Transparency in education — how the U.S. leads

Charles Glenn

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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