Constant pressure on schools to improve student achievement is a clear source of stress. As one young, energetic and passionate teacher in our research said,
“I don’t sleep much. Or have any kind of life outside of school. Out of all the things I do as a teacher, [the collection and recording of data] takes the most time. And it does get in the way of preparing some really fun and engaging lessons”.
The demand on schools to show improvement through statistical data is an international trend, which has resulted in comparisons between schools and school systems.
In Australia and other parts of the world, the thirst for data has been accelerated by a market-driven approach to education where the use of data is promoted as a way of giving parents greater knowledge and choice between schools.
Few would dispute the need for evidence or data in schools, however, researchers have demonstrated time and again, that using high-stakes testing as primary evidence for schools is likely to have perverse effects, such as a narrowing the curriculum and creating teacher stress.
To challenge this focus on standards and the school market-place, a group of six Queensland schools has worked together with university partners to think about how they might engage in evidence-based decision making in new ways.
Our new book – Promoting Equity in Schools tells a range of stories about how school leaders and teachers made ethical decisions and worked in ongoing and systematic cycles of collaborative inquiry to improve student learning.
Underpinned by a commitment to ethical leadership, this approach supported school staff to improve educational outcomes for all students and create opportunities for genuine, long-term and locally important improvement.
Our research drew on principles of collaborative inquiry, involving educators working together in cycles of inquiry about school culture, policy and practice to inform and improve student learning and outcomes.
Our approach is distinguished by a focus on ethical leadership practices, an engagement with the views of different stakeholders, collaboration and networking, improving practice, and the development of local capacity for sustaining change.
We found that many school practitioners are unsure about how best to use assessment data to improve student learning. School leaders and teachers need to develop their knowledge and skills in using a variety of data for inquiry to challenge their thinking and practices to support student learning.
In our research, school leaders began cycles of ethical decision-making and collaborative inquiry with an analysis of school performance data, class achievement data, and demographic data. These data were catalysts for deeper, locally relevant inquiry. The schools we worked with combined these data with other sources of evidence, such as teacher and student perceptions about school practices.
What do we know and what can we learn from this research?
Too often, evidence-based accountability leads to a “what works” dot point list, when what is needed is prolonged, sustained, critical inquiry, with a focus on equity.
We found that teacher-researchers engaging in collaborative inquiry learn to be more critically reflexive when they are gathering evidence to inform their teaching. By beginning with data and focusing on issues that emerge therein, educators can plan and evaluate possible strategies to overcome local issues.
Our research showed that the use of data can support teachers to understand their students more deeply and lead to purposeful planning and teaching. Teacher researchers working in collaborative inquiries can then share their learning and practice with a teacher research team. This is when the power of ethical leadership and decision-making can really influence a sustainable culture of inclusion.
However, we also found that school leaders and teachers must be provided with opportunities to collect and engage with a range of data and evidence to support decisions and practice.
Schools can become more inclusive if leaders and teachers are given time to engage in collaborative inquiry, rather than focusing primarily on high-stakes measures for accountability. To achieve this, schools need to slow down and move away from short-term improvements in student performance on tests.
More time is needed for collaboration, reflection and evidence-based practice to generate sustainable learning outcomes for all students.