I am attending a summit meeting focusing on the future of education (the Transforming Education Summit) – its in Abu Dhabi. Speakers include former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, my colleagues and friends Andy Hargreaves and Pasi Sahlberg as well as J C Couture (with whom I have just published a book). Facilitating is the BBC broadcaster and writer Tim Sebastian, a fellow Cardiff graduate.
What will be discussed is the global educational reform movement (which Andy Hargreaves and Pasi Sahlberg refer to as the “GERM theory of educational transformation” – a parody of the germ theory of disease). This involves the view that improving educational achievement requires school systems to embrace market driven competition, standardized of both curriculum and assessment so that the market can reasonably assess performance of schools, freedom of school choice with funding “following the child”, system wide accountability with consequences for poor performance (fiscal discipline) and the leveraging of technology to reduce costs. The focus for learning in the GERM should be so-called 21-century skills (which are no more than the skills schools have been based on since Socrates).
The problem with the GERM model is that its driven by policy based evidence – there is little to support the idea that these fundamental tenets work or that where they have had modest success on a limited scale that they are transferable to whole systems or to different contexts (read different nations). It is rather similar to the economic pursuits of the World Bank, described by Naomi Klein in her excellent book The Shock Doctrine.
What is clear is that such GERM systems increase inequity. For example, if we use the distribution of family income measure (GINI Index) as an indicator of social progress for which education is intended as a driver, then those countries which have done more to promote GERM have greater inequality now than they did some years ago. The United States, which is pushing GERM hard (with help from the Gates Foundation, Pearson and others), has a GINI score of 45 (2007) – up from 40.8 (1997) – a GINI score of zero indicates total equity and a score of 100 greater inequity. It is possible that educational strategy is a factor in increasing social inequality in the US and in other GERM countries.
There are alternatives to GERM. Finland is pursuing a relentless focus on what might be called the EARL strategy. It focuses on equity, assurance rather than accountability, relationships built on trust and compassion as the basis for teaching and learning and a relentless focus on the learner as the driver of the system. Finland has always ranked high on the PISA data (the OECD’s way of measuring school system performance) – usually number one. It is resented by many of the GERM ideologues since it defies their logic.
I suspect that there is also an emerging third approach, which Dennis Shirley (Boston College) has termed the “Pearsonalization of learning”, named after Pearson publishing, but we might more usefully call it PATC. It focuses on performance driven systems (using analytics to determine performance and remediation) with strong accountability mechanisms built in at every level of the system with technology being used to deliver educational services and analytics with the aim of lowering of the costs of service. Some see GERM as embracing PATC, but it is also a distinctive strategy in and of itself.
During the next few days (the summit goes from 8th to 10th) I will report briefly on the conversations and ideas. It will be interesting to see what happens. The good news is that one of the featured jurisdictions that is engaged in transforming its schools is Alberta, hence the several Albertan’s here. Lets hope the new Minister of Education to be announced tomorrow (Tuesday) will keep the momentum moving.