Trust and Verify: The Real Keys to School Improvement
reviewed by Catherine Hands - September 26, 2017
In Trust and Verify: The Real Keys to School Improvement, Dean Fink has edited a volume on international perspectives of trust and distrust in education systems across seven countries. Noting a pattern that suggests that high-trust countries produce higher student achievement and more equitable student results within reasonable public expenditures (p. 6), Fink and his colleagues aim to examine the trust relationship within each countrys social context.
This book is a little different from most edited books in which authors have pretty much carte blanche to write what they want. The authors of the country chapters in this work agreed to use a standard questionnaire and interview protocol so we could make some comparisons across nations (p. 205), and
this novel approach, as well as discussion of the impact trust has on education, makes for an engaging read.
To start, Finks trust and distrust paradigm is a departure from some scholars interpretations of trust. He provides a helpful overview of institutional trust and relational trust, and introduces the notion of distrust as a separate entity in the first chapter. He then presents a matrix of high and low trust and high and low distrust, as well as the role that verification of trustworthiness plays. While trust can be conceptualized on a continuum, evolving and growing or diminishing between individuals (Bottery, 2003; McMillan, Meyer, & Northfield, 2004; Tschannen-Moran & Hoy, 2000), the contributing authors provide snapshots of trust at the time of the survey in their countries. As such, Finks static depiction of trust and distrust in the introductory chapters is a suitable framework for the authors findings.
Following Finks explanation of his conceptual framework, contributions from Australia, Canada, Finland, Lithuania, Sweden, England and the United States flesh out the majority of the book, as authors representing these countries provide well-articulated and engaging overviews of their countries political and social contexts. This extends to their interpretations of trust, which were based on data collected from teachers and principals. Although the interview protocol was not included, the surveys that chapter authors used for principals and teachers in their countries are appended in the book, which helps the reader to better understand the data and evaluate the authors findings.
In response to a series of statements, survey participants were required to express how important they found a specific item to be in building trust in education (p. 235) (the ideal situation), and how closely the item described their situation with school and local authority at the moment (p. 235) (the real situation) for each statement. Some statements lend themselves more readily to assessments of either the ideal or real situation, and as such, the reader is attentive to whether the items measure what they are intended to measure, and if the authors interpretations accurately reflect the research participants interpretations of the items and their responses. For example, authors Warren Marks and Norman McCulla point to “inconsistencies in the findings about trust in Australian schools” (p. 58) that were challenging to explain. Lithuanian chapter authors Eglė Pranckūnienė and Jonas Ruškus reported that several respondents stated the general nature of the questions made it difficult to provide opinions, and many statements were marked as not certain and agree (p. 142). They noted that the questionnaire is a product of a different educational culture, in which the issue of trust has received a significant amount of awareness (p. 142), with items [that] reflect a more western sociocultural and political context (p. 146). Regardless, the chapters provide an interesting glimpse of trust and its manifestations across educational organizations in the different cultural contexts represented in the book.
The authors contributions illustrate a range of relational trust levels among educators, as well as the different degrees to which an [educational] organizations various constituencies continue to have confidence in its competence, integrity, and sustainability (p. 32) as a reflection of institutional trust. The reader gains an appreciation for the levels of relational trust among teachers and administrators, and the foundational role that institutional trust plays in cultivating high-quality education to promote student achievement. As authors of the Finnish chapter note, institutional trust, based on and related to professional trust, forms the basis for culture and practices within comprehensive schools (p. 125) in their country.
The authors depict the tension between trust and distrust in relation to Finks articulation of the professional model, with education systems supported by societal trust and the production model of education, which focuses on commodification, privatization, accountability, and standardized tests. Pranckūnienė and Ruškus provide a comprehensive historical overview of the political, social, and educational situation in Lithuania, depicting a distrustful society in conflict. This is in part due to Soviet control up until 1990, as well as the rapid movement toward democracy in the years that followed. In contrast, Fink notes that education and teaching has typically been a highly respected profession in Canada, consistently drawing the top academic performers, and as a result, governments have reason to trust the profession to provide quality educational opportunities for students. However, Fink notes that the production model, as exemplified by the powerful influences of both the United States and Great Britain, has crept in and created an alternative reality with which Canadian educators struggle (p. 77). Marks and McCulla also report a neoliberal tendency in Australia, citing the adoption of a national curriculum and a move towards choice and market-driven schools as a consequence of public concern for Australias economic wellbeing and its increasing societal change (p. 51).
Lars Svedberg highlights the tension well, and provides an interesting discussion at the end of his chapter, in which he articulates the trust paradox. In examining the current sociocultural and political landscape in Sweden, the author notes that trust plummets with initiatives reflective of the Global Educational Reform Movement (GERM), which are discussed in detail in Pasi Sahlbergs (2011) Finnish Lessons, as educators face both conflicting expectations and messages. On the one hand, teachers are touted as essential to strong academic results; however, there is an organizational quest for a teacher-proof system with guiding concepts such as best practices, inspection, and control (p. 168). This places leaders in the unenviable position of using the audit apparatus (p. 169) to reassure the governing bodies, and to ensure trust and legitimacy from teachers (p. 169). The professional agenda presents education as primarily a moral project with social and emancipatory goals that have the ability to transform lives and futures (p. 169). On the other end of the spectrum, Petri Salo and Torbjӧrn Sandén depict Finland as a country that implements educational policy and reform in a thoughtful, slow, and measured way within a culture of trust and confidence in educators as professionals. Finnish municipalities are also given the latitude to make educational decisions that meet their specific communities needs.
In the books final chapter, Fink and McCulla take on the mammoth task of comparing mean scores on the survey items across the seven participating countries. This task is made even more daunting by ambiguities within all chapters regarding the degree to which samples represented the whole population of educators. Tom Whittingham notes in his chapter that Securing a viable sample of respondents for the England trust questionnaire was indeed a challenge, and eventually relied more on personal contacts than on publicity through large national teacher organizations (p. 183). A common experience for researchers, it seems this situation might be reflective of the other authors experiences as well. Similarly, it was not clear how the interview participants were selected in some studies, with a modest number of participants chosen and in some cases, participants representative of only one group of educators: principals. As such, Fink and McCullas ability to generalize these findings should be challenged; however, readers will appreciate the effort they expended to analyze the data sets, and will likely find this presentation insightful.
Towards the end of the volume, Fink and McCulla reintroduce the notion of verification, and reiterate its importance. The authors conclude from the data that the principals role is key in developing high-trust relations in schools, as well as with the governing educational authorities outside of schools. At the same time, they also conclude from the data that political leaders, in general, favor a low-trust production model of education over a high-trust professional model when attempting to develop high-performing schools, and they note that principals and teachers have every right to be suspicious and distrustful (p. 230) of large-scale verification schemes (p. 230). Several contributing authors would agree. Svedberg argues that audits are designed to create trust but are essentially a sign of distrust. With a comprehensive sociopolitical discussion and contextualization of the current state of English education, including examples from the media, conferences, and figures outside of the education field, Tom Whittingham asks an excellent question: Why is there such a climate of distrust between policy makers and policy implementers that all change must be forced and verified, thus precluding the slow and often difficult steps required in trust-building? (p. 184).
Fink and McCulla appropriately ask what the balance is between trust and verification. Several authors in this volume question the possibility of finding a balance between trust and verification, as rituals of verification are self-reinforcing: the more we use them, the more need for them we discover. New reasons to distrust schools are found, and, in the long run, a name-and-blame culture is nourished (Svedberg, 2016, p. 166). This sentiment is echoed elsewhere in the text. In his discussion of the relationship between trust, autonomy, and motivation, Craig Hammonds highlights the importance of finding a balance between trust and verification, a notion supported by other authors in this volume. His studys compelling findings echo Whittinghams concerns that too much verification breeds distrust, and he offers a strategy for managing the trust/distrust tension. Hammonds suggests that encouraging autonomy can be done in conjunction with setting goals and expectations that enable individuals to be accountable for their work, noting when teachers understand their boundaries and parameters, they are empowered to work independently within the system (p. 196). He notes that autonomy demonstrates to educators that they are trusted, and they are therefore motivated to contribute their expertise. Hammonds makes a case for collaboration and professional learning communities (or communities of practice) as a strategy for educational reform. He observes that trust is required to develop the bonds necessary for collaboration, and building trust takes time, as other contributors to the volume have noted.
Overall, the books strength lies in its case for trust as a force impacted by historical contexts of education in these seven countries. The well-articulated sociocultural and political perspectives present a unique perspective on trust in education, and make for an engaging read for scholars and students with an interest in comparative education. The book provides some intriguing perspectives, with the potential to inspire other scholars to engage in cross-cultural examinations of trust in education. As Fink and McCulla note, context does count.
Bottery, M. (2003). The management and mismanagement of trust. Educational Management & Administration, 31(3), 245261.
McMillan, R. B., Meyer, M. J., & Northfield, S. (2004). Trust and its role in principal succession:
A preliminary examination of a continuum of trust. Leadership and Policy in Schools, 3(4), 275294.
Sahlberg, P. (2011). Finnish lessons: What can the world learn from educational change in Finland? New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Tschannen-Moran, M., & Hoy, W. K. (2000). A multidisciplinary analysis of the nature, meaning, and measurement of trust. Review of Educational Research, 70(4), 547593.