Education fads do our kids no favours

March 18, 2016

Published in the Chronicle Herald (Halifax)

Student achievement is declining in Nova Scotia. The 2014-15 accountability report from the Department of Education makes that abundantly clear.

Barely half of Grade 8 students are meeting expectations in math while the writing skills of Grades 3 and 6 students declined by nearly 20 points in the last two years. Nova Scotia students also score below the Canadian average on national and international assessments.

Surprisingly, Education Minister Karen Casey is doubling down on cosmetic reforms. As a case in point, the minister plans to bring in provincial teaching standards, in partnership with the Nova Scotia Teachers Union.

But these standards are unlikely to do anything other than create more paperwork for teachers and administrators. They represent process over substance.

Because of the union’s involvement in creating the standards, it is certain that ironclad teacher tenure provisions will remain in place. There is no way the union is going to agree to anything that could potentially make it easier for school boards to fire ineffective teachers.

Instead, teachers will likely spend more time filling out questionnaires, creating useless portfolios, and implementing the latest meaningless education fads. They may even get more coaching in how to write edu-babble on report cards or take professional development sessions featuring assessment gurus who promote no-zero policies or other useless fads. One thing Casey’s new teaching standards will not do is improve student achievement.

Teachers don’t need provincial guidelines for writing report card comments. Nor do they need to waste their time learning how to use the latest technological gadgets in their classrooms.

They also don’t need onerous assessment rules that make it nearly impossible to hold students accountable for late or incomplete work.

Unfortunately, the union has been complicit in the promotion of such useless fads. Twice in the last two years, the union brought in American education speaker Alfie Kohn to indoctrinate elementary teachers in the latest progressive education fads.

Some of Kohn’s more radical ideas include the abolition of all grades for students, the removal of virtually all direct instruction and prohibiting teachers from praising students when they do something good or correcting them when they get an answer wrong.

These harebrained ideas are not what Nova Scotia teachers need to hear at their professional development sessions.

If we really want to improve student achievement, the people who run our education system need to cut out the edu-babble and focus on what actually works.

Mike Schmoker, a former teacher and administrator, makes this abundantly clear in Focus: Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning (2011).

In Schmoker’s view, schools should focus on three simple things: a reasonably coherent curriculum, sound lessons and purposeful reading and writing in every discipline. Get these three things right and student learning will improve. It’s that simple.

When it comes to classroom instruction, the last thing students need is more flashy hands-on activities and “project-based learning.”

Innovation is no guarantee of student learning. In fact, lessons can be quite effective with a minimal amount of technology so long as the teacher sets specific learning objectives, provides direct instruction focused on those objectives and regularly checks for student understanding.

A big part of the problem is that school boards, education departments and teachers’ unions keep bringing in professional development consultants who promote the same failed education fads.

From Alfie Kohn’s anti-grading ideology to Marian Small’s fuzzy math to Ken O’Connor’s no-zeros approach to assessment, teachers are bombarded with a host of bad ideas.

No wonder student achievement is suffering.

Instead, teachers deserve to know that research supports traditional methods such as direct instruction and that there is nothing wrong with standing in front of the classroom and showing the whole class the correct way to solve a problem.

Similarly, there are good reasons to make students memorize basic facts and practice basic skills until they become automatic. Content knowledge is far from outdated in the 21st century.

Karen Casey may think that imposing a new set of teaching standards on teachers is going to improve student achievement. However, these standards will only be useful if they promote what actually works in the classroom.

Meaningless education fads have got to go.

No-zero policies just as misguided as ever

January 14, 2015

Published in The Telegram (St. John’s, NL)

Never underestimate the staying power of a bad idea, especially in education. The no-zero policy in Newfoundland and Labrador schools is a prime example.

It’s been almost four years since the former Eastern School District officially implemented a no-zero policy. Teachers were no longer permitted to give zeros when work never came in, deduct marks for late assignments, or penalize students caught cheating on tests or assignments.

Despite widespread criticism from parents and teachers, school district administrators held firm to this bad idea. The neighbouring Western School District quickly followed with its own no-zero policy. Now, with the recent amalgamation of all English language school districts into a single province-wide school board, a de facto no-zero policy appears to be in effect across the province.

The philosophy underlying no-zero policies is quite simple. Proponents believe teachers should always separate behaviour from achievement when grading students. Since cheating on tests, handing in late work, and refusing to submit assignments are all examples of behaviour, they should not affect students’ academic grades. Instead, they argue, teachers should correct poor behavior in other ways.

Like many other education fads, this one sounds great in theory but quickly falls apart when implemented with real high school students. Once students find out about their school’s no-zero policy, it doesn’t take them long to conclude that assignment due dates have become mere suggestions. Without the ability to seriously penalize tardiness, teachers end up pleading with students to hand their assignments in.

No-zero policies became popular because they have been promoted by assessment consultants who lead professional development workshops. Ontario-based assessment consultants Ken O’Connor and Damian Cooper are two of the best-known advocates of no-zero policies. It should come as little surprise that both men spoke at education workshops in Atlantic Canada shortly before Eastern School District’s no-zero policy was formally adopted.

No-zero policies have also appeared in other provinces. In 2012, Edmonton physics teacher Lynden Dorval was fired by his school board for disobeying his principal’s no-zeros edict. Dorval went public with his concerns and steadfastly refused to budge from his position that the no-zero policy was a very bad idea.

Things did not go well for no-zero supporters. Not only did Dorval receive overwhelming public support for his stand, the Alberta Board of Reference recently ruled that his termination was unjust. In other words, Dorval had the professional right to challenge his school’s misguided policy.

Shortly after Dorval’s case became public, I analyzed the arguments used to support no-zero policies. The case for no-zero policies turned out to be very weak.

For example, Ken O’Connor regularly argues that zeros cause students to withdraw from learning and, to back up this claim, cites an article written by Thomas Guskey, an American education professor. When I looked up Guskey’s article, I found that he uses only one research study to support this argument — a 1992 article in the British Columbia Journal of Special Education by Deborah Selby and Sharon Murphy.

In their article, Selby and Murphy describe the experiences of six learning-disabled students in a mainstreamed classroom.

These students had negative experiences with letter grades and blamed themselves for their poor marks. While this might be true for the students in this study, it is patently absurd to generalize the experiences of six learning-disabled students to the whole student population.

Clearly, parents are right to be skeptical when assessment gurus claim that “decades of educational research” support no-zero policies.

It should come as little surprise that regular classroom teachers are some of the strongest opponents of no-zero policies. They know what it is like to work with real students, and they are not beholden to theories concocted by ivory tower academics.

Fortunately, there is a way for the English school board to extract itself from the no-zero quagmire. It should simply allow teachers to use their professional discretion when dealing with late or incomplete assignments. Sometimes students deserve an extension and sometimes they don’t. Since teachers are trained professionals, they are capable of making these decisions themselves.

No-zero policies are just as misguided now as they were four years ago. It’s time to end this province’s failed experiment with them.

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.

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.

There’s zero support for schools’ no-zero policies

Originally published by the Calgary Herald, August 28, 2012 Original Link

High School physics teacher Lynden Dorval probably never expected to become a celebrity. But with his decision to defy his principal’s no-zeros edict, he ignited a nation-wide debate about grading practices in schools. Under no-zero grading policies, teachers are forbidden from assigning grades of zero to students for assignments they do not submit.

Public response on this issue has been overwhelmingly on Mr. Dorval’s side. Students rallied to his defense, teachers spoke out in support of his position, and newspaper pages were filled with letters attacking the no-zero policy. Even an online poll conducted by the Edmonton Journal reported that more than 97 per cent of the 12,486 respondents opposed the no-zero policy.

Largely in response to public pressure, Edmonton Public School Board trustees voted at their June meeting to conduct an extensive review of their assessment practices. The review is scheduled to commence in September.

Hopefully trustees take the time to carefully review the research evidence on no-zero policies. If they do, they’ll find that the evidence does not support the overblown claims made by no-zero supporters.

One of the best-known no-zero advocates is Ken O’Connor, an assessment consultant in Ontario. In his book How to Grade for Learning, O’Connor claims that zeros cause students to withdraw from learning. However, the only source he cites to back up this claim is an article in the NASSP Bulletin by Thomas Guskey, an education professor at the University of Kentucky.

Guskey does make the statement attributed to him by O’Connor but cites only one research study to support this claim – a 1992 article in the British Columbia Journal of Special Education by Deborah Selby and Sharon Murphy. In it, Selby and Murphy describe the experiences of six learning-disabled students in mainstream classrooms. These six students had negative experiences with letter grades and blamed themselves for their poor marks.

It should be obvious that it is absurd to generalize the experiences of six learning-disabled students to the rest of the student population. And yet this article is regularly cited by Guskey when he makes the claim that grades of zero have a negative impact on students. Even a more recent article by Guskey that appeared in the November 2011 edition of Educational Leadership contains the same claim, with Selby and Murphy’s article again providing the only research support.

Clearly, the claim that research evidence strongly supports no-zero policies is flawed. No-zero proponents cannot hide behind the research argument since the evidence for their position is quite weak.

In addition, there are many reasons why school administrators should avoid no-zero policies. One is that they inevitably bring controversy with them, something acknowledged by even their strongest proponents. If a school chooses to use a no-zero policy, it can expect that controversy will likely overshadow other more important initiatives. School administrators need to ask themselves whether a no-zero policy is worth the opposition they are certain to face.

No-zero policies also unreasonably interfere with the professional discretion of teachers to determine grades. Teachers know their students and realize that it is unrealistic to expect the same strategies to work with every student. All a no-zero policy does is take away one of the consequences teachers can use for students who fail to submit their work.

Students who submit their work on time could actually end up receiving worse grades than those who submit only some assignments. Since no-zero policies prohibit teachers from giving a zero for incomplete work, a student who hands in an assignment and receives a mark of 30 per cent would actually have been better off not to submit it. In fact, students will figure out that it is in their best interest to pick and choose the assignments they submit.

Finally, no-zero policies fail to prepare students for life after high school. Employees don’t get paid for doing nothing and universities don’t grant credit to students who choose not to hand in their assignments. A pilot who never flies a plane, an electrician who never wires a house, and a journalist who never hands in a story can all expect to get paid nothing. Employers aren’t going to accommodate employees who can’t be bothered to submit their work. Teachers need to prepare their students for this reality.

Let’s hope trustees in Edmonton and elsewhere across Canada recognize the folly of no-zero policies and stay away from them.

Sometimes students deserve to get a zero

Originally published by the Calgary Herald, June 10, 2012 Original Link

How much should a pilot get paid if she never flies a plane? How about a doctor who never treats a patient? Or a car salesman who fails to sell a single car?

If you answered zero, you live in the real world.

Employees don’t get paid for doing nothing. It’s common sense.

However, many schools seem to have a different perspective. For example, many school administrators have introduced a grading-for-learning approach, part of which prohibits teachers from giving a mark of zero to students with incomplete assignments. Instead of a zero, teachers must assess students only on the work they actually submit.

In other words, students who don’t hand in many assignments can still pass their courses if they do well on the few assignments they do submit.

Lynden Dorval teaches high school physics at Edmonton’s Ross Sheppard High School. With 35 years of experience, he recently refused to comply with the absurd grading policy that prohibited teachers from assigning zeros for incomplete work. He went on giving zeros despite several warnings from his principal. Eventually, he was suspended and could very well lose his job.

From a legalistic perspective, the school board has every right to discipline Dorval. According to Alberta’s School Act, school boards may suspend teachers who fail to follow a lawful directive from the board. While the assessment policy in question may be misguided, teachers are required to follow lawful directives from their employer.

Schools could not function if teachers disregarded any policy they disagreed with.

That being said, most people recognize there is something intuitively wrong with an assessment policy that prohibits teachers from assigning zeros for work that has not been done. The fact that many of Dorval’s colleagues and students are rallying behind him should also be a clear sign that something is seriously amiss. The superintendent and principal are defending a policy that may be lawful, but which most members of the public consider illegitimate and indefensible.

On June 1, Edmonton superintendent Edgar Schmidt published an open letter to defend the indefensible. In that letter, he defends the current policy of not giving zeros and tries to present it as a superior way of holding students accountable.

“Our approach to missed assignments is to work with each student to find out the reason they did not turn in an assignment. Once a teacher finds out the reason, they work with the student to come up with a solution to address the situation. They agree to a plan to turn in future assignments and the teacher holds the student accountable,” Schmidt said.

The explanation fails to address the fact that some high school students simply choose not to do their work. Dorval didn’t automatically assign zeros to students the moment an assignment didn’t come in. Rather, he worked with students and reminded them regularly of the importance of submitting their work. When that fails, however, there needs to be a tangible consequence for those students who choose not to submit assignments. The new assessment policy naively ignores the realities of human nature.

Ross Sheppard High in Edmonton is by no means the first to experiment with this failed approach. In fact, Manitoba and Ontario had provincial assessment policies that prohibited or strongly discouraged teachers from deducting marks from late assignments or assigning a mark of zero for incomplete work. However, strong opposition from the public in both instances led the governments to retreat from this policy.

It never had to be this way. Many aspects of the socalled grading-for-learning approach are positive and would likely have broad-based public support. For example, grading-for-learning encourages teachers to drop the common practice of basing individual student assessment on group assignments. It also makes a clearer distinction between assignments given for the purpose of preliminary feedback (formative assessment) and final marks (summative assessment). These are sensible reforms, but they have been overshadowed by the no-zeros policy.

School administrators have a choice. They can focus on common sense assessment reforms that would have broad-based public support, or they can stand behind a foolish no-zeros policy supported by a handful of education consultants.

Let’s hope common sense prevails. Teachers should be able to give zeros to students who choose not to submit their assignments.

Michael Zwaagstra is a research fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy and a public high school teacher. He is co-author of the book, What’s Wrong With Our Schools and How We Can Fix Them.