Different ways of understanding quality

With this increasingly hostile landscape in mind, asking the question of what high-quality teacher education looks like becomes critical, along with an examination of how that definition of high quality is changing. Unsurprisingly, this question has been asked and answered in a number of ways, by various groups, but with little consensus. This lack of consensus, I argue, is due to the different ways in which quality and its associated concepts of standards and quality assurance are understood by different stakeholders. This argument stems from Harvey’s work (2007) in his exploration of quality within the higher education sector, where he distinguishes between quality, standards and quality assurance. Harvey argues that quality assurance mechanisms do not (in themselves) enhance the provision of education, but perform functions around accountability, control and compliance.

Quality assurance is a process of governance and compliance and so should not be confused with quality itself:

It should be noted that the processes of quality assurance are quite separate from the concept of quality. Quality is to quality assurance what intelligence is to IQ tests. Quality, in higher education is, for example, about the nature of learning. Quality assurance is about convincing others about the adequacy of that processes of learning.

This distinction is often absent in discussions about education and teacher education, where the focus on quality orientates around discussions of the most appropriate metrics and indicators used to judge quality rather than the learning itself (Bartell, Floden, & Richmond, 2018; Firestone & Donaldson, 2019; Gewirtz, Maguire, Neumann, & Towers, 2019; Skedsmo & Huber, 2019). In a similar vein, Harvey distinguishes between definitions of quality and that of standards (see Table 1.1). Standards (denoted forthwith as uncapitalised), as defined by Harvey, are distinct from the more specific Teacher Standards (capitalised) which are dominant in the field.

TABLE 1.1 Definitions of quality and standards




A traditional concept linked to the idea of “excellence”, usually operationalised as exceptionally high standards of academic achievement. Quality is achieved if the standards are surpassed.

Perfection or


Focuses on process and sets specifications that it aims to meet.

Quality in this sense is summed up by the interrelated ideas of zero defects and getting things right first time.

Fitness for


Judges quality in terms of the extent to which a product or service meets its stated purpose. The purpose may be customer-defined to meet requirements or (in education) institution-defined to reflect institutional mission (or course objectives).

NB: There are some who suggest that “fitness of purpose" is a definition of quality, but it is a specification of parameters of fitness and not itself a definition of the quality concept.

Value for


Assesses quality in terms of return on investment or expenditure.

At the heart of the value-for-money approach in education is the notion of accountability. Public services, including education, are expected to be accountable to the funders. Increasingly, students are also considering their own investment in higher education in value-for-money terms.


Sees quality as a process of change, which in higher education adds value to students through their learning experience. Education is not a service for a customer but an ongoing process of transformation of the participant. This leads to two notions of transformative quality in education: enhancing the consumer and empowering the consumer.


Academic standards

The demonstrated ability to meet specified level of academic attainment. For pedagogy, the ability of students to be able to do those things designated as appropriate at a given level of education. Usually, the measured competence of an individual in attaining specified (or implied) course aims and objectives, operationalised via performance on assessed pieces of work. For research, the ability to undertake effective scholarship or produce new knowledge, which is assessed via peer recognition.

Standards of Demonstration that a specified level of ability on a range of competence competencies has been achieved. Competencies may include general transferable skills required by employers; academic

(“higher level”) skills implicit or explicit in the attainment of degree status or in a post-graduation academic apprenticeship; particular abilities congruent with induction into a profession.

Service standards

Are measures devised to assess identified elements of the service provided against specified benchmarks? Elements assessed include activities of service providers and facilities within which the service takes place. Benchmarks specified in “contracts” such as student charters tend to be quantified and restricted to measurable items. Post hoc measurement of customer opinions (satisfaction) is used as indicators of service provision. Thus, service standards in higher education parallel consumer standards.

Organisational Attainment of formal recognition of systems to ensure effective


management of organisational processes and clear dissemination of organisational practices.

Source: Epistemology of Quality. Lee Harvey Paper presented at the Biennial Conference of the International Network of Quality Assurance Agencies in Higher Education, Toronto, April 2007. Subsequently published as Harvey (2007). Adapted from Harvey, 1995m © Lee Harvey, 2007.

With high levels of governance and oversight, teacher education is prone to certain definitions of quality which are easier to define in terms of quality assurance (or standards), as they lead to metrics, measures and indicators more readily. Other dimensions of quality, such as transformation, are more difficult to quantify as they are less observable, less immediate in terms of impact and more personal to the individual (Evans, 2011; Halasz & Looney, 2019). Harvey argues that this difficulty in measurement should not mean that they get forgotten.

And yet, discussions about quality in ITE are not always clear on how quality is being defined. For example, the provision of Teacher Standards and student satisfaction surveys denote differing interpretations of what is valued rather than being based on empirical evidence that some Standards are inherently “better” than others. Notions of exceptional or excellence may refer to exclusivity and reputation (such as being associated with a prestigious institution) and may be more related to perceptions and access to social networks rather than the transformational nature of the learning experience.

So there is a need to explore the underpinning assumptions about why something is considered to be “quality”, as that reveals assumptions about how it is defined. To suggest that quality can be determined by achieving a range of (professional) Standards suggests a cause and effect relationship: that those Standards are in themselves an authoritative account of better quality, which reveals:

an explicit view that complying with requirements will result in competent graduates, a process that can be checked through measurable, observable variables.

This claim can of course be challenged. Sleeter (2019) notes how definitions of quality are likely to be defined by those that have power. Others have argued that teacher educators should “reclaim accountability” and foreground alternative values, such as democracy and social justice (Cochran-Smith et al., 2018), or to focus on the “core practices” that teachers need (Grossman, 2018; Grossman, Kavanagh, & Dean, 2018; Grossman & Pupik Dean, 2019). These arguments, whilst avoiding the limiting conception of standards, are still unable to fully describe the transformative element of teacher education.

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