Good Intentions

By March 31, 2015 Uncategorized No Comments

“Easy is the descent into Hell, for it is paved with good intentions.” That is what John Milton wrote in Paradise Lost. You can undertake something with the best intentions, but the unintended consequences might be disastrous. This is often the feeling I have with educational policy. It will be interesting to see if the policies being discussed at the International Summit on the Teaching Profession (ISTP) have another outcome. The global educational reforms of the last 20 years at least give us reason for caution. And more recent technological innovations being introduced in education aren’t always as innocent as they seem.

The whole standardized testing movement stems partly from a genuine worry that our education systems don’t serve all of our children well. One the one hand there is a worry that the quality of education is declining and we need strict standards and tests to monitor the progress of individual students, teachers and schools. At the same time it the “crisis in education” is also an issue of equity. Strict standards ensure that underprivileged students are getting the same opportunities as children from an affluent background. Both intentions are good, but the offered solution: testing, external accountability, standardization, privatization have left some educational systems in disarray. Some states in the US being a particular case in point. While trying to raise the standards, reformers have left parts of the teaching profession in ruin. One of the unintended consequences being for example that application to teacher training in the US has dropped dramatically recently. Leaving us with a pressing question: Who is going to teach our children?

Some people would say algorithms, apps and, robo-graders and robots. Again with a genuine believe, techno-optimism, that “personalized learning” will lead to better education for all of our students. But these new “reformers” aren’t taking into account that in the current political, social and economic context this “disruption” will lead to standardized education in a new commercialized and tech enabled guise. The track record of online charter schools in the US is not good to say the least. And who is getting the short end of the stick? Exactly, students from poor backgrounds. While those who can afford it send their kids to schools that offer a broad curriculum, good facilities and extra-curricular activities. Poor kids get stuck in a cubicle while their richer peers are playing in a safe learning environment. Thanks for the app Silicon Valley, but if that’s the case I’ll pass.

But at the start of the fifth International Summit on the Teaching Profession we are seeing a slow shift away from standardized external accountability towards a focus on collective autonomy and collaboration. I think it is justified to say that the standardized movement has run its course. That doesn’t mean that standardized testing, privatization and the like have disappeared. On the contrary, we will continue to see those policies being implemented. But a new paradigm of collaboration is slowly emerging, and this time it is backed up by firm evidence from the TALIS report. From this report and the last summit Education International and the OECD defined three themes (Schleicher, 2015):

  1. Leadership
  2. Recognition and efficacy
  3. Innovation

It will be interesting to see how these three themes are interpreted and put into practice.


In the report leadership focuses on both principals and distributed leadership. The most recent TALIS report indicates a link between collaborative culture, ownership and teacher self efficacy leading to better student outcomes. One of the key factors is the role of the principal in building that collaborative culture. The logical follow up is to focus on principal professionalization.

But in a complementary report to TALIS, commissioned by Education International, Linda Darling-Hammond noticed that there is a big difference in how principals and teachers perceived collaborative culture (Darling-hammond & Burns, 2014):

While most teachers agreed that they experienced “a collaborative school culture characterized by mutual support,” there were noticeable differences in the degree to which principals and teachers reported this kind of climate. For example, across TALIS jurisdictions, 95% of principals agreed with this statement (with responses ranging from 83% in France to 100% in Norway). However, the average for teachers was 79%, ranging from 66% of teachers in England to 93% of teachers in Norway.”

“Teachers were significantly more likely to indicate the existence of a collaborative school culture in jurisdictions where they also reported that staff had opportunities to participate in decision-making, suggesting a positive association between distributed leadership and a collaborative school climate. Teachers’ involvement in school decisionmaking was also linked with self-efficacy in most jurisdictions, and with job satisfaction (with very large effect sizes) in all jurisdictions.”

 On the issue of decision making, real distributive leadership, there is also a big gap between principals and teachers:

However, teachers and principals differed in the extent to which they perceived opportunities for staff decision-making, and there was no association between principals’ reporting of staff opportunities for decision-making and teachers’ perceptions that they experienced a collaborative culture. More than 90% of principals in each jurisdiction reported that teachers had opportunities to actively participate in school decisions, as compared with 74% of teachers, an average difference of 24 percentage points. The greatest differences were found in England, where the average rate of agreement from teachers was below 60%, and principals’ and teachers’ reports were apart by 39 percentage points.

If professional development of principals strengthens distributed leadership then I’d agree with the premise of focusing on school leadership. But that would mean professionalization both horizontally between principals, but also vertically with teachers, in a way as peers as well. You have to model the behavior that you want to learn. Anything else is shallow and doesn’t lead to a change in behavior. So the intention is good but how it will be put into practice is crucial. A stronger focus on the principal might result in strengthening the formal position of school leaders, which might lead to an entrenchment of the Attilla the Hun model of school management as John Bangs named it.

 Recognition and efficacy

Recognition has, amongst others, to do with working conditions. One of those is class size. If we would just go with the TALIS report, and this was highlighted by Andreas Schleicher (OECD) at the summit, class size wouldn’t matter. This feels intuitively wrong to me as a teacher. But according to TALIS class size doesn’t matter, or at least only when you factor in behavior problems:

“class size seems to have only a minimal effect on either teaching efficacy or job satisfaction, and in just a few countries (OECD, 2014, Tables 7.6 and 7.7). Other TALIS data indicate that it is not the number of students but the type of students who are in a class that has the largest association with the teacher’s self-efficacy and job satisfaction. An example of this is provided in Figure 3.5, where the minimal effect of class size on teachers’ job satisfaction is contrasted with the stronger influence of teaching students with behavioural problems. “

class size TALIS

Policy maker will probably conclude from this that it’s better to focus on addressing behavior problems. Then class size won’t matter as much. But there are several problems with this. As a practitioner I know that it definitely impairs the attention I can spend on an individual students needs. Discussing Deeper Learning outcomes, the third issue addressed at the ISTP, in a meaningful way is almost impossible. But even the data is not as conclusive as the OECD makes us believe. If we look at Darling Hammonds further analysis we see that there is a link with classroom size and teacher turnover rate.

“Interestingly, we found a significant relationship between class sizes and teacher shortages across countries. Jurisdictions in which principals reported few shortages were also those with smaller average class sizes.”

darling hammond

It goes further than that and it is probably an open door, but we should improve working conditions across the board:

“Class size is certainly not the only variable that matters. It may be one of a numberof supportive conditions for teaching that co-occur and make it more probable that teachers will be easier to recruit and retain. For example, as noted above, we found that higher teacher salaries in a jurisdiction are also associated with more plentiful and widely available instructional resources, as measured on the TALIS survey. This suggests that jurisdictions that provide sufficient resources to their schools also pay their teachers well, conditions that would improve the overall attractions to teaching.”

Class size is a contested issue in education. But the issue is not as clear-cut as it seems. Since we’re in an era of austerity it is an easy target for governments for a more efficient educational system and focus on other issues. But we shouldn’t be surprised if the dramatic teacher drop-out rates and dramatic decline in admissions to teacher training will continue.


Innovation was the odd one out at the ISTP, and the one closest to my heart. UniC, my school would fit right in the report. There is of course the danger I pointed out earlier, of personalized learning turning into an individualized automated test-machine. But the report did a real good job of not making innovation quantifiable in the sense of the PISA and TALIS reports, that would have been contrary with the aim of fostering innovative learning communities. The report contains vignettes of innovative schools focusing on pedagogy, technology and organization. Story telling and data-informed policies, the balance that the OECD struck is to me the right one.

At the summit technology was conspicuously absent in the discussion on innovation. Instead it focused on whole systems change to create the conditions to make innovation possible. The conclusion was very clear across the board that teachers need to collaborate and design education to scale the pockets of innovation that are already there. Collaboration, distributed leadership and designing local solutions to create whole child schools are definitely prerequisites for creating an innovative learning environment. A tell tale sign if a government is really serious about innovation whether if it will keep excessive standardized testing practices and external accountability in place at the same time as calling for an innovative learning environment. These are signs of distrust and of the real intentions of the powers that be.

It also ties in with the idea of teacher leadership, I don’t think I’ve heard those two words used this often before. If it is embraced that widely you have to be on your guard and be crystal clear by what you mean. Notably Singapore has implemented a comprehensive tier-like structure of positional teacher leadership, teachers in different career tracks, but with a focus on classrooms. Non-positional teacher leadership is another way of looking at teachers influencing the system. This means that distributed leadership is embedded on all levels of the educational system and will lead to real teacher agency. A big theme of our forthcoming book, Flip the System: changing education from the ground up (link). (Evers & Kneyber, 2015)

Again these ideas can easily get hijacked. If it means that departments of education only fund teacher leadership organizations who follow the government line on educational policy, testing for example, then it is very close to astroturfing instead of fostering an autonomous grassroots movement and giving teachers real autonomy. Instead of being a vehicle of emancipation it will just be another, more indirect, form of control.

But it depends on all of us how we shape the future of our education system. The fact that these three uplifting themes were discussed so in-depth and that a consensus is emerging that the reforms of the last decade have failed is amazing. I could never have dreamed these kinds of conversations at such a high-level a couple of years ago. I met with fellow teacherprize nominees, Jeff Charbonau and Mark Reid, who are both doing amazing things in their respective countries. And they, more than anything embody everything what the summit was about. I’m sure we will have more input from practicing teachers at the next summitnext year in Germany. A teacher must have a seat at the expert panel for example. So while the road to hell might often be paved with good intentions, I’m extremely optimistic that we’re taking a different road this time.

Darling-hammond, L., & Burns, D. (2014). Teaching Around the World : What Can TALIS Tell Us? Stanford, CA.

Evers, J., & Kneyber, R. (2015). Flip the System: Changing Education from the Ground Up. London: Routledge.

Schleicher, A. (2015). Schools for 21st-Century Learners: Strong Leaders, Confident Teachers, Innovative Approaches.

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