Taking a global view on local effectiveness

What makes schools work? Michael Duffy finds out

WORLD CLASS SCHOOLS. Edited by David Reynolds, Bert Creemers, Sam Stringfield, Charles Teddlie and Gene Schaffer. RoutledgeFalmer pound;29.99.

EXTENDING EDUCATIONAL REFORM: from one school to many. By Amanda Datnow, Lea Hubbard and Hugh Mehan. RoutledgeFalmer pound;18.99).

KEY DEBATES IN EDUCATION. By Ian Davies, Ian Gregory and Nick McGuinn. Continuum pound;14.99.

"What can we learn from the best and worst schools in the world?" asks the blurb for World Class Schools. The title, like the blurb, is perhaps misleading. This is the report of an international school effectiveness project which set out to establish whether the factors associated with school effectiveness are always the same or whether (as critics of the school effectiveness movement have argued) they vary according to the context - national, regional, local - of the schools studied. Is there, in other words, a recipe for school effectiveness that can be replicated everywhere, or is it the local contexts and backgrounds that we need to change?

Good question, and there are many who want to know the answer. Whether or not this book provides it is a different matter. It is difficult, for instance, to agree common criteria for school performance across the nine countries and three continents that feature here. This project uses mathematics scores at ages seven to nine, but tries to factor in affective (behavioural) outcomes. It is difficult, too, to ensure that like is being compared with like at school level. The plan was that in each country, two schools would be studied in each of two levels of socio-economic background and three levels of perceived effectiveness. It didn't quite work out like that, so some of the data is incomplete. It also meant, for instance, that all the schools studied in the United States were in Louisiana - perhaps a weakness.

After that, it's a question of examining the international data. In this study, the data was quantitative (such as resources and performance) and qualitative (such as school climate, attitudes to learning and teachers'

job satisfaction). There is much of interest but surprises are few. School systems vary between countries; except in the Pacific Rim countries studied (Hong Kong, Taiwan), social background makes a difference; performance tends to mirror effectiveness. On the whole, the authors claim, it's the school effectiveness factors already identified in research that explain variations in performance. Across the world, they say, the classrooms in effective schools are very similar places.

But is that really so? Not, perhaps, in the US, to judge from Extending Educational Reform. This is a fascinating study of what happens when "externally driven change" - characteristic, now, of schools worldwide - is "scaled up" - in other words transferred from enthusiastic pilot schools to schools in general. Because this book focuses on the US, with its strong tradition of educational autonomy at state and district level, the range of school improvement prescriptions it describes is wide. Seven widely adopted programmes are studied here - an eighth, the Edison (profit-driven) project is mentioned, but, disappointingly, not included. The striking thing is not so much the diversity of choice (this could be the pattern of our future, the authors say - a system where schools compete to select an off-the-shelf philosophy and teaching method and market themselves on the basis of the model they have chosen) but the consistency of the verdict.

Fundamentally, the authors say, all change is local. Michael Fullan (who writes a foreword to this book) was right: schools change reforms as much as reforms change schools. "However enlightening proposals for change may be, they come to nothing if teachers don't adopt themI and translate them into effective classroom practice." Local flexibility, they find, is essential; so is "sensitivity to context". Teachers need to be seen as assets and collaborators, not as "uninformed obstacles"; "equity" should always be an explicit goal. Pointed words, by no means irrelevant to the UK scene. Policy junkies should be asked to read it.

Key Debates in Education is something different: a highly readable introduction to the subject, primarily for undergraduate education students but also for the general reader. The format is simple: a debate among the authors on the aims of education, the meaning of learning, the role of assessment, and the making and changing of policy. A final chapter discusses education as a social project. The book is short, honest and properly provocative. Throw in down-to-earth suggestions for further reading and reflection, a potted history of education in England and thumbnail sketches of some of the pivotal figures in education thinking and you get a volume that teachers as well as student teachers will want to read and keep.

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