This is the sixth 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 three, part four and part five. 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.
- Responses to these criticisms and the emergence of The Dynamic Approach
Although not all responses to the criticisms above have been helpful – Sammons et al. responded to Hamilton’s criticisms by making the queer assertion that their findings were deliberately oversimplified so as to to be ‘accessible to non-researchers’ (1998) – in other areas the field has addressed areas of weakness and more consensus now exists concerning which methods are appropriate for the field.
The model that has managed to most successfully address such criticisms, which will now be considered, is probably the dynamic model of educational effectiveness as set out by Creemers and Kyriakides in their book Improving Quality in Education: Dynamic Approaches to School Improvement (2012). The model claims to be both evidence based and theory driven, and has been ‘systematically tested’ for its validity. The complex nature of educational effectiveness is embraced rather than ignored, with a multi-level understanding of the influences on student outcomes. Moreover, Structural Equation Modelling techniques have established five dimensions through which each of the four levels can be referenced, defined and measured (in terms of the quality, focus, stage, frequency, and differentiation).
The model also addresses earlier concerns that EER lacks ‘rich, thick’ descriptions and is preoccupied with quantitative data, by incorporating ‘qualitative characteristics of factors’ enabling the model to ‘provide more precise feedback’ for improvement (Creemers & Kyriakides, 2012, p. 24). So rational decision making lies at the heart of the model, and the practitioners role in self-evaluating the factors associated with their students’ outcomes is a key part of dynamic approach to school improvement. As such, EER is used to ‘identify needs/priorities for improvement’, but those decisions are taken at the school level, giving the approach a more ‘bottom up’ application as opposed to the top-down approach which earlier improvement efforts lent themselves towards.
- Emerging Themes; Research Questions Arising
As well as addressing many of the historical and more recent criticisms, then, the dynamic model of school improvement seems to coalesce with the contemporary educational landscape described at the beginning of this review.
This leads to questions as to whether a dynamic approach to school improvement (DASI), focussed at the classroom level (that is to say, teachers’ practice), could enhance students outcomes in a widespread and sustainable manner. Could teachers who are interested in accessing research evidence for their own improvement purposes utilise the knowledge base of EER and improve their own practice using the self-evaluation and action-plan approach established in the DASI? Perhaps most importantly, however: is their evidence that the DASI will improve student outcomes?
These themes are suggested by Reynolds et al. as future directions for the field of EER, with a ‘further concentration on teaching and teachers…their attitudes and values…the ‘levers’ for changing their practices and behaviours’ (p. 218) identified as a particular need for the field to focus upon. The authors also correctly assess EERs role as a ‘bolt-on not bloodstream for the practitioner communities’ and point to the neglect of practitioners ‘core concern with teaching’. Although the DASI does look at the ‘whole school’ rather than individual classrooms, it also appreciates and allows for variation between classrooms and the relationship between classroom level and school level factors, which may help to increase the uptake of the approach from practitioners.
What has become clear out of this review is that educational effectiveness research is at the same time beautifully simply and incredibly complex. At its heart, the field simply aims to work out what makes a good school and use this knowledge to help more schools improve. However, as noted there are deep-rooted and technical difficulties with this initial project, and the application to ‘school improvement’ only further complicates things.
I have suggested that we should be optimistic due to signs in the contemporary educational landscape which indicate a sector that has become receptive to educational research and its role in improving practice and student outcomes.
What is now needed, then, is experimental work to test the more mature and least problematic approaches to using EER to improve schools. The DASI has emerged as an approach that takes seriously the criticisms the discipline has faced, and has taken positive action to either adapt, develop, or mitigate the concerns. As such, the research question that arises out of this review is as follows:
Can the Dynamic Approach to School Improvement (DASI) improve outcomes for students?
By outcomes, here, I mean the social and affective outcomes valued by practitioners, alongside the more traditional ‘academic’ outcomes.
Such an approach, if successful, may answer the question of how research evidence can be used to improve our schools, by harnessing the desire of practitioners to help their students achieve the best possible outcomes. For this reason, difficulties notwithstanding, both educational researchers and practitioners should be compelled to pursue the best possible approach for securing this goal.
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