Delicious AmbiguityWelcome back! During the break I hope you were able to enjoy some time with loved ones and (or) recharge your intellectual batteries. I will admit that I spent part of the break embracing my inner geek, reading about the amazing improvements in Finland's student achievement scores since they instituted a new national education policy in the 1970s. Previously, Finland had been decidedly average. Today, their scores are consistently among the best in the world - particularly in reading and science. As a result, the U.S. and the U.K. - countries with substantially lower scores - are very interested in finding out what might be driving this educational success story.
The point of my column this week isn't to delve into the details of Finland's success, but rather to consider one aspect of Finland's approach that I think is particularly applicable to our current conversation about educational outcomes and improved student learning. So here are a few links if you are interested in reading more about Finland educational success or about the exam that is used to measure student achievement. Instead.
"Accountability is something that is left when responsibility has been subtracted."
If you've already read the Atlantic Monthly article I hyperlinked above, you know that this statement is attributed to Pasi Sahlberg, an individual deeply involved in Finland's educational transformation. The principle to which he refers asserts that unless an educational endeavor is intentionally designed to produce a specific outcome, it is difficult to argue that gains on that outcome are entirely attributable to the educational endeavor in question. However, as society has increasingly demanded that education prove its worth, it is deceptively easy to start by testing for an educational effect without ever asking whether the experience is really designed to best produce it. To make matters worse, then we mandate improvement without addressing the systematic dysfunction that created the problem in the first place.
My sense of Augustana's evolution regarding student learning outcomes is that we are in the midst of a process to make explicit what we have long valued implicitly. We are trying to be clearer about what we want our students to learn, be more transparent about those efforts, and maximize the educational quality we provide. In this context, Sahlberg's comment on accountability and responsibility struck me in two ways . . .
First, the process of identifying outcomes and designing an educational program to meet those outcomes requires us to take full responsibility for the design of the program we are delivering. When something is repeatedly greater than the sum of its parts, it isn't just a happy accident. Designing a successful educational program is more than just making pieces fit together - it's constructing the pieces so that they fit together.
Second, just because an outcome idea sounds like it might be valid doesn't make it so. But in the absence of anything else, accountability measures that mean very little can all too easily become drivers of institutional policy - sometimes to the detriment of student learning. However, the inverse can also be true. An institution that takes full responsibility for the design of its educational programs and the system within which they exist will likely far exceed typical accountability standards because such an institution can make coherent, empirically-grounded, and compelling arguments for why it does what it does; arguments that quickly evaporate when a pre-packaged accountability measure is hurriedly slapped onto the back end of an educational process.
So I'd like to close by suggesting that we consider the statement quoted above in this way: If we take explicit responsibility for student learning and the design of the educational programs we provide, demonstrating our accountability - to our students or our accreditors - will be relatively easy by comparison.