Content should be king in schools

April 2, 2013

Published in the Vancouver Sun.

Suppose you join a discussion about something you know nothing about. How much weight will your opinion receive? Probably not much.

Even if you follow proper conversation strategies such as remaining on topic and keeping your comments respectful, your input will not be valued when you are completely ignorant about the subject at hand. Most people recognize that content knowledge is essential in most discussions.

Knowledge is also important in areas such as reading. If you read a newspaper or magazine article about hockey, you are likely to understand it if you are familiar with the rules of hockey. In contrast, someone who knows nothing about hockey will probably not benefit much from reading about last night’s game. If you need to Google basic hockey terms such as offside, icing, or penalty box, your background knowledge of hockey is likely insufficient to understand the article properly.

The importance of content is strongly supported by experts such as cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham. He regularly conducts research on the role of consciousness in learning and found that background knowledge makes it easier for us to learn as it frees up space in our working memory for tackling new concepts.

Given the importance of broad-based factual knowledge, it is imperative that schools ensure students become knowledgeable citizens. However, this is unlikely to happen when some of the best-known thinkers in education regularly downplay the importance of knowledge and focus instead on the so-called process of learning.

For example, Alfie Kohn is a well-known author and speaker who opposes any attempt to make content the focus of the curriculum, which he derides as the “bunch o’ facts” approach to education. His books are widely influential among teachers and he is regularly invited to speak at teacher professional development sessions. Last month, for example, he presented his ideas to educators in Red Deer, Alberta at an event sponsored by the Alberta Teachers’ Association.

The romantic progressive ideology Kohn promotes is widely taught in the education faculties that train teachers. It should come as little surprise that romantic progressive ideology influences the standards contained in provincial curriculum guides. As a case in point, English Language Arts (ELA) curriculum guides have lots of edu-babble in them but not much content.

Their extensive length and verbosity notwithstanding, most ELA curriculum guides are little more than empty shells. While these guides encourage students to “enhance the clarity and artistry of communication” and “celebrate and build community,” most do not prescribe any specific books or authors for all students to read. As a result, schools miss out on the opportunity to ensure all students share some common background knowledge.

Fortunately, some educators are pushing back against this worrisome trend. In his book, Focus: Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning, former school administrator Mike Schmoker skewers ELA curriculum guides for their “bloated, confusing, (and) poorly written” standards. He concludes that “Language arts, more than any other discipline, has lost its way.” He proposes the removal of meaningless verbiage from ELA curriculum guides. In its place, curriculum guides should list the titles of books and articles each student must read, specify the number and length of papers required from each student, and identify the evaluation criteria for student work.

It does not mean teachers should lose all teaching discretion. In fact, Schmoker and other advocates of core-knowledge, such as E. D. Hirsch, suggest that only about half of the reading materials and assignments need be prescribed by the curriculum. Teachers would select the other half. This approach appropriately balances teacher professional autonomy with the need to uphold a consistent standard for all students.

Schmoker offers a similar critique of curriculum guides in science and social studies. He notes that the excessive use of hands-on experiments in science means students spend too little time reading and thinking about important scientific concepts. As for social studies, Schmoker contends curriculum guides in that subject are often filled with meaningless verbiage that obscures important historical content. This is unacceptable.

The best way to prepare students for the 21st century is to make sure they are immersed in a content-rich curriculum that provides them with the background knowledge they need. This will only happen if we move away from the failed romantic progressive ideology and adopt an approach that restores content to its rightful place.

When it comes to 21st century education, content should be king.

Saskatchewan students will benefit from more tests

March 3, 2013

Published in the Winnipeg Free Press.

Saskatchewan students should get ready to write a lot more tests. By 2016, all students in grades 4 to 12 will write yearly standardized tests in reading, writing, math, and science. This is good news for public education and, if implemented properly, should lead to improved academic achievement for Saskatchewan students.

While the province currently administers some standardized tests to Saskatchewan students, it does so only every other year. In addition, students write each test in only two or three grades. So while the current testing system provides a sample of student achievement, it is too limited in scope to have much of an impact.

A more comprehensive approach to standardized testing will benefit students in a number of ways. One is that these tests will provide the provincial government with a more accurate understanding of academic achievement throughout the province. With this information, the province will be able to target additional support and intervention to schools with low results and also learn from schools that get better results.

As for the concern that schools in rich neighbourhoods will automatically outperform schools in poor neighbourhoods, yearly standardized testing can do far more than simply provide raw scores. Rather, the province will be able to track improvement from year to year. So a school in a poor neighbourhood that shows consistent achievement gains would actually be considered more successful than a school in a rich neighbourhood that remains stagnant. This type of measurement can only be done if the tests are carried out on an annual basis in all grades, as the government has proposed.

Another benefit is that standardized tests help teachers focus their instruction on the mandated curriculum. Knowing that their students will be tested on the curriculum provides teachers with a strong incentive to cover the key concepts thoroughly. Without standardized tests in place, it is almost impossible to be sure if teachers have actually taught the complete curriculum.

Opposition to the standardized testing announcement came from predictable sources. In an interview with 650 CKOM, Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation President Colin Keess said that additional standardized tests will not help teachers identify the strengths and weaknesses of their students. According to Keess, this is because “standardized assessments are not as useful for informing the daily practices of the teachers.” This is a common sentiment among teachers’ unions across the country.

However, this objection reflects a misunderstanding of the purpose for regularly-administered standardized tests. Nothing in the government’s announcement states that standardized testing is expected to take the place of the professional judgment of teachers in their classrooms. Rather, such testing helps provide a more complete picture of student achievement across the province.

In fact, both teacher-created assessment and standardized testing are essential for a balanced approach to student assessment. Teacher-created assessment ensures teachers can take individual student needs into account when designing and evaluating assignments and tests. Standardized testing introduces systematic balance with an objective measurement tool that makes it possible to determine whether provincial curriculum standards have been met.

Another objection was raised by Patrick Lewis, an associate professor in the University of Regina’s education faculty. According to the Regina Leader Post, Lewis argued that standardized testing provides only a snapshot of student performance and not a complete picture of overall achievement. He also expressed concern that teachers would simply teach to the test.

However, this concern can be addressed by making sure the tests are properly correlated with the provincial curriculum. It makes sense to ensure the tests are broad in scope and go beyond an assessment of basic skills. One way to do this is to have the tests also measure content knowledge in the various subject areas. This should reduce the temptation for schools to sacrifice important subjects such as science and social studies when preparing for these tests.

As part of the announcement, Education Minister Russ Marchuk explained that 13 teachers from across the province will be responsible for designing these tests. While it makes sense to give local teachers significant input into the design of these tests, hopefully Marchuk also plans to include measurement experts in the design process. For example, Alberta has the most advanced standardized testing system in the country and officials in its education department could give valuable input about the proper design of these tests.

If designed and implemented properly, standardized testing should result in a better education for the students of Saskatchewan.