Growing calls for a stronger evidence-base for education policymaking have a deceptively simple ring to them: gather our collective insights, issue an appropriate political dictum, and dramatic improvements in classroom education will follow.
In reality this is a complicated process. Effective practice does not flow naturally from research evidence to policy prescriptions and then into the classroom. Yet in the sector and amongst experts there is deep, if diverse, understanding of what works and why.
So what is standing in the way of better learning outcomes?
Good intentions, wrong focus
Rolling periods of reform efforts and increased expenditure have not been accompanied by corresponding overall improvements in performance. At the heart of this issue is a communication breakdown between educators and government. This is the first hurdle to better education policy. The hard-earned lessons of professional expertise struggle to impress themselves in education debates frequently motivated by political imperatives.
Everyone has an idea of how they think schooling should be. Politicians and policy makers are not immune to this. The danger of such assumptions is that they can trivialise knowledge held within the sector and simplify the demands of the profession. They lead in turn to the prioritisation of politically appealing solutions—increased spending, hallmark initiatives or infrastructure, more testing, greater choice—which sadly have minimal impact on learning.
This process can become cyclical. Public servants are saddled with directives from a new government and ministers keen to make their mark. Each generation of public policy makers struggles against these instructions to learn the lessons of those that have come before them. Attempted consultation might not properly include stakeholders in the policy process. Partial policy success may call for minor revision but an endless desire for innovation means wholescale reform wins out.
Despite good intentions, the end result is that the wrong learning interventions are favoured time and time again. Attractive structural fixes may appeal to voters and parents but often fail to consider the end of the policy pipeline—the classroom. Crosscutting ambitions and objectives fail to prioritise students’ needs and see teachers squeezed in the middle. In a conversation for this article, education expert John Hattie, of The University of Melbourne, put this succinctly: “The politics too often appeases the parents and not necessarily the learning lives of students.”
Policy, meet complexity
A second problem is that research and policy endeavours can fail to take account of classroom realities. Research translation suggests the diffusion of knowledge in a format able to be understood. Yet often new insights are simply pushed out to schools without sufficient support to ensure success. Evidence-based policy initiatives can be overly prescriptive and fail to encourage sufficient independence in teachers. Standardised testing, such as Australia’s NAPLAN tests or England’s SATs, may provide reams of potentially insightful data, while simultaneously narrowing teaching choices and stressing students.
Other examples likely spring to mind for those in the profession. All of these solutions, when developed at scale, struggle to account for the complexity of localised classroom practice. Learning is not formulaic, and classrooms are variable both between schools and within them. Diverse student bodies mean effective pedagogy is not as simple as a region or even school’s recommended approach. Myriad demands on teachers’ time only add to this difficulty.
Pre-service teacher education does engender respect for evidence and impart insights from research. Nevertheless, the transition to the classroom is not straightforward. A friend and young teacher recounted the challenges she faced after graduation: “when you get into a school you very quickly realise that teaching is a much more complex process.” Between an unmanageable workload and unpredictable students, policy directives and education research are distant thoughts.
And yet, despite all these challenges, there are many brilliant and effective teachers and schools making tangible differences to students’ lives and learning. So why the constant calls for more evidence, for the need to “fix our schools”?
The majority of teachers and schools are successful in their endeavours, but in Australia, our political conversation focuses on those who are left behind. Unfortunately this does not often lead to adequately targeted policy interventions: solutions devised for the underperformers frequently create more work for those pulling their weight as well.
Former Dean of the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, Field Rickards, told me he laments the treatment of education as a “political football”. Bipartisanship and long-term policy thinking, from the local to the national level, would certainly aid the problems explored here. Policy learning from successful international education systems—and the political will of nations supporting them—would also go a long way.
The push for evidence-based policy can perhaps most helpfully be understood as an acknowledgement that this evidence already exists. Of course new empirical work can offer rich insights, and making research speak better to practice is an essential goal.
Regrettably, however, an eternal political search for new answers clouds effective current actions. We possess the knowledge we need, but the trust and willingness to apply it is a shakier proposition. Policy makers would do well to step back from the endless cycle of revision and listen for success.
Another friend who also recently joined the profession defined her job thus: “teaching is lots of good intentions and a million different ideas of how things should be done”. Good policy should help to crystallise these ideas and intentions, not break them to certain ends.