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Accountability: What the Top Performers Do

In my last blog, I described the devastating effects of the prevailing American accountability system on teachers in the United States.  In this blog, I will turn the tables and describe how the countries with the best-performing education systems approach accountability system design.  

First, the high stakes tests in those countries are used to hold students, not teachers, accountable, the obverse of what happens in the United States.  These nations typically have qualifications systems, which means that there is no high school diploma.  Instead, when they leave school, students get a card which shows what courses they have taken and their grades.  Students know what courses they need to take and what grades they need to get in order to go to the university they have chosen or begin their vocational training program to embark on their chosen career.  Because students know exactly what they have to do to move to the next stage of their education or training to get where they want to go, they are highly motivated to take tough courses and work hard in school.  In Finland, the only national exams are those given at the end of high school to students who want to go to university.  In many countries the national exams are given at the end of middle school and at the end of the lower division of high school, and then at the end of high school (what many countries call upper secondary school).  In some countries, the exams are given only twice in a student's career in school.

In most of these countries, average scores for the exams for each school, and sometimes for specific minority groups are published, often in the newspapers, and that is more often than not front-page news.  In Australia, there is a national web site, called MySchool, on which a lot of school data for each school are published and available in easy-to-read form by anyone in the nation.  This includes but is not limited to average student performance data broken down by socio-economic background, race and native language.

Thus far, I have been talking about what is called census testing, that is, testing systems intended to produce data for every single student.  But, because these countries rarely test a student more than three times in a student's career in school, some of these countries also do sample testing in other grades.  This does not produce data for each student or for each teacher, so it cannot be used to hold teachers accountable, but it does produce data for each school and that data, in addition to the data from the census tests, is made public.  In most of these countries, the tests or examinations cover the whole core curriculum, not just mathematics, the native language and science, so the school has no incentive to slight the other subjects in the school curriculum, as is the case in the United States.

Many top-performing countries with the kind of system I have just described use the data from their census testing and their sampling procedures to identify low-performing schools.  But they do not use the data to publicly label schools with a letter grade.  Instead, they use the data to decide which schools will receive visits from teams of expert school inspectors.  These inspectors are highly regarded educators.  The design of these systems varies, but the typical pattern is to give schools only a few days notice of a visit, after which the school is required to pull together a lot of data on the school which is made available to the inspection team, which then conducts a two to three day visit, which is very thorough and involves a lot of classroom observations and interviews with teachers, administrators, parents and students.  When the visit is over the team issues a report with recommendations, which is typically made available to the whole school community, including the parents.  Assistance is then provided by the authorities to the school to enable the faculty to implement the recommendations.  The process is then repeated after an appropriate interval and appropriate steps taken, depending on what is found.  The object of the game is not to shame anyone, but to establish the facts and then to help the school build the capacity to address the issues revealed by the initial inspection.  It is very important to point out that the data from the initial testing tells the government that there is a problem, but it does not tell the government what the problems actually are.  It takes an extended visit by experts to do that.

But the most important feature of accountability systems in the top-performing countries is very telling.  These countries are moving from management systems based on a blue-collar, supervisory model of teaching, in which accountability runs up to the supervisor, to a professional model in which accountability runs horizontally, to one's peers.  Consider the modern law firm or architectural firm or engineering firm.  People in these firms depend on one another to get the job done.  If a member of the firm is not pulling his or her weight, the whole firm and everyone in it suffers.  It is in the interests of each to improve the skills of all.  It is incumbent on each to ask that person to leave if that person fails to pull his or her weight after getting assistance.  Because everyone is working closely with the others all the time, there is no place for slackers or the incompetent to hide.  The judgments are made by professional colleagues who know exactly what to look for.

These are systems in which the professionals are both workers and managers at the same time, and in which they have a very large measure of professional autonomy as well as professional responsibility.  In the top-performing countries, teachers have extensive career ladders, designed so that those teachers who are judged to be superior performers climb the ladder of responsibility and authority, earning more money as they go up that ladder.  This, in many ways, is the essence of what it means to be a professional.  As Peter Drucker put it, the blue-collar worker expects a fair day's pay for a fair day's work; the knowledge worker expects an extraordinary day's pay for an extraordinary day's work.  Professionals want very much to have an opportunity to distinguish themselves and to earn the recognition, compensation, authority and responsibility that comes with distinguished performance.

I hear you now say, sure, that's all fine, but what about the lousy teachers?  How do you hold them accountable?  How do you get rid of them?  Let me remind you that we are talking here about the countries that have a surplus of excellent teachers, and much less school-to-school variation and within-school variation in outcomes than in the United States.  If our approach to accountability worked, we would be leading the world's league tables.  But we aren't.  They are.

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