Sunday, March 7, 2010

Balancing Accountability and Learning

In one of my classes lately we have been having a very interesting discussion about how our traditional education systems measure success.  We have been discussing the two purposes for testing, for internal accountability (learning) and external accountability (systemic performance) and it is important to remember both are valid. 
Applying theory to practice however, the reality is that problems occur when the focus on external accountability is confused with internal accountability (Campbell & Levin, 2007).

As a school administrator, my number one focus has to be on how well our students learn.  As a taxpayer, I am concerned that my tax dollars, significant as they are, are used wisely in my province. It is legitimate to expect a focus on both, but we need to accept this fact and work with it in our schools.

Some teachers feel pressured by teaching test grades/subjects while others do not.  I think this is in part due to the leadership in the school.  The attitude and leadership re: tests that is modelled by school administrators creates the culture that influences how test results are accepted. 
Unfortunately, it is a reality that some administrators apply intense focus on test results resulting in teachers feeling pressured to produce scores that may come at the expense of other issues.  In some cases, this pressure comes from Central Office, and in others it is not necessarily intentional, as actions often speak louder than words.  Regardless of the reason, the tension between accountability and learning is something school leaders need to understand well.

A frequent comment is that test results are influenced by the work of all teachers leading up to that grade.  For the kids that have been in the school the whole time, that is true, but it does not apply to students new to the grade/school that year.  It is another reality that when the results of one or two teachers are analyzed by the entire school, some teachers may feel a sense of personal pressure that their work is under the microscope.  As leaders, it is important for us to attend to their concerns and help create the culture of shared internal accountability and focus on learning.

Campbell and Levin (2007) describe this as a need to balance pressure and support, where we accept the internal/external accountability focus and also focus on capacity building within our own schools.  Our schools need to take the testing programs we have in place and use that data as part of a school's comprehensive assessment plan.  Using test results as assessment for learning is what is needed to improve the performance of our own students.  It is up to us as educational leaders to wrestle with these many issues and put them together to be able to make a difference for our students!  We need to have a vision for how accountability and learning can peacefully coexist, and we have to have deep knowledge of systemic and local needs to help support this vision.

Now, having said all that, I wonder about tweaks to our provincial testing program that might help us meet both needs.  I have written previously about the possibility of using sampling as a way to achieve external accountability.  That would take our ability to use test results to inform our own practices in schools however.  Instead, what about rewriting our tests and administering them closer to the start of the year?  We could have results in time to influence the teaching of those specific students, and by taking a longitudinal approach to the results we could track how schools are progressing over time. 

Just an idea....


Campbell, C., & Levin, B. (2009). Using data to support educational improvement. Educational Assessment, Evaluation & Accountability, 21(1), 47-65.


Tuesday, March 2, 2010

What is the Purpose of Education?

I was asked in class (where I was the student, not the teacher) recently what my thoughts were on the purpose of education.  Specifically, I was asked what I thought the role of education was with respect to any class divisions that may or may not exist in society. 

I approached this answer with what I thought was a crystal clear understanding of what my beliefs were, but as I reflected on this topic I found myself questioning my beliefs.  Internal conflict being what it is, and given that it is also the subject of many a Hollywood blockbuster, I thought I'd share my reflections on this question here.  I hope my reflections don't offend you....please remember....I'm a work in progress!

I believe that I am mostly a structural fundamentalist, but that I can tend to display Marxist elements in my thinking on my more cynical days. At least I hope I am. I hope I'm not a closet conflict theorist masquerading as a consensus theorist.  Maybe I am a post modernist at heart?  Wouldn't that be something if I had completely deceived myself?  Perhaps I already have, given the theoretical babble I just threw out in those last couple of sentences?

To explain, my personal belief is that a fundamental role of education is to prepare our students for success in our society.  This is the structural fundamentalist, or consensus theory, belief.  I see education as playing a significant role in reinforcing the basic fundamentals of society, which are basically well-intentioned.  I think our society is set up to allow for people to succeed in spite of where they begin.

Where I believe we struggle as a system is in identifying the social and political goals of society that we are supposed to prepare our students for. I think we have too broad of a definition re: what our funademental goals of society are.  Based on that, when I see needed change within society stalling, and class divisions being reinforced, it frustrates me. In that situation, I can question the fundamental purpose of our system.

Essentially though, I consider myself an optimist. I think the majority of our societal goals are basically good and I have seen many examples in our modern, western, society of people who have used the knowledge, tools, and opportunities provided by education.  A good success story helps me avoid remaining cynical for too long! I will admit though that we need to do more to identify our priorities as a society so that we can then support that with our education system, but at the heart of it all I do not see conflict theory as the prevailing theory.

As I read description of the different theories, and examples of how some nations structure their education systems to tacitly support class divisions that exist, I did question my beliefs. I wondered about our testing system, and our hidden curricula, and I wondered if I did not know about these 2 theories if my beliefs might reveal a more Marxist predisposition. Perhaps I don't know enough about all of this to fully comprehend all of the information at my disposal? 

Ultimately however, for now, I returned to my belief in the power of our system to prepare and support people to transcend class divisions.  You have to start somewhere, right?  If I am going to facilitate continued improvement of our system, perhaps I should start from a positive position instead of a deficit position.

If you have feelings on this topic, by all means please share them! If you disagree with me, I'd love to hear why.  I'm only of this mind until you convince me otherwise...and constructive discussion is how I learn!