Education Opinion

Large-Scale Reform Is Possible

By Michael Barber — November 15, 2000 6 min read
The government in England is using the knowledge in the “change” literature, especially about standards-based reform, to guide its reform efforts.

If we were to say to the reader we are going to take a whole country—20,000 elementary schools, 190,000 elementary teachers, and 3 million elementary-age pupils—and dramatically improve the literacy and numeracy achievement of those children by 40 percent in under 5 years, what would you say? The government in England is doing just that, and it is using the knowledge in the “change” literature, especially about standards-based reform, to guide its efforts.

This remarkable success is taking place over a five-year period, 1997 to 2002, in what we will call Phase I, “Achieving Reform.” Phase II, which we will come to later, is more difficult because it entails “Deepening and Sustaining Reform.” First, the results in Phase I and then the strategy underpinning it. The baseline is 1996, in which 57 percent (literacy) and 54 percent (numeracy) of all 11-year-olds in England were achieving level 4 or level 5 in the national tests (a high standard above functional level). The government set targets of 80 percent in literacy and 75 percent in numeracy to achieve this level by 2002. The progress so far:

1996 1997 1998 1999 2000
Literacy 57% 63% 65% 70% 75%
Numeracy 54% 62% *59% 69% 72%
* A new mental arithmetic was added

The main elements of the implementation strategy involve an integrated system of “pressure and support” and include the following:

  • A nationally prepared project plan for both literacy and numeracy, setting out actions, responsibilities, and deadlines through to 2002.
  • A substantial investment sustained over at least six years and skewed toward those schools which need the most help.
  • A project infrastructure involving national direction from the Standards and Effectiveness Unit, 15 regional directors, and more than 300 expert consultants at the local level for each of the two strategies.
  • An expectation that every class will have a daily mathematics lesson and a daily literacy hour.
  • A detailed teaching program covering every school year from ages 5 to 11.
  • An emphasis on early intervention and catch-up for pupils who fall behind.
  • A professional-development program designed to enable every primary teacher to learn to understand and use proven best practice in both curriculum areas.
  • The appointment of more than 2,000 leading math teachers and hundreds of expert literacy teachers, who have the time and skill to model best practice for their peers.
  • The provision of “intensive support” to around half of all schools where the most progress is required.
  • A major investment in books for schools (over 23 million new books in the system since May 1997).
  • The removal of barriers to implementation (especially a huge reduction in prescribed curriculum content outside the core subjects).
  • Regular monitoring and extensive evaluation by a national inspection agency.
  • A national curriculum for initial teacher training, requiring all providers to prepare new primary teachers to teach the daily mathematics lesson and the literacy hour.
  • A problem-solving philosophy involving early identification of difficulties as they emerge and the provision of rapid solutions or intervention where necessary.
  • The provision of extra after-school, weekend, and holiday booster classes for those who need extra help to reach the standard.

All the evidence suggests that the system is on track to meet the 80 percent literacy and 75 percent numeracy targets. The strategy is comprehensive, adaptive to problems as they occur (targeted programs for those not doing well and a new emphasis on teaching writing, which is more difficult than teaching reading), aligned, and resource-sensitive, with new investments including professional development based on analysis of what students and teachers have (and have not) been able to do in the previous year. The government is investing almost £1,400 (about $2,035 U.S. dollars) per teacher, per year in the change program.

Are these results real? They do represent real gains in literacy and numeracy (but it’s too early to say how deep and lasting-we shall see); the great majority of school principals say that the strategy is successful, and elementary teachers overwhelmingly now enjoy teaching literacy and numeracy.

All the evidence suggests that the system is on track to meet the 80 percent literacy and 75 percent numeracy targets.

High school teachers can see the difference in their new intake. Is there collateral damage-other subjects being neglected, teachers and principals becoming exhausted? There may be some of this, but laying a nationwide foundation in literacy and numeracy is likely to be a route to higher performance in all subjects, and as a success in its own right, the strategy is an energy booster, bringing nationwide respect to primary teachers.

All of this represents a major achievement, but raises the more serious challenge of ensuring that the reform is sustained and deepened. Phase I reform is foundational and requires an assertive, relatively controlling, and responsive set of strategies. The problems are large-scale and urgent and call for concerted effort, sustained over time. Phase II reform involves going deeper, which will require different strategies.

Essentially, deep, lasting reform will demand unlocking the creative, energetic efforts of teachers, principals, and others with whom they partner. It is, if you like, a matter of building capacity for continuous improvement. Some of this is policy work, including the following now being worked on by the government in England:

  • Transforming secondary schools, so that the gains obtained at the elementary level can be built upon.
  • Mobilization of cities and communities, so that the context for school reform becomes part of the solution.
  • Modernization of the teaching profession (improved initial teacher preparation, strengthening school leadership, incentives for performance, support for professional development, and, more generally, support for teachers in terms of time and opportunity to learn on the job).
  • A promise not only of continued investment in these change strategies, but also of real growth in education expenditure for at least a further four years.
  • Continued targeting of investment to those schools and communities facing the greatest challenge.

In addition to direct policy work, governments will also have to “let go” and foster local “professional learning communities.” All that we know about learning organizations tells us that the ultimate solution involves individuals working in organizations in which continuous learning is built into day-to-day work.

It is, if you like, a matter of building capacity for continuous improvement.

The only problem-solving that counts is that which is addressed as it occurs. This requires the energy and everyday learning of engaged teachers and principals. Phase II work demands fostering and being responsive to local-capacity development and lateral networking. It demands continued investment and the determination to generate public will.

It is difficult enough for governments to master the subtleties of pressure and support embedded in Phase I strategies. And we do say that this is a necessary first step. You cannot start with Phase II, because Phase I is foundational. It will require a sophisticated government to realize that “letting go” in Phase II is the only route to deep and lasting reform. For now, we know that large-scale reform can be accomplished, and this is impressive. The next decade will determine if we can build the capacity to make these gains irreversible.

Michael Barber is the head of the British government’s Standards and Effectiveness Unit and a special adviser to the secretary of state for education. He thanks Michael Fullan of the University of Toronto, Canada, for help in conceptualizing the two phases of large-scale education reform.

A version of this article appeared in the November 15, 2000 edition of Education Week as Large-Scale Reform Is Possible