Leading Futures: Alternative Perspectives on Education Reform and Policy

In this latest post in the Leading Futures Series, edited by Alma Harris and Michelle Jones, Jenny Gore and Geoff Whitty describe an alternative approach to improving teaching that challenges predominant forms of accountability. Drawing from their public lecture at Bath Spa University on May 17, 2017, with a focus on the potential of Gore’s work in Australia on Quality Teaching Rounds, they suggest that the approach should now be trialed elsewhere.  Jenny Gore is Professor of Education and Geoff Whitty holds a Global Innovation Chair at the University of Newcastle, Australia. 

Improving teaching: some lessons from Australia

Jenny Gore and Geoff Whitty

Why on earth would we look to Australia for lessons about education? After all, its PISA scores have dropped down the rankings where they now sit alongside those of many other OECD nations. What does Australia have to offer that differs from the apparently more successful countries in Scandinavia and East Asia that have often been the focus of policy tourism?

One answer is, of course, that PISA is not the be-all and end-all of educational assessment. But another reason is that other factors have overridden ‘PISA envy’ for countries like the US and UK, which are much more similar to each other than they are to either Finland or Shanghai-China. Their continuing mutual interest in each other’s reforms probably lies with shared social and political networks and assumptive worlds – and, of course, a common language with which to describe reforms.

Indeed, readers in the US and UK, and many others influenced by Anglo-Saxon policies, will readily recognize the major challenges identified by Bentley and Savage in a recent book on policies changes in Australia in recent years. These include:

  • a national curriculum
  • standardised national assessments in literacy and numeracy (NAPLAN)
  • national reporting on schools (through the My School website)
  • professional standards for teachers and school principals
  • a universally accessible year of pre-school
  • partial implementation of needs-based funding reforms (Gonski).

But they also point out that, despite these reforms, there is unfortunately very little sign of positive impacts or outcomes. For example:

  • The percentage of Australian students successfully completing Year 12 is not improving.
  • State and federal school funding policies are still reproducing a status quo that entrenches sectoral division and elitism.
  • New evidence-informed methods, such as clinical and targeted teaching models, are being taken up very slowly in teacher education degrees and schools.
  • The status and efficacy of vocational learning have shown little meaningful improvement.
  • NAPLAN and My School have not led to improvements in literacy and numeracy, with 2016 data showing either stagnation or decline.
  • The performance of Australian students in international assessments of maths, science and literacy skills has steadily declined.

Depressingly familiar stuff to many of us, isn’t it?  Similarly, take this recent statement by Geoff Masters, CEO of the Australian Council for Educational Research.

There is no shortage of challenges in school education. Some of the biggest challenges we face can appear frustratingly intractable. Despite reform efforts, regular government reviews and ongoing calls for change, progress in addressing our most significant challenges is often slow and solutions continue to elude us.

Equally familiar are the five key challenges he identifies as facing Australian education:

  1. Equipping students for the 21st Century, including by increasing reading, mathematical and scientific literacy levels.
  2. Reducing disparities between…schools, particularly along socioeconomic lines, by ensuring that every student has access to an excellent school and excellent teaching.
  3. Reducing the ‘long tail’ of underachieving students who fall behind year-level curriculum expectations and thus fail to meet minimum international standards.
  4. Getting all children off to a good start, by reducing the number of children who begin school with low levels of school readiness and so are at risk of ongoing low achievement.
  5. Raising the professional status of teaching, by increasing the number of highly able school leavers entering teaching.

While this last challenge resonates with the aspirations of many countries, and policy direction of initiatives like Teach for America, Gore et al. have demonstrated that the solution identified here by Masters may be misleading. Rather, the sort of approach we describe below may be a better way to enhance professionalism in teaching.

Bentley and Savage say of Australia, over the past decade ‘the policy landscape has become riddled with reform “solutions” that subject students, teachers, administrators and policymakers to mounting levels of pressure and stress’ and that ‘the short-term cyclical churn of today’s politics and media clearly exacerbates these problems.’

Although the policy context of other countries differs in detail, their actual policies have much in common. In many countries, regulation and accountability have taken a hold on government attitudes towards the teaching profession, alongside (though in different degrees) a belief in market forces as providing a way forward. Education academics (ourselves included) have been rather better at critique of such developments than in pointing to an alternative way forward. What we want to argue is that widely sought-after improvements in teaching will remain elusive unless teachers are afforded more respect, trust and, especially, professional support.

One tested example of such an approach lies in work conducted at the University of Newcastle, Australia, which puts down a challenge to policy makers who seek genuine improvement in teaching. The approach, known Quality Teaching Rounds (QTR), has produced measurable impact on the quality of teaching while simultaneously enhancing teachers’ morale and confidence.

QTR is a form of teacher professional development designed by Bowe and Gore to bring together the benefits of professional learning communities (PLCs), instructional ‘rounds’, and the Quality Teaching (QT) pedagogical framework (NSW Department of Education and Training [NSW DET], 2003). The framework centres on the three dimensions of Intellectual Quality, Quality Learning Environment, and Significance. QTR involves teachers working in PLCs of three or more teachers to observe and analyse each other’s teaching, using the QT framework, followed by extended conversation about their collective practice. QTR is a distinctive form of professional development which: is applicable across stages and subject areas; addresses teaching comprehensively; requires minimal external input; and is adaptable to the specific teaching context. This is in contrast to professional development that: is stage or subject-specific; addresses a part of teaching practice only; requires ongoing provision of external expertise; and is highly prescriptive of practice.

In a recent randomised controlled trial, 24 NSW public schools participated in an investigation of the impact of QTR. Eight teachers at each of the schools were involved in the study, with lesson observations carried out by researchers, who were blinded to group allocation, at three time points – baseline, post-intervention (6-months), and follow up (12- months). There were two intervention groups (QTR-Set and QTR-Choice) and a wait-list control group.

Participating in QTR was found to significantly impact on the quality of teaching (d =0.4-0.5) within the relatively short timeframe of this intervention (most teachers were involved for four days or less) across a diverse range of schools. Moderators of intervention effects were explored for: type of school, SES, location, teaching experience, and gender of teacher.

The key findings were that the quality of teaching improved for both intervention groups and these effects were sustained six months later, signaling the sustainability of impact into a new school year. Effects were independent of school type (primary/secondary) and location (urban/rural) and years of teaching experience. Effects on teacher morale and sense of recognition and appraisal yielded similar results for the two intervention groups, relative to control group. In interviews, teachers reported positive impacts on their own and their colleagues’ teaching and professional confidence, on collegiality and school culture, and on their students. The next study in this programme of work is another RCT designed to investigate further the impact of QTR on student learning outcomes.

The findings from the earlier study demonstrate the value of QTR in not only improving the quality of teaching but simultaneously enhancing teacher morale and teaching cultures across a range of schools and classroom settings in diverse communities. QTR was found to be an effective form of professional development, improving the quality of teaching in primary and secondary schools across subject areas and for teachers at different stages of their careers. The positive effects of QTR are thus highly generalisable across school contexts.

The approach not only builds on widely accepted ‘principles of effective PD,’ but can be implemented at scale and at a relatively low cost. It supports teachers in improving their practice while also developing their efficacy, well-being and professional engagement. This is in stark contrast to approaches that subject teachers to greater levels of accountability, evaluation, and performance review.

This Australian approach simultaneously, and ambitiously, provides evidence of a kind that is persuasive to governments and education systems that want to be sure their investments have pay-off and empower teachers. Such an approach is part of the jigsaw of educational improvement that has somehow been missing in many contexts. We argue that improving teaching in order to improve pupils’ learning depends, in large part, on teachers’ confidence in themselves and each other. This differs from prevailing approaches that seek to improve teaching through forms of accountability premised on a lack of confidence in and respect for teachers. In short, QTR is an alternative that can build public confidence in teachers from the ground up.

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