Report: Low Impact 'Distractors' Weakening Ed

Forget about longer school days; forget about performance pay; forget about smaller class sizes, teacher professional development, or — gasp! — technology as a magic potion. According to an Australian education expert, these are all distractors that have only incremental impact on student learning. Much of his attention is paid to the education system in the United States.

In two separate reports published by Pearson Education, John Hattie, director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute at the University of Melbourne, deputy director of the Science of Learning Research Centre, and chair of the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership, called into question many of the assumptions pursued by education reformers over the last two decades.

Backed by numerous research projects and meta-studies, one report, "What Doesn't Work in Education: The Politics of Distraction," lays out a roster of "distractions," including:

  • Appeasing the parents by letting them focus on choice of schools and pushing for smaller class sizes. As Hattie wrote about the first, "The choice is nearly always a choice of schools (not teachers), and the typical choice is between government-funded and private schools." For the second, he noted, "Teachers rarely change how they teach when they move from larger to smaller classes";
  • Fixing the infrastructure, whether that's "more effective curricula, more rigorous standards, more tests [or] more alternative-shaped buildings." In the case of teaching programs, Hattie stated, "too often they are implemented in a way that does not develop surface understanding first." As a result, students never get past surface learning into the "deeper learning"; and
  • Investing more money in schools, whether in "salaries, buildings, bussing [or] maintenance." Regarding teacher pay in particular, Hattie noted, basing that on performance has little impact on student learning. "If anything, the effects can be the opposite to those desired: teachers in performance-pay systems tend to work fewer hours per week and are involved in fewer unpaid cooperative activities. Their stress levels increase, and their enthusiasm decreases."

The second report, "What Works Best in Education: The Politics of Collaborative Expertise," offers solutions in the form of eight "tasks," including these two:

  • Shifting the "narrative." Rather than focusing on "fixing the teacher," which puts "too much responsibility on one person," Hattie advised, the burden needs to be shared by teachers, school leaders, other adults in the school, parents, students and policy-makers. But more importantly, he added, the way we measure progress needs to shift to the idea of "All students deserve at least a year's progress for a year's input, no matter where they start"; and
  • Expecting a "year's worth of progress." The "greatest influence on learning," Hattie said, "is the expectations of students and teachers." By about the age of eight, a student has learned his or her "place in the achievement hierarchy," and that stays with them unless schools help them exceed their expectations. The same is true for teachers; they typically have "high, medium or low expectations" for the students in their classes, which influences the size of the gains those students make during the school year.

The most significant impacts on learning, Hattie emphasized, come from teachers. And the way they can find success, he explained, is by working together to develop a common language around student success criteria for a year's schooling; making learning more personal for students at varying levels by using appropriate diagnosis, intervention and evaluation tools; and working together with others in their schools to evaluate the impact of their approaches.

"Despite the best of intentions, education has become fraught with the politics of distraction, most drawing us away from the critical work at hand. That is, ensuring that each student makes at least one year of progress for one year of effort," Hattie said in a prepared statement. "If we truly want to improve student learning, it is vital that we shift our narrative about teaching and learning away from these distractions, and begin the critical work of building up collaborative expertise in our schools and education systems."

The papers were published by Pearson as part of its "Open Ideas" series, in which global experts provide their views on "big, unanswered questions in education."

Both reports as well as summaries are available on Pearson's site.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.