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School Performance: When Does Accountability Get in the Way of Improvement?

EducationWorld is pleased to present this article contributed by C.M. Rubin. The piece is part of Rubin's online interview series Global Search for Education, in which she joins globally renowned thought leaders as they explore big-picture education questions. For this series and her other online series "How Will We Read?", she received a 2011 Upton Sinclair award. Rubin is also the author of three bestselling books, including The Real Alice in Wonderland.

Data-Driven Improvement and Accountability, a new report authored by Boston College professors Andy Hargreaves and Henry Braun, recommends more effective methods by which we can evaluate school performance. In Boston College's Lynch School of Education, Hargreaves is the Thomas More Brennan Professor of Education, and Braun is the Boisi Professor of Education and Public Policy.

L to R: Andy Hargreaves, C.M. Rubin, Henry Braun

Data-Driven Improvement and Accountability explains how the current system of student data collection more often than not creates “perverse incentives” for educators to narrow curriculum, teach to the test and allocate their efforts disproportionately to students who yield the quickest test-score gains, rather than those with the greatest needs. The authors claim the flawed use of data-driven improvement and accountability (DDIA) in much of U.S. education has significant ramifications, since the system has become “driven” versus “guided” by test scores. In these circumstances, educational accountability that is intended to contribute to student improvement can actually impede improvement for students.

“When accountability is prioritized over improvement, DDIA neither helps educators make better pedagogical judgments nor enhances educators’ knowledge of, and relationships with, their students,” comments Braun. “Schools are driven to place too much emphasis on test scores that capture what can easily be measured. In doing so, they neglect other important skills and qualities that are difficult to quantify,” adds Hargreaves.

Photos courtesy of Andy
Hargreaves and Henry Braun

The drive to enhance school performance and learning outcomes for all students has been an educational priority for the last three decades, often creating conflicts between policymakers and educators. There has been major debate over the emphasis on test scores. Hargreaves and Braun argue that our thinking is too narrow. They raise the question: Are we using this data as effectively as we could, or has it become a substitute for professional judgment? They contend that data should guide educators in terms of providing feedback, allowing schools to see the problem areas, intervene and make the necessary student and/or teaching improvements as needed. Additionally, does this data alone properly reflect what students know? Does it measure all that we value?

So what would be the alternatives to the policy tools on which we currently rely for school performance? Hargreaves and Braun point out that professional judgments and interventions would need to be based on a wide range of evidence and indicators that properly reflect what students should be learning. They draw comparisons with uses of data in business and professional sports (e.g., the Oakland Athletics, the first baseball team to rely on players’ performance  statistics for recruitment). “The point being,” adds Hargreaves, “effective teams use data but the data are valued by everyone, and analyzed together with shared responsibility for improvement.” Additionally, high-performing educational systems around the world use systemic reforms to promote collective responsibility for improvement. Top-down accountability is a last resort in these countries. 

Accompanying the report is model legislation authored by attorney Kathy Gebhardt, executive director of Children's Voices. Based on the Hargreaves and Braun brief, the legislation details how data could be used effectively to create a multi-level system of accountability designed for school improvement.

Hargreaves and Braun’s brief concludes with 12 recommendations for establishing more effective systems and processes of data-driven or evidence-informed improvements and accountability.

 

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