Less than a year ago, I participated with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (the OECD who do the PISA tests) to do a review of the educational improvement strategy for Wales. Part of the Welsh strategy was to raise student achievement in literacy and numeracy (math) across the country in a relatively short space of time. Our report advised that the Welsh Government should rethink this strategy. Here’s why.
Large-scale literacy reform has been in vogue in the US and elsewhere for two decades now. It has been one of the driving forces of educational change across the country and many other parts of the world. One of the places it began was in New York District 2 in the mid 1990s. There, the Chancellor of Schools, Anthony Alvarado, and his staff, imposed a literacy program across the whole system, linked to measurable achievement gains, and backed up with detailed new materials and intensive one-on-one in-classroom coaching.
Harvard professor Richard Elmore and his school superintendent coauthor Deanne Burney articulated and applauded the reform design and its impact on results. Diane Ravitch later took some of the edge off the achievement gains by arguing that some of them were a result of gentrification of the community, not of the change strategy. But the more important point is that when the San Diego school district became enamored of the model, and transplanted Alvarado and many of his team members to implement it on the other side of America in a fraction of the timescale, the results were catastrophic. Gains were not sustainable and open warfare broke out between district factions as teachers and principals buckled under impossible high stakes pressure for short-term results. What was the lesson to be learned? Large-scale literacy reform has to be grown gradually. It cannot be imposed impatiently.
Across the Atlantic, England’s Blair Government was also setting about large-scale reform by instituting a national Literacy and Numeracy Stragey (NLNS). The strategy had an extremely tight focus so that many schools abandoned other curriculum priorities to accommodate it, it provided prescribed and paced instructional materials, it exercised relentless surveillance over implementation through the use of coaching and other strategies, and it imposed high stakes consequences for schools that failed to improve.
Architects and admirers of the strategy like Tony Blair’s education adviser, Sir Michael Barber, claimed there were significant gains as a result of the strategy. Critics provided data indicating that the improving trend preceded the implementation of the strategy, they pointed to how the results hit a plateau once the easiest wins had been made (for instance by concentrating on what US scholars call “bubble kids”), and they revealed the existence of huge collateral damage in the form of a narrowed curriculum, loss of classroom creativity and the rise of teaching to the test.
One of the biggest problems was massive teacher burnout and professional disillusionment that led to a crisis of recruitment and retention of high quality teachers. What was the lesson to be learned? Simultaneous imposition of literacy and math reform requires teachers to change all their practice all at once and this is so overwhelming that it threatens the basic capacity of the profession to maintain its quality.
On the US’s northern border, the high performing province of Ontario also took on the strategy of large scale reform but tried to learn from the mistakes that had been made in England that it saw as providing insufficient support and imposing punitive pressure, and in San Diego by taking an off-the-shelf model and implementing it too fast. Inspired by the systemic literacy-oriented change efforts of Peter Hill and Carmel Crevola in the Catholic School system of Melbourne, Australia, Ontario created a literacy and numeracy secretariat that made these areas of change the province’s core priority. It paced the change agenda so that achievement gains would be steady and sustainable rather than spectacular but unstable. It also provided a stronger spirit and much higher levels of support than in England in terms of resources, training, partnership with the teacher unions and an emphasis on school-to-school assistance.
Ontario’s literacy gains of 2-3% or so every year seemed both steady and cumulatively substantial and sustainable. But even its more advanced strategy had its limitations. The literacy gains were not matched by similar gains in math over the whole reform period, and in the past four years, math results have actually fallen. In practice, reformers now acknowledge, the numeracy strategy was not nearly so intensive as the literacy strategy. What is the lesson to be learned? In practice, even Ontario, with all its change knowledge, couldn’t implement wholesale changes in literacy and numeracy together, so one half of the strategy fell by the wayside by default.
Wales introduced its own Literacy and Numeracy Framework in September of 2013. Drawing on the lessons of international reform efforts, the advice of the OECD team on which I served as one of two experts was, in effect, for Wales to have a literacy then numeracy strategy, or vice versa. Here is what our team concluded (OECD 2014, p76):
Effective continuous professional development and implementation of the Literacy and Numeracy Framework may …. require judgments about sequencing. To implement the framework requires teachers to learn three new things: new content in literacy, new content in numeracy, and new pedagogical strategies for effective differentiated teaching in particular. For a primary teacher, these three areas of learning affect all their teaching, almost all of the time, all at once. There is increasing evidence that this is simply too much. For example, in Ontario, the effort to implement the Literacy and Numeracy Strategy in practice meant that while great gains were made in literacy, the other half of the strategy (numeracy) did not get implemented to any great extent and in recent years results in numeracy have actually fallen….. Wales should learn from this experience.
This is a valuable lesson not only for the nation of Wales, but for all nations undertaking system-wide reforms in literacy, or math, or both.
His sessions at the Literacy for All conference include:
- Keynote Session: Collective Responsibility For the Success of All Teachers and Students (Grades K–8)
- Collective Responsibility in Business, Sports, and Education (Grades K–8)
- Collective Responsibility in Action (Grades K–8)