Running the PISA race

The education culture of performativity is wrapped up in notions of measurement. How do we measure student success, teacher performance, effective school leadership, and successful education policy? How do we know which school systems are successful and why they are successful? How can we tease out and understand causes of performance, such as the influence of social and economic factors, the system, the school, and the teacher? These are perennial education questions, and ones which continue to become more and more important in a globalised world in which countries, schools, and teachers can be compared, and in which there is an ever-increasing weight of accountability.

Standardised testing is a central issue in this neoliberal education context. Individual schools have their own approaches to measurement, such as the one I describe in this blog post. In Australia we have NAPLAN and WACE. There is currently talk of a national Phonics Check in the early years, such as that used in the UK. Internationally we have TIMSS, PIRLS and PISA.

Steven Lewis and Anna Hogan have shown how oversimplified reports of international testing measures can contribute to oversimplified ‘fast policy’. As Marten Koomen points out, systems should respond to international testing measures but these systems are complex. Stewart Riddle and Bob Lingard wrote that looking at a single country’s PISA ranking is useless; rather we need to carefully disaggregate the data and consider social and economic factors, and differences between states, schools and groups.

This week I received in the mail a copy of new book The global education race: Taking the measure of PISA and international testing, by Sam Sellar, Greg Thompson and David Rutkowski. (Full disclosure: I got a complimentary copy.) It is a pocket rocket at about A5 size and 99 pages. In the Foreword, David Berliner and Pasi Sahlberg question the value often ascribed to PISA, noting that PISA tests are linked to the social conditions as well as school systems and that “when the race to the top gets tougher … curriculum narrows and children suffer” (p.ix).

The book demystifies the workings of PISA, using the extended metaphor of the ‘race’ as a way to make sense of what PISA is, how it works, how it might be used, and how it shouldn’t be used. The authors make their explanations accessible without ignoring the complexities of standardised international testing on a large scale. The book is at once matter of fact and told with a wry sense of humour (as a reader I’m a sucker for references to Monty Python and 1980s arcade games). The book rails against the commodification of simple solutions to solve complex problems. As I explored satirically in this He-Man inspired post (speaking of 80s references) there are plenty of edu salespeople hoping to profit from the pressures of accountability pressing in on schools and teachers. This book, however, is about helping those on the ground to understand the complexities, inner workings and possibilities of PISA.

What sets Sellar, Thompson and Rutkowski’s book apart from other literature is its ability to engage with complexity in an accessible way; to explain clearly without simplifying; and to avoid binaries and polarising divides while acknowledging differing perspectives. They note, for instance, that PISA has been innovative, carefully developed, and judiciously administered, but that such a big project will undoubtably suffer from technical issues and limitations.  They note that PISA is an assessment of select content areas of one sample on one day, but also argue that transparent standardised tests like PISA can be a useful tool for understanding social systems. They explain validity in understandable ways and show how countries can use PISA data responsibly.

The international examples help the book to be relevant to people in OECD countries around the world. For Australian readers like myself there are some gems, such as that PISA performance has become an end in itself, evidenced by the national target of improving Australia’s PISA ranking by 2025 (articulated in the 2013 Education Act). The authors call this move “astounding”. Their tongues are firmly in their cheeks when they state on page 76 that: “The aim of reversing the trend of declining PISA scores seems to be to improve PISA scores through intensifying those policies that have not worked so far. A bold move.” A bold move, indeed, and one that Simon Birmingham might want to reconsider.

The authors also recognise the desire of policy makers, educators and the media to understand PISA and to glean the most important messages it can tell us. They warn, however, about over-attribution of causality, when correlations become causal claims, pointing to the way the media and policy makers often use PISA to point to particular factors as being the cause of high or declining PISA performance. I’ve written about the dangers of policy moves like performance pay for teachers, and the authors have warnings to offer their readers about the negative effects of pairing standardised testing with punitive accountability regimes, and of governments desperately scrambling to ‘win’ against other countries. Run your own race, they argue.

The global education race presents an important challenge to policy makers and educators alike: to develop informed communities willing and able to engage in discussion of how educational measurement, including system-level measurement tools, can be judiciously used to inform policy and practice. The kind of shift they suggest is a challenge. It will require ministers, media and educators to take a non-divisive, sense-making and collaborative approach of seeking to understand, and of deep, thoughtful engagement with data and with one another.

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 an 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.

Trust and support teachers: My New Voice Scholarship panel speech

speaking yesterday at the Melbourne Convention Centre

speaking yesterday at the Melbourne Convention Centre

Yesterday I had the pleasure of speaking on a panel of ACEL New Voice Scholars (list of awardees here) at the Melbourne Convention Centre. As a representative of new Australian voices in educational leadership research, I spoke in front of an auditorium of 1200 educators in response to the provocation: ‘If you could wave a magic wand, how would you transform education?’

The following is a version of that speech (I tend to go off the cuff a bit, so it’s not identical). It is based on this think piece I wrote for the ACEL Perspectives publication which is more measured and referenced, and less rhetoric-laden than my speech. I’ve added links to other blog posts to this post, as feedback from those at the conference has been that they would like to know more about the school professional learning model about which I spoke.

Thank you to the Australian Council for Educational Leaders for offering me the platform-soapbox-orangecrate from which to speak passionately about what I think is important for leaders, teachers and students in our schools.

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(Hello etc. …)

I am an English teacher by trade and have spent the last 17 years teaching and leading in schools in Australia and the UK. Most recently I have been leading a strategic project that developed a whole-school coaching model at my school, designed to do a number of things, including:

  • Improve teacher classroom practice;
  • Develop teachers’ capacities for reflection;
  • Depersonalise and open classrooms;
  • Develop a common language of practice; and
  • Improve the quality of professional conversation.

This intervention was strategically aligned, so it was top down in terms of being aligned with the strategic vision of the school, initiated by the principal and supported by the school board. But it was also middle out and bottom up, as the model was developed by teams of teachers, led by me. We took a deliberately slow process of prototyping, piloting, iterating and refining this context-specific intervention.

At the same time, while also parenting two small children, I completed a PhD in which I asked what it is that makes professional learning transformational and how school leaders can best lead professional learning for teachers.

(It was at this point that I said something like, “My doctorate was conferred in April, so if you see me around the conference, you can call me Dr Deb” which has resulted in everyone from the MC to delegates calling me ‘Dr Deb’ ever since!)

As someone who bestrides educational practice and research, I don’t believe there is a silver bullet or magic wand that can transform education, but I do believe we can work to positively influence it.

Two things we can focus on, in order to positively impact on our students’ learning, are the trust and growth of teachers.

At my school, we have developed a model for teacher growth that uses Cognitive Coaching, non-inferential lesson data, and the Danielson Framework for Teaching, to help teachers reflect on and grow their practice.

Non-inferential lesson data—that is, data that is, as much as possible, non-judgemental and informational—and shared standards of teaching, help our teachers to develop the depth and precision of their reflections on practice, while Cognitive Coaching helps teachers to surface their own thinking about how they can improve. Cognitive Coaching is not about solution-providing or advice-giving, but about mediating the thinking of teachers and helping them to find their own solutions to problems of practice, based on a belief in their internal capacity to do so. To paraphrase Dylan Wiliam: teachers know their own classroom and their own students best.

My PhD found that coaching, among other things, can transform teachers’ beliefs and practices. It also found that school leaders have an important part to play in leading the learning of teachers.

We need to avoid those policies and practices that pit teachers and schools against one another (such as merit pay), that promote competition and commodification, or that focus on external metrics, performative measures, rewards or punishments. These are all things that demotivate, de-professionalise and demean our profession.

To support teacher professional growth and improvement in practice, we need to focus on trusting teachers to be professionals with the capacity to grow. We need to properly support their growth through context-specific interventions for which we provide adequate training, sufficient time, appropriate resources, and processes to systematically review our effectiveness.

In this way, within our own schools, we can heighten teachers’ self-awareness, self-efficacy and collaborative expertise and positively influence student learning.