In some public sector areas, like education, evaluation “took off” a long time ago as an essential management and policy instrument. A feature of this evaluative megatrend that has taken a high flight in recent years is performance measurement systems that collect, record and publish, often in league tables, numerical data on an on-going basis about predetermined indicators that signify a well-functioning school or education system. A recent OECD report, summing up experience from 28 countries, demonstrates that performance measurement is regarded as an indispensible tool for improvement, policy development and accountability purposes. At the same time, an increasing amount of literature suggest that performance measurement may not always or seldom produce the results anticipated, but may in fact generate a number of negative effects – dysfunctions some would call it. Catchphrases like governance by targets and policy as numbers are used to describe this development.
Performance measurement systems flourish at all levels in the education area – local, national, international – perhaps more prominently than in other public sector areas. Interestingly enough, there is also what some authors have pointed out, a tendency for the ownership and use of the aforesaid performance regimes to become more diffuse over time. This diffusion has helped to create and sustain a “performance industry” made up of various non-official organizations that make use of publicly produced data, repack and reinterpret them, add their own commentaries, and publish (or sell) it for their own ends.
In this paper we argue that there is a risk of overcrowding on the education evaluation arena that is likely to have negative, but yet unexplored effects. In addition to the more general dysfunctions of performance measurement pointed out in the literature, the proliferation and competition between various actors and league tables may confuse users of performance information. The overcrowding may also, and this is our main hypothesis, obscure, complicate and maybe work against the ambition of strengthening accountability through performance measurement. The paper does not attempt to find out whether the potential risks associated with evaluation overcrowding are empirically valid, which would indeed have been an important issue to resolve. Our humble aim is to take a first step towards resolving this issue. We will describe and discuss performance measurement systems and actors operating on one particular evaluation arena, the Swedish education, in relation to a theoretical scheme comprising core elements of accountability. In brief, the scheme sees accountability as a relationship between an actor and a forum, in which the actor has an obligation to explain and justify his or her conduct, the forum can pose questions and pass judgement, and the actor may face consequences.
Sweden is a particularly information-rich case in regards to the paper’s aim. Political reforms over last two decades have made the education system more decentralized and market-like than in most other countries. All schools – whether owned and administered by municipalities or private, independent providers – are entirely tax funded. Hence, the reforms have made accountability a focus of interest.
2014. 60-60 p.
11th European Evaluation Society Conference, 1-3 October 2014, Convention Centre Dublin, Ireland