection teams that regularly visit schools to survey the quality of teaching and learning. Use these inspections to identify schools in need of extra help, and then send in the extra help. A number of other nations use inspection teams, because seasoned educators can diagnose problems and come up with valuable assistance far better than a test alone.

What do you think?

Diane

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