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Why the Danish love to test. . .

Mike--in an entertaining comment on my recent post about testing in Denmark that outlines the trend of fad adoption in American education--asked:

Pity too that the Danes won't learn from the mistakes of others, though it may not be too late for them. I wonder, does the Danish public listen any better to their teachers?

This echoes a question asked by my TLN colleague and friend Rick Wormelli, who wrote:

I'm curious, though, about Denmark:  Why are they changing things now?  What is it the conservatives you mention in Denmark are using as justification for such unwelcome testing changes?  How has the public supported or not supported such thinking?

What was most interesting to me was that educators in Denmark seem to face many of the same challenges with marginalization as we do here in the States.  Teachers openly speak about feeling disrespected and undervalued by the communities that they serve and sense that their thoughts and opinions about what is "right" for students are overlooked. 

This trend towards dismissing the professional expertise of educators can be seen in policy decisions taking place in Denmark.  The most obvious is the new move towards standardized testing as a measure of student achievement.  Think about the message that this change sends to teachers---the community is moving from a system of assessment that completely relied on the professional judgment of the classroom teacher to a system that is more "concrete" and "defensible."  By default, this decision implies that the decisions of teachers are insufficient as accurate measures of student learning.

You can also see this shift in teacher education institutions in Denmark.  There is a real trend towards dismantling teacher preparation programs and requiring that students interested in becoming educators major in a content area and then pick up certification to teach through those programs.  "Pedagogy" as a course of study is rapidly disappearing and schools of education are being dismantled and absorbed.  Teaching, in a sense, is being deprofessionalized.

Does any of this sound familiar?

While I didn't have the opportunity to dig deeply into the motivations for these changes in the Danish education system, I suspect that they are tied to the reality that Denmark depends on a strong economy to support its social welfare state---which provides free healthcare, child care, college and elder care to all citizens. 

Generating revenue to support these welfare benefits is at once a priority and a constant fear for Danish residents.  To meet these demands, Denmark's economy has shifted to knowledge based industries that reach into all aspects of the global marketplace.  Technology has replaced agriculture as the primary component of the Danish economy.  IBM has established a foothold in Denmark, as have companies like Bluetooth---which is actually named after a Danish king!

Denmark has been remarkably successful to date at responding to the changing nature of the world economy, but their continued success is completely dependent on having a highly educated workforce that can continue to drive innovation and attract cutting edge enterprises.  Understanding the importance of providing a continuing supply of capable employees, the school system has come under increased scrutiny in recent years.  While that attention is a nod to the important role that education plays in the success of the nation, it brings with it constant pressure for improvement.

The debate then becomes focused on the question of, "How does one drive productive change in an organization?"  For influential non-educators whose experiences are rooted in the Danish economy, the answer can be found in the practices of successful businesses----accountability and competition!

I think what I'm starting to realize is that the push to quantify everything related to teaching and learning isn't a result of wicked efforts to dismantle the public school system.  Instead, it is a result of honest---yet misguided and underinformed---efforts to ensure that countries provide employers with the highly educated workforce necessary to succeed in today's interconnected marketplace.  In that sense, Denmark's move towards standardized testing as a tool for assessment isn't unusual at all---even if it does seem destined to cheapen what is a system of evaluation that we admire. 

I'm also starting to realize that schools in both Denmark and the United States will be stuck with standardized testing until members of the teaching profession can convince the general public that all classroom teachers can reliably and accurately assess student "learning" and "ability."  Holding schools accountable for student learning is simply a must for any nation interested in competing with the developing economies in countries like India and China that are pulling jobs away from citizens of nations that have traditionally dominated the world economy. 

Yet judging peformance is not something we're trusted to do.  Assessment has been removed from our hands because the task is critical and outsiders don't believe that our "opinions" are as valid as other indicators of student performance.  It is that lack of trust that we must tackle if we want to play a larger role in evaluating children.

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