The more the merrier

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

Who is responsible for successes and failures of schools? A new Education Working Paper says  involving parents and students can help improve education systems by including them in accountability and school achievement processes. The traditional approach where central government provides the resources and made the majority of decisions has given way in many OECD countries to greater autonomy and control over decision-making for schools and local governments. This greater freedom has developed hand in hand with the rise of benchmarking and international assessments, and has made accountability a hot topic for policy makers and communities alike.

But what about other voices? Parents, community leaders, and others are taking an increasingly active role in governing their local schools. This trend, called “multiple accountability”, aims to provide more localized and nuanced feedback and guidance that schools and education systems can use in addition to standardized test results. It is a promising concept that builds on successes from other public policy areas such as environment and health. There is also fascinating evidence from the business world that suggests that enabling shareholders in private corporations to vote on the pay policy of the company’s executive officers appears to lead to large increases in the company’s market value, profitability and long-term performance. These “Say-on-Pay” regulations, promoted in the US and UK, allow more people within the corporation to have a say in decisions – and crucially, this shared responsibility can result in benefits to the whole company.

In education, multiple accountability is still a fairly new concept, and the amount of available research on how to make it work is modest. Three lessons, however, can be learned from existing models in The Netherlands and the United Kingdom:

  1. You must identify the key stakeholders. This is more difficult than it sounds, and schools must make efforts to involve less powerful or inactive voices.
  2. You must build capacity for this new role. Some stakeholders might not have the knowledge and language needed and may inadvertently be excluded in accountability processes. Providing them with the tools to interpret and analyse benchmarking data and other evaluation processes (e.g., value added measures) is an important part of giving them the expertise they need to take part.
  3. You must be ready and open to assess your school’s quality and processes . School leaders play a key role in empowering staff to be involved and open to parents and members of the local community.  

Including the voices of parents and other stakeholders could be one of the most relevant shifts for education policy today. But unforeseen challenges may arise: it turns out that market mechanisms such as school competitiveness and parental choice in education can actually be disincentives for making multiple accountability work. In a competitive market, transparent discussion of the weaknesses of a school can threaten the image and competitiveness of the institution. In such contexts, it is strategically important to highlight the successes and avoid talking about room for improvement. The real question is: which approach is best-suited to improving our schools and education systems?

Education Working papers
OECD’S Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI)
Governing Complex Education Systems (GCES)
Photo credit: Talk in colours speech bubbles /Shutterstock

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