Posted 2 years ago on March 16, 2012, 11:25 a.m. EST by flip
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Like the U.S., Canada has a decentralized school system with a heterogenous population and lots of immigrants. As with Germany, low rankings on the early PISA tests prompted the government to push for serious school reform.
The OECD points to some pre-existing strengths in Canadian society that made positive reforms easier. Canadian kids are more likely to read for pleasure than any other country in the world, and a decent welfare state that offers good health care even for the poor and an income support system that, while well short of Scandinavian levels of generosity, does mitigate “the vicissitudes of capitalism” (the OECD’s phrase). Further, the OECD remarks: “[T]he idea of a welfare state and a common good is much more firmly entrenched in Canada than in its more individualistic neighbour to the south (the US). The idea that health care and other social services are a right and not a privilege carries over into education, where there is a broadly-shared norm that society is collectively responsible for the educational welfare of all of its children. The combination of this norm with the protection afforded by the welfare state creates a climate in which school success is expected for all students.” Remember, this is the OECD, a thoroughly bourgeois institution, speaking.
But those were long-standing features of the Canadian system; what’s interesting are the kinds of reforms that took place in Ontario, under a Liberal government that took office in 2003. The liberals, led by premier Dalton McGinty, succeeded a deeply reactionary regime, led by Mike Harris, whose education policies featured cost-cutting, school choice, “demonising teachers” (the OECD’s phrase), promotion of private schools, and extensive testing. (Sound familiar?)
McGinty led a dramatic shift away from Harris-style policies. At the center of the reforms was teacher development—improving their skills, and working with them. The provincial government, says the OECD, “drew a sharp contrast between its capacity-building approach…and the more punitive versions of accountability used in the United States.” Their approach was collegial and cooperative, not competitive. No one spoke of tying pay to performance.
Going into these reforms, Canada had another advantage besides its health care system—teachers had long been recruited from among the top third of secondary school grads. According to a McKinsey study, a characteristic of all high-scoring systems is degree to which prospective teachers are drawn “from the top end of the talent pool.” (In Finland, it’s more like the top fifth.) But, as one Canadian teacher told the OECD researchers: “Everyone knew that there was a loophole—you could always cross the border to the United States. Anyone can get credentialed there.”
This is something that almost no one in the U.S. wants to talk about. Progressives are understandably reluctant to criticize teachers, given the many good ones we have and the slanderous attacks they’ve been under, but teaching is just not a well-paid or prestigious profession in the U.S. Because of that—and because of the profound anti-intellectualism of the culture (something else a lot of progressive education pundits don’t like to talk about either)—education schools don’t consistently draw the most vigorous candidates. According to the College Board, average SAT scores for seniors planning to go into education fall into the bottom third.
In successful systems like Ontario and Finland, teachers have a great deal of professional autonomy. There may be a national curriculum, but teachers are expected to know their subject well and develop their skills at imparting knowledge. Finland requires master’s degrees even for primary teachers; in most successful systems, master’s are typical or even required in the subject area for secondary teachers. In some Asian systems, new teachers serve as apprentices to master teachers before they’re allowed to run their own shows. There are no generalists just thrown to the wolves, as in the U.S.
And in most successful systems, standardized tests are rare, and are generally administered only at major breakpoints, like entrance into or graduation from high school. Administrators of top systems are very conscious of what other high-achieving countries do, and try to emulate what they can. The contrast with the U.S. is stark. In fact, there’s no other country that does anything like what we are doing—the testing, the punitive evaluations, the vendetta against “bad” teachers. And most U.S. education specialists are largely unaware of what’s going on abroad.
Back in the 1990s, Finland consciously chose to improve its educational system to move away from a resource-based economy towards a high-tech one. It’s succeeded. China has made a similar decision, to support a move away from low-tech to higher-tech production. Despite lip-service paid to those sorts of goals in the U.S., most education reform here has focused on cost-cutting and tighter discipline. If you strip away the rhetoric, it looks like the U.S. elite’s long-term plan is for a low-wage, poverty-ridden economy where the bottom 50–75% is supposed to shut up and stay in line. The upper crust will continue to send its kids to crunchy, progressive schools like St Ann’s and Sidwell Friends. But for everyone else, it’s going to be rules, poorly paid teachers, and lots of tests. And from there, it’s on to McDonald’s if you’re lucky, or jail, if you’re not. Of course, no one says that—but by their deeds ye shall know them.