Pasi Sahlberg is the brilliant Finnish educator who is trying to roll back the global tide of destructive education policies.
Sahlberg wrote an important book, Finnish Lessons, explaining how the Finnish education system was transformed in the past thirty years and became one of the top-performing nations in the world on PISA tests of reading, mathematics, and science.
Recently Sahlberg wrote an article summarizing his views on Valerie Strauss’s Answer Sheet blog in the Washington Post.
Sahlberg warns that there is now an infection sweeping the world which he calls GERM (the Global Education Reform Movement).
GERM is characterized by heavy emphasis on market-style reforms: testing, data, measurement of students and teachers, ranking, choice, competition.
Finland has resisted the GERM virus. Its students do not take standardized tests; they take tests made by their teachers, whose professional judgment and autonomy are deeply respected by all.
Finland has made sure that all its children are well cared for; less than 5 percent live in poverty. Our child poverty rate is close to 25 percent.
Finland became a high performer, he writes, not by seeking excellence but by seeking equity, by pursuing the goal of good schools for all.
All Finnish teachers must be well-educated in their subjects and in pedagogy, acquired at an academic university; all teachers must have a masters degree before they can teach. Interesting to note that, by contrast, a growing number of teachers in the U.S. are getting their credentials and degrees from online “universities.” Many states are lowering their requirements for teachers.
Here are the symptoms of GERM, described by Sahlberg:
The first symptom is more competition within education systems. Many reformers believe that the quality of education improves when schools compete against one another. In order to compete, schools need more autonomy, and with that autonomy comes the demand for accountability. School inspections, standardized testing of students, and evaluating teacher effectiveness are consequences of market-like competition in many school reforms today. Yet when schools compete against one another, they cooperate less.
The second symptom of GERM is increased school choice. It essentially positions parents as consumers empowering them to select schools for their children from several options and thereby promotes market-style competition into the system as schools seek to attract those parents. More than two-thirds of OECD countries have increased school choice opportunities for families with the perceptions that market mechanisms in education would allow equal access to high-quality schooling for all. Increasing numbers of charter schools in the United States, secondary school academies in England, free schools in Sweden and private schools in Australia are examples of expanding school choice policies. Yet according to the OECD, nations pursuing such choice have seen both a decline in academic results and an increase in school segregation.
The third sign of GERM is stronger accountability from schools and related standardized testing of students. Just as in the market place, many believe that holding teachers and schools accountable for students’ learning will lead to improved results. Today standardized test scores are the most common way of deciding whether schools are doing a good job. Teacher effectiveness that is measured using standardized tests is a related symptom of GERM. According to the Center for Public Education, standardized testing has increased teaching to the test, narrowed curricula to prioritize reading and mathematics, and distanced teaching from the art of pedagogy to mechanistic instruction.
We have a very bad case of GERM in the U.S. We are even exporting it to other countries, including Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Our educational products and ideas should be quarantined at the border. We need medication to stop the virus within our own borders. Let’s recognize the “reform” movement for what it is: a bold effort to privatize public education and open it up for private investment. This is no “civil rights movement.” This is an attack on a basic democratic institution.