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Bridging the gap: Why are so many education reforms failing?

By Arran Hamilton   May 16, 2016 | 06:18 pm GMT+7

As parents and students all over Vietnam try to navigate through the ongoing education reform, VnExpress International would like to introduce the solution proposed by Dr. Arran Hamilton from the British Council, who advises against simply adopting models of "successful countries".

When the going gets tough and it feels like you’ve embarked on something that is never-ending, in Britain we often say “it’s like painting the Forth Rail Bridge”. The bridge in question is located around 14 miles west of Edinburgh and spans the Firth of Forth – an estuary that starts in Sterling and flows out to the North Sea. Completed in 1890, it was the first bridge in Britain to be built out of steel and 125 years later is still the second longest cantilever bridge in the world.

But as most school children know, steel is prone to rusting – especially in salt water environments. So, for most of the bridge’s lifespan, there has been a permanent team that spent its entire career dabbing red paint on the superstructure, to keep the rust at bay. Painting and re-painting the Forth Bridge seemed like a never-ending task.

By the late 1990s the annual cost of repainting the Forth Bridge had reached GBP 1 million per year and it was decided that more radical action was needed. In 2002, work started to literally burn off the preceding one-and-a-quarter centuries of paint and to apply a new ‘super-paint’, designed to last for at least 20 years. That project took almost a decade to complete and involved encasing the bridge in 4,000ft of scaffolding and painting over 230,000m² of steel and all 6.5 million rivets in the structure. Assuming all has gone to plan, the painters will not be back until 2032; so anyone who says a never-ending task is ‘like painting the Forth Rail Bridge’ is now a bit behind the times.

There are many parallels between the painting of the Forth Bridge and education reform. Senior officials in ministries of education around the world often lament that education reform seems ‘never ending’ and that ‘they must peddle [or paint] faster just to stand still’. The challenge is that we have not yet stumbled on the educational equivalent of ‘super-paint’ that allows the reformers the opportunity for respite.

Quite often the education reformers look to countries that are doing better. They make scrupulous studies of all the key differences between the policies and practice of the successful system and their own. Through a process that is more akin to an art than a science, they pick out what they think the reasons are that the other system is so successful. This often culminates in the launch of a new national education strategy with new policies such as: taking only the best graduates into teaching; increasing the duration of initial teacher training; hiring teaching assistants; giving primary students more homework; reducing class sizes; and increasing the length of the school day.

Fast forward five years and the reformers often lament that they feel like they are painting harder and with better paint but that the rust is building up at the same rate. Often the reality is that whilst the paint is different it isn’t actually any better. In picking the reasons why other systems are more successful, often the reformers select all the irrelevant features and then implement these back home: the outcome is different looking paint but no greater rust protection.

So how do we find the relevant features to construct an educational “super-paint”? One strategy might be to use the data from Randomized Controlled Trials to divine the right path for education effectiveness. A trial is a type of scientific experiment, where the people being studied are randomly allocated to an experimental group that receives the “medicine” and a control group – which receives no treatment. Both groups are assessed before, during and after the trial to measure whether the treatment is actually having an effect.

The Randomized Controlled Trial methodology was originally devised by British scientists in the late 1940s to test the effectiveness of the, then, new wonder drug Streptomycin in the treatment of Tuberculosis. Since then it has gone on to become the “gold standard” for pharmaceutical trails of medicines, globally. Trials have also grown in popularity in the education sector, as a means of determining the policy and pedagogical interventions that are most likely to enhance student achievement. Since the early 1980s, there have been more than 500,000 large-scale trials involving more than 50 million students.

Of course, like any method, trials do have their limitations. Angus Deaton, the Scottish economist and Nobel Laureate, argues that whilst they might be able to tell you the essential features of a “perfect” lawnmower, that isn’t much use if you live in a country without grass or if there is someone that keeps dumping rubbish on your lawn. In other words, they can tell you if your intervention in your system has worked but they are less good at telling you if it can be applied successfully elsewhere. This means that we need to sift the trials database carefully and select the interventions that have consistently shown the most promise globally.

With this in mind, the UK recently launched the government-backed Education Endowment Foundation to literally hoover up the findings of all the previous studies and to commission more trials to fill the gaps. This is the educational equivalent of mapping the human genome. Through this mapping process the foundation and other researchers have discovered that whilst only taking the best graduates into teaching; increasing the duration of initial teacher training; hiring teaching assistants; giving primary students more homework; reducing class sizes; and increasing the length of the school day are not “bad” things to do – there are other things that look far more effective. Often the more effective interventions are also cheaper, too.

Consistently the most effective reform strategies focus on the classroom and the micro-interactions between students and teacher. They involve emphasis on meta-cognition (teaching children how to learn); feedback; peer tutoring; more and better homework for secondary school students; and collaborative learning - where students work together on a collective task.

These types of reforms do not require costly investment in additional technology, buildings or recruitment of teaching assistants. They require an unrelenting focus on the teacher and an investment of time in their continued professional development. So, by focusing on teachers and their in-service training we can begin to create the mother of all “super paints”.

Dr. Arran Hamilton is Education Development Director (East Asia) at the British Council, the United Kingdom’s organisation for education cooperation and cultural relations.