Education reform: Beware of ‘policy talk’ from politicians

New Brunswick voters need to be wary of any politicians who come promising sweeping reforms in the education system, according to Alan Sears, an education expert at the University of New Brunswick.

UNB education professor Alan Sears says New Brunswick’s education system is too ‘top down’

New Brunswickers should be wary of any politicians who are promising sweeping changes to the education system. (Courtesy of Ian Baillie Primary School)

In his recent book, Ruling By Schooling Quebec, educational historian Bruce Curtis tells the story of the visit to Lower Canada in the early 1830s by Joseph Lancaster.

Lancaster was the English developer of a system of education for the lower classes that was popular in a number of jurisdictions including Britain, the United States and parts of Latin America. It had a growing presence in the colony as well, particularly in Montreal and Quebec City.  

Lancaster came to Lower Canada as part of a wider tour to promote his system. During the course of his time in the colony, Lancaster met and impressed community leaders from all sides of the political spectrum including the governor, Lord Dalhousie and parliamentarian and soon-to-be rebel leader, Louis-Joseph Papineau.

Curtis reports that Lancaster was not shy about promoting his system claiming, among other things, “that he could teach people how to read and write almost instantly and with support he could adapt his system for a rural peasant population whose national sentiments would thereby be strengthened.”  

Lancaster received government support for a range of initiatives including opening a school and conducting teacher training but the results were dismal. He fled the colony in disgrace in 1833 with the rural population still largely unable to read or write.

Lancaster was not the first, and certainly not the last, reformer to promise transformative results with fast and easy fixes to the educational system.

In fact, he is part of a long line of proponents of quick fixes for public education and his pattern fits well with elements of contemporary experience: he was an expert from away; promised miraculous and immediate results; captured the attention of politicians wrestling with persistently difficult educational issues; and failed to deliver even a fraction of the results promised.   

Campaigns are 'fertile soil for policy talk'

New Brunswick, like virtually all jurisdictions around the world, has not been immune to exaggerated policy talk in education.  

“Policy talk,” a phrase coined by Stanford professor Larry Cuban, is “a form of rhetorical hyperventilating that repeatedly overstates problems and understates the difficulty of solving them.”  

One of the most egregious examples of policy talk in New Brunswick was Shawn Graham’s promise during the 2006 election campaign to initiate reforms to public education that would take New Brunswick students “from worst to first” in their scores on international tests of literacy, numeracy and science.

Election campaigns are fertile soil for policy talk and Graham’s promise is only one particularly vivid example. David Alward’s commitment during the last election to mandatory volunteering for high school students as a solution to the crisis of civic disengagement is another.

As the current campaign progresses we should be very wary of politicians who promise painless and quick cures for what ails education in New Brunswick.  

As Cuban points out, there are no silver bullets or quick fixes for complex educational problems and promising them then failing to deliver often makes the situation worse than it was before.  

It is not that education can’t be reformed; there are all kinds of examples of when it has.  Substantial and lasting reform, however, requires long-term persistence and substantial resources.  

Some of the key elements of successful educational reform include:

Recognizing complexity of problems

Recognition of the complexity of problems and a commitment to tackling them at multiple levels.  

Graham’s commitment to improve test scores in New Brunswick was commendable, but his focus on the education system alone was misguided.

There are many contributing factors to below average test scores in this province, including low rates of adult literacy and high rates of children living in poverty.

Any real attempt to address the issue will include tackling it on several fronts over many years.

Virtually every important problem in education is equally complex and understanding the nuances of those issues is key to successful reform.  

Avoid 'unfunded mandates'

Building the capacity necessary to realize and sustain proposed reforms. Several years ago colleagues and I studied reforms to civic education in four very similar democratic countries, including Canada.  

We identified seven elements of capacity building necessary for successful reform in the field, including teacher education and development and the provision of quality teaching and learning materials.

Compared to the other countries Canada in general, and New Brunswick in particular, provided teachers with an “unfunded mandate.”

In other words, we had the same educational goals as the other jurisdictions but provided almost none of the capacity necessary to meet those goals.

Unfunded mandates are all too common in educational reform in New Brunswick and elsewhere and almost never result in substantial change.   

Involve education experts

Finally, include practitioners and the public at all stages of reform efforts.  

The history of educational reform is rife with examples of significant initiatives imposed in a top down manner that fizzle and die.  

In my experience, New Brunswick is one of the most centralized and top-down educational jurisdictions in the democratic world.

Space does not permit a thorough review of this, but the research evidence is clear: reforms imposed on public education without the substantial engagement of those concerned are doomed to fail.  

It is messy and, often much slower, to include people up front but doing so lays a much better foundation for successful results.

So, as this election campaign unfolds, let’s be vigilant for examples of policy talk: of the oversimplification of both educational challenges and solutions to them.  

Let’s compel candidates to deal with the complexities of problems and recognize the scale of human and material resources necessary to solve them.

About the Author

Alan Sears

Education expert

Alan Sears is a professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of New Brunswick. He is an expert in education policy and citizenship education. His most recent research has focused on how children and young people understand ideas that revolve around citizenship. He is also serving as the associate editor for the journal, Citizenship Teaching and Learning.


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