GERM. The Global Educational Reform Movement.
This term was coined by renowned Finnish educator Pasi Salhberg in his book, Finnish Lessons. He used the term to describe the massive, global and seemingly unstoppable juggernaut that is educational reform based on the tenets of business. This educational reform is characterized by a focus on what are known as “value added models” which assign teachers the label of effective or ineffective based on their ability to raise students’ scores in standardized tests. It is also a model that attempts to apply business practices to the process of educating children, and which usually emerges in areas where governments are pursuing austerity budgets.
The advocates of this type of reform, known as neo-liberals, believe that public schools, for the most part, are failing children. They point to falling large-scale standardized test scores as evidence that the system is rotten, and demand higher accountability for teachers. They place an overly high value on numeracy and literacy skills as indicators of how well a system is doing in educating children, and on the ability of schools to prepare students for the workforce.
If you do not recognize any of these types of ideologies, then you probably haven’t been paying a great deal of attention to the educational reform dialogue that has recently been dominating the discussion around public education in Nova Scotia.
I say “discussion” somewhat erroneously. The word “discussion” suggests more than one side. However, from where I sit, the onslaught of GERM ideology has progressed pretty much unchallenged in Nova Scotia over the past few years, and has continued to gain traction since Steven McNeil’s version of the Liberal party took office in 2013.
When Education Minister Karen Casey launched her review of education back in 2014, she did so with a singular, albeit laudable, goal in mind; to improve the education system in the province. However, her no nonsense declaration within that review that: “The current [public education] system is failing our kids” was based primarily on results from large scale standardized tests such as the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results of 2012 and the Pan-Canadian Assessment Program (PCAP) results of 2013.
As well, many of the initiatives that have been launched since the release of the document smack rather soundly of GERM. Renewed commitments to math and literacy have certainly been a common theme of this government, and the October, 2015 announcement that coding was going to be offered across all grades seemed to focus rather strongly on employability. Any doubts as to what ideology is driving the current educational change bus in this province were put soundly to rest this past Thursday when the minister announced that she would be introducing teacher standards as part of her overhaul of the education system.
So, a focus on large scale test scores, employability skills, math and literacy initiatives and more accountability for teachers.
Methinks Nova Scotia may have caught a bit of a bug.
Taken individually, ideas like focussing on math and literacy and creating standards for teachers may seem rather benign. However, it is the collective thrust which concerns me. If we take test scores on events like PISA as a measure of our educational success, then it is not too large a stretch to see how teacher accountability may become directly connected to those scores as well. Thus, if Nova Scotia’s results in the 2015 PISA, slated for release this year, are poor, teacher standards may need to be adjusted accordingly. Being deemed as a teacher who has met the standard may equate to being the teacher who can best prepare students for a standardized test.
The biggest issue in all of this for me, however, is not so much that these waves are crashing so resoundingly on our shores, it’s what is causing them in the first place. The GERM movement has been characterized globally as being driven by business interests who, not to put too fine a point on it, are after the money in education budgets. In many jurisdictions, education and health care are the “cash cows” of government spending, and they have, traditionally, resisted corporatization. However, if the public can be convinced that these institutions are failing, then there are opportunities for educational entrepreneurs and corporations alike to cash in.
Now, this may all sound rather alarmist to the uninitiated, but both the neo-liberal movement and GERM have well documented histories. Authors likeDiane Ravitch, Henry Giroux, and the aforementioned Sahlberg have all, at one time or another, addressed the impact of these reforms. And the impacts have, for the most part, been resoundingly negative. Not only have students suffered, particularly those of lower socioeconomic status, the teaching profession itself has been, in some cases, decimated. Internationally, there are numerous reports of teacher shortages as fewer and fewer young people come to view teaching as a attractive profession. Many authors blame standardized testing and the policies created by GERM as a key factor in this trend, which some are calling a crisis.
Thankfully it seems, to me at least, GERM is starting to lose a bit of steam, due in no small part to the authors I mention above. There is a growing movement in the US, where much of GERM originated, against many neo-liberal reforms, as parent and teacher groups join forces to battle the privatization of US schools. And as more holes are punched in the educational “quasi-research” data that was a major source of fuel for the GERM engine, it seems that many jurisdictions are beginning to get over the infection.
Living here in Nova Scotia means that generally, trends in everything from music to fashion to, well, education, arrive here a bit later than in other centers. And for my money, this is a good thing. We can look to other systems to find what has worked as well as what has not. And, as it seems that this government is bent on adopting many GERM-like reforms, I hope that they pause long enough to see the damage this infection has done to other regions. (A recent article in the Toronto Star actually went so far to suggest that the rise in popularity of US Presidential candidate Donald Trump could be traced to two decades of failed educational reform).
I also firmly believe that the Nova Scotia Teachers Union's “No” vote on the tentative agreement in November helped fight the bug. Although the Minister may feel that teachers are behind the changes she is proposing, something was obviously sour in the soup. Finally, there are some positive signs that we may only get a touch of this particularly insidious flu. The Minister, at least according to news reports, seems to be tempering her approach somewhat, and her reported willingness to work with union leadership on developing teacher standards may prove a very valuable salve.
However, I advise caution. Flu vaccines are usually designed to introduce a small amount of the virus into a healthy system to help fight off infection. And, much like a vaccine, reform can indeed make a system stronger. However, if an immune system is compromised to begin with, even a touch of the flu can leave the host in a very sorry state indeed. Coming so soon on the heels of Bill 148, a discussion around standards for teachers, if not handled carefully, may cause this particular patient more harm than good.
Oh, and speaking of Bill 148, it is of some note that the onset of GERM is usually accompanied by a fairly concentrated attack against the collective bargaining rights of teachers, and a villainization of unions in general.
It seems that, when it comes to education reform at least, a provincial Gesundheit may well be in order.
Grant Frost is an educational commentator and teacher of over 20 years. He is also the host of Education East on EastlinkTV. More of his commentary can be found at Frostededucation.com