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Publications:Focus on:Turning tides in school evaluation

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One-way streets in school evaluation have turned into a multi-lane highways

Focus on: Turning tides in school evaluation

Date of publication: 29 January 2015

'The pure and simple truth is rarely pure and never simple'  – Oscar Wilde

15 years ago, the phrase 'school evaluation' would probably have triggered a rather one directional image of teachers assessing individual students. The reputation and 'fame' of schools depended on whether pupils generally performed well, and while schools or teachers, may have been 'inspected' there was rarely a consideration of the range of issues that affect the school environment. Today, reality has progressed and the picture looks quite different. The one-way evaluation streets have evolved into multi-lane highways with everyone scrutinising everyone else. Teachers still evaluate pupils but now pupils also assess teachers. Teachers collectively also evaluate their own work. And increasingly, public authorities evaluate schools as a whole using a range of methods and criteria. In short, school evaluation has become a more democratic and transparent phenomenon. But are there any potentially hidden downsides to this new, multi-layered approach?

The main purpose of school evaluation is, of course, to improve educational quality. This is clearly highlighted in a new Eurydice report on the topic. Today, 31 European education systems put their schools under the spotlight through external and internal evaluations, a significant increase to just a few years ago.

Overall, the concept of school evaluation is taking shape in an era of decentralisation, greater transparency and accountability. Internal or school self-evaluation is about establishing a school culture that strives to constantly improve the quality of teaching and learning through involving the school stakeholders (students, parents, teachers) directly in discussions on key aspects of the school's work.

External evaluations also aim at school improvement. However, their role may sometimes be more contested, as they tend to bring more information into the public domain. Indeed most European countries stipulate that the final reports of external evaluations are made public, with 15 education systems openly publishing final reports on school or local/central government websites. Another 10 systems make the reports available only to defined stakeholders or only on request.

After all, the argument goes that the more information is made public, the better the choices the public can make. But is that necessarily so? As Oscar Wilde observed, a pure and simple truth is rarely pure and never simple. Having access to information on school performance may be a blessing to proud parents living in one of the few countries where they can freely choose the school they deem most appropriate for their child. Such parents may focus on aspects such as school quality, class size, location etc. But even in countries where the principle of choice is granted, are parents always in a position to choose? Or is it rather that some families have the means, be they financial or cultural, to take advantage of open information, while others just have to accept whatever they can get?

In the few countries combining free choice and public external evaluation reports, a kind of market behaviour may emerge – but as with most markets, there are likely to be winners and losers. And the repercussions spread wider than individuals. Schools that are positively evaluated might, for example, attract parents from far and wide, thus pushing up house prices in the school's catchment area. But as only the relatively well-off are able to move, this can create socio-economic shifts, with other neighbourhoods becoming more marginalised as a consequence. Hence increased social segregation can be an unintentional side-effect of school evaluation.

Another potential issue with external school evaluation is that it may not be focusing on the most important aspects of education. If we knew the answer to the question, 'what makes a good school?' we would be able to establish the relevant criteria to assess schools fairly easily. But how can we be sure that evaluators are looking at the right things?

While there is no doubt a trend to widen the range of issues and criteria, in a few countries student performance is a central consideration of external evaluations. This is commonly measured by comparing standardized test results. This practice may lead to an increased focus on teaching for tests, which in turn can certainly lead to improved test results. However, these tests might not reflect a student's ability in a wide range of real life challenges – such as their capacity to innovate, find creative solutions and think critically. So school evaluation has to be careful to situate information on student performance in a broader context if it is to avoid stimulating a crude and over-simplistic 'league table' culture of school ranking.

And how do evaluation criteria change school behaviour? Just like universities who want to improve their international ranking, schools that want to outperform others may simply focus on the criteria that are subject to evaluation and ignore other significant issues, leading to a narrowing focus, and arguably a decrease in educational quality.

What can we learn from all of this? First of all, school evaluation has come a long way and brought many positive improvements. Yet, a seemingly simple act like publishing an external school evaluation report can have an impact on many facets of life and generate societal change at different levels. Secondly, the question of whether school evaluation increases educational quality can only be answered if we agree on what quality education actually is (and the jury is likely to be out on that one for quite a while). And finally, in an age of evaluation, we should also evaluate our own culture and practice to be sure that it is leading us in the right direction, rather than distracting us from a discussion of what better education is really about.

Authors:  Andrea Puhl and David Crosier