How Can We Challenge the Standardization of Science and Other Aspects of Education?

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I received an email from Professor Emeritus Charles “Kip” Ault, Lewis & Clark University.   We’ve never met, but we have a connection through each others’ writing.  In 1992, I wrote and published a science education book, Minds on Science (Library Copy) and he used the text in one or more of his graduate classes at Lewis & Clark.  In 2010, I found his and Jeff Dodick’s article published in the research journal, Science Education, entitled Tracking the Footprints Puzzle: The problematic persistence of science-as-process in teaching the nature and culture of science.   Each of us at this time carries the title “emeritus” from our respective universities.

But “older” science educators don’t die, they just keep on a-writing.  And so it is with Dr. Ault and myself.

In Dr. Ault’s case, he has just published a book entitled Challenging Science Standards: A Skeptical Critique of the Quest for Unity, Rowman & Littlefield, 2015 (Library Copy).

This is a bellweather book.

The reason I say this that this book represents one of the only critique of the nation’s acceptance of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).   For example, the book might not be a good read for lot of folks at Achieve, Inc. headquarters.  I’m not sure, but it might not be only anyone’s book list at its Washington headquarters.

For me the book is a “hopeful” bellweather, in that I have faith that science educators will start to ask questions about the NGSS, and begin to critique the eagerness to carry out the NGSS.

Recently I wrote about how teaching and learning is standardized my e-book.  In that book I said that:

The conservative world-view is at the root of educational reform, not only in the United States, but in most countries around the world. This world-view has set in motion the reform of education based on a common set of standards, high-stakes tests, and accountability metrics that demoralize not only students and their families, but the educators who families regard as significant others in the lives of their children. This eBook is an exploration of how these reforms of education, which are rooted in authoritarianism, are damaging public education with its canopy of a Common Core, high-stakes, and market based tactics which are nothing but hooey.  Hassard, Jack (2014-12-16). The Mischief of Standardized Teaching and Learning: How Authoritarianism is Damaging Public Education with its Canopy of a Common Core, High-Stakes Tests and Market-Based Hooey (Kindle Locations 18-22). . Kindle Edition.

Kip Ault’s book is written to offer not only a historical context for how standardization has come about, but to enable science educators the basis for a critique of the standards movement.

One of the subheadings in the first chapter of the book is The Holy Grail of Power.  Like many of the writers that I have acknowledged on this blog, Ault sees standardization as an end to a quest for unity and this is the Holy Grail of Power over (science) education.  Four groups are identified by Ault as constituting this holy grail:

  1. State Bureaucrats
  2. Disciplinary Scientists
  3. Corporate Entities
  4. Science Educators

As you read this list, can you conjure up how each group’s power is used to “unify” teaching, and strive for the standardization of teaching and learning.

For the state bureaucrats, Ault says that

the bureaucrat’s ideal curriculum standardizes the nature of science (or the processes of science), independent of context. Legibility trumps diversity; state interests displace personal ones. Test scores signify learning, and policy unfolds based upon interpretations of these scores. Charles Ault, Challenging Science Standards: A Skeptical Critique of the Quest for Unity, Rowman & Littlefield, 2015.

In Ault’s view, the various disciplines of science (paleontology, physics, molecular biology, etc.) represent a disunity in that the sciences do not represent a singular “field” of study.  Why is this important in a critique of the science standards?  In Ault’s view, the NGSS perceives the science discipline to be alike, and so a single set of processes and methods are imbedded in the standards.  This is unfortunate because the various sciences are messy.  It’s not a set of steps or processes that characterize science inquiry.  We have oversimplified the nature of science as clearly explained by Dr. Ault.

Corporate entities have poured millions of dollars into the standardization of standards, and many of these entities are realizing huge profits, especially through testing, and curriculum and textbook publishing.  But I appreciate Ault’s idea that the NGSS standards has influenced researchers and curriculum developers.  He puts it this way:

Institutions seeking funding for projects to advance science education have no choice but to cast their proposals in terms of the NGSS. For-profit and nonprofit providers of professional development, school district trainers, and consulting firms wait in the wings eager to help. Charles Ault, Challenging Science Standards: A Skeptical Critique of the Quest for Unity, Rowman & Littlefield, 2015

Science educators are also one of the entities that strive for unity among the sciences, and the standards.  He has an interesting take on this and he writes:

Science educators, in the creation of curricula and the training of teachers (elementary through secondary), feel called upon as guardians of the quest for unity among the sciences. Their professional identity—an identity setting them apart from other professors of education, for example—depends upon this cultural norm. Ideas about the nature of science and the culture of science now pertain more to the community of science educators than to that of scientists. These ideas equate in many minds with critical thinking, inquiry skill, and the development of intelligence. Charles Ault, Challenging Science Standards: A Skeptical Critique of the Quest for Unity, Rowman & Littlefield, 2015

Challenging the science standards movement will be well served by Charles “Kip” Ault’s new book.  I’ll return to his book in future posts.  For now, what questions do you have challenging the NGSS and the Common Core?

Extreme Earth: Coming to An Environment Near You

The Earth’s climate has changed rapidly over the past fifty years, but when people talk about climate change, they frame it as a future threat.

David Popeik, in Scientific American guest blog, says that “climate report nails risk communication.”  He suggests that the National Climate Assessment that was released by the White House presented a powerful report that he hopes will play a role in the U.S. acting on climate change.  He writes:

Most climate change communication has framed the issue as a future threat. Future risks don’t worry us as much as threats that are imminent or current. The basic message of the National Climate Assessment, offered repeatedly through the entire report, is that climate change is not something we need to worry about tomorrow. It’s something to worry about now. “Climate change, once considered an issue for a distant future, has moved firmly into the present,” it reads.

In this post, I was to focus on the latest report about climate change, and how the report should be used to have people take seriously climate change.  I am convinced the earth is heating up (see Figure 1).  In one sense, we might say were living in a period of “extreme earth.”  This is not to say that there haven’t been other extreme (hot or cold) periods in the paleoclimate record.  But this extreme earth period was caused by the activities of humans.

Extreme Earth raises questions about the nature of science, especially as it relates to climate change. Global warming has been in the public eye for years now, as scientific panels and independent scientific research studies have suggested that the changes in earth’s weather and climate might, to some degree, be due to human activity, especially fossil fuel extraction and the burning of fuels resulting in a 25 – 30% increase in CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere. Unfortunately the science of climate change has become politicized , and resulted in the what some say is a “head in the sand” approach to doing something about the changes going on all around us.  (see Hassard, Jack (2012). Extreme Earth: The Importance of the Geosciences in Science Teaching  Kindle Edition.)

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Figure 1. Temperature fluctuations from various sources over the past 1000 years. From Mann, et al 2008

Many of you are familiar with the environmental phrase, Think Globally, Act Locally.  We used it with middle and high school students as an important concept in the Global Thinking Project, which was headquartered at Georgia State University.

But, there is good reason to rephrase this statement, and put it this way: Think Locally, Act Locally.  In the Global Thinking Project, which was a hands-across-the-globe environmental science program, we engaged students in local problems (acid rain, ozone, soil erosion, water quality), but connected them with peers using the GTP telecommunications network and web resources.

The project helped students realize that studying their own environment was as important (maybe even more so), than connecting with problems in other parts of the world.  Don’t get me wrong, one of the attractive features of the GTP was bringing middle and high school students from different parts of the world together to share ideas, and solve problems.

But there is something missing about the issue of tackling the problem of global warming and the induced climate changing of which we are participants.

As Dr. Popeik says, climate change is now and it is affecting each of us at the local level.  If those of us that live in the Atlanta area think about extreme earth events that occurred in the recent past, we can list a few: the flooding of rivers and streams, a drought that cost many people their livelihoods, high temperature periods that were hazardous to many people’s lives, snow events that created chaos in Atlanta, Augusta and other communities, increased number of fire threats across the state, more tornadoes than have been reported in the recent past, and increased concern about hurricanes.

But perhaps one of the most serious problems that we face in the context of climate change, are those few deniers that distort climatology to support their political and economic views.  For example, some researchers have commented that the science of climate change has been distorted, and at the same time science is evoked as a defense. They describe how a handful of scientists obscured the truth, not only about climate change, but issues related to tobacco and to the government’s “star wars” strategic defense system. As they point out, the climate change deniers use the same “play book” that big tobacco firms used to try to convince the public that smoking tobacco was not associated with cancer. (see Oreskes and Conway, 2010).

In the field of science education, professional science teachers have had to deal with a subset of deniers who inhabit or hope to get elected to state legislative houses.  The Next Generation Science Standards, the latest published set of science standards in the U.S. have come under fire for the position and specific content related to climate change and global warming.  There is also the usual protest about teaching evolution, but for this article, we’ll limit it to climate change.

Several states have moved to block the use of the NGSS in their schools.  In Kentucky, a coal-producing state, the legislature blocked the NGSS, but the governor overruled them.  But it is the case in Wyoming where the issue of teaching climate change became a hot political issue.  Apparently some legislators objected to teaching “theories” and not ideas in science that had been proven.  But if we go deeper into the issue, we find that they oppose those theories that don’t fit with their world view.  In this case, supporters of the fossil fuel industry object to teaching any science that might put them in bad light.  In Wyoming, the NGSS was blocked by a footnote added to the state budget that prohibits the spending of any money on the review or revision of student content and performance standards for science.  Even their own!

 

Will data from the National Climate Assessment change people’s views of climate change.  Maybe, maybe not.  But those that oppose climate change science will probably not be swayed by this report.  After all, it is a government report.

But perhaps if people begin to realize that the extreme weather events that have come to them are do to an increasing risk for several weather events by the warming of the earth.  Most climatologists would agree that we can “blame” a single event (such as Hurricane Sandy) on global warming, but how can we not consider the possibility that the extreme weather events that have been documented over the past twenty years might be due to human activity?

Pictures tell a story more powerful than words, in many instances.  Here are few that might bring back events that affected you.

Figure 2. Extreme earth events in the U.S. Source: Melillo, Jerry M., Terese (T.C.) Richmond, and Gary W. Yohe, Eds., 2014: Climate Change Impacts in the United States: The Third National Climate Assessment. U.S. Global Change Research Program, 841 pp. doi:10.7930/J0Z31WJ2.
Figure 2. Extreme earth events in the U.S. Source: Melillo, Jerry M., Terese (T.C.) Richmond, and Gary W. Yohe, Eds., 2014: Climate Change Impacts in the United States:
The Third National Climate Assessment. U.S. Global Change Research Program, 841 pp. doi:10.7930/J0Z31WJ2.

Do you think the events of the past few years will impact people’s views of climate change?

 

Terrill L. Nickerson: The Paradox of the Common Core

rockies2 Terrill Nickerson commented on the previous post on this blog, 6 Reasons Why the Common Core is Not Progressive Ideology.  I thought his comments were important to share as a separate post.  Terrill Nickerson has written an interesting article on how he approaches the Common Core and high-stakes testing in his context of teaching, which is in communities serving marginalized and underrepresented families.

He writes:

In my twenty-six years teaching in schools with large numbers of marginalized, and underrepresented families, I do not agree with the assertion that high-stakes testing and Common Core State Standards (CCSS) sprang out of progressive ideology.  Most of my colleagues that work with these populations tend to believe the exact opposite.  The common feeling is that the high-stakes testing tends to be biased against the children that come from culturally different, marginalized, or economically poor families. Likewise, my colleagues would accuse the CCSS of failing to take into account the realities of the worldview and paradigms experienced by the these groups.

Realistically, I know these biases and shortcomings exist.  I have seen them firsthand, especially with regard to the high-stakes testing.  However, my paradox arises with the arguments, pro and con about the Common Core Standards.  I began my professional career as a scientist, not a science teacher.  After a decade of working in the professional science ranks, I decided to become a teacher.  I also continued to learn and progress, as I completed my M.S. Ed. in Science Curriculum and Instruction, while teaching.  I was working in a Native American school system and community.  So my professional growth and learning was applied to this community.

However, the communities, in which I taught realized that getting a mainstream education was the only way that their communities could survive into the future.  I was encouraged to challenge my students and present them with the highest level of education that I could.  I was also challenged to learn, and use the cultural strengths to carry out this task.  I did not find a contradiction in these expectations.

As a scholar and scientist, I see the value in creating a more consistent set of academic expectations.  Knowing what I know about what the science professions and the universities expect, I do not see the Common Core as a threat to our children.   The problem does not lie with the Standards themselves, but rather with the interpretation of how they should be implemented. I always insisted that if you teach sound scientific procedures and problem solving skills, students will do well on the high-stakes tests.

Teaching solid practices, regardless of your choice of content material, still builds a solid foundation.  This foundation teaches students solid test-taking skills by teaching them to be critical thinkers and to recognize inconsistencies and errors in logic through elimination.  My students were successful, and still are, even though the present educational setting insists that I follow the Standards more closely than before.

The Common Core doesn’t tell us how to teach.  Instead, it provides teachers with a guideline for what type of knowledge and information is both topical and cutting edge in keeping up with advances in our discipline.   Despite the emphasis upon the Standards teaching, I still find time to diverge and create projects for my students that are hands-on, project-based, and steeped in engineering and science methodologies, and still do justice to the Standards.

As I’ve always said, “I teach my high school students at a college level, with an understanding that the outcomes will reflect a high school level of sophistication and development, and grade accordingly  Do not tell them you are doing this, just expect it of them, and work with them in tandem to achieve it. They will rise to the occasion and expectations, and begin to accept them as the normal level at which they should be working.’  I have very few failures.

About Terrill Nickerson

Terrill Nickerson is veteran high school science teacher with 26 years experience.  His first 15 years teaching science began in the Native American community, beginning on the Hopi Reservation in NE Arizona, and then on to teach at Santa Fe Indian School in Santa Fe, NM.  He is now teaching in various charter schools in New Mexico and Southern Colorado.  He holds bachelor degrees in Archaeology and Geology, a Masters of Science in Education, and is working on his Ph.D.  After several years as a professional archaeologist and paleontologist, and experiences writing curriculum for CDC, he pursued a career in science teaching.  Terrill says that because of the width and breath of his experiences, he is able to bring real-life experiences to the classroom, and use the practical science experiences he used in the field.  He brings project-based teaching to his students, involving them in designing data collection devices to be used in their own investigations.  His work in the Native American community led him to become a practitioner of Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences.  He now teaches in a small rural, agricultural community, with a large migrant work population.  

Science is a Way of Thinking: So, Why Do We Try and Standardize it?

 

Figure 1. Carl Sagan and the Universe. Copyright sillyrabbitmythsare4kids, Creative Common Figure 1. Carl Sagan and the Universe. Copyright sillyrabbitmythsare4kids, Creative Commons

Science has been prominent in the media recently.  Stories and programs including the Bill Nye-Ken Ham “debate” on origins, anti-science legislation in Wyoming banning  science standards that include climate science, a new science program on the Science Channel to be hosted by Craig Ferguson, and this weekend, the first of a 13-part series entitled Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey hosted by Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson.  Tyson’s series is based on the Carl Sagan’s 1980 13-part TV series, Cosmos: A Personal Voyage.   Dr. Tyson is an astrophysicist, and Frederick P. Rose Director of the Hayden Planetarium at the Rose Center of Earth and Space at the American Museum of Natural History.  Dr. Tyson has been called this generation’s “Carl Sagan” through his exuberance and public communication of science.

In this post I want to reminisce on science teaching, especially from what I learned from the work (film, print, teaching, research, and public presentations) of Dr. Carl Sagan.  Sagan was the David Duncan Professor of Astronomy and Space Sciences and Director of the Laboratory for Planetary Studies at Cornell University.  Throughout my career I found Sagan’s philosophy important in my work as a university science educator, and want to share some of my thoughts.

51Fn+Y-IhnL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Sagan was a prolific writer, and throughout his career, he not only popularized science to millions of people, he also helped us understand the nature of science, and for science teachers, how that philosophy would contribute to our professional work.  One of his books, Broca’s Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science (public library), became a kind of handbook on the philosophy of science teaching.  I am sure that Sagan didn’t intend it this way, but  it surely reached me in this way.

At the beginning of Broca’s Brain, Sagan says this about science:

SCIENCE IS A WAY of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge. Its goal is to find out how the world works, to seek what regularities there may be, to penetrate to the connections of things—from subnuclear particles, which may be the constituents of all matter, to living organisms, the human social community, and thence to the cosmos as a whole.  Sagan, Carl (2011-07-06). Broca’s Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science (Kindle Locations 344-346). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Sagan also wrote that science is “based on experiment, on a willingness to challenge old dogma, on an openness to see the universe as it really is.  To him, science sometimes requires courage to question the conventional wisdom.”  Questioning established ideas, or proposing a radically different hypothesis to explain data is a courageous act, according to Sagan.  Quite often people who propose such ideas are shunned, or rejected by the “establishment,” including governments and religious groups.

To what extent to encourage students to question ideas, and even to propose new ideas?

Wonder

Many years ago Rachel Carson wrote a book entitled A Sense of Wonder. It was one of my favorites, and I remember and have used one quote from the book many times: “A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood.” Carson’s passionate book conveys the feelings that most science teachers have for their craft, and their goal is to instill in their students, “A Sense of Wonder.”

Enter Carl Sagan and his views on wonder.

Although Carl Sagan died in 1996, his partner in film production and writing, and his wife, Ann Druyan published a book several years ago (The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God) based on lectures he gave in Glasgow, Scotland in 1985.  Now she is the Executive Producer and writer of Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, based on her husband’s original Cosmos series.

To me Sagan was one of the most influential science educators of our time, and I am very happy that Dr. Tyson is hosting a new rendition of his television series.  By making his knowledge and personal views of science accessible to the public (through his writings, speeches, TV appearances, and film production), Sagan helped many see the beauty and wonder in the cosmos. You of course remember is famous, “billions and billions.” He encouraged us to look again at the stars, at the cosmos and to imagine other worlds, beings, if you will. He worked with NASA to make sure that the first space vehicle to leave the Solar System would contain messages that could be interpreted by intelligent life so that they might know of us—Earth beings.

In Varieties of Scientific Experience, areas are explored that we all want to know about. Areas that many have been forced to separate in their experiences—that is science and religion. Sagan, as much as anyone, was well qualified to give lectures on science and religion. He understood religion. He read and could recite scripture. He could argue religion with scholars in the field, and carried on debates on subjects that many scientists resisted.

In the introduction to the book, Druyan comments that for Sagan, Darwin’s insight that life evolved over eons through natural selection was not just better science than Genesis, it afforded us with a “deeper, more spiritual experience.” I thought it was interesting that Druyan also points out that Sagan, who always comments on the vastness and grandeur of the universe, believed we know very little of this universe, and as a result very little about the spiritual, about God. Sagan used analogies to help us understand this vastness. He was famous for this statement: the total number of stars in the universe is greater than all the grains of sand in all of the Earth’s beaches! This is where billions and billions came from.

So what is this musing about. Science teaching is about wonder. It is about bringing to wide-eyed kids the sense of wonder that Rachel Carson wrote about, and Carl Sagan expressed in all of his work.

Thinking Big

Figure 3. Carl Sagan. source: http://technophia.org/?p=5376
Figure 3. Carl Sagan. source:  Creative Commons

Sagan was one scientist who was willing to think big.  Lots of science teachers that I know also think big.  They bring to their students a world that is “far out” and challenging, and in this quest, pique their student’s curiosity.

Thinking Big in science teaching means we bring students in contact with interesting questions, ones that continue to pique our curiosity, and ones that are sure to interest students.  Where did we come from?  Are we alone in the Universe?  How big is the Universe?  Are we the only planet with living things?

A really good example of “thinking big” is NASA’s Carl Sagan Exoplanet Fellowship. The Sagan program supports

outstanding recent postdoctoral scientists to conduct independent research that is broadly related to the science goals of the NASA Exoplanet Exploration area. The primary goal of missions within this program is to discover and characterize planetary systems and Earth-like planets around nearby stars. Fellowship recipients receive financial support to conduct research at a host institution in the US for a period of up to three years. See NExScI at NASA.

Risk Taking

Carl Sagan was willing to take risks. Sagan took issue with two significant developments that occurred during the Reagan administration, namely the Strategic Defense Initiative (using X-ray lasers in space to shoot down enemy missiles), and the idea that nuclear war was winnable.  In the later case, Sagan developed the concept of a “nuclear winter” arguing that fires from a nuclear holocaust would create smoke and dust that would cut out the sun’s rays leading to a global cooling—perhaps threatening agriculture and leading to global famine.  He incensed the right-wing, according to Mooney & Kirshenbaum, and in particular William F. Buckley.  But Sagan held firm on his ideas, supported by other scientists, and even resisted accepting White House invitations to dinner.  Sagan’s criticism of SDI was supported by other scientists, especially Hans Bethe who authored a report by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The standards-based approach to science education does not encourage risk taking.  As Grant Lichtman in his book The Falconer (public library) has said, our present approach to science only encourages kids to answer question, not to question.  There is little risk taking in our approach to science teaching.   In an earlier article, I wrote this about Grant Lichtman’s philosophy of teaching:

One of the aspects of Grant’s book that I appreciate is that the central theme of his book is the importance of asking questions.  We have established a system of education based on what we know and what we expect students to know at every grade level.  The standards-based curriculum dulls the mind by it’s over reliance on a set of expectations or performances that every child should know.  In this approach, students are not encouraged to ask questions.  But, they are expected to choose the correct answer.  In Lichtman’s view, education will only change if we overtly switch our priorities from giving answers to a process of finding new questions.  This notion sounds obvious, but we have gone off the cliff because of the dual forces of standards-based curriculum and high-stakes assessments.

Lichtman writes:

Questions are waypoints on the path of wisdom. Each question leads to one or more new questions or answers. Sometimes answers are dead ends; they don’t lead anywhere. Questions are never dead ends. Every question has the inherent potential to lead to a new level of discovery, understanding, or creation, levels that can range from the trivial to the sublime.  Lichtman, Grant (2010-05-25). The Falconer (Kindle Locations 967-971). iUniverse. Kindle Edition.

Science and Society

Carl Sagan exemplified, just as Neil deGrasse Tyson is now doing, the important of science in a democratic society.  Science education has a responsibility for considering Sagan and Tyson’s philosophy that science should be in the service of people.  People need to understand science.  In Sagan’s view:

All inquiries carry with them some element of risk. There is no guarantee that the universe will conform to our predispositions. But I do not see how we can deal with the universe—both the outside and the inside universe—without studying it. The best way to avoid abuses is for the populace in general to be scientifically literate, to understand the implications of such investigations. In exchange for freedom of inquiry, scientists are obliged to explain their work. If science is considered a closed priesthood, too difficult and arcane for the average person to understand, the dangers of abuse are greater. But if science is a topic of general interest and concern—if both its delights and its social consequences are discussed regularly and competently in the schools, the press, and at the dinner table—we have greatly improved our prospects for learning how the world really is and for improving both it and us.  Sagan, Carl (2011-07-06). Broca’s Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science (Kindle Locations 331-337). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Science is a Way of Thinking: So, Why Do We Try and Standardize it?  Do you think there is mismatch between Sagan’s view of science and the standards-based approach to teaching?  

 

Moving Beyond the Drama and Hyperbole that Dominate International Test Score Results

Moving Beyond the Drama and Hyperbole that Dominate International Test Score Results. The Guardian newspaper published a series of articles the 2013 PISA international test results.  In this post I want to focus on the article written by Finnish educator and scholar Pasi Sahlberg entitled, PISA 2012 scores show the failure of ‘market based’ education reform (Sahlberg, Pasi, 2013). Sahlberg is Director General of International Centre at the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture in Helsinki.  He has written extensively about educational improvement and enhancing equity as the focus of improving education. Dr. Sahlberg points out that creating league tables that showcase or shame countries based on their student’s performance on standardized tests is simply not an proper use of international test results, in this case PISA. As I’ve reported many times on this blog, international test results fall prey to newspaper headlines that predict the collapse of economies, or the inability of its students to compete in the ‘global market.’  The ‘sky is falling’ mantra was alive and well last week.  Imagine reading the headlines in Helsinki after its students fell from second place to 12th in just three years.  Sahlberg reports that in Sweden, the test result for its students was considered a national disaster.  In the United States, the Secretary of Education (Arne Duncan) said that for the U.S. the results are “straightforward and stark: It is a picture of educational stagnation.”

Global Educational Reform

But Dr. Sahlberg suggests that the PISA results are proof that the Global Educational Reform Movement (GERM).  According to Sahlberg, GERM is a virus that has infected many nations in their march to “reform” education.  In his view, GERM is characterized by standardization (Common Core), core subjects (math, reading, science), teaching to the test, corporate management style, and test-based accountability.  When Duncan commented  (Guardian News, 2013) on the 2013 PISA results, he said it was clear that this “must serve as a wake-up call against educational complacency and low expectations.”  And to correct American education’s shortcomings, “we must invest in early learning, redesign high schools, raise standards and support great teachers.” Good examples of GERM schools can be found in the US, England, New Zealand, Australia, Sweden and Chile.  Here is how they fared in the PISA tests (Table 1).

PISA Results for Nations that have adopted the Global Educational Reform Movement (GERM)
Table 1. PISA Results for Nations that have adopted the Global Educational Reform Movement (GERM)
These nations have adopted a model of education based on competition, standardization, and test-based accountability.  In Sahlberg’s view,

GERM has acted like a virus that “infects” education systems as it travels around the world.

Non-Global Education Reform

But Sahlberg, if he were ever asked by Duncan how to improve American schools, would not suggest the “reforms” that Duncan has funded for the past five years.  Instead Dr. Sahlberg would suggest that the standard-corporate styled reforms (GERM) are based on premises that are rejected by educators and policy makers in nations that seem to be successful.  Disclaimer: There are many organizations, groups, individual educators and policy makers in nations that are infected by GERM who oppose these market-based reforms, and suggest that equity must be at the center of educational reform). According to Sahlberg, a school system is “successful” if it performs above the OECD average in mathematics, reading literacy and science, and if students’ socio-economic status has a weaker-than-average impact on students’ learning outcomes. The most successful education systems in the OECD are Korea, Japan, Finland, Canada and Estonia.

Table 2. PISA test scores for nations that are above the OECD average, and students socio-economic status has weaker-than-average impact on students' learning outcomes (Text: Sahlberg, 2013)
Table 2. PISA test scores for nations that are above the OECD average, and students socio-economic status has weaker-than-average impact on students’ learning outcomes (Text: Sahlberg, 2013)

Beyond GERM

1. Schools should have autonomy over its curricula and how students are assessed.  Teachers should work collaboratively to design and develop curriculum, and make decisions about the nature of instruction in their own classrooms.  This is contrary to the reforms that have dominated American education for decades, especially starting with the publication, Nation at Risk, followed by the No Child Left Behind Act during the Bush Administration, and The Race to the Top during the Obama administration.  Sahlberg says:

PISA shows how success is often associated with balanced professional autonomy with a collaborative culture in schools. Evidence also shows how high performing education systems engage teachers to set their own teaching and learning targets, to craft productive learning environments, and to design multiple forms student assessments to best support student learning and school improvement.

2. Schools need to focus on equity by giving priority to early childhood (one point for Duncan), comprehensive health and special education in schools, a balanced curriculum that sees the arts, music and sports as equals to math, reading and science. 3. School choice does not improve academic performance in a nation’s schools.  In fact, the overemphasis on school choice and competition between schools leads to greater segregation of schools. 4.  Successful schools are public schools and are controlled locally, not by a state or federal government. If we want to improve education in the US, we need to move away from the competitive, corporate-based model that is based on standardization and test accountability.  As Dr. Nel Noddings says in her new book, Education and Democracy in the 21st Century,

Education in the 21st century must put away some 20th-century thinking. All over the world today, many educators and policymakers believe that cooperation must displace competition as a primary form of relating. Competition is not to be abandoned— some competition is healthy and necessary— but it should no longer be the defining characteristic of relationships in an era of growing globalization. If we agree with this judgment, then we must consider how to prepare students for a cooperative world, not solely for one of competition.  (Noddings, Nel (2013-01-25).

American public schools are not failing.  The premise that they are failing is based on one factor–test scores.  We need to move beyond this concept of schooling and embrace collaboration, dialogue, interdependence, and creativity (Noddings, 2013).

References:

Sahlberg, Pasi. “The PISA 2012 Scores Show the Failure of ‘market Based’ Education Reform.” Theguardian.com. Guardian News and Media, 08 Dec. 2013. Web. 12 Dec. 2013. “A Picture of Educational Stagnation’: Study Finds US Teen Students Lagging.” Theguardian.com. Guardian News and Media, 03 Dec. 2013. Web. 12 Dec. 2013. Noddings, Nel (2013-01-25). Education and Democracy in the 21st Century (Kindle Locations 103-107). Teachers College Press. Kindle Edition.