I attended a planning session yesterday afternoon for the upcoming Education Leaders Forum to be held in Rotorua later this year. We discussed a range of issues affecting leadership in the education space, and inevitably the issue of standards, benchmarking and testing emerged – with a range of opinions being expressed as people try to second guess what might emerge from the NZ government’s current deliberations over national standards and league tables for primary and intermediate schools, for example.
Most of the discussions on these topics (particularly among educators) become polarised and full of emotion as we naturally seek to preserve the ‘stable state‘, however, as I see it, there are two underlying pressures that mean we’ll always be confronted with thinking about these issues. The first is the fact that there is a substantial investment being made in education and as such we must be prepared to provide some sort of accountability for that. Second is the fact that the ‘end of education‘ involves preparing young people for their future – and a recognition that that future is constantly changing and evolving – (implication – we can’t keep doing what we’ve always done!)
A significant problem, from my perspective, is the fact that it is difficult to raise the level of discussion to where it needs to be. So often I hear things like, “we can’t change society, but we can change the way we teach (and by inference, measure) kids in classrooms”. I actually don’t have any difficulty with exploring more systematically the way we teach (and measure) – but I do have difficulty with putting energy into that without taking cognizance of the context within which it’s all happening – and risk entering the world of boiling frogs 🙂
The key here is data – for without data, you are just another person with an opinion.
It was timely then that a colleague of mine at CORE sent me a link to a powerpoint presentation from Prof. Andreas Shleicher, Head, Indicators and Analysis Division at the OECD Directorate for Education. titled “Benchmarking the performance of education internationally”, the presentation provides some useful summaries drawn from reports from the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).
Schleicher’s presentation begins with a refreshingly “big picture” view of why this data is important – focusing on the skills needed in the 21st Century – in particular, the role of technology as a key driver here:
- The personal computer enabled millions of individuals to become authors of their own content in digital form.
- The spread of the Internet and the emergence of the World Wide Web enabled more people than ever to be connected and to share their knowledge.
- The emergence of software standards means that people are able to seamlessly work together and upload and globalise content.
He concludes that there is now “nowhere to hide” and goes on to use the PISA data to illustrate how the global talent pool has changed. I was interested in the inclusion of a graph taken from work of Levy and Murnane (2005):
This graph illustrates perfectly the challenge we face, and why data is important to help establish our response. The dilemma of schools from this is that the skills that are easiest to teach and test are also the ones that are easiest to digitise, automate and outsource! Thus, in our consideration of what we need to teach, and how we need to test it, we must be continually examining the strategies and approaches used to ensure we don’t fall prey to the “lowest common denominator’ syndrome.
If we are going to assess students, programmes, school performance etc (and I believe we must do so in some form or other), we need to ensure that what we do is genuinely useful and forward looking, and not simply providing a convenient way of comparing performance with some (often arbitary) external reference point.
As Schleicher summarises in slide 31, “…in deciding what to assess we must choose between looking back at what students were expecting to have learned (a traditional approach) or looking ahead to how well they can extrapolate from what they have learned and apply their knowledge and skills in novel settings.”
There’s a lot more contained in the slide show, and I recommend a good browse. Schleicher explores what the data shows about the autonomy of schools in selecting staff, the relationship between the amount of money spent on education and the outcomes achieved, the use of internal vs. external measures, and the results of efforts to provide socially equitable opportunities for learning among other things.
At the end of the day it’s all about improvement, at an individual, school, system and societal level, and as Schliecher points out at the end of his presentation:
You cannot improve what you cannot measure
[we need a] next generation of global benchmarks.