In defense of mediocrity

Nieuws | de redactie
19 april 2011 | Spraakverwarring beheerst het debat over kwaliteit en excellentie. Dat is niet vreemd aangezien achterliggende doelen en dimensies zelden worden vermeld. Eén opmerkelijke prestatie van Nederland bleef in Harvard zo onderbelicht. Lees hierover in deel twee van Jonathan Mijs’ verslag van de Harvard-bijeenkomst van de Nederlandse kennistop.

At the end of the first day of the conference, moderator Jorritde Jong (Lecturer, Harvard Kennedy School) made a brave attempt tochannel the plenary discussion towards clear and concisestatements. The participants of course were much too stubborn tocomply (“I am a university president. I do not do ‘brief’,” saidNyenrode rector Maurits van Rooijen, in a display of his good senseof humor). It was a pity however that the discussants failed tocomply with De Jong’s second request: to make explicit the implicitgoals and criteria underlying one’s assessment of higher educationpolicy and practice.

De Jong’s request was informed perhaps by the many, oftencontradicting, appraisals and critiques of American and Dutcheducation based on anecdotal evidence. Wilt Idema (Professor,Harvard), earlier that day, had lamented the Dutch students’ lackof discipline, and had argued the merits of a Liberal Arts model oftertiary education. Manon Cox (CEO, Protein Sciences Corp)countered that considering American job applicants, she felt thatLiberal Arts students lacked a fundamental preparation for thelabor market. Harvard physics Professor Emeritus shared with usthat he still cherishes his “Gymnasium Bèta” and applauds the richclassical education students get in the Netherlands. And so on.

Mijs denkt er het zijne van

Four educational targets

Underlying these disparate opinions, De Jong rightly pointedout, are different notions of what education ought to accomplish.For instance, is tertiary education to cater to a select few whichare to be identified, extracted, and pampered, or is its objectiveto elevate the majority to a high, but modest, standard? As Karelvan der Toorn (President, UvA) pointed out, national and EU policypoints to both: we strive for ‘excellence,’ and aim to be a ’top 5’knowledge economy, while at the same time trying to educate 50% ofour labor force at tertiary level.

A view of educational targets and policy choices wasconceptualized by University of Amsterdam Professor Herman van deWerfhorst and me in an evaluation of the Dutch secondaryeducational system, commissioned by the Netherlands Ministry ofEducation.  In the report, we distinguish between foureducational targets:

  1. Offering equal opportunities for all students (equalitytarget);
  2. Efficient sorting on and optimization of students’ talents(efficiency target);
  3. Teaching relevant (practical) knowledge and skills, effectivelypromoting labor market allocation (allocationtarget);
  4. Teaching knowledge and skills that promote active citizenship(citizenship target).

It is impossible to devise a system of education that fulfillsall targets equally. In practice, one or more targets conflict withone another. For instance, an educational system in which studentsare selected at an early age, might encounter difficulties tomaintain equality of opportunity. In like manner, the allocationtarget may interfere with promoting active citizenship. As such,policy makers need to identify these tensions, prioritizeeducational targets, and make policy decisions that, given theirprioritization, minimize the negative effects on low-prioritizedtargets.

Policy trade-offs

Identifying the main characteristics of educational systemsmakes transparent the alternatives that policy makers shouldconsider. Educational systems differ mainly on four dimensions:stratification, standardization, vocationalorientation, and track mobility. The first dimensionrefers to early selection of students in separate tracks withinsecondary education-vmbo/havo/vwo. The German educational system isone of the most selective, while countries like Sweden areclassified instead as ‘comprehensive’. The second dimension is thedegree of standardization of exams, the curriculum taught inschools, teacher salaries, etc. Schools in America show a highdegree of autonomy, while countries like France and the Netherlandshave strongly restricted the autonomy of schools throughstandardization. The third dimension refers to the extent to which(part of) the educational system is oriented towards vocationaltraining. The fourth dimension refers to the degree to whichstudents can move between educational tracks and whether it ispossible to arrive at the highest level of educationindirectly.

Figure Mijs

Cross-tabulating the four dimensions of educational systems withthe four central educational targets (see figure) shows thetrade-offs that policy makers have to face. Evaluating the Americanand Dutch educational systems, we can recognize the various choicesand concessions policy makers have had to make.

In their presentation on the Dutch educational system, bothSybolt Noorda (President, VSNU) and Alexander Rinooy Kan(President, SER) showed that the Netherlands are among the topperformers academically, world-wide. As such, Ambassador RenéeJones-Bos has firm grounds for her assertion that the Netherlandsare not a small country in terms of its impact on theworld. In the comparison with U.S. education, biased of course bythe Seminar’s location and focus on the New England area, oneachievement of Dutch education was overlooked. Whereas our topperformers do well-well enough, perhaps, to play with the bigguys-those at the bottom of our educational system outperformvirtually any other such group of students in the world. This is tosay that the Netherlands educational system has achieved somethingtruly remarkable: it both prepares an echelon of students for aglobal ‘battle for brains,’ and raises even the least privileged ofstudents to a moderately high level of achievement.

Let us not abandon this unique feature of our educational systemin our pursuit of ‘excellence.’

Jonathan J.B. Mijs

The report referred to is available for download at mypersonal website as a paper presentation:

Deel 1 van Mijs’ verslag vindt u hier. Deel drie verschijntin de volgende ScienceGuide Nieuwsbrief.

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