Accountability and improved student achievement
There are increased calls for accountability in schools today, in the political and social arenas. One mode of accountability is to publish school results of standardised testing, for example nationwide NAPLAN results. Yet the connection between such publications and improved student outcomes remains to be robustly demonstrated. This article explores a case study of school-system and whole-school accountability, couched in terms of staff professional performance indicators, that has been implemented in Catholic systemic schools in Sydney. This form of accountability is argued to be both professionally more transparent and robust, as well as conducive to increased professional activity and student outcomes.
Much has been written and spoken about student achievement in Australian schools. The need 'to do better' is a consistent theme. Schools are expected to perform well in State, national, and international assessments, such as the NSW Basic Skills Tests (BST), the National Assessment Program for Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) tests, and tests conducted for the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). Speaking to school leaders on 'Leading Transformational Change in Schools', Australian Minister for Education Julia Gillard (2008) said:
Let's be honest. Current achievement levels are simply not good enough in many schools. Australia still performs well in international studies. But we do not achieve as highly as we should or could. Our performance at the higher levels of achievement is static or declining. And our persistent tail of low achievement, associated as it is with socioeconomic disadvantage, is too long.
This concern is not a new phenomenon, nor is it unique to Australia. A study found that between 1980 and 2005:
almost every country in the OECD substantially increased its spending on education over the same period, in addition to launching multiple initiatives to spend this money more effectively. Yet very few of the school systems in the OECD achieved significant improvements in performance (Barber & Mourshed 2007).
However, there is little consensus in Australia or elsewhere as to how desired improvements might be achieved. The teaching profession has initiated a variety of strategies, and since the adoption of the 1973 Karmel Report and the advent of the Commonwealth Schools Commission, successive governments have funded dozens of programs to improve the quality of education for all students. At the same time, State governments have also intervened to raise standards.
Accountability to drive school improvement
In recent years, the Australian Government has viewed increased accountability as a key mechanism to drive school improvement. In the speech cited above, Ms Gillard said:
We need a commitment to transparency and accountability. It's my strong view that lack of transparency both hides failure and helps us ignore it. It feeds a culture where all the adults involved – the teachers, the principals, the community leaders and the members of parliament – avoid accountability. And lack of transparency prevents us from identifying where greater effort and investment are needed. Importantly, transparency and accountability are overwhelmingly supported by parents.
Accountability and transparency are central drivers of the Australian Government's 'Education Revolution':
Every school, government or non-government, wherever it is located, whatever its ethos, will provide information about its performance in national tests and other crucial areas of schooling as part of a national system that will help to put the information in its proper context (Gillard, 2008).
Acceptance of transparency and accountability requirements is now a condition of Australian Government funding for all schools. The assumption here is that greater and more transparent accountability will improve school effectiveness.
Time will tell if these new government reporting requirements will strengthen Australian schools and improve achievement levels on national tests.
The Catholic Education Office (CEO), Sydney is the approved authority for a system of 147 non-government schools in NSW [Education Act (1990) Part 7:39–40], and has responsibility for monitoring these schools' compliance with the Act. Approximately 64,000 students are enrolled in the 111 parish primary and 36 regional secondary schools under the CEO's authority. Some 60% of these students are classified as having a language background other than English and 5.25% have disabilities (Canavan, 2009).
At these schools, student achievement in State and national tests has increased for each of the past 10 years. In the NSW BST, the Year 3 Literacy achievement increased from 74% in 1998 to 93% in 2007. In Year 5, the increase was from 84% to 93% in the same period. In Numeracy, Year 3 increased from 73% to 85% and Year 5 from 84% to 89% (see Table 1, appended). The NAPLAN scores in 2008 and 2009 were well above State and national means (Canavan 2008; Canavan 2006).
In the Higher School Certificate (HSC) the percentage of all courses in all Sydney Catholic regional schools where achievement was above the State mean improved from 51% in 1995 to 67% in 2009 (see Table 2, appended). The number of Band 6 results achieved in the same schools has increased by 368% over the period 2001–2009, as compared to an increase of 237% across all schools in NSW (CEO, Sydney 2008; Catholic Weekly 2009. See also Table 3, appended).
To sharpen the focus on student achievement levels in BST, NAPLAN and the HSC, the CEO, Sydney worked with schools to develop specific performance targets. Each year the school system has measured student achievement against published targets, and has identified improvements in student outcomes. (CEO, Sydney 2008).
This improved student performance in Statewide examinations has been accompanied by the development of a culture characterised by a strong emphasis on accountability and ongoing review. In 2004 the CEO, Sydney and the schools in the system were evaluated by an external panel chaired by Ian Gamble, one of Her Majesty's Chief Inspectors of Education in Scotland. In their report the panel wrote:
The CEO, Sydney has developed very high levels of accountability and staff commitment, and a strongly shared sense of mission and purpose at all levels. These key characteristics are particularly well demonstrated in the establishment of an overall framework for self-evaluation, planning, audit and review across all schools and the CEO. Taken together, these arrangements and substantial effective leadership have done much to establish the CEO as a learning organisation (Gamble et al 2004).
Every person employed in this Catholic school system is expected to take part in an integrated accountability process that involves annual role clarification, a mid-year review, an end-of-year review, and goal setting for the following year.
Known officially as Personnel Performance Planning and Review (PPPR), the process was trialled in the 1980s and formally adopted as system policy in 1990. Considerable resources were allocated to its implementation and, by 2001, the effectiveness of the annual cycle of reviews was widely recognised. The General Secretary of the NSW Independent Education Union and the Executive Director of Schools jointly published a policy document, titled PPPR – Personnel Performance Planning and Review, on the implementation of PPPR for teachers in Sydney Catholic schools, and subsequently for all school staff (Catholic Education Office, Sydney and NSW/ACT Independent Education Union 2001).
Normally, teachers and support staff undertake these accountability and development processes with their principal or another senior staff member. The assistant principal is accountable to the principal, who is accountable to a regional consultant from the CEO, Sydney. Regional consultants are accountable for their ongoing performance to their regional directors. All CEO staff are involved in this process with the relevant director or a delegated person to whom they directly report. The eight CEO directors are accountable to the executive director. Part-time staff also take part. At the end of each year, a written record of effectiveness, together with specific personal and professional development goals for the following year, is signed off by each colleague and the PPPR leader. Further data about the participation of school staff members in the accountability cycle can be found in Appendix 2.
Professional development on the purposes and processes of the accountability framework is provided to all new employees and for those taking up supervisory responsibilities.
In establishing appraisal of staff as a firm policy, the CEO, Sydney was indicating its belief that:
There is recognition that all employees have a right to:
The accountability processes described here are closely aligned with the school and system's strategic management plans, annual evaluation of selected indicators of school effectiveness, the external validation processes and contract renewal and reappointment process. The close alignment of all these processes contributes to a culture of school improvement. Further evidence of a commitment to accountability and development is the invitation to principals to evaluate the contribution of the CEO, Sydney to the education of students. This is done through periodic surveys.
In their 2004 report on the effectiveness of the Catholic Education Office, Sydney, the External Review Panel wrote:
The PPPR process is of particular significance in the promotion and support of quality teaching and learning.... and has great potential to promote professional development and sustain quality education (Gamble et al, 2004).
This paper is not claiming that system-wide accountability processes, including PPPR, explain improved student achievement in Sydney Catholic schools over the past decade. However, the accountability measures used are framed in terms of educational provision, targets to be achieved and educational outcomes. The relationship between accountability and improved student achievement requires further research.
Time will tell if the accountability framework now embedded in Sydney Catholic schools will continue to sustain and even improve the achievement levels of the past decade.
Barber, Michael and Mourshed, Mona, 2007, How the World's Best-Performing School Systems Come Out On Top, McKinsey & Company.
Canavan, Kelvin, May 2006, Improving student achievement – what role can an education authority play in improving student achievement and raising standards in schools? Professional Educator, 5(2), 20–23, Australian College of Educators – ACER.
Canavan, Kelvin, 2008, National Assessment Program in Literacy and Numeracy. Bulletin 110. Sydney: Catholic Education Office, Sydney.
Canavan, Kelvin, 2009, Catholic schools and poor and disadvantaged students: how the Sydney Catholic school system is responding to the challenge, International Studies in Catholic Education, 1(2), 170–186.
Catholic Education Office, Sydney and NSW/ACT Independent Education Union. 2001. PPPR – Personnel Performance Planning and Review. Catholic Education Office, Sydney.
Catholic Education Office, Sydney, 2008, Annual Report. Sydney: Catholic Education Office, Sydney
Catholic Weekly, Sydney, 27 December 2009. p 5.
Gamble, I, Stannard, O, Benjamin, A, Burke, T, 2004, Report to the Archdiocese of Sydney on the Catholic Education Office, Sydney and the Sydney Archdiocesan Catholic Schools Board. Sydney: Catholic Education Office, Sydney.
Gillard, Julia, 2008, Leading Transformational Change in Schools, speech 24 November.
NSW Basic Skills Tests 1998–2007
Year 3: 2007 n = 5069 students in 112 schools
Band range: Year 3: 1(lowest) to 5 (highest) Year 5: 1 (lowest) to 6 (highest)
HSC: Sydney Catholic Regional Schools 1995–2009
HSC: Band 6 Comparison 2001–2009
*These figures represent the total number of students in the State and in Sydney Catholic Regional Schools who sat either of the two compulsory English Courses – English (Standard 15130) or English (Advanced 15140) – as indicated in the BOS Results Analysis Package
**Change from 2001 to 2009 = Band 6s2009/ Band 6s2001=1648/448 = 3.68
Primary and Secondary School (n=147)
Note: Data supplied by Regional Consultants, October 2009
Subject HeadingsCatholic schools
New South Wales (NSW)