So it’s that time of year again: the PISA results are in! As we’ve grown accustomed here in Flanders, we are again moving backwards. Our pupils are getting worse at reading and mathematics yet again. Now according to curriculum-veteran Roger Standaert, PISA tests are invalid, since they do not measure our Flemish curriculum, but that’s nonsense. Say that I want to run a water check on my house, and the result is that my house is on fire. Is the water check valid? No. Does it prove however that there is a big problem with my house? Yes, it absolutely does. Action is required.
So what happened? Nobody seems to know for sure, but allow me to explore a few ideas.
Every new curriculum is a bit more empty than the last one. This is not coming from me, it’s coming from, among others, Dirk Van Damme, and educational specialist from the OESO. So with every generation of these curricula, pupils are being taught less and less. And if you keep that up for a few years, you get the next problem:
When a generation of ill-taught youngsters become teachers themselves, they are not qualified to teach at a high level. It’s as simple as that. You can’t teach what you don’t know. For some time now, we have known that our teacher training programs are having a quality-issue: they simply do not offer the necessary skills, knowledge of competences that future teachers need.
So why not upgrade the programs? Because if that were to be done, there would not be enough teachers succeeding in the program. Whether it is better to have an unqualified teacher than no teacher, that’s the real question here.
An even bigger problem is that our brightest pupils do not want to become teachers. They aspire to be doctors, lawyers, CEOs, etc. To be a teacher is not a desirable future. This is a widespread problem in community-driven jobs: nurses, policemen, … All these jobs are in need of qualified people.
Teachers (on the job)
Now don’t get me wrong: about 90% of all teachers I know are super qualified, super driven, spend most of their spare time trying to take their lessons to the next level, and even spend their own money on things to pimp their lessons. However, the big crushing wheel of bureaucracy is grinding them down. They need to file report after report about how they teach, what they do, why some pupils are flunked, etc. A little bit of trust would be nice. As Henry Mintzberg discusses in his book ‘Structure in fives’, schools are professional bureaucracies. If you try to implement administrative systems of direct control, it becomes a machine bureaucracy, with less expertise and mass production of the same product (which is clearly undesirable in educating children).
On top of that, the ill-thought implementation of inclusion (as directed by the UN’s Salamanca agreement of 1994) has all staff on the brink of burn-out. It seems that every year, more and more pupils have special needs or do not speak the country’s language. That means the teacher, on top of teaching and testing, has to spend hours and hours on the phone talking to hospitals, specialists, trainers; make sure every pupil takes notes and correct their pupils workbooks (since they can’t do that themselves anymore); take care of handouts: some pupils need bigger fonts, others work on computers; lower the bar for languages so everyone can keep up; …
As Wouter Duyck from the University of Ghent put it: “Teachers are giving up on teaching, in order to become caretakers. As a reaction, parents are giving up some of the caretaking in order to teach their own kids.” Which has one big problem: well-schooled parents are able to do that; poorly-schooled parents are not. Which explains the widening PISA gap between the good pupils and the bad.
Politics and ideology
This last one brings me to what I consider the biggest flaw in education in Flanders today: ideology. Where education used to be the tool to make our pupils shine and to bring them to a higher level, it is now merely seen as an instrument of socialisation. The focus is not on achieving something, it is about making sure everyone is equal.
So bright students are not meant to reach a higher level. They are used as experts to help the less-bright pupils. What do the bright kids have to gain from this system? Absolutely nothing. Instead of having people schooled on different levels according to their ability and interests, we now hope to achieve the same mediocre level for all.
If you think that’s all good, and socialisation and equality of outcome is the way to go, ask yourself this: if in a few years you find yourself in a hospital, what kind of doctor would you like? One who doesn’t have the stomach for it; lacks some important skills; needs a coach next to him or some pills to stop shaking; but hey, it was the best one they had, and at least he is creative and has an opinion on things, and his parents were poor so it was society’s job to give him the chance to be a doctor? Or the one who is the product of strict selection in school; has been taught all he needed to know; didn’t have to waste his own study time on teaching other kids (because that’s the teacher’s job); and might be a totally uncreative person from the upper class, but does a damn good job at what he is actually at your bed for?
What to do?
Some 20 years ago, Flemish education was top notch. So what to do? Well, let’s begin by turning back all the new ideas that have been implemented since then and which clearly didn’t do any good at all. And we, the teachers, will take it from there, given that we can do away with administrative overload, social work (we’re not social workers) and public ridicule about our holidays.
In the meantime, if nothing should change: I call upon all parents to keep a close eye on their children’s education and – if necessary – step in and take control. I am doing so for my daughters, as are lots of my colleagues. And if we, the teachers, have pretty much given up on the system we know so well, …