September 19, 2015

Evidence informed practice needed to buck trends in education

Matthew Deeble emphasises why establishing a culture of evidence informed practice is critical in reversing the national decline in educational outcomes. This creates important benefits for schools in areas with low socioeconomic status.

The latest NAPLAN results confirmed what we have known for some time – Australia’s educational performance is slipping. While there are examples of outstanding schools across the country who are bucking this trend, the results overall reveal little national improvement in outcomes for secondary school students since 2008.

Ensuring that increased funding and autonomy do deliver improved student outcomes requires a greater focus on what the evidence says…

Especially concerning is the fact that the trend of falling outcomes has occurred during a period of more than 40 per cent increase in total school funding, and by more than 25 per cent on a per student basis between 2000 and 2013. It has also occurred during a period of increasing school autonomy; demonstrating that these factors alone do not improve student outcomes.

Ensuring that increased funding and autonomy do deliver improved student outcomes requires a greater focus on what the evidence says about the efficacy and efficiency of particular educational interventions.

The case for evidence informed practice in education is gaining traction across the world. Australia has a long involvement in this conversation, with the 2005 National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy asserting that “teaching, learning, curriculum and assessment need to be more firmly linked to findings from evidence-based research indicating effective practices, including those that are demonstrably effective for the particular learning needs of individual children”.

… strengthening the capabilities of school leaders is a catalyst for reliable school improvement.

Establishing a culture of evidence informed practice involves first and foremost equipping education professionals with the tools and capabilities to engage with evidence and apply it to their contexts. This includes developing an understanding of the importance as well as the limitations of evidence. Evidence of success in one setting does not guarantee its success in another. Rather, it should be treated as a promising opportunity to consider if successful supporting conditions exist or can be created in the local school. And, most importantly, that there is strong support for implementing the causative changes with fidelity.

The school leader is at the heart of this work. Particularly given trends in increasing autonomy; strengthening the capabilities of school leaders is a catalyst for reliable school improvement. Efforts to enable school leaders to engage with evidence, if successful, will translate into engagement from teachers and support staff, and will improve teaching and learning.

This is especially important for leaders of schools with a high proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds. They often have reduced capital (either financial or social and often both) to work with in improving outcomes. So improving their capability to get the best educational return on investment is especially important.

Supporting school leaders to engage with evidence on educational interventions and implement those with best potential impact will require:

More evidence of what has worked

Reviews of education confirm that OECD systems including Australia are commonly characterised by low levels of investment in educational research, low levels of research capacity, and weak links between research and policy, leading to practitioners being excluded from the research agenda, and resulting in research that is not relevant to practice (OECD 2003). In particular, quantitative research and scientific evidence derived from large scale, empirical data requires further attention. An expanded body of evidence is critical to supporting school leaders to make effective and efficient investment choices for their schools.

Existing research is often held in fragmented ways, with school leaders having limited awareness of its availability.

Meaningful access to evidence

For school leaders to engage with evidence, it must be available, easily accessible, and readily understandable. Existing research is often held in fragmented ways, with school leaders having limited awareness of its availability. It is also often difficult to understand, given that educators often lack training in interpreting scientific language. For meaningful access to be possible, it is critical that research be translated into readable forms with the implications of the evidence for real world implementation made apparent.

A valuable addition in this area is the Australian Teaching and Learning Toolkit. It provides plain English summaries of the global evidence base on 34 approaches. Each summary includes with easy-to-understand estimates of extra months of student progress, cost to implement and strength of the evidence. Social Ventures Australia is providing this free service to all schools nationally thanks to support from the Commonwealth Bank.

 Improving the conditions for engagement with evidence, including resources, networks and tools

Increased investment of time and money in research and evidence focused activities from systems and schools is imperative. This includes more funding for research, time to engage with research findings and adapt these for local context, and the resources to monitor and evaluate local applicability. An important part of this is the presence of networks for school leaders to share experiences and support each other to make evidence informed choices, and tools that support knowledge translation, sharing, planning, implementation of interventions, evaluation and data management.

Building a culture of evidence informed practice is crucial to ensure further investment and autonomy delivers the best educational return on investment. Australian educators are increasingly adopting a culture of enquiry, and leading conversations about how they can make better use of evidence and data to drive improvement. We must support and spread this work if we are to see better educational outcomes for our students.


An article on which this is based was first published in The Mandarin.

The Commonwealth Bank has made a significant investment in the development of the Australian Teaching and Learning Toolkit Initiative, designed to enable and support a culture of evidence informed practice in schools.