Mitdlarak Lennert's PhD defense
Wednesday 24 March 2021 Mitdlarak Lennert defended her PhD titled: "The administrative context of the Greenland primary and lower secondary school system - a governance system misaligned with learning".
Mitdlarak's PhD in brief:
Against the backdrop of the debates over the quality of the primary and lower secondary school in Greenland, this dissertation explores the following question: How does the current administrative context and legislation in the Greenlandic education system, focusing on the primary and lower secondary school, shape and structure the accountability relationships among principal actors?
To answer the research questions, I conducted an embedded case study to provide an indepth analysis of the governance and management form of complex educational systems from a Greenlandic context. The empirical material in the dissertation was methodically generated through qualitative interviews with system-leaders and local practitioners, observed events and meetings and analysed relevant documentary material. An analytical framework, to analyse the interplay between governance form and the functions evaluations take, was developed in order to analyse and make sense of the data.
The dissertation is centred around four papers. Using approaches based on theories of complexity, governance, accountability and evaluation the research is covered in four component papers. The conclusion, based on the analyses and results identified in the different papers, is that the current Greenlandic governance form affects the accountability structure in the education system, the forms and functions evaluations take in such a way that activities are centred on process compliance and legitimisation of practice, and not on learning and improvement of quality. The conclusion is that the root causes of Greenland’s low educational outcomes generally fall into one of two categories: a lack of accountability, and a lack of capacity. In other words, the systems that are set in place to secure quality education are not functioning due to a lack of follow-up.
There is a general discourse that the quality of education in the primary and lower secondary school is too low. And the education level of the population is too low - compared to e.g., the Nordic countries. Because different actors have different goals in the process, and hence different perceptions of what a good education system and quality is, it is important to be aware of the concept of quality, how it is defined, measured and manifested in the evaluation and monitoring processes of the education system.
Throughout this dissertation my objective has been to discuss whether systems, structures, processes, tools and practice are aligned for development or whether they run for the sake of the system without adding value. This dissertation questions the accountability system that is in place in the Greenlandic primary and lower secondary school system. The analyses point towards an accountability system and practice that is not compatible with the legislation. While the school legislation is child-and-learning-centred, the administrative processes are in contrast heavily focused on simple models, day-to-day operation and not on improvement of the education system. A lot of time and resources are spent collecting information that show that something is not right, as the results of the standardised tests remain low - however this information does not explain why. This combined with no systematic follow-up in relation to the information collected, results in what can be described as half a performance management system. In other words, an expensive and time- consuming practice and system, that adds little value in terms of school improvement.
The findings give insights on the administrative context and how the expectation that ‘one size fits all’ can be harmful, when the context is not considered. Paper I on coherence show the importance of cooperation and coordination between governance levels in terms of implementing and monitoring education reforms. Paper II on e-learning and iPads show that there is no quick technical fix to raise the quality of education, as the context matter to how the iPads can be used. If there is limited Wi-Fi connection, if the iPads are not brought to school or if the learning materials to be used with the iPads are not well developed, then the causal mechanism (technology) will not trigger to better education in that particular context. Paper III explores the context of a young nation where there is a need to build a nation by speaking Greenlandic in the classroom, and how this is important to how the level of education can be raised. If there is a shortage of teachers with the particular language skills, this is a contextual factor which is important to why mechanisms expected to create better education do not trigger in that particular context. Paper IV is yet another example; here performance- management is a script on how educational systems should be redirected in accordance with new public management. However, as policy and evaluation instruments are not used as intended, it again does not trigger the mechanisms that lead to better education.
The education system, based on the way information is collected and monitored, funding mechanisms, and how decisions are made, has a different purpose than the political purpose. The current system is coherent around other objectives, that do not produce a system in which universal attainment of high levels of learning becomes the driving force of key actors’ (organisations and individuals) behaviours. Even though, politically it is an objective to provide quality education, the emerged objectives of the education system are coherent around an expansion of the education system and not on quality development schooling, and thus in a monitoring practice where there is little focus on content and quality, nor requirements or follow-ups. Improving quality is less visible, takes much longer time, and therefore perhaps carries less political cache than new classrooms and schools. The key constraint in the system therefore becomes the fact that accountability systems are more concerned with process compliance due to the typical management accountability, than it is with student learning. Processes that are not optimised for practices that, in some cases, end up directly counteracting the political aims and wishes.
Drawing parallels between the Greenlandic case and education governance research beyond Greenland, the component studies reveal strong convergence between challenges as experienced in Greenland and in other countries in general. Many reforms and policy instruments are adopted more or less uncritically across countries. This dissertation shows how policy and evaluation instruments, due to contextual and local factors, are not used as intended, as context shapes (evaluation) culture and conditions for development. Local opportunities in terms of capacity, motivation, culture, prioritisation, and knowledge are crucial for whether evaluation tools are used as intended. It is time to question the way things are done. What was the purpose, what did we end up with? Who is the system benefitting?
The findings also illustrate what seems to be a historical lack of coordination in connection with the implementation processes in respect to educational reform, where there has been no tradition of extensive cooperation and planning across municipalities and central government, or a solid tradition for monitoring and conducting utilisation focused evaluations.
This dissertation shows how education governance is complex, as there are many actors and agendas. The research argues that implementing education policies in general, and specifically 1:1 iPad learning in all primary and secondary schools in a whole country is a complex system change, and therefore demands a corresponding implementation, evaluation and monitoring approach.
The gap between the government’s aims and the realities facing most Greenlanders is apparent. Given the set of infrastructural conditions, political economy, and local contexts, it is debatable to what extent the approach used in Greenland is right. The identified governance gaps point to a system where there is a perpetual state of process compliance and reaction, instead of action towards development. While policies were arguably made with the best of intentions, it happened in the absence of a strategic architecture that could have enabled key stakeholders to better plan for and respond to the challenges these policies would bring about, as school administrators admit to not have changed planning strategies to accommodate the change from the 1997 to the 2002 law (Demant-Poort, 2016, p. 182). Thus, in Greenland today, many children and families, especially those who live in smaller settlements and only speak Greenlandic, find themselves in an unenviable position: on paper included in the country’s development project vis-a`-vis the education system, but in practice excluded from meaningful opportunity given the poor quality of that system.
The conclusion of this dissertation challenges the future regulation of the primary and lower secondary school system in Greenland. There is therefore a call for a debate about what the balance of hierarchical and horizontal institutional arrangements in terms of public provision of primary and lower secondary school in Greenland should be. In relation to this, the future structure of an accountability system should be discussed, in terms of what it is expected to fulfil, and to consider if it is possible to be effective under the current structures, which are to frame the regulation and practice of the school.
We congratulate Mitdlarak on her PhD defense.