How Schools Improve is published in the school development series.The series focuses on school improvement and school effectiveness, and 10 volumes have already been published in an attempt to inform debate and policy making. This book takes an international perspective and aims to learn from the success of primary school reform in three countries - Colombia, Ethiopia and Bangladesh.
A World Bank study in 1989 (by Adriaan Verspoor) documented a number of significant variables associated with school improvement, but the study lacked the field dimension. The text by Per Dalin and his colleagues is intended to provide the evidence directly from the schools.
The research was funded by the World Bank and the Norwegian Ministry for Development Cooperation and represents a sustained attempt to understand the key factors contributing to educational success in 31 rural primary schools in the three countries. The method was based upon more than 1,000 hours of interviews conducted in the field, the coding of notes and the careful structuring of variables.
Dalin and his fellow researchers start with the highly generalised findings of the earlier World Bank study - the importance of long-term, stable political support, need for internal support as well as external assistance, permanent in service training, and the critical need for teachers to be active participants rather than passive recipients.
The review at the country level in Bangladesh, Colombia and Ethiopia broadly confirmed the findings of the global account by Verspoor. The more interesting and original material in the book is contained in the sections attempting to explain why schools succeed. In selecting the countries, the writers chose those with major educational reforms and the capability to support the research. Schools selected were both small and large primary schools in rural areas or small towns, in communities with average or less than average resources, schools with better than average enrolment rates and districts that had made a special effort to implement the reform.
In the second chapter, the writers describe some of their field experiences. In Colombia they travel at 6am in a dilapidated bus along a narrow unsurfaced road through lush green countryside. In Ethiopia, the school is in a district with many grass-thatched huts where children are herding cattle and chasing monkeys and baboons away from crops. In Bangladesh, the Hasnahena government primary is in a district with more than 1,000 primary schools with an enrolment approaching 300,000. Relatively well equipped, it is in a very poor community with a 20 per cent level of literacy.
Regrettably, even in a fairly long text of 378 pages, the authors have little space to provide more than a glimpse of the schools in their local setting. What they are able to conclude is that success in educational reform is a local process. The school is the centre of change and determines the degree of success, blocking implementation, enfeebling it, or bringing it into effective life.
The issue for the central ministry is how to support local schools in their efforts. To do so, the linkage between national, district and local is vital. The focus has to be on classroom practice and the development of good quality support materials. Perhaps of most significance is the finding that teacher development is central and can best be achieved through systematic local learning which includes in-service training, supervision and support in a collegial atmosphere. Commitment is essential at all levels. At local level, empowerment builds "emotional" as well as administrative and problem-solving capacity.
How Schools Improve is a valuable study for all those interested in planning and implementation. The main limitation in the text relates to the attempt to test out a desk study of $US6.4 billion worth of educational projects through a study of 31 primary schools. What the writers do underline is that there is an excellent case for much more qualitative research into the factors which produce success in schools.
The educational reforms in Britain have been wide-ranging and sustained. It is now urgent for the Department for Education and the newly formed Teacher Training Agency to make use of our own strong tradition of school research to provide the guidance and understanding that is certainly required.