Despite promises, fuzzy education agenda endures

November 14, 2014

Published in the Calgary Herald.

During the Progressive Conservative leadership race, Jim Prentice said that Alberta schools needed to focus on the academic basics. He even appointed Gordon Dirks as minister of education, someone known to be sympathetic to traditional education ideas.

In this appointment, Prentice signalled a willingness to change course from the previous government’s disastrous Inspiring Education initiative.

Parents looking for change had further cause for hope when Prentice, once he became premier, shuffled Greg Bass out of the deputy minister of education portfolio. With Bass’s removal, Alberta Education lost its most prominent discovery learning evangelist.

However, despite a new premier, new minister of education and a new deputy minister, the old Inspiring Education initiative still remains intact. Its nonsensical Everything is Changing video can still be viewed on the department’s website, while the supporting documents also remain. If Prentice genuinely wants to change direction in Alberta Education, he must remove this material from his government’s website.

Even more concerning is the government’s lack of action on the provincial math curriculum.

While the former education minister, Jeff Johnson, reluctantly agreed to revise the math curriculum by requiring students to memorize basic math facts, he did not go nearly far enough. Fuzzy math textbooks, such as Math Makes Sense, remain in use and there is still no requirement for students to learn standard algorithms for addition, subtraction, multiplication and division.

In a recent letter to Dr. Nhung Tran-Davies, the Calmar mother who initiated the widely popular back-to-basics math petition, Education Minister Gordon Dirks declined to meet with her and referred her to Amaya Ortigosa, the team leader for mathematics K-9 with Alberta Education. Considering that Ortigosa is a strong proponent of discovery learning, Tran-Davies is unlikely to get very far with her concerns.

To make matters worse, Dirks noted that even with the recent revisions, the math curriculum would not require students to learn the standard algorithms. Instead, it will continue to expect students to use a variety of problem-solving strategies, some more effective than others. In other words, nothing is going to change, and students and their parents and can look forward to fuzzy math homework assignments for many years to come.

Unfortunately, there are other ways in which the Inspiring Education agenda is moving ahead. Alberta school boards are continuing with their plans to eliminate percentage grades from report cards and promote no-zero policies. The Calgary Board of Education, for example, recently removed percentage grades from all K-9 report cards and may soon do the same with Grade 10 to 12 report cards.

Parents of K-9 students in Calgary must now wade through a series of checklists for various outcomes in each subject area in order to find out how their children are doing. With no percentage grades and only four achievement levels for each outcome, it will be difficult for parents to help their children set goals for improving their performances. More importantly, students will only receive two formal report cards each year. As a result, parents will get only one opportunity to review a formal report card and help their children before year-end.

On its website, the Calgary Board of Education notes that, “Alberta is shifting toward a new vision for education based on the information gathered through Inspiring Education.” Like many other school divisions in the province, the CBE is still redesigning assessment and reporting practices to reflect this old policy direction. In other words, the CBE still acts as if there has not been a new mandate.

The CBE’s commitment to fuzzy assessment policies goes even further. Its recommended reading list for parents includes, among other things, an article by Alfie Kohn, who says that schools should not give students any grades at all, and an article by Thomas Guskey, who says there are good reasons for no-zero policies.

Obviously, the CBE would not recommend these articles to parents and teachers if they did not reflect the direction the board wishes to take its schools. All parents should be concerned about this direction and they should let the new premier and minister of education know what they think.

Despite initial positive signs, Premier Jim Prentice and Education Minister Gordon Dirks have yet to make meaningful changes to the misguided Inspiring Education initiative. Until they do, Alberta Education bureaucrats and school board officials will continue dismantling this province’s once top-performing education system. This does not bode well for students or their parents.

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.

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.

CBE’s new report cards are a lesson in failure

June 15, 2013

Published in the Calgary Herald

It is soon going to get a lot more difficult for Calgary parents to figure out how their kids are doing in school. Instead of standard letter or percentage grades, parents can look forward to finding out whether their kids are in the “exemplary,” “evident,” “emerging,” or “support required” categories.

As a part of a new pilot project in a number of its schools, the Calgary Board of Education is bringing in new report cards. Not only will there be no letter or percentage grades, teachers will no longer provide written comments. In addition, report cards will be sent home only two times each year instead of three or four times. Eventually, the board intends to implement the new report cards for all kindergarten to Grade 9 students.

Advocates of this new approach claim it will improve communication with parents. However, only someone immersed in edu-babble could seriously believe that replacing well-known and understood letter grades and percentage with vague descriptors makes it easier for parents to understand how their kids are doing. For most parents, the difference between traditional grades such as a B and a D is a lot more obvious than the difference between “evident” and “emerging.”

Unfortunately, parents had better work at deciphering the “evident” and “emerging” descriptors since they are likely to appear most frequently on report cards. This is because “exemplary” means a student is performing well above grade level, which usually includes only a small percentage of students in any class. After all, if most students in a grade consistently perform above grade level, then the skills being evaluated would likely be moved to a different grade level.

As for the “support required” descriptor, this is a new code word for failure. However, since we all know that failure is almost impossible at the elementary levels, it is reasonable to assume parents will rarely see “support required” on report cards. Consequently, it may lead to some interesting conversations at home when parents try to encourage their kids to try to be more “evident” in their two-digit multiplication skills.

To make matters even more confusing, the new report cards will not contain any personalized comments from teachers. While the school board says these comments are unnecessary because teachers will communicate more regularly with parents, the fact remains that written comments on the report card are a prime opportunity for teachers to provide important information to parents — particularly those with younger children. The removal of personalized comments from report cards may lighten the workload of teachers, but it won’t benefit students or parents.

Advocates of these kinds of reporting systems frequently claim they have research evidence on their side. This claim is patently false. There is no body of research showing that the removal of percentage or letter grades in public schools leads to improved student achievement. While it is true that some students and parents prefer nebulous or non-existent grades, it is equally true that many students and parents prefer a rigorous grading system that enables them to track their academic progress.

What research does show is that timely and understandable feedback from teachers to students and their parents is extremely important. In his seminal 2009 book, Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement, education professor John Hattie classifies feedback as “among the most powerful influences on achievement.” While traditional letter and percentage grades are far from perfect, they are a long-standing and important form of feedback to students and their parents. The traditional grades should not be abandoned without very good reasons, and so far, the reasons are not evident.

In a letter that recently appeared on the Calgary Board of Education’s website, chief superintendent Naomi Johnson expressed her wish “for additional communication between teachers and parents . . . ” She added that, “The goal of this work is more frequent communication overall.” If increased communication between parents and teachers actually is the goal, it is odd that report cards will go home only twice per year. Fewer report cards usually means less information is being provided to both students and parents.

If Johnson wishes to improve communication with parents, she can begin by listening to the concerns already being expressed about the new reporting system. There is no need to completely remove traditional grades or personalized comments from report cards.

Calgary Board of Education’s report cards deserve a grade of F, or “support required” in their new grading scheme.


Percentages belong on report cards

April 24, 2013

Published in the Vancouver Province

Suppose you have two grade 8 students in the same science class. We’ll call them Ken and Damian. Ken received a mark of 85 per cent on his report card while Damian got 96 per cent. Who did better in science?

For most people, this question is easy to answer. While both students did well, Damian’s higher mark indicates that he outperformed Ken. Damian probably received slightly better marks on his tests, submitted higher quality assignments, and demonstrated a superior understanding of the subject matter. In other words, there is a real and measurable difference between a good student like Ken and an excellent student like Damian.

However, some school division officials apparently think Ken and Damian deserve the same mark. As a case in point, Battle River School Division, based in Camrose, Alberta, requires its teachers to grade student work at one of four levels – beginning, developing, achieving, or excelling. Since the “excelling” level includes a range of 84 to 100, both Ken and Damian would receive the same mark under this system.

Unsurprisingly, the new grading system is not going over well with parents or students in Battle River. A recent rally at the school division’s office attracted more than 150 students and parents while about 2,800 parents and 300 students have signed a petition opposing the new grading system. Despite the opposition, the school division has given no indication that it plans to change course.

The philosophy underpinning the new approach is known as outcomes-based assessment. Essentially, it states that students should be evaluated based on how well they master specific learning targets known as outcomes. For example, an outcome for a grade 5 math course might be “use two digit multiplication to solve real-life math problems.” The teacher would then give a mark based on how well students learned that particular outcome.

So far there is nothing particularly objectionable about this approach. After all, it makes sense to specify what skills students need to master in each subject. It also is reasonable for teachers to use a four-point scale to evaluate some types of student work based on these learning outcomes. Problems arise when school administrators toss aside common sense and impose rigid assessment policies that lead to unnecessary conflicts with parents and students. Sometimes policies that sound good in theory do not translate well into the real classroom setting.

The no-zero policy at Ross Sheppard High School in Edmonton that led to the firing if physics teacher Lynden Dorval is a case in point. Ross Sheppard’s then-principal followed outcomes-based assessment to the letter when he instructed teachers not to give zeros for missing work. This was based on the conviction that all grades must only reflect achievement of learning-outcomes. Of course, Ross Sheppard teachers found out very quickly that many students do not submit their work on time if there is no academic penalty for lateness. No-zero policies may sound good to ivory tower academics but they don’t work in real classrooms.

The removal of percentage grades from report cards is another example of this disconnect between assessment theory and classroom reality. While it may make sense to grade some assignments on a four-point scale, there is no need TO extend this to every assignment. Some assignments are more complex than others and have many possible proficiency levels. Percentage grades make it possible to differentiate between good work and excellent work in a way that simply cannot be done when teachers are limited to four achievement levels.

In addition, most students still write unit tests where even more levels of proficiency are possible. A student who answers all 50 math questions correctly on a test should receive a higher grade than another student who answered 44 questions correctly. Conversely, it is much worse to get only three questions correct than to answer 24 questions correctly. And yet, both these students would receive the same “beginning” grade under the Battle River system.

It is also important to recognize that percentage grades are a form of communication that virtually all parents understand. Even if strict adherence to the principles of outcomes-based assessment was technically correct, school divisions need to weigh this against the need to work together with parents and provide them with understandable information about student achievement. Administrators who wish to overhaul grading practices need to ask themselves whether the change they seek is so important that it necessitates alienating a large number of parents and students.

In this latest clash between theory and reality in public education, let’s hope reality wins for a change. Percentages belong in classrooms and on report cards.

NDP secrecy on schools insulting

Originally published by the Winnipeg Free Press, March 24, 2011. Original Link

For many years, Manitoba has earned a reputation as a middle-of-the-road province with an adversity to extremes.

In one area of provincial policy, however, Manitoba boldly stands alone. It is the only province that stubbornly refuses to make information about student academic performance available to the general public.

The Atlantic Institute for Market Studies and the Frontier Centre for Public Policy recently released a report on public schools in Manitoba and Saskatchewan. In order to compile this report, these think-tanks needed information such as school graduation rates, attendance records and student performance on standards tests.

Whereas Saskatchewan willingly released most of the requested information, Manitoba Education and Literacy refused to co-operate.

As a result, the report contains virtually no useful information about Manitoba high schools. The NDP government’s emphasis on keeping student performance data secret put us offside with Saskatchewan and sets us apart from the practice of every other province in Canada.

Information that is routinely available in other parts of the country remains locked away in Manitoba. Education Minister Nancy Allan made a number of media appearances in an attempt to justify her government’s stance against accountability. During a recent CBC radio interview, Allan offered up her usual talking points.

In her initial argument, Allan pointed out that the province released a report called A Profile of Student Learning and Performance in Manitoba on its website. The report is limited to providing only student data on a provincewide basis. This makes it useful only to people naive enough to believe that all schools in Manitoba are exactly the same.

When challenged on this point, Allan argued there was no benefit to breaking down the information any further. According to Allan, if that kind of data were available to the public then it might be misused by think-tanks who wish to rank schools on the basis of performance.

With all due respect to Minister Allan, that is an absurd reason to keep information away from the public. Using this logic, the province should also prevent regional health authorities from releasing any regional health care data just in case some think-tank decides to “misuse” the information and ranks hospitals on the basis of performance. If everything is the same across the province, perhaps the government should also mandate that MPI stop charging different insurance rates to drivers based on where they live and instead average everything out on a provincewide basis.

This paternalistic approach to information by the NDP government is insulting to the public. We don’t need Minister Allan or anyone else from the government telling us that these data are being kept away from us for our own good.

In addition, there is good reason for concern about student academic achievement in Manitoba. Last year, the Programme for International Student Assessment found that Manitoba now comes in second-last among Canadian provinces in reading and mathematics. In fact, this assessment shows that provincewide academic results have steadily declined since the NDP took power in 1999. The government probably thinks it has good reason to keep academic data away from Manitobans — particularly during an election year.

It was ironic that during the same radio interview Allan pointed to the strong PISA results from Finland as proof that we don’t need standards tests in this province. Finland, she noted, does not have a lot of standards tests and yet still does very well on international comparisons of student achievement.

Aside from the obvious irony of using results from a standards test to prove we don’t need standards testing, there are other reasons to be cautious about comparisons with Finland. The population in Finland is considerably more homogenous than in Canada and schooling is only compulsory until the end of Grade 9. Local schools also have considerably more autonomy than they do in Manitoba.

Unless the NDP is considering implementing these examples from the Finnish model, it might be wise for Allan to avoid simplistic comparisons with other countries.

In the meantime, Manitoba needs to follow the example of other provinces and make academic achievement data available to the public. People have a right to know how their schools are doing.