Bringing data into education policy with Evidence for Learning

By David Donaldson

May 26, 2016

Teacher sitting with schoolboy using laptop with girl in background

Each year tens of billions of dollars are spent on education, but our understanding of what works is surprisingly hazy.

It doesn’t help that based on the evidence we do have, many of the policy proposals most popular with parents and voters are expensive and not particularly effective.

Research suggests, for example, that performance pay for teachers probably has “very low or no impact”, reducing class sizes “moderate impact for very high cost” and teaching assistants “low impact for high cost.”

So the combination of a lack of evidence and an inability to translate what we do know into practice has made it difficult to halt the fall in education outcomes Australia has experienced in recent years.

But a new organisation, Evidence for Learning, is planning to bridge that gap.

Evidence for Learning follows in the footsteps of the UK’s five-year-old Education Endowment Foundation, which carries out evaluation on education interventions as well as providing high-quality resources for teachers. With the Sutton Trust — a think tank promoting social mobility through education — it produces a Teaching and Learning Toolkit that provides teachers with brief, plain English explanations of what research has shown to work.

Evidence for Learning brings that same approach to Australia. Its motto is build-share-use: build the evidence base, share that information and put it into use. Its Learning Impact Fund will provide grants to carry out and evaluate trials to capture data on the impact of interventions, with an eye to adding to global scholarship, rather than replicating studies done elsewhere. A toolkit based on the British one will present information on what evidence shows to work in an easy-to-understand manner, while a network of educators focused on implementation will help roll out new ideas.

E4L, which launched this week, started out as a partnership between the Education Endowment Foundation and Victoria’s Department of Education and Training, before evolving into a national project with the added help of Social Ventures Australia and the Commonwealth Bank. At this week’s launch, E4L director Matthew Deeble acknowledged the “leadership and foresight” of the Victorian Department of Education in bringing the idea first to Victoria and then pushing to make it Australia-wide.

The organisation has already named the first two grant recipients of its Learning Impact Fund. QuickSmart Maths, an intensive 30-week one-on-one tutoring initiative to increase fluency in mathematics for students performing in the bottom third of their cohort, will include 480 students. The South Australian Department of Education and Child Development’s Thinking Maths program, which aims to address a significant drop in mathematics performance in NAPLAN from Year 7 to Year 9, includes a sample of around 7200 students across 120 schools.

While the first grant round was closed, there will be another, open one later this year.

Educators ‘hungry’ for guidance

Drawing on evidence in teaching is “critical”, explained Stacey Quince, principal at Campbelltown Performing Arts High School, at the launch of Evidence for Learning.

“Teachers and school leaders at the moment are really hungry for this. I think there’s been a huge shift in culture across the education sector, both in Australia and beyond, and people are really looking to evaluate the impacts of the work they do.”

Speaking at the launch, Professor John Hattie of the Melbourne Graduate School of Education joked that in the education sector, absolutely everyone knows the answer, from politicians to parents to schools.

“We’ve got to move away from ‘everything works’, because it’s killing us,” he argued. “I can’t imagine any other profession where we allow the individuals or the business to do as they think fit. We have a tremendous number of answers — in fact we have more educators with solutions than we have problems.”

The lack of evidence means it’s hard to rebut calls for expensive but ineffective policy.

As part of a documentary series about a school in Melbourne trialling new interventions, which starts on ABC TV next week, a survey with 1000 parents was conducted. They were asked to rate what makes a difference in education, Hattie explained. The results showed parents’ beliefs were “unbelievably negatively correlated with what works”.

“We’ve had a massive campaign to try and convince parents that some of the most expensive interventions in our system are costing us billions with virtually no effect whatsoever. And the things that really matter, related to the expertise of the people in the schools, we just assume it’s funded as a giveaway.”

Hattie welcomed the evaluation element. “I’m afraid in our school sector we hardly ever have evaluation. The best we get is ‘were the teachers happy?’ [and] ‘were the kids engaged?’,” he explained. Even these basic indicators don’t tell us much — the best way to get kids engaged is to let them play video games, Hattie noted wryly.

Implementation is another weak point, he argued. “The best statement I’ve ever heard about Victorian education, [education technology expert] Michael Fuller made it. It has the best education policies in the world — not implemented,” Hattie said. “We aren’t very good at implementation.”

Applying evidence across the board

Also at the launch was the CEO of South Australia’s Department of Education and Child Development Tony Harrison.

When he joined the department three years ago from a non-education background, Harrison immediately noticed that there were “1000 school sites doing it 1000 different ways”.

“I was actually staggered and taken aback by the fact that there was so much inconsistency about using evidence to lead practice and try and get good outcomes for children, families and broader communities,” he explained.

“What I’ve tried to do is apply an evidence-based approach across every aspect of running a complex organisation. So it’s not just about a particular pedagogical intervention process, it really is a system-wide approach to look at evidence from around the world in relation to structures, strategies, systems, processes and practices,” said Harrison.

“In every aspect of everything we do we should be able to measure success.”

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Peter Bobroff
Peter Bobroff
6 years ago

As an outsider looking in, I wonder why any education policy at all is necessary. An education voucher for primary school would provide enough equality of opportunity and parents would decide where to spend it. The best schools would thrive and the worst disappear. Perhaps we could start to catch up to the best of the asian nations.

As to “evidence”, if you mean studies/papers by psychologists/sociologists/academics etc, this hardly stacks up against evidence in fields like physics where there are real quantities to be measured and general laws to be discovered. Most academics seem to lean left, study issues of interest to the left through the biases of the left. I suspect that the “evidence” will be forthcoming to support all sorts of ideological agendas. If your evidence has wiffs of postmodernism, marxism or feminism then it can’t count for much in the real world.

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