• By Kevin Mount
  • Posted on Monday 10th December, 2007

Injecting evidence into UK schools: the perfect opportunity

No-one could accuse Robert Slavin of keeping his cards close to his chest when he made his debut as director of the Institute for Effective Education, last month. Evidence-based reform is the only really fundamental way forward in education, he said. “It transformed medicine, it transformed agriculture, it transformed technology. I don't know why that shouldn't be the case in education."For Slavin the new University of York appointment is a golden opportunity to build on his work as Director of the Centre for Research and Reform in Education at Johns Hopkins University, a position he retains as he gets the UK Institute underway. He says the brief couldn’t have suited his own aspirations better if he’d written it himself. The remit extends from pre-school to secondary education. Like Prevention Action, it draws evidence from across the world, not from a single country or system, and one of its headline contributions will be another online resource, a British edition of the Best Evidence Encyclopedia (the BEE), a directory written for everyone involved in the teaching of children, from classroom assistant to senior policy maker.Chaired by former Secretary of State for Education, Baroness Estelle Morris, the Institute is spearheading evidence-based reform on four main fronts. First, it will carry out and publish systematic reviews of research on educational programs and practice. Here it has York’s track-record on its side; since 1994 the campus has been the home of the Centre for Reviews and Dissemination which brings together evidence on the effects of interventions in health and social care. IEE will also benefit from the University’s contributions to health economics, child development and well-being, randomized controlled trials, epidemiology and genetics.IEE’s second objective is to use the evidence it assembles in work with schools to fashion and evaluate new teaching methods. As well as the more obvious targets, such helping children at risk of reading failure, a diverse range of developments is planned, extending to new forms of co-operative learning, and helping teachers to modify their lessons according to their students’ level of understanding. The practicalities of classroom teaching are also part of the agenda – testing effective ways to use improving interactive whiteboard technology, for example.Some of the potential in this area can be judged from the good reputation of Slavin's work as Chair of the US Success for All Foundation, which uses research to design programs and services that help schools better meet the needs of all their students, not just those who come to school well fed, well rested, and ready to learn. The UK variant of Success for All is focusing on a comprehensive literacy program.A third strand will be rigorous evaluation. As in other parts of children's services, randomized controlled trials (experimental evaluations) continue to be misunderstood, resisted and feared in equal measure. IEE wants to change that by making estimates of the effectiveness of education a core aspect of UK educational policy.The fourth dimension is getting the evidence known. Dissemination of results is by now a standard component of research, but under Slavin’s command IEE will not be afraid to lobby on behalf of good evidence.More generally, by immersing it in a solution of rigorous program development and strong evidence, the Institute for Effective Education is aiming to dilute the politicking that has bedeviled educational reform in the UK. Slavin does not underestimate the challenges. "The idea of evidence-based reform is simple to grasp and almost impossible to argue with, he says. “Yet the difficulties inherent in agreeing on ‘what works’ are daunting. And it’s hard to keep patience with powerful pressures to keep the system as it is. How many times do you still hear someone say 'Well, that's the way it's always been'?”

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