The surplus model of school improvement

The surplus model of school improvement

In chapter 2 of Intelligent Accountability I suggest that schools can operate either a surplus or deficit model of school improvement. Schools often seem to be run on a deficit model whereby any deficiencies or failings are attributed to a lack of understanding, information, effort or good will. The efforts of ‘experts’ (school leaders, inspectors, consultants, senior teachers, etc.) who understand what needs to be done are stymied by the actions (or inaction) of non-experts (classroom teachers) who do not. In a deficit model, failings are attributed to the inability of non-experts to understand or enact “realistic budgets, plans and targets”. The deficit model assumes all would be well if only teachers and leaders were more motivated, worked harder or were somehow ‘better’ in some undetermined way. Undesirable outcomes are due to someone’s bad faith, incompetence or lack of skill. The kind of appraisal meetings where teachers or middle leaders are held to account for the failure of their students to have achieved higher grades are absurd. To act in this way, school leaders have to believe that teachers know how to teach better but, for some reason, are choosing not to do so.

According to this way of thinking, problems will be solved if these deficits can be addressed in some way. Deficits are dealt with by supplying more information and imposing stricter parameters, tighter deadlines and clearer consequences. If only we could establish responsibility, apportion blame and force everyone into line, success would be guaranteed. This is the logic behind the way much of the education system manages the accountability process: schools and teachers cannot be trusted to do the right thing and take responsibility for their own development, so they need to be coerced with the cudgel of accountability until they fall into line.

Teachers are frequently advised by experts on how they should teach. Sometimes this advice may be useful and welcome, but when teachers are told to teach in ways they disagree with, the very best we can expect is compliance. One of three outcomes is probable. Teachers will either:

  1. Comply in the belief that they are unfit to have their own professional opinions.
  2. Play the game but do so resentfully and without real engagement.
  3. Struggle to comply with impossible demands, be perceived as failures and ‘supported’ out of the profession.

In each scenario, students – and particularly the most disadvantaged students who most need effective teaching – suffer. Ultimately, the rationale of the deficit model is to get rid of ineffective teachers and replace them with effective ones. But where will these effective teachers come from? It’s not as if schools are inundated with wonderful prospective teachers clamouring to get into the profession. If anything, we’re experiencing a recruitment and retention crisis.

But what if we ran our schools on a surplus model? What if we assumed that teachers were basically trustworthy, hard-working and knew what they were doing? Even if we assumed that all teachers have the best of intentions, we know that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Although good intentions

are not enough, an institutional belief that teachers are essentially out to do their best changes institutional culture. Instead of seeking out responsibility and apportioning blame for any perceived failure, in a surplus model the working assumption would be that there must be an impediment preventing teachers from doing the right thing, and if we can only find and smooth out the obstacles, people will naturally do what is in the children’s best interests.

This might sound naive. Every senior leader has worked with teachers who are, for one reason or another, struggling. While such teachers can mostly be supported to improve, there may be a small minority who are too lazy or nefarious to do so. A surplus model doesn’t just ignore this possibility, but it does assume – until proven otherwise – that teachers are well intentioned and responsible.

This doesn’t mean leaders should never fire incompetent employees, and it doesn’t mean that senior leaders shouldn’t make tough decisions, but it does mean that we should begin by assuming that everyone has current and developing expertise. If our analysis ends when we identify guilt for making mistakes (or being incompetent), we are less likely to recognise the systemic factors which made these errors possible. Individuals must be accountable for their actions, but systemic failures are the responsibility of school leaders. Understandably, some leaders find it inconvenient to look beyond human error.

A sensible surplus model insists that trust is reciprocal and that autonomy is earned. (We’ll consider this further in Chapter 5.) Instead of resulting in ever tighter accountability, such a model produces greater trust. And, when teachers are trusted to be their best, when they are acknowledged as knowing more about teaching their subjects to their students in their classrooms, then they are allowed to select solutions that may be far better than those chosen by less knowledgeable leaders. The more trust and responsibility teachers are given, the more they are empowered to find out what might be more effective, and the more likely they are to achieve mastery.

In contrast to the built-in insufficiency of a deficit model, the surplus model is premised on sufficiency. The constant urge for schools to be better than ‘good enough’ encourages a lack of realism.

The table below suggests other differences between these two approaches.

Just in case it’s not clear, I’m arguing that the surplus model is more likely to create the conditions for teachers to thrive.

One of the most bitter ironies is that schools who most need to operate a surplus model – schools considered to be failing – are also those where the risk of doing so may seem untenable. This creates a vicious cycle in which accountability without trust leads to teachers being too fearful to exercise their professional judgement. On the other hand, schools considered successful feel able to risk trusting their staff and, consequently, teachers at these schools are more likely to thrive, leading to further successes.

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