How we've sold out education
Karl Marx famously said: “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”
Fads in education reform also repeat themselves, but sometimes, in a reversal of Marx’s aphorism, first as farce, then as tragedy. In my book, Selling Out Education: National Qualifications Frameworks and the Neglect of Knowledge, I argue that many reform fads start out in rich countries as farces. But they have tragic consequences when they are implemented in poorer countries, often with the assistance of “experts” from the richer countries. This book examines a particular manifestation of this depressing cycle.
My object of analysis is the development of learning outcomes and national qualifications frameworks, a reform trend that has rapidly gained international momentum.
I demonstrate that, far from being beneficial, outcomes-based qualifications frameworks are at best a waste of time and resources, and at worst destructive of education systems. Whereas in developed countries, strong education institutions, traditions and professionals may mask the problems of outcomes-based qualifications, this masking does not take place in poor countries where education systems and institutions are weak, and so the problems are clearly exposed.
The experiences of developing countries can thus shed light on the key practical and conceptual problems of outcomes-based qualifications frameworks in both developed and developing countries.
My primary aim in writing this book is not, however, to convince people that investing time and other resources in the creation of learning outcomes and national qualifications frameworks is misguided. My primary aim is to convince educationalists about the value of organised bodies of knowledge, and that a primary role of education is assisting pupils to acquire this knowledge; consequently, bodies of knowledge should be the starting point of curriculum design.
This argument needs to be made because many of us, in both the past and the present, have abandoned or neglected organised bodies of know-ledge in education.
We have aimed to recreate the everyday world in the curriculum in the hope of making education more accessible to pupils; we have overemphasised competence and skills at the expense of knowledge; we have overemphasised the social construction of knowledge at the expense of any sense that there are bodies of knowledge that are worth acquiring and that give us real insight into the natural and social world; or we have overemphasised the extent to which the curriculum expresses ruling-class ideology.
There have been, and continue to be, valid reasons for all of these stances of educational reformers.
Traditional curricula do need to be reformed: they do reflect dominant ideologies in various ways – although exactly how they do this is not straightforward and is much neglected by educational researchers – and education systems have failed many young people.
But I suggest that, although the aim of educationalists has been to empower pupils, particularly those pupils who have not succeeded in formal education, the marginalisation of knowledge has had the opposite effect, and has had negative consequences for individuals and society, particularly for poor pupils, and pupils in poor countries.
My experiences in education in South Africa have offered a particularly clear lens on the conundrums of curriculum reform and debates about the role of knowledge.
Anything is possible
The 1990s in South Africa were a heady time of possibility. We had overthrown apartheid, the most notorious system of racial oppression ever known, and we believed we could do anything.
Many serious problems faced the new nation. Optimistic in what we believed to be a unique opportunity to create things anew, to build a new society, to make real and meaningful changes, we responded with a flurry of policy development.
I was a student activist in the early 1990s, before the democratic elections. As students we were involved in developing education policy in what was known as the mass democratic movement, broadly aligned to the African National Congress.
There was excitement in the air, and a sense that we could develop new education policies that would unite our divided nation, overcome inequalities, and forge a prosperous new society.
We were going to ensure redress for people who had been denied access to education. We would increase access to education and improve education for the majority of the population.
This meant transforming apartheid education institutions and apartheid curricula that, particularly in the school system, had been authoritarian, prescriptive and, obviously, had taught about the world from the perspective of the apartheid state and the perceived interests of the white population.
We would ensure that workers could have their skills recognised, to open up possibilities for promotion, and we would ensure more training for workers.
The mass democratic movement had a tradition of robust and lively debate and discussion, and although many ideas for new education policies were brought back from study tours, visits or in the experiences of exiles, we believed that we were forging something unique and powerfully South African.
After a brief teaching stint at a high school, I went to work for a trade union as the education officer. The union movement was also involved in education policy development, mainly focused on a system to recognise and improve workers’ skills, which also promised to change our economy and overturn the legacy of apartheid education.
In particular, the union movement was influenced by international counterparts. These counterparts argued that a prosperous future could be achieved through an industrial compact between labour, the state and business, and that improving education of the workforce could increase productivity and therefore general prosperity at the same time as increasing workers’ autonomy in the workplace.
Some years later, first while working for a nongovernmental organisation in education and later for a government regulatory body, I started developing a profound sense that, despite our good intentions, we had somehow got things very wrong.
I was increasingly perturbed by the ideas of learning outcomes and the national qualifications framework, which, together, were key to the educational reform agenda.
I started investigating the origins of these ideas more critically, and was surprised to find an unlikely alliance of trade union and business representatives, many of whom had brought ideas back from study tours of Australia and New Zealand.
What could underlie this unusual friendship? Was it proof that we could build a society in everyone’s interest, that the class and racial conflicts of the past could be overcome?
This did not seem impossible at the time, given the powerful imagery of the rainbow nation, as well as the international influence of post-Fordist ideas and “third-way” politics.
The more I investigated the education policies that emerged, the more it seemed to me that something valuable and important about education systems was being dismissed and undermined.
I began to perceive that it wasn’t just the national qualifications framework and outcomes-based education. A whole approach to educational reform that styled itself as “progressive” and claimed to be emancipatory was likely to make things worse, not better, particularly for poor people.
A peculiar problem
I thought, though, that this was a problem peculiar to South Africa. Of course I read about similar problems in other countries, and noticed that in the United Kingdom and New Zealand these problems seemed very like our own.
But I never imagined that, 10 years later, qualifications frameworks and learning outcomes would be spreading around the world like wildfire, into well over 100 countries.
And until I conducted a comparative study of qualifications frameworks in 16 countries for the International Labour Organisation, I did not imagine that in country after country similar problems would manifest.
What intrigued me were the similar theoretical concerns about the relationships between knowledge, work, qualifications and the economy that surfaced in this study of qualifications frameworks, cutting across national, educational, political and economic debates.
A complete change
In South Africa in the early 1990s, we who worked in education, as well as many who didn’t, seemed to believe that education could work miracles in society. At the same time, we believed that almost everything about our existing education system was wrong, and needed to be completely changed.
In this, we were not alone. The first chapter of my book looks at how, around the world, education has increasingly come to be seen as the solution to social and economic problems.
At the same time, it is seen as the cause of many of these problems. This emphasis on the intertwining of education and economy explains the focus of policy-makers on qualification reform and outcomes-based qualifications frameworks. Used in both education and work, qualifications are expected to provide a mechanism to mediate between these two spheres.
Learning outcomes, it is claimed by their advocates, are the mechanism to ensure that qualifications improve relationships between education and work, make curricula better and more “relevant” to the needs of the economy, provide pupils with more choice and assist them to access education more easily, and increase the quality of education on offer. Learning outcomes are also presented as a key mechanism to make education systems more pupil-centred.
At a time when more and more is expected of education systems, and at the same time more and more criticisms are levelled at them, outcomes-based qualifications frameworks seem to have captured the moment, appearing to be a policy that addresses almost everyone’s concerns.
There is, however, little evidence that outcomes-based qualifications frameworks have achieved the goals claimed for them. Why has this idea been attractive to many educationalists, including many progressive educationalists, as well as to policy-makers worldwide?
My exploration of this phenomenon derives from a detailed tracking of attempts to implement outcomes-based qualifications frameworks, located in an analytical framework that draws on political economy as well as the sociology of knowledge.
Three main arguments are made across the book’s eight chapters, drawn from my analysis of outcomes-based qualifications frameworks internationally. The first is that the economy (and more specifically the market) has come to be seen as a model for education.
Education is understood within a neoclassical economic framework in which individual free agents conduct sensible transactions with each other in their own self-interest.
This affects how delivery of education and the curriculum are thought about, as well as notions of the role of education in society, particularly from a policy point of view.
I argue that the goals claimed for education in much policy rhetoric today are misguided and unrealistic, and reflect a lack of willingness to tackle structural economic and political problems; at the same time, they have considerable negative consequences for individuals and education systems.
The second argument follows from the first: increasingly education is seen as the solution to economic problems. It is also seen as something individuals must purchase, and institutions must sell. Both of these developments correspond with the rise of neoliberalism.
The rolling back of welfare states in the developed world and the denial of welfare in poor countries has decreased public provision of education at the same time as positioning education as the only alternative to poverty.
This has led, in many countries in the world, to individuals being seen as responsible for collective and individual welfare. This does not seem to be changing.
Neoliberalism as a theory of economic growth has lost plausibility since the economic crisis of 2008, yet it seems to remain influential as an ideology that dominates education policy.
The third argument concerns the curious agreement between, on the one hand, ideas that have historically been influential in education reform, and that have generally been supported by those who see themselves as left-wing or progressive and, on the other hand, education policies that derive from neoliberalism.
Much educational thinking has opposed the idea of the acquisition of bodies of knowledge as one of the main purposes of education and of subjects as the starting point of the curriculum.
This has been associated with a conflation of curriculum and pedagogy that has run through much educational thought over the past century: many educationalists have confused show we teach with what we teach, and have suggested that it is pupils who should decide what they should learn.
This has had the effect of making education seen as a malleable activity, open to be defined by anyone. If pupils can choose what they should learn, so can employers or other interest groups in society.
Policy-makers believe they can redefine education to fit the needs of the moment — frequently, to solve economic problems.
The neglect and in some cases abandonment of bodies of knowledge and subjects (that has occurred to different degrees in different countries and different parts of education systems, as is explored in this book) means that education can be seen as a “generic service”, making it easier to treat it as a mere commodity to be delivered on the market by the most competitive provider.
At the same time, people are denied access to bodies of knowledge that could enable them to better understand, critique and challenge their current circumstances.
The idea that curricula should not be primarily aimed at the acquisition of bodies of knowledge, nor influenced and constrained by the structure of bodies of knowledge; the idea that knowledge can be acquired anywhere, whether in education institutions or the course of everyday life, and more extreme ideas such as “deschooling”, produce fantasies about learning unconstrained by institutions, and individuals free to choose from a wide range of learning possibilities.
This is very similar to the free-market fantasy about education. Outcomes-based qualifications frameworks resonate with both sets of ideas. The progressivist fantasy gives moral support to the free-market fantasy, and enables a labelling of opponents as conservatives.
What neither set of fantasies takes into account is, first, what the necessary conditions are for the acquisition of knowledge and, second, how and why institutions emerge to enable knowledge acquisition and how they can be sustained, particularly in poor countries.
A consideration of ideas that offer alternatives for thinking about reforming education systems is the focus of my final chapter. I do not offer an alternative policy that can achieve all the goals that qualifications frameworks have failed to achieve.
Misdiagnoses of problems
Many of these goals are unrealistic, or based on misdiagnoses of problems, and some may be problematic goals. It is also unrealistic to expect one policy mechanism to be a “magic bullet”.
This does not mean that none of the goals of qualifications frameworks can be achieved at all — there may be other ways of making education systems more flexible to pupils, for example, and ways need to be found to assist, say, admissions tutors in understanding qualifications from other countries.
I explore some possibilities. But any alternative education policies need to start from the right place — with clearer ideas about what distinguishes formal education from other human activities, and what gives it intrinsic value, as well as what its limitations are and what it cannot achieve.
I suggest that thinking about the acquisition of significant bodies of knowledge is a good starting point for this endeavour. These bodies of knowledge allow us to account for and explain the natural and social world in systematic ways as well as to participate in and reflect on key human experiences such as the literary, visual or musical.
At its best, this is what the traditional curriculum has done. But we also need curricula that, while preserving some subject areas of traditional curricula, challenge presumptions and prejudices, and enable us to go beyond the idea of a “given” curriculum for all time, with subjects and knowledge within subjects based simply on what has always been taught.
A focus on the knowledge itself, its intrinsic characteristics and values, as well as on how and by whom it is developed, can assist. Such a focus is a good starting point for thinking more clearly about reforming curricula, educational delivery, the intrinsic value of education and the role of education in society, as well as in the world of work and in the economy.
Dr Stephanie Allais is a senior researcher at the Centre for Researching Education and Labour at the University of the Witwatersrand. This is an edited extract from her book Selling Out Education: National Qualifications Frameworks and the Neglect of Knowledge, forthcoming from Sense Publishers