The Politics of Distraction

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The Politics of Distraction

Transcript Of The Politics of Distraction

John Hattie June 2015

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What Doesn’t Work in Education:The Politics of Distraction
John Hattie

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This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Licence. To view a copy of this licence, visit or send a letter to Creative Commons, PO Box 1866, Mountain View, CA 94042, USA.
Suggested reference: Hattie, J. (2015) What Doesn’t Work in Education: The Politics of Distraction, London: Pearson.
Thanks to my colleagues who provided critique of the drafts: Michael Barber,Tom Bentley, Janet Clinton, Kristen DiCerbo, Laurie Forcier, Mark Griffiths, Debra Masters, Dan Murphy, Field Rickards, Jim Tognolini and Peter de Witt.

John Hattie is Professor and Director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute at the University of Melbourne, Australia, and Deputy Director of the Science of Learning Research Centre. He is the author of Visible Learning and Visible Learning for Teachers, the co-author (with Gregory C. R.Yates) of Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn and co-editor (with Eric Anderman) of The International Guide to Student Achievement.
Pearson © 2015
The contents and opinions expressed in this report are those of the authors only.
ISBN: 9780992422677



FOREWORD by Sir Michael Barber   v




3. GETTING THE STRATEGY RIGHT   3 Achievement standards   3 The ‘tail’ and ‘narrowing the gap’   3 Flatlining   4


Distraction 1: Appease the parents   9

Distraction 2: Fix the infrastructure


Distraction 3: Fix the students


Distraction 4: Fix the schools


Distraction 5: Fix the teachers








Few, if any, academics have made as great a contribution to our collective knowledge base about what works in education as John Hattie. His painstaking meta-analysis of literally tens of thousands of academic studies on education interventions resulted in his now justly famous book, Visible Learning, which he has since followed up with others.
While many of the academic papers he has reviewed show a particular education inter­ vention to have a positive effect (as John memorably puts it, ‘perhaps all you need to enhance learning is a pulse!’), he has made the case that unless an intervention has an effect size of 0.4 or greater (the average expected growth effect size for one year of progress in school), it would be unwise to base decision-making on it. In other words, John asks for more impact for our effort, and he has identified the relatively few ideas that pass this benchmark at a classroom level.
In this new paper, the first of two, he addresses the question of what this search for more impact means, and he does two things powerfully. The first is to make the case that the minimum goal of education, when rightly expressed, should be for all students to make at least one year’s progress for one year’s input, no matter where they start.The second is to argue that at the level of public policy there are many ideas, many of them popular and plausible, which do not pass the 0.4 test.

These comprise what he calls the politics of distraction.
What does this mean for practical action? What should we do? This is something that John considers in a second paper that focuses on the notion of collaborative expertise. I hope that the important messages in this companion paper will be heard loud and clear.
To my mind, there is also a more general question of how practical action – across all fields – should respond to an existing evidence base. This is something that John and I have debated in public and private, and our views are not identical.
Having played a significant role in policy-making in England, and having advised government on education policy from time to time, I have felt and experienced some of the dilemmas John describes. I learnt that purely evidence-based policy is neither desirable nor possible. This is not an argument for ignoring the evidence. On the contrary, every decision should take available evidence into account. There are three problems with a purely evidence-based approach though. One is that the evidence is not always clear-cut and is often the subject of vigorous debate – which is healthy, but it doesn’t make it any easier to reach conclusions.
Another is that in a fast-moving world, policy-­makers often have to innovate, and,



by definition, there will not be conclusive evidence either way on an innovation. For example, while I agree that promoting choice can be a distraction, I believe that genuine choice will become a powerful lever for getting us closer to John’s goal of every student making a year’s worth of progress for a year’s worth of input. (For example, another recent entry into the Pearson thought leadership catalogue by Tooley and Longfield [2015], makes the case that choice over schools really does matter in the developing world.)
The third is that ideology is not always bad: we elect governments partly on the policies they set out in a campaign but partly also on the broad view of the world they espouse. For example, it is perfectly plausible to be for or against choice on ideological grounds (i.e. to believe that choice is or is not a good thing in itself). For these reasons, I would argue for evidence-informed policy rather than evidence-based policy.

As with every piece in Pearson’s thought-­ leadership series, John’s papers represent an important, independent voice in our global conversation on education. Using the evidence that he has amassed over the course of his incredibly generative career, John has produced a provocative synthesis that will challenge thinking along all points of the pol­ itical spectrum. Although John’s papers won’t answer every question (and, indeed, they will raise quite a few more), they do provide an unmatched summary of the baseline know­ ledge every education policy-maker should have. And, if these papers become a starting point from which policy-makers build their knowledge about what does and does not work, the result is certain to be policy that is better informed and more effective.
As it happens, the papers are also an excellent read.
Michael Barber



In this report, the first of two linked papers on what doesn’t work in education, and then on what does, I describe the confused jargon and narratives that distract us from the most ambitious and vital aim of schooling: for every student to gain at least a year’s growth for a year’s input.
I then outline the policy responses commonly used by systems aspiring to be in the world’s ‘top five’ for education. I argue that these responses are ‘fixes’ that fail to address the important questions, and so are unlikely to make

a difference, despite costing many billions of dollars. Such responses are part of what I call the ‘politics of distraction’.
In a subsequent paper, I will make the case for countries moving to systems that value and develop teacher expertise. This might be termed the politics of collaborative expertise, or, more simply, what works best. My hope is that these two papers spark a debate about the need, and then the actions required, to realign the narrative around schooling.


In my travels I have met with many political leaders and department officials and continue to be impressed with their commitment to improving their education systems, their desire to make them world-leading and their dedi­ cation to improving outcomes for students. But they struggle to have the hard, somewhat uncomfortable discussions about the variabil­ ity in the effectiveness of what happens at the classroom level and instead focus on policies which are politically attractive but which have been shown to have little effect on improving student learning – structural ‘fixes’ such as more money, different forms of schooling, different types of buildings, performance pay

for teachers, setting standards, privileging a few subjects, more assessments, more technology, lower class size, greater school choice, or longer school days, to list just a few.
These are typically expensive proposals, which the evidence shows have minimal effect on improving student learning. These distract us from implementing policies that can make a significant difference, defined here as interventions with an effect size of at least 0.4, the average expected effect size for one year of progress in school.This commitment to the commonly heard list of fixes is part of the politics of distraction.



To date, too much discussion is focused on between-school differences when the greatest issue is the differences within schools. The variance between schools, based on the 2009 PISA results for reading across all OECD countries, is 36 per cent, and variance within schools is 64 per cent. For Australia, it is 18 and 72 per cent; Canada, 20 and 80 per cent; Finland, 8 and 92 per cent; New Zealand, 16 and 84 per cent; the UK, 24 and 76 per cent; Sweden, 9 and 91 per cent; and the USA, 30 and 70 per cent.1
There are many causes of this variance within schools, but one of the more important (and one that we have some influence to reduce) is the variability in the effectiveness of teachers. This does not mean that all teachers are bad; it means that there is much variability among teachers in the effect that they have on student learning. Nearly all teachers, school leaders, students and parents know about this variability – although it is too often absent in discussions about policy, teaching and schools. Such discussion means asking some very hard questions; hence, the politics of distraction are often invoked to avoid asking them. We can only find a solution when we recognise within-schools differences as the fundamental

problem. The evidence from many decades of research on what really enhances student learning reflects this and points to solutions such as improving teacher and school leader expertise, ensuring that teachers and school leaders work together on common understandings about progress and high expect­ ations for the impact of their teaching, school leaders who focus on developing collective expertise among their teachers, systems that have robust discussions to decide the purpose and desired outcomes of their schools and students who want to learn the skills they need to become their own teachers.
These policies, less frequently heard, could be termed ‘the politics of collaborative expertise’, because it is only by resourcing and privil­eging collaborative expertise that a nation can have any chance of becoming one of the top education systems in the world. Recognising, valuing and enhancing the teachers and school leaders with high levels of expertise makes the difference. It’s what works best.
Many systems are imbued with high levels of such expertise, but it is all at risk if the politics of distraction command the limelight.

1 Although, note the between-school variance is higher in developed countries that make the most use of grouping students by academic achievement at the school level: Germany is 59 and 41 per cent, and Chile 51 and 49 per cent.