U.K. researchers call for more teacher power to improve education

The Royal Society
Posted by Jeffrey Mervis, June 26, 2014

Originally appeared in Science Magazine.

A new report from the Royal Society on improving U.K. science and mathematics education contains a lengthy wish list: Upper-level students should take a lot more science and math; more college graduates with science degrees should go into teaching; current teachers should continually upgrade their skills and have a larger voice in the educational process; and the government should de-emphasize the high-stakes tests used to measure student achievement. But the authors of the report, released today, also realize that wishes don’t always come true.

“There will be pushback from the politicians because we are asking them to relinquish some of their meddling powers,” says Julia Higgins, a professor emeritus of chemical engineering at Imperial College London and former foreign secretary of the society. “Education is a political football. So we’re saying we need a Manhattan Project, a man on the moon, or something that will get the political parties to stop batting the thing back and forth. And they won’t like that. But we are doing our best to talk to them, and we have hopes.”

The report, called a “vision” for 2030, includes a timetable with short- and long-range goals. It comes out just as England is implementing a law that extends compulsory education from age 16 to 18. The change creates an opportunity to raise what the report labels the “low levels of post-16 participation in science and mathematics” by encouraging students to continue their studies even if they are not planning to major in those subjects at college or attend university at all. Right now, post-16 students take only three or four courses, known as A-levels, so a high proportion will study no science or mathematics. Only 30% of all students take one or more A-levels in those subjects.

More students enrolled in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) courses will require more science and math teachers, of course. And the United Kingdom already faces a shortage of them, especially in physics. The short-term answer is to shift teachers from related subjects into STEM courses. But that step risks degrading the quality of instruction. That’s why high-quality, continuing professional development is so important, Higgins says.

Unfortunately, the current version of professional development is universally seen as insufficient for raising teacher skills to the desired level. “It’s patchy,” Higgins admits. “A lot of the training has more to do with classroom management than with how to introduce and transmit new science. So we’re also calling for much more, and higher quality, subject-specific training.”

The United Kingdom’s heavy reliance on external, high-stakes tests is another big obstacle to improved STEM instruction, experts say. “This government simply doesn’t trust teachers to assess students properly,” asserts Tina Isaacs, a program leader at the Institute of Education in London, who was not involved in the report. “What the Royal Society is proposing is antithetical to them.”

The current system wastes valuable class time, Higgins says, by forcing teachers to spend months preparing students for a test. Using a single test score as the sole measure of achievement instead of a student’s yearlong performance in class leads to what Isaacs and others have labeled “perverse incentives,” including disregarding whether students can actually apply what they have learned.

The remedy, according to the report, would be to give teachers more responsibility to assess student learning. That change, Higgins says, would also make the profession more attractive to high-quality students and improve retention rates once they enter the classroom.

The report also backs replacing the A-level system with a wider-ranging “baccalaureate-style” approach. The idea is to broaden the pool of upper-level students taking STEM courses beyond those who are planning STEM-related careers. A 2011 Royal Society report made a similar suggestion and generated much discussion, but no action.

Such a change addresses a problem facing all industrialized nations, says Martin Storksdieck, who stepped down this month as director of the U.S. National Academies’ Board on Science Education to lead the Center for Research on Lifelong STEM Learning at Oregon State University, Corvallis. “The A-level system leaves out a lot of people,” he says, not just students pursuing non-STEM degrees but also the larger public.

Jonathan Osborne, a professor at Stanford University in California and a former head of the education department at King’s College London, gives the report high marks for arguing that most students need more math and science to function in today’s world. But he’s disappointed that the authors rely on what he calls a questionable economic argument—in this case, that the United Kingdom needs 1 million additional STEM-trained professionals by 2020—and ignore another important reason.

“I understand why all these reports push that button, because it is what policymakers want to hear,” Osborne says about the labor force rationale. “But it downplays the cultural value of learning about science,” he says. “It also sends a strong message that you only study science and math if you want a STEM job—and a lot of kids aren’t interested in becoming a scientist.”

Storksdieck thinks the authors were wise to include a timeline with important milestones along the journey. “In the first 5 years they are really taking baby steps,” he says. “That way, nobody feels threatened. So the good news is that you have a lot of time to get things done.” Then he adds a caveat. “The bad news is that people may ignore it, because the changes needed seem so far away.”

Higgins, who will be leading the society’s effort to implement the report’s recommendations, is counting on what she calls “the growing pressure and desire from a lot of directions” to instill in policymakers a sense of urgency. But she says the authors made a conscious decision to avoid putting a price tag on what needs to be done.

“This report lays out the key principles that should be followed in improving science and math education,” she says. “But until you have the operational details, it’s very hard to know the real cost. We thought it would be misleading and distracting to politicians to have cost figures floating around.”