This is the third post in a series, which together make up a literature review submitted for my MEd in Educational Research at the University of Cambridge. You can read also read part one, part two, part four, part five and part six. I hope that this is of interest to anyone considering undertaking an MEd, or for those who wish to dig a little into the academic literature around educational effectiveness Research and School Improvement. I would be most grateful to anyone who can provide any critique to what is written. References can be found at the end of part six.
- The Role of Research Evidence in England’s Contemporary Educational Landscape
When, in 2013, the Department of Education invited Dr Ben Goldacre to examine the role of evidence in the education sector, it was claimed that “a great prize” was waiting to be claimed by teachers (Goldacre, 2013, p.4). The resulting report, Building Evidence into Education, notes that in some areas of education there is great enthusiasm for research trials and the use of evidence, but that “much of this enthusiasm dies out before it gets to do good, because the basic structures needed to support evidence based practice are lacking” (Goldacre, 2013, p.15).
For those within the educational research community, all of this was well trodden ground. As mentioned above, fourteen years earlier Professor Rob Coe had set out a Manifesto for Evidence Based Education (Coe, 1999) which is remarkably similar to Goldacre’s report in its tentative optimism for the education sector making its metamorphosis into a scientific enterprise. Although Goldacre and Coe differ slightly in their approach to the sorts of evidence (Goldacre advocates for randomised controlled trials to become common practice) they agree on embedding a ‘culture of evidence’ in every level of the educational sector. This narrative seems to have captured the zeitgeist amongst both practitioners and politicians. To best illustrate this, it is worth setting out some of the developments over the last few years at a policy and practitioner level.
Educational Endowment Foundation
In 2011, a government grant of £125m was used to establish the Educational Endowment Foundation, an organisation independent of government tasked with sharing evidence and working out ‘what works’ in education. Two years later, the government designated the EEF as an independent ‘What Works Centre’, recognising that within education, ‘an evidence base exists but there is limited authoritative synthesis and communication of this evidence base’ (HM Government, 2013). As well as funding projects aimed at establishing effective school and classroom level practices (to date, £45m has been approved for initiatives involving 4100 schools), the EEF has published an online ‘teaching and learning toolkit’. The toolkit aims to communicate the findings of educational research by grouping studies under broad strategies (such as ‘meta-cognition’, ‘feedback’, or ‘repeating a year’) and presenting the outcomes enjoyed by students as additional months of progress’. In a 2014 poll commissioned by the Sutton Trust and undertaken by the National Foundation for Educational Research, the toolkit has reportedly been used by 45% of school leaders in the UK (EEF, 2014).
The coalition government has reaffirmed this explicit support for teaching to become ‘evidence-led’. In an article for the Guardian in December 2014, the Secretary of State for Education and Minister for Schools wrote that, ‘In recent years, we’ve seen the start of a culture change, transforming teaching into a more evidence-led profession – something we wholeheartedly support’ (Guardian, 2014). For many teachers and school leaders, this has meant engaging with the Educational Endowment Foundation’s ‘Teaching and Learning Toolkit’, which summarises educational research into school structures, strategies and resources, attributing an ‘effect size’ in terms of additional months of progress.
If the establishment of the EEF is viewed as a top-down approach to building evidence into policy and school level decision making, the teacher-led organisation ‘ResearchEd’ represents the reverse of this. Established in 2013, the charity is now running conferences in the USA and Australia. ResearchEd aims to increase research literacy of teachers and school leaders, whilst bringing together academics and practitioners for collaboration and dissemination. With dozens of ResearchEd conferences taking place across the country, thousands of teachers are voluntarily giving up their weekends to listen to academics and practitioners. After receiving an EEF grant, this method of dissemination is being tested to establish whether it is an effective method of improving research literacy, evidence-informed practices in schools and student outcomes in those schools
Ofsted is the regulation and inspection body for educational providers in the UK. In 2009, the body altered its practice of grading teachers’ lessons based on short observations following a study that suggested such an approach was an unreliable and invalid method of assessing teaching quality and learning outcomes (Strong et al, 2011).
Barriers to the Effective Use of Evidence
Taken together, these factors indicate that the education sector in England is ready to embrace and embed evidence collected by researchers. Why, then, does there seem to be little acknowledgement of two traditions within educational research – educational effectiveness and school improvement – which have for several decades sought to address the very issues under discussion?
The former arose as a reaction against the belief that ‘schools make no difference’ to student outcomes compared to background factors such as ability and socio-economic status (Coleman et al, 1996; Jencks et al, 1972), and so empirical work began to challenge the view that ‘education cannot compensate for society’ (Bernstein, 1968). As evidence grew of specific school effectiveness, the related field of school improvement sought to apply these findings to specific schools to drive improvement.
More recently, different reasons have arisen for those promoting an evidence-based approach to education overlooking the body of knowledge collected by educational research. The fragmented nature of the field is an underlying concern, and the problem is candidly set out by (Moss et al, 2009, p. 501),
The state of discourse in the field of education research has been likened to the cacophony in the Tower of Babel (Phillips, 2006a). Not only is there a breakdown in communication due to…the multitude of theoretical and methodological approaches…but, in addition, proponents of different perspectives often hold strikingly different assumptions about the nature of the enterprise in which they are engaged. These include different assumptions about the ends of education research, about its epistemology, and relatedly, about whether it is or should be (or even could be) value free… As a result, researchers working in different frameworks often “talk past” each other, if they try to talk at all. (My emphasis).
Moss’s analysis is easy to illustrate by taking the assertion of Bernstein in the earlier paragraph. The view that ‘education cannot compensate for society’ seems prima facie to be relatively simple to falsify or affirm. We establish which shortcomings need to be compensated for by education, establish how those shortcomings might be said to have been ‘compensated for (or ‘overcome’), then set about investigating whether those shortcomings have been overcome. Immediately, however, we run into serious epistemological difficulties, exacerbated further by implicit and unsettled normative and value judgments. What does it mean to say that education has compensated for society? Which outcomes are we interested in for the student which will satisfy the compensation? Exam results? Social and affective outcomes? Supposing that we could confidently say that education can compensate for society, should it? Are governments deferring their responsibility for social equality to schools, instead of addressing the root problems associated with differential outcomes? And so on.
Put simply, education is unavoidably value-laden, and educational research will always be conceived, undertaken and consumed through a lens which makes certain assumptions about the ‘ends of research’. Or, as Rob Coe puts it, ‘One person’s “effective practice” is another’s “neo-liberal hegemony”’ (1999, p.3). We should be wary of ignoring such concerns, but as Daniel Muijs explains “it is of key importance that effectiveness research does not fall into the trap of so much educational research, in allowing ideology and rhetoric to come before empirical research and findings” (2006, p.156). With these initial difficulties in mind, we can turn to how the field has developed over time and how it has responded to some the concerns raised.