National test scores reveal educational stagnation and growing inequality

Quite a coincidence (or not). In the USA the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) was published on April 10, marking a decade of stalled educational progress *1. In the Netherlands on April 11 the Inspectorate published The State of Education in the Netherlands 2016/2017 (in Dutch *2), warning that results of students are lowering in a slow but steady decline of twenty years. In the USA the results show a widening gap between the highest and the lowest performers. In the Netherlands one observes a growing distance between results of children of well-to-do and well-educated parents, and children of parents of lower social-economic class, with less education themselves.

In this blog I delve into possible causes for these developments, the overestimated role of ‘evidence' and the flight forward of global organisations like the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) *3.

In both countries many people as a response pointed towards the “real causes" for the declines. In the USA: Charter schools, Common Core State Standards and new teacher evaluation systems are seen as cause or as insufficient implemented. Stricter accountability and high-stakes testing *4 are discussed already for years. Some point to the effects of the Great Recession (2008), which negatively impacted school spending. Other causes mentioned are the widening socioeconomic gaps, and increases in the degree of poverty among relatively poor people. Plus demographic shifts (white students dropped below 50 percent of fourth-grade test takers. Hispanics now account for 26 percent of the fourth-grade population).In the Netherlands: Relative low salaries, large classes, low level of ambition of schools, the number of immigrants, too many new elements in the curricula, segregation towards different schools, lower level of qualifications of teachers, early (almost final) selection of children at the age of 12, growing difference in quality of schools, inclusion of special-ed children in regular classes, influence of social media, teacher shortages, too much power (autonomy) for the boards of education, too much focus on school management instead of a focus on teachers.Others reacted fiercely denying the importance of these causes and presented still different ones.

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Impact of Professional Learning Communities

Professional Learning Communities (PLC's) is a vibrant topic and PLC’s are considered highly relevant for the professional development of schoolleaders (and teachers). Since I worked in the early eighties with the International Network of Principals’ Centers (at that time at Harvard) I also was convinced of that. 

The INPC (Roland Barth) was built on the conviction that then-current (academic) training for schoolleaders was not very useful. Instead principals themselves should organise their own inservice training, meeting in self-chosen groups on self-chosen topics. And the main instrument during the meetings was ‘conversation' that we now would qualify as ‘deep conversation’. (See e.g. Tamara Homund Nelson e.a. *1). INPC was a success for almost three decades. *2

In the nineties and beyond professional development for schoolleaders in many countries became increasingly and thoroughly designed and organised at national and sub-national level, at times with considerable or even large budgets. Profiles for schoolleaders were designed and detailed as well as requirements for training, and by preference evidence-based. There seemed to be no place anymore for initiatives by principals themselves till recently.

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