Monday, November 28, 2011

United States: How not to reform education

While it's true that modelling is important, keep in mind that sometimes we learn as much from the negative exemplars as we do from the positive ones.

When it comes to education reform, there are a lot of different models to look at. Here in Alberta, our education system is doing very well, we have an appreciation for resisting the urge to rest on previous successes.

Alberta's former Education Minister Dave Hancock put it this way:
In Alberta we can be proud that we have one of the finest education systems in the world.  This is a testament to the dedication of our teachers, administrators, school board staff and other educational specialists and professionals who are committed to doing the best they can every day. 
But we know that the world is changing, and that education must change with it to prepare students for a future none of us can predict.  And the change is well underway.
In their article Testing, Testing, Larry Booi and J.C. Couture make the case for why Alberta has a lot to learn from the Finnish model of education. Meanwhile, they also make a point that Alberta has a lot to learn from the United States which acts an an anti-model. In other words, the United States has a lot to teach the world about how not to reform education.
By contrast we can also learn what not to do from reform in the US, whose education system is in decline. Its elements, implemented over the past two decades, are largely ideological: "market-based" reforms (the application of "business insights" to the running of schools); an emphasis on standardization and narrowing of curriculum; extensive use of external standardized assessment; fostering choice and competition among schools, often with school vouchers; making judgements based on test data and closing "failing schools"; encouraging the growth of charter schools (which don't have teacher unions); "merit pay" and other incentives; faith that "technologically mediated instruction" will reduce costs; an overwhelming "top-down" approach which tells everyone what to do and holds them accountable for doing it.  
President Obama's education policies have largely reinforced this overall approach, to the great dissapointment of many educators. US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has pushed states to include merit pay, charter schools and standardized testing in order to qualify for federal funding in the key "Race for the Top" program (soon dubbed "Race to the Bottom" by critics). These directions are popular with large corporate interests, notably educational publishing companies. K-12 education in the US presents an estimated trillion dollars in opportunities for potential privatization.
When I read about the education deforms that are taking place in the United States, I take careful notes so that when I play my role in transformational change in Alberta, I will be prepared to do the exact opposite.

All this makes me extremely thankful that Alberta has leadership in both Alberta Education and the Alberta Teachers' Association who understand that while the Americans may be our neighbours geographically, they are pedagogical strangers.


  1. I couldn't agree more. I read in horror about the effects of the No Child Left Behind strategy and it's disheartening to see how things just don't seem to be improving. My own school system is far from perfect but I'm very glad I don't teach in the US.

  2. Joe - be thankful and keep your eyes open at all times. Here in America many fell asleep, and now we are waking up to a nightmare. It is even worse than you have described. We are doing everything we can to help the masses see the situation and reclaim public education. Our first goal is to dismantle high stakes testing by getting mass opt out on test day. Our website is Peggy Robertson

  3. You have no idea, well maybe you do. As a highly skilled professional, it's takes a huge toll being treated like a trained monkey. We fight everyday for what we know is right for our kids and our students, but the corporate reform model is baked by a whole lot of money and the political machine keeps turning against educators. Thank you for your insight. It is disheartening to know what the world thinks of US education, but the powers that be need to hear it. It's even scarier when other countries, luckily not Canada, want to follow our model. Heaven help them if they do. We know and understand that if and when we get these horrific policies changed, it will take years to rebuild the system and improve it correctly so that EVERY child has the opportunity to learn and be successful. Thank you again for writing this and getting the word out.

  4. I was involved for two years with a program in the US called Teach For America, and after discovering that I have a love for teaching (though not in the horrible, urban districts in the US), the direction of education "reform" in my country has caused me to stay out of education. I refuse to be micromanaged by state, federal, and local politics and have my role as an educator be reduced to one in which I merely prepare students for state exams. It's unfortunate, because I really enjoy teaching.

  5. Joe,
    As a school administrator and writer for Education Week, in the U.S. it saddens me that what what you wrote about is true. There are many of us who are trying to change the direction that education reform is going in the U.S. but we need more educators to speak out.
    Much of the research coming our way these days is from Finland. Although they have a wonderful model they have the support of their government. In the U.S. our state and federal education departments do not support what we do and they are pushing for longer high stakes testing at a younger age.
    All of this will be detrimental to the education of our students.