Shifting the blame: the real crisis in education accountability

Recent months have seen more calls for increased accountability for education for the schools, teachers and parents.

Some commentators and education elite have made the entirely laudable point that we need to move from justifying education policy in terms of dollars spent and start looking at ‘accountability outputs’.

But shifting the accountability onto schools quite misses the point.

Firstly, it fails to address the systemic issues associated with poor educational outcomes. For example, the so-called crisis in literacy outcomes can be at least partly attributed to the 1970’s removal of English grammer from Australian government schools, which has led to the ridiculous situation of teachers wit no formal knowledge of how their language works trying to teach literacy.

It is too easy to blame the teachers or students for this shortfall, and so governments and lobby groups call for better teachers and give them and their communities more money. In reality, it was a decision by the education bureacracy that is to blame in that instance; and now it is the education bureacracy that should be held accountable for the consequences of a horribly failed systemtic experiment.

Secondly, it fails to address societal issues, such as levels of increasing violence and the lack of respect afforded to people. Public perceptions around this issue could well be one of the more significant drivers of the so-called drift to the private education system, where at least the form of respect is demanded and the school has the freedom to enforce consequences if respect is not seen to be given. The withdrawal of counsellors from ACT government high schools represents a systemic failure on this front, too.

Thirdly, it defines education as a utilitarian means to an end: that of getting good marks. In focusing on gradings for schools, the measure of success for a school, a teacher, a child or a family, will increasingly become the marks from the latest exam. Too bad for the future gifted mechanic or carpenter who might only ever score 50% in a NAPLAN test, and for whom good marks in advanced calculus could well be unnecessary, however much it improves a school’s overall score. And too bad for the rural Indigenous student who can see nothing of relevance in curriculum developed largely for urban, anglo children from solid, middle-class families.

Moving towards national testing and reporting of school and student exam results will do nothing to remedy the situation in any of these.

While the introduction of testing is claimed to have improved test results in some countries, it might well measure only the capacity of those education systems to ‘teach to the test’. In fact, any claim that an exam and the following reporting of results improves educational outcomes really should be held up for the fraud that it is. Exams allow measurement; they don’t in themselves improve anything other than, with practice, the ability to pass exams.

But the main argument against moves to shift the blame to schools, parents and students, claiming it make them ‘more accountable’, is that it redefines the relationship between the citizen and the government to attribute non-compliance – branded as failure – to individuals while allowing the ‘system’ to claim credit for wider-scale successes. If you doubt this point, perhaps consider the conduct of government during the ACT’s mass school closures; or just watch our local politicians claim schools’ achievements as their own while ducking for cover at the first bad report.

Under current proposals, a school with poor ‘outcomes’ (however defined) will effectively be publicly named and shamed, stigmatising the current students regardless of their individual abilities. Even if the government increases the level of resourcing, a parent with a talented child will, if possible, look for a school that can give an education without the stigma, leaving those behind to ever increasing cycles of being named and shamed. If five or ten schools under the supervision of a single district or regional director are all similarly branded as failures, then it is all too easy for a bureaucracy wanting to dodge responsibility to focus on individual schools, even closing some who cannot defend themselves politically, rather than examining its own performance in terms of the conduct of the director, his capacity to manage, or the suitability of the curriculum to the region in question.

In other words, it will be easier for departments and politicians to blame the victims of decades of poor bureacratic performance.

The calls for increased accountability for schools and students are not coming from parents, particularly once they are aware that governments already have the the results of student testing and could already direct resources accordingly. At any rate, parents already know which local schools are good for their children, and which ones are not; and academic performance is only one of the factors taken into account, especially in primary schools.

Teachers don’t appear to be driving the issue either. Apart from the systemic failures of the type mentioned above, most teachers are highly capable individuals who really just want to be left alone to teach. In fact, the increased paperwork and reporting that has swamped teachers in the past decade or so seems to have only made their job more difficult.

The call for increased accountability – of schools – seems to be coming from the education bureaucracy. We can’t even blame Howard or Rudd, since the call has survived and even gained momenetum with a change of government. It seems to be a call for more bureaucractic control over the daily activities and lives of schools, teachers and students. Any claim that more accountability is needed to better direct resourcing is a fraud – governments could already do this with existing data if they wanted.

Without a doubt, it is the education bureaucracy that should be now held accountable. If there is a national or even a state crisis in literacy and numeracy, then clearly it is the national or state system that should be held accountable. What are the policies and practices developed during the past three decades that have contributed to the apparant slide in standards and outcomes? And while dollars spent might not be the solution in itself, perhaps the overall decline in public education funding has at least partly contributed to the problem.

If Australia is serious about improving the education of our children, and I deliberately avoid the term ’ educational outcomes’, then the place to start is to review the very departments that will, it seems, do almost anything to avoid scrutiny of their own performance. If we are to report school outcomes, then we must insist on state and territory-wide level reporting that does not name and shame individual schools but looks at the performance of the system as whole. Then we can look to the departments and their ministers to take responsibility for the crisis they claim exists and perhaps even start to fix it.

Who knows, maybe the so-called crisis will be no more?

Sarah James

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