What a tangled web we weave: strategies for school improvement

by Harald Wilkoszewski
Analyst, Innovation and Measuring Progress Division, Directorate for Education and Skills

The best education possible for our children – this is what all education systems strive for. But what can policy makers do when schools become weak, sometimes too weak, to fulfil their purpose? Especially in highly decentralised systems, where schools enjoy high levels of autonomy, policy interventions to help improve the learning situations for students can be particularly difficult to implement.

A new case study on The Netherlands for the OECD project “Governing Complex Education Systems (GCES)” shows that a timely, risk-based assessment of schools can help to significantly lower the number of weak schools. The case study also illustrates that governing is in the details, as the reform had some undesired effects. But let’s look at the good news first.

In 2009, 120 Dutch schools were underperforming. In 2011 this number decreased to less than 100, a significant drop of over 16%. The Dutch school inspectorate, traditionally responsible for school quality, achieved this by flagging schools that showed low indicators on a number of outputs as “weak” or “very weak”. These labels mean that unless these schools change radically, they run the risk of failing – being closed down.

Schools are not, however, left alone with this message: The inspectorate puts in place a range of supporting measures such as tailor-made recommendations or an intensive exchange with schools boards.

While the numbers speak for the success of this reform, the new GCES case study “Coping with very weak primary schools” also shows that schools react quite differently to being labelled “weak” or “very weak”. Most school communities take it as a wake-up call and are encouraged to improve, but some become discouraged and do not manage to turn the wheel around.

Whereas schools that react positively then end up in a virtuous cycle of improvement, schools that react negatively are stuck in a vicious circle: alerted parents take their children out of the labelled school, other parents follow the example, and the number of students decreases dramatically. This forces the school to merge several school grades into one classroom, putting even more stress on the teachers. In this difficult situation, performance improvements are hard to achieve and school closure becomes a likely scenario.

In order to avoid such undesired effects, the case study recommends that decision makers adapt their mindsets, from a linear perspective of cause and consequence, to a more dynamic view. This will help them take a second look at their existing repertoire and analyse how their current set of policy interventions works in a complex system.

Ultimately, this adaptive view may prove beneficial in other education policy contexts as well because it can:

  • Lead to new insights into how and why some interventions seem to work surprisingly well;
  • Show why some methods work less well and identify previously unnoticed, positive effects;
  • Show that some interventions do not work at all and that the capital that goes into them may be better invested in other areas of the system;
  • Put some interventions on the radar that come from other areas, other policy domains that may be beneficial to very weak schools;
  • Be an important element in developing smarter interventions in multi-level systems.

OECD’S Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI)
Governing Complex Education Systems (GCES)
Photo credit: Young girl excited that she has reached the top of the giant/ Shutterstock

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