Thursday, June 9, 2011

What Does Society Expect From Schools?

Accountability is a funny word.

It seems like a simple concept, to be answerable for something, but in a complex open system (like education) it is not such a black and white issue.

It is reasonable to expect people working for you to be accountable for their results.  The practice of paying employees, or of hiring contractors, is that you pay them to do a specific job for you.  If they don't do the work, the accountability process kicks in and there are consequences.  Makes sense to me.  In fact, in education we are not opposed to the idea.  Accountability, in one form or another, is a discussion between teachers and students in most classrooms at some point in the average school year.

In the context of complex open systems however, accountability is not that easy of a concept to understand.  Who is accountable, to whom, and for what?  Dictionary.com actually has the following as the secondary definition of the word:

Education . a policy of holding schools and teachers accountable for students' academic progress by linking such progress with funding for salaries, maintenance, etc.

See?  Education and accountability are perceived to fit together. As a taxpayer myself I’m concerned about how effectively our system is making progress.  But what is progress?  If we use student achievement, what is achievement, and what scale do we use?  Absolute achievement?  Relative achievement? I think in general it is assumed to be, and is generally measured as, results on system-wide participation in standardized testing, but does that tell us what we really want to know?  What do we really care about in terms of results?

On the surface, it makes sense to measure accountability by using student achievement results, but the many internal and external variables involved in student performance on single-sitting standardized assessments raises lots of questions re: the validity of that measure of accountability.  Consequently, some proponents of educational reform make a very compelling case for not using standardized assessments as a major indicator of progress.  But as we argue back and forth about standardized tests, are we really arguing about what is truly important?

Instead of arguing about current measures of accountability, I wonder if our time might be better spent on discussing what society really wants for students as a result of their participation in school?  With all of the talk about 21st Century Skills, as seen in Tony Wagner's book The Global Achievement Gap, in blogs such as Seth Godin's (below), and in provincial educational circles (i.e. initiatives in BC, AB, NS, ON, etc.) I think there may be value in engaging society in conversations about what they really want for students upon graduation.

What is truly important?  Have we specifically asked that question of parents?  Of the rest of society?

Might student marks on PATs and DIPLOMAs be the most important results society wants?  Or might the development of competencies, graduation rates, emotional intelligence, and the ability to think critically in any setting be more important?  I wonder.  

When we opened a new school a few years back, I asked parents what they wanted for their children.  The result of that process was their sharing they wanted their kids to be safe, to graduate as good citizens, and to be academically ready for any challenge and prepared for success as adults.  My hypothesis is that most parents, and most members of society, would provide similar answers if asked.

Not once did anyone say they wanted to see our students at the top of the Fraser report.  

As a result of that work we did with teachers, students, and parents, to define what was important, our school set about identifying ways to report student progress in other areas (besides marks) to parents.  We focused on developing good character and emotional intelligence in our students, and we focused on REPORTING on that to our parents.  Funny thing is, after 3 years of work, their academic results are pretty good too.  (note:  might be that I’m not there anymore too.  There.  I said it.  No need to leave that comment now!  J)

I think there is more and more opportunity for parents and the community to provide input into educational planning.  When do they get asked that question?  What would happen if school boards (or individual schools?) held a series of town-hall meetings or used social media or other electronic means, to ask the community what they really want to see as an output of our system? If we had the answer to the question of "What Does Society Deem Important?", I bet it might give us some focus.  I know enough to not ask the question if I’m not prepared for the answer.  In this case, I think we need to ask explicit questions like that in our local communities.  Different communities have different values.  How do we capture those in our provincial system with standardized measures of accountability?

Just some thoughts.  Work in progress.  Love to hear what you think about the role of community standards in accountability.

Cheers

1 comment:

Ruth Snyder said...

I agree that we need to involve our community in education. As part of our strategic planning process we asked stakeholders to help us define "success" for students. (http://www.nlsd.ab.ca/index.php?option=com_docman&task=doc_download&gid=539&Itemid=40) Most people are not as concerned about marks as they are about a student's ability to be "privately happy and publicly useful."