School and community - becoming together

This Christmas I was given a copy of Michelle Obama’s autobiography ‘Becoming’. I’m still only part way through, in fact I’ve just finished the first part, which is essentially about the influence of her family and childhood, school and college. But I’ve started to grow absorbed by the theme of becoming and the question of what it is that makes us who we are, including the contribution of schools to that.

This may be because I’m doing a lot of thinking at the moment for an upcoming book. At its heart lies a question. If, as we already know, most of the factors that influence educational success lie outside the direct control of a school, what is it that schools and school leaders can do better to help influence and shape those external factors more positively? That it seems increasingly clear to me lies at the heart of the next phase of school improvement.

Of course, many of those factors are not within the scope of a school’s influence either, and a school cannot and should not attempt to solve society’s deep economic and social problems. Nevertheless, it is also true that any school is one of the major influences on the social and economic prospects of its communities, both in terms of the school’s contribution to the development of each individual student but also as a tremendous physical, social and indeed economic resource. The improvement of a school and the improvement of its various communities thus seem inextricably intertwined.

Steve Munby often quotes a traditional Masai greeting ‘Kasserian Ingera’. It means ‘How goes it with our children?’. The word ‘our’ is powerful. It serves, on meeting anyone, even a stanger, as a forceful reminder of the role we both share as trustees and guardians of our collective futures. This greeting reflects the distinctive and deep-rooted African philosophy of Ubuntu, which is often summarised in translation as ‘I am because we are, and since we are therefore I am’. As Yusufu Turaki puts it: ‘People are not individuals, living in a state of independence, but part of a community, living in relationships and interdependence’.

So what consciously can school leaders do, at a time of financial constraint and harsh accountability, as well as a time of severe social fracture, to contribute to the wider renewal of their communities, in the expectation this will impact positively on the educational and life success of their students? I’m starting to wonder whether the first contribution schools can make may lie in their understanding of the relationship of individuality, independence and interdependence, and in being confident and comfortable with fostering all three. In this way schools model for their students, and the parents of their students, the nature of community, with all its rawness, untidiness, vitality and vibrancy, through exemplifying community in their daily lives.

There are some outstanding examples of how that can be done, perhaps especially in our primary schools. But as an education service we’ve never given it sufficient sustained focus. If we were to do that, who knows what schools, and their pupils, might become!

Yusufu Turaki, Foundations of African Traditional Religion and Worldview (Nairobi: WordAlive Publishers, 2006), p. 36.

The limits to school improvement

The evidence has been growing for some time that our present understanding of school improvement and the pre-eminence we give to certain forms of data to evaluate that may have reached the end of their useful life. And the root of the problem lies in our inadequate understanding of the nature of that data, whilst we try to make use of it for purposes for which it was never intended.

Stephen Gorard in 2009 highlighted serious doubts about school effectiveness. He highlights a number of methodological weakness in the use of statistics, especially the propagation of error at every stage and concludes, in the context of the use value-added scores.

It is not enough to do well. Others have to fail for any school to obtain a positive result. Or more accurately, it is not even necessary to do well at all; it is only necessary to do not as badly as others.

Although value-added in that form has now been replaced in government data, fundamental problems remain in our new focus on pupil progress. Becky Allen, in a 2018 blog, highlights the difficulty, perhaps even the impossibility of accurately measuring individual pupil progress, let alone school progress. She suggests:

When we use standardised tests to measure relative progress, we often look to see whether a student has moved up (good) or down (down) the bell curve. A student scored 114 at the end of the year (having begun scoring 109) On the face of it this looks like they’ve made good progress, and learnt more than similar students over the course of the year. However, 109 is a noisy measure of what they knew at the start of the year and 114 is a noisy measure of what they knew at the end of the year. Neither test is reliable enough to say if this individual pupil’s progress is actually better or worse than should be expected, given their starting point.

When we turn to look at national high-stakes testing and use it for school accountability, a further complication arises from the nature of the bell curve against which standards are calibrated. Tom Sherrington’s
blog highlights the extent which it has to be a zero sum game. It is by definition the case that a school can only succeed as long as someone else fails. Not everyone can be at the head of the bell curve.

Finally, the evidence has been clear for a while that in terms of factors that influence educational outcomes, schools only have about a 30% effect. The other 70% or so lies outside the school. (See for example Silins and Mulford, 2002, Moreno et al., 2007)

While it is of course entirely right that schools are as effective as they can possibly be in influencing the factors in their control, it is perhaps also time recognise the inbuilt limits of this. Perhaps then we might stop committing logical errors such as expecting everyone to be above average and start looking at how the school can extend its influence beyond the school gates for the next of school improvement.

Moreno, M., Mulford, B. and Hargreaves, A. (2007). Trusting Leadership: From Standards to Social Capital. Nottingham: NCSL

Silins, H. and Mulford, B. (2002). Leadership and School Results, in K. Leithwood and P. Hallinger (eds), Second International Handbook of Educational Leadership and Administration. Norwell, MA: Kluwer Academic Press

Living with uncertainty and the measurement trap

Perhaps it's because we're uncomfortable living with uncertainty that we've been lured into the measurement trap.

In any redefinition of school quality and purpose, the measurements around quality and purpose, as well as the forms of measurement used, need to be taken carefully so as to reflect that change. ‘Don’t value what you measure, measure what you value’ may be an old adage, but is one that is often neglected in the world of education today. Measurement is important, and data is really valuable, but the purpose needs to be clear. The role of data, properly understood, is not to provide definitive answers but to support the asking of powerful questions.

A measurement is an observation that quantitatively reduces uncertainty. Measurements cannot yield precise, certain results, though they can help to reduce uncertainty.

The object of measurement must be described clearly, in terms of what we are seeking to observe. Even if you cannot measure exactly what you want, you can learn about your area of interest with related data. A business may not be able to measure the exact benefit of a happy customer, for example, but it could get measures which give evidence of the value and magnitude of its work. It could also get measures of the cost of dissatisfied customers.

But with all measures, you must use judgement. The danger is that we often mistake the measure for the thing itself. Measures are a proxy, and we need to understand the limitations of the data we use.

We should not just pretend that the data we have tells us everything we need to know. We need to think and ask powerful questions. We need to understand. And we need to exercise our judgement.

Perhaps that is what we're really uncomfortable with.