Transparency in education — how the U.S. leads

I wrote recently about the Europe-wide study coordinated by OIDEL, called IPPE: Indicators for Parental Participation in Compulsory Education.

While the United States lags behind most of Europe in recognizing the right of parents to choose schools that reflect their religious convictions without thereby sacrificing the right to publicly funded education enjoyed by their fellow citizens, the IPPE study shows that we are ahead in some other ways. One way in which the U.S. is clearly ahead of most of the countries studied is in the transparency of information about the academic results of local systems, schools and even, in some cases, of individual teachers. While this is quite a new development in the U.S., it is still barely on the horizon in many countries in Europe and elsewhere, largely because of the resistance of the teacher unions.

The IPPE study found that in a number of countries there was little or no information available to parents on school results. In Belgium (a country which is outstanding in terms of parental choice), “assessment is largely communicated by word of mouth with all the errors and bias that this entails. In fact, this all naturally leads to comparative advertising, which the ban on publication of results wanted to avoid … Sooner or later the matter of assessment will have to be addressed with a more critical and responsible approach.”

In Switzerland (where education is controlled at the canton level), “both the authorities and teachers consulted … stressed their desire to prevent data regarding school assessments from appearing publicly.” Italy has a national organization assessing the quality of education (one of my former doctoral students works there), but “results on individual schools are not disclosed. In terms of internal assessment, although the idea of quality and school self-assessment was introduced in 1999, it has hardly been expanded on.”

Similar resistance in education circles to the provision of objective data on school results, even on a value-added basis, is found in many other countries, including outside Europe. Last weekend, in editing one of the country profiles from Latin America for the 2012 edition of Balancing Freedom, Autonomy, and Accountability in Education, I learned that its new law on educational assessment, in a provision added at the last minute, states that “diffusion of this information will safeguard the identity of the students, the teachers, and the schools, in order to avoid any sort of stigmatization and discrimination.” As a result, the author concluded, “it seems likely that the process of accountability to parents and to citizens in general will be limited if information on results is provided only at a very general level. Perhaps this could be valid information for policy discussions at the macro level, but it will certainly inhibit discussion at the intermediate level and that of individual schools, which is where the processes of citizen participation and, as a result, accountability are more evident.”

We can be grateful that, as a result of state initiatives and NCLB, American parents and education reformers now have access to information that can help to guide both reforms and school choice. This is a recent accomplishment, and we have not figured out yet how best to use this information. We have a long way to go before the results available address a broad-enough range of outcomes and take appropriate account of differences among pupils and schools. There have been blunders along the way, and there will no doubt be more.

If you doubt, however, that the current focus on measurement of and accountability for outcomes is a necessary means toward the fundamental reforms that American education (and I include higher education, where the process has barely started) needs, I invite you to consider the fervent opposition expressed by the vested interests of the status quo.

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BY Charles Glenn

Charles L. Glenn is professor of Educational Leadership and Development and former Dean of the School of Education at Boston University, where he teaches courses in education history and comparative policy. From 1970 to 1991 he was director of urban education and equity for the Massachusetts Department of Education, including administration of over $200 million in state funds for magnet schools and desegregation, and initial responsibility for the nation's first state bilingual education mandate and for the state law forbidding race, sex, and national-origin discrimination in education. He is a member of the Massachusetts State Advisory Committee to the United States Commission on Civil Rights.

Glenn is author of a number of books, including the historical study The Myth of the Common School (1988, 2002), which has been published as Il mito della scuola unica (Milan 2004), El mito de la escuela publica (Madrid 2006), and will be published in Portuguese in 2012. He has also published Choice of Schools in Six Nations (1989), Educational Freedom in Eastern Europe (1994, 1995), Educating Immigrant Children: Schools and Language Minorities in Twelve Nations (1996), The Ambiguous Embrace: Government and Faith-based Schools and Social Agencies (2000), as well as some twenty articles in four encyclopedias, and several hundred other articles, book chapters, and monographs on education policy.

In 2002 he and Jan De Groof of Belgium published Finding the Right Balance: Freedom, Autonomy and Accountability in Education, a study in two volumes of how 26 countries balance educational freedom with common standards and accountability, pupil and teacher rights with the integrity of school mission. An abbreviated version appeared in Italian as Un difficile equilibrio, and in English (for distribution in Eastern Europe) as Education Freedom.

Balancing Freedom, Autonomy, and Accountability in Education (2004), a substantially revised and expanded version in three volumes, covers 40 countries. A new four-volume edition will add more than a dozen countries, and up-date the others, for 2012 publication.

Glenn is currently completing a series of books on the history of educational policy in North America and Western Europe. His book on The Netherlands and Belgium, Germany and Austria, Contrasting Models of State and School: A Comparative Historical Study of Parental Choice and State Control, was published by Continuum in April 2011. A companion volume, The American Model of State and School: An Historical Inquiry, is in press, and he is writing Challenging the American Model of State and School: School Choice and Cultural Pluralism on the antecedents and prospects of current structural reforms of education.

African American/Afro-Canadian Schooling: From Colonial Times to the Present and Native American/First Nations Schooling: From Colonial Times to the Present were published by Palgrave Macmillan in June 2011. His book-in-progress on the harmful influence of certain ideas about education, The Genealogy of Bad Ideas in Education, will be published by ISI Books. His next project will be The Contested School: State and Church in France, Italy, Spain, and Mexico.

Glenn is active in educational policy debates in the United States and Europe, is vice president of OIDEL (the Geneva-based NGO promoting educational freedom worldwide), and a member of the boards of the European Association for Education Law and Policy and the Council for American Private Education, and of five scholarly journals. He has served as a consultant to the Russian and Chinese education authorities and to states and major cities across the United States, and as expert witness in federal court cases on school finance, desegregation, bilingual education, and church-state relations in education. His BA and EdD degrees are from Harvard, his PhD from Boston University.