Global benchmarking of education systems has radically changed the geography of educational change in the world. Ten years ago, the epicenter of high educational performance and innovation was the Anglo-Saxon part of the world: United Kingdom, Australia, United States, New Zealand and Canada. Many of these countries then believed that their education system is among the best in world. Now several Asian countries and Finland are in the limelight. It is not a great surprise then that most OECD countries today state in their education strategies the aim to be among the top five education nations in the future. This standardized global race for excellence and its consequences to practice is the most pressing issue of educational change today as I see the situation.
The race to the top of the global education rankings inevitably leads to governing education by statistics and numbers rather than human values such as social justice or improvement of peoples lives. It creates education strategies that typically focus on raising the bar and narrowing the achievement gaps. Then, (1) clear targets are set for student performance, (2) standardized tests measure students’ and teachers’ performance, (3) achievements are rewarded and often sanctioned, and (4) teacher and school rankings are made public. This has no doubt increased competition, standardized solutions, and market-based models to achieve these goals. At the same time, educational research and news reports show the unintended consequences of this trend: narrowing curricula, increased teaching to tests, demoralized teachers, widespread educational corruption (e.g. correction of students’ bubble sheets in Atlanta and D.C. and teacher-authorized cheating across Indonesia), and increasing stress and mental health problems among young people. All of this does serious damage to already struggling education systems.
This is an important issue related to educational change because it assumes that the talent development in our modern innovation societies is about improving academic performance and basic skills as we have done in the past. It is ironic, actually, that education reformers call for more parental choice but students’ achievements would be judged using the same academic standardized criteria without any choice for students themselves. I don’t see room for much innovation in that. Therefore I don’t think that this would increase flexibility, risk-taking and creativity in schools that are the key conditions for making schools places where each young individual could explore and discover their own talents.