Opinion: Monitoring education

POSTED: 02/21/12 12:18 PM

Information is an often misunderstood commodity and not everybody fully grasps the importance of the sender-receiver concept. Senders send information and often mistakenly think that receivers will get the message. Wrong. In many cases the projected receivers don’t even see the message, let alone that they get it.
This situation is obviously universal. This is how communication works in the Fiji Islands, in the United States, in Europe and also in St. Maarten.
Victor Bekkers is a professor in public administration at the Erasmus University in Rotterdam. He researched information processes at 25 primary schools and his findings are interesting: policymakers think that the information they give out is easy to find. But parents hardly ever call on information from the education inspectorate to check upon the education-quality at their children’s school. Parents also find that they do not have enough influence on the school’s quality.
Bekkers found that a remarkably high number of parents say that the information that is available does not mean a lot to them.
School directors and school boards do make use of the same information to establish their policy. Very weak schools show a reactive reflex. In an effort to rid themselves of the negative impression the inspection has of them, the schools tackle the established shortcomings. Schools that function better integrate the inspection standards in their documents and quality monitoring systems based on a proactive strategy.
While school leaders use the available information, they are not always satisfied with the way that information was put together. They complain that the inspection’s quality test almost exclusively focuses on cognitive yields. The school leaders argue that primary school managers also must pay attention to children’s creative and social-emotional developments. And while these aspects are usually more difficult to measure, the inspection still ought to take them into account because they fit in a broad quality assessment. Quality in education is more than quantified result-figures, Bekkers says.
Directors and managers also criticize the way the inspection weighs its findings: usually they are no more than snapshots that say nothing about the interim progress schools are making. The list of weak schools should not be used as a mechanism to settle accounts. Directors and managers say that there is usually a balanced story behind the figures and that the inspection ought to pay more attention to excellent schools.
Bekkers points out that there are also schools with ambitions that go beyond the standards the inspection uses. Tin doing so, these schools anticipate future changes in those standards.
Most parents at the schools Bekkers surveyed indicated that they appreciate the existence of the education inspection. That is interesting, Bekkers says, because at the same time parents say that they have little influence on the quality-policy at their children’s school.
They base this position on the fact that they are extremely dependent on information that is given to them by others. They also feel that there is a so-called information-distance between them and the school’s staff, and management. Lastly, parents feel that the participation council sometimes gets involved too late in the decision making. This gives them a feeling they are discussing issues while the die is already cast.
Bekkers says that this is a relevant observation, given the fact that the government wants to create partnerships between schools and parents. Such a partnership assumes a relationship and information position of equal merit between parties.
The expectations policymakers have about publishing quality-information do not match reality, is the conclusion of Bekkers’ research. Parents hardly use published quality-information to decide about which school to send their children to. This means that their actions are less rational than policymakers assume.
Logically, Bekkers concludes, if the inspection finds it important that parents do get access to the information, it will have to start thinking about different ways to present it.
One suggestion is to use school websites as the carrier for inspection-information. It is important though, Bekkers notes that not only negative results are presented, but also positive performances in a naming and faming campaign. That offers a perspective to school with higher ambitions, the professor suggests.
This is hardly the stuff for party talk, but it is something our own education ministry ought to think about. We know that the school results are not always what they could or ought to be, and we also realize that it is important for parents to have good information about the school they send their children to. Lastly, we’d say that there is no naming and faming without (implicitly) naming and shaming. That may sound a bit harsh, but when school evaluation give credit where credit is due, it becomes clear that the same time which school perform below acceptable standards. Parents have a right to know this, too.

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