Tag Archives: education reform

Proposals for change in Chile

For the next several weeks, I will be sharing a few posts from Chile, where I have been visiting and talking with several educators and policymakers who shared their reflections on where the Chilean education system may be headed. The Chilean system has seen some remarkable educational improvements since 2000 at the same time that income inequality and segregation has increased. I am particularly interested in learning more about the Chilean system as Mario Waissbluth, President of the Chilean citizen’s movement Educación 2020, has described it as almost the opposite of the Finnish approach, which I wrote about during my visit to Finland with my family last spring. For background, Waissbluth wrote a series of posts for Diane Ravitch’s blog that chronicle the development of recent policies in Chile. The election of Michelle Bachelet as President earlier this year, and her endorsement of many of the changes that were demanded in significant student protests led some in the US to conclude that a massive change was underway. At the time, we talked with Waissbluth and Dr. Beatrice Avalos-Bevan, Associate Researcher at the Center for Advanced Research in Education, at the University of Chile; both explained that while some changes were being proposed, much was left to be done.

Just this week the Chilean legislature passed several key proposals designed to change key aspects of the education system. The proposals included 1) requiring the conversion of for-profit schools into non-profit schools; 2) the elimination of fees or “co-payments” that private, subsidized schools can charge parents; and 3) the enforcement and expansion of bans on primary and secondary schools’ selection of students. While many see these initiatives as a critical step forward, those I spoke to point out that these are just a few steps among many that need to be taken to improve performance and contribute to greater equity in what has been a largely unfettered pro-market voucher system. At issue in particular is how fast and in what order the government can move ahead on these and a related slate of proposals.

The government’s choice to focus first on requiring for-profit school operators to convert into non-profits has been particularly controversial and has taken center stage in the public and political debates since March. Several aspects of the conversion plan have proven problematic, particularly the issue of ownership of school facilities (which has also been a critical issue among charter school advocates and critics in the United States). Thus, the plan requires both for-profit and not-for profit schools to give up ownership of their school buildings. Since many of these organizations rely on the facilities to generate revenue, the conversion plan has significant legal and financial implications for the school owners as well as those banks and other institutions that have money tied up in school buildings.

Further, the proposal for a new, more centralized selection process has also faced some opposition. Although Chile passed legislation several years ago, banning primary schools from selecting students through their own application processes, for the most part, that ban has not been enforced. Therefore, the new legislation extends the ban to most secondary schools and establishes a new set of reporting requirements that should make it easier to enforce the ban.

Combined with the potential loss of revenue from the elimination of the co-payments that subsidized private subsidized schools have been able to charge parents, all of these proposals have generated a heated political debate since March. Amongst those opposing the proposals have been several powerful constituencies including some members of the Catholic Church (who have large numbers of not-for profit schools that are often highly selective and many of which own their own buildings), the for-profit school owner’s guild (who are very well-connected politically), and new middle class parent groups that have formed because they want to preserve their ability to choose to send their children to selective schools. The result has been a series of protests, ad campaigns, and public statements warning parents that hundreds of schools could be closed, and they could lose their chance to send their children to schools of their choice (all of which reminded me of recent protests in New York City over the newly-elected mayor’s campaign promise to limit the growth of charter schools –DeBlasio and Operator of Charter School Empire do Battle). Thus, as Waissbluth explained it, this first slate of legislative proposals in Chile is managing to incubate a middle class revolt that some worry has the potential to block further reforms.

Despite the controversies, with a number of compromises which include allowing for a very gradual shift in ownership in school buildings and allowing some highly selective schools to continue to screen their students (making them somewhat akin to the highly selective “exam schools” in New York City), the proposals will now go for debate in the Chilean Senate. Some think that the Senate will pass some version of the proposals before the end of the year or the spring at the latest.

Yet, these initial reforms are only a small part of the reform proposals. Committees are already at work developing reports suggesting initiatives to strengthen teacher preparation and the teaching profession as a whole, and a cross-section of 20 institutions presented the government on Monday with “El Plan Maestro” (a play on words suggesting the “Teacher plan” and the “Master plan” simultaneously). The government is expected to present their proposals to strengthen teaching in the coming months.

In relatively short order, the government is also expected to fulfill campaign promises to propose changes to the municipal structure of public schools. These will likely include the development of a position similar to the superintendent in school districts in the United States. Currently, the schools are at least nominally the responsibility of the mayor, though many mayors have not made schools a particular priority.

The most contentious issue – when and how to reform higher education – looms as well. Creating free, high quality higher education has been a key concern of the students who led the protests in 2006 and that ignited this reform cycle in Chile, and many are continuing to press for immediate action. At the same time, others are concerned that pushing for reforms in higher education in particular is so contentious that it could halt the progress on other issues.

In short, Chile may be in a cycle of political negotiations punctuated by protests.   Right now what some see as radical reforms have been proposed, but negotiations have led to some compromises that make political passage possible.  But if the changes end up being too limited or fail to address the core concerns of the students in particular, then students may withdraw their support or take to the streets again.  Further protests could create a backlash that contributes to political stalemates or might create enough space to push slightly more radical reforms that are again likely to be tempered in political negotiation and compromise.   Adding to the pressure, all sides have to take into account the fact that a change in Chilean law about ten years ago means that Presidents can no longer serve consecutive terms. As a consequence, the current President, Michelle Bachelet, has only until the end of this four-year term to accomplish her objectives.

Despite the urgency, however, the evidence from countries like Singapore and Finland suggests that comprehensive efforts to create high-quality education systems takes decades even in countries with relatively stable political environments. Chile has to pursue such efforts in the context of an educational system that was imposed by a violent dictatorship, that has contributed to increased segregation, and that fosters competition rather than cooperation among individuals and organizations.  Given those conditions, it will not be easy to forge the social relationships, common purpose, and cooperation that have supported the development of education systems in countries like Finland. Chile may well transform its educational system, but to do so, it may have to rely on a mix of protest, political negotiation and compromise until it develops the social bonds that can support collective commitment and shared responsibility for education for all.

Thomas Hatch

Education reform in England

David Eddy-Spicer

David Eddy-Spicer

To get a handle on the extent of reforms introduced in England by Michael Gove, the former Minister of Education, we asked David Eddy-Spicer to share with IEN some of what he has observed while he has been a Senior Lecturer at the University of London’s Institute of Education. Eddy-Spicer returned to the US recently to take a position as Associate Professor at the Curry School of Education, University of Virginia.

This summer, I left one academic post for another, returning to America after six years in England. The person who had the greatest influence on my experience of education policy and schooling over that time also traded in one post for another this summer. In a Cabinet reshuffle, the former UK Minister of Education, Michael Gove, stepped down after four years to take up duties as Chief Whip. The post of Chief Whip was made most famous fairly recently in the original British House of Cards, a TV series that went viral when Americanized with Kevin Spacey in the leading role. Sentiment about Gove and his legacy are about as heated and mixed as the sentiment the protagonist of House of Cards managed to stir. Gove had few friends among my academic colleagues in the education establishment, whom he referred to as ‘The Blob’, a term popularized by a former Chief Inspector of Schools in England. The school leaders I was fortunate to work with were for the most part perplexed, confused and anxious about the changes that Gove introduced. In an Ipsos MORI “State of Education” survey carried out this spring, three-quarters of school leaders expressed dissatisfaction with the current government’s performance on education, with almost half (46%) saying they were very dissatisfied and only 8% saying they were satisfied. The reaction among teachers has been even more pitched against recent government policies, especially changes to the curriculum and the mandatory adoption of performance-related pay.

As unpopular as Gove has proven to be among academics and educators, he and his Department were extraordinarily effective at initiating widespread change in the structure of schooling in England. I was astounded at the pace and extent of change the Department for Education managed to orchestrate since he assumed his duties with the election of the Coalition Government in 2010. There is no doubt that the changes he oversaw have radically altered the landscape of English education in a span and to a degree that is unimaginable in a country like the US where the power resides at the district and state levels.

The policies that were of greatest concern to school leaders in the Ipsos MORI poll had to do with the rapidity with which and the ways in which school autonomy has been promoted. The recalibration of the relationship between the state and schools began several decades ago; however the current government has greatly accelerated the push for schools and school groups to become independent of local government control. The Department for Education has encouraged schools graded as ‘outstanding’ and ‘good’ to convert to state-funded independent schools, known as ‘academies’ in England, similar to charter schools in the US. The promotion of academies occurred through a relatively modest financial incentive as well as the promise of greater operational freedoms, including hiring and firing of staff, the school timetable and even, to some extent, control of the curriculum. But it also entailed diverting funds from the middle tier, the local educational authorities, so that good schools, “converter academies,” would have direct access to state funds in exchange for their entering into a direct relationship with the Ministry. At the other end of the educational quality spectrum the lowest performing schools were required to become “sponsored academies,” that is schools under the sponsorship of an outstanding school or, more frequently, a non-profit ‘academy chain’ or educational management organization. (For-profit academy chains are not allowed under current law.) Government policy also gave groups of parents, educators or non-profits, including religious organizations, the possibility of creating new schools, “free schools,” modeled after a similar initiative in Sweden. The net effect of these changes resulted in the development of a significant number of academies, particularly at the secondary level.

Numbers and Percentage of Academies among All State-funded Schools in England

Screen Shot 2014-09-30 at 7.45.08 PM

(Data drawn from UK Government National Statistics, Schools, pupils and their characteristics: January 2014, Tables 2a, 2b. See also, UK Department for Education, Academies annual report, academic year: 2012 to 2013.)

It is too early to tell what the impact on student outcomes, school performance and system dynamics will be over the long haul. I have been part of a group of researchers funded by the British Educational Leadership, Management and Administration Society to look into the effects of these structural reforms. Initial results so far, published in a special issue of the journal Educational Management, Administration and Leadership raise concerns about equity, access, and control of the educational system now in a new era in which local government has a far more constrained role in education.

With national elections looming in the spring of 2015, it’s clear that the current coalition won’t hold, but it’s not clear what will arrive in its place. Will Michael Gove be remembered for his hubris, akin to the House of Cards protagonist, or will he be remembered for spawning a self-improving school system? Some aspects of change appear to be irreversible at this point, especially changes to local government. One thing is certain–structural reform in England brings into sharp focus a host of questions about state-school relations, the professional responsibilities of school leaders and educators, and the role of non-state institutional actors in what has been a public service. How to learn from these lessons is the good work that my colleagues in ‘The Blob’ are undertaking as we speak.

David Eddy-Spicer

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

The search for a more equitable education system in Chile

Recently, I spoke with Dr. Beatrice Avalos-Bevan, Associate Researcher at the Center for Advanced Research in Education, at the University of Chile, in order to follow-up on an earlier post about the recent reforms in Chile. In that post, we noted that reports on educational reforms in Chile made it seem that the country might be putting an end to private education. Diane Ravitch also commented on these reports and followed up with Mario Waissbluth. As we explained in our earlier post, while the country is not ending private education, President Michelle Bachelet aims to eliminate parental payments or co-funding of subsidized private schools and increase funding for all schools by implementing new education and tax reforms that would help pay for a more equitable education system.

In conversation with Dr. Avalos-Bevan, we spoke about the issues of educational inequality that have captured the attention of teachers and students, leading to the large and sometimes violent protests over the past decade. Beginning in 2006, protests were organized by secondary students during the first term of President Michelle Bachelet’s administration – a movement that came to be known as the “Penguin Revolution” (after the white shirts and dark jackets of students’ school uniforms). The protests became more numerous and violent during the following Sebastián Piñera administration. When Bachelet returned for a second term as President in 2014, she was elected on an education reform platform that was embraced by students and teachers, and she even brought some of the former student leaders in to work in her administration.

As Mario Waissbluth explained in our last post, the “first wave of legislation” was sent to Congress in May; however, students continue to be dissatisfied because initial actions did not consider as yet changes in the administration and improvement of municipal or public schools, although these have been announced for the second semester of this year. This has caused students and teachers to reconvene their street protests as a way to put pressure on the administration and call attention to their ongoing concerns this past June. Those protests ended with the use of tear gas on thousands of university students

School Funding and Student Protests

As Dr. Avalos-Bevan explained, in the current system there are public or municipal schools, subsidized private schools, and elite private schools. The concern over inequality stems from the fact that the subsidized private schools are able to collect money from the government while also charging tuition. As a result, these schools receive a level of funding that the public or municipal schools cannot attain. Over time, the student population attending public schools has been shrinking, as more families strive to place their children in well-resourced subsidized schools.

The student protests have honed in on school funding because the students personally experience the increasingly segregated school system and the differences in the quality of education provided by the public or municipal schools versus the subsidized private schools. They also pay attention to the country’s poor performance on international assessments, such as Pisa and TIMSS, and attribute it to the flaws they see in the system.

Dr. Avalos-Bevan explained that in order to create a more equitable system, all schools need to receive a higher amount of government funding. For this reason, President Bachelet has suggested increasing taxes by 3% of gross domestic product, and increasing the corporate tax rate to 25% (up from 20%). President Bachelet will also stop funding of current private subsidized schools that operate on a for-profit basis, making all subsidized primary and secondary education free, creating more universities and increasing kindergarten funding and pre-K institutions.

Quality and Teacher Education

Colegio de Profesores, the largest teachers’ union in Chile, joined the student effort and held a strike last month to protest President Bachelet’s reform efforts, which they say don’t go far enough to address the fundamental issues of inequality that plague Chilean schools. Despite what some have seen as indicators of significant reform, others are concerned that the process has not encouraged “adequate public participation in the bill-writing process.”

In addition to refining school funding in Chilean schools, Dr. Avalos-Bevan says that there is a similar problem with private universities and the teacher preparation programs they have created. In the years between 2004-2010, private colleges have increased and are now being criticized for what many identify as an increase in profits without sufficient evidence of quality education. These institutions are known to admit students to their teacher education programs with very low qualifications, who graduate without adequate skills. According to Dr. Avalos-Bevan, the government has created a test (the Prueba Inicia, or Start Test) that aims to assess the students’ content knowledge as they leave university, but the test is currently administered on a voluntary basis. Therefore, many teachers graduate without taking this assessment. Of the few who take this test, many perform poorly.

Despite this issue of teacher education, Dr. Avalos-Bevan believes the main problem has to do with teachers’ working conditions. Salaries are low compared with those who enter professions that require the same level of education (4-5 years), and 75% of a teacher’s contract time has to be spent teaching in the classroom (27 hours per week, which is the highest of all OECD countries, according to the latest TALIS survey), leaving little time for planning, grading, and meeting with other teachers. Dr. Avalos-Bevan would like to see the establishment of a teaching career, with specifications as to how teachers may progress, what kinds of salaries they may achieve, and paths for them to move into other positions in the education system. Currently, there is a strong civil society movement pushing for changes in this direction that expects to propose a plan for the President to consider.

Deirdre Faughey

Education reform in Mexico

Dr. Santiago Rincón-Gallardo

Dr. Santiago Rincón-Gallardo

The following post is based on a conversation with Dr. Santiago Rincón-Gallardo. I reached out to Dr. Rincón-Gallardo to learn more about his work in Mexican schools and to better understand how the current political climate in Mexico has influenced the grassroots reform efforts of Redes de Tutoría, a small NGO that catalyzed a movement to transform conventional classrooms in public schools into learning communities where independent learning and tutorial relationships are practiced by students and teachers. An excerpt of our conversation appears below. Click here to read more of the interview.

As we have covered in earlier IEN posts, when President Enrique Peña Nieto was elected in 2012 he introduced education reforms that sought to address issues of educational quality and governability through what Andres Delich called a “mix of centralization and decentralization.” As covered in the Harvard Policy Review, lackluster Pisa scores have called attention to the fact while enrollment and basic skills have improved, repetition rates remain high and resources are distributed inequitably. The country’s system for hiring and paying teachers has been pinpointed as a problematic issue. In Mexico, all teachers join the union (SNTE), and the union assigns teachers to schools; teachers earn lifetime tenure after just six month of service. In an effort strengthen government control, President Peña Nieto bolstered the power of the national evaluation agency (INEE), and established higher professional standards and accountability measures for teachers. Peña Nieto also arrested union President, Esther Gordillo, on charges of embezzlement and money laundering, and teachers have been protesting the reforms everywhere from Mexico City to Guerrero.

In the context of all of this change, we wanted to learn more about how the new policies influence the practice of education and, as Dr. Santiago Rincón-Gallardo explains, the social and political aspects of pedagogical reform.

Deirdre Faughey:

Can you tell us about your work in Mexico, and the ways in which political changes in the country have been influential?

Dr. Santiago Rincón-Gallardo:

Let me tell you a little bit about the Learning Community Project (LCP), which provided the context for my research. In 2004, I was part of a small NGO called Convivencia Educativa, A.C. (now Redes de Tutoría, S.C.) that started working with a few teachers in a small number of schools, providing very intensive classroom-based support for teachers interested in turning their classrooms into Learning Communities. We started working on a very small scale, about eight schools total, working with voluntary teachers in middle schools that were built in marginalized communities with very small populations. We started working with some teachers there, providing coaching and training, but also spending a lot of time in classrooms working with them to turn their conventional classroom into a learning community. We would spend a whole week with each teacher every month in their classrooms, trying to understand what we needed to do and what we could do to turn the classrooms into Learning Communities.

Even though the scale was very small there was a strong impact on the engagement and excitement of the teachers and students who joined the project: students were learning better and they were gaining a lot of confidence to undertake individual study, to engage in research and learn on their own, but also to express their views and their learning in public, both in writing and in oral presentations. Maybe most importantly, they also started to work as tutors to other students who were interested in learning what the students had come to master.

The excitement that we started seeing in this small number of schools started to spread through the outreach of teachers themselves, and some local authorities who started to get excited to see what these young kids were capable of and how excited they were about learning. They started reaching out to other teachers in other schools, other local authorities in other regions, visiting other classrooms to showcase or display the practice, and then having other people come to their classrooms to see what was going on there. There was a lot of movement and excitement.

In four years we had moved from eight schools to about 400 schools that were engaged in this new practice of Learning Communities – we call it the Tutorial Relationships Practice. At that point the Deputy Minister of Education at that time visited one of our schools, and he was very impressed with what he saw there, in terms of the engagement and the skill of the students, so he decided to adopt the model and bring it to scale to 9,000 schools all over the country.

At the same time that the movement at the grassroots was taking place, one of the key leaders of the NGO, whose name is Dalila López, was invited to join the Department of Innovation at the Ministry of Education at the national level, and she was able to bring in people from our organization to the ministry. So we were able to create a team within the Ministry to support the kind of work that we felt was worth supporting, which was developing the conditions for teachers to learn the new practice of tutorial relationships and disseminate it to other places. What the leadership at the top did was create opportunities and mobilize infrastructure for teachers to be able to visit other schools in their regions or in other states so that there was the exchange of information and practice all over the country. We found really good results really quickly.

The large-scale project started in 2010. By 2012, the schools that had data available, but also the ones that had been engaged in this model for a long time, since 2010, increased the percentage of kids scoring with an excellent levels, at a faster pace than and surpassing the national average. This happened in 2012, everything was moving very smoothly and powerfully. There has not been any other program or initiative in Mexico that has shown a clear and significant impact on student learning, even as measured by standardized tests. We started getting a lot of international attention. We had Richard Elmore from the Harvard School of Education, come to visit our schools. He experienced being tutored by a girl from a rural community, Maricruz, a 13 year old girl who was just amazing at guiding him through his own thinking, and identifying some of the weaknesses in his own thinking about how to solve a geometry problem. She was very masterful in supporting him. Throughout that visit, Richard and I were able to write a paper for the Harvard Education Review that discusses this model, and he got very excited about it. He’s been talking about it in his classes, and in 2012 and 2013 we welcomed about 10 students from Harvard’s Educational Leadership Doctorate program to come and learn about the model and report back to their cohorts about what they have learned. We had that for two years, so in total we have had 21 visitors or so. The work has been attracting the attention of several other international experts.

What’s happened since that pinnacle of performance? We had a change in administration at the presidential level, and also a change in the Ministry of Education. They came with a very clear agenda of cutting down any relationship with union leadership, in particular Esther Gordillo and her people. And it so happened that the Deputy Minister who had been supporting this work at the national level, and the one who invited us into the Ministry, was the son-in-law of Gordillo, the leader of the teachers’ union. As soon as this new administration came, they decided to cut down any relationship with them which meant also kicking out the whole team that had been building and supporting this work from the top. So the the leaders who launched and disseminated the Learning Community Project are again grouped around a small NGO called Redes de Tutoría, and they’ve continued to support the work on a smaller scale, but at a deeper level. Right now they’re working with five states that have expressed very clear interest in continuing this work. So the idea is to still go to scale – not at the national level, but at the state level. The strategy is to create “Regions of Excellence,” where you would have several schools who are engaged in this practice and sites where people could come and see what’s possible but also having this as a professional development site for others interested in learning the practice. We’re not entirely sure how many schools are going to continue with this work. As we are putting the pieces together we are trying to find ways in which we can continue to support teachers who are committed to this work but not getting a lot of support from the state-level authorities. We are trying to find a strategy to help continue this work. We’re doing the lobbying that we can because we know that there is some vibrancy in this work that won’t disappear unless somebody wants to really shut it down. I don’t think that’s going to be the case, but we don’t have the political backing at the national level so that teachers can feel free to innovate. The practice has gone underground, it’s invisible but it’s still there.

Please continue reading.

Education reform in Chile

Is the government really putting an end to private education in Chile? A recent article in Xinhua.net (which was also picked up by Shanghai Daily) makes it seem so. On April 20th, Diane Ravitch noticed the article and posted it on her blog using the headline: BREAKING NEWS. However, later that same day, Ravitch posted two more posts: “More on Chile’s education reforms,” and “Chile: Dismantling the most pro-market education system in the world.” In each of these posts, Ravitch calls upon Mario Waissbluth, President of Educación 2020 Foundation (a Chilean citizen’s movement founded in 2008, which put forth reform proposals) for clarification.

Dr. Mario Waissbluth

Dr. Mario Waissbluth

I also wrote to Professor Waissbluth for more information and he made it clear that Chile was NOT actually ending private education, as Xinhua.net and  Shanghai Daily made it seem. Waissbluth pointed me to his clarifying post, in which he explains that the educational system in Chile is far too complex for such a simple solution. He details the cultural hurdles that Chile must overcome to address what has become, in his words, “a true apartheid.” He also explains what will be changing in Chile: 

Education Minister, Mr. Nicolás Eyzaguirre (with a powerful political and financial experience and profile) has announced the first wave of legislation, to be sent to Congress in May, whose details are now being drafted. They include, amongst other things, the radical ending of academic selection and skimming, the gradual elimination of cost-sharing (to reduce social skimming), the phasing out of 3,500 for-profit schools (to be converted into non-profits), the radical pruning of the standardized testing system, the strengthening and expansion of the public network of schools (so that they can compete in a better way with the charters) and a major reform to the teaching profession, from its training (completely unregulated so far), to improving salaries and working conditions.

While it is not an overall end to private education, these changes do seem – to use a word Waissbluth employs in the quote above – somewhat radical. What seems even more striking, to an outside observer, is the fact that these changes have come about after the student protests that came to be known as the “Chilean Winter” of 2011-2013.

Valentina Quiroga

Valentina Quiroga

It will be interesting to understand better the link between these protests and the reforms. For example, in February Valentina Quiroga (one of the student leaders involved with the protests) was appointed undersecretary of education.

It is also interesting to note that coverage of Chile’s education reforms has been somewhat limited, and information in English-language news sources is not easy to find. We will continue to pay close attention to the evolving situation in Chile and will follow-up with another post in the coming weeks.

Deirdre Faughey

For more information:

Reforma educacional: las claves del proceso que busca poner fin a la selección en los colegios

Chile: Students set to win free higher education

Chile’s Bachelet to unveil $8bn tax hike to fund education boost

Chile: Bachelet elected, social reforms begin

Education Reform in Japan

Dr. Christopher Bjork’s most recent publication, Japanese education in an era of globalization, which he co-edited with Gary DeCoker, was published in May of 2013 by Teachers College Press. The following post is based on a conversation in which he discussed educational reform in Japan.

As Dr. Bjork explained, education reforms in Japan in the 1990s aimed to “relax” strict educational standards and policies that many viewed as contributing to anti-social student behaviors, such as bullying and violence. In an attempt to relieve students of stress caused by high stakes testing, long hours spent in school, and rote learning, Japan implemented progressive, student-centered policies that privileged creative thinking and collaboration.  These changes were designed augment student interest in learning.

Teachers tended agreed with the goals of the relaxed education (yutori kyoiku) reforms, but often had difficulty implementing the initiatives in their classrooms.  Secondary instructors, in particular, were reluctant to diverge from practices that had proven effective in the past.  Dr. Bjork attributes this resistance to the cogent influence of entrance examinations, which act as gatekeepers and determine students’ future level of education attainment. Concerns about student performance on these exams made teachers reluctant to adopt strategies that they saw as unrelated to the content of the exam, and parents less willing to rely on the school system to sufficiently prepare their children for the challenges that lay ahead. As a result, many parents looked to private tutoring programs to fill what they saw as a gap in the children’s education.

Today, despite the country’s superior performance on the 2012 PISA test, the conservative government of Japan has a new agenda for overhauling the education system, which includes improving English fluency among teachers and students, teaching morals, and revamping the college entrance exam. A flurry of reports over the past few months also show that there is much debate over the government’s plan to revise curricula to state Japan’s territorial claims over disputed islands in teaching guidelines.  Although some vestiges of the relaxed education policies remain in place, their impact fell far short of the Ministry of Education’s initial projections.  The goal of alleviating pressure in the schools proved more ambitious than had been anticipated.

Education reform in East Asia

Dr. Philip Hallinger

Dr. Philip Hallinger

This post is drawn from a conversation with Dr. Phillip Hallinger, the Joseph Lau Chair Professor and director of the Asia Pacific Centre for Leadership and Change at the Hong Kong Institute of Education.  He spoke with us about some of the issues surrounding the last two decades of education reform in East Asia, which he addresses in his most recent article, Synthesis of findings from 15 years of educational reform in Thailand: lessons on leading educational change in East Asia,” published in the International Journal of Leadership in Education: Theory and Practice. 

East Asian countries have been actively pursuing education reform over the past two decades. Largely, goals of such reforms have included student-centered learning, teaching with technology, school-based management, and teacher empowerment – ideas that have originated in either the US, the UK, or Australia, and travelled around the world on what Hallinger calls “the winds of globalization.” As Hallinger explained, where Asian societies years ago were once much more isolated, cultural and national boundaries today are permeable. While this “policy borrowing” can be interpreted as a move to build a more modern education system, it belies a “cultural mismatch” that can render the policy ineffective in practice. As Hallinger (2013) suggests, “where educational changes conflict with fundamental cultural values, the process is likely to encounter even greater resistance and require a longer time frame for implementation” (p. 17).

Hallinger’s (2013) recent article, written with Darren A. Bryant, focuses on Thailand and identifies lessons that can apply broadly to the region and beyond. As Hallinger and Bryant explain, Thailand aimed to expand access to education during the 1990s by increasing compulsory education from six to nine years, and finally to 12 years of free schooling, in an effort to improve the knowledge and skill level of the labor force. However, with the increase in access came concerns over educational quality, and in 1999 the National Education Act (1999) was passed, setting ambitious new goals for teaching and learning that many today feel the country has not attained in the ten years since the initial implementation of the reform. Some have also  linked the country’s recent social unrest to the perception of unequal access to quality education.

Hallinger and Bryant also note that in countries such as Malaysia, Hong Kong, Singapore, China and Taiwan, there is a similar gap between the vision of educational change and the reality on the ground. In Thailand, for example, despite the government directive that all teachers implement student-centered learning, a survey of 1800 principals found that only about a one-third reported that their teachers actively engaged the reforms in their teaching practice. Hallinger attributes this disappointment to “over-promising,” rather than faulty strategy, and explains that a successful implementation would require more than a decade in any country. In Thailand, “local factors,” such as budget constraints, cultural mismatch, and political instability, have further tested reform efforts.