Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Butterflies and storms

One of the key ideas of chaos theory is that small changes (a butterfly flapping its wings in the Amazon) can have a big impact (a storm in New York).

In a school with which I am associated, there has been a total turnover of staff in the office area (edge of chaos?) and several small but significant changes have occurred quite rapidly. The office now opens at 8.30,

Previously some office/admin people had been arriving earlier and the office had been informally open prior to 8.30 and they dealt with early bird parents (and other visitors) and students, and teaching staff who need to be in their classrooms by 8.30.... On any day, there were only a few of these early-bird 'customers' and for some of them the new arrangement can be 'catastrophic'.

For the rest of the school, it appears to be business as usual, except for the disruptive consequences of what might flow from the new arrangements.

Thus this small change (the butterfly) results in

(a) No consequences for most members of the school community

(b) Minor inconvenience for some, but...

(c) Very difficult situations for some individuals and some activities, and

(d) Occasionally, large scale disruption in terms of being catastrophic for all concerned and organisation as a whole.

On a small scale, the organisation is often rescued from the above by individuals and small groups (communities of practice) who absorb, contain and/or develop workarounds to deal with the disruptions and overcome the dysfunctions.

Not opening the school office until 8.30 is the butterfly that causes some storms (problems) for some people in other places and at other times . It is true that many of the problems arising are simply minor disruptions and/or some dysfunctions in other parts of the school throughout the school day. Many are hardly noticed. And there are also resultant storms in other places well beyond the school. Examples include: parents are late for work; misunderstanding occur; important matters not addressed because of the lack of an opportunity to communicate;...etc.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Whose performance?

Increasingly, education systems worldwide are reporting public school performance based on measures of student performance. In some countries this practice includes serious consequences for under-performance, e.g, closures, mergers, staff sackings...*
Most of the discussion on 'school performance' misses the main point. It is the government's responsibility to provide good quality public education for all its communities. Schools simply act on behalf of the government. Individual schools are directly guided and constrained by the government's policies and practices. Individual 'school performance' is actually government performance in that locality. In releasing the data, the government is actually reporting on the effectiveness of its own policies and practices. Viewed in this was the data is always interesting.
(*) One can only presume that these consequences are intended to imply the existence of strong committed leadership by those with responsible. But that begs the question: If those leading the system are so committed and strong, how is it possible for schools in the system to under-achieve?

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

More Emperor's New Clothes

Australian state and federal governments are keen to publish performance comparisons between like schools. But one has to wonder...

"Why are parents so concerned about comparing their own school with like schools?"

Of course they are not!! When was the last time anyone heard a parent wanting to compare like schools? .
The approach is widely understood as an attempt by governments to put all schools under pressure to improve by publicly identifying those that are 'under performing'. Publishing the results is based on a rationale of 'transparency'. But the rationale of transparency is patently false in a number ways :
  • The approach actually hides the limited ability on the part of the education systems to promote and manage school change and improvement in more effective and constructive ways
  • By focusing on 'school performance' the approach also hides the damaging effect of governments and education systems as they continually tamper with schools through demonstrable policy change rather than by supporting sustainable school improvement
  • The approach also hides the differences between unlike schools, many of which are critical. And many of the root causes of these differences are beyond the capacity of the school to redress (in the short term): material resources, facilities, social capital and levels of crime, domestic violence, mental illness....
Most parents are not interested in comparisons of like schools at all. They do want to know how good their school is because they simply want a good education for their children. For example, when parents move their children from one school to another they don't search for like schools... they simply look for a good or better school in a manageable location.

To publish actual differences between all schools and the related contextual factors is almost certainly too problematic for any government and/or school system. The distribution of (dis)advantage and the difficulties of addressing the inherent injustices represent an (as yet) unmanageable challenge and a political powder keg.

That is, publishing league tables is a simplistic, low level approach to school improvement. Structuring the tables around 'like schools' is a deceptive and issue-avoiding approach that is likely to be ineffective and counter-productive. And this is a pity when there are a number of complexity-based approaches that offer genuine possibilities for rapid and sustainable gains through making sense of what is currently happening and identifying realistic opportunities for improvement.