Flip the System

published 12 December 2014 updated 6 January 2016
written by:


Ariely, D. (2010). You are what you measure. Harvard Business Review, 88(6), 38.

Biesta, G. J. J. (2010). Good Education in an Age of Measurement: Ethics, Politics, Democracy (Interventions: Education, Philosophy, and Culture)(p. 160). Paradigm.

Biesta, G. J. J. (2012). The Beautiful Risk of Education(p. 178). Paradigm Publishers.

Dillon, S. (2010). In PISA Test, Top Scores From Shanghai Stun Experts. New York Times. New York.

Dirkswager, E., & Farris-Berg, K. (2012). Trusting teachers with school success?: what happens when teachers call the shots. Lanham Md: R & L Education.

Evers, J., & Kneyber, R. (2013). Het alternatief?: weg met de afrekencultuur in het onderwijs! Amsterdam: Boom.

Hargreaves, A., & Fullan, M. (2012). Professional Capital: Transforming Teaching in Every School(p. 240). Teachers College Press; 1 edition.

Jansen, T. (2013). Van vrijwillige slaven tot voortrekkers. In J. Evers & R. Kneyber (Eds.), Het Alternatief: weg met de afrekencultuur in het onderwijs(pp. 12–18). Amsterdam: boom.

Sahlberg, P. (2011). Finnish lessons?: what can the world learn from educational change in Finland? New York: Teachers College Press.

Van der Wateren, D. (2013). Zin en onzin van testen, vergelijken en afrekenen. In J. Evers & R. Kneyber (Eds.), Het Alternatief: weg met de afrekencultuur in het onderwijs(pp. 40–58). Amsterdam: Boom.

Visser, A. (2013). Marktfilosofie en onderwijsutopie. In J. Evers & R. Kneyber (Eds.), Het Alternatief: weg met de afrekencultuur in het onderwijs(pp. 19–29). Amsterdam: Boom.

How did we get here? As we didn’t see any chance of real change on the horizon we came up with the idea to explore an alternative to current destructive educational policies. The book turned into a combined effort by Dutch teachers and (international) researchers like Andy Hargreaves, Howard Gardner and Gert Biesta to name a few. The goal was to find out how we came to be in this situation and how we could turn things around for the better.

The last twenty years or so has seen a profound shift in educational policies. Before, education was treated as a public good in the hands of trusted professionals, but gradually politicians turned to neo-liberal policies to reform education. In this paradigm schools should be subjected to market discipline and schools and teachers should be held accountable to a set of key performance indicators. (Visser, 2013)Introduced in the nineties in the United Kingdom and the United States it has since then spread across the globe in several different guises from Western Europe to Chili. Pasi Sahlberg coined these policies the "Global Education Reform Movement" (GERM) (Sahlberg, 2011)The speed with which these policies proliferated was also due to the introduction of the PISA reports by the OECD. Everytime Education at a Glance comes out countries are subjected to a barrage of apocalyptic cries of impending doom and “Sputnik moments” by pundits. One moment the Finns are overtaking you and the next time it’s whizz-kids from Shanghai. (Dillon, 2010)International ranking has become the norm and educational policy has turned into an international rat-race. Tellingly the first goal of educational policy stated by the current Dutch government is to be in an unidentified “Top 5” of best educational systems.

Although late to the party, the Netherlands hasn’t been immune to neo-liberal policies. Politicians came to regard public sectors as inefficient and should be opened up to market policies. Schools were given more autonomy financially, whilst at the same time a strict set of accountability measures were introduced that were overseen by an inspectorate to assure quality control. Before the inspectorate was a critical friend, but now protocols and a narrow set of indicators infused the Dutch education system with a “blame culture”. Punitive accountability became the norm.

Of course education isn’t a market, and schools aren’t companies. At best it turned education into a quasi-market. It all boiled down to a very utilitarian view of education: what is the value being added to our children?“Anything you measure will impel a person to optimize his score on that metric. What you measure is what you get.” says Daniel Ariely in an article on business performance and CEO pay.(Ariely, 2010)In the case of education this turned out to be standardized test scores. So standardized high stakes testing became the norm and as a result teachers and schools started teaching to the test. It all turned out to be nothing more than managerial and statistical fata morgana of course, as every teacher and school leader could have told politicians. (van der Wateren, 2013)

No child left behind? It turned out to be exactly the opposite. Children are being left behind. In The Alternative we not only identified “the system” as the main culprit. Teachers and school leaders bear part of the blame as well. Responsibility for children was being externalized, outsourced, to the system, to the metrics. In this mindset student became a risk for the results of the school. Schools (teachers!) started to refuse taking students in or push them to a lower level. Instead of fostering a culture of growth and nurturing we started to avoid risk. And worse, schools often went beyond what the rules asked of us. In this sense teachers became voluntary slaves.(Jansen, 2013)A profession with a strong sense of moral purpose, professional identity and professional pride, would have refused to go along and offered an alternative.

Education is all about risk. The learning of an individual child isn’t something that can be easily measured. Every child is unique and the outcomes are unpredictable. This renders every comparison and introduction of standardization mute to a certain extent. Moreover education is more than acquiring skills and knowledge. Good teachers know this, good teachers know that education is also a normative and ethical endeavor. Yet at the same time these external accountability arose from a concern over the quality of education.

In order to address the quality of education we first need to answer what education is for.  ‘Good’ education has, according to the philosopher Gert Biesta, three functions, purposes and domains: qualification, socialization and subjectification. Qualification is the aim of education to teach children certain skills and knowledge. Socialization is teaching children to adapt to the existing order of society and subjectification is in many respects the direct inverse of socialization: education always has an effect on the subject, the person, and through subjectification education tries to bring about the uniqueness of every person. (Biesta, 2010)

The power of Biesta’s framework not only undermines any attempt to privatize and market the education system, it also resonates with teachers who recognize these type of decisions and values in their practice. It also firmly gives teachers a language to re-place themselves into the center of education. To stretch the point even further it highlights that good education is in fact non-governable. Good education is always a risk, as Biesta put it recently: The Beautiful Risk of Education. (Biesta, 2012)

The question of the quality of education is therefore also a question relating to the discretionary space of teachers, as the course of action of teachers cannot be prescribed teachers have to have a certain amount of room for personal decision making. However, this space cannot be limitless. Educational practice always resides within societal boundaries and as a profession teachers must address and take responsibility for societal concerns about quality. Instead of taking a passive stance teachers must be pro-active and build up professional capital and earn that trust. (Hargreaves & Fullan, 2012)

To achieve professional capital and allow teachers to articulate an educational language the system has to be infused with forms of distributed leadership, on all levels. We call this Flip the System. Instead of being accountable to the system, the system has to be accountable to the interaction in the classrooms and schools. But just letting teachers call the shots isn’t good enough. Teachers working alone and in isolation doesn’t equal taking responsibility. Teachers and schools should hold themselves accountable in partnerships with school leaders and administrators in professional learning communities.

On the school level research on teacher-led schools has shown that they achieve good results, have a low turnover rate and high teacher self-efficacy. More importantly teachers take responsibility for every child within the school community because there is no one else to shift the responsibility to.(Dirkswager & Farris-Berg, 2012)As Hargreaves has stated: responsibility is the remainder that is left when accountability has been subtracted.

Flipping the system also extends to the educational system as a whole. Teachers’ expertise should be capitalized and put to good use. Part of the success in systems like Singapore is that teachers operate on all levels, including the ministry. Teachers shouldn’t be proxies for someone else’s ideas, but designers and agents of change. We concluded The Alternative with a set of recommendations:

1)     Collective autonomy within schools

2)     Support rather than control. More assistants, less managers.

3)     Innovation funds for teachers

4)     Collective autonomy within a system

5)     An independent teacher council

6)     Different teacher leadership roles

7)     Peer review as a means of taking charge of quality control

It was also  call to action. ‘ If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when? If we don't act who will? Right from the start The Alternative garnered a lot of attention. At the book launch the secretary accepted the book out of our hands and after a month and a half it was already being discussed in parliament. Over the past year part of our ideas have evolved into an initiative with the ruling coalition parties called Learning Together with the intention of putting many of our recommendations into practice. The profession is feeling increasingly empowered, illustrated by a growing number of initiatives of teacher leadership and professional learning communities, supported by the unions. The Alternative is being put into practice. Teachers are learning to speak a new language, teachers are becoming more engaged and the system is evolving accordingly.

Our thinking has further evolved as well. We’ve come to the conclusion that teachers should connect globally as well. Worldwide teachers are struggling with many of the same issues we identified. And at the same time, once you start looking, it isn't hard to find inspirational examples and good practices of teachers taking matters into their own hands. Educational policy is increasingly influenced by global trends and actors, including corporations and NGO’s. At the same time grass roots movements are springing up everywhere, accelerated by social media and supported by unions and teacher organizations. They form a global embryonic web of teachers working to reclaim and shape education.

That is why we are working with Education International on an international successor to The Alternative: Flip the System. Teachers and researchers from across the globe will work together to reflect upon best practices and show the way forward. Contributors include Andy Hargreaves, Ann Lieberman, John Bangs, Pak Tee Ng, Gert Biesta, Tom Bennet, Eva Hartel to name a few. The intention is to publish the book in the spring of 2015, hopefully at the International Summit on the Teaching Profession in Canada.  Teachers should be front and center in education worldwide and Flip the System will be a small step in making that a reality.

For  more information see www.flip-the-system.org, www.unite4education.org and follow @jelmerevers and @rkneyber on Twitter