The no-zero policy finally gets a failing grade

October 10, 2017

Published by Troy Media

The long-standing no-zero policy in Newfoundland and Labrador schools is no more. The chief executive officer of the English School District recently announced that teachers are once again free to deduct marks for late work and assign marks of zero when work doesn’t come in at all.

This is a significant step forward, not only because no-zero policies have proven to be ineffective, but because the school district has long refused to acknowledge that it had one in place. As recently as 2015, the previous CEO, Darrin Pike, told the media that the English School District did not have a no-zero policy.

Teachers knew better, of course. That’s the reason the Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers’ Association never relented in its demand to revoke this misguided policy.

No-zero policies are the brainchild of assessment gurus like Ken O’Connor and Damian Cooper, who claim that report cards should rigidly separate student behaviour from their academic achievement. They maintain that because handing work in late, cheating on assignments or not submitting an assignment are behaviours, these actions should not have an impact on a student’s final mark in the course. Instead, teachers were expected to deal with these behavioural issues and assign marks only on the work that comes in.

This might make sense in theory, but anyone who teaches in a real classroom with real students knows it almost never works. The moment students find out that they can hand in their work any time or not hand it in at all with no penalty, teacher deadlines become meaningless. Similarly, if the worst consequence for cheating is being required to redo the assignment, then some students will take the risk. After all, they have nothing to lose.

To further illustrate the absurdity of no-zero policies, consider what happens in a class where students are expected to hand in 10 assignments. Since teachers can’t give zeroes for work that doesn’t come in, students figure out that it makes more sense to pick the assignments they actually submit.

Of course, nowhere in the real world do things operate in such a ridiculous manner. Employees are required to complete all of their tasks, not just the ones they like to do. Not only does failure to complete work lead to a loss in pay, employees who act this way quickly find themselves unemployed.

Now that the no-zero policy has finally been repealed, Newfoundland and Labrador educators should consider what lessons can be learned from this debacle.

The first is that bad education policies have incredible staying power. Newfoundland and Labrador teachers have laboured under the absurd no-zero policy for half a decade. It took years of lobbying from teachers and parents to get the English School District to see the light on this issue.

Second, the battle against a misguided policy needs to be waged on two fronts. On one hand, it’s important to provide solid reasons why a policy is mistaken. But the other front is in getting a school district to acknowledge that a particular policy even exists. Even though the no-zero policy was as plain as day to teachers, successive CEOs continually denied that the policy existed, which made it difficult to mobilize pressure on the school district.

A third lesson is that evidence alone will not result in a policy change. Even when research studies exposed as a house of cards the claims made by assessment gurus, supporters of the no-zero approach remained unfazed. The no-zero policy is finally gone from Newfoundland and Labrador because teachers, parents, journalists and politicians read the research evidence and spoke out, forcing the school district to make the right decision.

Finally, no-zero policies are merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to misguided educational policies. From rigid inclusion to project-based discovery learning to differentiated instruction, Newfoundland and Labrador teachers are bombarded with bad ideas. Instead of trusting the professional judgment of teachers who read and understand the research literature, school and divisional administrators force teachers to adopt the latest fads.

Getting rid of the no-zero policy was a step in the right direction. However, this is no time for teachers and parents to be complacent. There are a whole lot of other misguided educational policies that need to be axed.

Let’s hope the pressure continues and meaningful change happens.

A Parents’ Guide to Common Sense Education in Alberta

September 11, 2014

Alberta parents frustrated with fuzzy math assignments, confusing report cards, and low academic standards are about to get some much-needed help. The Frontier Centre has released A Parents’ Guide to Common Sense Education in Alberta. This handbook, written by Frontier research fellow and classroom teacher Michael Zwaagstra, shines a light on the problems with the Alberta government’s misguided “Inspiring Education” initiative.

“Parents are tired of the endless stream of failed education fads that keep resurfacing in our schools,” explains Zwaagstra. “This handbook will show parents that, contrary to what they hear from ‘Inspiring Education’ advocates, there is compelling research evidence for the effectiveness of traditional teaching methodologies.”

Zwaagstra sifts through the research studies and shows that many of the most common education fads (i.e. discovery learning, multiple intelligences, learning styles, etc.) lack empirical evidence. “It’s time we stop wasting our time on useless fads and start focusing on actually improving instruction in our schools,” concludes Zwaagstra.

This handbook also makes the case for report cards that make sense to students and parents. Zwaagstra shows that the reasons school board officials often give for removing percentage grades from report cards fail to withstand scrutiny. Parents have every right to demand their children receive report cards that make sense.

A Parents’ Guide to Common Sense Education in Alberta will empower parents and other concerned citizens by giving them the information they need to push back against public education’s foolish fads.

New ways of teaching math don’t pass the test

April 15, 2014

Published in the Calgary Herald.

In Alberta, when it comes to math education, an unstoppable force has met an immovable object. On one side, we have the unstoppable Dr. Nhung Tran-Davies, backed up by thousands of equally frustrated parents.

On the other, we have the immovable education minister, Jeff Johnson, supported by dozens of curriculum consultants and faculty of education professors who have staked their careers on discovery/inquiry math.

Tran-Davies is unstoppable because she has two key things on her side — public opinion and research evidence. Her petition calling on the government to restore conventional algorithms and the memorization of math facts has garnered more than 13,000 signatures, with more people signing up every day. In contrast, a counter-petition supporting discovery/inquiry math received a paltry 400 signatures.

As well, more than 200 parents, students and real mathematicians (not Math Ed types) recently converged at a rally demanding the basics be restored in math. Parents across the province are fed up with fuzzy math textbooks and unproven techniques and will no longer tolerate the education minister’s fuzzy answers to their serious concerns.

Even more importantly, Tran-Davies is supported in her position by considerable research evidence. Her call for the direct teaching of standard algorithms and the memorization of basic math facts recognizes that students cannot progress to higher level thinking in math unless they first have a solid understanding of foundational skills and concepts.

In their 2014 book, Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn, which gives the most recent summary of the empirical research evidence, education researcher John Hattie and cognitive psychologist Gregory Yates note that students who do not know their basic math facts invariably struggle when they progress to higher levels of math. In other words, using various strategies to solve 5 x 6 is a waste of mental energy since students should know automatically that the answer is 30. They should have memorized this in elementary school.

“There was a period in which teachers were encouraged to believe that rote learning stood in antagonism to deeper understanding. This notion is misleading since all indices of knowledge display positive associations . . . . Repetition and consolidation are vehicles enabling knowledge to be stored within retrievable units, thereby accelerating mental growth through conceptual mastery and deeper understanding,” conclude Hattie and Yates.

In contrast, the Alberta initiative, Inspiring Education, has little empirical support. While its underlying philosophy goes by various names (i.e., inquiry-based learning, discovery learning, constructivism, etc.), the key idea in math is that students should develop their own problem-solving strategies. The widely used textbook series, Math Makes Sense, exemplifies this approach by asking students to figure out multiple ways of solving even the simplest of questions.

Despite its popularity among department of Education officials, many researchers have thoroughly debunked this approach. For example, in 2006, the Educational Psychologist published a study by education researchers Paul Kirschner, John Sweller and Richard Clark entitled, “Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: An analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry based teaching.”

The title of their article says it all. Kirschner, Sweller and Clark showed that constructivist methodologies are considerably less effective than traditional methodologies. They conclude that “. . . minimally guided instruction is less effective and less efficient than instructional approaches that place a strong emphasis on guidance of the student learning process.” Since Inspiring Education is based on constructivist philosophy, there is good reason to question its effectiveness.

Unfortunately, Johnson has remained impervious to the concerns of parents and ignored the compelling research evidence. While he recently conceded that students should memorize the multiplication tables, he still won’t commit to putting standard algorithms back in the math curriculum. Furthermore, constructivist math textbook series, such as Math Makes Sense and Math Focus, still remain the recommended resources from Alberta Education.

Considering that Johnson was co-chair of the original steering committee for Inspiring Education, it isn’t surprising that he remains wedded to the constructivist methodology. However, there comes a time when one must set aside his own personal preferences and acknowledge that the evidence points in a different direction. Now is the time for him to do this.

The battle between the unstoppable force, Tran-Davies, and the immovable object, Jeff Johnson, cannot go on forever. Johnson needs to climb down from his pedestal and acknowledge that Inspiring Education is lacking in both public support and research evidence. In this clash, for the good of Alberta students and their parents, the immovable object needs to move.