Towards a 'Pact for Excellence' ?

  • Posted on: 26 January 2015
  • By: djacobs

Three weeks ago, before the shock of terror in Paris, Francophone minister for Education Joëlle Milquet announced in the media a "Pact for Excellence" which should significantly increase the quality of education for all pupils in the francophone part of Belgium from June 2016 onwards. This pact should be the result of a participative process 'without' taboos, where even controversial issues such as merit pay for teachers or breaking the frontiers between public and "free" (often confessional) schools could be discussed. These are not necessarily good ideas, but it is at the very least refreshing to hear that they can be discussed. Such ideas are traditionally not even openly formulated anymore, knowing they risk to be immediately swept under the carpet. According to the press, the initiative will be launched on an on-line platform on January 26 2015 and would in a further stage involve stake holder consultation and debate. On January 21 2015 a government approved presentation of the "Pact for Excellence" has been made public. An often heard criticism is that every new minister of education seems to come up with an ambitious reform plan, which in the end often brings more new challenges than it actually provides solutions. By using a participative procedure, minister Milquet hopes this reform will be of a different nature as it is supposed to be created and supported from bottom-up. This approach, including stakeholders from the start, is to be applauded as it might help undermine skepticism.

Fighting reform fatigue

There always is resistance against policy change, especially in a field with a lot of reform fatigue. Critics cannot be blamed for their attitude. Those with some experience in the educational field have heard huge ambitions being announced all too often and a battery of reforms over the last two decades has not necessarily changed anything drastically for the better. They often also rightly complain they were not or insufficiently consulted during the preparatory process of policy reforms. Sometimes obvious difficulties could have been avoided as they were predictable by people in the field. Others regret that reforms never can really succeed if they do not dare to tackle issues that are linked to vested interests and are avoided by politicians as they equate them to electoral suicide. So turning to a participative procedure seems to be killing three birds with one stone: assure adherence from all stakeholders, avoid predictable pitfalls and take at heart the 'real' priorities on the terrain. Obviously, a successful participative process is easier said than done. Debates need to be facilitated in order to avoid endless discussions or lack of coherence between proposals. They also need real commitment from participants. They should be convinced it is worth the effort of spending their time and energy (“Is this just another debate group?”, “Will anything real ever come from this?”). Furthermore, they should dare to discuss measures in the interest of all and not just only defend their own interests. Only under these circumstances something novel can appear policywise for which all parties involved provide at least minimal support. If well organized and supported by professional moderators and a group of experts, it might work to create such an innovative 'Pact for Excellence'. However, then the next step will be to evaluate the feasibility of the actual plans and proposals. In times of austerity, announcing a (big) reform is tricky. Given budgetary cuts, any reform would be only possible from mid 2016 onwards, it is said.  But even then, all will depend on the actual contents and ambition of the pact. If the idea itself of being capable to imagine a big reform within the context of limited financial means seems implausible to key participants (and consequently makes them take a lukewarm stance towards it), the exercise is of little use. Everyone involved should be able to accept the idea that the sky is not the limit and that there is a need to imagine systemic changes in a way that they remain relatively budgetary neutral. That choices need to be made in the common interest, without promising unrealistic budget increases for every imaginable measure in order to please everyone. In other words, an honest assessment of priorities has to be made which will necessarily go against some vested interests. This is a tough and risky exercise indeed. It seems to be mission impossible. But we should give it the benefit of the doubt, as the stakes in the educational field are high.

A good school for every child

Everyone agrees that something should be done, as the overall score of the Belgian-Francophone educational system is mediocre judged by international rankings based on comparative research such as PISA. Other systems spending the same amount of money per pupil score significantly better. Moreover, there is a huge problem of reproduction of social inequality: we are among the worst with regard to equal opportunities, as socio-economic background has a bigger impact on pupils' performance than in other countries. Migrant origin children are badly catered for by the system: the gap between migrant and non-migrant children is huge. Without wanting to be too gloomy, the list of challenges is impressive. Segregation levels are high, regulation of access to school is complicated and conflict-rife, drop out levels are huge and too many pupils have to repeat their grade year (at a high financial and human cost). Let us hope that the ‘Pact for Excellence’ does not ‘just’ have the ambition to raise the overall average score of the Belgian Francophone schooling system in the PISA rankings for mathematics, sciences and reading. It could, and perhaps should, for instance (and without wanting to be exhaustive) also define quality in terms of equal opportunities, citizenship education, self-development, creativity and/or student well-being. In order to avoid discussing everything and in the end come up with nothing due to the vast number of challenges and topics up for discussion, the first step is perhaps to clearly define what the actual aim of reforms to be included in the ‘Pact for Excellence’ in terms of outcomes should be. Or in other words, the notion of ‘quality’ needs to be defined and it would in most cases help if one can formulate indicators for grasping and measuring it. Aiming for excellence combined with equal opportunities could be a definition for quality: increasing average attainment scores for key competencies, assuring that both at the top as at the bottom cognitive skills get maximally triggered and diminishing the impact of socio-economic position on educational outcomes. The Finnish school reform adopted the catch phrase “ensuring a good school for every child” as its central ambition. Perhaps this should also be the central guiding principle of the Belgian Francophone ‘Pact for Excellence’: making sure that in every school there are optimal conditions for any kind of child to discover its interest and develop its competencies to the best of their potential. Taking into account the current situation in which due to high levels of segregation, some schools have an easier task to assure these optimal conditions than other schools, this is not just a nice slogan without consequences. It pushes us towards targeting measures towards those schools where support is most needed.

No one shot magic bullet solution

In our opinion one factor to which the 'Pact for Excellence' should pay attention is the intertwined nature of a number of phenomena. There is no one shot magic bullet solution and it does not make sense to have a catalogue of isolated measures devoid of global coherence. Different pieces of the puzzle need to be looked at together. For instance, at first sight unrelated issues such as school segregation and strength of the teaching teams might actually be related. It is kicking in an open door to state that teachers are important. With fewer young people opting for a career as teacher as their first choice and in the light of a drop in status for the teaching profession, we might not be attracting the most motivated and talented to the teaching profession as one would wish for. This is a problem, but perhaps a bigger problem is to found in the fact that over half of young teachers quit the profession within the first five years of their career in the Brussels Capital Region. Is it the flat career, the struggle to get a full teaching load and a fixed position, the pay or the difficulty of teaching that drives them out? We should also assess whether all schools are confronted with recruitment and retention challenges in the same way and to what extent this has an impact on quality. Are schools with a higher proportion of at-risk pupils (due to socio-economic status or ethnic minority background) impacted in a different way by teacher turn-over than schools with a more mixed composition? We know that social and academic segregation is very high in our schooling system. We also know for over 40 years that there is such a thing as the school composition effect. There are peer group effects: pupils with particular socio-demographic characteristics can have influences on each other for the better or for the worse. The composition of the student body also impacts on the day to day pedagogical and social reality for teachers. Teaching in a class where half of the pupils have not eaten a proper breakfast is different than teaching in a class where most pupils started the day in ideal circumstances. 

In our ERC funded project EQUOP we wish to examine to what extent these particular phenomena are interrelated. The project wishes to test the hypothesis that the link between school composition and educational performance is a (partly) spurious effect, caused by a mediating effect of teacher characteristics. We indeed hypothesize that better skilled and more positively oriented teachers are overrepresented in schools with an 'easier' school population, while so-called 'difficult' schools (populated by working-class immigrant children) have difficulty in attracting and - especially - keeping competent and motivated staff and creating a solid team able to overcome challenges. We do not think it always applies, but we suspect there is a link between strength of the teacher team and school composition. If our hypotheses get confirmed, policy makers need to start thinking how to assure that the strongest teams of teachers can be created in those schools where the challenges are the highest (i.e. where there is a higher proportion of disadvantaged and migrant-origin pupils).

Teacher efficacy (le pari d’éducabilité)

In order to examine this hypothesis a mixed methods approach is being used, combining quantitative statistical analysis (on new and existing data, for instance multi-level analysis of the PISA-data set and other eligible datasets), qualitative case studies and focus groups. Secondary analysis of existing data-sets (PISA, TIMMS and PIRLS) are undertaken and new data is collected (taking the Flemish and Francophone educational systems in Belgium as case-studies). In autumn 2014, we completed the most ambitious part of our data-collection endeavor. In a sample of 107 schools and involving some 11.000 pupils we undertook a mathematics assessment test in the second year of secondary education in Francophone Belgium. We also collected socio-demographic data on pupils and surveyed their teachers. We hope to be able to link the results of the mathematics test to standardized test results of the same pupils at the end of the school year to be able to assess their progress during the year. Particular interest will go to the impact of school (human) resources and teacher attitudes. Currently the approximately 400.000 pages of raw material are being scanned and processed and we are anxious to start with the analysis after data cleaning. The aim is to examine to what extent the strength and characteristics of teacher teams (stability, skills and attitudes) are related to school composition and impacts on student performance. We want, for instance, to test whether teacher efficacy (the belief to be able to make the difference with education for a pupil, regardless of his or her background) varies from school to school and has a differential impact on outcomes. We do not undertake any individual evaluation of teachers of schools, the objective is to shed light on the bigger patterns. What are the characteristics of schools with high numbers of at-risk pupils that score better than comparable schools? Why do some schools with a more privileged student body score worse than schools with a comparable student population? Why do schools with poorer pupils tend to score worse than schools with richer pupils, over and above the impact of individual socio-economic characteristics of pupils, and to what extent is this related to other school characteristics? 

Particular attention will be given to the level of individual and collective teacher efficacy (“le pari d’éducabilité”) in French. As we already highlighted, teacher efficacy refers to the belief teachers have about the extent to which they can make the difference with education for pupils, no matter what their background is. A high level of teacher efficacy as a basic attitude is often correlated with better learning progress among pupils. We wish to examine to what extent this phenomenon is also to be observed in Belgian schools, to what extent it is linked to school composition and school policy. Indeed, we suspect that those schools that obtain remarkably better results than other schools with a comparable student body in terms of socio-economic and ethnic composition, might have higher levels of teacher efficacy. If this is true, the next question is to explain why these schools have been able to achieve this.

How to get the strongest teacher teams in schools with most at-risk pupils?

Our ERC project took as one of central guiding hypotheses the idea (already partly confirmed in qualitative field observations) that the most stable, experienced and cohesive teams might be overrepresented in schools with a higher proportion of well-off kids. From a policy point of view, we should assure the inverse: make sure that the best pedagogical teams work in those schools with a high proportion of at-risk pupils where their talents are actually most needed. We applaud that increasingly other research groups are being inspired by similar research questions and ideas. Some of them have already been able to beat us in speed in presenting results. Our colleagues in Flanders of the “Steunpunt Studie-en Schoolloopbanen” (SIBO) on January 5 2015 for instance announced in the media that their own research, undertaken in 296 classes among 4.987 pupils of the 5the grade of primary education, showed that teachers investing more effort in the pedagogy of active learning, in metacognitive training and in a cooperative learning environment are better able to limit the gap between native speakers and pupils speaking another language at home. This made the researchers of SIBO recommend to policy makers to make sure that schools with a high number of at-risk pupils should attract the strongest teachers. They suggest financial and work-load incentives to make a teaching job in schools with a higher proportion of at-risk pupils (ie. disfavored and immigrant origin children) more attractive. This echoes our own policy recommendations made in November 2013 linked to our analysis of PISA-data presented at the Conference of French speaking Belgian economists and widely debated in the francophone Belgian media at the time (see the original press article in La Libre Belgique). It inspired a question in the “electoral test” (“test electoral”) of public broadcaster RTBF for the elections of 2014 (“Should teachers in more difficult schools be paid more?”), to which all francophone parties from the entire political spectrum responded positively. On Flemish side, where the same question was included in the “electoral test” (“stemtest”) of public broadcaster VRT, the greens and the right-liberal party supported the idea. We are not sure whether giving a higher pay is really the best strategy to assure that the strongest teacher teams are to be allocated to the schools with most challenges. Improving attractiveness of the schools by other means (better working conditions, strong school policy, cohesive teams) might prove just as important. The challenge, however, has been clearly formulated and the claim is increasingly accepted that teachers actually do not do the same kind of job in all types of schools, even if they earn the same salaries.  Merit pay for teachers is in our opinion not a good idea as it stimulates so-called “teaching to the test” (as teachers risk to focus too much on preparing for the test instead of giving priority to actual teaching of competencies). It can also exacerbate competition between teachers and schools. But it might be a good idea to include in the ‘Pact of Excellence’ other strategies to assure that the strongest teachers end up teaching in those schools where their talents are needed the most. As today, almost every time we discuss our ideas with teachers and educators in the field, their stories seem to confirm our hypotheses. Motivated young teachers might start their careers in schools with a high proportion of at-risk pupils, but tend to prefer to move to ‘easier’ schools once they get the opportunity. Our ERC funded EQUOP-research project, which will shed light on the importance of teacher efficacy and the link between school composition and school team resources, will probably only lead to publications in 2016. Our analyses have to be done with rigor, so we will probably not be able to let our new quantitative research data weigh in on the debates for the “Pact of Excellence”. But a next blog contribution by my colleague Julien Danhier (ULB), focusing in on the PISA 2012 data, provides abundant empirical material and reflections which certainly might be useful to be included in the deliberations. Without by any means pretending to be exhaustive, let us just also refer to the excellent work undertaken the last decade by colleagues such as Dominique Lafontaine and Ariane Baye (ULg), Bernard Delvaux and Vincent Dupriez (UCL) or Nathanaël Friant and Marc Demeuse (UMons). No one can claim that the challenges of the Francophone educational system in Belgium have not been sufficiently studied to be able to already distill useful policy recommendations.