‘Education in two worlds’ is the blog of Gene Glass, a leading commentator on American education in the era of marketisation, charter schools, common core standards, high stakes testing and teacher employment practices redolent of 1860s England and ‘payment by results’.
Far from being remote from the situation here in the UK, what Glass, Berliner, Ravitch and others portray as a politically and commercially orchestrated assault on American public schooling in the name of parental choice and improved standards uses strategies that the UK government has consciously imported, adapted or endorsed. This policy cloning is most conspicuous in the treatment of international evidence, the national curriculum, academies, teacher education and testing. For in campaigns educational as well as military, where America goes Britain tends to follow, in the process transferring the language of the battlefield to the classroom.
In their brilliant book 50 Myths and Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools, Berliner and Glass muster research evidence that deconstructs the ‘myths, hoaxes and outright lies’ through which, in their view, US policymakers and their multinational and fundamentalist backers have sought to discredit mainstream schooling and turn public service into private profit. With many of these – especially the ‘grand myth’ of a state schooling system which in comparison with its PISA competitors is in terminal decline – England is only too familiar.
The trouble is, each incoming UK government uses the same terminal decline claim to dismiss the sweeping and often disruptive ‘reforms’ of its predecessor and impose its own, which is tantamount to an admission either that the reforms don’t work or that the system isn’t broken after all and the exercise has more to do with vanity and machismo than progress. Remember Michael Gove, hard on the heels of Labour’s ‘highest standards ever’ national strategies: ‘literacy, down; numeracy, down; science, down; fail, fail, fail!’
1992, 1997, 2010 … We’ve been there so many times that as we approach the 2015 general election party leaders may well find themselves rubbishing their own policies. Let’s hope so.
Hence ‘two worlds’: the world of carefully assembled evidence and educated deliberation, of schooling as it is and could be, and the shallow, hectic and self-regarding world of political rhetoric, spin, myth and scapegoating; a world in which evidence is treated not even-handedly but opportunistically and selectively, and on that basis serves not to shape, test and improve policy but post hoc to validate it; a world in which myths and policies are endlessly recycled and in which, consequently, there’s much change but little real progress. It matters not that in opposition our leaders promise, as they invariably do, a more principled approach. Once in power, just as invariably, they revert.
One strand of the Cambridge Primary Review’s final report that gained less attention than it deserved was its exposure of these tendencies in English primary education. In the course of a wider analysis of the educational policy process the report contrasted the necessary discourse of evidence and deliberation with the actual discourses of dichotomy, derision and myth, and its penultimate chapter demolished no fewer than 14 claims about educational standards that were central to government policy between 1997 and 2010.
There’ll be more on these matters in the autumn and in the run-up to the 2015 election, starting with two abiding ‘grand myths’ about English primary education.
Four for the bookshelf of seekers after educational truth:
- Berliner, D.C., Glass, G.V. and associates (2014) 50 Myths and Lies That Threaten America’s Schools: the real crisis in education, Teachers College Press.
- Ravitch, D. (2013) Reign of Error: the hoax of the privatisation movement and the danger to America’s public schools, Knopf.
- Sahlberg, P. (2010) Finnish Lessons: what can the world learn from educational change in Finland? Teachers College Press.
plus, of course –
- Alexander, R.J. (ed) (2010) Children, their World, their Education: final report and recommendations of the Cambridge Primary Review, Routledge.