Mediocrity in, mediocrity out

October 22, 2014

Published in the Winnipeg Free Press

It’s been two weeks since Manitoba got the bad news on its results from the Canada-wide tests of students, and I’m still waiting to hear how the provincial government thinks it can arrest the slide.

The results from the latest Pan-Canadian Assessment Program (PCAP) tests are, to say the least, very disappointing. Over the last 15 years, the reading, math, and science scores have declined from near the Canadian average to the bottom of the pack, even though Manitoba spends more per K-12 student than every other province except Alberta.

The current government has been in power since 1999. It should be ashamed of these results. So should educational leaders who have supported this government’s education agenda.

However, it didn’t take long for the government’s supporters to offer excuses. Predictably, Manitoba Teachers’ Society president Paul Olson blamed the poor results on the low socioeconomic status of Manitoba students. But other provinces also have many low income families, and they performed significantly better than Manitoba students.

Education Minister James Allum acknowledges that these test results are unacceptable. But, his so-called action plan shows he is attempting to deflect blame, just like the Manitoba Teachers’ Society, rather than accept responsibility for making substantial changes.

Allum said Prince Edward Island students showed significant improvement and Manitoba should follow P.E.I. by having more test preparation sessions with the students before they write the next PCAP tests.

He does not appear to understand what really happened in P.E.I. Prior to 2007, P.E.I. students had no standardized testing, and they consistently scored last in the country. Then P.E.I. introduced standardized tests at grades 3, 6 and 9 and used the results to sharpen their teachers’ focus on the academic basics. Not surprisingly, the latest PCAP results show that P.E.I. students have made substantial gains.

Teaching Manitoba students the tricks of test-taking will not lift them from the bottom. Rather, the government should use standardized testing to evaluate student achievement in key subject areas at various grade levels, like P.E.I. recently did. The results of the tests should be made public — as they are in every other province — so parents know how well their children are doing. Standardized testing reminds schools of the importance of the core academics and focuses teachers on the curriculum.

Allum also said that he is committed to “ensuring better accountability by working with school divisions to set goals and track progress in essential math and reading skills.” Manitoba is the least transparent province in the country when it comes to student achievement; the government has a long way to go.

Last year, the government reluctantly made important changes to the math curriculum when it restored standard algorithms and declared that students must memorize basic math facts. But most schools still use discovery-based textbooks, such as Math Makes Sense and Math Focus, which are more likely to confuse students than enlighten them. Better textbooks are needed.

In addition, considerable research shows that traditional teaching methods, such as direct instruction, help students learn the curriculum. Sadly, discovery-based methods are still pushed on prospective teachers in faculties of education. Discovery learning encourages students to figure out things for themselves and come up with their own ways of solving problems. This works fine for university graduate and post-graduate students but not so well for Grade 1 students learning how to add and subtract for the first time.

The discovery-based philosophy, also known as constructivism, is embedded in provincial curriculum guides. This is why academic content seems to receive less and less emphasis each time a new guide comes out. These guides need to be rewritten to place a proper emphasis on specific knowledge and skills.

If the NDP government is serious about improving the academic performance of Manitoba students, it must make a number of substantial changes. Focusing on the academic basics, introducing standardized testing at a variety of grade levels, publishing the results for parents to see, and freeing teachers from education fads would go a long way to lifting Manitoba students from the bottom in reading math and science.

It’s time to end the excuses and begin the serious work. Our students deserve nothing less.

A Parents’ Guide to Common Sense Education in Saskatchewan

September 18, 2014

Saskatchewan parents who are frustrated with fuzzy math assignments, confusing report cards, and low academic standards are about to get some much-needed help. Today, the Frontier Centre for Public Policy has released A Parents’ Guide to Common Sense Education in Saskatchewan. This handbook, written by Frontier research fellow and classroom teacher Michael Zwaagstra, shines a light on the many education fads promoted by the Department of Education.

“Parents are tired of the endless stream of failed education fads that keep resurfacing in our schools,” explains Zwaagstra. This handbook shows parents that, contrary to what they hear from superintendents and curriculum consultants, 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 a right to demand that their children receive report cards that make sense.

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

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.

Manitoba needs to reverse its steep academic decline

July 17, 2014

Manitoba has had fifteen years of academic decline in reading, math, and science. That is the track record of the current NDP government. Once near the Canadian average, Manitoba now sits second last out of the Canadian provinces.

In a study recently released by the C. D. Howe Institute, John Richards analyzed data from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). Every three years, PISA tests more than 500,000 fifteen-year-old students from approximately 65 countries in the core competencies of math, reading, and science. Students from all provinces participated in the latest PISA tests.

Richards noted that from 2000 to the present, Manitoba was one of only two provinces (the other being Prince Edward Island) to experience a statistically significant decline in all three competency areas. To make matters worse, only Manitoba’s math and reading results declined by 35 points.

Interestingly, when it comes to per-student expenditures, Manitoba ranks near the top in Canada. According to Statistics Canada, Manitoba’s per-student spending comes in a close second to that of Alberta. In the 2010-2011 school year, Manitoba spent an average of $13,150 per student, which was more than $500 higher than the national average. Clearly, more spending does not necessarily lead to better academic results.

Richards used the worldwide PISA data to examine education policies that seem to improve student achievement. Most notably, high-performing jurisdictions give schools more autonomy while simultaneously expecting them to publicly report their students’ academic achievement levels.

Unfortunately, Manitoba does the exact opposite. Schools and teachers have little autonomy since the provincial government dictates everything from school year schedules to report card comments. At the same time, the province has systematically abolished all standardized tests except for two administered at the grade 12 level. But, shamefully, the results of the tests are kept hidden from the public.

In fact, when it comes to student achievement, Manitoba is the most secretive province in the country. No other province goes to such lengths to keep the public in the dark about how students are doing. If it weren’t for international tests such as PISA, Manitobans would have no idea that student achievement has been falling for 15 years.

If the Manitoba government wants to improve student achievement, it needs to take a serious look at provincial curricula and ask whether the necessary academic content is clearly prescribed.

Fortunately, the government took a good first step last year when it listened to mathematicians and put the standard algorithms back into the math curriculum. It needs to follow through by examining other whether similar changes should be made in other subjects. For example, a stronger focus on spelling and grammar in English Language Arts would probably be a good idea.

In addition, the government needs to cut down on its tendency to micromanage so many issues. During the last decade, a huge amount of time and energy has been wasted debating things such as school board amalgamations, mandatory physical education credits for grade 11 and 12 students, and the province-wide school closure moratorium. Add to this list the new provincial report card and the headaches its implementation has caused for teachers and parents, and it is not hard to conclude that the government has lost its way, at least in education.

Finally, the government should acknowledge that it was a mistake to abolish standardized testing. These tests play an essential role in measuring and reporting on student achievement. Instead of simply relying on PISA results every three years to identify problems, the government needs to institute annual standardized tests at several grade levels and make sure the results become public.

If designed and implemented properly, standardized testing will bring a much-needed focus to Manitoba’s education system. By highlighting student achievement, school administrators will get the message that they must not lose sight of this essential goal. It may even cause them to think twice before blindly adopting the latest education fad without first examining the evidence for its effectiveness.

Manitoba’s education system has been in decline for the last fifteen years. It is time we reverse this negative trend and make student academic achievement the primary focus.

Forgo failed education fads

June 5, 2014

Published in The Chronicle Herald (Halifax)

Nova Scotia schools could be in for some major changes. The Minister’s Panel on Education, struck by the Liberal government, will review public education and make recommendations. But if it embraces contemporary education fads, it will do more harm than good.

For parents eagerly awaiting the panel’s report, here’s a prediction of what’s likely to appear.

The panel will begin by pointing out that the world is changing rapidly while schools are still mired in “factory-model” education of the 19th century. Instead of getting students to memorize facts that will soon become outdated, the panel will recommend that teachers must focus on “helping students learn to learn.”

This will lead to the central theme in the panel’s report — the need to move Nova Scotia to a 21st-century learning model. It will recommend rewriting curriculum guides to focus less on content, and more on the process of learning. In addition, it will stress the need for schools to do a better job of integrating technology in classrooms.

How can I be so confident about what’s going to appear in the panel’s report? Because the same empty philosophy and shallow platitudes appear in similar reports from other provinces. The most obvious example is Alberta’s “Inspiring Education” initiative.

Released in 2010 with great fanfare, Inspiring Education suggested that Alberta’s education system needs a fundamental transformation. It trumpeted the importance of 21st-century skills and spoke about “the role of the teacher changing from that of a knowledge authority to an architect of learning.” And, for good measure, Inspiring Education concluded that “technology should play a broader role in the classroom.”

However, while the Alberta government appears enthusiastic about this new direction, this is not true for Alberta parents, teachers, and students.

For example, more than 14,000 parents signed a petition expressing their unhappiness with Alberta’s fuzzy math curriculum. They want the education minister to ensure students learn standard algorithms and memorize their math facts.

Currently, the math curriculum does none of this. Instead, it places a strong emphasis on the so-called discovery approach. Students are supposed to figure out ways of solving math problems by themselves while teachers are discouraged from providing direct instruction. Unfortunately, this is exactly the learning environment envisioned for all grades and subjects in Inspiring Education.

The Alberta education minister recently reinforced this direction with the release of his Task Force for Teaching Excellence report. In it, the task force insists that all teachers must “shift from the dissemination of information and recall of facts to a greater focus on inquiry and discovery.”

The task force also wants principals to evaluate teachers based on the degree to which they adopt this philosophy. Teachers would need to get re-certified every five years and, presumably, could lose their licences if they use a more traditional teaching approach.

It should come as little surprise that the Alberta Teachers’ Association is against these recommendations. Over 450 teacher delegates took the unprecedented step of unanimously voting no-confidence in the education minister at their annual meeting.

Clearly, Alberta’s Inspiring Education agenda is far from universally supported.

Despite the train wreck in Alberta, other provincial governments are moving in the same misguided direction. British Columbia’s education department is promoting the B.C. Education Plan, which similarly trumpets the need to change everything in schools because “the world is changing.”

Like Alberta, it wants to make teachers “shift from being the primary source of content to focus on helping students learn how to learn.”

Fortunately, Nova Scotia still has the opportunity to avoid these misguided educational reforms. Instead of copying empty slogans from the 21st century education movement, the Minister’s Panel on Education should examine ways to help teachers do their jobs more effectively. Less top-down micromanagement by bureaucrats, fewer useless education fads, and more empowerment of classroom teachers would be good places to start.

Nova Scotian parents and students deserve more than failed approaches and empty platitudes. Hopefully, the panel’s upcoming report will prove my pessimistic predictions wrong, and will propose evidence-based recommendations that would actually improve this province’s schools.

Unfortunately, it is more likely we will see more of the faddish and misguided policy advice that has emerged from similar review processes in other jurisdictions.

Let’s treat teachers like they’re professionals

May 28, 2014

Published in the Calgary Herald

It’s not easy being a teacher. Teachers receive most of the blame when things go wrong, but they are powerless to make real changes in the system. That’s because they have little choice but to follow the directives of administrators who impose unproven fads on them.

Perhaps the most pervasive fad is that a teacher should be “a guide on the side” rather than “a sage on the stage.” In other words, teachers are encouraged to let students discover facts and concepts on their own and avoid direct instruction. This approach is known as constructivism. Though popular with school administrators, good evidence for the effectiveness of constructivism is severely lacking, as former Harvard education professor Jeanne Chall documented in her comprehensive book, The Academic Achievement Challenge: What Really Works in the Classroom.

Despite the lack of evidence for constructivism, many teachers are under enormous pressure to use this ideology in their teaching. In fact, their professional evaluations often hinge on adopting student-centred methodologies. Thus, a teacher who delivers clear, tightly focused math lessons to her students may receive a worse evaluation than a teacher who encourages students to come up with their own ways of solving math problems — even if students learned better under the first teacher.

Unfortunately, the Alberta government is poised to take the coercion of teachers to the next level. Education Minister Jeff Johnson’s Task Force for Teaching Excellence recently released a series of recommendations regarding teacher certification and evaluation. What stands out is the task force’s insistence that all teachers must “shift from the dissemination of information and recall of facts to a greater focus on inquiry and discovery.”

In other words, the task force wants teachers to adopt constructivist methodologies. It will do this by having principals evaluate teachers on the degree to which they conform to Alberta’s Inspiring Education initiative, which is built on constructivist ideology. That is, ideological commitment will become more important than teaching effectiveness.

The coercion of teachers can also be seen in other areas. When grading students, teachers across the country are forced to follow the dictates of assessment gurus who advocate against awarding zeros for incomplete work, oppose reducing grades for lateness, and insist that all report card marks and comments reflect curricular outcomes and not student behaviour or other important criteria. As a sign of how seriously school administrators take these recommendations, Edmonton teacher Lynden Dorval lost his job in 2012 for refusing to comply with his school’s no-zero policy.

In Nova Scotia, teachers must follow onerous guidelines when writing report card comments. Instead of letting teachers use their professional judgment, they are expected to identify, for each student, an area of strength, at least one required improvement, and a suggested next step. Teachers have to do this without commenting on the student’s behaviour. In order to ensure teacher compliance, principals spend time reviewing all report cards and making teachers rewrite comments that do not reflect the guidelines.

In a recent blog entry, Halifax teacher Grant Frost noted that these guidelines resulted in “an edu-jargon based report that, although satisfying the criteria, does almost nothing to tell parents how their kids are doing in schools.”

Frost is frustrated because teachers are no longer trusted to do something as simple as write their own report card comments. This frustration is understandable since teachers, particularly good teachers like Lynden Dorval and Grant Frost, deserve to be treated as professionals.

While provincial governments should hold teachers accountable, they are going about it the wrong way. Instead of micromanaging teachers and forcing them to teach the same way and write the same mundane comments on report cards, administrators should give teachers considerably more autonomy. In other words, let teachers teach in the way they think best — as long as they can prove that their students are learning.

This is where standardized testing, when designed properly and administered in a balanced way, plays a key role. Teachers should welcome standardized testing as a way to objectively demonstrate the effectiveness of their teaching. Give teachers a specific target that is based on their students’ past performances and let them use their professional judgment to determine the best way to get them up to that level.

The professional status of teachers would be greatly enhanced if administrators focused less on process and more on actual results. Instead of imposing burdensome regulations and dubious fads on teachers, administrators should set them free and let them teach.

Knowledge should still matter in BC schools

May 15, 2014

Published in the Times Colonist (Victoria)

Big changes are underway in British Columbia’s education system. The traditional emphasis on imparting specific knowledge and skills to students will soon take a back seat to helping students “learn how to learn.” This reflects a fundamental change in educational philosophy.

Parents have good reason to be concerned about this planned transformation. B.C.’s Ministry of Education plans to make teachers “shift from being the primary source of content to focus on helping students learn how to learn.” This sends the unfortunate message to students and parents that content knowledge is less important than it has been in the past.

An overview of the department’s plans — displayed prominently on its website — claims that the old curriculum’s “focus on teaching children factual content … is exactly the opposite of what modern education should strive to do.” This will likely come as a surprise to parents who value factual content and consider it an important component of their children’s education.

In addition, the Ministry of Education has set up a false dichotomy between knowledge and understanding. While department officials claim to value critical thinking and deeper understanding, this is impossible when people are uninformed about a topic.

For example, students unfamiliar with the basic timeline of the Second World War and the countries involved are unlikely to possess a deeper understanding of how the war began and ended.

Furthermore, the government’s recent announcement that it will refashion the K-12 curriculum to emphasize job training is shortsighted and inconsistent. While it makes sense to provide vocational options to high school students, the basic literacy and numeracy skills students need to master haven’t changed. Unfortunately, the government’s plans will lead to less emphasis on traditional academic subjects.

Besides, if we want students to be ready for the work force when they graduate, they need to be knowledgeable and skilful. While this means students need to master the fundamentals of literacy and numeracy, it also means much more. They should understand key scientific concepts and possess a broad knowledge of our country’s history and system of government. Familiarity with literary classics is also important in a well-rounded education.

Learning traditional subjects isn’t about helping students win a game of Trivial Pursuit. Rather, it’s an essential component of developing them into critical thinkers and problem solvers that employers will hire. An ignorant person is rarely a critical thinker. Rather, someone with a well-rounded education is in the best position to critically analyze a problem and come up with creative solutions.

Incidentally, being knowledgeable is also one of the best ways to improve reading comprehension. For example, a student who is familiar with the rules of hockey is almost certain to have a better understanding of a newspaper article about last night’s game than someone who has never heard of hockey. Similarly, people are far more likely to understand an article about politics, or even about the latest business developments, if they have a solid knowledge-based education.

Thus, schools do students a disservice when they focus on learning strategies and downplay academic content. As students become less knowledgeable, their comprehension declines. This is why the Ministry of Education needs to encourage teachers to be content experts.

As for the notion that students should construct their own knowledge through inquiry-based learning, the evidence is clear that this approach is ineffective. In 2006, Educational Psychologist published a study by Paul Kirschner, John Sweller and Richard Clark that analyzed many years of educational research. They found that inquiry-based strategies are “less effective and less efficient than instructional approaches that place a strong emphasis on guidance of the student learning process.”

In his 2009 book Visible Learning, educational researcher John Hattie analyzed thousands of research studies about student learning. He found considerable evidence for the effectiveness of traditional teaching methodologies such as direct instruction. Naturally, Hattie recommends educators use the most effective teaching strategies.

If the B.C. government wants to improve its education system, it can start by adopting a common-sense approach that emphasizes traditional academic subjects. In the 21st century, knowledge matters more than ever.

Everything is changing — except education fads

March 7, 2014

Published in the Calgary Herald.

“Everything is changing.” So states the two-minute promotional video on the Alberta government’s Inspiring Education website. It describes the need to “prepare Alberta’s students for this unknown and unknowable future” and notes that “we cannot predict what work will look like in ten years, let alone what skills will be required.”

In other words, the Alberta government now wants to prepare students for an “unknowable” future. Because traditional learning no longer meets this goal, the narrator cheerfully concludes, “We’re changing everything.”

Confused? You should be. The government plans to scrap the top-performing education system in the country and replace it with a system that helps students develop unknown skills for jobs that don’t yet exist in some unknowable future. Only in education is such claptrap accepted as sensible policy.

Imagine if another government department featured such a ridiculous video on its website. Would anyone take Inspiring Health seriously if a video proclaims “we’re changing everything” because “we cannot predict what medicine will look like in ten years”? Or how about an Inspiring Justice video that states that the justice system must “prepare Alberta’s criminals for an unknown and unknowable future”?

For some reason, education is the one profession where it is acceptable to regularly throw out proven practices and replace them with new—but unproven–theories that have no evidence to support them.

Remember open area classrooms? In the 1970s, Alberta constructed elementary schools without walls. Classes met in open areas separated by dividers. The theory was that open classes would create exciting new “team teaching” opportunities and create a buzz of learning throughout the school.

In reality, many students couldn’t handle the noise and disruption so governments eventually built classroom walls at great expense. Despite the obvious problems with open area classrooms, this theory still dominated North America for years—and did great damage to the learning of millions of students.

For a profession that allegedly values critical thinking, it is remarkable that such a misguided theory was adopted so uncritically.

Failed education fads are not simply a thing of the past. Right now, Alberta students and their parents are suffering from the discovery math approach. Instead of making students memorize multiplication tables and learn the most efficient algorithms for solving math problems, discovery math encourages students to invent their own strategies and techniques. As a result, parents spend hours at home helping their kids figure out convoluted word problems that don’t make sense. Not surprisingly, the math scores of Alberta students have steadily declined since the formal introduction of discovery math in 2008.

What do Inspiring Education, open area classrooms, and discovery math all have in common? They are manifestations of the same failed educational philosophy—progressivism.

Progressives have a naively optimistic belief in the ability of students to direct their own learning. They dislike teacher-led classrooms and want each teacher to be “a guide on the side rather than a sage on the stage.” They prefer to focus on the process of learning and de-emphasize specific curriculum content.  In their minds, any rote learning is derided as “drill and kill.”

Inspiring Education proposes another version of this failed philosophy. Parents who are frustrated with discovery math can look forward to other subject areas becoming equally confusing. For example, science courses will focus less on learning key scientific facts and theories and more on students discovering things for themselves, while history courses will focus more on social justice activism than on providing students with an accurate understanding of the past.

Equally concerning is the Inspiring Education video’s nonsensical claim that we have no idea what skills will be required in the future. In reality, virtually everyone agrees that students will still need to learn how to read and write, do math, and have a basic understanding of Canadian history and governance. These disciplines and skills will be just as useful twenty years from now as they are today and as they were 100 years ago.

If the Alberta government is determined to stick with its mantra that “everything is changing”, it should change its Inspiring Education campaign into something useful. Building on Alberta’s proven strengths would be a much better strategy than tearing everything down just for the sake of change.

Schools focus too much on individuals and not enough on groups

January 23, 2014

Published in The Chronicle Herald

“Every student deserves a personalized learning experience that matches his or her unique learning style.” This summarizes the obsession many schools have with individualized instruction. Heaven forbid that a teacher should prepare a lesson without considering the needs of each student.

As a result, instead of standing in front of the classroom and giving one explanation to all students, teachers often divide their classes into smaller groups and repeat the same lesson multiple times. In fact, teachers are often evaluated based on the degree to which they make use of “differentiated instruction” techniques. Unsurprisingly, this places enormous stress on teachers as they strive to meet the impossible goal of providing personalized instruction for each of the 25 or more students in their classrooms.

Not only is this obsession with individualized instruction stressful on teachers, it isn’t particularly effective at improving student achievement. In her comprehensive analysis of the research literature published in the International Guide to Student Achievement (2013), Catherine Scott noted that tailoring instruction to students’ so-called learning styles is “…a waste of precious teaching and learning time.” Other experts, such as cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham, have come to the same conclusion.

Much of the problem stems from an excessive focus on educational psychology in teacher training and professional development. Teachers learn all about the psychological needs of individual students, but precious little about how to effectively manage a classroom with 25 or more students. What teachers really need is a little less psychology and a lot more sociology.

Teachers aren’t hired as private tutors; their job is to teach groups of students. The best way for teachers to meet their needs is to engage the entire group with effective, whole-class lessons. Of course, this is easier said than done because it is not easy to manage the behaviour of 25 students while simultaneously providing engaging lessons. Unfortunately, despite the obvious importance of this skill, prospective teachers learn precious little in university about how to effectively teach large groups of students.

As Mike Schmoker points out in Focus: Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning (2011), a great deal of research has been conducted on what effective lessons look like. Teachers need to clearly explain new concepts, model how to solve problems, give students multiple opportunities to practice, and make sure students have mastered a new skill before moving on to the next level. In other words, they should make regular use of traditional, large-group, teacher-centred, teaching methods.

Jeanne Chall was a professor in the Harvard Graduate School of Education and director of the Harvard Reading Laboratory for more than 30 years. In her final book, The Academic Achievement Challenge: What Really Works in the Classroom (2000), Chall examined the research evidence and compared the effectiveness of progressive student-centred education with traditional teacher-centred education. Her conclusion was clear. “Traditional, teacher-centred schools, according to research and practice, are more effective than progressive, student-centred schools for the academic achievement of most children.” Not only that, teacher-centred education was especially beneficial for “children of less educated families, inner-city children, and those with learning difficulties at all social levels.”

According to Chall, one of the advantages of teacher-centred classrooms is that they focus more “…on preventing learning difficulties than on treating them with special procedures when found.” Because teacher-centred instructors make regular use of whole-class instruction, they seek out methods and materials that are optimal for the entire group. When problems arise, these teachers can spend more time with the relatively few students experiencing difficulty while the other students work independently on their assignments.

In contrast, teachers in student-centred classrooms are expected at the outset to adapt their instruction to the individual learning styles of each student. As Chall points out, this is a highly inefficient way to teach because each student only receives a small amount of direct instruction time each day. In addition, it is difficult to give additional time to academically weak students while also providing individualized instruction to all the other students.

Thus, schools should focus less on individualized instruction and more on teachers delivering effective, whole-class lessons. This will help teachers truly meet the needs of all students in their classrooms, especially those who are having difficulties with the lessons.

Alberta schools are getting worse, not better

December 20, 2013

There is an old saying that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results. By this standard, the Redford government must be insane—at least when it comes to public education reform.

Over the last decade, the Department of Education has initiated a radical overhaul of public education in this province. Less reliance on standardized testing, a discovery-based math curriculum, reduced emphasis on academic content, and new grading schemes are but a few examples. But, the results have not been encouraging.

In fact, recently released data from the Programme for International Assessment (PISA) paints a grim picture of a province in academic decline. Nowhere has the decline been more precipitous than in math. While Alberta students used to lead the country in math scores, they are now merely average. Without a dramatic shift back to the academic basics, this downward trend will almost certainly continue.

Education minister Jeff Johnson paid lip service to the problem last week but gave no indication that he plans to reverse course. Of course, there was little reason to expect otherwise. As one of the key architects behind the 2009 Inspiring Education report, Johnson has a vested interest in continuing his department’s current direction.

However, once you strip away his report’s soaring rhetoric and cut through the edu-babble, Inspiring Education was merely a recycled presentation of the failed progressive ideologies of the past. Its pledge to move education away from learning specific knowledge and skills to a process of inquiry and discovery has been the typical rallying cry of progressive educators for more than a century.

For example, back in 1918 educational theorist William Heard Kilpatrick outlined his “project method” in an article published in the Teachers College Record. Just like Inspiring Education, Kilpatrick advocated the integration of subject areas and downplayed the importance of academic content. In fact, Inspiring Education is so similar to Kilpatrick’s philosophy that it could have been written by him if he were still alive.

Sadly, Kilpatrick’s progressive philosophy had a profoundly negative impact on public education in North America. While a small number of education professors opposed Kilpatrick’s philosophy, most education schools adopted his ideas and passed them on to future generations of teachers.

Until recently, Alberta stood out as a beacon of common sense against the onslaught of this progressive ideology. Its commitment to parental choice, rigorous standardized testing, and solid academic content made Alberta unique in Canada. Alberta students had the highest PISA scores in Canada and one of the best in the world. Unfortunately, as the Redford government continues to dismantle the best features of Alberta’s once proud school system, students pay the price.

Teachers frustrated with the decline in academic standards shouldn’t expect any help from the Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA). In its 2012 research update entitled A Great School for All: Transforming Education in Alberta, the ATA praised the province’s Inspiring Education report as “a positive first step.” Incredibly, the ATA wants to go even further down the progressive path of education reform.

Much of the ATA’s report is an endorsement of Finland’s education system and the so-called “fourth way” paradigm of American educator Andy Hargreaves.  This admiration of Finland stems from the way its schools incorporate aspects of progressive ideology in their practice. As a result, the ATA seeks to remake Alberta’s education system in the image of Finland.

Unfortunately for them, Finland dropped from its once high standing on PISA. While still one of the higher performing nations, Finland’s results have declined over the last decade and now scores at almost exactly the same level as Canada. Asian countries such as Singapore, South Korea, and Shanghai, all of whom use traditional methods of instruction, have significantly surpassed Finland. As a result, Finland has lost its lustre as a model of school reform; Alberta should be looking to countries like Singapore instead of Finland.

To make matters worse, as the Redford government continues to water down academic standards, some school boards are replacing percentage grades on report cards with confusing and imprecise letter grades. This makes it difficult for parents to understand how their children are doing. Acting on the advice of misguided assessment gurus, some schools even adopted rigid no-zero policies, as Edmonton teacher Lynden Dorval found out last year.

If the Redford government continues on the failed progressive path of reform, academic achievement will continue to decline. Without a major course correction, things are going to get a lot worse before they get better.  Insanity, as they say, is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Alberta’s parents deserve better.