Friday, May 16, 2014

Jeff Johnson's Xerox Education

This was written by Zander Sherman who is the author of The Curiosity of School.

By Zander Sherman

Should teachers be evaluated every five years? Alberta’s education minister, Jeff Johnson, and his Task Force for Teaching Excellence think so. 

Minister Johnson’s committee, created last September, has argued that quinquennial evaluations will improve teacher quality, giving administrators scientific proof of competency and enabling them to decide which teachers should keep their jobs and which should have their certificates torn in half.

It’s fitting that Minister Johnson used to work at Xerox. His Task Force seems to believe that Alberta’s 40,000 teachers are all the same, and thus that uniform evaluations of their performance is a valid and reasonable form of assessment. This belief is wrong for the same reason that standardized tests are wrong: People are different. They learn differently.

But more significantly, evaluations every five years would denigrate the teaching profession, reducing educators to the level of factory foremen. With the constant stress of impending assessment, teachers would adhere to the mandates established by the province, teaching only the material and using only the methods that would reward them monetarily.

Minister Johnson, of all people, should know that quality deteriorates with each iteration. The more you test teachers, the worse they will become.

The report was published on May 5. Since then, we've heard from unions (predictably outraged), the Minister (predictably boilerplate), and the general public (predictably confused). What these groups have in common is their treatment of the proposal as a legitimate piece of education reform. But each of the report's 25 recommendations, as evinced in its 94 commissioned pages, are actually thinly disguised economic policy.

That’s because “excellence,” as in the quality of classroom instruction, is being defined in capitalistic terms. On page 17—the only page that defines the very word that comprises the Task Force’s name—we learn that an excellent teacher is one who impacts their students’ test scores, therefore their future earning potential. It warrants mentioning that this definition is phrased partially in parenthesis, and only after the word “excellence” or a derivation appears several dozen times.

What I get from this is that the Task Force thinks the ideal teacher is one who is best able to conform to the provincial goal of training human capital. The authors of the report have taken this position with the evident belief that it’s so uncontentious and commonly held that it barely warrants explanation. Of course a good teacher is one who can help their students get the highest marks. Of course a good student is one who earns the most money once they enter the workforce.

But doesn't a more natural and broader definition of “excellence” strike notes of originality and uniqueness? Wouldn't we intuitively describe an “excellent teacher” as someone who breaks rules and exceeds expectations rather than someone who conforms to a common goal? Isn't an excellent teacher one who inspires us to become more interested in the world around us, as opposed to one who possesses the singular ability to make us rich?

If the only point in going to school is to get a job, teachers are more like bosses than educators, and students are more like employees-in-training than lovers of wisdom, as is the tradition. Aside from the patent falseness of this scenario somehow involving “mastery” or “excellence” in teaching, it represents a stunningly narrow epistemological view that would seem to imply that knowledge has no internal worth, only external value. We can envision the oligarchical society that this would lead to, where wealth is commensurate with ignorance.

So the proposal is economic policy masquerading as education reform, but even here it fails. That’s because, in education as in economics, it takes value to give something worth. Say that capital is the point of learning, and students wouldn't have the knowledge needed to innovate the ideas and products that make the most money. “Educated labour” would be neither educated nor valuable. A proposal designed to enrich students would actually impoverish them.

It’s a perversion that we might call a Xerox education: The Ministry dictates instead of supports, teachers train instead of educate, and students arrive at the world of work only to discover that their degrees aren't worth the paper they were printed on.


  1. I wonder if this will come to pass or if sanity will prevail? It's a sad reflection of our times that this is in the pipeline. I don't think most people understand the consequences of what is being proposed here. It's unfortunate that the govt speak is so persuasive to 'regular' Albertans. I'm just coming back into education and part of my decision to do so in Alberta was that I liked what I read about how things were done. Now it's all changing and they want to make it more like the US. The mind boggles and not in a good way.

  2. Check out this book by Michael Apple. He calls this neoliberal move by governments de-proefessionalization and, although it's a ten year old book, he hits the nail squarely on the head.


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