Could American Students and Educators Benefit From the Kinds of School Inspections Common Across Europe?

The new Chief Inspector of Schools, Mike Tomlinson, at the offices of OFSTED (Office for Standard of Education) in London. (Photo by PA Images/Getty Images)

Crafting an accountability regime that is fair, accurate, and adequate to the task of assessing school quality isn’t easy. Could school inspections help? Many countries use them to gain a capacious understanding of school quality that goes beyond students’ test scores and includes each school’s leadership capacity, instructional strengths and weaknesses, historical performance, and student demographics. These programs share the following characteristics:

  • regular inspections for all schools, not merely those deemed at risk;
  • use of student academic data (whether school-based or national/provincial tests);
  • use of qualitative measures (such as interviews, surveys, and student absenteeism) to create performance indices; and
  • extensive training for inspectors.

England’s inspection regime is the most commonly studied; it has existed since the mid-19th century and is now known as the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (or Ofsted), a non-governmental body that reports directly to Parliament. There is a high standard for those who wish to join the inspectorate; the vetting and hiring process can take a year. Once appointed, the inspectors review copious school-level data before their site visits, which include classroom observations and interviews with principals and staff. Finally, inspectors produce public reports that grade each school on 27 measures that encompass nearly every area of a school’s atmosphere and culture, including pupil behavior, teacher efficacy, the curriculum, and the leadership’s capacity to drive improvement. Ofsted ranks schools on a spectrum from “outstanding” to “inadequate,” and monitors those in the last category frequently and in person.

While the external school-inspection model is widely used across OECD countries, its consequences vary. Some countries — Austria, Iceland, and Denmark, for instance — place no sanctions upon low-performing schools, nor are reports made public. By contrast, New Zealand, the Netherlands, and England make reports public and withdraw funding or close schools that fail to reach targets in a timely fashion.

Do these inspections improve school quality and student performance?

Evaluating a universal policy is notoriously difficult, since there are no obvious control groups. Research studies into the direct effects of inspection upon test scores are few, ambiguous, and highly contingent, influenced by the type of school and when the tests were taken — whether the same year as the inspection or the following year — see here, here, and here. The bottom line is that evidence of a direct effect on academic performance is elusive, as the OECD’s review of school inspections in member countries concludes.

However, multi-country studies of the indirect effect of inspections suggest a positive effect: Here the mechanism seems to rest upon clear messaging about high standards. As one report put it,

Inspection [in the Netherlands and the U.K.] does result in significant impact on schools where clear expectations, norms, and standards are set and where stakeholders are knowledgeable about and engaged with the process. School improvement through school inspections seems to take place through indirect developmental processes rather than through more direct coercive methods.

This finding comports with Hanushek and Raymond’s conclusion that it is often the informational, rather than punitive, aspects of accountability that drive changes in school quality and student success.

What about inspections in the United States? Our closest analog to Ofsted is the reauthorization process for charter schools in several states. For example, charter schools authorized by New York State’s Board of Regents are subject to site visits for reauthorization based on protocols that mirror Ofsted’s. New York State also undertakes on-site reviews of schools in “focus districts” that include clusters of underperforming schools. Non-charter inspections are also in place elsewhere, often exclusively for low-performing or Title I schools (examples here and here). Vermont is currently piloting a school-inspection program with the intention of scaling up across all schools.

There are thus several potential uses of school inspections. Their educational, political, and cultural appeal is obvious: Inspections provide a well-rounded view of school quality — something that education leaders from across the spectrum can support; they offer vital information for parents in an increasingly high-choice environment; and, if universal, they can elevate the general expectations we hold for schools.

Policymakers should keep several operational challenges in mind as they consider inspection regimes. The first is the possibility of excessive bureaucratic burden. RAND’s 2011 report on expanded measures for school success notes the “burdens that additional measurement [could] impose on educators’ and students’ time” and gives examples of school-quality reviews that were discontinued for this reason. Indeed, Ofsted came under heavy criticism from school leaders for the time involved in generating reports and preparing for visits, which led the agency to reduce the reporting requirements upon schools in 2016.

Cost is another issue. Estimates for English-style inspections in the United States have ranged from $645 million to $2.5 billion annually. It is not clear how to cost out a program in advance so as to ensure its sustainability.

Third, a well-run inspectorate requires high-quality expertise — and lots of it. States that have made substantial headway in training teacher leaders (such as Louisiana) have a natural advantage, as do school systems that work with high-octane programs such as Leading Educators.

A final tension involves cultural attitudes about how to weigh judgment versus compliance. The English inspectorate places a high premium on human judgment — a point to which Craig Jerald returns again and again in his 2012 description of the English system. School systems in the United States often favor bureaucratic processes that remove human judgment as much as possible in favor of rubrics aimed at uniform decisions. Embracing (well-trained) judgment across our school systems would be a boon to teachers and students alike, but getting there — particularly when implementing systemic programs such as school inspections — would require sustained leadership and patience.

Ashley Berner is the deputy director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy. A longer version of this piece may be found on the Institute’s website. Palgrave MacMillan released her book, Pluralism and American Public Education: No One Way to School, this year.

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