Higher standards, challenging curriculum, school choice, and superior teaching made Alberta Canada’s highest performing province and, for the past decade, the highest performing English-speaking or French-speaking school system in the world. While Alberta ranked first on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests and topped the Pan-Canadian Assessment Programme (PCAP) tests in literacy and science, prominent Ontario educators captured the ear of the OECD, sponsors of the benchmark international testing programme. Then, following Finland’s highly-publicized PISA success in 2006, a new infatuation bloomed — one which has now morphed into the “Global Fourth Way.”
Jumping on the latest educational bandwagon is not really new, but it is assuming a different form. A recent thought-provoking post on The Conversation, by Australian Dr. Stephen Dinham, aptly called it “the problem of PISA envy.”
Ironically, just as Australians have “gone cold” on Finland and become infatuated with Asian city school systems like Shanghai, North American school change theorists have adopted “the Finnish solution” and been swept up with Pasi Sahlberg’s alluring “Fourth Way.” It’s prime objective, in Sahlberg’s own words, is to vanquish the dreaded GERM, that Global Education Reform Movement, supposedly carrying the policy virus of “neo-liberalism” and its principal strains — higher standards, school choice, and competition in public education.
Leading the Canadian charge is school change theorist, Dr. Andy Hargreaves, former OISE professor and former policy advisor to Tony Blair’s Labour Government, now perched at Boston College’s Lynch School of Education. After producing the Ontario Public School Teachers’ Federation booklets, What’s Worth Fighting For? (c0-authored with Michael Fullan 1991-92), Andy has embraced a number of “Success for All” teacher empowerment projects, the latest of which is The Global Fourth Way (Corwin, 2012), launched in Toronto on November 3, 2012 in cooperation with the Ontario Principals’ Council.
Andy Hargreaves’ latest venture, “The Canadian Fourth Way,” is featured in the Current Issue of the Canadian Education Association’s organ, Education Canada (Fall 2012), which reads like a virtual advertisement for the book. Canada’s high performance on PISA, driven largely by Alberta and resource-rich Ontario, is now trumpted as the harbinger of a new “Great Schools for All” movement bringing a Finnish-Ontario hybrid solution to a school system near you.
Hargreaves’ The Global Fourth Way is based upon studies of six high performing school systems and attempts to cast the Alberta Model as the outlier. Raising educational standards, rigorous testing, school choice, and teacher accountability for student performance are an anathema in Hargreaves’ educational world. Since developing the Alberta Initiative for School Improvement (AISI) in 2009 with the Alberta Teachers’ Association, he has been chipping away at the real strengths of the Alberta school system. School assessment models, as he well knows, are very expensive and usually spell the death knell for provincial testing and any linked teacher quality initiatives.
Striving for “Great schools for All” sounds attractive until you begin examining the contradictions inherent in the new “Fourth Way” prescription for public education. Who would quibble with any of those glittery “seven principles”? “An inspiring dream… Local authority…Innovation with improvement…Platforms for change… Building professional capital… Collective responsibility… and Intensive communication” have a familiar ring. The new formula: Combine “Success for All” with the “Finnish Solution” (nix Standardized Testing and School Choice), “invest” millions more in education and presto — you have “the Fourth Wave.”
Whatever happened to learning from Alberta’s high performing school system? No need to ask because it runs counter to the “Fourth Way” which Hargreaves now terms “the imbedded and inclusive Canadian Way.” Just in case you need help connecting the dots, Hargreaves’ The Fourth Way comes with a handy Alberta Teachers’ Association booklet, “a great school for all..”(ATA, August 2012). It’s actually a well packaged, thinly disguised attack on the highly successful Alberta Model of education. Hargreaves and his former OISE colleague Michael Fullan, the ATA booklet reports, both oppose “the ‘business capital’ approach to school reform, one that focusees on standardization, compliance, school choice, market-based competition and technology.” (p. 5)
Andy Hargreaves and the Alberta Teachers Association talk of “transforming Alberta education” with the “Fourth Way.” Stripping away the high sounding edu-babble, it is clear that they are out to dismantle the Alberta Model and essentially “Finlandize” that oil-resource rich, conservative Canadian province. The ATA booklet targets provincial testing, expanded learning time, and teacher assessment tied to student performance. Alberta’s thriving “charter schools” and the truly innovative Edmonton Model of school-based management are nowhere mentioned in that skewed vision for the future. Those innovations are, presumably, not “the Canadian Way.”
What explains Canada’s Alberta Education innovation blindness and the Finnish infatuation? What’s the real intention behind Andy Hargreaves’ latest educational “Big Idea” — The Global Fourth Way’? How successful will Hargreaves and the Alberta Teachers’ Association be in convincing Alison Redford’s Conservative Government to renounce its impressive educational legacy? The bigger question: Will knowledgable Canadians and savvy educators swallow the “Fourth Way” panacea?