Research Manager Carl Cullinane reports on key discussion points from the Best in Class 2018 summit hosted in partnership with Carnegie Corporation.

From school structure to teacher development to the use of evidence in the classroom, The Sutton Trust-Carnegie Corporation of New York ‘Best in Class 2018’ Summit aimed to tackle a wide range of issues for equity and social mobility in schools in both the UK and the United States. The Summit featured a range of internationally renowned educational experts, including Andreas Schleicher, Director of Education and Skills at the OECD, former UK Secretary of State for Education Justine Greening, Roberto Rodriguez, former top advisor to President Barack Obama, and Dylan William, world renowned educationalist.

As London and New York experienced contrasting weather conditions, the Summit kicked off on a cold morning at New York’s Paley Center with the Founder of the Sutton Trust, Sir Peter Lampl. He emphasised the achievements and aims of the Sutton Trust over 21 years in putting social mobility on the map, and introduced the question of the day: how you can improve social mobility through our schools. He outlined the three main themes for the Summit: a) how professional development can improve the quality of teaching, b) the impact of charter school and academy reform in the US and UK, and c) the use of research evidence in the classroom. The need for change was emphasised by Vartan Gregorian, President of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, expressing his frustration with the status quo and issuing a clarion call for revolution as well as reform.

Director of Education and Skills at the OECD Andreas Schleicher gave the first keynote of the day, offering an overview of the international evidence on what’s happening in schools around the world and how change can be achieved. He emphasised the centrality of high quality teaching to improving outcomes, along with targeting the best teachers at areas that need them the most. The best performing systems around the world have approaches where teachers are professionally empowered and are given the time and space to take a holistic approach to the child. Taking up a theme that would recur throughout the day, he cited East Asian countries where teachers teach large classes, which allows them more time for professional development. While many argue that differences between countries are due to local cultures that are difficult to change, Schleicher concluded that policy can make a difference. Countries can implement change that radically change their outcomes, and countries across the world have seen substantial change, including increased equity in US educational outcomes.

One of the countries that regularly top the OECD’s PISA tables is Singapore, and Principal Master Teacher Charles Chew followed up with an account of Singapore’s approach to teaching and teacher development, emphasising the development of 21st century competencies, putting social mobility at the heart of government policy, and developing a teacher-led collaborative culture of professional excellence. Wendy Kopp, co-founder of Teach for All, the US precursor to England’s Teach First outlined how targeting high achieving graduates can harness their talents and leadership capacity, echoing the consensus among speakers of local leadership from the ground up, and the importance of buy-in at every level. Dylan William applied a critical perspective to the international evidence and the possibility of transplanting reforms from one country to another, and emphasised the pitfalls of skills-based learning, with contextual knowledge key to problem solving. His solution for improvement was in confronting the problem of stopping overworked teachers doing good things, in order to replace them with better things.

The second session offered a comparison of recent school reforms in the US and the UK by two key figures on both sides of the Atlantic: former Secretary of State for Education Justine Greening and top Obama educational adviser Roberto Rodriguez. Greening emphasised her own personal commitment to social mobility and the urgent moral imperative to improve outcomes for those from well off backgrounds, noting “the UK has never been a country where there has been equality of opportunity, but should be, and it can be”. Touching on recent political developments in the two countries, she said that countries that don’t offer enough opportunities for all of their young people set themselves up to fail. However, it is essential that macro level reforms tackling school structures, curriculum reform and school funding formulas are accompanied by a focus on place-based change, citing the establishment of Opportunity Areas. Roberto Rodriguez challenged the notion that nothing changes by noting the progress made in mathematics scores in grades 4 and 8, and a high school graduation rate at an all time high. The key challenges in US education were highlighted as the high level of racial and socio-economic segregation, echoed in the school system. In fact, many speakers throughout the day noted that the US in fact has a ‘non-system system’ characterised by a high degree of variation across the 13,000+ school boards, posing a unique challenge for systemic reform.

In that context, how can one effect change? The charter school and academy movements in the US and UK offer one approach, harnessing school autonomy to deliver innovation through increased competition. Norman Atkins, founder of Uncommon Schools noted that while the average efficacy of charter schools was relatively modest, there are many charters achieving substantial impacts on children’s lives. This highlighted the double edged sword of autonomy, which requires great leadership to deliver sustainable change. One of those leaders in England who has achieved much success is Sir Michael Wilkins, founder CEO of the Outwood Grange Academies Trust, who shared his experiences, and emphasised the importance of scaling up slowly, demonstrating success in one school, and then another, rather than growing too quickly. However Roblin Webb cautioned that the structures of competition don’t necessarily lead to rising standards in the real world, because adults can be focused on adult needs, rather than the needs of the child. Dave Levin, co-founder of the charter school operator the KIPP foundation also sounded a warning note about the chances of education effecting systemic change in the context of broader inequality: “Teachers need to have the belief that they can help the starfish, but everyone else needs to focus on improving the ocean they’re swimming in.”

Empowering teachers was a theme that ran through much of the day, but a panel including Professors Becky Allen and Robert Coe, along with Shael Polakow-Suransky explored in detail the challenges of teacher professional development, and how to foster genuine improvement, rather than box ticking or decontextualised ‘drive-by’ training. While we know a lot about what makes great teaching, we know much less about how to implement it at scale, and this is one of the great challenges for the school system, particularly as the evidence shows the importance of high quality teaching for equity and the least well-off.

The final session addressed the question of what works, how to measure it, and how to spread awareness of it. Anthony Bryk, President of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching outlining the fundamental importance of asking what works for who, and under what conditions. CEO of the Education Endowment Foundation Sir Kevan Collins kicked off with a Mark Twain quote: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so”, and outlined the EEF’s dual mission of generating evidence, but also mobilising it to reduce attainment gaps. He spoke of the mindset change required to not just use evidence selectively as a tool to reinforce a pre-existing worldview, but to be genuinely open to decision-making and changing minds based on good quality and robust evidence, emphasising that trials that show no demonstrable positive effect on learning are just as interesting and important as those that do.

Sutton Trust CEO Dr Lee Elliot Major and Carnegie Corporation’s LaVerne Srinivasan summed up a thought provoking day that confronted head on the challenges for both practitioners and policymakers in effecting educational change that can narrow achievement gaps, but also highlighted many stories, from schools, to organisations to whole countries which have achieved exactly that.

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