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Is school reform working?

Is school reform working?

Research 5 minute read

If educational reform efforts are to succeed, they need to support the creation of professional learning cultures and the use of evidence-based methods, as Geoff Masters explains.

Reforming schools and improving student achievement levels are priorities for governments around the world. But not all countries approach these challenges in the same way. In a number of English-speaking countries, particularly the United States, the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Australia, school reform efforts over the past 20 years have included a number of common reform strategies.

One of those strategies has been to attempt to drive improvement by setting explicit curriculum expectations and targets for improvement. Curriculum ‘standards’ have been developed to make clear what teachers should teach and students should learn in each year of school, and targets for improvement have been set, such as the US Government’s ‘adequate yearly progress’ targets for schools and the Australian Government’s goal to be among the top five countries in the world by 2025.

To determine whether expectations and targets are being met, new performance measures have been introduced, usually in the form of student test scores. These measures have been used to monitor trends over time, establish how much ‘value’ each school contributes to student outcomes, and benchmark achievement levels against performances in other countries.

Better measures, in turn, have led to a push for greater public transparency about how schools are performing. In Australia, this has included the introduction of the My School website. In the UK, league tables of ‘value-add’ measures have been used to compare schools and promote parental choice.

In parallel with these strategies, governments have given schools and teachers more autonomy to decide the best ways to improve student results. Self-managing schools were introduced in Victoria 20 years ago. Charter schools and other forms of self-managing schools have operated in the US, Canada, the UK and New Zealand over the same period.

Increased autonomy has been accompanied by strengthened accountability arrangements. Governments have promoted ‘performance cultures’ in which system officials, school leaders and classroom teachers have been evaluated against explicit performance expectations and held accountable for improved outcomes – usually in the form of improved test scores.

And incentives for improvement have been introduced. These have included financial rewards for school improvement, teacher performance pay linked to improved test results, and sanctions such as the withholding of funding, increased government intervention, the dismissal of school leaders and the closing of schools.

The problem is that, during the period in which these ‘macro’ reforms have been implemented, there has often been little or no improvement in student performances. In Australia, results have either flat-lined or declined over the past decade and achievement gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students, and between students from low and high socioeconomic backgrounds have remained unchanged.

So why have results not improved? Part of the reason, I believe, is that too little attention has been given to the mechanisms by which macro reforms of this kind are expected to change day-to-day classroom teaching and school leadership practices. Too often, it has been assumed that approaches adopted from the world of business will be equally relevant to the work of schools. And too little attention has been paid to international experience and research evidence concerning the importance of micro reform.

Take, for example, the evidence on incentive schemes. A major evaluation by the US National Research Council concluded that the international evidence over the past two decades was ‘not encouraging about the ability of incentive programs to reliably produce meaningful increases in student achievement’. Worse, the committee concluded that incentive programs had produced a range of undesirable school practices designed to maximise test scores rather than produce real improvements in teaching and learning.

The assumption underpinning most incentive schemes is that people know what to do and that what is lacking is effort. Carrots and sticks are designed to get employees to lift their game. But the evidence in schools – as well as in business – is that a focus on results is not enough; improvement depends on the micro strategies of local capacity building and the creation of collaborative learning environments.

As a second example, consider the seemingly obvious and popular strategy of specifying what all students should learn in each year of school. In an effort to raise achievement levels, many countries benchmark their year-level expectations against the curricula of high-performing countries. But a common outcome, particularly in developing countries, is that teachers find themselves teaching material several grade levels ahead of many – and in some cases, most – students. Inevitably, students, teachers and schools are then judged to be ‘failing’.

Again, the research is clear. Learning is maximised when students are given opportunities and challenges appropriate to their current levels of achievement. In any given year of school in Australia, the least advanced 10 per cent of students are five to six years behind the most advanced 10 per cent of students. Rather than teaching, assessing and grading all students against the same year-level expectations, improved learning depends on the micro strategy of establishing and understanding where students are in their learning and then meeting individuals at their points of need.

Unless macro strategies are effective in enhancing the quality of teaching and leadership, creating professional learning cultures in schools and promoting the use of evidence-based methods – in other words, driving micro reform – they are unlikely to lead to improved student outcomes.

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