Balancing Trust and Accountability

by Tracey Burns
Analyst and Project Leader, Innovation and Measuring Progress Division, Directorate for Education and Skills

Strengthening accountability is one of the key ways to improve the quality of an education system. Yet reform processes that emphasize strong evaluation and assessment regimes can be misunderstood as controlling or demonstrating a lack of trust: in teachers, in students, and in the system. What is the best way to maintain and build trust while improving accountability?

A recently released Governing Complex Education Systems (GCES) case study looks at this issue. Entitled Balancing Trust and Accountability? The Assessment for Learning Programme in Norway, the report explores the implementation strategies used to enhance formative assessment in Norwegian schools. The reform aimed at helping school leaders and teachers integrate formative assessment into their day-to- day teaching practice and schools.

In Norway there is a strong sense of trust in the system. However, when the system relies wholly on trust and has few incentives (or sanctions) for the actors, long-term implementation of policy initiatives can become problematic in the face of resistance.

In the last several years Norway has been one of many OECD countries working to build a culture of assessment across the entire system. In order to achieve this, governments have to strike the right balance between providing clear directions and goals on the one hand, and allowing for freedom of innovation and creativity in practice on the other. This is true for teachers and other stakeholders as well: trust in local authorities, for example, is also required for the effective functioning of the system.

Effective formative assessment, like teaching, is based on a combination of factors and there is no single recipe for success. However in order to learn new practices, teachers are just like the rest of us – they need guidance and support. In this case, the Norwegian authorities have provided workshops, online tools, and peer learning networks to help facilitate the process. But it is not easy – despite the support put in place, the majority of the teachers interviewed for the case study struggled with understanding what would be considered “correct” practice.

So what can be done? Prepare the ground. Don’t underestimate the importance of clear goals and communication. And recognize the power of networks. In this case study, the research team found that successful implementation of the programme was enhanced by:

  • strong leadership skills and thorough knowledge of the content of the programme on the part of the municipalities;
  • clear communication between governance levels and a high degree of trust between stakeholders;
  •  a solid understanding of the programme goals, including integrating these goals within the broader aims of educational policy and school practice; 
  • the establishment of learning networks between schools to aid the exchange of knowledge and opportunities for peer learning. 

One final note: This case study addresses the process of reform and the dynamics of change in a large-scale implementation of policy. In this context, the importance of strategic planning and alignment of goals between governance levels cannot be understated. There is a danger of too much, too soon – smaller municipalities in particular struggle with a continual stream of policy changes and prioritising activities. Meaningful change takes time, and embedding new behaviours into practice requires thoughtful and deliberate planning and feedback.

Education systems have never been easy to manage. Today it is abundantly clear that processes of reform cannot be understood as top-down unilateral delivery chains and treated as systems that engineer processes. Rather, they require reappraisal, fine-tuning, responsiveness and sometimes new structures of collaboration, participation and networking. And above all, trust must be nurtured, for it is hard to gain and easy to lose. As the old adage says, trust “arrives on foot and leaves on horseback”.

OECD’S Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI)
Governing Complex Education Systems (GCES)
OECD Review of Evaluation and Assessment for Improving School Outcomes
OECD Working Paper: Stakeholders and Multiple School Accountability
Photo credit:Symbol Scales is made of stones of various shapes/@ Shutterstock

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