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National test scores reveal educational stagnation and growing inequality

Quite a coincidence (or not). In the USA the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) was published on April 10, marking a decade of stalled educational progress *1. In the Netherlands on April 11 the Inspectorate published The State of Education in the Netherlands 2016/2017 (in Dutch *2), warning that results of students are lowering in a slow but steady decline of twenty years.
In the USA the results show a widening gap between the highest and the lowest performers. In the Netherlands one observes a growing distance between results of children of well-to-do and well-educated parents, and children of parents of lower social-economic class, with less education themselves.

In this blog I delve into possible causes for these developments, the overestimated role of ‘evidence' and the flight forward of global organisations like the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) *3.

In both countries many people as a response pointed towards the “real causes" for the declines.
In the USA: Charter schools, Common Core State Standards and new teacher evaluation systems are seen as cause or as insufficient implemented. Stricter accountability and high-stakes testing *4 are discussed already for years. Some point to the effects of the Great Recession (2008), which negatively impacted school spending. Other causes mentioned are the widening socioeconomic gaps, and increases in the degree of poverty among relatively poor people. Plus demographic shifts (white students dropped below 50 percent of fourth-grade test takers. Hispanics now account for 26 percent of the fourth-grade population).
In the Netherlands: Relative low salaries, large classes, low level of ambition of schools, the number of immigrants, too many new elements in the curricula, segregation towards different schools, lower level of qualifications of teachers, early (almost final) selection of children at the age of 12, growing difference in quality of schools, inclusion of special-ed children in regular classes, influence of social media, teacher shortages, too much power (autonomy) for the boards of education, too much focus on school management instead of a focus on teachers.
Others reacted fiercely denying the importance of these causes and presented still different ones.

While working on this blog, I also discovered that in Australia an important report was published with partly similar conclusions: David Hetherington, What Price the Gap? Education and Inequality in Australia, Public Education Foundation (April 3).
"It is widely understood that Australia’s school performance (as measured by international test scores) has been falling. What’s less understood is that this headline buries a stark, unpalatable fact: our international test results show that kids at the bottom of the performance distribution are falling faster and further than kids at the top." (p. 3)
Recommendations in this report that focuses on inequality range from:
"targeted teaching approaches” to "firm commitment to needs-based funding for schools”. (p. 3)

The USA, the Netherlands and Australia have quite different educational systems. And in the USA and Australia even states have quite different systems.
Which strong forces influence these three nations (and others) that might block further developments (or cause deterioration)?

Immediately springs to my mind 'Global Educational Reform Movement' - GERM, the term that Pasi Sahlberg minted to describe similarities in western educational systems in distinction with the successful educational system in Finland, Pasi’s home country.

Sahlberg: GERM has emerged since the 1980s and has increasingly become adopted as a educational reform orthodoxy within many education systems throughout the world, including in the U.S., England, Australia and some transition countries. Tellingly, GERM is often promoted through the interests of international development agencies and private enterprises through their interventions in national education reforms and policy formulation. *5 .
Characteristics of GERM are:
• standardization of education
• focus on core subjects
• the search for low-risk ways to reach learning goals
• use of corporate management models as a main driver of improvement
• test-based accountability policies for schools

What we see here is a configuration of ‘hidden’ causes, very important, but many times overlooked. It is like talking about overweight but not recognising the systemic influence of the food industry in combination with poverty. *6

To fight overweight we follow diets in many variants. And for all of these variants exists evidence that they support some (groups of) people to be successful. And together we follow the trends, changing from one popular diet to another. We hope to finally find the diet that works for us personally. But when it works for me, I will not know why it works for me, why I was successful in defeating the food industry, but for sure in my contacts I will support this specific diet.

And exactly this is what happens in education too. We have growing evidence that changes in some practices (or strands) of schools contribute to better results (more or less), what the costs are to implement such changes, and how strong the evidence is. That evidence is presented in overviews that grow in user-friendliness (see: Center for Research and Reform in Education (CRRE), USA *7, Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), GB *8 and Evidence for Learning (EFL), Australia *9). That in itself is a good thing.

However, for an individual school leader or board member using these schemes does not lead to reflection on the systemic causes of decreasing results and growing inequality, and it does not reveal which changes would really work in her or his specific situation.
EEF and EFL also have discovered that, and they have defined that as an implementation problem. So to further support educational leaders they published mind-blowing simple steps for the right implementation process *10, *11. They combine that with personal stories how satisfied school leaders are using these steps. I believe those stories. You always will find (like with diets) people that are successful in choosing a specific change and a well-organised implementation process. They might believe that making this rational choice and organising this rational implementation process were the reasons for success. They will become believers of their approach, as others became believers of specific diets.

However, unless we try to unGERM, it will be difficult to really change education as a whole in a successful way.
In the meantime we still will have successful schools with leaders and personnel, who are convinced that they know why they are successful.
But at least we don’t have to be astonished anymore why it is so difficult (if not impossible) to scale up promising changes to national level.

Sahlberg tells in a recent interview about the major elements of the Finnish configuration, that might inspire a country that is quite different from Finland, in this case Brazil.
He mentions three big, inexpensive ideas:
• One, make sure that education policies and school funding practices follow the principle of ‘positive discrimination’ which means that those schools and students who need more resources and support to succeed will be given them throughout the education system.
• Two, make sure that all schools and every teacher works in the spirit of collaboration and collective responsibility and not in competition against one another being held only individually accountable for student learning.
• Three, make sure that all children especially in early childhood education and primary schools have regular breaks during schooldays to play and do physical activity in order to stay engaged, healthy and happy in school. *12

In earlier interviews he stressed also that in the Finnish configuration teachers are the experts in (the improvement) of teaching and learning and school leaders are experts in educational change and therefore can protect their schools and systems against harmful germs.
That is, in my opinion, not the usual GERM-like instructional leadership.

Is there a good chance for other countries to find their own configuration to unGERM? I don’t think so yet. I see on the contrary too many publications and research papers that explicitly or implicitly choose for deepening or strengthening GERM.

And global organisations like the Global Platform for Education, World Bank *13, OECD *14 and Unesco Institute for Statistics *15 (and a growing group of large business-based foundations) chose for a flight forward. They choose for large scale data collection. But that is food for another blog.


*1 See also: Third indication U.S. educational system is deteriorating. http://hechingerreport.org/third-indication-u-s-educational-system-deteriorating/ (11-12-2017)
*2 An English version will be published later
*3 GPE: https://www.globalpartnership.org/  
*4 A high-stakes test is any test used to make important decisions about students, educators, schools, or districts, most commonly for the purpose of accountability: E.g. https://www.edglossary.org/high-stakes-testing/ 
*5 https://pasisahlberg.com/global-educational-reform-movement-is-here/ 
*6 E.g. Diana Sontag a.o., Beyond Food Promotion: A Systematic Review on the Influence of the Food Industry on Obesity-Related Dietary Behaviour among Children https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4632434/ 
*7 Center for Research and Reform in Education (CCRE), Johns Hopkins Center for Research and Reform in Education, http://archive.education.jhu.edu/research/crre/ and http://www.bestevidence.org/  
*8 Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/ and http://www.bestevidence.org/https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/evidence-summaries/teaching-learning-toolkit/  
*9 Evidence for Learning, http://evidenceforlearning.org.au/  
*10 EEF: Putting Evidence to Work: A School’s Guide to Implementation. The report is written in the best of the GERM tradition (Develop a clear, logical, and well-specified implementation plan) and stresses the need to 'Examine the fit and feasibility of possible interventions to the school context’ (Phase 3) and 'Thoroughly assess the degree to which the school is ready to implement the innovation’ (Phase 4). So evidence does not imply easy or easier implementation. You still have to judge the fit with your situation. A practitioner hopes that she or he is supported in that judgement too, but alas.
*11 EVL: Impact Evaluation Cycle. http://evidenceforlearning.org.au/evidence-informed-educators/impact-evaluation-cycle/  
*12 https://pasisahlberg.com/interview-in-folha-de-sao-paulo/  
*13 http://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/education 
*14 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development: http://www.oecd.org/education/ 
*15 UIS, http://uis.unesco.org/en/home 

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