The following constitutes the introduction to an essay recently submitted for a masters that I’m currently undertaking in educational research. In particular I’m interested in the relationship between the body of knowledge known as educational effectiveness research (empirically validated approaches that ‘work’) and practitioners use (or not) of this knowledge to drive improvement at the classroom and school level.
The dynamic approach to school improvement (DASI), claims to provide educational researchers with a “theoretical framework for establishing a theory-driven and evidence-based approach to school improvement,” (Creemers & Kyriakides, 2012, p.4). The approach draws on the knowledge base provided by Educational Effectiveness Research (EER), and proposes a dynamic model which can be applied by practitioners and policy makers to improve schools. Although great progress has been made within the field over its thirty-year history, there remain several challenges.
One of the more contemporary difficulties rests in assumptions of the targets of education. One of the three main assumptions of the dynamic model is that ‘student outcomes’ are defined more broadly than the achievement of basic skills in core subjects such as language and mathematics. More specifically, ‘whole school curriculum aims (cognitive, psychomotor, metacognitive and affective)’ are specified as the important goals by which we now measure ‘effective schools’.
In their state-of-the-art-review on educational effectiveness research, Reynolds et al. (2014) concluded that “At the level of practice, it would… be difficult to find evidence of substantial take-up of the insights of EER at practitioner level in many countries”. Hallinger and Heck (2011) also lament the disconnect between EER (what we know about what makes schools effective) and school improvement (using this knowledge to make lasting improvements to schools and children’s outcomes).
To illustrate the point, the authors concede that they were unable to answer a school principal when asked
“Given what you know about leadership for learning, where would you advise me to put my effort as a school leader in order to gain the greatest improvement in learning for students at my school?’’ (Hallinger and Heck, 2011, pp. 1-2).
This is particularly disappointing given that the Congress of School Effectiveness and Improvement (ICSEI), set up almost 30 years ago in 1988, aims to bridge the gap between researchers and practitioners.
There are many reasons which could explain the fraught relationship between EER and school improvement, several of which are proposed by Reynolds et al. (2014, pp. 217-218): the quantitative orientation of EER; lack of an underlying theory; the static nature of EER analyses; and neglecting core concerns of practitioners. Many of these problems stem from the historic purpose of EER, to refute the charge that “schools make no difference” (Bernstein, 1968). Such an assertion followed from the seminal report Equality of Educational Opportunity in which sociologist James Coleman concluded:
Schools bring little influence to bear on a child’s achievement that is independent of his [sic] background and general social context; and that this very lack of an independent effect means that the inequalities imposed on children by their home, neighbourhood and peer environment are carried along to become the inequalities with which they confront adult life at the end of school. (Coleman et al., 1966, p. 325)
This is not to say that the sub-field of EER has not made positive contributions to the field of education. Perhaps most important has been its refutation of Bernstein’s contention. Reynolds et al. (2012, p. 1) conclude that the “field of EER has had some success in improving the prospects of the world’s children over the last three decades – in combating the pessimistic belief that ‘schools make no difference’.” The authors go on to suggest that EER is even beginning to generate a “reliable knowledge base about ‘what works’ for practitioners to use and develop, and in influencing educational practices and policies positively in many countries”.
Such an assertion is set within a contemporary national context in which there is evidence of a growing appetite for evidence from research informing practice. A prominent example is Educational Endowment Foundation (EEF), an independent charity funded by the government to commission research evaluating the impact of different projects and initiatives in education. In 2013 the EEF was designated a ‘What Works centre’, with the hope that it would provide for state education what the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence offers the NHS. In its 2014-2015 annual report (EEF, 2016) the EEF cites a survey conducted by the National Audit Office, which suggests that 64% of school leaders had accessed its research ‘toolkit’, suggesting that practitioners are increasingly seeking ‘evidence based’ approaches to teaching and learning.
Given the above, it seems a reasonable to assert that we are currently on the precipice of a genuine awakening within education in which practitioners and researchers work symbiotically to help children across the country receive highly effective teaching. Thus, the broad enquiry that I wish to turn my focus toward during the course of my studies and throughout my thesis project is how, given the many criticisms and difficulties alluded to, the knowledge base accumulated from EER can be used to help schools improve the outcomes of pupils.
 There are a great deal more criticisms, which I do not have space to explore fully here. Chapter 1 of Improving Quality in Education, Dynamic Approaches To School Improvement (Bert Creemers and Leondias Kyriakides, 2012) gives a fairly comprehensive overview of the more difficult historic and present challenges facing the field.
David Reynolds, Pam Sammons, Bieke De Fraine, Jan Van Damme, Tony Townsend, Charles Teddlie & Sam Stringfield (2014) ‘Educational effectiveness research (EER): a state-of-the-art review’. School Effectiveness and School Improvement: An International Journal of Research, Policy and Practice, 25:2, 197-230,
David Reynolds, Christopher Chapman, Anthony Kelly, Daniel Muijs and Pam Sammons (2012) ‘Educational effectiveness: the development of the discipline, the critiques, the defence, and the present debate’. Effective Education. 3:2,1–19
Philip Hallinger & Ronald H. Heck (2011) ‘Exploring the journey of school improvement: classifying and analyzing patterns of change in school improvement processes and learning outcomes’. School Effectiveness and School Improvement, 22:1, 1-27
Leonidas Kyriakides, Bert P. M. Creemers, & Panyiotis Antoniou, (2009) ‘The effects of teacher factors on different outcomes: two studies testing the validity of the dynamic model’. Effective Education, 1: 1, 12-23
Bert P.M. Creemers & Leonidas Kyriakides, (2012) ‘Improving Quality in Education: Dynamic Approaches to School Improvement’, Routledge: NY