Reconfiguring accountabilities in education through multiple partnerships (part 2 of 2)

Professor Bob Lingard, University of Queensland

This is the second blog in a two-part series that summarises Bob’s keynote address to the New Zealand Association for Research in Education (NZARE) annual conference 2017. The first blog in the series can be found here.

The first blog post in this two-part series critiqued the neoliberal approach to accountability that has become ‘naturalised’ into the education systems of most Western countries. It concluded that:

“Rather than insisting on abolishing school accountability systems, there is a need for a new type of accountability policies that balance qualitative with quantitative measures and build on mutual accountability, professional responsibility and trust.”
Sahlberg, 2010

This post introduces three alternative models—intelligent accountability, genuine accountability, and rich accountability—and considers possible ways forward for accountability in education.

Intelligent accountability

The Finnish educator and researcher Pasi Sahlberg has proposed a model of intelligent accountability. This model rejects the Anglo-American emphasis on top-down, test-based performative accountability, arguing that this is not the way to enhance student learning across the broad spectrum of educational purposes. Instead, intelligent accountability is based on the premise that it is necessary to sustain and build a sense of professional responsibility and trust within the field of education and to reject an external testing culture based primarily on competition and comparison of performance. Worthwhile learning, and not performance measures, is placed at the centre of educational policy.

Genuine accountability

In the US, Linda Darling-Hammond, Gene Wilhoit, and Linda Pittenger have proposed another approach called genuine accountability, which involves three core features:

  • Meaningful learning – An acknowledgement of the need for a variety of measures of learning that are not restrictive and do not narrow learning and what is learnt.
  • Professional capacity – A focus on the responsibilities of both individuals and organisations for building capacity for professional practice.
  • Resource accountability – The implementation of necessary resource standards in order to address barriers to good schooling (schools, classrooms, systems) and to ensure that standards are met in terms of students’ opportunity to learn.

These three features come together in an accountability system that considers inputs, processes, and outcomes simultaneously and acknowledges the different responsibilities of those at at classroom, school and system levels (and the relationships between these levels). Genuine accountability thus offers a balance in terms of quality and social justice focuses.

Rich accountability

My own work has involved developing a framework for rich accountability. By ‘rich’, we mean plentiful, abounding in, well-developed; by ‘accountability’, we mean a balance of both responsibility (giving an account) and accounting (counting / measuring):

“Rich accountabilities abound in partial perspectives from multiple sides and increase the veracity of accounts.”

Although it is true that ‘we cannot improve what we do not measure’, it is important to think carefully about what counts, how we count it, and who does the counting. Our argument around rich accountability is that multiple partial perspectives from multiple stakeholders or ‘sides’ need to be brought together in order to form a complete picture of what is happening in a particular educational setting or system. Moreover, we believe that the parties that are going to be held to account should be involved in defining the standards that they will be held to (determining ‘what counts’) – and these same parties should be able to give their own accounts of whether and how they compare to others or with standards (who counts, and how). Varied forms of data will be needed in order to provide complex, contextualised and nuanced accounts of what we are seeking to measure.

Learning about rich accountability

In our research, we have been exploring how to develop this sort of richness while avoiding an undesirable intensification of accountabilities. Case studies involving 8 schools in regional Queensland have explored community-based “funds of knowledge” about education and the establishment of a community-based “Learning Commission” that brought together different stakeholders to share knowledge and gather collective views for the purpose of rich accountability. The establishment of this Learning Commission was informed by theory around competency groups – forums for collaborative thinking that bring together experts and members of the public in discussion towards solving issues that are of concern to a community. Our particular Learning Commission included a retired principal, a local councillor, a community development worker, an Indigenous curriculum project officer, a newspaper editor who was also a parent of school-aged children, and the Director of Research Services for the state Department of Education and Training.

The core questions for the Learning Commission were:

  • What do communities expect from schools?
  • How do communities know if expectations are being met?
  • How can schools provide reliable evidence of meeting expectations?

After the Learning Commission had been meeting and dialoguing for some time, one of the group members said the following:

“I think the benefit of the [Learning Commission] has actually been the process.  When was the last time someone actually asked the broad sector, as the Commission has, what they want, how they feel or how they would like it delivered?  When were they last asked that? You might have filled in a survey at school and gone tick … But you are actually involving a cross‑section of students, a cross‑section of teachers and a cross‑section of community people, workers, parents or whatever.  Again, this is probably the first time they have ever been asked.  So if anything comes out of this, it should be further engagement to keep and grow those Commissions.”

The work of the Learning Commission was a powerful illustration of dialogic democracy. It helped us think about ways forward for rich and multilateral forms of accountability, in terms of:

  • Whose values are systematised, and how?
  • What information is required?
  • Whose practice is changed?

In working towards rich accountability, it is important to recognise that facts cannot be disentangled from values – and that even efficiency itself is just a value. As such, the values that are systematised (such as by being used as the basis of accountability practices) should be revisable, and people should have the opportunity to offer their own accounts to inform multilateral comparisons within accountability processes.

We believe that rich accountability involves a balance between quantitative and qualitative data sources. We agree that:

“Refusing to deal with numbers rarely serves the interests of the least well-off”
Picketty, 2014

… but at the same time we see a real need for new sources of qualitative data that are context-specific and that “help focus the attention of educators and citizens on the broader purposes of schooling … supporting a wide spectrum of achievement and engagement” (see this report).

Eight key ideas of rich accountabilities

The following eight key ideas sum up our work so far around rich accountabilities:

In terms of broadening participation and ensuring democratic processes and dialogue,

  • Rich accountabilities are multilateral, involving all partners and stakeholders;
  • Rich accountabilities are multidirectional, involving horizontal, vertical and reciprocal accountabilities; and
  • Rich accountabilities involve processes that are inclusive, dialogical, and reciprocal.

Rich accountabilities.png


In terms of learning goals and domains:

  • Rich accountabilities balance both social justice and performance, seeking to promote learning for all; and
  • Rich accountabilities acknowledge the multiple domains of learning, including academic, social, emotional, and career aspirations.

Finally, in terms of what data are collected and how they are interpreted:

  • Rich accountabilities involve explicit and democratic debate around what data should be collected and why;
  • Rich accountabilities involve explicit and democratic debate around the interpretation of data; and
  • Rich accountabilities foreground student viewpoints and aspirations.

Future challenges

Some challenges still remain as we continue to explore the potential and practice of rich accountabilities. Going forward, we hope to discover some insights in the following areas:

  1. How can we broaden public accountability without intensification (smarter not more accountability)?
  2. How can we combine the authority and scalability of numbers (traditional quantitative measures and data sources) with the specificity and importance of narratives (context-specific and linked to the broader purposes of schooling)?
  3. How can multiple partnerships of accountability allow us to work towards better and more socially just schooling?

Bob.jpgProfessor Bob Lingard works in the School of Education at The University of Queensland. His research area is the sociology of education. His most recent books include Globalizing Educational Accountability (Routledge, 2016), National Testing in Schools: An Australian Assessment (Routledge, 2016), The International Handbook of Global Education Policy (Wiley, 2016), and Politics, Policies and Pedagogies in Education (Routledge, 2014). Bob is a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia and also of the Academy of the Social Sciences in the UK. He is also Editor of the journal, Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education and of the Routledge New York book series, Key Ideas in Education.


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