The public education systems woven into the fabric of 20th century welfare states prepared populations to contribute to society and shaped national identity. But the industrial society and the nation state that prompted their existence have had their day, giving way to the new economy and globalisation.
These powerful new forces could blow public education systems away unless we can develop a clear rationale for their continued existence. More and more parents have greater disposable income: might they decide they want to spend that income on their children, buying an education tailored to their view of the world? If they did, how easy would it be to persuade them to continue to pay taxes for the education of everyone else’s offspring? These dilemmas are already acute in some US cities.
The case for public education cannot be assumed as it was in the 20th century. It needs to be restated as a radically new concept for both students and teachers. But a good education system is increasingly important not only for the success of a modern knowledge-based economy but also for the creation of a socially just society. The explosion of knowledge about the brain and the nature of learning, combined with the growing power of technology, create the potential to transform even the most fundamental unit of education: the interaction of teacher and learner. At the same time, huge social changes present educators with new and constantly evolving circumstances.
The challenge of reforming public education systems is acute. For a country such as England, the central question is whether it can maintain the flexibility and capacity for transformation that has been built into the system while simultaneously improving student outcomes. For others, such as Bavaria, the dilemma is to create the necessary flexibility for the future while continuing to deliver high standards.
The rhetoric of "success for all" was often used in the 20th century, but in reality a substantial degree of failure or under-performance was tolerated in most countries’ education systems. The challenge for the 21st century is to make success for all a reality. This demands that educators believe in the possibility of high standards for every student and that policies are designed to deliver this outcome across entire education systems.
Policymakers have hitherto concentrated on standardising the input end of the education system: the number of school places, qualifications of teachers, the content of the curriculum, class sizes, hours of teaching and provision of books and materials. Not surprisingly, given the diversity of our societies and the varying backgrounds of students, the consequence was that the standards achieved "the output" became the variable. But if the output "high standards for all" is to become the constant, then the inputs must become the variable.
Some students need more time to achieve high standards than others; some need intensive individual tuition; and as they get older some students learn better in the workplace than in school. For these needs to be met, teachers need to tailor their pedagogy.
Modern technology allows an individualisation that was previously unachievable. Dell does not sell you a computer off the shelf,it builds precisely the computer you order to your specification. Only with this kind of thinking will education systems become responsive enough to remove the barriers to learning which prevent some young people from achieving high standards.
But if schools are to meet such individual needs, teaching needs to adapt and that means a wholly new mindset for teachers. For a start, they will have to really believe that all students can achieve high standards. This is a matter of faith as much as hard evidence and no- one should underestimate the difficulty of achieving this shift, day to day, classroom to classroom across a country. It means teachers asking not “what’s wrong with the student?” but “what do I need to do differently to ensure the student succeeds next time?”
This implies teachers who are constantly searching out best practice and refining and developing what they do. It means teachers who work in professional learning teams, not just within their schools but also outside. It means teachers who accept the need to be monitored and welcome opportunities to see best practice modelled by their peers. This is already happening in some places. The Japanese approach to professional development is a good example. Known as “lesson study”, a small group of teachers designs, delivers and refines a particular lesson to ensure it is the best it can be.
But accountability and continuous professional development are only the beginning. The technological revolution that has transformed so many sectors of the economy will shortly reach critical mass in education systems. Steady investment in hardware in many countries will increasingly be matched by investment in connectivity, system maintenance and teachers’ skills in the use of information and communications technology (ICT). Business investment in educational software is also rapidly growing. Furthermore, in the last two decades, there has been huge growth in our understanding of the human brain and how people learn.
This combination of new technology and new knowledge is the key to individualisation and high standards for all, but will require new teaching methods to make the best use of it. The whole concept of the classroom is changing. Teachers in one school are able to teach pupils in others through broadband and whiteboard technology.
Students are able to pursue investigations into, for example, medical ethics by contacting academic experts in the field directly by email.
Interactive video-conferencing enables students to work collaboratively with their peers in other countries. Computer programmes can provide individual tuition, rapid feedback and positive reinforcement for pupils working alone. Specialist language teaching becomes economical and tests and examinations, increasingly computer-based, can become much more imaginative and provided just in time, rather than only at set times of year.
It is not just a question of academic standards. The 21st century requirements of education involve a wider set of attributes, equipping the young with the social and organisational skills to cope with adult life inside and outside the workplace.
Some OECD countries already teach concepts such as citizenship, regarding them as a fundamental part of education. But the 21st century knowledge economy will require all of us to give greater attention to how we measure the performance of pupils, schools and the system as a whole in the area of social competence. Existing national initiatives, alongside major international projects such as the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), will provide us with the basis to develop the sophisticated measurement systems and performance indicators for “education with character” that we will need.
It will simply not be possible for governments to provide all the necessary services for successful education systems in the next few years. New partnerships beyond the school system will be needed. The business sector, traditionally one of the main “consumers” of the “products” of the education system, will increasingly become a partner as an investor and provider of services in education. The explosion of the Internet and other new technologies demands investment in new software products. Businesses, not governments, will largely make that investment. The rate at which computers become obsolete presents a funding challenge which governments on their own will not be able to solve. Maintaining and developing a stock of school buildings fit for the new century will demand huge capital expenditure. Moreover, in the competitive global market, access to highly educated staff will become ever more crucial. The question will not be whether there is business sector involvement but on what terms.
These extra sources of funding will not, however, be a substitute for investment by government. Indeed, if all students are to achieve high standards, governments will have to invest more in the future, not less. But turning the vision into practice also requires strategy. The history of education reform is littered with promising initiatives that were abandoned before they had time to have a deep and powerful impact on student performance. Given the pressure on education systems to change,the impatience of citizens for improved performance from public services and the limits on their willingness to pay taxes to get it, inadequate implementation is simply no longer acceptable. Just as schools need to learn from best practice wherever it is to be found, so do governments.
The choice facing teachers and their representatives is whether to ride this wave of change or sink beneath it. Much the same challenge faces public education systems as a whole. Their ability to meet it will be crucial for the success of the knowledge-based economy in all our countries.
* Professor Michael Barber is also Head of the Standards and Effectiveness Unit at the UK Department of Education and Employment. He is author of The Learning Game: Arguments for an Education Revolution (Indigo, 1997).
• David Hargreaves, The Mosaic of Learning, Demos, 1994.
• Michael Fullan, Change Forces: The Sequel, Falmer Press, 1999.
©OECD Observer No 225, March 2001