Looking Inside the Black Box of Schools

April 12, 2012

Pick a school, any school in the country. How is it performing? We can look at things like graduation rates and state test scores, but it can still be maddeningly hard to tell. A small but growing—and ideologically diverse—number of experts has started calling for something that goes far beyond the numbers: regular inspections of schools. Would inspections shed more light into the black box?

Let’s look at some of the data we do have. Our ability to calculate 4-year grad rates has gotten much better, but some argue that 5- or even 6-year rates would tell a fuller story about schools that serve many recent immigrants, for example. As for state tests, our own research (and that of others) has revealed that many states set the bar too low for things like student proficiency rates to mean as much as they should. What’s more, the recent run of cheating scandals has made people suspicious of schools that boast big increases in scores.

There are other kinds of data that can help fill out the picture. For example, the time may come when we can see how well high schools prepare students for college by tracking how many of their graduates persist and earn degrees. If the new common tests that are emerging from the Common Core State Standards fulfill their promise to be much better than the current crop of state tests, we might be able to put more stock in test scores. (See the Data Quality Campaign for other data innovations that might be in our future.)

Yet the idea of inspections has been gaining some traction recently. A couple of years ago, a group calling for a “Broader, Bolder Approach” to schooling proposed regular inspections. Just a few months ago, the influential DC think tank Education Sector echoed the idea in a paper that got broad attention. Just yesterday, education reformer Mike Petrilli made his case for inspections in similar terms. The "Broader, Bolder" group, Ed Sector, and Petrilli's Fordham Foundation are hardly peas in a pod. The fact that all three landed on inspections might point to the idea's broadening appeal.

Now don't expect your local inspectorate to come knocking any time soon. Even the idea's supporters acknowledge that it could be awfully expensive at a time when schools have been slashing budgets. Then there's the question of who will inspect the inspectors to ensure that they have the background and skills they need and are doing a good job? And skeptics like Robert Pondiscio of the Core Knowledge Foundation worry that schools would simply apply some spit and polish, sweep dust bunnies under rugs, and put on a good show for the inspectors.

Still, the desire to know more than we do about schools can be a very good thing--especially if what we learn helps schools improve the work they do. New data are coming on line, and so are new tests. Inspectorates may be a heavy lift, but they're part of a vital conversation about how better data can help us improve our schools.