Worlds of Education

Don’t Believe What it Says on the Can: Another Formula to ‘Reform’ Education

published 3 August 2016 updated 3 August 2016

By Stephen Dinham,University of Melbourne, Australia

Yet another report has been released promising a plan to transform education. The latest, this time from Michael Barber and Joel Klein, two well-known players in the ‘global education reform movement’ (Sahlberg, 2014), is positioned as a white paper or as they call it, a ‘playbook’ which promises to ‘unleash greatness’ through ‘nine plays to spark innovation in education’ (Barber & Klein, 2016).

The terms ‘playbook’ and ‘unleash’ are loaded and instructive. A playbook, in sports, provides a list of strategies or moves for players and teams to follow. These are essentially step-by-step formulae intended to achieve success. In the case of this report, there are nine. Oh that education – and interrelated services such as health, employment and public infrastructure – could be reduced to such a simplistic list. The term unleash implies releasing from restriction and confinement, in this case, opening up education to ‘choice’ and the ‘free’ market. As I have noted, typically, ‘Choice, competition, privatization and the free market are [seen as] the answers to almost any question about education. (Dinham, 2015a: 3).

Let’s now consider the latest simplistic recipe designed to address the ‘manufactured crisis’ in education (Berliner & Biddle, 1995; Berliner & Glass, 2015), a crisis that is in danger of becoming reality if we ignore the evidence and follow such ideologically and financially underpinned and driven prescriptions (Dinham, 2016).

The authors’ ‘plays’ are:

  1. Provide a compelling vision for the future
  2. Set ambitious goals to force innovation
  3. Create choice and competition
  4. Pick many winners
  5. Benchmark and track progress
  6. Evaluate and share the success of new innovations
  7. Combine greater accountability and autonomy
  8. Invest in and empower agents of change
  9. Reward successes (and productive failures).

Detail on ‘how’ to achieve the above is lacking, although brief case studies where these have purportedly been successful are provided (e.g, New York, Chile). A common theme is the belief mentioned previously that deregulation, competition and choice will deliver an overall lift in educational performance. The evidence is however, either weak (e.g., on greater school autonomy) or contradictory (e.g., vouchers, charter schools, free schools, chains or academies) (Dinham, 2015a).

Overall, the tone of the ‘playbook’ is strangely gung ho, almost cheer-leading, and like most exhortations of this type, largely vacuous, platitudinous and lacking in detail. Some illustrative quotes:

‘Adequacy is an unacceptable outcome in education and learning. Students need and deserve more. Leaders can do better. Government must strive towards becoming increasingly accountable to its citizens and effective in its working. … We share a desire to see great education systems marked by students succeeding – from all backgrounds and all types of schools – where equity goes hand in hand with diversity, and both are propelled by excellence.

We know from history and our own experience that great education systems cannot be created solely through an edict from Whitehall or Washington, DC. … As we have learned, you can mandate adequacy, but you cannot mandate greatness: it has to be unleashed.’ (Barber & Klein, 2016: 3)

Implicit in arguments of this type is trenchant criticism of education and educators as being failures and out of touch, and that the ‘21st century changes everything’ (Dinham, 2015: 3):

‘Change is accelerating. All aspects of life are being upended as technological advances have brought us to the cusp of a Fourth Industrial Revolution. We are focusing on the need for innovation in education owing to a systemic inability to keep pace.’ (Barber & Klein, 2016: 4)

As such, the playbook, as intended, adds to the sense of crisis and perceived need for radical change driven by the free market.

It is interesting however that one of the global success stories on international measures of student achievement is Germany. At the beginning of this century Germany experienced ‘shock’ at its PISA and TIMMS results, yet operating through a still tightly regulated education system with fewer than 10% of students enrolled in non-government schools – which are also closely controlled – it has managed to improve its performance, close equity gaps and overtake nations such as the USA and Australia. In doing so, Germany hasn’t gone down the road of greater competition, choice or opening up education to the free market (Dinham, 2015b). Germany is thus a better object lesson of improving educational outcomes than Chile or New York.


Barber, M. & Klein, J. (2016). Unleashing Greatness Nine Plays to Spark Innovation in Education. Geneva: World Economic Forum. http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_WP_GAC_Education_Unleashing_Greatness.pdf

Berliner, D. & Biddle, B. (1995). The manufactured crisis: Myths, fraud, and the attack on America’s public schools. Cambridge, MS. Perseus.

Berliner, D. C., Glass, G. V, & Associates. (2014). 50 myths & lies that threaten America’s public schools. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Dinham, S. (2015a). ‘The Worst of Both Worlds: How US and UK models are Influencing Education in Australia’, Educational Policy Analysis Archives, 23(49), pp. 1-20. http://dx.doi.org/10.14507/epaa.v23.1865.

Dinham, S. (2015b). ‘Regulation or Deregulation? Observations on Education in Germany and Australia’, in Educators on the Edge: Big ideas for change and innovation, Refereed Conference Proceedings ACE 2015 National Conference. Carlton South, Victoria: Australian College of Educators, pp. 3-15. Available at: http://www.austcolled.com.au/documents/item/154

Dinham, S. (2016). ‘When myths of education become reality’, Unite for Quality Education, 24th May. Available at: https://www.unite4education.org/global-response/when-myths-of-education-become-reality/

Sahlberg, P. (2014, May). Facts, true facts and research in improving education system. Paper presented to the British Education Research Association, London, UK.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.