This is the first 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 two, part three, 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.
“Education may not be an exact science, but it is too important to allow it to be determined by unfounded opinion, whether of politicians, teachers, researchers or anyone else.”
Professor Rob Coe,
Manifesto for Evidence-Based Practice, 1999
Almost 15 years after Professor Rob Coe set out his Manifesto for Evidence Based Practice, the Department for Education commissioned Dr Ben Goldacre to write a report on the role of evidence in education. The resultant report ‘Building Evidence in Education’, lamented the lack of valid, reliable evidence of ‘what works’ in the sector. Entering the profession at around the same time the report was published, I was surprised that so many of the decisions taken at national, local, school and classroom level were not underpinned by evidence from research. This was one of the principal reasons for my enrolling on this course. More specifically, I am interested in examining: a) the evidence that has been produced by the educational research community; and b) how that evidence is best disseminated to and used by practitioners and policy makers to improve outcomes of children.
Accordingly, this essay will examine the body of knowledge that exists known as ‘educational effectiveness research’ and the links that such a body has with the enterprise of ‘school improvement’. The historical difficulties in the relationship between these two fields will be set out, and I will argue that the dynamic model of EER, as presented by Creemers and Kyriakides (2012) presents the least problematic basis for establishing ‘an evidence based and theory-driven approach to school improvement’ (p. xiv).
Due to the size of the fields under examination, however, this enquiry will be restricted. A full analysis would need to be of book length. After briefly setting out the broad field of EER it will, therefore, be necessary to focus in this essay on a narrower aspect of the field. I have chosen to concentrate on factors at a classroom level. There are three reasons for this. Firstly, as a current primary school teacher I have particular interest in what can be done by practitioners ‘at the chalkface’ to improve outcomes for children. Secondly, evidence presented by Scheerens & Bosker (1997) indicates that teacher effects have a greater effect compared to school effects in terms of progress over time. Thirdly, I believe that the contemporary landscape of the education sector means that a greater emphasis will be on a ‘bottom-up’ approach to engagement with research. This will be explored further in §3, but the notion of responsibility in terms of student outcomes is one that requires further exploration. In doing so, the remainder of the essay will be framed in terms of the contribution of the research community towards an effective knowledge base and the associated field of school improvement.
Although improving schools is not the responsibility of academics in education faculties, the enterprise of educational research would surely stand on shaky moral ground if it did not contribute to securing better educational outcomes for learners in schools. It is for this reason the Congress of School Effectiveness and Improvement is begins its constitution by stating that its “purpose… is to enhance the quality and equity of education for all students in schools in all countries.” (ICSEI, 2011, p.5). The ICSEI aims to do this by bringing together academics, policy makers and practitioners, promoting a coordinated information flow between these groups. It is the relationship between these three groups that is the focus of this review, and as a primary school teacher (practitioner) who is also engaged in academic research through the pursuit of this course, I am particularly interested in how the body of knowledge accumulated by educational researchers can make a positive impact on students in a meaningful manner.
We should not, however, take for granted that educational researchers have always agreed that this is something that is possible. In fact, the notion that schools make no real difference to student outcomes, or at most contribute very little, was comprehensively set out in two seminal studies around half a century ago (Coleman et al, 1966; Jencks et al, 1972). As a reaction to this, the field of educational effectiveness research has grown to provide empirical evidence of schools differing in their impacts on students outcomes. In applying the findings of EER to classrooms, schools and school systems, there have been attempts over the last few decades to contribute to school improvement. Although the relationship between EER and school improvement has historically been – and, to a lesser extent, remains – problematic, there has been considerable success in applying EER to schools using a more dynamic approach to school improvement (Creemers & Kyriakides, 2012).
In what follows, I will provide a review of relevant literature concerning the field of educational effectiveness research, the field of school improvement, and the relationship between the two. The essay will begin with a brief panorama of the contemporary educational landscape concerning research and evidence (§3), before tracing EER’s history (§4), the more prominent criticisms the field has faced (§5) and how they have led to the emergence of a more dynamic understanding of EER (§6). Finally, in §7, I will return to the contemporary landscape, placing the dynamic approach to school improvement (DASI) within this context. Out of this discussion, I will suggest a number of research questions and weigh each in terms of their value on contributing to the academic fields of EER and school improvement. More specifically, I will argue that there exists a well established, theoretically based model for school improvement, and that efforts should be made to empirically test this model. All of this will lead, ultimately, to my settling on a proposed experimental study testing the efficacy of the DASI within a UK context.
This brief plan of the essay begs further justification and illumination, and so I will begin in §2 by setting out more comprehensively the rationale for the strategy that I have chosen to adopt.