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.

Standardized testing is needed now

December 5, 2013

Published in the Winnipeg Free Press.

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a series of skills-based tests written by students from 65 OECD countries, has been published. The results aren’t good for Manitoba.

Compared with other provinces, our students rank near the bottom in mathematics, reading and science. To make matters worse, Manitoba’s decline continued a trend that began more than a decade ago.

In what looked like an obvious attempt at deflection, the Department of Education sent out a flurry of press releases trumpeting some of its education initiatives on the same day the PISA data were released.

Smaller class sizes, back-to-basics math instruction and new report cards all feature prominently.

Clearly, the government wants parents and taxpayers to believe that everything is under control in the public schools. Don’t worry about the declining performance of our students, look at all the good things that are happening.

Now some of these initiatives do have promise. Most notably, recent changes to the K-8 math curriculum requiring students to memorize math facts and use the standard algorithms for addition, subtraction, multiplication and division will, no doubt, improve the math skills of our students.

The research literature, however, is inconclusive on whether class-size caps and new report cards will make much difference in student academic achievement.

Instead of engaging in a snow job, the Department of Education should answer one fundamental question: How will it evaluate the effectiveness of these and other education initiatives?

Commonly used criteria such as high school graduation rates, attendance rates and student attitude surveys don’t really tell parents and taxpayers much about academic achievement.

Since the PISA tests are conducted only once every three years, we won’t get the next report until 2016. If we remain with the status quo, Manitoba will continue being at the bottom.

There is a better option. Manitoba could follow the lead of every other Canadian province and bring back standardized testing.

Under the previous government, Manitoba students wrote standardized tests in grades 3, 6, 9 and 12.

Since the NDP came into power in 1999, these tests have been systematically eliminated, with the exception of the Grade 12 tests.

Interestingly, the elimination of standardized testing closely coincides with the steady decline in students’ academic achievement on the PISA tests.

Annual standardized tests at a few grade levels would make it possible to measure the effectiveness of new education initiatives. Instead of waiting three years until the next PISA test, the department should create its own tests that are based on the provincial curriculum.

With information obtained from properly designed standardized tests, the government could react more quickly when problems are identified. Provincial tests could also identify areas of excellence.

One of the most common arguments against using standardized testing is that those countries that have them, such as the United States, have worse PISA results.

There are two major problems with this argument. First, the standardized tests used in Canadian provinces bear almost no resemblance to the American tests. The narrowly defined, high-stakes exams used in many American states are much different than the balanced, curriculum-based tests used in higher-performing provinces such as Alberta.

Second, most of the top-performing countries on PISA (such as Singapore, Japan and South Korea) have standardized testing in place. Overall, the results show well-designed standardized tests can benefit student academic performance.

Without standardized tests to keep schools focused on the fundamentals, schools often drift away from an academic focus.

From school division amalgamations to extra physical education credits to social justice initiatives, the Department of Education has, over the last decade, focused on everything except improving the academic achievement of our students. Receiving a wake-up call every three years from the PISA results isn’t enough to make the department change course.

In order to move up from the bottom of the pack, schools need a sharper focus on the academic basics.

This will only happen if parents and taxpayers force the department to measure academic results with standardized tests.

Without this accountability, our province will continue to drift aimlessly until the next PISA results arrive in three years.

Then it will be too late for the students who are in high school now.

More grammar and less edu-babble please

November 28, 2013

A group of graduate students recently staged a sit-in during Professor Val Rust’s course at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). They did this to protest an allegedly “toxic” racial climate in the Graduate School of Education & Information Studies.

What terrible thing happened in Rust’s class that precipitated this drastic behavior? Did he belittle minority students with racist epithets or openly defend white superiority? No, he didn’t.

According to UCLA’s newspaper, the Daily Bruin, some students didn’t like the spelling and grammar corrections Rust made on their dissertation proposals. During their demonstration, these students described Rust’s corrections as “micro-aggression.”

However, in a letter sent to his colleagues, Rust explained his side of the story.  “I have attempted to be rather thorough on the papers and am particularly concerned that they do a good job with their bibliographies and citations, and these students apparently don’t feel that is appropriate,” wrote Rust.

That explanation sounds reasonable to most people outside of education schools. All university students, regardless of their racial background, need to use proper spelling and grammar. This is particularly true in graduate school where students are pursuing masters and doctoral degrees. A student who cannot write properly is unlikely to experience much success in the academic world. One might think graduate education students, most of whom have been teachers, would understand this requirement better than any other students.

However, it is no accident that this protest happened in an education school. Education schools have long been obsessed with issues of race and culture to the detriment of the academic basics. I experienced this personally during an education graduate course I recently completed. Throughout the course, the professor and students made repeated references to “white privilege” and frequently bashed Western civilization for being racist and sexist.

During one of our discussions, the professor even suggested that there is too much focus on reading and writing in public schools. In her opinion, reading and writing was only one form of literacy and other forms deserve equal attention. Many students backed up the professor’s position. One of them went so far as to argue that the excessive focus on print-based literacy is an unfortunate example of the so-called neo-liberal agenda.

Education professors at other universities have long expressed similar points of view. Two years ago, The Globe and Mail published a letter from Heather Lotherington, an education professor at York University in Toronto, arguing that “grammatical knowledge and mastery of spelling and punctuation” are the “literacies of a half century ago.” But she didn’t stop there.

“Literacy now requires mastery over digital tools for collaborative, dynamic, multimodal communication. Continuing to test children’s formal spelling using handwriting is a speck on the team-oriented strategizing and programming abilities they will need to succeed,” wrote Lotherington

For those who don’t speak edu-babble, here’s the rough translation: “Students don’t need to learn how to spell because their computers have spell check.”

Fortunately, some teachers are pushing back against this nonsense. Last year, Jim McMurtry, a high school English teacher in Surrey, BC, wrote an op-ed that appeared in the newsmagazine of the BC Teachers’ Federation. In it, McMurtry bemoaned the removal of grammar from the provincial English curriculum. He noted that it was possible for students to “score a 100% on the English 12 exam with grammatical and spelling errors in their writing.”

McMurtry also correctly points out that it is unrealistic to expect students to use proper grammar in their writing if they never learn the components of sentences or the proper use of punctuation marks. Each of these things needs to be directly taught, but most English curriculum guides pay only minimal, if any, attention to grammar and punctuation. As a result, students may never learn basic grammar skills.

The root of the problem is that education schools, and the professors who teach in them, have long been obsessed with things like social justice and racial perspective and not basic knowledge and skills. Education schools have lost sight of what actually matters in the real world.

It doesn’t help when political leaders parrot the same edu-babble. Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne’s recent comment to the Toronto Star that schools should focus less on numeracy and literacy and more on “higher-order skills like creativity, collaboration, community and critical thinking” is a case in point.

In reality, students would benefit from less edu-babble and more spelling and grammar in our schools. Contrary to what many education professors argue, basic knowledge and skills aren’t obsolete.