A divided nation losing its American dream?

Lee Elliot Major on how political grid-lock is harming education in the US

Manhattan’s frenetic streets in New York have always been a thrilling, nerve jangling experience for visiting Brits. Perhaps I’m just getting less relaxed in my middle age, but last week during a Sutton Trust visit, I noticed that the traffic has become all but grid-locked on the famous mesh of streets and avenues that define the city. All road etiquette seems to have been abandoned, as the yellow taxis and black limos fight for every inch of space, with little respect for people crossing the road. I opted for the much easier mode of transport: travelling by foot.

This image stayed with me as I flew back to London – as it symbolised so perfectly America’s current troubles. As someone who had admired greatly the United States for its aspirational spirit, ‘can do’ culture and work ethic, I came away feeling like I’d left a deeply divided and dysfunctional country. I worry that this will damage the nation’s education prospects. And render the American dream a relic of a once golden past.

The problem is that Senators and Congressmen are aping the worst tactical games of our Members of Parliament in the UK. Personal or local considerations are being sacrificed for the greater interests of the political party as a whole. That sort of works in Westminster, where the ruling party enjoys a majority of votes in Parliament; but not in Washington. In contrast to the UK, the executive and legislature are separated in the US: even if President Obama wants to pass a Bill he doesn’t have the loyal foot-soldiers in the Senate and the House of Representatives to make it happen. And to make matters worse, the very concept of federal Government action is anathema to some Republicans.

Education is the helpless victim of this political impasse. US Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who oversees billions of dollars in federal education budgets, is all but powerless to enact some of the programmes he envisioned for his second term. One flagship policy was to fund pre-school education for all four year olds from low income homes – to narrow the stark education gaps that already exist when children start school. Instead he has had to oversee cuts to education spending as part of the recent compromise budget agreed by Republicans and Democrats.  Education, unlike a bad economy or a military action overseas, is by its nature a long term issue, unlikely to get the immediate political spotlight. It was conspicuous for its absence from the Presidential election debates last year.

From a London-centric UK, it has always been refreshing to experience the fierce independence of the different States in the US (which allocate around 90% of education funds).  But across the country bitter battles are being fought over education at state level as well.

On one side are reformers wanting to introduce more competition between schools, common test scores and teacher evaluations that distinguish genuinely between good and poor performers. On the other are the skeptics, backed by the powerful teacher unions, who argue that the focus on competition and test scores will hinder not help teaching and learning in the classroom.

The uncomfortable truth for the US is that progress is only likely if these two polarised camps can find some common ground. Nations that have performed well educationally on the global stage have one stand-out feature: a partnership between Government reformers and teacher leaders working together for the greater good.

The real victims in all this are of course America’s children. The most shocking divide is that between the education haves and have-nots – in this nation once the global beacon of social mobility. Just to quote one of many depressing statistics: seventy-five percent of students at the most selective colleges and universities in the US are from the top quarter of the income distribution; while only 3 percent are from the bottom quartile. The US is slowly but surely losing the global education talent race.

An educationalist respected on both sides of the Pond, Sir Michael Barber, recently posted a thought on twitter after visiting Silicon Valley: “Incredible entrepreneurship + the Common Core = US at forefront of global education reform. May be?”

I really hope his slightly guarded optimism is proved right. The impact of establishing common standards across States should not be underestimated. But right now I can only remember the cars jammed against each other amidst the fumes, stuck in New York’s streets, all sense of common purpose seemingly lost.

 

Worlds Apart

Lee Elliot Major on the challenge of getting research to impact on education practise

As I revealed the next slide, there was an audible gasp among the 200 strong audience. I knew at that moment I had lost the crowd. Whatever I said next, everyone’s mind was focused on the big fat zero that sat at the bottom of the impact table staring out from the screen. As I turned to face the angry faces, I saw that the throngs of hard working, decent teaching assistants (TAs) had turned into a lynch mob.

On reflection, presenting the findings of the Sutton Trust-EEF teaching and learning toolkit to TAs at the end of a long hard term was not the best idea. This guide to the best (and worst) bets for improving results in the classroom shows that TAs have on average zero impact on the attainment of children. Now as I told my audience that doesn’t mean we should sack all classroom assistants. But it does mean better training, preparation and management are needed to enable the 220,000 of TAs in our schools (costing the public purse over £2 billion a year) to help our children learn.

Sadly this nuance was lost as the discussion descended into an increasingly fractious argument. No amount of caveats and constructive comments could calm the enraged ranks of TAs. All they could see was an attack on their livelihoods. I returned to London that Friday afternoon feeling like I had been mauled in a playground fight.

This admittedly was one of the more contentious toolkit talks I have given to schools during the last two years. The experience highlighted the potential evidence has to improve practise and policy, and the power a succinct accessible summary of research can have. But it also demonstrated the huge challenge of enabling evidence to actually impact on classroom practise in a constructive and useful way.

I’ve been reflecting on all this, as I prepare a talk for an Institute of Education this week on how research can impact on policy and practise.

What I will say will seem blindingly obvious, but is almost universally ignored. My ‘take home’ message is that we must acknowledge the fundamental cultural differences between the worlds of media, academe, policy and practise – if we are to reach the promised land of evidence based practise. We must recognise that communication is as an academic might say a ‘highly non-trivial task’.

Each of these worlds has its own jargon, beliefs, rules, aims. Like working with different countries, we need to embark on genuine translation and efforts from all sides to make it work.

As a former news editor, my one piece of advice to reporters was to spend as much time on the writing and presentation of articles, as gathering the news itself. What’s the point if no-one will read what you have found? I now hold the same view for the work of an education foundation: our toolkit has been successful as we spent many hours thinking carefully about how to present the often abstract and complex findings of education research.

But after years of working with schools, I’m afraid I’ve had to re-assess this rule. To affect genuine change – this is just the start: much more has to be done, and in the schools themselves. Powerfully presented evidence isn’t enough. There are countless examples of things we know work, but fail to embrace. We don’t do exercise – even though we know it’s good for us. Doctors still fail to wash their hands regularly – the most simple of medical safeguards.

For evidence-based education to work, we will need to free up time for teachers to consider research. We may need to create research leaders in every school. Inspectors may need to encourage the use of evidence more when they visit schools.

This I’m glad to say is the increasing pre-occupation of the Education Endowment Foundation as it strives to find out what works in schools. It won’t be an easy task: as with the assembled TAs during my talk, we all tend not to want to listen to evidence that confronts our own prejudices – even when the messenger has the best of intentions.

Evaluating the impact of widening participation initiatives

Lee Elliot Major argues for a more evidence-based approach to university access work.

It is nothing short of a scandal that the vast majority of work in our universities and colleges aimed at opening doors to students from low and middle income homes is not evaluated properly. We spend over £1 billion a year on programmes to widen participation and broaden access into our academic elites; yet we know very little about what impact most of these efforts are having. Well-intentioned efforts to aid social mobility – from school outreach programmes to financial support for students – are effectively operating in the dark, uninformed by any hard evidence of what has worked before.

The problem has come to light again with the release of a report for the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) which “found little evidence that impact is being systematically evaluated by institutions”. Previous reports have revealed a lack of even the most basic monitoring of data and outcomes across the sector, prompting the English funding council to issue guidance on evaluation.

The national strategy unveiled by Hefce and the Office for Fair Access (Offa) meanwhile has recommended a light-touch network of regional coordinators to facilitate collaboration between universities and schools. This sounds suspiciously like ‘AimHigher light’- a slim-line version of the previous national outreach programme in England. AimHigher was cut in the last Whitehall spending review due to lack of evidence of its impact. A lot of good work was undermined by the absence of hard data.

The gathering of robust evidence remains the Achilles heel of the sector. It seems tragic that this should be so in our respected seats of learning. Once when the Sutton Trust offered to evaluate an outreach scheme at a highly prestigious UK university, the head of access declined, arguing that they would rather use the extra money to help more students.

The problem with this response is twofold: Firstly, we didn’t (still don’t) know if the programme was actually having any impact on the students taking part. Secondly, if we did evaluate it, then the lessons could enable many thousands more students to be helped properly in the future. The current default – to simply survey participants to see if they enjoyed the experience – is no longer good enough. The question must be asked: did the programme impact on the student in the desired way that would not otherwise have happened if the programme had not existed. Did the programme enable students from poorer backgrounds to enter university who otherwise wouldn’t have done so?

But there are signs that the tide is at last turning. To its credit Offa is urging institutions to adopt a more ‘evidence based’ approach. What is now needed is the full mix of evaluation and monitoring – local pilot studies as well as national randomised trials – to measure the outcomes of access work.

Universities can look to the work we have been doing with schools on interventions in the classroom to learn some of the basic principles. The DIY evaluation guide published by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) offers simple advice on how to evaluate the impact of a programme at a local level. This is about combining professional judgment with knowledge of previous evidence to devise a programme, and then monitor outcomes of participating students in comparison to similar students not on the programme. The Trust is currently developing a common evaluation framework for all of its programmes. This will enable evaluations for small projects without the resources to commission an independent evaluation themselves.

The Government recently designated The Sutton Trust and EEF as the ‘What Works centre’ for education following the publication of our highly successful toolkit for schools. The Trust is currently developing an ‘HE access toolkit’, which we hope will summarise current evidence on the impact of access work in an accessible format. Although it is not clear how much this will be able to say, given the paucity of research in the field.

Undertaking ‘gold standard’ evaluations which involve selecting participants at random to ascertain genuine impact remains a tricky task. But the Sutton Trust has already funded a feasibility study on how a proper randomised control trial (RCT) might be undertaken for an access programme. We are now considering commissioning a fully fledged RCT.

Even if RCTs are currently a step too far for others, then evaluations need at least to involve the use of comparison groups. Two examples of such usage can be seen in recent evaluations commissioned by the Trust. Our review of summer schools used UCAS university admissions data to compare the outcomes of summer school students against similar students not on the programme. The Reach for Excellence programme meanwhile constructed a comparison group from students who qualified but didn’t enrol on the programme.

If I had my way every access programme would require an evaluation that met these basic standards. Robust evaluation is not easy to do, costs time and money, and often produces awkward and humbling results. But not to do so, is in the end failing the students we are trying to help.

This blog post first appeared on Westminster Briefing.

Evidence is just the start of finding what works

Lee Elliot Major and Steve Higgins, professor of Education at Durham University argue that effective implementation matters once the evidence for what works has been identified.

In England we spend around £2 billion a year on 170,000 teaching assistants in schools. The total impact of this money on the attainment of our children is zero.  The best evidence we have indicates that for every TA who improves a pupil’s progress there is another whose deployment has a negative impact.

This is a powerful example of why we need evidence based policy and practice, but it also highlights the difficulties of promoting changes to improve practice – because finding that TAs are deployed ineffectively does not tell you what to do about it.

Such issues are soon to be faced across government, following the launch last week of a network of What Works centres to champion evidence-based social policy.

At the launch, Oliver Letwin, Minister of State at the Cabinet Office, said that the biggest question was why government hadn’t done something like this before.  But if government hasn’t, others have, and the centres will be building on existing practicies of evidence use in health and education.

In health, the Cochrane Collaboration this year celebrates two decades of producing systematic research reviews. Its approach has shaped advice offered by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence on NHS treatments.

The cultural shifts that introduced evidence-based medicine to surgeries and hospitals 20 years ago are now playing out in classrooms and schools. The What Works education centre will use a toolkit we developed three years ago summarizing thousands of studies to show the best and worst bets for improving pupils’ results. It is the model now being advocated by the Cabinet Office for other policy areas.

Since 2011, the Education Endowment Foundation, a charity that aims to improve the educational achievement of disadvantaged children, has developed this toolkit into a resource for disseminating evidence across the sector. The EEF has overseen a quiet revolution in England’s schools, commissioning some 40 randomized control trials so far.

The toolkit shows that working on teacher-learner interaction – improving feedback to pupils, for example –  gives the biggest bang for the education buck.  Yet our surveys reveal that most head teachers prioritise actions that evidence suggests, on average, have little impact: reducing class sizes or recruiting TAs.

In education, the route to evidence-based policy is particularly challenging, because the navigation instruments are less powerful and predictable than in medicine.  Imagine a world where the laws of nature vary through time and space. That is the reality across the thousands of different classrooms, teachers and children that make up our education system. Over the last 30 years curriculum and assessment have changed many times, and variation in schools and teachers has a profound impact on how an intervention works or doesn’t work.

 We have little idea how to help schools implement the best bets for improvement. Some may need a highly prescriptive programme; others general principles to shape and evaluate a tailored programme.

To return to TAs, for example, the evidence does not mean that they should be scrapped. There are many ways in which TAs might be better recruited, trained, deployed and evaluated. Some approaches will be more effective in lower-performing schools, schools serving a high proportion of children with special needs, or schools with particular teachers. Knowing what works where and for whom could improve a school’s choices about TAs and everything else.

A commitment to what works (strictly, what’s worked) in education must also consider the constantly changing pedagogical landscape. Take phonics teaching: if the current emphasis on phonics becomes routine, then remedial support based on phonics is likely to become less effective than research currently suggests. Children who have failed in a phonics-rich pedagogy may benefit more from a different remedial style.

These are important lessons for the other four planned What Works centres. Evidence can be boring or inconvenient for politicians more interested in an immediate and popular policy fix. But, as Letwin stressed, “this is only the start of a journey, not the destination”, and the outlook at this early stage is promising. This programme has the potential to revolutionise public policy in areas as diverse as ageing, education and policing, replacing dogma and tradition with research and randomised trials. Billions of pounds of public money could be saved.

This post first appeared on Research Fortnight

Hollywood prizes won on the playing-fields of Eton

Lee Elliot Major asks whether the acting profession could do more to develop talent from all backgrounds

Daniel Day-Lewis’s unprecedented third Oscar for Best Actor topped a successful night for Brits at the 85th Academy Awards this week. Day-Lewis famously holds dual British and Irish citizenship. But his background is that of the quintessential English actor.

Day-Lewis attended two prestigious private schools, Sevenoaks and Bedales, before going on to study at theatre school. These beginnings may contrast starkly with those of the self educated Abraham Lincoln, the American President he portrayed so brilliantly. But Day-Lewis is the latest in a long line of privately educated Englishmen and women to conquer Hollywood. Damian Lewis and Hugh Laurie, both old Etonians, are recent Golden globe winners, also acclaimed for their glittering success on the other side of the Pond.

And so they should be. But it is little wonder that many Americans are shocked to find that private schools make up only 7% of schools in England. Believe it or not, the vast majority of us are not educated in Hogwarts style boarding schools!

That so few achieve so much prompts an uncomfortable question this side of the Atlantic: are we doing enough in Britain to develop the artistic talents of children unlucky enough to come from the 93% of the population unable to access a privileged fee-paying education?

I live in North London which often feels like the very epicentre of the Luvvie classes. A casting director recently bemoaned to me that the talent pool of young aspiring thespians has become noticeably posher. She put this down to a range of factors: from increasing financial hardship to plain nepotism in the industry.

This trend could well be true. Recent research from the Sutton Trust into the country’s professional elites found that 44% of leading actors attended private schools. But this figure rose to 49% for those aged 45 and under.

The conversation reminded me of the report on the education backgrounds of news journalists I wrote for the Sutton Trust a few years back. This warned that there was an increasing bias in the media industry that favoured journalists from privileged backgrounds. There were a number of reasons for this: low pay and insecurity at junior levels; the high costs of living in London; the increasing costs of postgraduate courses; a bias towards those with family or personal connections within the industry amid a largely informal but highly competitive recruitment process; and finally the stronger skills and attributes attributed at an earlier age by those from private schools.

In a world of increasing inequalities – both in and outside school, the opportunity gap between the haves and have nots is ever widening.

As with journalism, the acting profession appears to be the perfect breeding ground for social immobility. Reforms under Labour to provide financial support for drama students were welcome. But perhaps something also needs to be done now to help nurture and support talent in state schools and young actors during their early career.

We may celebrate Hollywood prizes won on the playing-fields of Eton and other leading private schools. But it is high time the industry gave something back to those talents less fortunate. That is something President Lincoln would surely have appreciated.

Increasing social mobility in UK financial services

Lee Elliott Major on why the City needs to improve social mobility for economic as well as social reasons.

Thomas Wood is what the Sutton Trust is all about. A bright state school boy whose parents had never experienced higher education, he wasn’t sure whether study, let alone at a prestigious university, was for him. One week at the Sutton Trust summer school changed all that. Like many of the pupils with modest family backgrounds taking part, this week-long taster of university transformed Thomas’s life. He went on to gain a place at Nottingham University. During his degree he got an internship at a major bank. Now Thomas is an analyst at Citigroup, leading a successful career in the City.

Sadly, Thomas’s story of upward mobility remains the exception not the rule. Britain’s low social mobility, and the shocking waste of talent that goes with it, is arguably the biggest social challenge of our times. No more is this true than in the financial services sector. Research from the Sutton Trust into the country’s professional elites found that nearly six in ten (57%) of leading people in financial services attended private schools – which educate just 7% of pupils. Less than one in ten had attended a state comprehensive school. The remainder were educated at grammar or former direct grant schools.

It’s figures like these that motivate the work of the Sutton Trust. Founded and led by the successful philanthropist Sir Peter Lampl, the Trust’s aim is simple: to improve social mobility through education. The Trust is expanding its programmes, working with a range of partners, to provide life-transforming opportunities for talented pupils from low and middle income homes. The Trust’s summer schools are now the largest national access scheme for universities – benefiting nearly 2000 students this year at nine prestigious universities.

The Trust’s Pathways to Law programme, supported by the Legal Education Foundation and leading law firms, meanwhile supports state school pupils thinking about a career in law. It works with students over a number of years: from sixth form onwards, crucially enabling students to get work experience in law firms.

Could a similar programme be established to attract such students into the City? This is the question driving work by Boston Consulting Group for the Trust. Their study of the financial services sector has uncovered many insights. While there are laudable schemes across a diverse sector, support for non-privileged students can be fragmented, with little evaluation of its impact. In major banks, efforts to improve social mobility are not linked to their actual recruitment. The full business case for social mobility has not been made.

The Trust will be sharing its findings with leading organisations across the sector. But the challenge for us is already clear: how can the City work effectively to ensure that it benefits from more talented youngsters like Thomas Wood in the future?

This post first appeared on TheCityUK blog

Why teachers can’t call themselves a profession

Lee Elliot Major on the need for an evidence-based approach in the classroom

I have often thought that commentators who want to criticise teachers should first pass the ‘teacher test’ to earn the right to do so. Having spent time in front of an inner-city classroom (with a teacher beside me) I can tell you it is one of the most challenging (and rewarding) experiences I have ever had. And that was just for one hour!

We don’t value our teachers anywhere near enough. Few of us really understand (or could cope with) the demands of their job. Just ask Sir Peter Lampl, a hard-nosed business leader, who once thought teachers had it easy. After 15 years at the helm of the Sutton Trust he now talks only of admiration for the inspirational educators of our children.

But teachers remain vulnerable to one well-founded attack. Can they call themselves a true modern-day profession? I’m afraid not. And one of the main reasons is this. Teachers have yet to embrace an evidence-based approach to their work: there is no accepted body of knowledge, based on robust research, to inform what they do (or don’t do); nor is there a culture of investigation to evaluate what works best in their particular school or classroom. The contrast with the modus operandi of medics could not be starker.

Below I have adapted a famous graph in education policy circles, first produced during New Labour’s early education reforms of the late 1990’s.

Knowledge poor

The graph describes the different phases of teaching during the last half century. It contrasts them in terms of the knowledge used to underpin the work of teachers, and the levels of autonomy they have enjoyed.

Before 1988 teachers were essentially practitioners free to pursue their own ways of working, with little reference to the body of research on what worked best. Then came the Big Bang of Baker’s Government reforms – the league tables, inspections and the national curriculum – that prescribed exactly what was expected in the classroom. A decade later under New Labour, another wave of top-down programmes emerged – the national numeracy and literacy strategies. These initiatives were based at least in part on the evidence of their impact.

The last phase of the graph highlights what has yet to be realised: the promised land of teachers as informed autonomous professionals, and no longer in need of Government direction.

The good news is that an accessible summary of education research on what works to raise attainment is now available. Last week saw the re-launch of the Sutton Trust-Education Endowment Foundation Toolkit. This is latest generation of the guide updating the evidence first released two years ago. It challenges many of the assumptions among teachers – revealing the limited impact from reducing class sizes and the current deployment of teaching assistants. This is one important step in the journey towards a teaching profession that embraces evidence. But as Ben Levin stresses, it is really only the start: everyone knows that exercise is good for them, but that doesn’t mean we all do it, does it?

I see at least three major challenges for the deep cultural reforms needed for teaching to evolve into the respected profession it should be.

The first is the glacial timescale for change. The improved education systems across the world required concerted leadership and efforts over several years. This is the “grind not the glamour” that the EEF’s chief executive, Kevan Collins, talks about.

The second is the danger of Whitehall’s heavy hand that can stifle rather than stimulate change. The long hard road to reform extends well beyond Whitehall fads (evidence based policy is currently back in vogue) and Parliamentary cycles.

No, this change will have to come from teachers themselves. It is striking that in all the reviews of the nations at the top of the global education rankings, the common watchwords are professionalism, professional development, evidence, and research.