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Low-profile Quality Review changes are a big deal, but only if there are ‘next steps’

Chancellor Carmen Fariña’s recalibration of New York City’s school grading system was met with much fanfare last week. While the changes to school Progress Reports received most of the attention, the chancellor also announced changes to Quality Reviews—the intensive process by which schools are evaluated every year or two.

Fariña probably knew these changes wouldn’t grab as many headlines as the shift from A-F grades. But she may know, and we believe, that those changes could be a real game-changer for city schools.

Why? No two words cause as much anxiety for city school leaders and teachers as “Quality Review.” The influential reviews are the closest things to a standardized assessment that a school gets. The evaluators comb through classrooms; talk to teachers, students, and parents; examine data over two days; and then evaluate the school using a strict rubric.

In some schools, the preparation for the review and the review itself have been disruptive to teaching and learning. And in many cases, reviewers provided little clarity about what a school should do next to improve, since the primary objective of the review was to collect evidence about how a school is doing now.

The changes coming to the Quality Review process are substantial. For most city schools, reviews will take place in one day, instead of two. The findings will finally be integrated into the parent-facing school “snapshot” and “guide.” And most importantly, we hope that reviewers will also provide schools with clear, specific suggestions for improvement, not merely a description of where they currently fall on the rubric. That would allow those of us at a school and in its network to work with superintendents and other reviewers to create follow-up action plans.

If the system plays out this way, it could help achieve some balance between the trailblazing accountability ushered in under the Bloomberg administration and the support that every school needs if it is going to be held to the highest standards.

The changes would make a marked difference from John’s school review last year, for example, when teachers and administrators spent many extra hours ensuring that classrooms, curriculum materials, and paperwork were in order and aligned with the Quality Review’s rubric. Yet when the reviewer concluded, he provided no clear “next steps.” Instead, a clear action plan for improvement had to be divined from the reviewer’s findings by the school and its support network. That meant that John’s principal and assistant principals spent hours reading reports from other schools to see what had worked for them.

Not providing specific suggestions as part of the feedback is counterintuitive to what we do in schools. In John’s class, every student who submits an essay is provided with detailed “next steps” as to what the student should improve for the next assignment. When his lesson is observed, his supervisors provide suggestions for improvement. And during a “mock Quality Review,” Nate and his network coaches provided several actions that the school should take to improve and prepare. Specific feedback is as important to teaching and learning as pencil and paper.

If schools do get that feedback, instead of having a “back to the drawing board” feeling when a review is complete, teachers and teacher teams will be able to make clearer adjustments to what they currently do—and schools will have a clear understanding of what support to expect based on the review’s findings. This type of stability is invaluable and will ultimately improve teaching and learning for our students, who stand to benefit from these changes the most.

The real challenge here is to find the right balance between accountability and support. The new Quality Review process could be a real step in that direction. When we do find that balance, the learning conditions for our students, which are the working conditions for all of us educators, will drastically improve.

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