Academic journal article Education Next

The School Inspector Calls

Academic journal article Education Next

The School Inspector Calls

Article excerpt

In an effort to make public organizations more efficient, government round the world make use of hard performance targets, such as student test scores for public schools and patient waiting times for health-care systems. Accountability based on objective performance measures has the benefit of being transparent. One potential drawback is that such schemes may lead to gaming behavior in a setting where the available performance measures focus on just one dimension of a multifaceted outcome.

Subjective performance evaluation holds the promise of measuring what matters. When evaluators are allowed to exercise their own judgment, rather than following a formal decision rule, however, the subjective measure may be corrupted by such behaviors as favoritism. One type of subjective evaluation, onsite inspection, is nonetheless used in many school systems around the world. In-class evaluations by external assessors have been proposed recently in the United States for the K-12 sector, as well as for the Head Start preschool program. Yet there is very little evidence to date on the validity of inspection ratings and the effectiveness of inspection-based accountability systems in improving school quality.

This study evaluates a subjective performance-evaluation regime in place in the English public school system since the early 1990s. Under this regime, independent inspectors visit schools, assess schools' performance, and disclose their findings on the Internet. Inspectors combine hard metrics, such as test scores, with softer ones, such as observations of classroom teaching, in order to arrive at an overall judgment of school quality. Schools that receive a fail rating may be subject to sanctions, such as more frequent and intensive inspections.

I provide evidence on the effectiveness of several aspects of the inspections system. First, I demonstrate that inspection ratings can aid in distinguishing between more-and less-effective schools, even after controlling for test scores and various other school characteristics. Second, exploiting a natural experiment, I show that a fail inspection rating leads to test-score gains for primary school students that remain evident even after the students move into secondary schools. I find no evidence that schools that receive a fail rating are able to inflate test-score performance by gaming the system, suggesting that oversight by inspectors may mitigate such strategic behavior.

The English School Inspection System

The English public schooling system combines centralized testing with school inspections. Over the period relevant to this study, tests took place when students were age 7, 11, 14, and 16; these are known as the Key Stage 1 to Key Stage 4 tests, respectively. Successive governments have used the results of Key Stage tests, especially Key Stages 2 and 4, as performance measures when holding schools to account.

Since the early 1990s, a government agency called the Office for Standards in Education, or Ofsted, has inspected all English public schools. Ofsted has three primary functions: 1) to offer feedback to the school principal and teachers; 2) to provide information to parents to aid their decisionmaking process; and 3) to identify schools that suffer from "serious weak-ness." Although Ofsted employs its own in-house team of inspectors, the agency contracts out the majority of inspections to a handful of private-sector and nonprofit organizations via a competitive bidding process. Ofsted retains responsibility for setting overall strategic goals and objectives, putting in place a framework to guide the inspection process, and monitoring the quality of inspections.

Over the time period covered by this study, schools were generally inspected once during each three- to six-year inspection cycle. An inspection involves an assessment of a school's performance on academic and other measured outcomes, followed by an onsite visit to the school, typically lasting one or two days for primary schools. …

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