Finding the best route towards school improvement has become an abstract and elusive target for educators and policymakers worldwide. No two school systems are alike—the differences in context are just too great. These differences are magnified even further when looking at each individual school with its unique group of students and teachers. Finding a one-size-fits-all approach to school improvement is nigh impossible.
Fortunately, however, patterns in school improvement can be identified, showing that school systems that succeed in achieving excellence have at least two common traits (Mourshed et al. 2010):
- A school improvement process guided by evidence: understanding the situation at every level – from the entire education system to each individual student – is vital for choosing the best policy interventions and successfully implementing them.
- Schools in charge of their own improvement: increasing schools’ autonomy, making them fully responsible for creating the right learning conditions, and supporting them with the tools and expertise necessary for the job.
A continuous cycle of school-led, evidence-based improvement requires that we gather the right data, make the evidence actionable, and establish a culture of collaborative inquiry:
The RIGHT data
Working towards school improvement requires a firm understanding of where you’re at right now and the most beneficial next steps moving forward. Both of these require the right data. Most education systems and schools already have a strong process of collecting academic evidence – standardised exam results and PISA scores are a global reference of education quality. But these focus only on the outcomes of education, rather than what the best schools are doing differently. To improve processes where they truly matter – in the classroom – we need to shift the focus from outcomes through a systematic analysis of non-academic data (Scheerens 2016).
Edtech has opened up a whole new world of possibilities when it comes to the type of data educators have access to. Going well beyond academics, there are tools to track classroom behaviour, see where individual students are struggling with content, observe collaboration skills at different stages of group work and collect valuable feedback. Schools and teachers are no longer limited to the data in their gradebooks – but are they now being overwhelmed with data that’s not even being used?
Making evidence actionable
Any evidence-driven initiative needs to have a clear plan to make the evidence actionable. A lot of effort is wasted in education systems worldwide collecting data without translating that data into school improvement (Michael and Susan Dell Foundation 2013). Data gathering metaphorical dust in a folder (or real dust) does not contribute to better education.
Likewise, a lot of effort is wasted creating technology with incredibly advanced data collection capabilities, without ensuring that the data collected is quickly and easily understood, relevant and actionable. Rather than simply handing over the latest app or data dashboard, edtech companies need to be thinking about how their products fit into the existing processes in the education sector – or if they need to provide the extra support and consulting to help develop better processes that lead to improvement.
Building a culture of collaborative inquiry
Finally, allowing schools to lead their own improvement requires a culture of collaborative inquiry. Teachers, school leaders, and education policymakers (and edtech companies!) must align their work so that everyone is moving in the same direction, guided by a collective curiosity and desire for improvement. This not only means that everyone can make informed decisions, but also helps to avoid getting stuck in bad habits by bringing in new perspectives.
At Edurio, we have seen this culture of collaborative inquiry in the organisations we work with around the world. They have pushed how we think about our own solution by consistently asking more questions and sharing the challenges they face when implementing regular feedback surveys into their schools. We quickly realised that these organizations – governments, school networks, and individual schools, both public and private – were not just looking for new, efficient technology and a broader set of data, but a new way of using data, a new process, a new culture.
Take the Western Cape Government in South Africa and its Game Changers initiatives where we work with the Delivery Unit dedicated to the successful implementation of three ambitious education reforms. They needed a way to collect qualitative data to understand awareness, attitudes and behaviours and monitor changes throughout years of implementation. They want to bring stakeholder feedback into the planning and decision-making processes at every level and recognise that it needs to be a collaborative effort and shift in culture for it to be successful.
Edtech has had a massive impact on our image of what a classroom should look like. There is no doubt that schools have changed with technology – but have they improved? Policymakers, educators, edtech companies, publishers – our shared goal should always be improvement. There is still a lot of work to be done – we have a lot of great tech, now we need to work together to make sure it is delivering results.
Michael and Susan Dell Foundation (2013) Success by Numbers: How Using Data Can Unlock the Potential of South Africa’s R-12 Public School System. Michael and Susan Dell Foundation.
Mourshed, M., Chijioke, C., and M. Barber (2010) How the world’s most improved school systems keep getting better. McKinsey and Company.
Scheerens, J. (2016) Educational Effectiveness and Ineffectiveness: A Critical Review of the Knowledge Base. Springer.