Five big questions, with no easy answers

By Dr Nina Hood

Things are rarely straightforward in education. It often seems that for every positive aspect of a school, practice, or education system, there also is a tension. In last week’s insight article I discussed four powerful ideas that emerged from Robert Pondiscio’s book on the year he spent at Success Academy, arguably the US’s most successful network of charter schools. This week, I explore five big questions that emerge from Pondiscio’s account.

1. How much parental involvement and engagement can we expect?

A core component of Success Academy’s model is substantial and consistent parental involvement in their child’s education. Buying into the Success Academy culture begins even before the child starts at the school and continues once they are at school through regular meetings, being available for school drop-off at 7.30am and pick-up at 3.45pm, and high engagement with homework, among other things. Pondiscio notes that having all the adults in a child’s life pulling in the same direction is an undeniably powerful force. Research similarly demonstrates that strong home-school partnerships are associated with improved academic outcomes as well as greater motivation, engagement and improved behaviour. While undoubtedly powerful, is Success Academy’s approach to parental involvement scalable and sustainable beyond the CMO, where parents opt into the school and its culture, and those families who are unwilling to do so fully, leave? The simple answer is no. But this does not discount the need for education systems to think seriously about parental and whanau engagement. However, the types of change needed cannot be solved by schools alone.

2. Could some form of central office or middle level work in New Zealand?

A striking feature of Success Academy is the level of centralisation. While each of their 40 schools has their own principal and business manager, who are responsible respectively for the instructional leadership, and operations and infrastructure at their school, their work is strongly supported and directed by the central office. Furthermore, curriculum and pedagogy are developed centrally, enabling teachers to focus on instructional delivery as opposed to instructional design. This differs significantly from New Zealand’s decentralised, autonomous schools model. Autonomy is both a boon and a weakness for New Zealand schools. It, in theory, allows for greater individualisation and innovation. However, it also requires each school to develop universal expertise. The level of control at Success Academy undoubtedly would be an anathema to many New Zealand educators. However, it is worth thinking about whether aspects could be adopted in New Zealand. 

3. To what degree should external (high stakes) assessment drive curriculum and pedagogy?

A primary measure of success for Success Academy are students’ results on state standardised tests. Pondiscio, reflecting on Success Academy’s English Language Arts (our English / reading and writing) programme suggests that its pedagogical design closely mirrors “test prep”. That is, the activities students do on a day-to-day basis are designed to ensure that they are ready to take the state test. Is this a problem? If the state exam is an accurate (and full) measure of what we want children to know and be able to do in a particular subject or learning area, then the answer is no. However, there are few people, particularly in New Zealand, who would suggest that achievement on a standardised test should be the sole (or primary) outcome of a learning area.

I believe that rigorous assessment is critical. However, the relationship among [high stakes] assessment, curriculum and pedagogy needs to be carefully considered and balanced in education. Similarly, we need to ensure that we do not fall into the “normative validity” trap, described by educational philosopher Professor Gert Biesta as “whether we are indeed measuring what we value, or whether we are just measuring what we can easily measure and thus end up valuing what we [can] measure.”[1] There was little discussion by Pondiscio of the full range of learning outcomes to which Success Academy aspires. However, given that their curriculum incorporates science, the arts, and “project-based learning”, one could reasonably assume that state standardised test are just one part of the equation.

4. Is college for all the right approach?

A central aim of Success Academy is preparing all their students to go to College (university). While this is an undoubtedly admirable and aspirational aim, I do find it slightly problematic. I firmly believe that every child should have the option and opportunity to go to university, something that sadly is not currently a reality in either the US or New Zealand. However, I do not believe that every young person should go to university and I think we do a disservice to young people if we suggest that university is the only valid option. There are many routes to success, and we need to ensure that schools are supporting and preparing students to follow the post-school route that is best suited to them. This will not only require better career advice in schools, but also more effective post-school transition support, and teachers who not only believe that all their students can succeed but also enact the practices that make this a reality.

5. How do we balance strict behaviour management with the need to develop self-regulating students?

Behaviour management at Success Academy is strict and consistent. There are clear standards for behaviour, including no talking when moving between classrooms, and quick and efficient transitions between activities during a lesson. For Success Academy, this behaviour management approach has enabled the creation of a school environment that maximises learning for all students. However, Pondiscio recounts a story of the challenge students faced during the first year that Success Academy’s high school was in operation, when students experienced behaviour management standards that were substantially lower than those they previously had experienced. Students struggled with the new freedom and the requirement for them to play a greater role in regulating their own behaviour and learning. There has been growing interest in New Zealand in approaches that support the development of highly agentic, self-regulating learners. However, there currently is limited empirical, local evidence on the best methods for achieving this or the impact it has on learning.

None of the above provides anything close to a satisfactory answer to any of the questions posed. Rather, it further reinforces the complexities inherent in education.


[1] Biesta, G. (2009). Good education in an age of measurement: on the need to reconnect with the question of purpose in education. Educational Assessment, Evaluation and Accountability, 21, 33-46.  

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dr Nina Hood

Nina is responsible for the strategic direction and day-to-day operations of The Education Hub. She is a trained secondary school teacher, and taught at Epsom Girls Grammar and Mt Roskill Grammar in Auckland. She undertook an MSc (with distinction) in learning and technology, and a DPhil in Education at the University of Oxford. Since returning to New Zealand in mid-2015, Nina has been employed as a lecturer at the Faculty of Education at the University of Auckland, where she specialises in new technologies in education.