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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

PISA Head Delivers Speech on School Autonomy

By Peter DeWitt — March 30, 2014 5 min read
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No system in the world has ever achieved whole system reform by LEADING with accountability.” Michael Fullan

On March 28th and 29th, the International Summit on the Teaching Profession took place in Wellington, New Zealand. Education Minister of New Zealand Hon Hekia Parata hosted twenty educational leaders from around the world, including U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

One of the keynoters was Andreas Schleicher, the Deputy Director for Education and Skills and Special Advisor on Education Policy to the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development’s (OECD) Secretary-General. Schleicher is best known as the as the Division Head and coordinator of the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment...AKA...PISA.

The paper Schleicher presented on, which you can read here, focused on (among other areas) equity, autonomy and preparing the teaching profession to teach in disadvantaged areas. Disadvantages areas that Schleicher refers to are not just urban settings in the United States, but very rural areas with high decile (poverty) rates around the world, including those areas with indigenous populations (i.e. Pacifica, Aboriginal, etc.).

Autonomy, one of the many topics Schleicher focused on, is a topic that comes up on a daily basis in education circles. How much autonomy should be provided to teachers, students and school leaders? In this era of accountability, many countries are grappling with how much autonomy should be provided to schools at large, and how much government intervention should be provided.

In some ways, the question of autonomy looks similar in many countries. As Departments of Education or Ministries of Education want to make sure schools are doing their jobs, and they all seem to pursue greater achievement, they are questioning how much is too much and how little is too little. The steps some countries take to get there are very diverse, so the pursuit of autonomy can look very different as well.

Schleicher uses data to pursue the autonomy question. He writes,

PISA shows that school systems that grant more autonomy to schools to define and elaborate their curricula and assessments tend to perform better than systems that don't grant such autonomy, even after accounting for countries' national income (Figure 3.3). School systems that provide schools with greater discretion in deciding student-assessment policies, the courses offered, the content of those courses and the textbooks used are also school systems that perform at higher levels in mathematics, reading and science."

Autonomy is present in the implementation of curriculum, as well as what should be used to define and assess student achievement. Schleicher goes on to write,

The positive relationship between schools' autonomy in defining and elaborating curricula and assessment policies and student performance that is observed at the level of the school system can play out differently within countries. In 17 countries and economies, schools that have more autonomy in this area tend to perform better, while the opposite is observed in seven countries and economies (OECD, 2013a, Table IV.4.3). The degree of school autonomy is also related to the socio-economic status and demographic background of students and schools and various other school characteristics, such as whether the school is public or private. But even after accounting for all of these aspects, a positive relationship is observed in Costa Rica, Finland, Latvia and Thailand (OECD, 2013a, Table IV.1.12c)."

How will we find a balance between too much autonomy and not enough if our definitions are so vastly different?

Standardized Programs

As states around the country continue to implement the Common Core State Standards, some states are pursuing more constricting programs, while other states allow schools to make regional choices. Choosing programs has always created a conflict for schools. How do we choose curriculum that is age appropriate, and allows for different expectations among students, at the same time we make sure we have high expectations?

When the internet began to boom, teachers began cruising websites like Teacher A to Z to find lessons and units. That idea took a bit of a turn after new accountability measures, and states are in different places where all of this is concerned. Schleicher offers an interesting opinion where standardized policy is concerned.

In OECD countries where no school implements a standardised policy for mathematics, a student who attends a school with greater autonomy in curricula and assessments tends to score nine points lower in mathematics than a student who attends a school with less autonomy. In contrast, in a school system where all students are in schools that implement such a standardised policy, a student who attends a school with greater autonomy scores five points higher in mathematics than a student who attends a school with less autonomy (OECD, 2013a, Table IV.1.14)."

As educators, how do we take our mindset from the time when we used to look for materials on our own, not always knowing if they were age-appropriate (...or too easy or too hard) and bring it to a time when curriculum is sometimes established for us? I’m not saying that our present curriculum from state to state is the right answer. Where do we draw the line, as professionals, between what we fight for and what we fight against?

Collaboration is Key

Perhaps all of these questions can be answered with another section of Schleicher’s report, and it focuses on collaboration. Many accountability measures in the United States are top-down and heavy handed, especially in New York State where accountability is King. Whether it is from administrator to teacher or teacher to teacher, collaboration is important.

Schleicher writes,

Coinciding with a growing body of research on teacher leadership, one recent study found positive links between collaborative forms of school leadership and improved student outcomes; and PISA 2012 results show that school management should be a collaborative activity between teachers and principals if the benefits of school autonomy in decision making are to be realised."

We know this already, but too often during these days of accountability, collaboration is more inclined to look like teachers showing up to meetings to find out what they need to do next, instead of allowing the collaboration to see how that implementation may work best. I get that there is always a fine balance between teachers and administrators who want to have control over what to do and those who show up to meetings just wanting to be told what to do. As Michael Fullan suggests, our teachers are part of the equation of Human Capital.

In the End...Feedback is Key

Lastly, and one of the other most important highlights, comes in the area of feedback. Very often when educators hear about feedback they jump to the idea that feedback is between the adults in the educational situation. For example, feedback may be between the principal and teacher in a formal observation role. Additionally, feedback is seen as the conversation between a student and teacher, where the teacher provides feedback in student learning or behavior.

However, feedback is also, and most importantly, from the student to teacher (Hattie. 2011). In this area, Schleicher offers some important data. He writes,

PISA shows that the degree to which systems seek feedback from students regarding lessons, teachers or resources tends to be related to the overall level of equity in those systems. PISA 2012 asked school principals to report whether such written feedback from students is sought for quality-assurance and improvement. Systems where more students attend schools with such practices tend to show less impact of student socio-economic status on performance. This is observed across OECD countries and across all participating countries and economies. Across OECD countries, some 10% of the variation in the impact of students' socio-economic status on their mathematics performance can be accounted for by differences in the degree to which systems use this approach, after accounting for per capita GDP (OECD, 2013a, Table IV.1.4). Across OECD countries, school systems that seek written feedback from students also tend to perform better."

It’s important, whether you agree with the results or not, that it’s important for school systems to seek feedback from students. Student voice is important, especially when we are talking about this vision of wanting students to be active in their own learning.

Overall, from a political perspective, it will be interesting to see what Secretary Duncan takes from the Summit, and more importantly, Schleicher’s findings. In a time of knee-jerk reactions and initiative fatigue, the wrong perspectives could be plentiful. In addition, I hope the Secretary took a look at some New Zealand schools, because their sense of autonomy is greater than ours and so is there performance on PISA.

In addition, considering Secretary Duncan’s Race to the Top initiatives (RTTT) and other accountability measures, I hope he takes away the idea that, as once again Fullan suggests, “No system in the world has ever achieved whole system reform by LEADING with accountability.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.