Category Archives: education reform

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.

Bringing Effective Instructional Practice to Scale

10833The Journal of Educational Change publishes important ideas and evidence of educational change. Contributions represent a range of disciplines, including history, psychology, political science, sociology, anthropology, philosophy, and administrative and organizational theory. The journal also draws attention to a broad spectrum of methodologies, including quantitative and qualitative approaches, documentary study, action research, and conceptual development.

The journal’s most recent special issue, edited by Santiago Rincón-Gallardo and Brahm Fleisch, brings together articles by reform leaders and scholars who have developed and/or studied education change efforts in various contexts: Escuela Nueva in Colombia, the Learning Community Project in Mexico, the Gauteng Language and Mathematics Strategy in South Africa, Pratham’s Literacy Strategy in India, the Ontario Literacy Strategy in Canada, and Long Beach Unified School District’s system-wide instructional strategy in California, United States.

The editors also share two commentary papers by Richard Elmore and Michael Fullan. As the editors explain in their introduction to the special issue, “The two concluding essays pull together common and divergent threads across the six cases, derive key lessons, and articulate critical perspectives for the future of improvement in the education sector. While Elmore raises fundamental questions about the very project of policy-driven improvement, Fullan argues that, though elusive, whole system improvement centered around deep learning is doable.”

To read the complete introduction, click here:“Bringing effective instructional practice to scale: An introduction.”

To find the complete special issue, click here: The Journal of Educational Change.

To read IEN posts focusing on these reforms, click on the following links:

Attempting Change from Within: Student-Centered Change in Mexico

Bringing Effective Instructional Innovation to Scale through Social Movement in Mexico and Colombia

An interview with Vicky Colbert, co-founder of Escuela Nueva (Lead the Change)

Brahm Fleisch on building a new infrastructure for learning in Gauteng, South Africa

Learning from successful education reforms in Ontario

Learning from successful education reforms in Ontario: Part II

Life after levels: Is the new Year 6 Maths test changing the way teachers teach?

This week we share a blog post written by Melanie Ehren and Nick Wollaston. Originally published on the IOE London Blog, of University College London, this blog is part of a Nuffield foundation funded research project Dr. Ehren coordinates. The research looks at the Key Stage 2 test in mathematics in England and how the test affects teaching of primary mathematics. The test is administered in year 6 (end of Primary school) and is considered to be high stakes as schools performing below the floor standard are monitored by Ofsted (the Inspectorate of Education), face potential forced academization, and test outcomes are used in (teachers’ and head teacher’s) performance management reviews. The test has undergone changes this year to reflect the new national curriculum, and the researchers have asked teachers (after the administration of the new test) how they are changing their teaching in response to the changes in the test. More info on the project (and a broader introduction) is on the website: www.highstakestesting.co.uk

Here we share the blog post in full. To read the post on the IOE London Blog, click here.

 

Life after levels: is the new Year 6 maths test changing the way teachers teach?

Earlier this month (5 July), the Department for Education published the results of the Key Stage 2 test for 10 and 11-year-olds. The publication was awaited with more anxiety than usual as this year’s test was the first one on the new national curriculum. One of the major changes in the test is the removal of the ‘old’ national curriculum levels 3, 4 and 5, where children were expected to reach at least a level 4. The level 6 paper for the most able children has also gone and results are now reported as ‘scaled scores[1]’. Each pupil now has to achieve at least a score of 100 to reach the expected standard. It seems like a minor change with little impact on how teachers teach mathematics and prepare children for the test, but recent findings from our Nuffield-funded study suggest otherwise.

We interviewed 30 Year 6 teachers in schools performing both below and above the floor standard in Mathematics. Interviews took place prior to the changes in the test in May/June 2015, and again after the changes in the test in May/June 2016. In the interviews in 2015, levels were one of the key topics teachers talked about when we asked them about notable features of the test that would inform their teaching. They explained how each of the two written Maths test papers would start with easy level 3 questions, have level 4 questions in the middle and finish with the difficult level 5 items at the end. This order of questions according to difficulty level would allow the lower attaining children to access the test, according to these teachers, and would build their confidence in answering the questions and their motivation to do well on the test. Teachers tell us in the second round of interviews, how all the questions are now ‘at level 5’ and how some of their lower attaining children stared at them in horror when opening their test booklet, asking them where the easy questions had gone.

Not only does the abolition of levels seem to have an impact on children’s motivation and confidence in test taking, it also appears to have a profound impact on how teachers come to understand and teach mathematics. Prior to the introduction of scaled scores, teachers would talk about gradually building up the level of difficulty when teaching specific mathematical content areas, such as ‘number sense and calculation’, ‘data handling’ or ‘shape and space’. Level 3, 4 and 5 test items on past Key Stage 2 test papers would help them understand the hierarchical nature of mathematics and how to introduce children to, for example, increasingly more difficult calculations (e.g. moving from one step to multistep problems, or from adding and subtracting whole numbers to adding and subtracting decimals). Resources such as Test Base would allow them to access available questions according to content area and difficulty level and they could simply download relevant questions when teaching a specific skill. Now that the levels have been removed, some of the teachers tell us that they just focus on getting all students to perform at level 5 in number and calculation as this is where most of the marks on the test are given and some hardly teach shape and space at all. These teachers also talk about moving towards a more ‘mastery style’ of teaching where they ensure that all students master the basics before they move on to teach more complex skills or other (more complex) content domains, such as algebra or geometry.

It is too early to know how widespread these changes are and the effect they will have on children’s understanding of mathematics. Our study, however, indicates that we need to keep a close eye on the breadth and depth of what our children are learning as some of these changes may be masked by an average single test score.

 

[1] A pupil’s scaled score is based on their raw score. The raw score is the total number of marks a pupil scores in a test, based on the number of questions they answered correctly. The Standard and Testing Agency develops tests each year to the same specification, but because the questions must be different, the difficulty of tests may vary slightly each year. This means that the raw scores pupils get in the tests need to be converted into a scaled score to be able make accurate comparisons of pupil performance over time. Every scaled score will represent the same level of attainment for a pupil each year, so a pupil who scores 103, for example, in 2016 will have demonstrated the same attainment as a pupil who scores 103 in 2017. A scaled score of 100 will always represent the expected standard on the test. Pupils scoring 100 or more will have met the expected standard on the test. In 2016, panels of teachers set the raw score required to meet the expected standard on each test.

Learning from successful education reforms in Ontario: Part II

imagesIn 2003, the Ontario government began to focus on issues of educational improvement. The government instituted a series of reforms that have proven incredibly successful, with elementary achievement results rising from 54% in 2003 to 72% in 2014, and high school graduation rates rising from 68% to 84% in the same amount of time. This past summer I spoke with Mary Jean Gallagher, Ontario’s Chief Student Achievement Officer and Assistant Deputy Minister of the Student Achievement Division, and Richard Franz, Ontario’s Director of Research, Evaluation & Capacity Building, to learn more about their experiences with this reform effort thus far, and their plans for the future. As this conversation was so informative, we have decided to post it in two parts. In part one we focused on aspects of the reform that have been key to its success thus far. Here, in part two, we explore Ontario’s approach to moving forward with an expanded reform agenda.

Planning the Future:

In 2013, Ontario’s Ministry of Education (MOE) set a renewed vision for the education system. This process allowed them to identify critical information about what they have achieved, and share this information with parents, business leaders, community members, teachers and students. As Gallagher explained, as a result of Ontario’s success over the past decade, “we have a newfound respect for our ability to set goals and measure progress and achieve them, so we are more careful about goals we set.” By engaging in a broadly based, 7-month collaborative consultation process, they engaged both qualitative and quantitative research methods to determine their next steps.

This process culminated in the production of their “Achieving Excellence” report. This report identifies four new, interconnecting goals for the education system. As they are described in the report:

  • Achieving Excellence: Children and students of all ages will achieve high levels of academic performance, acquire valuable skills and demonstrate good citizenship. Educators will be supported in learning continuously and will be recognized as among the best in the world.
  • Ensuring Equity: All children and students will be inspired to reach their full potential, with access to rich learning experiences that begin at birth and continue into adulthood.
  • Promoting Well-Being: All children and students will develop enhanced mental and physical health, a positive sense of self and belonging, and the skills to make positive choices.
  • Enhancing Public Confidence: Ontarians will continue to have confidence in a publicly funded education system that helps develop new generations of confident, capable and caring citizens.

As Gallagher and Franz explained, the process of determining these goals helped them to understand that in the future they need to “heighten the relevance of what people are learning, increase experiential learning, and use the community more broadly.” By engaging community members in the process they were able to learn that those members felt they had valuable information and experiences to offer the educational system, and were being underutilized. As a result, the MOE is now thinking of better ways to reach out.

Another key aspect that emerged is the importance of student voice. Since the consultation process included school-age students, the MOE was able to learn more about what the students felt needed to be changed about their own education. The MOE, for example, developed a program called “Students as Researchers,” which invites students to formulate questions about how to make their schools better places and trains them in research skills and ethics so that they can design and implement their own research projects, which are then shared with the MOE.

Challenges of new goals:

Looking ahead, Gallagher and Franz explained that there is some tension around the notion that good teaching and learning must be measured. New challenges include thinking about ways in which the system might be able to broaden the measures of success, and what counts as success, so that the emphasis is not only on test scores. This is particularly relevant since one of their new goals is to improve student well-being. In setting the goal, the MOE also must consider how to measure something that has no history of measurement or policy focus.

Another concern is the additional demands of the bureaucracy that might be added once new goals, and new measurement systems for those goals, are implemented. As Gallagher and Franz noted, one of the reasons for the success of the education reforms so far has been attributed to the narrow focus on a small number of goals. With a focus on the renewed four goals, how can they be incorporated into a successful system without overburdening it? As Franz explained, the new tension is about how to do it all is such a way that gets you the insight and information needed to guide the practices of all involved in the system in addressing the new goals, while continuing to build coherence such that actions in the name of one goal also support achievement of the other goals.

For more information:

Ontario Ministry of Education

Deirdre Faughey

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Brahm Fleisch on building a new infrastructure for learning in Gauteng, South Africa

Twenty Years of Transformation in Education,” published in May by the Gauteng Department of Education in South Africa, illustrates the challenges and possibilities in pursuing systemic instructional reform. In a recent conversation, Brahm Fleisch, outlined central aspects of the strategy in Gauteng, highlighting the important role of the development of what David Cohen and others have called an “infrastructure” for instruction.

As Fleisch has described it, before the first democratic elections in South Africa in 1994, the routines and rhythms of schooling in most urban working class communities in Gauteng had been ruptured. As one recent media report explained, there may have been over 4 million “learner days” in Gauteng lost each year due to protests and other serious disruptions (out of over 11 million lost in South Africa as a whole). Since 1994, however, the government of Gauteng sought to restructure racially segregated administrative systems, address resource inequalities, institutionalize democratic school governance and transform the official curriculum. Although disruptions to education began to subside, substantial improvements in teaching and learning still had to be made. In fact, in 2006, South African 4th and 5th graders scored 45th out of 45 countries on the PIRLS test of reading skills (with 87% of 4th grade students and 78% of 5th grade students in South Africa unable to achieve the lowest standard of performance).

From Fleisch’s perspective, a key weakness of the initial reforms was a failure to reach the “instructional core” and an inability to transform and strengthen the instruction students experienced in classrooms throughout the province. As Fleisch explained, students experienced two different kinds of instruction depending on where they lived. Students in primary classrooms serving working class, poor and rural communities experienced choral recitation, copying from the blackboard into workbooks, incomplete coverage of the curriculum, and low expectations. In contrast, students in primary classrooms serving middle-class communities (both white and black) experienced higher expectations, more advanced reading materials, guided reading and writing, and tasks more aligned to those measured in standardized tests.

In order to create a more consistent and effective approach to instruction for all, the province developed and began implementing the Gauteng Primary Language and Mathematics Strategy (GPLMS) in 2010. Drawing on some aspects of England’s National Literacy and Numeracy Strategies (NLNS) (which a team from the Ontario Institute of Studies in Education evaluated initially in Watching and Learning), the GPLMS provided what Fleisch termed a “triple cocktail” of scripted lesson plans, aligned texts and instructional materials, and coaching for teachers. As in England, the prescriptive nature of some of the reforms in South Africa were particularly controversial. However, building on the work of Barber and colleagues at McKinsey & Co., the strategy designers argued that a highly structured, aligned curriculum needed to be put in place to establish a foundation for more ambitious instructional improvement in the future.

Beyond the high level of prescription and structure, the GPLMS strategy was particularly noticeable for its attention to increasing the quality and consistency of instructional materials available to all students. As Fleisch pointed out, before GPLMS, teachers had to rely on a hodge podge of materials that varied widely in quality. As he put it, there was no coherent theory of instruction to support teachers in selecting and using the materials in productive ways. Further, few of those materials were produced in African languages (particularly the languages of the poorest students) because under apartheid, educational publishers had no market for such materials.   Thus, from Fleisch’s point of view, the development of a coherent sequence of materials aligned to common goals was a particularly crucial step in strengthening the instructional core.

Based on his own case studies and reports from colleagues and the teachers he has met in the field, Fleisch has found that many teachers welcomed the clarity and consistency the materials brought to their work. Reminiscent of the discussion of teacher autonomy in a previous post about South Korea, Fleisch argues that by providing teachers with support, the structured, aligned materials can help teachers to feel more effective and to develop a sense of professionalism. In fact, he’s even found that the teachers in Gauteng have copied and shared the materials with teachers in other provinces.

Fleisch stressed, however, that aligned materials alone are far from sufficient. In turn, he credited the individualized coaching with helping many teachers to develop their knowledge and skills. Fleisch also noted that the coaching had the added benefit of providing many teachers with social and emotional support to help them deal with the massive changes that were undertaken. In particular, the use of the materials and the work with the coaches helped to connect teachers, especially those isolated in poorer and more rural communities, with others who were all engaged in a systemic, coordinated improvement effort. Notably, the “triple cocktail” in Gauteng placed relatively little emphasis on the development of principals or other educational leaders, choosing instead to focus more directly on the content and means of instruction.

To date, the results of the GPLMS strategy are unclear. Twenty Years of Transformation in Education provides an account of some of the advances and challenges experienced in Gauteng overall and in the GPLMS approach in particular. While primary school students in Gauteng have shown steady improvements on South Africa’s national tests, Fleisch also points out that the tests have changed each year, making comparisons difficult. Further, critics continue to point high levels of dysfunction in South African schools overall.

In order to assess the impact of the “triple cocktail,” Fleisch is currently engaged in a set of studies including randomized controlled trials to examine the effects of several different aspects of the strategy. Further, Fleisch cautions that even with a highly-structured intervention like GPLMS, adaptations may need to be made in order for the strategy to succeed in different contexts. In one instance, a nearby province sought to develop a GPLMS-like instructional strategy. In that instance, however, several aspects of the context made implementation more difficult. In particular, students spoke a different variety of languages and the initial materials were pitched at too high a level. The mismatch between students’ readiness for learning and the level of the materials and instruction made it difficult to establish a strong foundation for improvement. As a consequence, Fleisch argues that even prescriptive and structured materials and approaches have to be adapted and updated constantly to ensure that they turn what Nic Spaull has called South Africa’s “zone of improbable progress” into a spiral of concrete and appropriate supports – a “zone of proximal development” – that facilitates steady improvement.

Thomas Hatch

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