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GERM Spreading, New Zealand Infected

March 9, 2014
sahlberg

Pasi Sahlberg at Stanford University, 2012. (photo by the author)

Pasi Sahlberg, the well-known Finnish education expert and author of Finnish Lessons, has described the negative trends in education reform as GERM – the Global Education Reform Movement. You can see his TEDx talk “GERM that kills schools” embedded below.

The basics of GERM are well known to most people by now: one-way accountability, where leaders demand results from practitioners while no one seems to hold leaders accountable for creating the conditions necessary for success; high-stakes testing; misguided focus on rankings, competition, and punishment; a near-obsession with data; deprofessionalizing teaching through reduced autonomy and increased focus on compliance.

And the metaphor of GERM makes sense the way unhealthy ideas about educational systems continue to spread. The latest example comes from New Zealand, where teachers at a school have apparently responded to high-stakes testing and narrowed curriculum by cheating. I’m not excusing cheating, but anyone putting these kinds of systems in place – in Atlanta, Washington, D.C., Houston, California or New Zealand – must acknowledge their responsibility as well; cheating is a predictable result when you use improper or limited measures excessively, and in ways that feel threatening.

As a teacher, I would certainly punish a student for cheating in my class. But if I assign much of a student’s grade based on a procedure or task that’s easy to falsify, and it’s also something that my students find intrusive, flawed, coercive or irrelevant, then certainly I’m also at fault for creating the conditions that almost inevitably lead to cheating.

The reactions in New Zealand sound quite familiar:

Labour Education spokesman Chris Hipkins: “The high stakes nature of the system is nonsense. It is very easily manipulated, it is heavily subjective and is no way a reliable measurement of school performance. The higher stakes you make it, the more pressure there is going to be on schools to make their subjective judgments to increase their achievement results.”

Martin Thrupp of Waikato University, who led a three-year study into national standards: “The tail starts to wag the dog and the assessment system kind of takes over and pushes out a broader approach and people tend to go more directly for activities that are going to more directly push kids along in terms of the national standards.”

A parent at the affected school: “I’ve heard from teachers that national standards are putting a lot of pressure on them to document these standard tests rather than allowing children to have their individual strengths recognised.”

It seems quite likely that these GERM approaches will fail in the long run. How many years we’ll spend learning that lesson remains to be seen.

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