External School Review system must be changed to encourage improvement
Hong Kong schools are undergoing the second round of external school review (ESR), which serves as a linchpin of the accountability framework.
Simply put, a team of experts go into schools to review and validate each organisation's self-evaluation processes, and advise them on how their work can be improved. All schools have to go through the two cycles of ESR with an interval of about six to seven years in between.
The Education Bureau is now reviewing measures to conduct future ESRs more effectively.
It proposes that there will be no fixed cycle of ESRs in future, and a more differentiated mode will be adopted, with flexible arrangements to cater for school needs. Schools will be randomly selected for future ESR, and more focus will be put on the effectiveness of learning and teaching, especially in the classroom.
The reasons for the rethink are that ESR has become a normal feature of school operations, and there is less threat to the schools now than before, as schools are familiar with the proceedings. It is time to do more to develop the culture of self-evaluation, and help schools build the findings of self-evaluations into their self-improvement plans.
There is no disagreement with the culture-building approach the bureau is taking. Though schools are less afraid of ESR now, it does not mean that they have grasped the purpose of self-evaluation and ESR.
One suspects most of the processes are done only in a mechanical and cosmetic way to satisfy the demands of the ESR team. They obtain all the required statistics and reports, but see no authentic meaning in them.
The occasional cases of schools trying to influence the results of the required stake-holders' surveys still point to the threat ESR still poses to schools as a high-stake external evaluation of their performance.
They have yet to embrace the spirit of reviewing themselves regularly, which can be the key to success.
Many schools still cannot see how such time-consuming and centrally-prescribed evaluations can lead to real school self-improvement, especially in the absence of expert help.
When an ESR team discovers school weaknesses, it does not give specific follow-up advice, and schools are encouraged to shop around for the appropriate improvement resources on their own. The bureau does provide an array of these, but schools have to make their own choices.
More training of key school personnel to link self-evaluation with self-improvement, especially in the form of sharing good practice, is called for.
Principals need to see how every school improvement effort should and can be centred round learning and teaching.
To make a policy work and sustain itself, pressure must be accompanied by support.
Now that future ESR is to be more focused on learning and teaching in the classroom, support is needed in the areas of pedagogical change and curriculum. For the self-evaluation culture to take roots in schools, there are other necessary conditions.
Since many schools do self-evaluations only for the purpose of catering for ESR, which is still seen as a potential threat to their survival, the self-evaluating process can never be authentic, effective or sustainable.
There must be room for all sorts of schools to exist. Unless schools' unique strengths (not necessarily, or solely, those based on academic performance) are recognised in ESR, schools will not seek ways to review and improve in domains where they are strong.
Although learning and teaching are made the focus - a very legitimate one - it must be stressed that reviews involve both academic and non-academic pursuits, preferably done in a balanced manner. Focus should be put on schools' uniqueness and strengths.
But improvement must be sought for all schools. Education authorities should heed the battle cry of "raise the bar (of all student performance) and close the gap (between districts, schools, classes and students)" elsewhere.
Evaluations exist to inform and drive self-improvement in schools. For that to occur, space and help must be provided for schools to learn.
Robin Cheung is a retired Hong Kong school principal