Education Talks: Building back a better system through quality assurance

What is quality assurance, and how can it help us move forward from the COVID-19 crisis? For an expert opinion on these topics, we turned to Melanie Ehren, Professor in Educational Governance at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.

What is quality assurance?

I always describe it as a process where information is gathered and analysed on, for example, school inputs, processes and outcomes, which could be the quality of teaching and learning, or student learning outcomes. That can be analysed for teachers, classrooms or schools, and on an aggregated level even, for looking at district- or system-level quality. That information is collected by actors, and those can be both internal to the school, such as teachers, school leaders or school boards even, or it can be collected externally by school inspectors or supervisors, on a district level for example. And that collection of information can be done through various devices, such as testing, lesson observation or document analysis.

The purpose of all that is to make informed decisions: decisions on how to improve the school, where improvement is needed, how to improve teaching in the classroom, or perhaps organise assessment differently, or organise the school differently, with the purpose of improving student learning outcomes. It can also inform decision-making on the system level, such as where national governments use that level, that aggregated information from schools to decide where resources need to be allocated. And it can also inform parental school choice, such as when Inspectorates of Education publish reports on school quality and parents use that information to decide on a school for their children. So a very broad term that captures various types of evaluation, but this framework really allows us to understand the key elements of what quality assurance includes.

How are Inspectorates of Education changing their work due to the pandemic?

Before the pandemic, we already saw a move to more emphasis on school evaluation - how that was included in external inspection increasingly. Our Inspectorates of Education would use that information to judge school quality. We also saw a move towards improvement in the role of Inspectorates of Education, moreso than control, and an intense use of data in evaluations, as well. We've also seen the development of peer-to-peer models, where schools would evaluate each other's work and where that would feed into external inspections. The conversation that we've had with external Inspectorates of Education is that they expect to prolong that function, particularly because schools are currently facing such challenges in reducing potential achievement gaps, addressing issues around inequality, and a sole control function is just not considered feasible in reducing those gaps. And obviously what we mean by “support” here is not that Inspectorates of Education are providing advice to schools on how they should improve, but “support” should be considered more broadly, in terms of sharing good practice, providing evaluative feedback - whereas the school would decide on how to specifically use that information.

So there's quite a lot of talk about building back a better system in response to the pandemic, where good practices in schools are sustained through evaluation. Some of those good practices would be where schools have actually developed high-quality models of blended teaching and learning, where they've also improved what we call educational partnerships with parents, home-school partnerships, where they've also kind of invested in developing students' executive skills, so they would be able to self-regulate their learning much better. What we also see is that given the concerns over high inequality, potential learning loss and well-being of students, these issues cannot be addressed by schools alone. They require partnerships with parents to begin with, but also with other partners in a local context, such as those providing youth services. There's this great saying that goes, “It takes a village to raise a child,” and that really highlights the relevance of including partnerships in evaluation, as well.