International Spotlight: Comparative Education Research and Policy Analysis at AERA 2016

by CIEB Staff

Presentations of the results from comparative international studies were plentiful at this year’s American Education Research Association (AERA) Annual Meeting, “Public Scholarship to Educate Diverse Democracies” held from April 7-12 in Washington, D.C. More than 16,000 education researchers attended the annual event that featured more than 2,500 research and policy discussions, panels, lectures and roundtables. In addition to a session previewing Linda Darling-Hammond’s upcoming NCEE-funded international teacher quality study—which you can read about in this month’s Tucker’s Lens—below are just some of the highlights of AERA 2016.

Balancing Autonomy and Centralization in Top Performers

SingaporePrincipalResearch from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has found that countries that have a high degree of school autonomy balanced with key centralized functions tend to perform well on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). The balance between centralization and decentralization of authority was the topic of discussion of an illuminating panel comprised of scholars from four high-performing countries.

Singapore’s most recent curriculum reform, adopted in 2008, balances central control and local autonomy through a “tight-loose-tight” structure, according to Paul Meng Huat Chua of the National Institute of Education-Nanyang Technological University. The curriculum is “tight” on what students need to learn, “loose” on how teachers teach, and “tight” on evaluating what students have learned, he said. In practice, this means that, at the school level, principals are free to choose and customize initiatives, department chairs are free to develop their own plans to meet school goals, and teachers are free to make decisions about classroom practice. In part, this structure reflects a Confucian concept that states that everyone has a role, and if all members of society play their roles well, society will function well. But it is also reinforced by the system’s teacher career ladder which helps attract and retain world-class teachers and testing policies which measure deep content knowledge and skills, Chua noted.

Hong Kong schools, meanwhile, have been working under a policy of school-based management since 1997, and adopted a curriculum reform in 2000 taking into account that structure, according to Theodore Tai Hoi Lee of the Hong Kong Institute of Education. Although the curriculum was adopted across all schools in Hong Kong, teachers have a great deal of flexibility in how they enact it, and they are encouraged to innovate, he said.

Lee conducted an in-depth study of two schools and found that teachers and school leaders took advantage of this flexibility and developed a number of initiatives. However, teachers found that taking on the role of curriculum developer was a “major burden,” and that many lacked the necessary expertise. Lee suggested that the Ministry of Education would do well to provide guidance to schools on how to enact the curriculum.

Finland has veered between central control and local autonomy since the mid-1980s, according to Toni Saarivirta of the University of Tampere. The most recent curriculum reform, to be implemented this fall, lies on the decentralization end of the spectrum, he said. The curriculum involves much more active learning on the part of students and does away with some subject-area boundaries encouraging multi-disciplinary projects and collaborative learning. Teachers were heavily involved in the development of the curriculum, Saarivirta said. At the same time, Finland’s schools use a common, national curriculum framework that drives teaching and learning there.

Canada appears to be an anomaly in the OECD research, said Paul Newton of the University of Saskatchewan. Although the country performs well on PISA, it ranks low in the OECD ratings on school autonomy—which measured school discretion over resources as well as curricula and assessments. Yet while principals seem to have less discretionary authority than those in other high-performing countries, school boards have substantial autonomy, as do teacher unions, Newton said. When investigating a jurisdiction’s level of autonomy, “autonomy can’t be limited to the school level,” he said.

Study of Pre-Service and New Teachers

TeachersThe AERA meeting was rich with presentations focused on research on the teaching profession including results from a large survey of pre-service and newly hired teachers in Australia. Mayer, et al’s (2015) Surveying the Effectiveness of Teacher Education (SETE) measured how effective teacher education programs are at equipping new teachers with the skills, dispositions, and expectations they will need to succeed in classrooms in the 21st century.

The study tried to determine the level of preparation graduates of various teacher-training programs received. It found that teachers were generally well-prepared in basic pedagogy and ethics, but less so in teaching diverse learners, designing curriculum, and engaging with parents. It also looked at whether programs were better or worse at preparing candidates to teach in certain kinds of settings—for example, in low-income schools or schools with large numbers of students speaking many different languages. Overall, two-thirds of respondents felt their preparation program left them well-prepared to teach, with more graduates of bachelor’s and master’s degree programs feeling better prepared than those with only an intermediate Graduate Diploma. The study categorized several specific features of teacher preparation programs that were most effective. New teachers felt that participation in school practicum experiences were by far the most valuable parts of their preparation programs, particularly if the practicum was conducted at a school similar to the school where they first taught full time.

Finally, the study found that teachers’ sense of being well-prepared, their sense of efficacy, and their likelihood of staying in the classroom were all correlated. That being said, many factors outside of preparation programs were associated with whether teachers decided to stay in the profession. For example, providing stronger induction and mentoring support to teachers in their first year on the job was associated with greater retention.

As education systems struggle with preparing sufficient numbers of teachers, recruiting them into classrooms, and retaining them for more than a few years at a time, this study is a worthy resource. Its findings are informative for policymakers interested in the outcomes of teacher preparation institutions in other countries. But more excitingly, its methodology will be useful for state and national systems interested in undertaking similar analyses of their own systems. The authors surveyed over 5,000 pre-service and newly inducted teachers and 1,000 of their principals from 2010 to 2014, using both online and in-person surveys consisting of several dozen items, as well as interviews and case studies to supplement the quantitative measures. This broad data collection and analysis was only possible through collaboration between a wide group of stakeholders in higher education, government, nonprofit partners, and think tanks. Conducting a similar analysis of their own preparation programs could enable state and national systems to better understand how they can improve teacher preparation and as a result keep their best educators in the classroom.

Who Aspires to Be a Teacher?

MathstudentAnother piece of research focusing on the teaching profession internationally was Professor Seong Won Han’s work on high school graduates in countries around the world who aspire to be teachers. Using data from PISA 2006, the last administration of the test that asked about career aspirations, Professor Han found that only 5 percent of students in OECD countries expect to be teachers. However, top performers like South Korea were much more successful at making teaching an inspirational career choice: 25 percent of graduates aimed to be teachers there. Lower performing students were more likely to want to be teachers everywhere except in Finland, Japan, and Switzerland, where more highly performing students aspired to the profession.

What policies or features of these systems account for the attractiveness of the teaching profession? Countries that paid teachers more tended to have more and higher-achieving students that expected to be teachers—but salary was actually not the strongest predictor of aspiration to teaching. Instead, the study found that it was the level of respectability that society afforded teaching, and the level of responsibility teachers were seen to have in society. Furthermore, students in systems that required their teachers to spend fewer hours teaching during the school day tended to feel that teaching was a more attractive choice. This research suggests that policymakers who want to attract stronger students into teaching from a young age would do well to consider not only teacher compensation policy, but also the way that schools are organized to give teachers time to plan, reflect, collaborate, and work together as true professionals.

AERA’s National Meeting brought together leading thinkers, practitioners and researchers in the field and once again contributed substantially to the global dialogue on learning. To read more about the National Meeting, visit AERA’s website. For early insights from Linda Darling-Hammond’s NCEE-supported research on teacher quality, see this month’s Tucker’s Lens. And for more on the public’s perception of the teaching profession, see this month’s Statistic of the Month.