Although each and every one of us has a vested interest in education, we know very little about how education actually works, which is best evident in the fact that there aren’t any names you would be able to think of when someone mentions education research. Except for one. We are talking about John Hattie, New Zealander whose resume speaks for itself. He is currently the director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute, and also runs the Science of Learning Research Center.
Having published countless books and papers, he is one of the most renowned education experts in the world, which makes him more than capable of analyzing which ideas in education work, and which fail miserably. He has also created a theory called Visible Learning, which relies on the best methods which work, in order to enhance learning and education. But, Hattie is also controversial, not just because he challenges politicians and their ideas of education, but also because he doesn’t run studies of his own. In fact, he doesn’t even deal with meta-analysis.
What he does is combine all the results from multiple meta-analyses and draws from them. So far, he has analyzed and even ranked 1,200 meta-analyses, which range from those that analyze the effects of ADHD medications on children, to those which involve longer school days. The 1,200 analyses have covered 250 million students in total. Hattie found that the effect of most studies is 0.4 standard deviations, which is roughly equal to the progress students make during a single school year. According to him, we should concentrate on those changes and reforms whose effect is equal or greater than that.
Another one of his findings shows that economic factors, such as poverty, have an effect of 0.57, which means that children coming from financially struggling families can trail behind their wealthier peers for more than an entire year in terms of performance and progress. Hattie also finds that most of the money is spent on those reforms which produce small effects. However, his theory has come under criticism in some academic circles. Professor Dylan Wiliam, who teaches educational assessment at University of London, argues that it’s wrong to group together studies which have been conducted under different circumstances, using different measurements, and on children of different ages, because it might ultimately lead to results that aren’t accurate.
Another one of Hattie’s detractors is John O’Neill, who is a professor at Massey University in New Zealand, and who has published a paper in which is he criticizes Hattie’s Visible Learning theory. He does, however, give Hattie the credit for influencing education on a global scale. Despite this, Hattie and his work are highly regarded in most academic communities, and his findings remain as influential as ever. In his new paper, titled What Doesn’t Work In Education: The Politics Of Distraction, he explains five education reforms that don’t work.
1. Minimum Achievent Standards
According to Hattie, while achievement standards seem perfectly reasonable in theory, they fail when it comes to real life. The problem is that the success of this reform is judged on the number of schools in which students go on to achieve this minimum achievement standard. For instance, it doesn’t take into account any of the circumstances in which the reform has taken place. This means that schools in less developed areas, or those that take in students from struggling families, will inevitably fail, while those which take students from privileged families will definitely be able to reach the aforementioned achievement standard.
While it may seem like the solution lies in setting these standards by grade level, Hattie says that most students, as they reach higher grades, perform either above or below the standard. The answer, it appears, would be to focus more on the individual progress and development.
2. More Achievement Tests
The number of achievement tests does not necessarily correspond with improved student performance. Based on research conducted at high-performing schools, it was found that their students often take fewer tests. So, what is the solution? Well, perhaps it would be better to develop tests which would allow teachers and students to receive instant feedback, so that they can correct potential problems as they appear.
3. Choice of School
You will find many education experts saying that this is one of the crucial factors when it comes to student performance. But, according to Hattie, the results are misleading, because once you get past the advantage that comes with privileged financial status, private school don’t offer more than traditional public schools. And charter schools aren’t any better either, since the positive effect they have on student performance is almost negligible.
One of the factors which truly makes a huge difference is teacher choice. Students which have the best teachers teaching them perform up to 70% better on international PISA exams, while the rest of the difference is down to their choice of school. While this approach would definitely work, it is hard to apply in practice, but far from impossible.
4. The Number of Students in Class
This is also one of the ideas that seems like a solution to all problems in education. However, Hattie disagrees with this, and lists examples such as South Korea and Japan, which have the highest-performing school systems of them all, yet the number of students in most Japanese or Korean schools is 33 on average. On the opposite end of the spectrum you have Russia, whose school system performs below average, despite the average number of students in class being 18 or so.
According to Hattie, smaller classes become more effective if teachers are willing to change their teaching methods, and that includes collaboration, individual feedback, and constant learning and improvement. Only then can they make the most out of this concept.
5. Spending More Money
Roughly speaking, around $40,000 is needed to educate a child from kindergarten to their graduation, while maintaining decent school performance. Poorer countries, which spend less than $40,000 on their students during the course of their education, tend to rank among the lower-performing ones when it comes to their students’ reading scores on PISA exam. But, while money is an important factor when there is not enough of it, once you get past a certain figure, it doesn’t make that much of a difference anymore. For instance, the U.S. spend over $100,000 per child, while South Korea and Finland spend $60,000 and $75,000, respectively, yet their education systems work much better than that of the U.S.
This means that money, while useful, is not the answer for all problems inside education. In fact, spending more money on reforms whose effect on student performance is minimal will not solve anything, as can be seen in practice. Hattie maintains that we should focus on those ideas which have the best results and the strongest effect on students. Ultimately, most of them can be reduced to great teachers which are willing to go the extra mile, collaborate, and constantly improve themselves professionally. The excellence, says Haiti, is already there. We just have to find better mechanisms to spot it and nurture it.