23 SES 06 C, Accountability in Schools
Since the 1990s, quality assurance and evaluation (QAE) has become a central mode of basic education governance in many countries (Grek, Lawn, Lingard & Varjo 2009). This growing emphasis on standardized testing and school performance indicators at local, national and international level has raised critical questions of the unintended consequences related to ‘the global testing culture’ (Smith 2016). Despite the criticism, many governments have started to publish school-specific performance data or compile different school ranking lists. This trend has been visible also in the Nordic countries, seen related to 'the neoliberal turn' which main features, decentralization, competition and parental choice with accountability policies have challenged the egalitarian traditions of the Nordic comprehensive school system (e.g. Blossing, Imsen & Moos 2014; Telhaug, Mediås & Aasen 2006).
However, the Finnish QAE policy differs most strikingly from all the other Nordic countries (Eurydice 2009). In Finland, the national testing is carried out sample-based and thus no evaluation results are being published on a school level. This notion supports the view that the global policies are rearticulated when meeting the given societal, historical and discursive contexts. In order to sustain their legitimacy, the institutions, understood here as the national QAE policy practices, have to deal with a certain type of ‘logic of appropriateness’ (March and Olsen 1989). This logic is however dynamic, meaning it may be challenged and changed as new ideas and discursive legitimations emerge in the society (Schmidt 2008; Erkkilä 2010).
In this paper we compare the discourses of national level QAE policy provided by the leading educational experts in four Nordic countries, Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Finland. We approach our research data from the framework of neo-institutionalist policy research, namely discursive institutionalism. (Schmidt 2008). For Schmidt (2008), the underlying ideas and rationales, specific in a given society, are conveyed and exchanged through discourses in the interaction processes between different actors and audiences.
A special interest in the analysis is given to the use of results, in other words for whom the evaluation results are aimed for and why? This is important, as we highlight the concept of transparency as an essential factor to understand the change towards market accountability features in the Nordic context (Erkkilä 2012). Thus, our consecutive research questions are: 1) How is the recent national level QAE policy being discussed, legitimised or challenged in each country? 2) How are the different users (schools, decisionmakers, parents etc.) of evaluation results represented in the interviews? 3) How does the Finnish QAE policy differ discursively from the other Nordic countries and is there reason to expect changes in the Finnish QAE policy?
As part of a larger comparative research project in the Nordic countries, the analysis consists in total of 52 interviews collected in 2015-17. The interviewees were a mixed group of highest level educational experts (top-level policymakers, educational officials, academics and other stakeholders), whose views are seen influential in the national QAE policymaking but also to reflect the cultural QAE rationales in his/her own country. The interviews were intentionally structured around one single question, 'what is the story of your country’s basic education?’ in order to give the informants space for 'natural' narratives. Thus, the comparative analysis is empirically oriented, however focusing on the national level QAE discourses in each country.
Based on our empirical findings, we argue that the discussion concerning the national level QAE policy in each country takes place in a discursive triad, which serves for three different forms of educational accountability (see Darling-Hammond 2004), specific for the Nordic context: 1) An economic discourse, concerning the overall quality of the basic education system and the economic competitiveness. This is mostly discussed referring to the PISA results, linking low results to the imperative increase of testing and accountability measures (political accountability); 2) A (neo)liberal discourse, which articulates the increased testing as a follow-up service for individual schools and pupils. The publication of school-specific evaluation results is primarily seen as a fundamental principle of governance transparency and only subsidiary for promoting consumer behaviour and school choice (market accountability); 3) A social democratic discourse, which highlights the traditions of the Nordic egalitarianism in order to prevent the increase of market-logics in education (societal accountability). Depending on their different interdependent balance in each country, we show that even opposite QAE policies and practices can be presented legitimate as serving for the Nordic values. As for Finland, we will argue for four different discursive techniques, which rather serve for continuity than change in the Finnish QAE policy.
Blossing, U., Imsen, G. & Moos, L. (Eds.) (2014). The Nordic Education Model. ‘A School for All’ Encounters Neo-Liberal Policy. Springer, 2014. Darling-Hammond, L. (2004). Standards, Accountability, and School Reform. In Teachers College Record, Vol. 106 (6), p. 1047–1085. Erkkilä, T. (2010). Reinventing Nordic openness: Transparency and state information in Finland. Helsinki: University of Helsinki, Acta politica, no. 40. Eurydice. (2009). National testing of pupils in Europe: Objectives, organisation and use of results. DOI 10.2797/18294. Grek, S., Lawn, M., Lingard, B. & Varjo, J. (2009). North by northwest: quality assurance and evaluation processes in European education. Journal of Education Policy, Vol. 24, No. 2, (2009), 121–133. March, J. & Olsen, J. (1989). Rediscovering Institutions. New York: Free Press. Schmidt, V. A. (2008). Discursive Institutionalism: The Explanatory Power of Ideas and Discourse. In Annual Review of Political Science, 11, 303–26. Smith, W. C. (Ed.) (2016). The Global Testing Culture. Shaping Education Policy, Perceptions, and Practice. Oxford: Oxford Studies in Comparative Education. Telhaug, A.O., Mediås, O.A. & Aasen, P. (2006). The Nordic Model in Education: Education as part of the political system in the last 50 years. Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research, 50(3), 245-283.
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