Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Daily Reports: Closing the Mobility Gaps in Education Worldwide (Day 1)

Day 1:  ‘ … and the snow started to fall …’
At the start it sounds so deceivingly transparent what to concentrate on: Optimizing Talent: Closing Educational and Social Mobility Gaps Worldwide. This sense of transparency stays during Michael Nettles opening words in which he clearly sets out objectives and approach:
  • Identify gaps and why gaps are persistent and even seem to grow
  • Develop strategies
  • Create a vehicle to operationalize these strategies
Four perspectives:
  • a. Finance
  • b. Curriculum
  • c. Policy and Politics
  • d. Transitions

However once the program truly kicks off, the complexity and interwovenness within the context of education and in connection with other societal challenges becomes immediately apparent. Listed here are just ten of the many issues raised in the first group exchange:
  1. Is education competing for attention with other ‘big issues’ or should it be positioned as the underlying and correlated driver implying that investment in education addresses more or less directly other problems in society?
  2. How can we make the positive effects of education improvement visible if the world is focused increasingly on short time success?
  3. Even if more funds become available, redistribution is a key issue because currently those who need it most seem to have least access to it
  4. How do you strike a balance in producing enough talent to meet the immediate needs to support growing economies with education of the ‘masses’ which in the mid-term might be the largest contributing factor to the growth of GDP
  5. What is the benefit if you invest in education but there are no jobs for those who finish school or successful students leave their communities behind.
  6. How can you ensure that a policy change that might be positive (longer compulsory education) doesn’t create risks that completely undercut the aim of the policy (huge increased need for teachers, classrooms, books)
  7. Is there a balance to be found between the solutions that experts provide, the voice of the learners and the commitment of the parents?
  8. How can we defend the public good of education and the commitment to prepare learners for live against anti-intellectualism, utility focus and narrowly defined return on investment perspectives?
  9. Do we want and can we effectively transform ‘learn first-then work’ model to ‘initial learning – lifelong learning’ model?
  10. To make ‘all this’ manageable, the expert participants are challenged to isolate the major factors, present how they break it down, identify what the major contributions to change are and then try to come to consensus at the right aggregate level
In the next few days there will be a continuous tension between diverging on one hand in respecting the many facets of the topic and the expertise represented and converging on the other hand to be able to meet the objectives stated and to start formulating a ‘Salzburg Strategy’ that can function as a catalyst. The start of the seminar coincided with the first snow falling. However the snow disappeared as soon as it hit the ground. The evening followed with more snow, producing a thin white blanket covering the ground. The next few days when we will look up to the mountains we will see them clad in white. A nice metaphor indicating we started to exchange our first ideas -vulnerable and easy to dissolve - and in the next few days we have to rise in order to achieve a more robust response to the challenges we formulated…

Posted by: Gerben Van Lent
Executive director for Knowledge Management,
Market Support and Governance at ETS GLOBAL


Salzburg Global Seminar said...

Great Synopsis! Thanks!

Dylan said...

One of the issues that came up today was the extent to which assessments are value-laden

There are two ways to look at whether assessments are value-laden. The first, as espoused by Cherryholmes, Berlak and others, is that assessments are, inevitably, value-laden. Berlak (1992) says, “But as Cherryholmes (1989) argues, it is not only that subjective judgements are involved, it is also that constructs themselves are products of power and their use is an exercise of power.” (p. 185). I myself have written that there is no such thing as “assessment degree zero” and that “assessments reify the constructs they purport to assess.”

However, there is another way to think about assessments, and that is by making a clear separation between the constructs that are to be assessed, and the assessments themselves.

Within this alternative view, assessments are value-free, or, more precisely, are no more value-laden than the constructs they assess. This can be illustrated by considering the assessment of history.

For some, being good at history is knowing lots of facts and dates. For proponents of this view, multiple-choice tests are perfectly adequate for assessing history, because using a multiple choice test, one can assess a large number of facts and dates, and score the responses reliably. For others, history is about evaluating conflicting sources of evidence, constructing historical argument, understanding chronology, and cause and effect. For adherents of this view, multiple choice tests are inadequate, because they under-represent the construct of history, and they would see constructed-response tests, preferably including writing extended essay, as more valid. On the other hand, proponents of the view that history is about facts and dates would regard essay-based tests as deeply flawed, since they assess the ability of the student to write, and their linguistic skill as well as historical knowledge (what is sometimes called “construct-irrelevant variance.”

The point is that these different views come into opposition when we try to assess history, but they are not really arguments about assessment. They are arguments about what history is, or should be, about. In other words, they are arguments about constructs.

Of course, assessments can be bad. Assessing students in a language other than that in which they have been taught a subject will lead to results that are impossible to interpret; was the student’s response weak because they did not know the history, or because they were unable to understand the question, or express their response, in the language required in the test.

But if they are well constructed, assessments will be no more value-laden than the constructs they assess. The correct “objects of history” are constructs, and the “exercise of power” is the decision to assess certain constructs rather than others. By being clear about this—by being clear that arguments about assessment are usually arguments about the underlying constructs—we are likely to have far more fruitful and effective discussions.


Berlak, H. (1992). Toward the development of a new science of educational testing and assessment. In H. Berlak, F. M. Newmann, E. Adams, D. A. Archbald, T. Burgess, J. Raven & T. A. Romberg (Eds.), Towards a new science of educational testing and assessment (pp. 181-206). Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Cherryholmes, C. H. (1989). Power and criticism: poststructural investigations in education. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.