As with many things in our Western consumer culture, research use may be conceived as an act of consumption. Correspondingly, research is often treated by its users as they would a consumer object, much like a coffee maker or television. In the case of educational policy making the research ‘consumer object’ seems to represent one of two perspectives; it is either viewed as a luxury item – with high use value and prestige, or its use is limited and it is primarily employed, much as we employ sparkly trinkets, to distract attention. (more…)
The economists are at it again!
This time last year, the Reform think tank outlined cost-saving measures that, it claimed, could be made without damaging pupils’ education. Chief among them was cutting the number of teaching assistants (TAs) in schools.
The rationale was based on findings from our Deployment and Impact of Support Staff (DISS) project, which found that children who received the most support from TAs consistently made less progress than similar pupils who received less TA support – even after controlling for factors like prior attainment and level of special educational need (SEN).
Thankfully, the recommendation to axe TAs got short shrift from the DfE. Not so fortunate the elementary school system in North Carolina, USA.
Last month, the state Senate proposed a $21.2 billion budget plan, $470 million of which will pay for an average 11% pay rise for teachers. Half the funds for this, however, will come from cutting the equivalent of 7,400 TA jobs – all but eliminating TAs in second and third grades (7-9 years).
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this decision – expected to be ratified by lawmakers by 30 June – has sparked petitions and protests. A local educationalist likened the situation to paying for a liver transplant by selling a kidney!
The context for the controversy is on-going attempts by politicians to improve educational standards in North Carolina. Echoing the conclusions of the Reform report, State Senate leader Phil Berger said achieving this is about using research evidence to prioritise resources: ‘to target our dollars to those things that are shown to improve student growth’. For Berger, this means making teaching financially more appealing in a state where attracting and retaining high quality teachers has been a perennial problem.
Reliance on the inconclusive research evidence on the effect of teacher pay on educational standards to inform policy is worrying. So to hear too that, with an eerie sense of déjà-vu, it turns out a partial reading of the DISS project findings has also been used to justify the proposals, should raise questions about politicians’ use of empirical research and their proclaimed fondness for evidence-based policy.
It cannot be avoided that high amounts of TA support has unintended consequences for pupils, especially for those with SEN, but our research is very clear about the reasons. It is decisions made by school leaders and teachers about – not by – TAs, in terms of their deployment and preparation that best explain the DISS results. This vital message seems to have bypassed state legislators.
As my colleagues and I never tire pointing out, the DISS results do not suggest that getting rid of TAs will improve outcomes, if all other factors remain equal; if anything, it will create more problems.
Teachers in North Carolina may be about to see their salaries increase and – as Berger and others in the Senate acknowledge – their jobs transform, but with no additional teachers coming into the system, plans to reduce class sizes dropped, no proposals to ensure teachers are not overworked or receive training to help them work with children with special needs, they will earn every single dollar.
For all the talk of basing policy decisions on research evidence, the situation in North Carolina is another example of the kind of poorly planned and expensive experiments with pupils’ learning and adults’ careers and well-being that are becoming worryingly commonplace in public education systems the world over.
These revelations from across the Atlantic should be troubling for the research community too. Just recently Louise Stoll and Chris Brown wrote on this blog about collaborative models of knowledge exchange in education: efforts to translate and transfer research findings into practical tools and strategies for practitioners.
A team of us at the IOE are currently developing our own model of knowledge mobilisation based on the work we’ve undertaken with schools on our Maximising the Impact of TAs programme.
Our experience has been that these two-way efforts between schools and universities can be extremely fruitful and mutually beneficial to the processes of teaching and research. Yet the essential need for policymakers to be involved in the process of converting knowledge into policy and practice is writ large over the events in North Carolina.
Selective readings and misrepresentations of research evidence by detached decision-makers of findings from hard won (often taxpayer-funded) empirical research, which is dependent on co-operation with and contributions from busy practitioners working in high-pressure environments, poses a threat to the trust between researchers and educators that underpins collaborative research and development – not to mention the relationship that each group has with the public.
Only recently has the UK Government clarified its somewhat ‘hands-off’ position on TAs. Whilst there is obvious appeal in giving school leaders autonomy to make their own staffing decisions, given the vast sums of public money involved in employing TAs and the high stakes nature of education generally, it seems a rather relaxed approach.
Our emerging model of knowledge mobilisation recognises the essential need for policymakers’ participation in turning the research-practice dialogue, into a research-policy-practice trialogue. Their willingness to engage would be a clear commitment to their much-vaunted faith in evidence-informed policy and practice.
Rob Webster is a research associate at the Institute of Education and freelance consultant/trainer. He is grateful to Andy Curliss of The News & Observer, North Carolina, for bringing this story to his attention.
They matter because they illustrate that whoever wins the election will have already devised their manifesto for government. This positioning of perspectives will also frame the nature of the evidence policy-makers will or won’t engage with once in office. Clearly the scope of any policy agora (the breadth of the arguments it contains) depends on the extent to which ministers wish to let their civil servants investigate potential solutions for particular policy problems. But if the trend set by the current education secretary continues, then the positioning both of evidence and of those who offer advice worth listening to, is something that will need to happen long before the electioneering for 2015 has even commenced.
The year ahead, as a result, represents the period when we can work with potential future governments to re-think the unthinkable: to champion new ideas at the expense of the current ones and to reposition the country’s journey over the course of the next electoral cycle. This of course takes time and effort, but it also requires an understanding of the appropriate strategies to employ.
Historically academics, in addition to their day to day business of writing journal articles, have been encouraged to ensure that their research outputs are both digestible and applicable: that what they write can not only be easily understood, but that it is also immediately ‘policy ready’. Often efforts to do so result in frustration. This is because while useful, these two qualities alone are unlikely to lead to a greater uptake of research by policy-makers: ideas may still sit outside of the policy-agora or policy-makers may simply fail to see any need to act on what is presented. Importantly, then, what is also required is substantial ground-work to enhance the “social robustness” of any idea – to promote its importance and the need to act as a result.
Efforts to enhance social robustness can be directed via the general media, social media or through cultivating links with special advisors and others who matter, but the ultimate endgame of this action is to advance ideas towards what Malcolm Gladwell describes as the “tipping point“: ensuring issues enter and dominate the mainstream and so must be addressed.
As well as relating to general ideas, however, we can also direct similar efforts towards promoting ourselves as experts, whose advice should be sought. Again, the result is the same, with those considered to be worth listening to finding it easier to catch the ears of policy makers than those who are not (as can be evidenced by those particularly skilled in this approach – Ben Goldacre for instance, provides a prime example of what can be achieved here). So let’s watch this week’s Labour Party conference with interest and see if we can assess not only which of our research might be in favour, but also whether there is scope for enhancing the social robustness of the messages that are not – and make sure they are ready in time for next year.
Dr. Chris Brown’s new book, Making Evidence Matter, published by IOE Press, is out now