A classic episode of the Simpsons features Krusty the Clown’s entrance in a comedy competition. While the other acts represent new, alternative comedy, Krusty’s jaded repertoire of skits and jokes is an embarrassment. A string of “I say, I say, I say!” jokes is received in stony silence. Caricatures of Chinese people are met with moans of disapproval. And Krusty’s final desperate act of flipping up the dickie on his shirt, prompts only howls of derision. Young Lisa wins the competition hands down. Backstage, meanwhile, Krusty has collapsed in tears. “All these years when I’ve been cashing in”, he says, “I should have been sharpening up my act”!
Ireland has become the Krusty the Clown of economic and educational globalization.
A number of years ago, I addressed an influential steering group of representatives of church, state and business on the future of educational change in Ireland. The Celtic Tiger was roaring. Business had been attracted to the country by its 12% corporate tax rate, its European Union subsidies, and a ready made workforce that was young, highly educated, English-speaking – and cheap. People had invested their new-found wealth in their property, and Dublin had the highest home values in Europe. In education, Ireland was one of the top performers on the international PISA tables of pupil achievement. The country was young, successful and optimistic. What could possibly go wrong?
So I did not receive rapturous applause when I drew attention to a more sobering prospect. Ireland’s economy and educational system, I warned, were successful but not sustainable. Low taxes were limiting the opportunities for reinvestment in educational innovation and university research. The Government’s strategy was reactive to teacher union demands rather than proactive about a future-oriented reform agenda. Eventually, I predicted, the workforce would age, salaries would rise and the companies attracted by Ireland’s fair-weather tax breaks would migrate to Eastern Europe where workers’ motivation was just as strong but the wages would be cheaper. What would the Irish do then?
Like adolescents who have been reminded about their eventual mortality, the audience listened to me with indifference. After all, as Niccolo Machievelli advised us, in fair weather, people do not consider the possibility of a tempest. And what a tempest Ireland has become. When I addressed over 1000 primary school principals in Dublin a few weeks ago, their pensions, like everyone else’s had been cut by 7%, and while the wages and jobs of unionized teachers might have been protected, support and resource positions that gave assistance to struggling students were about to be sacrificed. In the face of all this, Irish schools were having to confront mounting problems as the families of the children they served had their benefits slashed, unemployment was up to 14%, and the country was experiencing an exodus of 1000 people a month.
Yet, isn’t it when your back’s against the wall that you most need to reinvest in your future? Ask the poor immigrant parents who sacrifice everything to provide opportunities for their children and their future. Look at the top European performer on PISA – Finland – that rebounded from a 19% unemployment rate after the collapse of its Russian market in 1992 by making massive investments in educational innovation and creativity to become the world’s most successful knowledge economy. Finland didn’t reduce support for teachers and increase external inspection. As leading Finnish education expert Pasi Sahlberg pointed out at the conference, it increased teacher quality and eliminated expensive inspection – believing that very high quality teachers are perfectly capable of inspecting themselves.
Or consider top-three PISA performer, Singapore, from where this blog is being written, where the collapse of its electronics industry in the 1990s led it to develop a new vision around the idea of “Thinking Schools, Learning Nation” with a slimmed-down curriculum so that schools could “Teach Less, Learn More”. In Singapore, high quality teachers are attracted against a competitive private sector with starting salaries that match those of other professions like engineering and with generous scholarships to study abroad for Masters degrees and PhDs so they learn from other countries, provided they pledge themselves to their government for several years on their return.
Even though the Irish didn’t see the tempest coming, the storm can still be weathered if everyone understands that education is not an unaffordable expense but an indispensable answer. Education is the way to reinvent as well as reinvest in the future. On PISA, high performing systems have well-supported (and not merely well-paid) teachers. Innovation is an essential investment, not an indulgent frill. Proper support for special education students shortens the long tail of underachievement. The curriculum is clear in its guidelines but prudent in its coverage – leaving room for innovation and creativity.
Ireland has had to change by default. Now it must change by design. Education must be the answer. This country has finally stopped cashing in. It is time to sharpen up its act.
Andy Hargreaves is the Thomas More Brennan Chair in Education at Boston College, USA. This article is based on his presentation to the Irish Primary Principals’ Network in Dublin, January 27, 2011