Reducing social inequality by studying schools

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HSE University is helping to inform education policy in Russia by combining its own research into schools with international data and emerging edtech platforms

Since the Laboratory of Educational Policy Analysis was founded in HSE University’s Institute of Education in 2011, it has tackled some of the most pressing problems facing policymakers in Russian education.

For the past three years, those problems have been distilled into two questions, says Andrey Zakharov (pictured), the laboratory head: how to improve student outcomes and how to reduce inequality of educational opportunities. “We’ve been focusing on the structure of social inequality in education, how it’s produced, and what the mechanisms are to help low social-class students to improve,” he explains.

During that time, researchers at the laboratory have used a range of approaches to examine links between education and social inequality. They took part in the Trajectories in Education and Careers longitudinal study carried out by HSE’s Institute of Education, have drawn on international datasets and gone into schools to carry out interviews and observe lessons.

Among the lab’s recent major projects is a large-scale research study targeting math education. Researchers studied 30 schools in lower, middle and upper-class areas to investigate principals’ and teachers’ visions for their schools, how schools addressed gaps in social class and influence students’ choice of educational trajectories, how teachers differentiate students and work with students from different social classes and ability groups.

The study revealed some interesting findings about how principals saw themselves and their schools’ missions. “In many situations, principals defined their own role as school administrators…[but] there were other schools where principals regarded themselves more like ‘teachers of the teachers’, or ‘educational leaders’ as they are described in modern Western literature,” says Professor Zakharov.

Principals leading schools filled with lower and middle-class students were more likely to see their mission as “to help students to become good moral people or good citizens, but not so much to help students increase their outcomes, provide social mobility or reach higher education”. At these schools, lower social class pupils were often encouraged to continue their education with vocational training, or head into the labour market. In contrast, schools in wealthier areas with more resources were more focused on encouraging students into higher education, boosting social mobility and “providing them with higher chances in life”. All of which, says Professor Zakharov, exacerbates existing inequality.

One of the aims of such studies is to contrast the approaches taken in different educational settings and to determine which are effective in boosting the prospects of the least-advantaged children. As well as publishing academic papers, the researchers in the lab also produce briefings that are read by policymakers.

For another of its projects, the researchers worked with Yandex – the major tech company informally known as the “Russian Google” – to determine whether the business’s new electronic textbook could help to improve student outcomes.

The laboratory ran a random-control trial across more than 340 schools in two Russian regions. A total of 6,253 students were divided into three cohorts, with some students using the electronic textbook for 25-30 minutes (10 online items)  a week, some twice more intensively and some not at all.

Professor Zakharov says the results demonstrated that the electronic textbook could help to improve outcomes for lower-achieving students and narrow the attainment gap. “We found it had a positive effect on student outcomes – and what is more interesting, we saw that positive effect especially among low-achieving students.”

More precisely, the studies showed that moderate use of the electronic textbook improved both students’ performance and helped not to lose students’ interest in maths and school in general – but that more intensive use did not lead to further improvements.

As well as studying Russia’s domestic education system, the research team does comparative studies between domestic educational outcomes and those in other countries, drawing on international data such as the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). From looking at 15 years of data from PISA – a ranking based on 15-year-olds’ test scores in core subjects – they observed that Russia’s performance in math and reading increased between 2010 and 2015.

By breaking down demographics of the students whose scores contributed to the ranking, the researchers also found patterns that showed the inequality in social outcomes had decreased in the same timeframe.

HSE’s researchers have also looked at ways to learn from other countries’ PISA scores, by testing various expert theories on what works in education policy against the data. In Brazil, for example, their research found some evidence that more proactive state interventions to promote better teaching in local school districts contributed to higher student test scores state-wide.

These findings can also inform future studies. “With better data in Russia on student outcomes at the state level, it would be possible to do a similar study in Russia,” says Professor Zakharov.

To build on its work to date, the Laboratory of Educational Policy Analysis will be shifting its approach for the next few years to concentrate on causal analysis, with a particular focus on experimental studies, he adds. “We will be answering the main question: what works in school? So, for instance, we will be dealing more in experimental studies or studies using quasi-experimental design, trying to find ways to increase students’ academic and non-academic outcomes.”

The researchers will aim to produce evidence for decision makers on how to “improve and equalise students’ educational outcomes”. Among other things, they will consider whether students are being effectively prepared for the changing global economy and working in the digital age.

They will also spend more time researching e-learning platforms and technology in education, including gamification. “That’s a hot topic now in Russian education policy and lots of money is likely to be spent on that, which is a very good reason to answer the question as to whether it affects student outcomes or not,” says Professor Zakharov.

The researchers will look at not only educational outcomes but also the impact of different forms of edtech on students’ social, emotional and other skills, and whether using them influences students’ education trajectories.

Russia has less of a tradition of experimental studies examining what works in education than some other countries, but Professor Zakharov aims to have the laboratory help fill that gap. “That could have a great impact on educational policy because – as with policy in all the other social spheres – it should be evidence-based,” he says.

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