Gonski? Let’s get serious about school improvement

Good news: the Prime Minister is reconsidering his government’s decision not to fund the remaining educational reforms recommended in 2011 by the Gonski Report. However, the depressing track record of so many school improvement efforts was highlighted last week when new education minister Simon Birmingham noted:

We need to acknowledge that state and federal governments have ploughed lots more money into schools in recent years and with all of that extra money we haven’t necessarily seen improved educational outcomes” […] “There’s far more to getting better outcomes than just putting more money on the table.”

And he’s right. New work from Tony Bryk, President of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, in Australia this week, shows just why educational improvement efforts so often fire blanks — but also, how his team is building the capacity of education leaders and practitioners to address complex educational problems, rigorously evidenced.

Improvement Science uses disciplined enquiry and analysis to inform ‘on-the-ground’ change efforts, adopting rigorous protocols for testing improvement ideas in practice.  In this way, leaders’ and practitioners’ ‘learning by doing’ accumulates through rapid prototyping, into practical field knowledge capable of producing quality outcomes.

Improvement Science has targeted deep-seated weaknesses in the US public school system, serving similarly challenged demographics to priority groups in Australia, with very encouraging results on student developmental mathematics, student agency, and new teacher retention and effectiveness. An equally important outcome from this work is learning how to initiate and sustain such improvement processes, a new approach that we are now initiating in Australia, based on our schools work over the last decade in the UK and internationally. Tony Bryk is the leading figure in the Educational Improvement Science movement, and is in Australia this week giving public lectures and running Masterclasses for educational leaders in Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney, with support from NSW and SA Departments for Education, university education departments, and and leaders from diverse schools.

This deeply engaged way of working with practitioners in the trenches is also profoundly challenging for universities to scale sustainably. Academics are used to short-term collaborations with partner schools — for as long as the next grant lasts — from which emerges academic knowledge but rarely an intentional effort to deliver practical tools or capacity-building for the school. Models of systemic innovation diffusion — and we mean two-way traffic between the universities and schools — point to the potential of strategic partnerships with educational consultancies who can scale and localise educational innovation and staff development in ways that universities struggle to deliver. This is a learning journey for universities, as well as for policymakers, school leaders and students.

Here’s the closer argument for the Minister and his team to consider. What would count as an approach that not only takes seriously the best educational research, but is committed to translating this into practical approaches for schools, and leverages the networked power of “the cloud + crowd” to share rigorous evidence of successes and failures? The furrows in the playing field of educational inequality certainly won’t be levelled by a new steam roller driving through tougher standards. You don’t help someone grow merely by measuring them more often at higher resolution. Veterans in the field know that sustainable improvement comes from growing learning partnerships with school leaders, teachers, students, parents and local community. Easily said, but that takes a holistic, systemic mindset. It might even take a bit longer than the next election.

When it does come to quantifying impact, how do we do this intelligently, with integrity? It can be tough to gather good evidence in the daily routine of school, and teachers rarely bring expertise with research methodology and tools to gather quality data. Short of having your own personal team of academics on hand to support your school, how do you innovate in a disciplined way, at scale, with evidence, sharing successes and failures on the way? Worryingly, the Gratton Institute reports systemic weaknesses in schools’ capacity to gather and use effective progress data. The bigger flaw they point to is the blinkered dependency on very high stakes, disturbingly stressful and infrequent national tests, a poor diagnostic for an improvement strategy.

So for us, the question of demonstrating impact begs the question what kinds of learners are we trying to create? Ultimately, it is the assessment regime that drives what goes on in the classroom and how schools (and pupils) are judged. Universities must also bear responsibility for escalating the ATAR-arms-race that drives such behaviour in schools. For this reason, at UTS we often have to ‘de-program’ many first years out of their ATAR-egos, to explain that to really grow as learners, they are going to have to develop skills and dispositions that are not encouraged by high stakes exams. This drives our priority on using the power of learning analytics to provide rapid feedback loops for innovation, to develop not only literacy and numeracy — critical as they are — but the new student qualities needed to thrive in turbulence and complexity, and the new teacher qualities required to transform their practice.

Alternatively, we can let educational academics continue to generate the research outcomes that define the academic pecking order, while school improvement efforts continue to struggle — and wonder in another few years why the new dollars didn’t seem to make a difference.

Simon Buckingham Shum is Professor of Learning Informatics, and Director of the Connected Intelligence Centre, University of Technology Sydney

Ruth Crick is Professor of Learning Analytics & Educational Leadership, School of Education and Connected Intelligence Centre, University of Technology Sydney

Chris Goldspink is Co-Founder and Chief Scientific Officer of Incept Labs Sydney

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Simon Buckingham Shum

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