Category Archives: About K-12 International Education News

PISA Treatment? Exploring the Side Effects of Education Reform

by Alma Harris, Yong Zhao, and Michelle Jones

In this the latest post in the Leading Futures Series, edited by Alma Harris and Michelle Jones, and Yong Zhao, Foundation Distinguished Professor in the School of Education at the University of Kansas, discuss some of the key ideas in Zhao’s latest book, What Works May Hurt – Side Effects in Education. For a related discussion, see Zhao, Harris, and Jones’ latest piece in TES.

The PISA bandwagon continues. This juggernaut of educational assessment has dominated the global debate about educational change for almost two decades now. The first PISA results were published in December 2001 and since then PISA has strengthened its grip on policymaking.

While PISA has proffered the opportunity to compare the performance of different countries, based on its data, it has also contributed to an international credence in borrowing from “the best.” While the world-renowned Finish educator, Pasi Sahlberg, advises not to try to copy Finland this advice is often ignored in the competition for better system and school outcomes. He says ‘while it is true that we can certainly learn from foreign systems and use them as backdrops for better understanding of our own, we cannot simply replicate them’.

The idolisation of certain education systems over others remains a strong trend that influences the global discourse about education reform. We hear a lot about Singapore, Finland, Ontario, and Shanghai but far less about other jurisdictions, like the Netherlands, that also have performed relatively well on a range of external indicators, including PISA. Yet, as Sahlberg and Hargreaves argue PISA data has also shed important light on issues of equity.”

Without the data that PISA has generated over the years,” they point out, “calls for enhanced equity would not be part of the education policy conversation in the countries that have suffered from inequitable education systems, including the U.S.”

The verdict on PISA remains mixed and, in some corners, still highly contested. As Simon Breakspeare notes: ‘It is time to put PISA in its place. The problem lies in how PISA has come to play such a defining role in determining educational performance and progress’. In the end education systems, like schools, focus on what gets measured and other important issues, like health, wellbeing, socio-emotional development etc. are in danger of being marginalised or left out altogether.

In his new book, the orchestrator of PISA, Andrea Schleicher maps the development and the successes of PISA. ‘World Class: Building a 21st Century School System‘ rehearses many of the well-known arguments for this international assessment and preferred reform strategies. In this book, Schleicher argues that ‘one of the most important insights from PISA’ is that education systems ‘could be changed and made to perform’. He also proposes that culture is not necessarily an important consideration when addressing reform at scale. He cites the success of many countries like Mexico, Germany, Columbia, and Peru that have improved their performance in PISA despite their context and culture.

There are two important observations to be made here. Firstly, the term “world-class” is relatively meaningless because it is not possible to say that a practice is ‘good’, ‘best’ or ‘effective’ in all settings, on all occasions and with all students. It largely depends on the contextual conditions and the cultural setting in which this practice is effective in the first place. Often things work well because of the contextual conditions that enable them to work, not because they are universally effective.

Secondly by citing countries like Mexico, Columbia and Peru, there is the impression that other countries, also facing an uphill struggle to improve educational outcomes, can easily follow this well-trodden pathway to PISA glory. Far less is said in Schleicher’s book, however, about countries that have failed to make any real progress on PISA, like Indonesia or Malaysia, despite borrowing some of the strategies of the more successful performers. Countries who have failed to lift their PISA performance having borrowed from the best tend not to make the OECD headlines.

Inevitably, there are a complex set of interrelated factors plus substantial differences across educational systems, political systems, societies, and cultures that interact, both positively and negatively, with any reform process. The ‘side-effects’ of certain policy decisions and approaches are also often factored out or ignored.

In his latest book Yong Zhao argues that what works can hurt. Like medical products, education policies and practices that are effective in achieving some outcomes can have adverse side effects on other, perhaps, more important outcomes. For example, the education systems that are effective in producing high PISA scores can cause damage to students’ confidence and other aspects of well-being. Likewise, policies and practices that benefit some students can hurt others. For example, teachers with high academic performances in secondary schools have been found to benefit high performing students but hurt low performing students, contradicting the policy recommendation derived from PISA data that school systems should recruit high performing graduates into teaching.

Currently, PISA promotes competition between countries and prompts a deficit view i.e. why is our system performing less well than others in PISA? instead of ‘in what way is our education system good and how can we build upon that? As an alternative, position therefore we propose that countries should identify their own strengths and build on them, drawing on a policy learning approach rather than a policy borrowing approach. In other words, while we can learn from other countries and helpfully look at their success and failures, the mature policy response is to build upon and extend what already works well in context and to focus far more from learning within the system, rather than outside it.

Good things are happening in all education systems, somewhere. The three-year cycle of PISA has become a distractor as policy attention inevitably turns competing in a race that most countries cannot win. Hopefully, in time, PISA will encourage policy makers to focus far more on learning about their own context, rather than wishing to be another country altogether.

Trump’s War on Immigrant Children and Families: A Timeline

Donald Trump’s war on immigrant children and families began almost as soon as he took office:

To shed some light on the development and consequences of Trump’s war on immigrant children and families, below, we provide links to a series of articles that describe events leading up to the announcement of the “zero-tolerance” policy (The Guardian also provides a compendium of their own reporting on the issues). For background on refugee and migrant children and education see also “6 things to know about refugee children and education” from the Global Partnership for Education and “Educating Migrant Children in Shelters: 6 Things to Know” from Education Week.

Most importantly, a post from Slate“Here’s how you can help fight family separation at the border” – provides links to a variety of legal and humanitarian organizations that are working to support immigrant families and refugees.

The evolution of the practice of separating immigrant children from their families

Quartz, April 28, 2018: The truth about the immigrant caravan: What it is and why it’s coming to the US

AP, May 2, 2018: Tensions simmer in Mexico as asylum seekers wait at border

Politico, May 7, 2018: Trump administration to step up family separation at the border

CBS, May 29, 2018: Tension grows as hundreds of children are separated from parents at the border

New York Times, June 16, 2018: How Trump Came to Enforce a Practice of Separating Migrant Families


Thomas Hatch & Jordan Corson

Early Developments from Sesame Workshop’s Work After the 100 & Change Grant

Photo2 (1)

Photo Credit: Sesame Workshop/ Tara Todras-Whitehill

For those who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, Sesame Street is a ubiquitous example of the intersection where television and education meet.  The show has welcomed diverse viewers to a mixture of educational sketches, songs, and memorable characters. Lesser known about Sesame Street is the fact that Sesame Workshop is a nonprofit educational organization focused on researching and creating media for kids across the world. In many different countries, Sesame Workshop has created versions of Sesame Street that address issues specific to regions. For instance, in South Africa, Takalani Sesame features Kami, an HIV positive Muppet.

In addition to these and many other programs, Sesame Workshop and the International Rescue Committee (IRC) were recently awarded a $100 million grant as part of the MacArthur Foundation’s 100 & Change grant competition. Kim Foulds, Senior Director of International Research and Evaluation for Sesame Workshop, explained that the grant grew out of a partnership with IRC  to develop programming for refugee children fleeing the ongoing conflict in Syria. With Sesame operating as the content provider and IRC working as the implementing partner, in 2016 the two organizations began developing programming that would bring early childhood education to “young children displaced by conflict and persecution in the Middle East.” Foulds describes this relationship as typical for Sesame Workshop. Partnerships allow them to create content with on the ground support rooted in local knowledge, deepening the impact of educational efforts and direct services.

Using seed funding from the Open Society Foundations and the Bernard Van Leer Foundation, Sesame and IRC piloted the initial program in Jordan that targeted Syrian refugees at some centers near the border. Considering the impact of issues like displacement or violent conflict, the organizations wanted a response targeting both young children and families. Sesame and IRC aimed to create an Early Childhood Development (ECD) program.


Photo Credit: Sesame Workshop/ Ryan Heffernan

Starting the project, Sesame Workshop sent a team to Jordan to test different Arabic-language Sesame content with Syrian children and their caregivers who had been displaced by the conflict. In those explorations, Sesame identified desirable themes for potential Sesame shows and looked at which platforms would be most effective to deliver content that would begin to help fill the early childhood education gaps faced by Syrian children ages 3-6 years. They also worked through IRC’s existing programming to deliver materials to support children’s psychosocial needs. All of this work aimed to create an initial framework directly focused on children and families impacted by this conflict.

In addition to developing a local version of Sesame Street, Sesame and IRC wanted to create a show and programs that would work not only in Jordan but also in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq.  They sought to develop a program that could serve as a blueprint for future work in other crisis areas and reach millions of children. In order to achieve this goal, further work and resources were necessary. After multiple rounds and many other impactful proposals, in December of 2017, the MacArthur Foundation named Sesame and IRC as the winners of the 100 & Change grant for $100 million. When the award was announced, news outlets around the world praised the project’s vision and goals. In the months since, the organizations have begun the everyday work of scaling the project.

Though it is still early in the project’s development, Foulds offers a number of early findings. In addition to suggestions to focus on literacy and numeracy, emphasizing both Arabic and English, the initial content testing showed that the content and characters that most resonated with families focused on themes of kindness and forgiveness. They wanted characters who were good friends and could act as models for children. Children liked shorter segments, mostly with songs. From this testing, content provided during the pilot included a storybook where a bully is mean to his friends, so the friends decide to ignore him. Then, seeing him alone and sad, the friends decide to forgive him, something that caregivers found appealing and relevant. At the same time, caregivers suggested expanding this story to include the perspective of the bullied characters. The testing also revealed a desire for lessons about self-protection and ways to prevent sexual abuse as well as a call to avoid topics like suicide.

As always, Sesame aims to approach this project in culturally relevant ways, developing a localized co-production for the region. This is a core tenet of Sesame’s international work. Foulds recalls a conversation while working with Sesame Workshop in Afghanistan, in which she learned that many Afghans were not aware that the Afghan co-production was based on an American show because it had been so localized. The show in Afghanistan has Afghan producers, puppeteers, and comes from the ideas and interests of people from the area. The new show aims to reflect just as much cultural responsiveness.


Photo Credit: Sesame Workshop/ Parisa Azadi

This endeavor is a continuation of Sesame Workshop’s founding principles. Foulds reminds that since their inception, Sesame has always worked with the most vulnerable children, both domestically and internationally. This includes serving children affected by conflict in Palestine, Israel, Kosovo, Northern Ireland, and now in the Syrian response region. Both education and early childhood development are largely ignored in responses to humanitarian crises. Safety, food, medicine, and shelter may traditionally take precedence over education when humanitarian crises strike. But, as technology and digital media find their way into almost every corner of the globe, programs like this one may mean that children and families don’t have to wait for support for their development or education.

Lead the Change with Jennifer Groff

Jennifer Groff is an educational engineer, designer, and researcher, whose work focuses on redesigning learning environments and experiences through educational innovations and technologies. Currently, she is a PhD Candidate at the MIT Media Lab, and is the co-founder of the international NGO, Center for Curriculum Redesign. Previously, she was the technology SME (Subject-Matter Expert) on the OECD Innovative Learning Environments project, and a US-UK Fulbright Scholar at Futurelab Education, UK, where she continued her work on system innovation. Previously, Jen was the VP of Learning & Program Development for the Learning Games Network—a non-profit spin-off from the MIT Education Arcade, where she led the development of assessment-based game design and the national Playful Learning movement. A former K-12 educator, named one of 12 Microsoft Innovative Teacher Leaders in 2005, she is the author of numerous frameworks on innovation in education systems, transformation, and design over educational reform—including the i5 framework and the ‘whole-mindedness’ pedagogical approach.

In this interview, part of the Lead the Change Series of the American Educational Research Association Educational Change Special Interest Group, Groff talks about her work in technology and schooling. As she puts it:

For far too long we’ve drilled down into the data and science of education, at the cost of the larger vision of the ship and course we are sailing on. You might visit a school seeing significant gains in literacy achievement, yet learners there are developing very little in
other critical competencies such as critical thinking, design thinking, systems thinking, and collaborative problem- solving. Yet perhaps even more importantly, are the learners in that school passionate? Excited about their learning? Able to articulate why they’re learning what they are, and how they intend to apply it in their lives?

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 Mel Ainscow and Charlene Tan.

IOE London Blog: It’s not brains that learn, it’s people

**This post initially appeared on the IOE London Blog, a blog written by academics at the UCL Institute of Education (IOE), University College London.**

For our penultimate ‘What if…?’ debate before the end of term we took a look at the growing field of educational neuroscience and what it could mean for classroom practice.  The technology for showing the inner-workings of the brain is advancing apace, but just how useful are the findings, at this stage anyway, for educational policy and practice?  Could they actually be unhelpful: accusations of ‘neuro nonsense’ abound.  To help us find our way through the science, we were delighted to be joined by a panel of leading educationalists and neuroscientists: Professor Becky Allen, Director of the IOE’s Centre for Education Improvement Science; Steven Rose, Emeritus Professor of Neuroscience at the Open University; Catherine Sebastian, Reader in the Department of Psychology at Royal Holloway, where she directs the Emotion, Development and Brain Lab; and Michael Thomas, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at Birkbeck, from where he directs the Centre for Educational Neuroscience, a collaboration with UCL and IOE.

Our panel identified the various areas in which neuroscience has the potential to inform education policy and practice – including brain health, child and adolescent development, learning processes, typical and atypical development, and socio-emotional skills.  In some cases this will be through offering new insights and trialling new, better targeted interventions; in other cases it will be in prompting new research in adjacent fields such as cognitive psychology.  But perhaps the main message from the discussion was the need for caution – for, on the one hand, humility on the part of neuroscientists as well as those who promote the findings of neuroscience to educators (or certainly a greater willingness to call out misuse or misunderstanding of the science), and, on the other, for scepticism on the part of those on the receiving end of that science.  Contrary to the impression given by some (Brain Gym, learning styles, and so on), there are no silver bullets it seems, just a slow process of edging towards more nuanced understanding of the complexity and dynamism of being a developing human being.  Human nature being what it is, though, we made need to work through quite a few more neuro myths and neuro snake oil products in the process. Once the theories and technologies are out there, the tendency is to use them.

A lot of what we now regard as brain myths didn’t emerge from nowhere – they counted as good science 10 or 20 years ago but are only now seen as oversimplified.  So we need to be on our guard as to what the next myths will be.  Many may well be what teachers are currently basing changes to their practice on, in the cause of evidence-based practice.  In most cases, the best outcome will be that the change in practice doesn’t do any harm.  Teachers will need to weigh up carefully the case for changing their practice.  To help them in that endeavour they arguably need a new profession of translators – neuroscientists themselves do not typically have sufficient knowledge of what is involved in teaching and managing a classroom.

We also need to recognise that the scope for direct translation of neuroscientific findings to the classroom is limited by several factors. Within the brain there are at least seven different systems involved in learning, which are interacting all the time.  Equally, those processes are just one element of learning – they’re joined by factors linked to the syllabus, pedagogy, and school environment, as well as family and societal influences.  Plus, as well as teaching being a skill that’s delivered in the moment, teachers are generally focused on the class as a whole – there’s limited time to focus on how individuals are learning.

Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) – dubbed by some as ‘the most important thing for teachers to know about’ – provided us with a useful case study.  CLT has been around for quite a while, but has taken off recently. The first question this prompts is why do certain theories take off when they do?  In the case of CLT, it has been picked up by prominent voices in the world of education and at the same time offers ready ways in which it can be implemented – steers that fit with lay understanding, and which are unlikely to be harmful (e.g. steers to keep instructions simple, so that they’re not too cognitively demanding).  However, given the difference between subject disciplines, the usefulness of CLT will vary greatly across them. And even here the science is moving on: there is debate within the neuroscientific community as to whether there is a thing that is working memory – instead, there are probably multiple systems involved.  The danger is that what is a useful prompt for teachers to consider becomes an unquestioned fad, or worse, commercialised as a single intervention that ignores complexity, in the process raising expectations about the extent to which performance can be changed.

In the meantime, new theories and technologies to enhance learning continue to emerge from neuroscience.  Spaced learning offers one example.  At the other extreme there are pharmacological interventions such as Ritalin through to transcranial direct current stimulation of the brain.  Many are in their primitive stage, but we’re likely to see more of them, many of which will turn out to be the neuro myths of the future. What we shouldn’t do is let them distract us from attending to the immediate societal factors that impact on our ability to learn.

You can watch or listen to the debate in full here: What if… we were able to say more about how the brain learns?

The new issue of Journal of Educational Change

This week, we turn to the most recent issue of the Journal of Educational Change. In the past, IEN has featured interviews or posts from contributors to the Journal of Educational Change including including Mireille Hubers and Mel Ainscow. In this post, we highlight the 7 articles from the new issue, which was released earlier this month, along with a few related links.


The latest issue of the Journal of Educational Change includes articles on:


Teacher autonomy in times of standardised lesson plans: The case of a Primary School Language and Mathematics Intervention in South Africa
By Yael Shalem, Francine De Clercq, Carola Steinberg, and Hannchen Koornhof)

A study of the limitations and potential of the use of standardized (scripted) lesson plans, a main component in the Gauteng Primary Language and Mathematics Strategy (GPLMS) being used to promote large-scale changes in instruction in most industrialized province of South Africa (and previously discussed in an interview in IEN with Brahm Fleisch).  The article suggests that teachers can seize “autonomy opportunities” when working with standardized curricula when: (1) materials are of high quality and sufficiently specify appropriate and inappropriate uses; (2) legitimate authority is applied in a morally justified an educationally sound way; and (3) educators can apply appropriate professional and personal knowledge when making decisions.


Human elements and the pragmatic approach in the Australian, Scottish and Swedish standards for newly qualified teachers
By Goran Fransson, Andrea Gallant, and Rachel Shanks

A comparative study among newly qualified teachers in Australia, Scotland, and Sweden that aims to explore perceptions of and expectations for new teachers. Results from the study suggest that some countries emphasize pragmatic knowledge in teaching while others emphasize what the authors call contextual professionalism in teaching.


Secondary school creativity, teacher practice and STEAM education: An international study
By Anne Harris and Leon R. de Bruin

An international study of work on creativity and STEAM in a sample of secondary schools in Australia, USA, Canada, and Singapore. The study looks at the role of creativity, how it is used and understood in secondary schools (it also includes an appendix with a “Whole School Creativity Audit”).


Structural change from physical foundations: The role of the environment in enacting school change
By Pamela Woolner, Ulrike Thomas, and Lucy Tiplady

An article looking at how the physical settings of school can help to initiate, support, and sustain change and improvement efforts Additionally, the paper looks at the links between the physical setting and other aspects of schooling such as organizational structure.



Development and initial investigation of a self-report measure of teachers’ readiness to implement
By Cara Marcinek Bliss and Shannon Wanless

A discussion of the piloting of a self-report instrument to assess teachers’ readiness to implement evidence-based programs in the U.S.


Opening or closing doors for students? Equity and data use in schools
By Amanda Datnow and Vicki Park

An overview of a decade of qualitative research on data use and equity in the US to examine the ways in which data use helps to open or close doors for students (by using data for accountability and/or for continuous improvement; to confirm assumptions and/or to challenge beliefs; to track students or promote flexible grouping). See “Teacher capacity for and beliefs about data-driven decision making” by Datnow and Hubbard for a related international literature review also published in the Journal of Educational Change.


Teachers’ agency, efficacy, engagement, and emotional resilience during policy innovation implementation
By Kristen Campbell Wilcox, Hal A. Lawson

A multiple case study on how teachers experience and respond to what the authors call “disruptive innovations” in the U.S. including the Common Core Leanring Standards, data-driven instruction, and teacher performance reviews. The study looks at how teachers adapt to and perform during the implementation of reforms.






Children’s Neighbourhoods Scotland


Image courtesy of Children’s Neighbourhoods Scotland

In recent weeks, IEN has featured sessions at the American Educational Research Association that discussed the development of educational networks in England, Ireland, Scotland, and Chile as well as work on collective impact in New York City. This week’s post brings that work together by describing the work and impact of the Children’s Neighbourhoods Scotland (CNS). CNS is an organization working in two neighborhoods in Glasgow to help bring “together people, resources and organisations in a neighbourhood area, so that all of those things can work together towards better lives for the children living there.” The post is drawn from an overview of CNS and a related commentary from Christopher Chapman of the University of Glasgow and his colleagues Carol Tannahill of Glasgow Centre for Population Health and Nicholas Watson of the University of Glasgow.  It’s a follow-up to Chapman’s IEN post from 2016 describing What Works: The Scottish Attainment Challenge, Learning Partnerships, and “Policy Borrowing” on Both Sides of the Atlantic

We know that children who grow up in areas of high social deprivation face challenges and that, unless well supported, they are less likely than their more advantaged peers to be successful in later life.  We also know that many of these communities are working with organisations and agencies to try and tackle the many challenges these children face, but that they often don’t have sufficient resources to produce the outcomes they want to achieve.

If we want to create a new future, the evidence from Europe, America and elsewhere tells us that we are going to have to have to work in different, more creative and more joined-up ways.  We need to develop new approaches that reshape roles and responsibilities and will bring together the many different agencies and organisations that are currently involved in delivering services to and helping children in these areas.

The Children’s Neighbourhoods Scotland (CNS) provides one example of such a joined-up initiative. CNS is a collaborative approach between the Glasgow Centre for Population Health (GCPH), Policy Scotland and What Works Scotland (WWS) within the University of Glasgow. The approach is supported by key partners including Glasgow City Council (GCC), Bailie Gifford, Clyde Gateway, Children in Scotland, Save the Children, Virgin Money and NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde who are committed to building on current investments.

CNS brings together, builds on and develops ideas generated across a range of area- based initiatives including the Strive Partnership, Harlem Children’s Zone in the United States and Children’s Communities in a number of sites across the UK. Our aim is to take the lessons from these sites, develop evidence-based approaches and apply them within the Scottish context.

children neighborhood

Key to our approach is a locality based strategic focus on joining up efforts across services and sectors to ensure better coordination, integration of local support systems and a coherent set of networks for children and families and the communities in which they live. This approach moves from traditional ways of working that move from disorder and confusion and delivering individual and coordinated impact to deliver collective impact for all


The CNS approach to collective impact is based on a shared vision for children and a shared analysis of children’s needs. Through promoting partnership and developing synergy, this place- based approach will tackle the poor outcomes associated with disadvantaged settings and provide an interconnected pipeline of support from pre-birth to employment.

The approach is underpinned by five key evidence-based principles:


  1. Common agenda: All members of the collaborative need a shared understanding of the issue and an agreed approach to tacking it.
  2. Shared data and accountability systems: For alignment and accountability purposes, those involved need to have common indicators of success.
  3. Mutually reinforcing agendas and activities: Action needs to co-ordinated to avoid overlap and gaps.
  4. Clear and consistent communication: In order to build relationships and trust, establish common objectives, and build shared purpose and a guiding.
  5. Backbone support organisation: A separate organization is required to provide the administrative, logistical, and coordinating support necessary to create and sustain a successful partnership


The Children’s Neighbourhood in Bridgeton and Dalmarnock is an example of a ‘backbone organisation’ (see figure below) that brings together different resources, brokers and facilitates connections and activity.  Dalmarnock and Bridgeton is in the East End of Glasgow and has one of the most concentrated levels of socio-economic disadvantage in Scotland. There is substantial investment and activity in this area by partners from across the City in an attempt to tackle generations of poverty and disadvantage and to improve a wide-range of outcomes for children and young people living in the area.

The Children’s Neighbourhood is now working with a range of these partners to generate a coherent response in services to ensure that all resources are pulling in the same direction. This is, of course, a slow task and so far we have invested our time in building trust and relationships to create the conditions that will promote authentic collaboration and partnership working across the neighbourhood.

As part of this work, we have already started some small projects in this area including breakfast clubs, holiday clubs and other activity beyond the school gate of Dalmarnock Primary School. All of these programmes aim to connect families and communities across the area and provide a coherent, holistic and sustained approach to tackling the attainment gap and reducing health inequalities. Through the development of a coordinated response we will be able to better utilise and unlock the assets, resources, knowledge and intelligence of public sector organisations, national and local third sector and the community.

Children’s Neighbourhoods is not a quick fix, rather a long-term investment in sustainable cultural change. We believe, and the emerging evidence suggests, this is a model that can make a difference to the lives of young people and their families locked in to poverty and can play a significant role in achieving the Scottish Government’s 2030 child poverty targets. CNS is also flexible enough to travel and therefore has the potential for roll-out to other areas, both urban and rural. In CNS we believe we have developed a uniquely Scottish approach to put poverty in its place!