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‘Beyond the Plateau’: Right Problem, Odd Solution

Viv Ellis

‘Beyond the Plateau’: The Case for an Institute of Advanced Teaching, published by the IPPR last week, identifies probably the key school-level challenge in improving educational outcomes and social mobility for disadvantaged young people: how to recruit, develop and retain effective teachers, especially in hard-to-staff schools. The report raises many intriguing questions but nonetheless stumbles on a mix of contentious assumptions and unsubstantiated claims.

For example, the assertion that existing MAs in Education don’t ‘transform’ teachers’ performance manages both to assume that’s what all Master’s degrees are supposed to do whilst glossing over the absence of data to show that those that aspire to don’t. A teacher who chooses to do an MA in the History of Education is probably smart enough not to assume it will have a directly positive impact on the quality of their teaching. At the same time, there is no evidence that MAs in Education that were actually designed to improve teachers’ performance (quite a small sample) don’t. They may not. But ‘may not’ isn’t ‘do not’.

The report’s ultimate goal of improving the life-chances of children who live in poverty is uncontentious and urgent. But before we accept the central premise of its argument – that the creation of a new Higher Education Institution (HEI) modelled on the US ‘independent Graduate Schools of Education’ (GSE) is the solution – it’s probably worth closer examination.

Relay, the preferred model in the report, is one of a small number of GSEs that have been allowed to open in the US. Relay grew out of a project at the City University of New York and became its own entity in 2011, with permission to grant Master’s degrees. Its focus then was ITE and it presented itself as an ‘alternative’ to mainstream routes, becoming part of the reform discourse in the US that positions regular universities as deficient. Relay was started by three charter school management organisations (CMOs, equivalent to our MATs), of which the most familiar in the UK is KIPP (the Knowledge is Power Program). In the last few years, Relay has branched out to open up shop in several US cities offering CPD for teachers and principal training. Its intellectual core, the ‘backbone’ of Relay (according to its President, Norman Atkins), is Teach Like a Champion by Doug Lemov. Whatever you think of the book, it’s not the cutting edge, research and evidence-based curriculum the IPPR proposes.

Self-declared ‘reform’ organisations like GSEs and CMOs can certainly talk-the-talk but they can also be somewhat reluctant to be publicly accountable

The National Education Policy Center (NEPC) will publish an analysis of the evidence of the effectiveness of these new GSEs this autumn. Authored by Ken Zeichner, Boeing Professor of Teacher Education at the University of Washington, the NEPC review offers a synthesis of all the available peer-reviewed research as well as other research and data, such as internal evaluations of impact and quality of five GSEs, including Relay. The NEPC review notes that although advocates of these new GSEs make bold claims about innovation and success, ‘such claims are not substantiated by independent, vetted research and program evaluations’ (Zeichner, in press: 2). Although some students at some of the schools associated with these GSEs perform well on standardized tests in Maths and English, questions continue to be raised about the selectivity of schools such as KIPP schools and the attrition rates of certain categories of students from them. Moreover, as the Center for Media and Democracy uncovered earlier this year, KIPP has successfully persuaded the US Department of Education to keep certain data secret, such as completion rates and college graduation rates. Self-declared ‘reform’ organisations like GSEs and CMOs can certainly talk-the-talk but they can also be somewhat reluctant to be publicly accountable. This reluctance makes it impossible to take their claims at face value. Independent GSEs therefore cannot claim to have solved one of education’s most intractable problems.

Which shouldn’t come as a surprise. A Master’s degree isn’t prerequisite to becoming an effective teacher even if some highly successful school systems internationally think that they inculcate good professional habits of mind: a critical knowledge of a field of practice; the capacity to collect and analyse evidence; the ability to marshal arguments to inform independent judgments; the development of adaptive expertise. If you’re interested in drilling teachers in what you think is the one true way of teaching, you don’t need to invent a new HEI with all the strange paraphernalia of deans and faculty and fellows and, who knows, high table too. It’s strange that the IPPR report’s author believes that the kinds of teachers who will do the kinds of teaching we need would be swayed by this prospect.

It’s also odd that of all the American cherries the report could have picked, it chose this one. Why not Urban Teacher Residencies (UTRs), for example, that explicitly address attracting, developing and retaining teachers in hard-to-staff schools, paying them stipends during training on condition they stay for a specificied number of years and supporting them with ‘long, thin’, school-based teacher development? (Relay itself has come around to the UTR model in recent years). Or how about new kinds of partnerships with research universities like the ten-year-old Stanford-San Francisco Unified School District Partnership that closes the research-practice gap?

Our HE landscape is likely to look more like the US where small, relatively low-cost private institutions offer very narrow job-skills training

The 2016 HE white paper creates the conditions for new ‘challenger institutions’ to enter what is now the HE market in England and gain accreditation quickly. Consequently, we are likely to see new HEIs open that will offer training for teachers more cheaply than most universities. Our HE landscape is likely to look more like the US where small, relatively low-cost private institutions offer very narrow job-skills training. So the wake-up call to our university departments of Education grows louder still. But there is no evidence to suggest that setting up an English Relay would be the silver bullet for educational and social inequality and, as the recent Institute for Fiscal Studies report into different ITE routes suggests about Teach First, there would be some very serious questions about the costs and benefits involved if, like Teach First, an English Relay takes a hefty taxpayer subsidy.

Indeed, one reading of the IPPR report is a tacit acknowledgement of the failure of Teach First’s ‘benevolent tsunami of leadership‘ to secure the kinds of improved outcomes for disadvantaged kids it promised. The report’s focus on teacher development is therefore to be welcomed. A convincing case for an Institute of Advanced Teaching on the Relay model, however, hasn’t been made.


Zeichner, K. (in press, 2016) Independent teacher education programs: Apocryphal claims, illusory evidence. Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center, University of Colorado (NEPC)