A world class education by the man who should know, by John Bangs

Posted on July 12, 2018 in Story 345 view

A review of “World Class” by Andreas Schleicher, Director of Education and Skills at the OECD.

I’ve known Andreas Schleicher since the beginnings of the first Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). He presented his Directorate’s plans, then led by an avuncular Australian, Barry McGaw, to the first meeting I attended of the OECD’s Trade Union Advisory Committee’s Education Working Group. With Arthur Jarman, I was representing the NUT alongside the NASUWT’s Eamonn O’Kane and Mick Carney.

We were impressed with his proposals for PISA because the assessments focussed on using and applying knowledge and achieving equity in education systems and were a complete contrast to the UK’s anticomprehensive education lobby. In fact they made such a deep impression that the NUT and the NASUWT became the first teacher unions to host a national conference based on PISA.

Another memory is of an OECD international Conference hosted by the German Federal Education Ministry and Lander in Berlin on the shock caused by the first PISA which had shown huge swathes of underachievement among Germany’s fifteen-year olds. I remember Andreas and I proposing that  here should be a questionnaire for teachers in PISA, a position resisted by the US at the time; but which ironically led to the birth of the only global teachers’ survey-TALIS.

Eighteen years on the number of countries taking part in PISA has moved from 32 to nudge 100 and the number of participants in TALIS have virtually doubled making both surveys pre-eminently the go-to international analyses of school systems. They represent an exponential growth in the power and influence of OECD’s educational research. It seems logical then that Schleicher, now the OECD’s Director of Education and Skills, should seek to consolidate what he has learnt from the huge quantity of data the OECD has amassed on what makes successful education systems.

So is World Class like the enormous PISA and TALIS tomes – leavened as they are by numerous tables and graphs? The answer is no. This is a much more personal take on PISA’s and TALIS’ conclusions. There are some interesting autobiographical details. He started as a physics teacher and academic researcher. Themes which lie semi-submerged in PISA and TALIS emerge with clarity. For example he is scathing about how social media algorithms sort people into like-minded individuals, who then become insulated against divergent perspectives and then end up living in polarised societies. The role of schools is clear. They must help students develop a sense of right and wrong, and develop a sensitivity to the claims that others make on us. He argues that people will need a deep understanding of how others live and that whatever task machines take over, the demands on human beings to contribute meaningfully to social and civic life will keep rising.

Indeed, Schleicher’s argument that it is the continuing agency of human beings which marks them out from machines has major implications for teachers. He rejects the arguments of those who believe that Artificial Intelligence can be a substitute for teacher agency and instead argues for countries to have clear plans to develop teachers’ capacity to make the most of technology.

Schleicher is unequivocally a proponent of liberal democratic ideals, inclusive social progress and pluralism. His response to the threats of extremism and nationalist populism to schools is to call for schools to be sites of constructive debate as a way of preparing students to be objectively critical of false facts and fake news. His passion is for education systems to focus on supporting students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Above all he believes in the power of education to solve the social ills of societies and in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals as a way of measuring educational progress. His proposals that schools should develop global competences are a logical consequence of this. It is an optimistic vision and makes the book a page turner.

Yet as attractive as much of Schleicher’s big picture is, it can occasionally lead to irritating generalisations even if they are for the best of intentions. Class size is a classic example. His argument is that because ‘smaller classes class do not lead to better results’ the economies of large class sizes should lead to teacher pay improvements. You can imagine teachers grinding their teeth faced with such an invidious choice! In fact it’s a position which ignores evidence such as Linda Darling Hammond’s analysis of PISA data which found that there is a correlation between high class sizes and teacher shortage. A valid conclusion would have been that its excessive workload which drives teachers away and that its low pupil teacher ratios that count!

Another generalisation is the issue of school funding including “spending more versus spending wisely.” In fact “spending more” should not counterposed with “spending wisely”. The evidence certainly from my own country, England, is that spending cuts bite and even the most skilled manager cannot create enough efficiencies to mask them.

You only have to look at the fate of Sure Start Centres to know that.

Inevitably there are other issues which some will find problematic. PISA’s league table approach remains controversial. Giving a fair wind to aspects of school choice including Academies and vouchers, albeit only as a supplement for disadvantaged students, is entering dangerous territory.

That said, at the heart of World Class are teachers. This is the book’s greatest strength. Schleicher is clear that teachers should be seen as independent and responsible professionals and that they should be engaged in education reform. There is one telling passage entitled “making teacher unions part of the solution”. Unlike many leading policy makers Schleicher does not believe that teacher unions should be kept at arm’s length. The evidence is, he notes, that many countries with the strongest student performance also have strong teachers’ unions and that the more successful countries are educationally the more likely they are to be working with their unions constructively.

Indeed, the book describes in detail the International Summits of the Teaching Profession- the only global forum where teacher union leaders and Ministers get together to agree practical teacher policies. Along with my organisation, Education International, Schleicher has ensured that the OECD is a permanent host of the Summits. In short, his message is, education reforms will not be successful if teachers and their unions don’t own them.

World Class argues powerfully that education is the world’s best chance for the future and teacher agency is the way in which this is achieved. Probably the most significant part of the book is Schleicher’s dedication to the “teachers of the world” who work in “difficult conditions with rarely the appreciation they deserve to helping the next generation realise their dreams and shape our future”. This is from the Director of the world’s most influential education research centre. That’s why this book is so important.

Note: This blog was first published in Education Journal, Issue 341 (ISSN: 1364-4505).

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