Author Archives: internationalednews


Yi-Hwa Liou, Ph.D. is Associate Professor in the Department of Educational Management at the National Taipei University of Education. Her research primarily focuses on leadership and development, organizational dynamics and learning, professional and networked learning communities, with a particular methodological emphasis on social network analysis. She has led and participated in multiple (inter)national research projects and works with research teams/scholars from across different countries/areas around the evolution of organizational networks and systemic change across all levels of education. She currently serves on the editorial boards for Journal of School Leadership and School Leadership & Management, and as a guest editor for International Journal of Educational Research. While her scholarly works primarily focus on educational leadership in PK-12 settings, she also expands her work to include the examination of social and emotional aspects of professional learning for pre-service and in-service teachers. She is committed to using network analysis to support organizations’ strategic planning and development. She is currently conducting several longitudinal projects using a design-based approach to organizational innovation by looking into the effect of network interventions on the development of individual and organizational capacity for improvement. She can be reached via e-mail at and you can learn more about her work at:


In this interview, part of the Lead the Change series of the American Educational Research Association Educational Change Special Interest Group, Dr. Liou discusses her work on how understanding social ties and cultural norms impact educational change. As she puts it:

This social perspective may help us think about leadership roles in creating conditions for learning. For example, formal leaders include those who have a formally designated role such as principals, department heads and coordinators, etc. The informal leaders are those who do not necessarily have a formal leadership title but are influential individuals among school staff. These leadership roles are somewhat distinct by definition, but sometimes overlap within individuals and/or coexist within an organization. Each of these roles has to do with how conditions are created for desired change. The formal leaders can be helpful in communicating the vision, goals, policy and school development plan with their staff at some of the structured meetings to develop a shared value and language, which remains to be one of the top challenges most schools face. In practice, school leaders, on average, spend less than 20% of their time on discussing, revisiting, or co- developing their core values and plans together, even less time invested in making sense of the reform policy (Grissom et al., 2013; Horng et al., 2010; Sebastian et al., 2017). A useful approach to address this issue might be to change the structure of staff meetings to a “mini workshop” format. In this approach, teachers are able to share their thoughts within and across their grade level or subject team, present it to the whole staff, and continue this discussion and practice until they come to have a shared understanding. This ongoing course of practice is ideally coupled with the use of social influence through informal leaders such as those staff members to whom others would turn to for advice, information, or addressing immediate problems at work. Many times, these informal leaders are also formal leaders, but the key point here is the notion of peer influence through which individual beliefs are likely shaped. These informal leaders are often active teachers who initiate opportunities for collaboration and exchange of resources among teachers and act as spokespersons or representatives of their teacher teams. These leaders can convey the needs and messages or support information flow between different segments of school structure. They can be helpful in diffusing ideas and information, getting more teachers’ buy-in, and identifying needs for professional development. In the meantime, formal leaders have to make sure resources (e.g., time, budget, space) exist supported by infrastructure to assist the execution of initiatives or reform related plans that were collectively prioritized among school staff. In all, both formal and informal leadership roles go hand in hand in creating the conditions for learning and development (e.g., Liou & Canrinus, 2019; Liou & Daly, 2018; Sun et al., 2013).

This Lead the Change interview appears as part of a series that features experts from around the globe, highlights promising research and practice, and offers expert insight on small- and large-scale educational change. Recently, Lead the Change has also interviewed Kristin Kew and Christina Dobbs.

Coherence and Alignment: Reflecting on Two Decades of Research on Educational Reform

This week, Elizabeth Leisy Stosich discusses her interview with IEN’s Thomas Hatch, published in the new Cornerstone Series from the CPRE Research Minutes podcast.  This will be our last post of 2019, as we will be on hiatus until January 7th. Happy New Year!

Last week, I had the chance to speak with Thomas Hatch from Teachers College about  two articles that I have drawn on in my own work on coherence and standards-based reform. In the interview Hatch discusses his 2002 article “When Improvement Programs Collide” and his co-authored 2004 study, led by Meredith Honig, “Crafting Coherence: How Schools Strategically Manage Multiple, External Demands.”

I was interested in doing this interview to share it with the students in my course, Leading Educational Policy and Reform, for experienced educational leaders in Fordham’s Ed.D. program. Often, when discussing policy, we only consider one policy at a time rather than examining it in the complex policy environment that educational leaders must navigate on a daily basis. In the interview, we discuss how Hatch’s work on coherence has evolved, our common interests in the social process of interpreting and making sense of policy, and connections to the work of other scholars in the field including Richard Elmore and Karen Seashore Louis.

In our conversation, Hatch describes the challenge of policy alignment as “a technical issue”; whereas, policy coherence is an issue of meaning. He was motivated to pursue this line of research when working to support educational reform in the 1990s. As he explains, “Even if all of the efforts of systemic reform in the 1990s were successful and we produced all these aligned policies, there could be so much work and so many demands on people that they’d still feel overwhelmed and fragmented. And it’s that sense of overwhelmingness and fragmentation that we were trying to address, particularly in thinking about that article around crafting coherence where I think we really emphasize that this is an issue of learning and meaning making that people and organizations like schools are engaged in.” Over time, his work has reinforced the importance of understanding the challenge of “crafting coherence” among external policies and internal goals from a collective perspective, one that takes into account the fact that educators are engaged in this meaning making process simultaneously but from their own unique perspectives.

In the interview, Hatch also shares practical advice for educational leaders at the school- and district-level who face the difficult task of leading policy implementation. As he explains, educational leaders should “recognize this is a part of the job. It’s not a sign that you’re not doing well if you’re feeling overwhelmed. It’s a reality of the circumstances in which the work is done, and you have to recognize that you’re facing conflicting incentives.” My recent article, “Principals and Teachers ‘Craft Coherence’ Among Accountability Policies,” examines how educators respond to the demands of the Common Core and a new teacher evaluation policy and reinforces how challenging maintaining this balance can be in the face of high-stakes accountability policies. In fact, the pressure from standards-based accountability policies can lead some leaders to abandon their local school goals to focus on external demands. To be successful in the long run, leaders must both respond to the requirements imposed by external mandates but also maintain a focus on the goals that matter most to the community they serve.

Around the World in PISA 2018 Headlines

Around the world, another flurry of headlines followed the release of the 2018 PISA results last week.  As we did in 2015, we’ve pulled together some of those headlines and links in a scannable alphabetical list.  That scan showed that critics continue to stress the difficulty of using the PISA results to draw any definitive conclusions on the quality of educational systems (“PISA Doesn’t Define Education Quality, And Knee-Jerk Policy Proposals Won’t Fix Whatever Is Broken,” The Conversation; How PISA Created An Illusion Of Education Quality And Marketed It To The World,” The Washington Post), but at the same time, most headlines focused on changes in scores or rankings by trumpeting gains, highlighting losses, or lamenting stagnation.

Overall, the negative news stole the spotlight, even for countries like Singapore at the very top of the rankings (“Mainland Chinese students best in world as Singapore, Hong Kong slip down rankings”, South China Morning Post).  Pasi Sahlberg summed it all up by pointing out that, on average, scores were declining in the 37 OECD countries (including top PISA performers like Finland, Japan, Korea, and many provinces of Canada) and declaring “Sleepless, distracted and glued to devices: no wonder students’ results are in decline.”

Although China’s astronomical scores were featured in many stories, some international headlines pointed to the problems with those scores as well (“Teens From China’s Wealthiest Regions Rank Top Of The Class In Global Education Survey,”; “China Is No. 1 On PISA — But Here’s Why Its Test Scores Are Hard To Believe,” Washington Post). Some of the headlines from sources in China also noted areas for improvement, including concerns about inequity, students’ emotional health, and lack of attention to learning that cannot be measured in standardized tests like PISA (“China To Further Promote Education Equity In Light Of PISA Test: Ministry,” Xinhua Net; “给看不见的教育指标更多关注” [translated as “Pay More Attention To Invisible Indicators”] China Education Daily; 教育体检PISA的启示:成绩卓越但仍需努力 [“Reflection From PISA Test: Excellent Scores But Need Improvement”], China Education Daily).

In the US, headlines predictably focused on the bad news (“It Just Isn’t Working’: PISA Test Scores Cast Doubt on U.S. Education Efforts,” New York Times), and even those with a more slightly positive take still ended with a negative spin (“U.S. Students Gain Ground Against Global Peers. But That’s Not Saying Much,” Education Week). The Director of the US Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences, Mark Schneider, didn’t see the PISA results as providing grounds for optimism either (“The New PISA Scores Tell Us Lots About the Sad State of American Education. What They Can’t Tell Us Is How to Fix It,” The74).  But there’s always next year, or, in this case, PISA 2021…

‘Alarm bells’: Australian Students Record Worst Result in Global Tests (Brisbane Times, December 3, 2019)

Belarus Fares Well in its Maiden PISA Test (Belarus News, December 3, 2019)

Young Francophones’ Improve at Maths, but Remain Poor at Reading (Brussels Times, December 3, 2019)

Canadian High School Students Among Top Performers In Reading, According to New International Ranking (The Globe and Mail, December 3, 2019)

China To Further Promote Education Equity In Light Of PISA Test: Ministry (Xinhua Net, December 4, 2019)

给看不见的教育指标更多关注 [translated as “Pay More Attention To Invisible Indicators”] (China Education Daily)

教育体检PISA的启示:成绩卓越但仍需努力 [“Reflection From PISA Test: Excellent Scores But Need Improvement”] (China Education Daily)

Pisa Tests: UK Rises in International School Rankings (BBC News, December 3, 2019)

Estonia Tops Tables in PISA International Education Rankings (ERR, December 3, 2019)

PISA: Gap Between Girls’ and Boys’ Reading Skills Largest in Finland (YLE, December 3, 2019)

German Education System Has Room for Improvement: Report (DW, December 3, 2019)

Icelandic Students Below Average in Reading (Iceland Monitor, December 3, 2019)

Pisa Rankings: Irish Teens Among the Best at Reading in Developed World (The Irish Times, December 3, 2019) 

Japanese 15-Year-Olds Rank High in Math, sciences, but Reading Down: PISA Exam (The Mainichi, December 3, 2019)

Malaysia’s Ranking in Pisa Improves (Malay Mail, December 3, 2019)

Northern Ireland
Pisa Tests: NI Pupils Better than World Average at Reading (BBC News, December 3, 2019)

Philippines’ Dismal Pisa Scores Spark Soul-Searching Over State of Education (South China Morning Post, December 8, 2019)

Polish Students’ Results in Top Three in International Study (The First News, December 3, 2019)

PISA 2018 test results show over 4 in 10 Romanian students don’t understand what they read; education minister not that worried (Romania Insider, December 3, 2019)

Pisa: Mixed Report for Scottish Education in World Rankings (BBC News, December 3, 2019)

Pisa 2018: Singapore Slips to Second Place behind China but Still Chalks Up High Scores (The Straits Times, December 3, 2019)

Spain Receives Its Worst Ever Science Results in PISA Test (El País, December 3, 2019)

PISA Study Finds Swiss Students ‘Still Behind’ on Reading (Swiss Info, December 3, 2019)

United Arab Emirates
UAE Is Up 8 points in Mathematics According to PISA 2018  (Emirates News Agency, December 3, 2019)

United States
U.S. Students Gain Ground Against Global Peers. But That’s Not Saying Much (Education Week, December 3, 2019)

It Just Isn’t Working’: PISA Test Scores Cast Doubt on U.S. Education Efforts (New York Times, December 3, 2019) 

U.S. Students’ Scores Stagnant on International Exam, With Widening Achievement Gaps in Math and Reading (The 74, December 3, 2019)

U.S. Students Show No Improvement in Math, Reading, Science on International Exam (U.S. News, December 3, 2019)

U.S. Students Continue to Lag Behind Peers in East Asia and Europe in Reading Math and Science, Exams Show (Washington Post, December 3, 2019)

VN Gets High Scores but Not Named in PISA 2018 Ranking (Vietnam News, December 6, 2019)

Education: Why Have Wales’ Teenagers Under-Performed? (BBC News, December 3, 2019)


Anna Sfard conducts research in the domain of learning sciences, with particular focus on the relation between thinking and communication. Her studies are guided by the
assumption that human thinking is a form of communication. Inspired mainly by the work of Wittgenstein and Vygotsky, this basic non-dualist tenet implies that discursivity – the discursive mediation of all our activities – is the hallmark of humanness. Discourses are repositories of complexity that underlie uniquely human ability to always build on
achievements of previous generations rather than beginning every time anew. Results of Sfard’s theoretical and empirical research guided by this communicational (or “commognitive”) framework and focusing mainly on the learning of mathematics have been summarized in the book Thinking as communicating: Human development, the
growth of discourses, and mathematizing (2008). Her other volumes, edited or co-edited,
include Learning tools: Perspectives on the role of designed artifacts in mathematics learning (2002), Learning discourse: discursive approaches to research in mathematics education (2003), Development of Mathematical discourse: Some insights from
communicational research (2012), and Research for educational change: Transforming
researchers; insights into improvement in mathematics teaching and learning (2017). Sfard is Professor Emerita at the University of Haifa, Israel. She served as the first Lappan-Philips-Fitzgerald Professor at Michigan State University and is the Visiting Professor in the Institute of Education, University College of London. She is the recipient of 2007 Freudenthal Award, the Fellow of American Educational Research Association (AERA) and the member of the American National Academy of Education (NAEd).

In this interview, part of the Lead the Change series of the American Educational Research Association Educational Change Special Interest Group, Dr. Sfard discusses her work on building teacher capacity through context specific and collaborative professional development efforts. As Sfard puts it:

I want to talk about the need for a change in discourse. This time, it is the discourse of practitioners that has to be transformed. In other words, my advice to Educational Change people would be to try to open the eyes of the educational transformers to discursive bumps evenly spread along the roads traveled by the teacher, the curriculum designer and the policy maker. In the words of Wittgenstein (1967), this is a call for “erect[ing] signpost at all junctions where there are wrong turnings” (p. 47). Those who wish to spearhead the change must have a clear picture of what it is that needs to change. My research has showed time and again that, more often than not, what happens around us is the product of our tiniest, automatically performed discursive moves rather than of those macro-action that we can name, discuss, plan, and change at will. Thus, in the already-mentioned South African study we saw how a good-meaning teacher, through his minute discursive moves – the words in which he chose to present mathematical tasks, the brief phrases with which he invited the students to participate – unwittingly deprived the learners of proper opportunities for learning (Sfard, 2017). In another recent study, Candia Morgan and I showed that in England, some elusive, but critically important aspects of school mathematical discourse have been changing incessantly over the last 30 years (Morgan & Sfard, 2016). This made us realize that those who claimed a gradual decline in students’ achievement might have been grounding this assessment in comparison between things that should not be compared: after all, different mathematics was learned by the students of different periods. In result, in their attempts to make a change, the reformers were likely to direct their efforts at a wrong target.

This Lead the Change interview appears as part of a series that features experts from around the globe, highlights promising research and practice, and offers expert insight on small- and large-scale educational change. Recently, Lead the Change has also interviewed Kristin Kew and Christina Dobbs.

Season of Giving, Featuring International Education Organizations

With the holiday season starting here in the U.S., we wanted to look back at some of the organizations we have featured on IEN and offer links to their donation pages. These organizations are doing impactful work around the world and we encourage our readers to consider supporting their work. Happy holidays to all!


The organization was featured in our recent post on the HundrED Summit. We will also be featuring them in an upcoming post in 2020.
Donate to Educate! here


Second Chance (Speed School)
Last year, we featured Second Chance, an organization bringing thousands of students back to formal schooling in Ethiopia and Liberia. As part of the Luminos Fund, you can donate to organization here.


Sesame Workshop
Sesame Workshop’s work, in partnership with the IRC, has led to the creation of a new Sesame Street show and related health and educational programs for displaced children in the Middle East.
Donate to this project and 
other here.

The Citizens Foundation

Back in May, we featured The Citizens Foundation in a 2-part piece, examining their work to open schools for girls across Pakistan. Donate to TCF here.

The Buildup to PISA Results with Highlights from the IOE Blog

In the buildup to releasing the latest PISA results, many sites have begun sharing PISA-related pieces. As we have done in previous years, IEN will share its own scan of headlines across the world when the results are released in a few weeks. This week, we wanted to highlight one piece in particular. As part of the IOE blog, John Jerrim offers an intriguing critique or caution of reading the PISA results. To share just a few excerpts from Jerrim’s “Should we eat more fish or more ice-cream to boost PISA scores?” Jerrim suggests:

If anyone has ever read one of the international PISA reports or seen Andreas Schleicher present they will know that the OECD is rather fond of cross-national scatterplots. These illustrate the relationship between two variables measured at the country level.

Take, for instance, the chart below. This has been taken from one of Mr Schleicher’s blogposts, and illustrates the relationship between a country’s test scores and its rate of economic growth. It has been interpreted by the OECD as showing “that the quality of schooling in a country is a powerful predictor of the wealth that countries will produce in the long run”.

The take-away message (no pun intended)

Hopefully, the point of this blogpost has become clear.

When the PISA results get released at the start of December, the international report and presentations given by the OECD are bound to include this kind of graph, along with stories about how ‘high-performing countries’ all do X, Y or Z.

Clearly, we should be treating any such interpretation of the PISA results with caution. There are likely to be hundreds, if not thousands, of reasons why some countries do well on PISA and others don’t. In reality, it is almost impossible to separate these competing reasons out.

What we do know is that overly simplistic “explanations” for the PISA results must be avoided. Organisations like the OECD have their own agenda, and it is just too easy for such groups to use the results to promote their own hobby-horses.


For the full blog post, see the IOE blog.

HundrED 2019 Innovation Summit

Just as we did last year, we’re checking in on the HundrED summit, which was held last week in Helsinki. As the organization describes, “the HundrED Innovation Summit is a 3-day, high profile invitation-only celebration of the world’s most inspiring education innovations – with talks, workshops and discussions.” The summit also introduces the HundrED 2020 Global Collection, 100 inspiring and innovative organizations that HundrED believes is changing the face of K-12 education around the globe. In this post, we highlight a few of these organizations from the list and share a couple of IEN posts on organizations featured in the list.

Anji Play (China)

Anji Play is a curriculum and approach to early education developed by Ms. Cheng Xueqin for the public early childhood programs of Anji County, Zhejiang Province, China. In the past five years, the Anji Play curriculum, approach and philosophy have become the focus of pilot and demonstration programs in the United States, Europe and Africa. The Anji Play curriculum and play materials have been adopted at the province level in Zhejiang (soon bringing Anji Play to two million more children), and Anji Play is being practiced in public early childhood programs in all of China’s 34 provinces and administrative regions. In recent months, Anji Play has become a focus of Ministry of Education efforts to expand universal access to public early education in China.

BRAC Humanitarian Play Labs (Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh)

Humanitarian Play Labs bring BRAC’s signature low cost, high quality play-based learning model to the humanitarian context of the largest refugee settlement in the world in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. They integrate playful learning with child protection, psychosocial support, and linkages to critical services; incorporate relevant cultural traditions; and engage both Rohingya and host communities. (United States) is an initiative that provides comprehensive, age-appropriate, and medically-accurate sexual health videos for adolescents ages 10-14, along with resources for educators and parents. As of September 2019 our videos have received 28 million views on our YouTube channel since was launched in September of 2016. AMAZE has also been launched in South Africa and Latin America.

The Educate! Model (Uganda, Rwanda, and Kenya)

Educate! prepares youth in Africa with the skills to succeed in today’s economy. We tackle youth unemployment by partnering with schools and governments to reform what schools teach and how they teach it so that students in Africa have the skills to attain further education, overcome gender inequities, start businesses, get jobs, and drive development in their communities.

IEN Posts On Organizations in the Global Collection:

  • Our 2-part piece on Speed School from December, 2018
  • Our post on THINK Global School from earlier this year

A conversation with Yiwen Wang about the Rise of Private Schooling in Guiyang, China

This week’s post features a conversation with Yiwen Wang, author of Educational Privatization in China: A Case Study, recently published by the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education (NCSPE) at Teachers College, Columbia University. Samuel Abrams, Director of NCSPE, explains that “In focusing on one middle school, Wang, a native of Guiyang who recently completed a master’s degree in education policy at Teachers College, illustrates the evolution and process of private provision of education in a country where private education barely existed a generation ago.” In this interview, Wang describes how her own experiences growing up in China contributed to her interest in researching private schooling, what she learned through her research, and some of the key issues she sees for private schools in China in the future.


IEN: How did you get interested in private education in China?

Yiwen Wang: The school that this case study focuses on is in my hometown of Guiyang, Guizhou Province, China. 10-20 years ago, the best quality schools in Guiyang were public schools. But in recent years, the good schools that people talked about have undergone great changes. Now, everyone is trying to get into private primary and secondary schools. Moreover, I also noticed that many of my teachers in the past have left the stable working environment of public secondary schools and chose to join private schools to teach. Why do private schools rise? Why do teachers make such career choices? What is the government’s attitude towards private education? What stage is private education now undergoing in Guiyang? I got curious about these issues.


IEN: How does what you found in this case study compare to education in other schools (Private or public) in China?

Wang: Most of the research on private schools in China has focused on Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu, Guangdong, and other economically and educationally developed cities or coastal areas. Few scholars have turned their eyes to the central and western regions. Yet in these regions, too, more and more private schools are emerging and changing the local educational ecology. In focusing on Guiyang, capital of the southwestern province of Guizhou, this study concerns a relatively underdeveloped area of China. In Guiyang, private schools have nevertheless rapidly multiplied over the past decade, taking many teachers from public schools and attracting a large number of students. But while new schools are born every year, there are also many private schools that are dying amidst market competition.

The Mei Jia International School that is concerned about in this case study is such a school that is struggling in the fierce competition. As a school without a strong background from a prestigious university, it faces problems such as high teacher turnover rate and difficulties in enrolling students. No one knows whether it will become a survivor or a sacrifice of private education in Guiyang. In order to survive, Mei Jia is trying various methods, such as discussed in my working paper:

“With the support of the government and the desire of families for the best opportunity for their children, many prestigious universities in developed regions have also come to Guiyang to establish affiliated secondary schools. This migration of outside competition has at once intensified the exam culture and placed greater pressure on local private schools to enroll students and attract teachers. Mei Jia, in response to this competition, chose to join the No.3 Experimental High School Group. More and more small and medium-sized private schools are likewise teaming up with other schools, setting up school groups, or offering preferential admission to students in each other’s schools.”


IEN: What did you learn about education in China from this study that you did not know before?

Wang: I used to think that the rise of private education in Guiyang was mainly due to the growing demand for education accompanying the improvement of economic conditions. But in the course of this study, I found that in addition to the growing educational demands, the rise of private education is also closely related to the government’s transformation of public and private education policies as I discussed in this case study:

“According to government regulations, if students choose to attend a public school, they can only enter the school designated by the government according to their household address. However, at that time, these [public] schools also conducted their own entrance examinations to enroll cross-regional students with good scores as ‘transient students.’ These students could study in the name of auditing, and an auditing fee would be charged by the school on a semester basis. This process was permitted by the government until 2004.

“The termination of this process coincided with the establishment of many private schools. These schools have since taken away many excellent teachers from these key middle schools, some of whom went on to assume leadership positions at these private schools.”

“…the government advocates equal education, public schools can only accept students classified by household address; as noted, since 2004, they have been barred from selecting students by exam scores. The government has focused its effort on popularizing the nine-year compulsory education and guaranteeing education for the children of migrant workers who come from rural areas to work in cities. Yet the government has focused less on improving the quality of teaching in public schools.”

“…On the other hand, the government has provided strong support to private schools in terms of school land use. The government subsidizes private schools through substantial discounts on property leases.”

These changes in policy have made the past decade a golden period for the growth of private education in Guiyang. And through this study, I began to get a better understanding of the reasons for the change in the educational landscape in my hometown.


IEN: What’s next for private schooling in China? What are the issues that are being discussed?

Wang: China’s private education still presents regional differences. More and more internationally renowned schools and innovative schools are entering developed regions such as Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Guangzhou. In 2019, the famous British private school Harrow School announced that it will establish a campus in Shenzhen. The Avenues: The World School and Whittle School & Studios also started enrolling students in Shenzhen in September this year. Many private schools in these areas have adopted international education systems, such as Cambridge A-level, IB, and the Waldorf Education System. Students in these schools usually choose to earn higher degrees overseas.

However, when we look at China’s central and western regions, that is, economically underdeveloped regions, such as Guiyang, we find a completely different picture. Guiyang’s private education is still centered on China’s middle and high school entrance examination system and is guided by test scores. Many private schools attract students not through the internationally renowned school background, but the endorsement of famous Chinese universities.

But no matter what kind of regional differences exist, private education can be described as in full swing in today’s China, showing the growth and change in educational needs of Chinese families as their economic conditions improve. But there are also concerns. Most notably, public school faculty and high-income students have flowed to private schools. The uneven distribution of educational resources may lead to more difficult class movements and an expansion of the income gap.



“Changing Education Systems”: A Conversation with Mel Ainscow, Christopher Chapman, and Mark Hadfield

In Changing Education Systems: A Research-Based Approach, authors Mel Ainscow, Christopher Chapman, and Mark Hadfieldshare some of the key lessons from their collective experience working to improve education in England, Scotland, and Wales. In advance of the November publication, we spoke with them about how the book came together and some of what they have learned in the process 

Why this book, why now?
In this new book we reflect on our experiences over the last 20 years or so of trying to use research to promote equity within education systems. This included our involvement in three large-scale improvement initiatives in the United Kingdom: City Challenge in London and Greater Manchester; the Scottish Attainment Challenge (also see this IEN post); and Schools Challenge Cymru in Wales. We also draw on a series of other place-based developments in various parts of the world.

These experiences lead us to argue that the belief that research can simply be applied to practice and have direct effects in the field is naive, even though it is still held by some researchers, who seem surprised or even dismayed that their work is not immediately adopted.

We also challenge the current emphasis – in our own country and internationally – on ‘what works’. This is based on the idea that policy-makers and practitioners are there to ‘deliver’ practices that have been designed and evaluated by researchers. It has created a situation that favours simple, short-term, single-issue interventions and encourages a narrowly classroom-focused approach – even though barriers to learning originating beyond the school gates are known to be even more influential in shaping outcomes.

Most worrying for us, the “what works” approach defines teachers as ‘deliverers’ of the ideas of others, rather than as professionals trusted to develop practices that suit particular contexts and groups of learners. All of this despite evidence from the OECD which suggests that countries where teachers believe their profession is valued show higher levels of equity in relation to learning outcomes. 

What did you learn in working on this book that you didn’t know before?
Over the years, we came to the view that education systems will only be able to use research effectively if steps are taken to overcome locally specific social, political and cultural barriers. This has implications for policy-makers, practitioners and, indeed, for those of us working in the world of academic research. It also reminds us that teachers are themselves policy makers. That is to say, the most crucial factor is the willingness of teachers to adapt their practices in response to the requirements of the changes that are proposed.

Bearing all of this in mind, within the book we propose a way of thinking about system change that offers opportunities to make use of research processes and findings. In summary, this involves a series of interconnected propositions that point to a need for:

  • A shared understanding of overall purposes. Given that change requires coordinated efforts across the different levels of an education system, an agreed and clear purpose is an essential condition.
  • On-going contextual analysis of a system’s existing capacity for improvement. This has to be capable of providing a deep analysis of the barriers that are limiting progress. At the same time, it should identify areas of promising practice, drawing out key learning and applying this to the development of the necessary human and social capital to support system level improvement efforts.
  • Brokerage that crosses professional and social boundaries, within schools and across networks. This is in order to increase exposure to various sources of expertise and innovative practice.
  • The development of capacity for leadership at all levels of a system. This must be capable of leading collaborative learning within and between schools, and with the wider community.
  • The creation of a strong political mandate at the national and local levels. This is necessary in order to develop the conditions within the education system that are supportive of collaborative local action.

Since effective change requires coordinated efforts at all levels of an education system, the use of these propositions has implications for the various key stakeholders within education systems. In particular, it requires teachers, especially those in senior positions, to see themselves as having a wider responsibility for all children and young people, not just those that attend their own schools; it means that those who administer district school systems have to adjust their priorities and ways of working in response to improvement efforts that are led from within schools; and it requires that what schools do must be aligned in a coherent strategy with the efforts of other local players – employers, community groups, universities, public services and so on.

In the book, we also illustrate how the different roles and socio-cultural contexts of policy-makers/practitioners and academics create a complex set of power relations, which have to be factored into the process of introducing ideas from research. This reveals how those who work in the field derive their power from being primary actors: they can cause things to happen or to cease to happen in a way that is denied to academics. Meanwhile, researchers derive their power from standing at a distance: they can problematise the actions of practitioners and policy-makers.

At their most productive, these power relationships lead to dialogue in which the academics’ views are informed by the realities of practice, and practitioners’ views change in response to ‘outsider’ critique. At their least productive, however, academics mistake their distant position for superiority, and claim moral and intellectual authority over practitioners; while practitioners dismiss academics as being unworldly and resist their critiques. Managing these relationships is crucial to the success of attempts to use research knowledge to guide the improvement of policy and practice in the field.

What’s happened in these contexts since you wrote the book?
The extent of the legacy in the various developments we report in the book varies considerably. Progress in London continues to be impressive, although debates continue regarding what factors have contributed to all of this, as we describe in the book ( The Scottish Attainment Challenge remains a key policy within the Government’s reform programme. In the case of Greater Manchester, we have recent empirical evidence of the continuing impact of its legacy seven years later, most strikingly in terms of partnerships and networks, and system level coordination. Currently, all of this is being taken forward by the Greater Manchester Education and Employability Board established by the ten partner local authorities that Mel chairs.

 What’s next — what are you all working on or what do you hope will happen in these contexts?
We are continuing to refine our thinking through our involvement in further system development initiatives in the UK and internationally. Chris is acting as consultant to a further phase of the Scottish Attainment challenge and various other related national reform initiative. Through his work as a consultant to UNESCO and the Organization of American States, Mel is supporting developments internationally. Most recently this has involved government-led national initiatives to promote inclusion and equity in Colombia and Oman that are informed by the thinking presented in the book.

What do you hope those working in other parts of the world will take away from your experiences?
Given the emphasis we place on the importance of contextual analysis, we believe that the ‘way of thinking’ presented in the book is relevant  to other parts of the world. Furthermore, our recommendations seem particularly pertinent at a time when many countries are seeking to address issues related to inclusion and equity raised by the UNESCO Education 2030 Framework for Action, Indeed, these recommendations have been incorporated into a recent UNESCO guidance document that is now being used internationally.

Meanwhile, the sorts of barriers that we describe in the book continue to impact on efforts to use research knowledge to guide educational change in both the developed and developing world. The implication is that changes have to be made in the way education systems operate in order to create the organizational conditions within which new thinking based on research can be accommodated. Without this, even the most sophisticated ideas and strategies are likely to be ignored or dismissed.

The accounts of our involvement in the projects described in the book point to the nature of the conditions that need to be encouraged. They also illustrate the relationships that have to be created amongst practitioners, policymakers and academic researchers. By and large, these are not based on a technical-rational process through which research-based knowledge is presented to practitioners in the hope that this will then be used to guide decision-making and action. Rather, they involve a rather messy social learning process, within which researcher expertise and perspectives are brought together with the knowledge of colleagues in the field. Where this works, it can lead to the development of new, context-specific knowledge that can support change processes.

The implication is that successful change requires the coming together of different perspectives and experiences in a process of social learning and knowledge creation within particular settings. Researchers who get involved in such processes must expect to face many difficulties and dilemmas. Consequently, they have to develop new skills in creating collaborative partnerships that cross borders between actors who have different professional experiences. They also need to mobilise personal support in dealing with the pressures this involves.



LEAD THE CHANGE SERIES Q & A with Dr. Christina L. Dobbs

Christina L. Dobbs is an Assistant Professor in English Education in the Wheelock College of Education and Human Development at Boston University. Her research interests include academic language development and teachers’ understandings of language, the argumentative writing of students, and professional development for secondary content teachers around disciplinary literacy. She has authored a variety of publications on these topics in journals such as Reading Research Quarterly, the Journal of School Leadership, Professional Development in Education, and Reading and Writing among others, following the completion of her doctorate from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She is the author of Disciplinary Literacy Inquiry and Instruction and Investigating Disciplinary Literacy, has served as the Manuscripts Editor for the Harvard Educational Review, and has edited a volume titled Humanizing Education: Critical Alternatives to Reform. She serves as a reviewer of young adult fiction for The Horn Book Magazine and has served as a consultant to the New York City Department of Education, Cambridge Public Schools, Boston Public Schools, and Brookline Public Schools among others. She is a former high school teacher in Houston, Texas, as well as a literacy coach and reading specialist.

In this interview, part of the Lead the Change series of the American Educational Research Association Educational Change Special Interest Group, Dr. Dobbs discusses her work on building teacher capacity through context specific and collaborative professional development efforts. As Dr. Dobbs puts it:

I think my most consistent and nagging challenge in my work has to do with where
we situate expertise in schools, and this impacts how policy is made, both generally and locally. Students have expertise, communities have expertise, teachers have expertise. And in a world where we want higher achievement for students, we make mistakes when we don’t look across stakeholders and their varied expertise when making decisions. So as a researcher, I think of myself as bringing expertise about research and methods to the table, and the research is often quite difficult for teachers to access without a university stakeholder. But I rely on teachers, students, community members and school leaders to bring the expertise needed to bring about change. They bring expertise about the specific context, the community, various disciplines, and invaluable historical knowledge. To truly bring about change, this expertise has to be combined in real partnerships. For example, the project discussed above contained teams of teachers from an array of content areas. I remember in a session early in the project with the science team, we were discussing using non-fiction text features to better comprehend informational text. So, the team leader and a chemistry teacher and I were talking about their textbook. She walked us through a number of the text features in the chapter we were analyzing, pointing out which diagrams were important to understanding the material and which were designed merely to brighten pages or generate interest. Without her chemistry training and my team’s comprehension knowledge, the team would not have come to build a protocol for reading in chemistry to better orient students to their books. It took all of us to truly grapple with the literacy skills needed in a chemistry context.

This Lead the Change interview appears as part of a series that features experts from around the globe, highlights promising research and practice, and offers expert insight on small- and large-scale educational change. Recently, Lead the Change has also interviewed Kristin Kew and Osnat Fellus.