New Self-Review: What Do We Need?
by Norma Empringham
Annual Cornerstone School Reviews have come a long way since the first ones in Mississippi and Alabama in 2000/2001! They have come to play a significant part in the four-year partnership of the school, Cornerstone and district. Just like the national inspections of schools in the UK, reviews have evolved from the experience of those first visits; and this year, for the first time, all schools will carry out a self evaluation prior to the arrival of the review team.
I have heard school people say, “Why do we need to do this when the external team is coming? Isn’t it their job not ours?” It could be argued that this is a fair comment; after all, isn’t it the reviewers’ job to evaluate what is going on and give recommendations for improvement?
However, if we take time to look below the surface of really vibrant successful schools, we find that they are constantly examining what is going on, seeking out what works and is successful in promoting student achievement, and identifying areas for improvement. These schools know themselves well and look for affirmation from external agents to ensure they are on the right track and have not missed anything.
For this reason, we have simplified the self-review template and made it applicable to all Cornerstone schools, whatever stage they have reached. We now ask each school to complete a self-examination each year, before the review visit. This process of self-reflection should be cumulative, building on the first examination, with schools adding or amending the answers to the questions as they continue on their journey with Cornerstone.
The recently revised “A Guide to Cornerstone School Reviews” puts it this way:
“One of the most important attributes of a Cornerstone school is its ability to get an objective view of itself, and to have the means of responding to what it sees. Since the practice of review has evolved over several years and many useful techniques have been honed, schools can now adopt similar methods in their own self-review. This process can add depth and meaning to the dialogue between a school and the external reviewers. Schools that apply some or all of the review techniques – including self-review – will arrive at their external review ready to discuss what is needed next to move the school forward.
Self-review starts from the very outset and it is this capacity for objective self-analysis and shrewd assessment of what needs to be done that sets successful schools apart. The questions that external reviewers try to answer are the same in all years; they provide a measure of development over the four years. In the first year they are intended to find a school’s potential and how the school’s practice is supportive of Cornerstone…Schools need to be applying these questions to themselves all the time, and this is the best preparation for an external review. Schools that have developed a habit of self-appraisal, allied with planning to deal with the shortcomings it may reveal, are in strong position for their external review.”
Schools should not panic when faced with the self-review template for the first time. They will already have undertaken the asset mapping process, and this will have given some valuable information about the school. There are other ways to measure effectiveness such as parent and student feedback, achievement and progress data, lesson observations and work sampling. Two key things a school should remember are (1) to involve as many parts of the school community as possible when seeking information and (2) avoid writing lists of activities that have no evidence about the impact and outcomes that they deliver for the students. Always ask “so what? ” and only include the key features of the literacy work. Balance the strengths with areas for development.
The review team will value an honest self-appraisal. If done well, there will be no surprises for the team or the school and the ensuing report should successfully point the way to the next stage in the school’s development. Once self-review becomes a normal part of a school’s annual program, it can provide a solid basis for action planning and development. We hope that this new approach will help all Cornerstone schools own the review recommendations and cement the collaboration between school and review team so that it becomes a truly professional partnership. We will be seeking feedback from schools as the process develops so that we too can continue to learn and improve.