Evaluation is a sensitive topic. This is due to the fact that there is no global concensus on whether or not evaluation helps improve student learning outcomes. In the USA, high stakes testing is the norm. In Finland, on the contrary, evaluation of schools, teachers and students is rarely used. Over the past ten years, Finland has ranked at the top of the world. In contrast, the USA has struggled to achieve average results.
A conclusion would seem obvious. The USA should stop evaluating students and teachers and schools. Just let teachers and students and schools simply get on with it. The logic suggests that effective educational leadership would practically ban evaluations. As a result, following the logic, improved student learning outcomes will happen.
Before going further, let us return to the definition of effective educational leadership I propose. “…effective educational leadership is able to achieve improved learning outcomes for students.”
Now, my definition is straightforward, direct, and to the point. There are other definitions, however, more eloquent ones, broader, and from different perspectives. Yet they all have one characteristic in common with mine, namely improving student learning outcomes:
1. “Instructional leadership consists of direct and indirect behaviors that significantly affect teacher instruction and, as a result, student learning” (Daresh and Playko, 1995).
2. “The leader is a person who is in a position to influence others to act and who has, as well, the moral, intellectual, and social skills required to take advantage of that position” (Schlechty, 1990).
3. “Instructional leadership is leadership that is directly related to the processes of instruction where teachers, learners, and the curriculum interact” (Acheson & Smith, 1986).
4. Quoting Jo Blase, “Leadership is shared with teachers, and it is cast in coaching, reflection, collegial investigation, study teams, explorations into the uncertain, and problem solving. It is position-free supervision wherein the underlying spirit is one of expansion, not traditional supervision. Alternatives, not directives or criticism, are the focus, and the community of learners perform professional-indeed, moral-service to students” (as cited in Gordon, 1995).
5. “Leadership [of nonprofit organizations] is not about being soft or nice or purely inclusive or consensus-building. The whole point is to make sure the right decisions happen-no matter how difficult or painful-for the long-term greatness of the institution and the achievement of its mission” -Jim Collins, Good to Great and the Social Sectors
6. “…any useful conception of academic leadership must be based primarily on clarity about the goals of school, analysis of current results, and purposeful actions to close existing gaps between desired results and present reality” (Wiggins & McTighe, 2007).
Let us now return to the case of Finland.
Finland has a phenomenal educational system. Students start school at a later age than in most countries (age 7). They spend less time in school, and study fewer subjects. Counterintuitively, they have almost no homework. Incredibly, they enjoy a three month summer vacation, and are rarely tested. Sounds like a paradise for school children, except this place is very real.
What about the teachers in Finland?
They are highly respected professionals. Finland accepts only the brightest and best into its teacher training programs. They are trained to a Master’s Degree level in only five years. Once hired, they quickly receive tenure, are rarely evaluated, earn average salaries, and have a strong teachers union.
What about the schools?
They receive modest funding, develop their own curriculum, research and adopt new technologies, have no achievement gap, and leave no child behind. Again, we are talking about a school system that has ranked consistently at the top of the world for the past ten years. Without a doubt, Finland makes the case for not evaluating students, teachers, and schools.
What about the rest of the world?
To be logical, we must invoke the following conclusion: Stop evaluating, and get on with learning. It’s the only conclusion possible, based on the evidence. Furthermore, it has worked marvelously…for Finland.
Is this a realistic option for the rest of the world?
Maybe, and maybe not. Let’s try an experiment. Close your eyes and imagine your students, your teachers, your school…with no evaluations. Is this a nightmarish scenario? Conversely, could this be a sweet dream? Answer: it depends.
It depends on what the students, the teachers, and the schools would do if no one asked for accountability. Would students learn…just for fun? Would teachers teach…just because they are professionals? Would schools even care about learning…just because that’s what schools do…ensure students learn? Most of us (with exceptions) would likely tend to agree that accountability is what makes students learn, teachers teach, and schools care about learning.
Yet in Finland, a system works, that practically would fail in most other countries around the world. When we admit this to ourselves, that accountability is the main reason we have evaluations of students, teachers, and schools, then we can move on and design evaluations that impact student learning outcomes, rather than simply provide evidence about past learning.
To conclude, the Finnish system is based on trust. It has worked remarkably for them. Yet in all fairness, it won’t work for the rest of the world, because of a variety of reasons. All we have, for better of for worse, is accountability…