Education in Times of Austerity


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The Finnish educator Pasi Sahlberg, author of Finnish Lessons 2.0: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland? , is currently visiting professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and has turned his attention to Canada, specifically, Alberta, in thinking about the provisioning of education in times of austerity. In particular, he observes that wealthy nations are prone to seek out quick fixes when confronted with economic challenges. These quick fixes can result in what can only be thought of as over-simplistic thinking that in the end will likely cause more harm than good to the system as a whole.

In an article written in the Alberta Teachers' Association magazine on June 1, 2015, Sahlberg identifies three myths that are engines of the quick fix mentality:

1. "the best way to elevate the teaching profession is to attract the best and the brightest to become teachers"

2. "the quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers"

3. "the most important single factor in improving quality of education is teachers."

For the first myth, Sahlberg says that the argument is often put that teachers should be chosen from the very top of the educational achievement rankings. Sahlberg dispels this myth by noting that for instance, even though the high performing Finnish system has sufficient teacher education applicants to select its teacher candidates from the top quintile only, the practice is consider non-academic performance factors as well as academic factors in the selection of teacher candidates. The result is that "one in four students had an academic record that placed her or him in the bottom half of the pool." Sahlberg does not comment on what these "other" elements are but they are hinted at later on in his commentary.

For the second myth, Sahlberg observes that many documents imply that the success of an education system is often tied to the quality of its individual teachers. However, little consideration is given to the collective impact of teachers within a school or the school as a culture. He uses "examples of teams that have performed beyond expectations because of leadership, commitment and spirit" to suggest that, when a school culture is positive, nurturing and celebrates those in the school, everyone's expectations can be surpassed.

For the third myth, Sahlberg reminds readers that research since the 1960s has demonstrated the impact of individual student variables (such as home backgroung) and he goes on to cites evidence from the " American Statistical Association [which] concluded recently that teachers account for about 1 per cent to 14 per cent of the variability in test scores, and that the majority of opportunities for quality improvement are found in system-level conditions." He says that these statistics don't mean that we should forget about the impact of teachers; rather, he draws us back to the idea of those "system-level conditions"---things that are difficult to think about, which aren't amenable to quick fixes, which are complicated, and which aren't easy to summarize in a quick one liner. Here's a partial list: "characteristics of more effective schools include features that are also linked to the culture of the school and leadership: maintaining focus on learning, producing a positive school climate, setting high expectations for all, developing staff skills and involving parents. In other words, school leadership matters as much as teacher quality."

Of course, some of the focus of "doing more" in education is often a coded message about achieving more on global test indicators, despite continued and repeated commentary by educational and test professionals alike that such measures should not be high stakes barometers of quality. Indeed to misuse tests in this way can lead to unintended consquences as a recent cheating scandal in Atlanta, Georgia recently illustrated.

We all know that change takes time and patience. We can all recall that learning complex skills also takes time and patience. For instance, how many abandoned "Learn How to Play the {Put the name of a musical instrument here}" kits and guides languish in the back of closets because that learning was not nested in a larger environment of support, a culture of learning, supportive teachers, and caring-others who admired our accomplishments and encouraged us on despite our struggles. In times of austerity we should make the collective space of schools positive for teachers and students alike, not so that schools can hit those achievement scores. Rather we should do so in order for teachers to put their affective resources toward supporting students rather than worrying about other things, and so that students can believe in the possiblity of becoming more than they are at the moment. That belief can be transformative.

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