A light touch can have its drawbacks (part 2 in a series)

A lack of formal direction is desirable in a free society, but it can become counter productive.

The second post in our series on direction and support focuses on an international case study. In earlier posts we have referred to the research carried out by our colleague, Mats Rosenkvist, CEO of Successful Schools Sweden into the quality of teaching and learning in Swedish schools.  His main findings were that:

1: The teaching is not observed

School Principals in Sweden are legally responsible for ensuring the quality of teaching. However, the evidence referenced in this report shows that in practice few undertake observations of teaching, nor do they link this essential process to the outcomes – student results.

2: The impact of teaching and the school is hard to discern

To determine the impact of the school on a student’s learning, the accepted approach is to compare one cohort with another.  There is no attempt to consider the progression that classes or cohorts of students make whilst at school. In addition, school results do not take into account the characteristics of the students, thus it is hard to judge the impact of the school in one context to another. A performance-based comparison for schools was proposed in 1994 but has not as yet been implemented.

3: There are unclear links between the plan, process and outcome

Municipalities and school principals publish their school improvement plans for the next year.  In 13 of the 20 municipalities covered in Mats’ research. the municipalities and principals did not evaluate the impact of the measures they introduced on outcomes. The result being that there was no basis for a systematic approach to improving the quality of the education provided.

4: The principals’ analysis contains little factual evidence

Only 21 of 56 principals’ analysis of the knowledge assignment included evidence of  cause and effect, insights and conclusions.


Mats’s report has been highlighted in an article written by Catherina Byström in Kvalitetsmagasinet, which uses the testimony of researchers and experts to confirm his findings. The experts include Ingela Gullberg, who manages the largest private school company in Northern Europe. She accepts the situation described in the report and sees no sign of it changing in the future. As a result, her company has developed its own quality model with three key components – capacity, processes and results, with the first two driving the results. She believes that while evaluating the quality of teaching and learning is complex, it is essential to use a range of approaches to triangulate the evidence. She also sees the need for some measure of the value the school makes to a student’s learning.

Another expert referred to is Professor Bjorn Ockert, Institute for Laboratory Market and Education Policy Evaluation, IFAU. He supports the findings that education evaluation at a system level is an area neglected in Swedish education. Schools do not follow students’ progression in a systematic way, which allows for constructive comparisons to be made. As a result it is not possible to identify the impact of the school on a pupil’s learning.

The tone of the article has not gone unnoticed, with another lengthy article being published about Mats’s findings with additional comments provided by Helen Angmo,Director-General of the Swedish Schools Inspectorate.  She states that the Inspectorate does point out shortcomings in the quality of teaching and learning, which the vast majority of schools then address.  However, high principal turnover and poor governance are often the reason that planning and delivery is not successful.


We are indebted to Mats for sharing his work and these articles with us. We found the responses of the researchers, experts and the Swedish Inspectorate very interesting.  We feel it is a good example, as we identified in our previous posting, of the way cultural issues heavily influence the response to performance management.  As we have witnessed and regularly reported here with the country’s approach to COVID, the first resort for governance in Sweden is to seek compliance through consensus with formal direction being a very reluctant last resort.

As Mats’s report clearly shows, the result in Sweden of opting for an approach to school improvement which seeks compliance through consensus is an inconsistent outcome for students.  For it allows many teachers in schools not to benefit from the critical dialogue between them and their colleagues.

For as we know from Argyris’s and our own work on a theory of action, creating a worthwhile dialogue between a classroom teacher and a colleague is essential in helping them to make their tacit knowledge explicit and in doing so they gain greater understanding of the impact and outcome of their action.  Then, by using the insights of this process to modify their future actions, they can progressively close the gap between the outcome of their current actions to what they, their government, local authorities, school staff and students aspire to achieve. If all teachers in all schools do this, then the performance of the whole system will improve.  This shows that there is still considerable hidden potential for school improvement in Sweden.

We are grateful to Catharina Byström for allowing us to publish an English translation of this article. The original translated document can be found here.

Take care and stay safe

George

Catharina Byström, ”Skolan struntar i att utvärdera undervisningen”, Kvalitetsmagasinet, nr. 3 (2021), s. 17-19.

 

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