Interview LEARN! Newsletter October 2020


By Alissa Postpischil

In one of your current projects, you work with school boards to improve their public accountability. Tell me about the work..

We are organizing network meetings and offer them evidence or theory-based information on how they can improve their public accountability. In the network, the members of 30 different school boards feedback on each other’s work and discuss questions and issues that come up in their own organisation. As a research team, we offer them evidence-informed feedback to progress their thinking and work. This approach or ‘action research’ involves constant dialogue where we also get their insights on how we can further develop our theoretical frameworks and concepts.

Can you give an example of the type of feedback you offer and how you try to improve their public accountability?
Currently, we are developing an accountability scan that can be used to analyze an organization. The scan evaluates how people in the organization think about public accountability. We discovered throughout the project that it is very important for successfully implementing improvements to know how far an organization already is, how far people of the organization think the organization is and how people of the organization judge the relevance of public accountability. Sometimes those at the top are very ambitious in involving stakeholders in the accountability of the organisation, or in reporting about performance or other aspects of schooling, but find that staff in their schools are not on board. The accountability scan can offer such insights and a view of how people view the relevance and need for public accountability of the organisation. Improving public accountability is really difficult if staff are not on board, so that is the first step they would then need to address.

The scan is an output of this project and we are currently pilot testing the instrument. The next step in the project is to ask school boards to use it in advance of our network meetings and bring the outcomes to the session for further discussion and action planning.

What does this scan look like?
It is an online tool that takes 10 minutes for people to fill in. We ask people not to think too long before they answer questions, they should just answer based on their feelings and their personal views.

What inspires you to do this project?

I always aim to do work that is relevant for practitioners. If practitioners say: ‘oh that is a nice academic idea, but it is not relevant for us’, it would not be that interesting for me. When we asked school boards to participate in these networks, it was remarkable how many people thought our project is relevant and wanted to be part of it. This was very reassuring.

Was the project a success so far? Did the schools improve their public accountability? Do you have examples of what they changed?

Yes, definitely. At the beginning of the project, we developed a plan with every participant; in every meeting, we discuss how far they are in implementing the plan. We know already that quite a few have done substantial work to improve their public accountability. Some are involving their stakeholders in the policy of the school and report more transparently and comprehensively. The participants told us that they have developed many new ideas on how to make compact but meaningful annual reports, including concise descriptions of goal achievement and actions taken in case goals were not met. These are just a few examples of the progress they made throughout this project. But it also appeared to be difficult to keep a sense of urgency for accountability issues, especially in these times of Corona.

What future plans do you have for this project?
At this moment we are in conversation with the Department of Education about potentially scaling up. Our current group is already relatively large but if you look at the total population of school boards there are still many boards who are not participating. This is what we are looking into now, how can we make the tools that we offer available to a broader audience.

How come that a political scientist works in the field of education?

In my whole career, I am mainly interested in two topics: public governance and accountability issues on the one hand and public-private partnerships on the other. Within these topics, I already did a lot of research in social housing, pension funds, child care, urban development, and so on. I always switch from field to field. For the past five, six years, I have worked in education. Public governance, accountability and public-private partnerships are topics that are relevant across all sorts of fields. What interests me is to compare these fields and transfer knowledge from one field to another. I am of course interested in education, but it is not my main interest. Who knows… maybe in four/five years I will work in another domain.

One last question, when you think back to your own school/university time, do you have a class that you found exemplary?

Oh, I have to go back to my classes about 30 years ago. I had two classes that impressed me. They were both about philosophy. There was one class that was given by Prof. Assoun; he was a French professor who told us about Freud and Lacan. The other class was given by Prof. Koen Boeij and he was a Belgian professor. He told us about Marx and Hegel. In the class about Freud and Lacan, we learned about how individuals function, how we become the man or woman that we are now. The other course was about how societies become what they are now and about the logic of a developing society. Both classes changed my thinking and perspective of the world fundamentally. Those two classes actually inspired me to give philosophy classes for practitioners myself now. The course is called leadership and philosophy. In this course, we try to teach managers different perspectives and enable them to question their practice. Here, we also talk about Foucault. The work of Foucault can be an eye-opener for managers to realize several disciplinary techniques in their organization that they considered as normal and were not aware of. We also developed a VUsummerschool titled ‘The city through the philosopher’s eyes’ in which we will introduce students to the practical world of philosophy and learn how to look at the city through the philosopher’s eyes. After each meeting participants go into the city, walk and watch, and make pictures or a short movie with a philosophical concept in mind and present this to the group afterwards. Unfortunately due to Corona the Summerschool had to be cancelled this year, but maybe it can go ahead next year. It is great to be able to teach something that was so inspiring to me in my own school career.

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