16 May 2016

School Evaluation Has An Improvement Problem

photo credit: Neil
Last week we had our accreditation visit. 

The lead facilitator said two things to me, as a learner, that I believe he meant as compliments: 1) that I am a button pusher, and that we (education) needs more people like me, and 2) to keep being an agitator.

I believe we (as educators) also believe those to be good dispositions for our students to have. Why? Because in our ever changing world we want them to be original challengers of the status quo.

But how do we, as teachers, administrators, and educators, usually model ourselves as learners? Take, for example, an accreditation process. We spend quite a bit of time looking at the past and present—the status quo. But why do we only spend time on defending old stuff rather than also trying to figure out new stuff—to be challengers?

What do we believe drives deep learning? What do we want our kids to do? Then think about what we practice as learners ourselves.

I think the goal of a good accreditation process is to be program agnostic and learning specific. When I asked about the role creative disruption and experimentation should have in a school evaluation process, one of the facilitators agreed and talked about needing to find a balance between the past, present, and future. I completely agree. But the evaluation model has only structured spaces for the past and present. 

Where are our spaces in evaluation for the type of learning we value in our students? Why don't we put some of our beliefs into the curriculum (8th ed. School Improvement through Accreditation) we use to evaluate and measure learning? Where is room for the practitioners to use creativity, experimentation, innovation?

The current school accreditation model, in the words of Russ Ackoff, structure efficiency within the current model. By using standards, and indicators, and closed modeling, they chiefly look for improvements within discrete areas (Sections A-G) within discrete time frames (12 month self-study, 5 year review cycle). But they do not structure conversations around what Ackoff calls creative discontinuity; structuring creativity to allow for the "seeing of realities that might otherwise be overlooked?" Why should school wait to transform learning until after the accreditation has checked off the standards that have been scrupulously checked by the siloed self-study committees by generating volumes of evidence?

There is no balance. 

As I think the facilitators would agree, the Accreditation Standards and Indicators are descriptors, not prescriptions. So, combining two things I have been thinking recently about, evaluation and design, I've gone through the standards and picked out ones that can be aligned with the goals of discontinuous improvement into my own category, Category H: Transforming Learning:
  • A3f …. the acquisition and refinement of the skills of leading and following, collaborating, adapting to the ideas of others, constructive problem-solving, and conflict-resolution through experiencing leadership in authentic contexts. 
  • B6b: Teachers create stimulating learning environments that are evidenced by students who are engaged and active participants in their learning 
  • B9b: The school encourages pilot curriculum innovations and exploration of new teaching strategies, monitored by appropriate assessment techniques. 
  • D2a: Teachers utilize methods and practices which are consistent with the school’s Guiding Statements and which inspire, encourage and challenge students to reach their full potential.
  • F2e: The school creates student learning opportunities by effectively using the skills of its own community members and by building partnerships with external agencies such as local businesses and professional organizations.
  • F3a: The development and delivery of the school’s complementary programs demonstrate sensitivity to the needs and beliefs of different cultures, foster engagement with the local culture and promote global citizenship.
  • F3b: The school actively supports the development of student leadership and encourages students to undertake service learning. 
  • F3c: The school actively promotes and models global environmental awareness and responsibility across its community. 
  • F3d: The school regularly evaluates its complementary programs to ensure they remain aligned with its Guiding Statements, meet student needs and interests, and foster global citizenship.
Taken together, these indicators represent a very different idea of learning than is found in almost any traditional school that has not already begun to transform its learning DNA. They should shake the business-as-usual approach to learning. Does current school evaluation shake our approach?

Here is the argument. It is not that current evaluation models do not do good; they do, especially at schools who still have foundational work to do. But this is not an either/or proposition. It is a both/and.

There is no /and.

Without structuring experimentation into what this new learning DNA might look like, most schools will never get to transforming what they believe about learning because they have never been asked to. We need to study space and structure, and time, and transdisciplinary learning.

All accreditation models should have a transformative piece in place, a place for creativity and discontinuity. A place where it is explicitly said that it is ok to study experimenting, to study innovating, to study discontinuity, to explore the unknown and come back later with what you have learned, not what you have checked off. As a learner, that is the self-study team I want to be a part of.

We can continue to assume the future will look much like the past, and build the best model we can. But how do we know we are not building the best flip-phone? Or the best combustible engine? We do not (in fact all evidence points to the fact we are). And that simple fact should force us to change. Not in 5 years, not in 12 months. But now.

Check out Part 1 here: The Backwards Design of School Evaluation

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