Free schools and accountability

Wednesday, October 27th, 2010

I was disappointed to hear Rachel Wolf, of the New Schools Network, talking in what sounded like fairly ideological terms about “accountability” on the Today programme yesterday.

Ms Wolf was being put on the spot about the ability of free schools, which the New Schools Network promotes, to employ teachers who lack Qualified Teacher Status (QTS).

It was a brief interview, with frequent interruptions, but I think the thrust of her argument was fairly clear.

First, she said, schools needed the flexibility to decide whom to recruit. I’m not going to discuss that point directly here.

But second, she seemed to be arguing that if there were any problems with teachers recruited without having gained QTS, these would simply show up through “accountability”, which seemed to consist of inspections and test/exam results.

She said: “The way that parents decide about whether teachers are good is by whether the school is doing well, and one of the things about free schools is that they are going to be held strictly accountable through inspections”. Then, as the discussion headed towards a slightly frantic conclusion, she seemed to be talking about test and exam results being the main vehicle.

She said: “I think it’s absolutely key that groups [setting up schools] are able to innovate in the classroom, that they are able to try different things, and that they are held accountable for their results. I think we need to move to a system where people are held accountable for how well they do.”

James Naughtie, the interviewer, then intervened. He said: “If [the teachers] get bad results, it’s too late.”

Ms Wolf replied: “We have to allow people, as they have done in America, as they have done with charter schools, and this is why [President] Obama is pushing charter schools so heavily, to try something different for children who are not getting the results they should.”

I think the argument, then, is clear, and the thinking is entirely akin to the ideology behind the testing/charter school/corporate education model now being pushed very hard across the Atlantic. Charter schools are one of the school reform models being promoted by the New Schools Network and are, as Ms Wolf says, also backed by President Obama.

“Accountability” in the way it has developed through an influential strand of opinion in America, says at its crudest that it doesn’t matter what credentials a teacher might have because they can simply be held to account through their pupils’ test and exam results, with low performers fired. It is a huge debating point in the United States.

Some, including the author and journalist Malcolm Gladwell, have reportedly argued that “anyone with a pulse and a college degree” should be allowed into teaching, with performance data then used to root out underperformers.

Media attempts to put pressure on teachers with poor scores have included the Los Angeles Times publishing value-added test data on thousands of named  elementary school teachers.

The current edition of one of America’s most well-known education magazines, Phi Delta Kappan, for which I write regularly online and which fell through my letterbox this morning, has two lengthy articles debating the problems with this version of accountability, including the assumption that there are legions of great potential teachers waiting to take the place of anyone sacked because their pupils’ test scores are too low.

One* concludes: “A decade of accountability mandates has caused schools to respond in predictable and unproductive ways. One of its effects has been to obscure certain truths about education as actually practiced [sic: US spelling] in the classroom. If schools are to improve, they must abandon the business-orientated rhetoric of the accountability movement and concentrate on what we know will improve student achievement. That is, schools must focus on improving the quality of instruction in all classrooms.”

I have also just been sent a statement to sign, put together by 10 very prominent US educationists which argues against that “even the most sophisticated use of test scores, value added modelling (VAM) is a flawed and inaccurate way to judge whether teachers are effective or ineffective”.

Ranged against them in this debate are prominent media organisations, aggressive reformers – who argue, rightly or wrongly, that drastic change is needed in America’s schools – and corporate sponsors.

But accountability in the simplistic sense that reformers push it promotes, of course, dumbed-down education, narrowing teaching to what can be measured, while there is what seems to me persuasive evidence that it can actually inhibit innovation, in creating a culture of fear among professionals.

I would also wager that if anyone asked Ms Wolf who her own best teachers were, she would not be asking for data on their pupils’ exam results.

For these reasons, actually, I think Rachel Wolf is wrong: I’m sceptical whether accountability actually will take off in this fashion if free schools are really given the freedom that those trying to set them up will hope for. For the middle class parents who seem to have at least a say in the running of these schools (for an example, see this group at Toby Young’s proposed free school) strike me as too smart to let teacher quality be judged on such narrow measures as is being advocated in the States. Teacher quality, I think, if left to parents running schools, would be judged in a more nuanced and qualitative, and less reductive, way, if these parents really have a stake in ensuring the schools promote good teaching.  

Anyone doubting this should consider that the other independent sector over here – in particular, the successful, household name fee-charging schools – as far as I know do not go near anything like this kind of measurement system. I don’t think their reputations would stand it.

Alternatively, if a system of crude numbers-based accountability is going to be imposed on free schools, then they are likely to be “free” only to the extent that they can guarantee their pupils’ good performance on the tested metrics,  which presumably will be centralised indicators.

Just finally, watching the American debate develop into this incredibly polarised, bitter battle for the future of state education, with corporate donors seeming to have a very strong say in how it is framed and state schools regularly pilloried, I do wonder why anyone over here would look at it and say: “that sounds good to me, let’s have some of that”.

*The US article on accountability which I mention, for which unfortunately I’m unable to provide a link, is “Truths Hidden in Plain View” by Thomas M McCann, Alan C Jones and Gail Aronoff.

4 Comments

  1. Hi Warwick
    Interesting piece. I’m not sure if you are saying that:
    a) teachers should NOT be judged on exam results? or
    b) that that they should NOT be judged on exam results alone? or
    c) something else?

    I agree about Toby Young’s cabal. They are too sophisticated for that.

    But I don’t have a problem with free schools as a concept. I do believe that there needs to be greater accountability for schools (not necessarily for teachers) to the public whose tax revenues keep them going. but that appliesd to all publicly funded schools – community, VA, academies, free schools.

    I don’t believe that the public have a right to hold individual teachers to account. But they should have a right to hold the school as an entity (i.e. the governing body/SLT) to account.

    I’m all for more, not less, measures to add to the Ofsted judgements and exam results.

    And comparisons to the US models, whether by you or Rachel Wolf, are going to be really wide of the mark. They have had very little public accountability over a very long period. Their models are far less mature than those in use in England.

  2. Hi Feargal,

    Thanks for your comment. Difficult to know quite how to reply in a short response, as really most of this blog, and my book, is an attempt to analyse the current accountability system in England: the justification for it, and the problems with it. But here goes…

    Of course I’m not against accountability per se. State funded schools do need to be accountable. But I have attempted to document the problems with the system – which I’ve called hyper-accountability because of the huge pressure there is on schools to raise their results – in terms of the evidence I can find as to its impact on the learning experience for pupils.

    My book examines in particular the side-effects of the huge emphasis being placed on exam results as the be-all-and-end-all of the way schools are judged here – through league tables, Ofsted inspections, targets, performance pay for teachers, etc. But I think the problems run deeper than just the focus on exam results, because I believe any accountability system which is based so heavily on numerical judgements or statistical formulae will run into problems. So, while I think accountability is important, I would rather it centred on qualitative (though if necessary, numbers-informed) judgements made about schools by people, rather than through spreadsheets of centrally-developed performance indicators, as happens now.

    Re the US point, I agree that comparisons between countries can be misleading. However, ministers and those close to them are frequently, now, citing aspects of the US reforms as ones to follow, so I think they have to be scrutinised.

  3. I think teachers need to be aware that their exam results are important, but within reason. The vital thing is that teachers need to be constantly reflecting upon the effectiveness of their practice and that means looking at exam results, test results, lesson observations, pupil feedback. My worry about what Wolf says is that teachers will not be properly trained; I think too many parents are not aware of the importance of good teacher training. I’ve got a lot better as a teacher recently because of the training I’ve received both in school and at Goldsmiths College.

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