Many political reforms are ‘low impact distractions’


A leading education expert has called into question the impact of many popular education policies, including introducing new types of school, performance-related pay and longer school days. Instead he calls for a focus on within school variability. Pete H

Many popular political initiatives – such as performance-related pay and creating new types of school – are expensive distractions that have a low impact on educational outcomes, it is claimed.

World-renowned education expert Professor John Hattie says that many of the policies often embraced by politicians around the world during the past 20 years are not as important as the variability in education outcomes and teacher effectiveness within any one school.

In two new reports, Prof Hattie – renowned for his Visible Learning work examining the impact of various education interventions – explains why the policies are flawed and sets out a series of collaborative approaches designed to help tackle within school variability.

In his first report – What Doesn’t Work in Education: The politics of distraction – Prof Hattie says that many politicians and education officials “struggle to have the hard, somewhat uncomfortable discussions about the variability in the effectiveness of what happens at the classroom level and instead focus on policies which are politically attractive but which have been shown to have little effect on improving student learning”.

He argues that these interventions are “typically expensive” proposals that “distract us from implementing policies that can make a significant difference”.

He states: “The argument is not that any of these solutions is irrelevant, wrong or mischievous, but that an overemphasis on one or all of them creates a distraction from other, more critical, more effective ways for education systems to become world-class.”

The report urges a move away from terms like “achievement standards” and towards a focus on pupil progress.

Prof Hattie argues that the “politics of standards” leads to politicians falsely believing that schools and teachers are not delivering. He states: “It will never be the case that all students will exceed most achievement standards. The aim of schooling should not be to get 100 per cent of students above the standard, although this is what the current politics demands.

“All students deserve at least a year’s progress for a year’s input, no matter where they start. But accepting this means that we stop using terms like achievement standards, tails, gaps and flatlining ... they confuse and distract.”

Among his list of flawed policies, Prof Hattie attacks the political trend for creating new types of schools to tackle “failure”. 

He states: “There is a remarkable hunger to create charter schools, for-profit schools, lighthouse schools, free schools, academies, public-private schools – anything other than a (state) school. But, given that the variance in student achievement between schools is small relative to variance within schools, it is folly to believe that a solution lies in different forms of schools.”

The report also warns against politicians’ common view that all children within a year group should be working at the same level and raises concerns about over-testing. It states: “We drop tests on schools like ‘precision bombs’. We see the purpose of testing as informing the student, not the teacher, how to change and adapt. Until we see tests as aids to enhance teaching and learning and not primarily as thermometers of how much a student knows ... then developing more tests will add little and will remain an expensive distraction.”

Elsewhere, Prof Hattie – who is director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute at the University of Melbourne – argues that there is little evidence to support performance-related pay for teachers – a flagship policy of the last coalition government. 

The report states: “Despite the many implementations of performance pay, it is difficult to find a model that has made much, if any, difference to student learning. If anything, the effects can be the opposite to those desired: teachers tend to work fewer hours per week and are involved in fewer unpaid cooperative activities. Their stress levels increase and their enthusiasm decreases.”

Prof Hattie also dismisses other common political fixes:

  • Longer school days: an expensive fix that is shown to have little effect.

  • Smaller class sizes: teachers tend not to change their teaching approach regardless of class size.

  • Technology as a magic bullet: it should be a tool to support teachers, not just another way for students to consume knowledge.

  • Choice of school: the classroom a student is assigned to within a school matters more than the school itself.

  • Initial teacher education: more focus should be placed on the first year of classroom teaching.

In his second report – What Works Best in Education: The politics of collaborative expertise – Prof Hattie focuses on what he sees as the core obligation to provide every student with “one year of learning progress for one year of input, regardless of their academic achievement level when they begin”.

He says reducing in-school variability is key to this and describes a series of approaches, focusing on collaboration. They include:

  • Teachers working together to develop a common language around student success criteria for a year’s schooling.

  • High expectations of a year’s progress from all students.

  • New assessment and evaluation tools to provide feedback to teachers.

  • Teachers working together using appropriate diagnosis, intervention and evaluation approaches.

  • Leaders working with their staff to continuously evaluate the impact on student learning.

The report concludes: “The focus of collaboration needs to be on the evidence of impact, common understandings of what impact means, the evidence and ways to know about the magnitude of this impact, and how the impact is shared across many groups of students.

“School leaders must have the expertise to enable teachers to work collaboratively and question their effectiveness. (They) must have the expertise to create opportunities, develop trust, provide the resources needed to understand the impact on students of all the teachers (and their own impact as school leaders), and to lead these discussions among the teachers.

“The leader’s role is to seek the answers to two major questions: What is the evidence that each student is gaining at least a year’s progress for a year’s input in every subject? What is the school doing in light of this evidence?”

As his reports were published, Prof Hattie said: “Despite the best of intentions, education has become fraught with the politics of distraction, most drawing us away from the critical work at hand. That is, ensuring that each student makes at least one year of progress for one year of effort.

“If we truly want to improve student learning, it is vital that we shift our narrative about teaching and learning away from these distractions, and begin the critical work of building up collaborative expertise in our schools and education systems.”

The papers have been published by Pearson as part of its “Open Ideas” series tackling “unanswered questions in education”.

You can download both reports at


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