In 1994, Maude Barlow wrote that public education had become the “scapegoat” for all types of societal ills, including an unskilled workforce, a failing economy, and the reason for Canada falling behind in international competition, and cited that “Educators are being loaded with society’s failures.”
Barlow wrote this before the advent of the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment [PISA] test, and before strategic political messaging over social media, but during a time of drastic education funding cuts and back-to-basics reforms across Canada.
More than 25 years later, public education in Canada continues to be subjected to constant cycles of one major reform plan after the next, which begs the question, are we there yet?
To show how neoliberalism works in education policy, I analyze New Brunswick’s 2019 Green Paper on Education. By focusing on testing and teachers, I demonstrate how systems quickly reform to achieve their goal – which, ultimately, is global economic competitiveness.
PISA: “Hijacking” public education since 2001
The PISA assessments are relatively new. They were created by the OECD in the late 1990s as a way to track student performance in reading, mathematics, and science, with the intent to bolster learning in disciplines that allegedly support economic growth.
Sjøberg has called PISA a “hijacking” of public education, and, part of a process where “reforms that are not at all empirically founded are introduced, often overnight.” The “hijacking” of public education systems globally is but one of many dire consequences when politically subscribing to a single test which, although developed and analyzed abroad, steers local decisions in public education reforms.
In New Brunswick’s 2019 reform plan, Succeeding at Home: A Green Paper on Education, education is named a key priority for the Progressive Conservative government. After a brief introduction, under the title “What do we mean when we talk about a world-class education system?” the 2015 PISA rankings are used to set the tone for the reform plan. Citing that New Brunswick was 10th in the world for science, 7th for reading, and 19th for mathematics, the document states:
New Brunswick’s education system appears to perform well on the international stage. However, in a rapidly changing world, this is not enough – we need to do better. We cannot afford to lag behind or even just keep pace. (p. 3)
Based on these figures, the Green Paper aims for New Brunswick to become a top-10 jurisdiction by 2030. At the back of the document, full standardized testing results are provided in Appendix B (pp. 16-22). These results show that, on average, Canadian schools ranked 4th in science, 2nd in reading, and 7th in mathematics in the 2015 PISA round of testing – a far cry from falling behind other OECD nations.
But even with good-to-excellent results, the standings are used politically to implement massive shifts, such as flexible ability-based groupings over age-based classrooms (p. 9), and to lessen teacher workload by implementing artificial intelligence tools for assessment (p. 10).
While these suggestions sound innovative on paper, the changes are based on performance, with the unsubstantiated claim that ability-based classes will foster high levels of student competition. Although discussions on classroom composition and student learning are also included, the reform plan begins and ends with catering to PISA.
On the last page of the Green Paper, Education Minister Dominic Cardy states, “Teachers are the most important people in New Brunswick. We need you. We need you to feel supported in your work.” However, the exact details that describe how teachers will receive this “support” in the reform plan seem contradictory: in one breath teachers are applauded, and in another, they are subject to an oversimplified equation of their place in the “machinery of the education system.”
The section titled, “Students and teachers are the most important part of the education system,” positions teachers as professionals who should be “working solely to advance their students,” within an education system that needs to be assessed on its support of teachers. But at the same time “teachers should be evaluated on how their students advance.”
While seemingly innocuous, these statements point to future teacher performance evaluations as a function of the educational machinery. In spite of strategic use of words like “advancement” and “support,” the underlying message is that teachers are not autonomous professionals in the education system, but instead are cogs carrying out the state formula for public education and are to be evaluated on their contribution to improved student performance (the goal of the Green Paper).
The Green Paper also suggests that teacher workloads will be supported through artificial intelligence, primarily in areas of student assessment (ironically, the use of digital technologies which track student and teacher performance are discussed directly before the section titled, “Teacher development, teacher freedom.” Instead of dealing with underlying issues of teacher workloads, and supporting teachers by lowering class sizes, addressing classroom composition, or increasing preparation time, the plan suggests that technology could take over some of the work for teachers “struggling with often excessive demands on their time.” Further, the use of artificial intelligence “to reduce teachers’ workloads” essentially provides technology to remove professional autonomy from an essential aspect of teaching.
This bait and switch strategy accomplishes two things: it outwardly addresses teacher workload, while increasing standardized assessment through technology. Such actions are not benign: the discussion of teacher workload is side-stepped, ignoring systemic and institutional factors that contribute to increased demands. Likewise, the use of artificial intelligence to assess student work diminishes teacher autonomy, and tracks data on teacher and student performance. In effect, teachers and students become data to measure the “machinery.”
Where do educators figure into education reform? Perhaps unsurprisingly, the push for higher test scores in education also means more accountability, performance reviews, and lessened teacher autonomy in a variety of ways, including in curriculum, planning, and assessment.
Conflicting messages, urgent change
Education reform plans often invoke crisis rhetoric out of fear of falling behind, and urge an immediate need to reform. The discourse in the Green Paper oscillates between crisis–mainly around failing tests scores and an aging education system–and hope.
The reform plan uses specific tactics: deficit discourses negatively frame the system and students, with strategically placed positivity throughout, which makes for a confusing, emotionally fraught read. The actual educational priorities are in the details of the plans, however: teacher performance management and student tracking through digital tools and/or artificial intelligence.
Overall, perhaps the most confusing tactic is the use of conflicting language; on the one hand, claiming that the education system is excellent, and on the other, stating that the education system is in crisis and is failing.
These confusions are not neutral, but part of the logic of neoliberal education reform: say everything and nothing at once, and play on the public’s fears and emotional responses to drive through reform measures quickly, with little resistance. It is critical that advocates understand the language of reform policies to see the patterns more clearly, and to resist those changes that work to dismantle public education systems.
Dr. Pamela Rogers is Acting Director, Research and Professional Learning at the Canadian Teachers’ Federation, and Adjunct Professor at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Education. Her research focuses on policy discourse formation and teachers’ lived experiences in systems of neoliberal accountability and digital surveillance. As a former high school teacher from Nova Scotia, Pamela is interested in improving workplace conditions and building community alliances to support public school educators.
The original version of this article, “Are we there yet? Neoliberal education and never-ending reform” was published in Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, Our Schools/Our Selves, July 2020.
(1) Barlow, M. (1994, July). Class Warfare: The Assault on Canada’s Schools. Our Schools, Our Selves, 5(3), 77-94.