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Inspectorate, American Style

New NEPC report considers how to adapt a European model
 of school self-evaluation and inspection to the U.S. context

William J. Mathis, (802) 383-0058,
Katherine E. Ryan, (217) 333-0719,

URL for this press release:



BOULDER, CO (November 12, 2013) — Can a system of school self-evaluation that is taking hold in portions of Western Europe be adapted for use in the United States?

A new report published today by the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) at the University of Colorado Boulder describes the potential and the obstacles facing such a reform and suggests ways in which the self-evaluation model can be a springboard to making school evaluation programs effective, constructive, and fair in this country.

School Self-evaluation and Inspection for Improving U.S. Schools? was written by Katherine E. Ryan, Tysza Gandha, and Jeehae Ahn. Ryan is a professor at the University of Illinois, and Gandha and Ahn are doctoral candidates at the University of Illinois. Ryan has conducted research on test-based accountability as well as enhanced approaches to educational accountability. Gandha’s research focuses include teacher learning and instructional improvement; among other topics, Ahn’s research explores engaging multiple and diverse voices and values in evaluation.

The last several decades have seen intense focus on how to make schools more accountable for the learning outcomes of the students who attend them. Yet the dominant approach, focused on high-stakes consequences attached to students’ test scores, has come in for sharp and deserved criticism, some of it cutting across conventional ideological lines.

As Ryan, Gandha, and Ahn point out, we see deep disputes, even with regard to defining what outcomes are most desired and what specific indicators are most appropriate for measuring them.

The brief’s authors agree with current policymakers about the importance of somehow evaluating public education systems: “Despite robust criticisms, some form of accountability for publicly-funded education to safeguard school and teaching quality and equitable treatment of students is important for serving the public interest,” they write. But they also note, “The US test-based accountability model holds schools and teachers accountable for student outcomes with little attention to school improvement processes.”

The European approach that Ryan, Gandha, and Ahn examine instead focuses more on “school-centered accountability efforts.” Broadly described, this is a two-part system that begins with a school self-evaluation followed by an outside inspection – or SSE/I for short. Programs of this sort can be found in places such as England, Wales, Northern Ireland, and the Netherlands.

“SSE/I is a complex policy instrument with mixed consequences and many research questions still to be answered,” according to Ryan and her colleagues. They also caution that “accountability models from other countries cannot be naively imported to the US given the vital distinctions in sociopolitical contexts.”

Despite those necessary cautions, the researchers suggest that SSE/I’s underlying purposes and principles, in particular its focus on quality improvement, can help inform the redesign and improvement of the US approach.

With that goal in mind, Ryan and her colleagues examine the SSE/I model and its potential applicability in the US, concluding with the following five recommendations:

  • Employ external reviews of schools with a focus on providing guidance and support, rather than turning to sanctions-based, punitive inspections;
  • Set rigorous standards for the qualification and experience of external reviewers to ensure that they are qualified experts;
  • Define school quality in broad terms that go beyond standardized test scores, including a comprehensive set of criteria by which to define teaching quality;
  • Include the perspectives of multiple stakeholders – administrators, teachers, students, parents, community leaders, and researchers – in designing review and assessment systems; and
  • Redirect state financial resources to adequately support external review systems.

Find the report School Self-Evaluation and Inspection for Improving U.S. Schools?, by Katherine E. Ryan, Tysza Gandha, and Jeehae Ahn, on the web at:

The mission of the National Education Policy Center is to produce and disseminate high-quality, peer-reviewed research to inform education policy discussions. We are guided by the belief that the democratic governance of public education is strengthened when policies are based on sound evidence. For more information on NEPC, please visit