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.

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.

Textbooks are still important

February 20, 2014

Published in The Windsor Star

The lowly textbook is under siege by progressive educators. Again.

Why waste money on textbooks, these educators argue, when all the information students ever need is available with the click of a mouse? Besides, they add, textbooks are hopelessly outdated and very biased.

These and other arguments were recently made by history teacher David Cutler in The Atlantic magazine. Predictably, Cutler claims over reliance on textbooks early in his career resulted in apathy and boredom among his students.

Cutler also pointed to his experience as a graduate student. None of his history professors relied to any significant degree on textbooks. Rather, they provided students with relevant primary sources and realistic case studies which helped him understand the information better than memorizing facts and dates from textbooks. Cutler argues that the same holds true for high school students.

While these arguments may initially seem compelling, they are actually fallacious.

For example, it is misleading to compare high school students with graduate students. University students, particularly those at the graduate level, are highly motivated and come into their courses with substantial background knowledge in their discipline. Often these students can already recite hundreds of facts and dates by memory. As a result, there is little need to review basic timelines and key events. Rather, graduate students can dive right in to more advanced topics.

In contrast, most high school students know little about history. Consequently, a well-designed textbook is an invaluable tool. Not only does it serve as a useful reference guide, it shows key events in their proper chronological sequence and puts facts and dates into a broad historical context.

Shaping Canada by Linda Connor, Brian Hull and Connie Wyatt-Anderson is an excellent Canadian example. As the recommended textbook for Manitoba’s grade 11 students, Shaping Canada provides a chronological overview of Canadian history and contains many excerpts from primary sources to give students a better understanding of life in the past.

While history teachers can and should go beyond the information provided in textbooks, it helps if they provide students with a book that has most of the concepts and information they are expected to learn. Furthermore, high-quality textbooks such as Shaping Canada are extensively reviewed by subject matter experts and representatives from various ethnic groups, who together identify and weed out errors and misrepresentations. The result is a book that, while still imperfect, reflects more than one author’s perspective.

As for the suggestion that widespread internet access makes textbooks obsolete, the reality is that the quality of online information varies widely. While websites are a hit-and-miss collection of good and bad sources, a well-written textbook synthesizes the most important information in a way students can easily understand. Unless students already have substantial knowledge and considerable discernment, they are unlikely to find the same quality of information on the internet.

In addition, students need to be regularly challenged by their readings. As Mike Schmoker notes in his book Focus: Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning, textbooks provide “the kind of content-rich, semantically rich prose that… students need to acquire and critically process essential knowledge.” So not only does reading the dense, challenging prose found in well-written textbooks improve content knowledge, it also helps students improve their reading skills.

Unfortunately, not all teachers are equally conversant with the subjects they teach. While it is desirable for all history courses to be taught by teachers with a strong history background, the reality is that some teachers lack this expertise. For these teachers, textbooks are even more essential. It would be a shame to deprive them of this valuable tool.

That being said, while textbooks are undoubtedly useful, teachers should never rely exclusively on them. A good history teacher will, for example, use outside sources and ensure that students learn much more than what is written in their textbooks. Teachers should neither overly depend on textbooks, nor be too quick to dismiss them.

Despite the substantial attacks on textbooks by progressive educators, it is far too soon to consign them to the dustbin of history. Textbooks continue to play an important role in educating students.

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.

Course correction needed in math

December 18, 2013

Published in the Chronicle Herald (Halifax)

When it comes to math skills, Canadian students are getting worse, not better. That was the finding of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) released Dec. 3. Among the 65 nations that participated in the OECD study, Canada’s overall standing in math fell to 13th from 10th in 2009 and 7th in 2006.

Nova Scotia is no exception to this trend. The province has steadily declined since 2003 and its students scored significantly below the Canadian average. Clearly, something is wrong with the way Nova Scotia schools teach mathematics.

Unfortunately, the Department of Education chose to downplay this problem with a news release entitled, “Nova Scotia students perform well in international assessments.” While the release acknowledged a decline in math scores, it suggested that a newly introduced math curriculum in Nova Scotia schools would fix this problem.

The new math curriculum stems from a commitment the previous government made. Last year, former Education Minister Ramona Jennex announced that Nova Scotia would import and adopt Alberta’s math curriculum. The reasoning behind this announcement was that since Alberta students have some of the best test results in Canada, adopting their curriculum would lead to similar results in this province.

At a superficial level, this announcement made sense. After all, if Alberta’s math curriculum improved student achievement in that province, why wouldn’t it do the same here? There’s just one problem with this approach — it did nothing of the sort.

The reality is that Alberta’s math scores, as measured by PISA, have been in a free-fall since 2003. In fact, next to Manitoba, Alberta experienced the biggest decline in math skills over the last decade. While Alberta students used to perform well above the Canadian average in math, they are now merely average.

Alberta’s decline coincides with the adoption of a new math curriculum known as the Western and Northern Curriculum Protocol (WNCP). The WNCP downplays the importance of practice and memorization and encourages students to invent their own ways of solving math questions. Instead of learning the standard algorithms for addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, students invent their own.

This approach to teaching and learning, often called romantic progressivism or constructivism, is widely pushed within faculties of education. “A teacher should be a guide on the side rather than a sage on the stage” is its mantra. The WNCP math curriculum was heavily influenced by this philosophy. Considering the large number of provinces that follow the WNCP, it should come as little surprise that math scores across the country are declining.

Instead of adopting a math curriculum that led to worse student achievement, Nova Scotia should consider better options. One is to look at the only province to maintain its high standing in math — Quebec. Unlike many other provinces, Quebec still has a math curriculum that places a strong emphasis on the mastery of fundamental skills.

In addition, at least one province using the WNCP math curriculum has made steps to reverse course. Manitoba’s education minister recently announced a new back-to-basics approach in math. Students in K-8 will now be expected to memorize their math facts, solve math questions without a calculator, and use traditional algorithms for basic math operations. Given that Manitoba is one of the lowest achieving provinces in the country, this announcement came not a moment too soon.

However, if Nova Scotia wants to make significant improvements to its math scores, the education minister should take even bigger steps than Manitoba. John Mighton’s JUMP math program could be just what this province needs.

The JUMP approach to math instruction is almost exactly opposite from WNCP. Instead of leaving students to figure out their own ways of solving math questions, JUMP helps students break a math problem down to its component parts. Students are taught math concepts sequentially and must practise a skill until it becomes automatic.

Several years ago, a research team from the University of Toronto, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, and Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, conducted a randomized controlled study of JUMP math’s effectiveness. It divided approximately 300 students into two groups, one taught WNCP-style math and the other JUMP math. Students in the JUMP math program significantly outperformed students in the other group.

The widespread adoption of JUMP math, or something like it, could revolutionize math instruction in this province. It’s time for Nova Scotia to take bold action and reverse its longstanding decline in math skills. The status quo is unacceptable.