Inquiry-Minded Schools - Opening Doors for Accountability

Article excerpt

The authors have studied schools that are successfully using an ongoing inquiry cycle to improve student learning. They describe that process here - a process that builds the capacity to improve as the school's knowledge base increases.

DEMANDS for greater productivity and increased accountability in America's public schools are loud and ubiquitous. Reform and restructuring efforts have addressed almost every aspect of schooling, and state and federal policy makers are increasingly setting standards and specifying criteria for assessment that schools must meet. In this atmosphere of heightened accountability, a series of questions driving school reform have become central: How can schools help all students meet high standards? Who sets those standards? How is student progress best assessed? Who should do the assessing - the state, the district, the school? What is the relationship between the external mandates and student achievement?

Recent accountability reforms have moved both the standards and the criteria for meeting them outside the school. But we have learned that what happens inside a school is key. Some schools, which we refer to as inquiry-minded schools, have already incorporated issues related to standards and assessments into their culture and are improving as a result.1 These school communities recognize that improving teaching and learning is an intentional and ongoing process. They ask themselves important questions and have the courage to act on their findings. Because they recognize that evaluation leads to action and that every action creates new questions, they have institutionalized the process of reflective inquiry. These schools have become internally responsible for the creation and maintenance of standards.

At the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University, we have been studying recent accountability movements and their influence on schools. Our aim is to help schools and their communities use data effectively and systematically and to help policy makers attend to the realities of school life as they craft accountability systems. This past year, we observed the work of 18 Annenberg Challenge schools in six states.

These schools had been brought together to share their data-based practices. We also followed other schools participating in accountability projects. All these schools are attempting to reconcile the requirements of state- or district-level accountability systems with their own local needs.

In this article, we draw on the experiences of the most successful schools to offer a picture of what a school can do to take ownership of internal and external standards and to use data from state assessments and other sources to improve instruction. We define accountability, describe the mindset of schools that have institutionalized reflective inquiry, and explicate the inquiry cycle. We also consider the challenges that schools face in addressing standards and that policy makers face in developing accountability systems to support the delivery of high-quality instruction.

We begin with three scenarios that describe inquiry-minded schools faced with external accountability requirements.

Monarch School

Students at the Monarch School appear to be achieving at high levels.

During the current school year, 98% of the students who were tested passed the statewide tests in reading, 100% passed the tests in writing, and 97% passed the tests for mathematics. These figures exceed the statewide average by at least 12 percentage points in each area. Moreover, the school's passing rate exceeds that of other district schools by even larger margins. Gerry Macia, the principal at Monarch, is tempted to let the school rest on its laurels. Still Gerry brings the summary report sheets to the next school council meeting for discussion.

Gerry: I'm genuinely excited to share our report card and scores with you this year. …