As a frequent visitor to your country and an admirer of its cultural richness, I was delighted to read of your recent appointment as minister of education. In your previous job, you often voiced your concerns about the state of your country’s education system. I have also read your writings where you call into question old ways of thinking about education and are highly critical of how education policy has been put into practice in your country. In a recent interview you spoke passionately of your sense of frustration and even anger that past efforts to improve the education system for your country’s young people have achieved so little. You also expressed your concern that international cooperation has not helped find lasting solutions to the most pressing problems in education.
In my time, I have met many people in your situation. As you will soon see for yourself, institutions, interest groups, business people and individuals, among them your colleagues, students, teachers and parents, will all come to you with their suggestions about what you should do. Some will come bearing promises of political or financial support for your work, others will offer to help you fix those parts of the education system that work improperly. Then there are those who will want your support for their own political agendas.
Two considerations may help shape your response. First, it is vital to be absolutely clear about the exact nature of the problems facing your education system. In your previous job, you declared that “education is not just an important issue, it is the issue because the future of our people and our culture are at stake.” But giving education top priority does not constitute a diagnosis. Second, you may find it useful to think about the education system and its problems in the same way a doctor thinks about a patient. If someone has a serious illness, diagnosis is not always easy even for the most experienced of doctors. A correct diagnosis often begins with the realization that the patient is not suffering from one ailment but rather a complex mix of ailments. There is no need to worry about how complex these problems are, but you must avoid being influenced by the urgent nature of the problem so that your diagnosis misses the real cause of the sickness and ends up only treating the minor symptoms.
Another important question for you is to what extent will you and your team be influenced by fashionable ideas on education reform that have become common currency at international conferences and workshops. Will you be able to convince your partners, and your own citizens, that the problems of your education system cannot be solved by simple “solutions,” like turning around a poorly performing firm or fixing a window? Before giving my opinion, I would like to offer personal observations about some of the current trends in education. There are many ways to describe global education policy trends; I will highlight only a few major ones, both desired and worrying.
- Education policies in many countries, on paper at least, value learning over teaching. Many countries have redesigned school curricula and the content of teaching according to descriptions of the knowledge and skills students must acquire rather than what teachers must teach.
- Education reforms in many countries aim to improve education for all, not just for some. This principle has become more important as social and cultural diversity in many countries has increased.
- Believe it or not, schooling in many countries is becoming like a market commodity. This trend is based on the assumption that competition and information are the primary drivers of improvement. The logic is very simple; competition is the driving force behind efficiency and economic growth, therefore competition between schools and students must be the best way of improving student performance, the corporate school reformers think.
- An economic rationale and the preparation of individuals for workforce and international competition are commonly cited reasons for educational reform. Education, as you well realize, is, indeed, an important driver of a country’s economic welfare. But an interesting shift in education policy discourse has occurred over the last 30 years. Social promotion and individual well-being appear less often than before in contemporary education policy agendas. If I, or better yet, you, examine education policies in randomly selected countries, you and I would readily note a change in how the need for education reform is expressed.
So if education policy themes are common to many countries across the world, is this the result of a process of mutual learning between the nations’ education communities? I would suggest a different metaphor to explain the global transfer of education policies. But first, let me explain why I think learning is difficult for governments, and even more so, dare I say, for individual ministries as they suffer from specific problems that often prevent them from learning from others. You, and certainly your advisors have access to global education data and to some of the most brilliant researchers on education.
You frequently interact with other ministers and their education experts and researchers. But at the end of the day, you are dealing with political issues, since most of education reform is all about politics. Technical rationality and problem solving – familiar to anyone who works in public administration – rather than posing problems take up the time of most ministers and their staff. However genuine learning thrives on the exchange of ideas, innovation and opportunities for reflection. Access to superficial information and ideas through the media and the Internet often acts as a substitute for real learning.
In your statement of intentions as education minister, you suggest that the work of your predecessors with corporate school reformers, including venture philanthropists and media moguls, has not always helped your fellow citizens understand the fundamental problems facing education. Indeed, they may even have triggered new ones, as you claim. What actually happens is that ideas are borrowed from corporate world then applied to education system as though the context, people, teachers and pupils were all interchangeable.
I suggested to earlier that it could be helpful to think about the education system and its problems in the same way a doctor thinks about a patient. Although this may seem distasteful, there may be similarities between how education policies and diseases spread. Epidemiology uses three terms – the agent, the host and the environment – to describe how severe infections move from place to place. People become ill as a result of interactions between all three. Not everyone gets infected, even though they may have been in the same place as someone who actually caught the disease, because some people have more resistance to the same agent than others.
Just for the sake of interest, may I invite you to consider how the global education reform movement behaves like a germ in an epidemic. Just like diseases, education policy ideas spread quickly around the world but whether they “infect” governments or not depends on the needs for reform and the level of awareness of the education expert communities in each country. Several governments may be infected by the same germ but the severity of the infection will vary greatly.
I would like to offer you two moral imperatives you may find useful in your work and these are prevention and repair. What I mean may become clearer if you think about these two words in the context of an epidemic. When you are worried about your child’s health in the midst of a dangerous flu epidemic, the first thing you think about is how to prevent him or her becoming infected. Only if the worst happens do you look for a cure, namely the repair. Simple enough. But I dare say that up to now, education policies in both your country and mine have concentrated much more on repairing than prevention. With health care reforms, in contrast, the idea of prevention has long been seen as a cheaper and more effective alternative to the cure. I feel sure you will agree with me on this.
What you need to know as you move the emphasis from repairing to prevention in educational reform is that prevention has two separate but interconnected strands. First, education policies must effectively prevent your schools, teachers and students from getting into serious trouble, such as students dropping out due to lack of motivation or good teachers leaving their jobs due to disrespectful working conditions. Second, you must be sceptical and question the policy ideas and information that the global education reform movement will bring to you and your staff. The best preventive strategy, in my modest opinion, is ensuring that your best technical education experts available are constantly advising you and collaborating with you – and, of course, that you carefully listen to and try to understand their suggestions.
The aim of this letter is to wish you good luck in this important mission. It is also to provide some ideas on how to be well equipped to receive, process and act upon the flood of education policy advice that will reach you through many channels. You may view policy development and education reform in your country through an epidemiologist’s eyes; an awareness of the role of agents, hosts and environments related to improving the performance of your education system. Another strategy might be to work like a medical doctor who diagnoses already-occurring illnesses and set about to cure them.
But there is another, even better, strategy – becoming a serious leader in education, someone who can show the way and install an authentic passion for getting involved in education reform in your citizens. You may wonder – how do I go about energizing public thinking on education to strengthen its “resistance to infection” by policy ideas that may be popular but are not effective? What I am suggesting, to be sure, is not easy. However, encouraging participation by your citizens can only make your education system stronger and more responsive.
I also encourage you to engage in mutual learning with your colleagues in other countries. As you have stated many times, there is no point in blindly copying policies and ideas from other education systems. The less your education policy changes resemble an epidemic and the more they are the result of mutual learning, the closer you will be to the goals you have set yourself.
With these thoughts, let me wish you good luck once more and assure you that I will be following your leadership in education with great interest.
School improvement activist, Helsinki