September.12.2016

Fast policy: when educational research morphs into quick fixes and ‘silver bullets’

By Steven Lewis and Anna Hogan

Education is increasingly positioned as a problem in need of fixing. Faced with demands for accountability and transparency in public policymaking, governments are constantly looking for solutions that are informed by ‘evidence’, are expedient and cost-effective, and likely to get favourable media coverage.

Educational research that underpins policy has traditionally been the domain of academics and in-house government employees. However, international organisations, aid agencies, philanthropies, think tanks and corporations now offer their own research solutions to these perceived educational problems.

These new ‘actors’ in the field produce and promote usually short, easy-to-read and easy-to-implement glossy reports, which offer simplified evidence and give definitive solutions involving ‘best practice’, and where research knowledge is orchestrated to best influence government policy. Evidence is tailored to the needs of policymakers but also fits within the report generator’s own interests and agendas.

We call this type of report ‘fast policy’; that is, policy shortcuts via readymade examples of ‘what works’, which are often borrowed from other countries (or systems) and cherry picked to meet political needs.

Fast policy reports

We decided to have a closer look at the new genre of ‘fast policy’ reports and its potential impact. To do so, we focused on three different examples: a transnational intergovernmental organisation (the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s PISA for Schools report), an international edu-business (Pearson’s The Learning Curve) and an Australian state (the New South Wales Department of Education’s What Works Best).

We did this to show how all three documents promote an overly simplified, decontextualised and ‘one-size-fits-all’ understanding of schooling policy, which often risks overlooking the local needs and requirements of the schools, school systems, educators and students for whom these solutions are being proposed.

The OECD’s PISA for Schools

This is a 2-hour written test that assesses how well 15-year-old students can apply their acquired knowledge in reading, mathematics and science to ‘real-world’ situations, despite being administered as a paper-and-pencil and, more recently, computer-delivered assessment. Significantly, PISA for Schools departs from the triennial main PISA test on which it is based, and where the nation-state is the usual unit of analysis, by instead benchmarking local school performance against the performance of national (and some subnational) schooling systems on main PISA.

This testing positions schools within a global space of measurement and comparison, in order for them to engage with, and learn from, the policy expertise offered by ‘high-performing’ international schooling systems and the OECD itself. To facilitate this policy learning, all PISA for Schools participants receive a 160-page report. This contains not only the analyses of their school-level student performance but also 17 predetermined examples of best practice from high-performing schooling systems, as well as hypertext links to other OECD publications and research.

The Learning Curve (TLC)

This is a website, online data bank and biannual report developed by the world’s largest edu-business, Pearson, and represents a significant component of Pearson’s transformation from a supplier of education products and services towards becoming a global education policy actor. TLC is populated by educational performance data collected by organisations such as the OECD, the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA), the United Nations and the World Bank.

It works largely by presenting Pearson as having expertise in education policy analysis. The website and associated materials function to show how Pearson can have a positive benefit to global policy debates, system reform and improved outcomes for individual learners. Users on the TLC website can view and interact with various data profiles that compare education by countries, through time and by outputs. There is also a range of stories and videos to support the idea that Pearson is out to ‘change the world’.

What Works Best (WWB)

This is a 32-page report produced by the Centre for Educational Statistics and Evaluation (CESE), an organisation within the NSW Department of Education and Communities. The CESE’s raison d’etre is to develop evidence and resources that can support school-level educators in their search for ‘best practice’.

WWB promotes seven indicators of effective classroom practice that can, by extension, improve student performance. These include high expectations, explicit teaching, effective feedback, the use of data to inform teacher pedagogy, classroom management, well-being and collaboration. Interestingly, each of these seven themes is prefaced in the report by a series of ‘Key Points’, reducing otherwise intractable problems into three or four readily implementable dot points that teachers and school leaders can use to improve their practice.

These best practice themes are presented in terms of three underlying questions (Why it matters; What the evidence says and Implications for teachers and schools), which explicitly link certain effective practices – ‘what works’ or ‘silver bullets’ – to improved student performance.

The similarities between these three ‘fast policy reports’

Despite the reports being produced by an intergovernmental organisation, an edu-business and a state government department, there is a clear similarity between them that reflects what we describe as a ‘convergence of policy method’. This is akin to different cookbooks being readily recognisable as cookbooks, even if the recipes (or policies in this instance) contained therein are not necessarily the same.

These three reports are evidence, to us, of a new way of speeding up policymaking. Many other assessments, such as PISA, TIMSS and PIRLS are conducted every three or more years, and are thus seemingly too ‘slow’ for the data-driven policy demands of governments, policymakers, educational systems and (increasingly) the public. Schooling reform is regularly demanded so ‘quick-fix’ solutions are needed.

As such, the desire for fast schooling policy has created a new global market awash with the same reform ideas. In this case, an international organisation, an edu-business and a state government have all adopted similar approaches to schooling reform, notionally to improve student outcomes and drive up standards.

There is a sense that ‘best practice’ in schooling is now the same in every country around the world, and that there is a limited need to account for national, social, or cultural context.

When fast becomes fasting

So while this new policy genre is ‘fast’ in terms of speed, we argue that it also constitutes the notion of ‘fasting’ (that is, to deprive or deny), where the over-simplification of policy into easy to implement solutions constrains the possibilities for reform, and denies local alternatives to be imagined and practised.

We suggest, in spite of the seemingly obvious alignment between fast policies and a fast social world, that good policy might come from slower and more complex processes, where education is not a problem to be fixed but a way to a better future for our particular children in our particular education systems.

 

Steven Lewis headshotSteven Lewis has just completed a PhD in the School of Education at The University of Queensland addressing the development and effects of the OECD’s PISA for Schools programme. He is now working as a researcher on two Australian Research Council-funded research projects, one focusing on data infrastructures in education (DP150102098: Data in Schools and Systems: An International Study) and the other on educational federalism (DE160100197: National Schooling Reform and the Reshaping of Australian Federalism). Steven has recently published in the British Journal of Sociology of Education, Comparative Education Review, Critical Studies in Education and Journal of Education Policy. He also has chapters in three recent and forthcoming volumes. These are the Handbook of Human and Social Conditions in Assessment (Routledge), The OECD’s Impact on Education Worldwide (Emerald), and the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Education (Oxford University Press).

Anna HoganAnna Hogan is a lecturer in the School of Human Movement and Nutrition Sciences at the University of Queensland. Anna has been researching the role of global edu-business on education policy and practice. She is currently working on projects that investigate the privatisation of Australian public schooling, the effects of curriculum outsourcing on teachers’ work and the commercialisation of student health and wellbeing. Anna has recent publications in the Australian Educational Researcher, Journal of Education Policy and Critical Studies in Education.

4 thoughts on “Fast policy: when educational research morphs into quick fixes and ‘silver bullets’

  1. Brian Cambourne says:

    Thank you for this. It not only identifies dubious policy practices which are being used to support and promote shonky, cherry-picked , ‘thin’, research evidence, it reframes the issue of curriculum design and implementation through a very compelling conceptual metaphor, namely ‘ ‘fast policy’. For me this metaphor immediately linked it to all negatives associated with ”Fast Food’. I hope your work gets wide coverage.

  2. Steven Lewis says:

    Dear Brian

    Thank you very much for your interest in our paper. It is very much appreciated.

    Best wishes
    Steven and Anna

  3. Matt says:

    Great article. As a food teacher, fast food/fast fix resonates with me too. The ‘recipes’ for success are often shortcuts to shiny or new without any substance. I wonder if the one-size-fits all is a reflection of our government’s drive for success without the hard work or expense that might come with it? I work in the IB system and often systems such as Singapore, China and Korea are held in high esteem. Australia is different, though. Our culture is not the same, and our efforts to replicate the work ethic of these students in our own will almost always show us as coming up short.

    To push the fast food analogy a step further. Imagine the outcry if McDonalds were given control over our school canteens and what they see is best nutritionally for our students? Yet Pearson has so much influence over our student’s educational futures without much of a whimper.

    Matt

  4. Bruce Lyons says:

    Anna and Steven thanks for your thoughts on ‘fast policy’. As a retired educator (school principal and Superintendent of Schools in Western Australia) I too am concerned that a true comparative education context is not applied when other nations’ education processes are cited as models for Australian schools.

    I am also concerned about the emphasis politicians place on rated student performance. Each student is doing the best they can given all the circumstances that influence their lives at any one time. This includes my rejection of branding students lazy and remedial. When students are moved through a prescribed curriculum like the Australian National Curriculum (ANC) regardless of whether they have mastered the prerequisites for the learning to come as in that prescribed curriculum, then we are in danger of creating a population of students with severe gaps in their learning. I am all for the ANC but aspire to a no gaps approach. This requires that teachers take into account all the factors affecting a student’s life at any one time. Teachers need to be patient and to resist pressures to move students on when they have not mastered the prerequisites for the new learning. This is easier said than done in an environment of rated performance by age as the be all and end all. I believe a no gaps modus operandi is achievable and have written much on this.

    Keep up your watchful research eyes on this ‘fast policy’ problem.

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