TEFL Education Reform

Preliminary Remarks

These are preliminary remarks meant to lay out some basic features of the discussion of Education Reform, and TEFL Education Reform in particular. There is ongoing discussion and commentary about the topic of Education Reform, as well as initiatives on the parts of local and national governments, or even at the level of individual schools attempting such actions. Some of these date back tens and hundreds of years, not to mention some from antiquity.

Reform, Innovation, Change

Reform is a particularly strong word, related as it is historically to the Reformation. It seems halfway between a rebellion and a revolution. In any case, it is the term used instead of other more neutral and positive words, such as innovation or simply improvement.

Reform seems to contain within various meanings, including a current status of being in need of reformation, the arresting of improper development, a shifting or retrenching, and an re-positing of first principles, and placing on a proper path toward growth and progress (or at least normalcy).

To take the sting out of the term, one can simply shift to the language of improvement which of course no one is against (as there is always room for improvement). We will continue to use the term Education Reform though, as that is part of the terms of debate. However, we mean only improvement, which taken generally means to keep what works and change what doesn't, and do so in a wise way.

Diffusion of Innovation

From a sociological and socio-technical perspective, this kind of improvement is on solid ground, as we have decades of research and practical experience in making change, under the rubric of innovation. The most prominent guidebook is Everett Rogers' Diffusion of Innovations. Anyone who intends to undertake innovation much less reformation of an organization or institution would do well to study this book in depth.

Basic Elements of Education Reform

Education Reform would seem to include three touchstones. Defining these in general terms has the immediate effect of bringing clarity on what Education Reform might be, and how it is supposed to be implemented: measuring learning outcomes, evaluating education reforms, and implementing learning improvement.

Improving Learning Outcomes

First, Education Reform is about improving learning outcomes (usually measured by test scores, time to matriculation, and the like, even possibly costs-per-pupil). And so it is important to get firm agreement on what education (as an industry and for specific institutions) is meant to produce (and not produce), and how that can be measured. It may be useful to have several measures, insofar as they are useful, and also help provide benchmarks and competitor analysis. Some measures cannot be avoided, but there should always be true and defensible measure which is at the heart of every school, and which is its raison d'etre.

Variety of Education Reforms

Second, there are various actual Education Reforms that an institution or a local or national government can perform or implement. It is vital to understand in practical as well as theoretical terms -- what change would take place, the time and effort evolved, the potential benefits. It is also important to understand how (the mechanism by which) such a practical intervention would actually improve learning.

Implementation of Learning Improvement

Third, Education Reforms is the process of deciding upon and implementing education reform in one or more institutions, which involves training over time, and possibly material resources.

Note that a great tool for organizational change is the Thinking Processes of Elihu Goldratt's Theory of Constraints.

Measuring Learning Outcomes via Objectives

At times it appears that Education Reform discussion is focused on criticisms of learning outcomes measures. This became evident most recently -- today -- in a Bangkok Post article on testing failure in Thai schools, where respondents simply took issue with the reported data (which indeed was an impoverished average score for the country on a number of subjects). What was desired instead of more detail both in terms of grade distribution, as well as geography, rural vs. urban, etc.

Nevertheless, learning can -- and must -- be measured. This is actually not so difficult, though it does take a bit of time and organization. Namely this is done through a set of nested rubrics that are first and foremost goals and progress indicators in the development skills and the acquisition of knowledge.

As well, standard national and international tests that already exist can be used (or critiqued and rejected, as needed).

Note that these objectives should be regularly reviewed, as what people need to learn does in fact change over time. This is not just the information (which changes over time) but the kinds of skills needed for today (and tomorrow).

Example: Critical thinking should include source evaluation (to what degree a given source of information is reliable). Evaluation of the reliability of information found on the Internet is a modern skill that should be a part of information literacy. However, this important skill is less than 20 years old as of 2016. Which means that the vast majority of teachers and professors received their own training and education without the need or even existence of this skill that must now be taught.

Assessment should be done professionally with appropriate measurement design and analysis. For large (and small) groups, appropriate kinds of validity and reliability are vital to legitimacy of education reform.

Effectiveness of Various Education Reforms

Evidence-based Education assesses education reforms based on the relative impact (or effect size). The basic idea is that all (or most) reforms do have some positive effect (some do not). However, not all reforms are equal in effect size, and so should be ranked.

Besides effect, there is cost and appropriateness. Education reforms may or may not work for certain learning communities based on other criteria other than outcomes effect size and cost. For example, Bilingual programs have a positive, but not overwhelming impact, but in some communities whose teaching is in a second language (not their mother tongue) then a bilingual program could have a great impact there.

PISA Assessment and Forecasting

PISA is a test given every three years to 15-year-olds in 59 countries (Thailand does not participate, and Vietnam is not included because not all provinces have the same national education system in place). [The most recent PISA outcomes and the ability now to account for 85% of the variance -- that is, largely predict progress or regress relative to other countries -- are quite revealing.

Generally speaking, the smartest countries tend to be those that have acted to make teaching more prestigious and selective; directed more resources to their neediest children; enrolled most children in high-quality preschools; helped schools establish cultures of constant improvement; and applied rigorous, consistent standards across all classrooms.

Sadly, the US has only attempted one of these reforms, it is not universally adopted, and Trump campaigned to end it (Common Core). As above regarding eivdence-based education reform, technology in the classroom and smaller class sizes do not improve performance, and there is some evidence it is harmful.

TEFL Education Reform

Even at the start of TEFL Education Reform there are questions about what the term reform really apply to. For example, is it the curriculum and teaching of prospective teachers (that is, the purview of the TEFL Trainer in the TEFL course. Better, what we intend to discuss is the reform of teaching English as a foreign language. In reality it can and does apply to both, as actual reform requires many stakeholders and training begins with the teacher.

After laying out some of the main dimensions, we can now apply Education REform to TEFL. We can do this didactically. And so we look back to the three part division: measuring learning outcomes, evaluating education reforms, and implementing learning improvement. What is important is that the third step is taken first. That is, it needs to become clear that the process for educational reform (by which one engages in discovery, analysis, and implementation of the reform) is as important as the actual reform. Notably, implementation is done at a group, organization, or institution level. Therefore communication of the process needs to be implemented at the beginning. This is a big part of the failure of institutional changes, and possibly education more so than others. A lack of inclusion of all stakeholders and interested parties in the process (to at least some degree) can easily result in failure. For a language school, this means all teachers and administrators, and also any teacher training and teacher recruitment.

  • Design a core improvement process, taking into account informational and political resources needed
  • Engage all stakeholders in refining the process
    • Also have them define what success would look like in terms of the reform process, include a general timeline
    • Ensure there are no informational or political traps being laid to delay or derail the process, continue to communicate and get buy-in
  • Begin analysis of the educational outcomes of TEFL (build Matrices, determine definitions, etc.)
    • Note that this stage alone might constitute a significant milestone, and may take a while for this to become fully understood and absorbed by the organization, not to mention becoming integrated in evaluation systems (staff reward and promotions), as well as the curriculum itself, not to mention understood by the greater community (parents, friends of the organization, etc.)
  • Determine which high impact generic educational reform elements apply effectively to TEFL, and also determine if there are any language-specific reforms that would be effective (such as bilingual education)
    • Reassess the reform options with the original rubrics and find best fit reforms
    • As there are usually too many options to pursue, rank the options and have various stakeholders weigh in on which ones they can support to a greater degree.
    • Gain full agreement on tasks to implement
  • Turn the success measures and the change list into a project to implement. Make sure that organizational leaders (at all levels) are involved and supportive, and measurements for the project's' success are also agreed to, assessed and communicated regularly.

Summary

In sum, Education Reform in general and TEFL Education Reform in particular is best approached from a project management perspective with the main objective of the project that of organizational change. The result of such change being the improvement of learning outcomes. Since even a well-conceived, well-designed and executed program of education reform can fail, it is important to have feedback within each stage of the project so that changes can be made as the need arises. Failure can occur at all levels, from the design, to the data collection and analysis, to the implementation (which requires behavior change on the part of teachers, administrators, and the organization as a whole).

Thailand - A Case in Point

  • http://m.bangkokpost.com/news/general/1162805/thai-education-system-fails-to-deliver
  • http://m.bangkokpost.com/news/general/1154113/thai-students-plunge-in-pisa-test-rankings

"Generally speaking, the smartest countries tend to be those that have acted to make teaching more prestigious and selective; directed more resources to their neediest children; enrolled most children in high-quality preschools; helped schools establish cultures of constant improvement; and applied rigorous, consistent standards across all classrooms."

Turns out that fewer students in each classroom, and more technology in the classroom, do not improve outcomes. Nor does "local school empowerment" which is something that is popular to claim as a fix.