The Far Side of Educational Reform: Why teachers need to be co-creators of change in education

April 13, 2012

The  Far Side of Educational Reform  by Andy Hargreaves and Dennis Shirley (from the Lynch School of Education at Boston College) was commissioned by the Canadian Teachers’ Federation (CTF). This report had its genesis in presentations made by the authors at the 3rd annual CTF President’s Forum held in Ottawa in July 2011. The Forum – entitled “Education Reform: In the Interest of Students” – was convened to examine the impact of educational reform on teaching and learning.

The report opens with a call for a stronger teacher voice on the future of educational reform:

Teachers are at the far end of educational reform. Apart from students and parents, they are often the very last to be consulted about and connected to agendas of what changes are needed in education, and of how those changes should be managed. Educational change is something that government departments, venture philanthropists, performance-driven economists and election-minded legislators increasingly arrogate to themselves. Even when these policy-setting and policy-transporting bodies speak on behalf of teachers, teachers often have little or no voice. Teachers are rarely asked to speak on their own account.

The report argues that Canada needs to abandon its top down approach to evaluating and adopting international educational systems. Instead, teachers need to be equal partners in the processes that make Canada a top educational performer.

The report argues this by providing an international historical explanation of how teachers became the “subjects of change” instead of the “agents of change” (Three Ways of Change); examining how Canada became an educational success story (Canadian Ways of Change); and proposing how governments may partner with teachers in educational goal setting (Fourth Way of Change).

Three Ways of Change

This section reviews educational policy since the 1970’s. The First Way of Change describes the “Golden Age” (mid 1960’s to late 1970’s) of teacher professional autonomy. The State gave resources to schools and teachers were left to teach.  

The Second Way replaced government investment with market principles. Professor Brian Caldwell exported the philosophy of Edmonton’s self-managing schools to Australia, New Zealand, England, Ontario, and back to Alberta. Defining characteristics of the Second Way included standardized teaching and learning, a literacy and numeracy focus, teaching for predetermined results, renting market-oriented reform ideas from other systems or sectors, test-based accountability, and control through continuous monitoring of data. A standardized curriculum with less responsiveness to culturally diverse learners (the authors note that “special education teachers, vocational school teachers and alternative school educators who dealt with very diverse learners, felt that this curriculum was particularly inappropriate for their students”), coupled with more pressure to deliver tests and produce results prompted an exodus from the profession. Among the other effects of Second Way reforms on the teaching profession was demoralization, less collegiality, and less pleasure in teaching and in learning.

The Third Way policy reforms (1990’s) proposed a midway approach between the market and the state. This emphasized autonomy with performance targets, more resources but increased expectations, and public and private partnerships. England’s National Literacy and Numeracy Strategy led by Sir Michael Barber embodied the Third Way. Features were a prescribed curriculum and intensive training, coaching and materials linked to system-wide targets and testing.

Canadian Ways of Change

In this section the authors explore what they describe as “Canadian Ways of Change”. Ontario (which adapted England’s strategy) won praise from McKinsey & Company (for its literacy and numeracy focus, implementation support and persistence); Ontario’s Special Education Advisor Michael Fullan (for reducing prescription, increased support and persistence) and the OECD, which rated Canada 6th overall on PISA. The report cautions however, against holding up Ontario as a Third Way inspiration. Other provinces have also performed well - Alberta in reading, writing and science, and Quebec in numeracy.

In terms of attempting to explain our PISA success, the authors offer a series of “considerations and reservations about singling out one province from others, and indeed singling out some aspects of that province’s policies in the short term rather than other parallel and preceding policies”. They go on to state that, “it’s not this or that province’s recent policy that makes Canada such a strong educational performer, but a social fabric and long-term interconnected policy approach that values education and teachers, welcomes and integrates immigrants, prizes the public good, and doesn’t abandon the weak in its efforts to become economically stronger.”

Other factors that might explain Canada’s educational success include cooperation between unions and government, strong social welfare and public health systems, an education system that reflects and emphasizes the unique characteristics of Canada as a whole, and policies not solely focused on student achievement.

The Fourth Way

The report submits that “the time has come” for associations such as the Canadian Teachers’ Federation to conduct “a major research investigation of international benchmarking not from a policy, business and Ministerial perspective but from a professional teacher-based foundation.” As a first step in March 2011, the Alberta Teachers’ Association and Finland’s Center for International Mobility Organization exchanged and recorded detailed information on high performance practices in both countries.

The authors propose a Fourth Way that pushes Third Way reforms a step further. The Fourth Way requires: putting responsibility before accountability; eliminating standardized testing connected to system targets; developing and disseminating diagnostic and developmental assessment alternatives; abandoning the obsession with technology as an end in itself; raising quality and standards for all teachers cooperatively with teachers; blending and interconnecting the best of different provincial reforms; pursuing strategic international coalitions; and promoting public engagement for educational improvement.

The authors conclude that,

Learning should ultimately be about the enrichment of [students’] lives as citizens as well as consumers and producers. Education should ultimately therefore be not just about performance or even personalization in the form of individual customization but about creating better, more productive and more socially just lives for everyone. Teachers have lives too. Teaching helps others make meaning. They cannot do that if others are in control of the meaning that teachers make for themselves….

Canada has done well on the world stage of educational change. If this stage is to become a platform for even more dynamic change in the future, the country needs to have more than professional peace with or even “buy-in” from its teachers. It needs its teachers and their federations to be co-creators of change on the broadest scale for a strong and just society in the future. It’s one thing to be excellent. It’s another to stay excellent. Are governments and federations up for this challenge?

by Andy Hargreaves and Dennis Shirley

Canadian Teachers’ Federation
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Perspectives web magazine is published by the Canadian Teachers’ Federation (CTF), a national alliance of provincial and territorial teacher organizations that represent over 238,000 elementary and secondary school teachers across Canada.

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