Exploding the Myths of School Reform
ACER (Australia and New Zealand) and Maidenhead (UK): Open University Press, 2013
Paperback. xxiv + 320 pages. ISBN 978-0335263141. £23.99
Reviewed by David Galloway
The continuing interest of governments around the world in international comparisons of student attainment has contributed to the politicisation of education policy. Nowhere has that been more evident than in the UK. While governments, accountable to tax payers, clearly have a legitimate interest in education policy, there is an obvious risk of policy being based on ideology, not evidence. This book is therefore a timely contribution to the debate on school reform. David Hopkins claims that his aim “is about myth busting and introducing a heavy dose of truth and realism” [xviii]. It is a bold claim. Does he succeed?
Hopkins sets out to demolish ten myths in successive chapters: The myths that achievement cannot be realised at scale for all students; that school autonomy leads to the reality of change; that poverty is a determinant of student and school performance; that the curriculum rather than the learning is what counts; that teaching is either an art or a science; that external accountability results in sustained school reform; that innovation and networking always add value to school reform; that charismatic leadership is central to school reform; that “one size fits all” in implementing school reform; and that market forces drive educational excellence. At times, he overstates his case. In reviewing school effectiveness research, for example, there is no longer any serious debate that schools make a difference, but nor is there serious debate about social-economic background having an influence on students’ attainments. A careful reading of the seminal studies he cites, such as Fifteen Thousand Hours by Michael Rutter and colleagues, shows that schools had a much stronger influence on behaviour than on attainment. Hopkins could legitimately have claimed that school effectiveness research has demolished the once prevalent deterministic view linking social class inexorably with educational achievement. But poverty remains, and will continue to remain, relevant as long as children from privileged homes continue to benefit as much from outstanding schools as children from disadvantaged backgrounds – thus maintaining their advantage when they start school. Other reviewers could object that many of Hopkins’ myths have long since been demolished. Nevertheless their superficial attraction has created a conventional wisdom that continues to mesmerise policy makers. He has identified pervasive myths and has made a robust case for exposing them as such.
The book’s scope is wider, though, than exposing myths. The author wants “a ‘grand theory’ of system change in education that results in relatively predictable increases in student learning and achievement over time” . This is much more ambitious than merely exposing myths. The problem, which Hopkins has not fully resolved, is that knowing the details of effective practices – whether at system level or school level – does not necessarily help others to copy them. This is the problem that school effectiveness research ran into over 35 years ago: to take a rather obvious example, knowing that the most successful schools have strong leaders did nothing to help the head teachers of less successful school become strong leaders. To take an example in Hopkins’ chapter on charismatic leadership, the eight key dimensions to successful leadership  are intrinsically interesting and supported by evidence, but applying them in an improvement strategy, whether at system or school level, remains a big step. Similarly, it is hard to disagree with what teachers, schools and local authorities need to do in developing professional learning , but telling them what to do is unlikely to help.
The focus on teachers, head teachers and school systems is both a strength and a weakness: a strength because the author draws on his own extensive experience as Chief Adviser on school standards to the English government, but a weakness because it too often leads him to overlook research on children’s – as opposed to teachers’ – learning that could have directly addressed the problem identified in the previous paragraph. Two examples will suffice: First, he discusses the benefits of teachers coaching each other, but not the quite extensive evidence on the benefits for students of all age groups of peer tutoring. Second, there is an interesting discussion of teachers using metacognitive strategies in their own professional learning (though metacognition is not in the index,) but not of the research on teaching students metacognitive strategies as a way of raising standards. In each case, the implicit, and perhaps unintended, assumption seems to be that attitude change comes before behaviour change. More frequently, it is behaviour change that comes first. If a group of teachers discover by working with each other and with students that peer tutoring works, they may be more likely to share ideas and experience with each other in other contexts. And if they learn that teaching their students metacognitive strategies works, there may be a better chance of these strategies generalising to teachers’ work with each other.
The sections on leadership are particularly interesting in this respect. Hopkins recognises that turning round a school or education system in crisis requires different strategies to maintaining and developing a successful school (in itself a neglected field in the literature on leadership). But in each case, how are the skills to apply the necessary strategies to be acquired, and why do many outstanding classroom teachers fail to become outstanding leaders? He misses the opportunity here to develop a new theoretical understanding of educational leadership, with its roots solidly grounded in classroom practice. Outstanding teachers discover that turning round a chaotic classroom requires different strategies to maintaining and developing a highly successful one. Generalising from this professional knowledge to the challenge of departmental and ultimately school leadership is not a huge step, and requires no extensive reading on leadership or institutional change. As trainee teachers are told in the first week of the course, start from what the children – or, in this case, teachers – already know!
The book is well written with a clear structure. It is provocative, at times polemical, and thought provoking. I hope it will find a place in school libraries and on reading lists for Masters programmes. However, it should be seen as a stimulus to discussion, not as a definitive statement of the field.
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