23 SES 12 A, School Reforms in a Performative Culture
In 1993, the author published a review essay on ‘the sociology of school effectiveness’ in the British Journal of Sociology of Education (Angus 1993). The paper argued that, although there seemed to have been little interest among sociologists in the school effectiveness movement at that time, it was in need of serious sociological critique. In particular, I claimed, the pseudo-positivistic paradigm of school effectiveness research, and its functionalist, decontextualized and ahistorical view of schooling, required critical analysis.
In the 20 years since that article was published, sociological criticism of school effectiveness has become reasonably prominent, yet the school effectiveness movement has gone from strength to strength. Indeed, in the 2005 edition of a major work on school effectiveness, Harris and Bennett (2005, p.1) could claim that ‘education policy remains firmly focused upon securing increased people and school performance. This would suggest that school effectiveness and school improvement research fields are likely to remain influential with policy makers and practitioners alike’. This latter statement is somewhat alarming to critics of the effectiveness paradigm, largely because of its implied acceptance of the congruence between school effectiveness principles and the neoliberal education policy assemblage. In revisiting the original paper, I particularly address the easy absorption of school effectiveness discourse and priorities into the prevailing neoliberal educational policy regime.
In the paper, I argue that, despite greater breadth of opinion within school effectiveness advocates, and deeper recognition of the importance of social context and of embracing issues of equity and diversity in some of its versions, the criticisms I made 20 years ago of school effectiveness remain serious. I demonstrate that the underlying features of school effectiveness have come to typify the current education policy environment in Europe and most nations globally. The school effectiveness rhetoric has fed into an educational management technology in which standardised test results have become the main indicators of student performance, and this has enabled teachers’ work to be scrutinised in simplistic ways such that the presumed culpability of individual students, and particularly teachers and schools, can be identified.
I emphasise three problematic aspects of school effectiveness in particular:
- The factors identified by school effectiveness researchers are entirely predictable. There are no surprises. They reinforce a reductionist view of traditional, stereotypical, well-managed, safe, standard, unimaginative schooling. In fact, they grossly over-simplify educational dynamics. Yet so-called ‘effectiveness factors’ are presented with such a sense of clarity, confidence and precision that one can hardly resist believing in them. In an ideological sense, they fit snugly with typically conservative prescriptions for making schools ‘good’.
- Much of the appeal of school effectiveness work is due to its reassuringly positivistic, quasi-scientific approach, in which results are presented as tangible and pragmatic, and as capable of being directly operationalized. It paints schools as benign and politically neutral places in which teaching and learning are unproblematic. It presents a framework that, whether it is acknowledged or not, encompasses no alternative but conserving the status quo.
- School principals, teachers, students and community, within the top-down, managerial perspective that characterises school effectiveness, are presented as participants to whom school effectiveness is ‘done’ rather than as a social agents within socio-political contexts. The perspective therefore minimises and displaces alternative educational ideals and values related to education, which in previous eras have been asserted as legitimate.
The paper concludes with a discussion of alternative ways of ‘doing’ education, particularly in relation to issues of equity and social justice.
Angus, L. (1993) The Sociology of School Effectiveness, British Journal of Sociology of Education, 14(3), 333-345. Harris, A. & Bennett, N. (2005) Introduction, in A. Harris, D. Reynolds & N. Bennett (Eds) School Effectiveness and School Improvement (Continuum: London).
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