Data is crucial to improvement, academic says

Tracking performance and supporting teachers are key, according to Canadian educationalist

School-by-school performance data is a crucial lever for improvement, an international expert in education has said.

Dr Ben Levin, professor in education leadership and policy at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, Toronto University, told an audience at the Scottish Learning Festival last week that to be able to improve an entire education system, it was important to understand current performance at school level.

Performance league tables were unhelpful, he stressed. The key was to have a variety of information, such as student achievement, behaviour and equity for every school.

Random sampling across the system was insufficient, as schools with similar intake and demographics could vary greatly in their outcomes.

Even when aimed at the whole system, improvement happened at individual school level, Dr Levin said. "If you don't have school-by-school performance data, you are missing a key lever for improvement."

It was possible to change a system and improve outcomes for all children, he insisted. As Deputy Minister for Education in Ontario, he and his team had reformed the system and significantly increased performance in key areas such as the percentage of children graduating from high school.

Between 2003, when performance across the province was "mediocre", and 2010, the percentage of pupils achieving the required standard in literacy and numeracy increased from 54 to 70 per cent. The number of low- performing schools decreased by 75 per cent, and teacher attrition went down sharply.

Teachers who had already planned their retirement were choosing to stay on because they had begun to enjoy teaching again, said Dr Levin. This was achieved through a coherent, long-term system of policies, combined with implementation mechanisms and support for teachers. "You can't get there by threatening or punishing people. Equally, you can't get improvement by hoping for it," he said.

The key elements were to set clear goals and targets and a clear strategy, supported by strong leadership, and to gain sector support so that a two- way dialogue was possible.

Setting the right policies was important, but so was implementation. It was important to stay focused and build on what already works. "It is not about projects. It is about up-scaling good pilots," he said. In Ontario, regular events were held to review performance data and monitor progress at school level.

"Lighthouse schools" were held up as examples of good practice and informed changes at other schools. Teachers could visit and learn from them.

To achieve system change was difficult, and it was generally not enough to rely on a new curriculum to alter schooling practice, Dr Levin cautioned. It required long-term support for teachers, including professional and leadership development.

A substantial and deliberate effort beyond just new curricula and resources was needed, he said, as well as inspections and student assessment.

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