“In the mid-1970s, Britain was a leader in the world in progressive education. While I was doing my teaching degree, we looked to British schools as a model — open classrooms, child-centred learning and the integrated day were just some of the things we read about. Unfortunately, the British system had little time to develop and extend this experiment before a backlash in the 1980s. The term “child-centred education” was suddenly turned into code for wishy-washy, anything-goes time wasting. By the end of the 1980s, British education was transformed into a very traditional, centrally controlled system. The pendulum had swung back with a vengeance.
By the time I was teaching in Britain in 2001 to 2002, the rout of progressive education was complete. The schools I visited and taught at were grim places. From the head teacher to the youngest student, everyone was on edge — totally focused on the Scholastic Achievement Tests (SATs) and the centrally defined curriculum. While I was there, the “National Literacy Hour” introduced a set of literacy lessons that teachers were expected to stand in front of their classes and deliver every day. These incredibly detailed lessons, created by a national board, included precise words to use and set times for each activity. They were exactly the same for all classes, all over the country — and they certainly did not work for my class. I wondered exactly which children would benefit from this one-size-fits-all model of education.
Education became a tool of the marketplace, producing what it thought “the market” needed. But creativity and critical thinking were not part of their vision, nor was ensuring that children loved learning and could develop the future skills that an ever-changing world would need. In these “reforms,” the process of learning was reduced to preparing children to answer test questions correctly. Huge amounts of education spending were devoted to creating, administering and interpreting these standardized tests. But the needs of individual children were left behind.
The British reforms are an example of what has been called the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM) of the 2000s, which also spawned “No Child Left Behind” and the “Race for the Top” in the US. This movement, which ironically started with the idealistic goal to give every child the same opportunity, actually ended up entrenching inequality in the system. At the same time, it has done nothing to improve standings on international educational comparisons.
In Canada we have often imported ideas from the UK and the US. Fortunately, Canada has not yet travelled as far down the path of standardized education as these countries have. Although standardized testing has increased dramatically since the 1970s, most school boards in Canada have not reached the point of using standardized test results as sticks with which to beat school administrators or carrots to reward so-called excellent teachers or schools. This is happening in both the UK and the US, where poorly performing schools are at risk of closing, and boards are considering merit pay for teachers.
But has that been working for them? Are American and British schools actually getting better at teaching children what they need to know? How do they fare internationally? How do they stack up against Canada and other countries?
Canada consistently outstrips both countries on most international educational measures by large margins. One of the most important international comparisons, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) done by the organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), tests a representative sample of fifteen-year-olds from sixty-five countries every three years. They measure “what students know and can do” in reading, mathematics and science, but also give extensive questionnaires to gather data on many other aspects of students’ lives. Socio-economic status, attendance records at school, education level of teachers and amount spent by the government on education are just a few examples of the types of data collected.
Over the years, the PISA studies have generated a huge amount of information about educational policy and have become more influential. Some of their clearest findings show that many of the characteristics of the GERM systems are actually correlated with poorer academic performance. Canada, however, scores very highly overall, usually ranking in the top ten countries in the fifteen years the tests have been administered. Canada also consistently tops all the high-performing countries in equity: doing well in school here is not as dependent on what strata of society one comes from as it is in many more unequal countries.
But the big finding for me was the discovery of Finland’s education miracle. In the first PISA study in 2000, Finland came out on top out of the forty-three OECD countries. It had earlier radically reformed its education system, borrow- ing many progressive aspects from Canadian and British schools of the previous era. The aim of these reforms was not to produce better results on international academic tests, but to make sure that every child in the country was given an equal opportunity to succeed in the school system — in other words, to achieve equity in education. The excellence was a side effect…
…The PISA data has enabled the OECD to show rigorously what I had long suspected from practical experience: that some characteristics of schools — such as highly trained, respected teachers; a lack of stratification (streaming); making sure that all children are taught according to their needs; collaboration among teachers and local school control over curricula and assessments — actually produce better academic results in international comparisons. So why do GERM countries continue down the same path, despite most research about child development as well as the evidence provided by international comparative stud- ies such as PISA? We are not immune to GERM here in Canada — in recent years, provincial governments have exerted more control over curricula and demanded more “accountability” from teachers and school boards. Why has education become more “traditional” than it was forty years ago?”