How Scotland is Dealing with Issues of Equity and Literacy in Schools

Associate Professor Allison Skerrett’s research includes examining the educational experiences of transnational youths, students who live across two or more countries, for some of whom formal schooling across different countries is part of their transnational lifestyle. Since 2016, she has been part of a 10-member International Council of Education Advisers (ICEA), advising the Scottish government on issues related to education and inequity. Her second two-year appointment begins in September.

The following is a Q&A in which Skerrett explains her work with the ICEA and its potential to impact education in Scotland as well as her own research and teaching.

How have you applied your research interests within your work in Scotland?

The Scottish government’s goal for the ICEA is to provide them with the best evidence-based advice on improving their education system, and educational and social outcomes for all K-12 students. A major focus of the Scottish government’s educational improvement plan is increasing all students’ literacy achievement and, in particular, closing (an ideal) the achievement gap between students living in poverty and those with more advantages.

I have been able to draw from my research on adolescent literacy to broaden our conversations about literacy achievement. For example, I have spoken about the significance of ensuring that the literacy curriculum students receive in school connects to the ways in which students use literacy in their personal, social, community, and work lives. I have also advised the Minister and Deputy First Minister of Education and their staff that there are multiple approaches to reading instruction and that teachers must be knowledgeable about when and how to draw on different approaches. Additionally, I, along with the entire council, have advised that curriculum policy must provide flexibility as well as support for teachers to be decision-makers in their classrooms based on their knowledge of their students and their needs.

Participating in the ICEA has given me an insider’s perspective on how pivotal empirical research and expertise drawn from many contexts can be in helping policymakers understand the changing landscape of education and educational knowledge, and be willing to work toward educational improvement. In short, my work on the ICEA encourages me greatly to press forward with my research with the hope that it, along with other research in this area, certainly can ultimately influence educational policy.

Much of the work in Scotland seems focused on the disparity in academic performance between low-income and high-income students. How have you applied your expertise in transnational students and their education?

Scotland, like many other world nations, has a growing population of students that are sometimes labeled as migrant or refugee students. I have asked questions of our Scottish colleagues about whether and in what ways this particular demographic of the student population is in need of or receiving special consideration in policy and practice. The Scottish educational culture is very much grounded in conversations about inequities stemming from poverty and while the recognition of the entanglements of class, immigrant status, and other social differences is acknowledged in education and society, these intersections or transnational students, in particular, have not been a major part of the policy conversation.

I keep raising discussions about transnationalism and student diversity more generally with educators I interact with and asking questions and providing insights about the diversity that exists within student populations and why it’s important to attend to those differences when seeking to improve educational practice and student learning.

How have you and the group begun addressing the equity gap between students?

In our first term (2016-2018) as a group of international education advisers, the council strongly recommended against standardized assessments as a way to “measure” and “close” the “achievement gap.” I place all these words in quotation marks because of the problematic beliefs and educational practices such ideas have propagated in many contexts, including in the U.S. The council worked with the Scottish government to consider the kinds of data they needed about student performance and how that data would be used by schools and teachers and urged the government to stay the course with a commendable flexible national curriculum already in place, Curriculum for Excellence.

In short, based in our experience we urged the government to do nothing that would make teachers and students feel a restriction of literacy and numeracy curriculum because of national testing but be clear that data would be used to guide individualized instruction for each child while all students continued to experience a curriculum with broad learning goals (academic, social, and civic) with continuing flexibility for teachers to innovate how to teach in ways that helped students accomplish those goals. I believe this was one of our most important early achievements because we know that once particular students have been identified by a particular measure of being on the “wrong” end of the “achievement gap” that schooling can quickly become a soulless experience that actually pushes students out of school, psychologically and physically, achieving the very opposite of equity.

Over the first two years of our term, we have also advised the government on how to make Scotland a stronger school and teacher-led educational system with strong professional learning supports at all levels of education and with minimum legislation. The committee’s first full report on our advisory work with the Scottish government was recently published on June 26, 2018.

Based on your research, how can teachers and policymakers better understand the educational needs of multicultural student populations?

I think seeking out the voices of students, families, and communities is key to understanding the educational experiences, cultural strengths and resources of diverse student populations, and their expectations of education. Doing so will provide insights to teachers and policymakers about how to be thoughtfully responsive in ensuring that diverse populations experience an education that is representative of who they are and are becoming and support them in meeting their goals. Beyond inviting these parties into conversations into educational policy conversations, I believe that teachers and policymakers need to better understand diversity by actually spending a great deal more time in communities and schools (in the case of policymakers) to truly understand the strengths and needs of diverse students, families, and communities. One positive outcome of those interactions is that teachers and policymakers will be exposed to the richness and strength of diverse students and their communities allowing them to view these communities from an appreciative perspective and as partners, rather than a narrow view of them being in need of “help.” It will promote thoughtful development of educational experiences that are in alignment with who students are, what they know and can do, and where and how they need and wish to grow.

Final thoughts

Being a member of Scotland’s ICEA has been one of the most unique and important professional learning opportunities for me. As researchers and teacher educators, we often view educational policymaking at a distance. We may analyze, critique, and commend policy and their effects, and teach our students how to negotiate with curriculum policy in their teaching but few of us have the opportunity to actually participate in educational policymaking at a national level with government officials who create them.

It has been tremendously encouraging to work with a national government deeply interested in dialogue with a range of educational scholars and who are sincerely careful that policy serves the goals of educational justice and does not cause unintended harm.

Skerrett is Louise Spence Griffeth Fellow for Excellence in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Texas at Austin’s College of Education.