Educators: Hold the line on voice, autonomy, and trust

Can we hold the line in the face of challenging circumstances?

This week I was thrilled to welcome Professor Pasi Sahlberg to my Western Australian school to talk to our leaders—from coaches and team leaders to Heads of Faculty, senior leadership and the Executive—about school leadership and what high performing education systems do. Pasi’s list covers things about which many of us leading in schools, and researching and writing about education, are concerned: collaboration, learning and wellbeing, trust-based responsibility, continuous improvement, and equity. They are also guiding principles for teachers in classrooms, who use what Pasi calls ‘small data’ every day. In my PhD, which was based around effective school change and transformational professional learning, these were also themes that emerged; in particular, my research surfaced trust, professional collaboration, and continuous improvement through a range of educator-centred experiences.

I am reminded of the chapter I have co-authored in the upcoming Flip the System UK: A Teachers’ Manifesto book. In it, Jon Andrews, Cameron Paterson, and I, cite Sahlberg’s concept of the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM) and its destructive influence on teacher voice, power, and agency. We argue for a re-professionalising and re-humanising of teaching and education.

I am reminded, too, of my speech to the Australian Council for Educational Leaders conference last year about trusting and supporting teachers. In his new book, FinnishED Leadership: Four big, inexpensive ideas to transform education, Sahlberg supports the autonomy of teachers and schools. He writes:

Strengthen collective autonomy of schools by giving teachers more independence from bureaucracy and simultaneously investing in teamwork in your school. This enhances social capital that is proved to be a critical aspect of building trust within education and enhancing student learning. (p.43)

He notes that the Finnish government spends 30 times more funds on the professional learning and development of educators than on accountability procedures, such as tests and surveys.

We live in a time of compliance and performativity. Australian schools are like tin cans being crushed from the outside-in by a focus on the results external testing (NAPLAN, HSC, WACE, VCE, PIRLS, TIMMS, PISA, the upcoming Phonics Check) and on publicly published league tables and competition-based publications such as the myschool website.

When Pasi spoke to leaders at my school, robust discussion ensued. He challenged us to ask what is within our control, what it is that we can change, what we would do if we could enact our dream for the best way of serving our students, starting tomorrow. He challenged us to question the systemic and regulatory parameters within which we operate, and to hold the line on those things we know will make a difference to our students.

Sahlberg’s work is supported by that of others, such as Michael Fullan’s on the wrong drivers for education reform, and Fullan’s work with Andy Hargreaves on professional capital in their book, Professional Capital: Transforming teaching in every school, and in the Journal of Professional Capital and Community. The Flip the System movement, too, beginning with Jelmer Evers and René Kneyber’s book Flip the System, brings together and champions the voices of teachers, academics and education experts in order to reclaim the space of education discourse for those working within schools.

So, what can we do in our own contexts? How might we reshape the narrative of education, or advocate for the following?

Less testing

More collaboration

Less accountability

More equity

Less competition

More trust

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School leadership and resisting performativity

Performativity is a technology, a culture and a mode of regulation that employs judgements, comparisons and displays as means of incentive, control, attrition and change based on rewards and sanctions (both material and symbolic). The performances (of individual subjects or organisations) serve as measures of productivity or output, or displays of ‘quality’, or ‘moments’ of promotion or inspection. As such they stand for, encapsulate or represent the worth, quality or value of an individual or organisation within a field of judgement. (Ball, 2003, p.216)

We live in an education world that is highly-metricised and focused on hyper-accountability. Students, teachers and school leaders exist in a world in which data and high-stakes testing rule with a policy-clad fist. Countries, schools and students are pitted against each other. The media creates polarising narratives – public vs. private schooling, parents vs. teachers, home vs. school, this country vs. Finland or China. Governments create policies like competitive performance pay for teachers and additional testing.

Sahlberg (2011) frames the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM) as a viral force of accountability, performativity, and commodification. Ball (2003) notes the panopticism of managing schools; all are watched and simultaneously scrambling to be visible in the ‘right’ ways. Zhao (2016) acknowledges the strong desire for measuring students, teachers, and schools, but argues for treating numbers with suspicion and expanding what is measured in education. Biesta (2015) notes that the view of education as encompassing only academic achievement in a small and selective number of domains and subject areas, is a limited one. He warns:

The problem with excellence is that it very quickly leads to a competitive mind-set, where some schools or some education systems are supposed to be more excellent than others. In my view, the duty of education is to ensure that there is good education for everyone everywhere.

This notion of democratisation rather than contestation or commodification is radical in our current edu-climate. Ball identifies institutional self-interest, pragmatics and performative worth as the new ethical systems of education. Heffernan (2016) points out that principals’ behaviour has changed as the focus of schools has shifted towards one led by performative numbers and specific sets of data; principals work to improve data. She cautions against “focusing on improving these specific data sets to the detriment of other, holistic, pursuits in education that are not so easily quantified and measured” (p.389). Keddie et al. (2011) express concern that the narrowing of priorities due to performative schooling cultures has pushed to the margins schools’ focus on social justice and equity. Ball suggests that ‘values schizophrenia’ is experienced by educators whereby they sacrifice their commitment, judgement and authenticity for impression and performance.

Leading in schools is complex at the best and easiest of times. Plenty of scholars have identified the qualities of effective school leaders. One example is Gurr and Day (2014), who in their reflections on 15 stories of successful school principals across 13 countries, identify successful principals as: having high expectations; being both heroic and empowering in their leadership; developing collective, shared vision; taking on the symbolic role of storyteller and sense-maker; embodying integrity, trust, and transparency; being people centred; and balancing instructional and transformational leadership. Navigating these multiple and complex roles is challenging even when everything is going well and there is plenty to celebrate. When things get tough and demanding, leaders are really tested.

In a world that values metrics over stories and test scores over empathy, it takes courage to hold the line on egalitarianism, advocating for individuals with difficult circumstances, or mining richer seams of data than the popular ones of NAPLAN, PISA, TIMSS, tertiary entrance examination scores, and an ever-increasing litany of tests. It can be daring and dangerous to advocate for an education that does more than pander to market perception, external measures and competitive league tables.

Sometimes, leaders have to make difficult but unpopular decisions for the greater good of the organisation, for the many, or for the principles of education. Leaders’ decisions can be objected to by those without the big picture context or an understanding of a situation’s complexities. Leaders can listen to others’ feedback and take it on board in decision-making, and they can be as transparent as possible in their communication. (Academic writing, especially the blind peer review process, has helped to shape my acceptance of and willingness to learn from dissenting voices, brutal criticism and those who disagree with me. I’ve applied this in my school context by finding ways to ask for honest, sometimes anonymous, feedback from others in order to inform my practice and the education reform initiatives in which I have been involved.)

Can we adopt Biesta’s call to pursue ‘good education for everyone everywhere’ while also pursuing excellence? Can leaders of schools help to create counter- or simultaneous narratives to those of high-stakes accountability around narrow foci?  I think leaders can buck against the push for compliance, performance and the enterprise mindset. We can choose resistance to performative pressures, although not without a price.

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Post-script: Interested in democratising education? This Re-Imagining Education for Democracy Summit, in Queensland in November, could be a great place for presentation and discussion of ideas. It’s being spearheaded by Stewart Riddle, who wrote this 2014 Conversation piece Education is a public good, not a private commodity.

References

Ball, S. J. (2003). The teacher’s soul and the terrors of performativity. Journal of Education Policy, 18(2), 215-228

Biesta, G. (2015). What is education for? On good education, teacher judgement, and educational professionalism. Eurpoean Journal of Education Research, Development and Policy, 50(1), pp 75-87.

Gurr, D., & Day, C. (2014). Thinking about leading schools. In C. Day & D.Gurr (Eds.), Leading schools successfully: Stories from the field (pp. 194-208). Abingdon, OX: Routledge.

Heffernan, A. (2016). The emperor’s perfect map: Leadership by numbers. Australian Educational Researcher, 43(3), 377-391.

Keddie, A., Mills, M., & Pendergast, D. (2011). Fabricating an identity in neo-liberal times: Performaing schooling as ‘number one’. Oxford Review of Education 37(1), pp. 75-92.

Sahlberg, P. (2011). Finnish lessons. New York, NY. Teachers College.

Zhao, Y.  (2016). Numbers can lie: The meaning and limitations of test scores. In Y. Zhao (Ed.), Counting what counts: Reframing education outcomes (pp. 13-29). Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.