This post was originally posted on InternationalEd News.

In this latest post in the Leading Futures Series, edited by Alma Harris and Michelle Jones, Dennis Shirley describes how “imperial” and “insular” imperatives may limit learning about educational policies across countries. Drawing from his new book, The New Imperatives of Educational Change: Achievement with Integrity, Shirley argues for more sophisticated comparative approaches that support learning from and beyond PISA. Dennis Shirley is Professor Education at the Lynch School of Education, Boston College, and a Visiting Professor in Venice International University in the fall semester of 2016.  

In a world of ever-increasing big data, the upcoming release in December of the latest rankings on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) should be cause for celebration. An abundance of international evidence should give policy makers, educational professionals, and the public a treasure trove of new findings about how well students are learning in reading, mathematics and science. With this information we can learn from those systems that excel. We can adapt some of their proven strategies to our own schools. In the process we can ensure that all children are enabled to reach their full potential.

It’s an entirely rational vision for a perfect world.  But we live in an imperfect world.  Policies are not made through careful studies of the available evidence or mindful interpretation when the evidence is ambiguous. In the real world policy is made through a crazy-quilt pattern of conjectures, hyperbole, and sound-bites. Only every now and then, is there reference to actual research.

Consider Australia and the adaptation in some of its states of policies piloted in England and the US. Under the slogan of increasing school autonomy, schools in Western Australia are becoming detached from democratically-elected local authorities. Teacher education throughout the country increasingly is disconnected from higher education and research capacity, with for-profit providers moving into new openings for service provision. International publishers that are located in England and the US such as Pearson and McGraw-Hill are among those taking advantage of increased standardized testing and new digital technologies to expand their market share. “Because of Australia’s close links with England the USA and their influence,” Stephen Dinham has observed in an article entitled The worst of both worlds, “it is not surprising that the myths and beliefs underpinning these developments have been accepted almost without evidence or questioning in Australia.”

The irony is that Australia has done better than either England or the US on PISA. Australia also does far better than the US on many international quality of life indicators, including life expectancy.  Australia is not in the position of developing countries that were compelled for many years to adopt testing and accountability strategies exported from the US to receive education funding from the World Bank.  Yet there seems to have been an imperial imperative at work that has led even some states in more successful countries on PISA like Australia to adopt policies from England and the US, even when there is broad agreement that those policies have led to disappointing results.

A century ago, one could have understood such policy borrowing.  Australia was part of what was unapologetically called the British Empire.  Ever since the London Declaration of 1949, however, Australia has been a free and independent nation.  While there still is an emotional attachment to England, England can no more compel Australia to change its education policies than it can any other nation.

For some critics, the OECD is responsible for spreading marketplace competition, test-based accountability, and curricular narrowing in education.  But matters are not so simple.  In a study on The policy impact of PISA, Simon Breakspear has shown that “Finland was the most commonly listed influential country/economy” in the wake of PISA. As Pasi Sahlberg and Andy Hargreaves and I have shown elsewhere, Finnish education is the opposite of the policies that have been adapted in Australia from England and the US.

So can we do a global scan and produce a slew of countries that have adopted Finnish-style reforms that emphasize collective responsibility, pervasive equity, and a gentle, child-centered philosophy of education? Not really. Right next door to Finland stands Sweden, which has suffered from a humiliating plunge in PISA results and shares a common border and history with Finland. But what Finnish policies have the Swedes taken over thus far? None to date.

A similar situation of a curious insular imperative can be found in Scotland, which rests on the northern border with England.  While it shares any number of similar policies with England as part of the United Kingdom, in education Scotland has endeavored to pursue different policies. As an aggregate, these have led to higher results on PISA. It would seem obvious that the English would be curious about what is going on with their northern neighbors, and would send delegations up to adapt elements from Scotland for their own schools. What independent Scottish educational policies have the English tried out? None so far.

Extending 5,525 miles, the United States has the world’s longest border with Canada, another country that has done well on PISA, especially in the four most populated provinces of Ontario, Alberta, British Columbia, and Quebec. Over 90% of Canadians live within 100 miles of the US, making the overwhelming majority of their schools easily accessible for visitors from south of the border. What Canadian policies have been transferred into the US?  Zilch.

For all of the chatter about data-driven decision-making that has gone on for years now, an anachronistic insular imperative has characterized many nations when it comes to policy borrowing. Their policy makers have been tone deaf. Such policy makers have failed to learn from nations that have performed better, even when they share geographical proximity, a common language, and cultural similarities.

Why is this?  Long-standing and deeply ingrained attitudes of one country towards another play a role. The Swedish economy is larger than the Finnish one. The same can be said of the English in regard to Scotland or the US in relation to Canada.  Countries that lead in economic clout appear to have a hard time admitting that they might learn from others who do better in education.  It’s easier to be insular.

The insular imperative has been related to the imperial imperative in paradoxical ways. How can an imperious stance be connected with insularity at one and the same time? This is possible if a nation projects its own policies and practices abroad for others to learn from while failing to model the position of a curious and open-minded learner in its own conduct. It is possible if a nation assumes that the answers to change all lie on one side, and that others, perhaps smaller and less powerful, have little to impart. It’s hard not to connect a certain arrogance to the ways that the imperial and insular imperatives have interacted over the years. This would not matter so much at a purely political level, if students were not the ones who pay the price in terms of lost learning opportunities. It would not matter on the level of theory if teachers did not suffer from a sense of diminished professionalism in practice.

For these reasons we should welcome the publication of the new PISA results in December. We should be honest about the many factors that make for a given country’s educational policies, and shouldn’t overstate the significance of PISA in this regard. In part the lack of response could be a good thing, since PISA doesn’t measure important aspects of a country’s national cultural heritage. I am a Visiting Professor at Venice International University in Italy this fall, and many of my students studied ancient Greek and Latin in the country’s classical secondary schools. These are popular and precious parts of Italy’s identity. Simply because they don’t fit neatly into economic quests to maximize human capital does not mean that they do not have their own disciplinary integrity and should not be passed on to future generations. That we should learn from PISA does not mean that we should not also think beyond it.

When the new PISA results are published in December, let’s examine the evidence anew to see what we can learn. Let’s pass from an obsolete imperial imperative to a more balanced interpretive one that sustains education as an enterprise that is both deep and wide. Let’s abandon the insular imperative to look only within and replace it with a global imperative to learn from schools and systems wherever they may be. If we can do these things wisely and with sensitivity, we can combine achievement with integrity.  We can, and we must, create an enduring and sustainable legacy of all that we hold most dear.

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