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Critique is easy, offering solutions is the difficult bit

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compassDear Graham,

As I fear is often the case with these epistolic exchanges we’re in danger of getting trapped in an ever decreasing circle. Here’s what happening:

  • You say the current accountability model of high stakes tests + inspections has negative effects (teaching to the test; fear of innovation etc…)
  • I agree but say that the positive benefits to having accountability outweigh the negative effects and suggest ways the negatives could be ameliorated.
  • I ask you whether you think we need accountability.
  • You say of course we do, don’t say what it would look like, and then go back to pointing out the negative effects of the current system.

I’m not trying to be facetious: this is the crux of the issue. The reason the tests plus inspections model has lasted 25 years despite constant criticisms of the kind you’re making is that no one has managed to suggest a viable alternative. No Government of any political stripe is going to do anything other than tinker with the current model unless something concrete, implementable and politically viable is offered instead. (And just saying “Finland”, which, to your credit you haven’t, doesn’t meet that criteria!)

In your letter you say “I’m more than happy for schools to be accountable to the children and families that they form a community with”. OK. So what does that mean in practice? What information do families get to inform this accountability? Who checks that families are holding schools accountable? What are the sanctions for poor performance? (And if there are no sanctions how is anyone being held accountable?) Can parents fire the headteacher or the governors? What evidence do we have that children and families know what to look for anyway? I’m pretty glad someone else inspects the hospital I attend – I certainly wouldn’t be able to.

Accountability is the hardest policy problem there is – in every sector – public or private. Focusing on the critique is easy. Give me any accountability model out there and I can show you the problems. Offering solutions is the difficult bit.

Over on the other side of the Atlantic two American educationalists, Deborah Meier and Michael Petrilli, are having a similar discussion and have reached a similar impasse. In his latest letter Michael nails the problem:

“I can’t go as far as some—say, Diane Ravitch and Richard Rothstein—who argue that any measure, when linked with consequences, becomes hopelessly perverted. We’re talking about public schools, after all—and the public has a right to demand certain results from its investment. And we’re talking about children, who deserve not to be written off before they even turn 18. If not higher test scores and college completion rates, then what?

I’m quite willing to entertain other metrics. So…let’s get specific… what would you be willing to promise in terms of student outcomes? Higher graduation rates? Lower teenage pregnancy rates? Lower incarceration rates? Higher voting rates? Higher college matriculation and completion rates (including at the AA level)? Lower unemployment rates? Higher wages? You name it, I’ll probably go for it. But the answer can’t be to ignore student outcomes.”

We can’t ignore outcomes. You say you don’t want to. So let’s get specific.

Best wishes,



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3 Responses to Critique is easy, offering solutions is the difficult bit

  1. Ed Cadwallader Tuesday, 25 June 2013 at 20:15 #

    I absolutely agree that the public has a right to know what happens in the schools they pay for, but annual publication makes every a year a mad scramble to sort out current Y11. Inspections are an argument between management and Ofsted, parents and mainscale teachers are not part of the dialogue.

    My solution:

    Publication of league tables every 5 years-5 years is a realistic timeframe for school improvement, 1 is not.

    School AGM: Management would have to submit their proposals for spending, curriculum and sch improvement and secure a vote of confidence from a quorum of parents and staff.

    Ofsted: Ofsted could fit into this framework as a mediator where schools lacked the support of parents, rather than judge, jury and executioner as at present.

  2. Nevermore Thursday, 27 June 2013 at 20:54 #

    As a teacher, I would like to say that if we, as Constructivist practitioners, assessed and judged our students in the same manner as we are assessed and judged we would be ‘required to improve’ very, very quickly.

    I agree that we must be accountable for our actions but the current system has only lasted so long because those in charge have not experienced it from the other end. It is demoralising and often humiliating when, despite a year of giving everything you have to teaching, those above you can seemingly choose which stick to beat you with.

    I can’t offer a solution but I can make a prediction; unless there are reforms, fundamental changes, education will lose its more able talents and not even the rather splendid (ahem) TeachFirst lot will be able to take up the slack.

  3. JFB Wednesday, 3 July 2013 at 02:15 #

    There is some evidence in our accountability system for education in the UK to support Diane Ravitch and Richard Rothstein’s view of Campbell’s Law that any social indicator used to make decisions will eventually become corrupted.
    Prof. Simon Burgess at Bristol found that % =>5 A* to C incentivises schools to ration resources to pupils on C/D boundary, disadvantaging the lowest achievers.
    This does not invalidate accountability frameworks it just says we should we should use them bearing in mind their potential to be corrupted.
    The problems Burgess finds could be worked around by broadening performance indicators to measure the achievement of all pupils by for example using the average attainment not just the proportion that achieve a threshold.
    Schools are supposed to have positive effects on children’s path into adulthood, so how about measuring schools production of NEETs. Nick Gibb tried to do this before getting back benched.
    Campbell’s Law also suggests we should move the goal posts around once in a while.