Opinion

Want more accountable schools? Look to Finland's peer approach.

Finland's model protects the judgment of teachers.

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As schools face increasing pressure to produce evidence of their effectiveness or run the risk of closure, reformers are finally beginning to look beyond standardized test scores as the end-all-be-all in evaluating teaching and learning. In the process, they're studying the experience of other countries that use professionally trained inspectors.

The task is to choose the right model.

The tradition of school visitations first started more than 160 years ago in England, and evolved into the Office for Standards in Education (OFSTED). Its corps of about 6,000 travel to schools to provide reports on their overall quality. Although most inspectors are retired principals and teachers with years of experience, OFSTED requires them to attend annual retraining in order to retain their certification.

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Until 2005, inspectors were expected to spend most of their time observing classroom instruction, interviewing students, and examining random samples of their work to determine if schools met national standards. These steps were designed to provide inspectors with a comprehensive picture of educational quality.

Then in 2005, OFSTED instituted several changes. It no longer rates a school as satisfactory solely because it has reached a set of academic performance goals. The school must now also provide evidence of achieving personal development objectives for its students. And in 2008, OFSTED instituted a no-notice inspection policy to avoid the dog-and-pony shows put on by schools that were given advance notice.

The system of inspection that England uses has great intuitive appeal for the US in today's accountability era. Direct observation seems at first to provide the best basis for forming judgments about teacher effectiveness. But inspired teaching is more an art form than a scientific endeavor. As a result, what even the best trained inspectors observe constitutes only a snapshot that can't possibly capture the nuances of the interaction between teachers and students.

A look at the careers of Frank McCourt, Pat Conroy, and Jonathan Kozol shows why. In his bestseller "Teacher Man," Mr. McCourt explains that he was at his teaching best when he jettisoned lesson plans tied to the mandated curriculum and relied, instead, on his inner talent to reach seemingly unreachable students. If inspectors had visited his class, they probably would have assigned him a low rating.

That actually happened to Mr. Conroy, who taught poor children on an island off the coast of South Carolina, and to Mr. Kozol, who taught in the impoverished Roxbury section of Boston. Both were fired for their unconventional teaching practices, despite their demonstrated overall success with children who had long ago been written off.

Therein lies a cautionary tale that we ignore at our peril as a nation. In our obsession with preparing students for the demands of the new global economy, we speak out of both sides of our mouths about accountability. We say we want schools to develop creative thinking and problem-solving ability in students, and yet we now seem willing to consider the use of inspectors and their ability to pass judgment based on limited evidence.

This misplaced reliance dovetails with the growing use of scripted lesson plans, since they provide an easy-to-follow paper trail. Under this regimented strategy, teachers in some schools are given a detailed, day-to-day outline of what they should be teaching and when. In the late 1990s, Chicago adopted the program, building on New York City's version.

If this system were in place on a wide-scale basis, virtually all teachers would pass muster. In fact, so would any adult off the street capable of following directions. But it's the intangible qualities that often spell the difference between success and failure in the classroom because they are harder to quantify.

That's why Finland serves as a better model for the US. Rather than rely on a corps of external inspectors as in England, Finland has groups of teachers visit one anothers' classrooms and plan lessons together. This peer observation and peer learning strategy is similar to the rounds used in medical schools.

The same professionalism is reflected in the way Finland zealously protects the judgment and creativity of teachers by the use of confidential reports presented to a sample of about 100 schools that are tested annually. The results are used only for diagnostic and improvement purposes, without the naming and shaming that tends to characterize England's system.

It's easy to understand the frustration and anger that undergird the appeal of using inspectors. The public is entitled to know if students are being well educated with its tax dollars. But it's Finland's approach that will do more to improve educational quality in the long run.

Walt Gardner taught for 28 years in the Los Angeles Unified School District and was a lecturer in the UCLA Graduate School of Education.

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