Making assessment reform stick

Norwegian experience shows that trust and vision at all levels are essential if educational reform is to succeed in the long term, says Therese Hopfenbeck.

Girl working at desk in classroomWith the increasing complexity of educational systems, countries face growing challenges in governing the implementation of educational reforms and programmes. In response, the OECD has launched a project, Governing Complex Education Systems (GCES), which aims to establish the state of research and the evidence base in the areas of governance, complexity and knowledge, and to explore current practices in OECD member countries’ implementation strategies. So far, country case studies have been conducted in Poland, Norway and the Netherlands.

The project’s recently-published report from Norway looked at how a national programme, Assessment for Learning (AfL), has been implemented on a large scale. It has been used in more than 1,000 schools in almost half the municipalities in Norway. Supported, among others, by experts from the former Assessment Reform Group in the UK, the Norwegian Directorate responsible for this initiative has developed an AfL programme targeting school leaders, municipality leaders and teachers, with the goal of improving assessment practices in the classroom.

A team from the University of Oxford and the University of Bergen conducted research on the implementation of the AfL programme in 2012. The study involved collecting empirical data from 56 interviews with 98 key actors and stakeholders in the Norwegian education system, including current and present Ministers of Education, policy makers, teacher unions, journalists, school leaders, teachers, parents, and students. A wide range of national, regional and local authorities was consulted, as well as members of the former Assessment Reform Group in the UK.

One of the main findings of the study was the challenge for teachers experiencing what is known as ‘reform fatigue’. Teachers were concerned that the new programme would be forgotten within a couple of years, just as previous initiatives had been. But teachers also claimed that they felt a sense of loyalty and obligation to do what they had agreed to do, even if sometimes they were not very motivated to put the change into practice. From the teacher perspective, one of the main challenges is that they are facing too many competing programmes and reforms. Any particular school could be participating in several programmes at the same time, and not all schools are able to see how these programmes can complement and strengthen each other. As a result, school leaders and teachers, especially those from the smaller municipalities, can be overwhelmed by competing programmes, initiatives and reforms.

On the other hand, it was found that the municipalities that succeeded with implementation demonstrated both leadership skills and knowledge of the content of the AfL programme. This finding underscores the importance of focusing on the broad picture (i.e. the overall system) while at the same time looking deeply into one domain (here, AfL) in order to make strategic decisions that will work to improve the education system in the long term. The importance of strategic planning and of the alignment of goals between the different levels of governance cannot be overstated.

Another key finding was that good communication and high levels of trust between school leaders, heads of municipalities and teachers were found to make it easier to implement new programmes, while a lack of trust between teachers and school leaders could be a challenge for implementation. In other words, AfL practice should be fostered without controlling too much, which risks losing teachers’ trust and motivation. The balance between trust and accountability is crucial.

This means that in this area, policy can be seen as persuasion. The implementation of new practices in education is more likely to be sustainable if the leaders are able to keep trust in the system. Clear communication between the different levels, and a high degree of trust amongst all stakeholders, are therefore essential for successful implementation.

School leaders need support if they are to be able to keep focus on reform goals over time. All actors in education governance, including school leaders, require training and support in the acquisition of research knowledge, to develop greater competency in this area and to enable them to facilitate change. They need knowledge of the content of the change process, about what works, and about the theoretical assumptions underlying the new teaching paradigm. These processes develop over years, so that implementation needs to be planned strategically, with a particular focus on what to do after the official programme in a country is over for real change to be sustained.

Dr Therese N. Hopfenbeck is lecturer in educational assessment at the Oxford University Centre for Educational Assessment.

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