Everything is changing — except education fads

March 7, 2014

Published in the Calgary Herald.

“Everything is changing.” So states the two-minute promotional video on the Alberta government’s Inspiring Education website. It describes the need to “prepare Alberta’s students for this unknown and unknowable future” and notes that “we cannot predict what work will look like in ten years, let alone what skills will be required.”

In other words, the Alberta government now wants to prepare students for an “unknowable” future. Because traditional learning no longer meets this goal, the narrator cheerfully concludes, “We’re changing everything.”

Confused? You should be. The government plans to scrap the top-performing education system in the country and replace it with a system that helps students develop unknown skills for jobs that don’t yet exist in some unknowable future. Only in education is such claptrap accepted as sensible policy.

Imagine if another government department featured such a ridiculous video on its website. Would anyone take Inspiring Health seriously if a video proclaims “we’re changing everything” because “we cannot predict what medicine will look like in ten years”? Or how about an Inspiring Justice video that states that the justice system must “prepare Alberta’s criminals for an unknown and unknowable future”?

For some reason, education is the one profession where it is acceptable to regularly throw out proven practices and replace them with new—but unproven–theories that have no evidence to support them.

Remember open area classrooms? In the 1970s, Alberta constructed elementary schools without walls. Classes met in open areas separated by dividers. The theory was that open classes would create exciting new “team teaching” opportunities and create a buzz of learning throughout the school.

In reality, many students couldn’t handle the noise and disruption so governments eventually built classroom walls at great expense. Despite the obvious problems with open area classrooms, this theory still dominated North America for years—and did great damage to the learning of millions of students.

For a profession that allegedly values critical thinking, it is remarkable that such a misguided theory was adopted so uncritically.

Failed education fads are not simply a thing of the past. Right now, Alberta students and their parents are suffering from the discovery math approach. Instead of making students memorize multiplication tables and learn the most efficient algorithms for solving math problems, discovery math encourages students to invent their own strategies and techniques. As a result, parents spend hours at home helping their kids figure out convoluted word problems that don’t make sense. Not surprisingly, the math scores of Alberta students have steadily declined since the formal introduction of discovery math in 2008.

What do Inspiring Education, open area classrooms, and discovery math all have in common? They are manifestations of the same failed educational philosophy—progressivism.

Progressives have a naively optimistic belief in the ability of students to direct their own learning. They dislike teacher-led classrooms and want each teacher to be “a guide on the side rather than a sage on the stage.” They prefer to focus on the process of learning and de-emphasize specific curriculum content.  In their minds, any rote learning is derided as “drill and kill.”

Inspiring Education proposes another version of this failed philosophy. Parents who are frustrated with discovery math can look forward to other subject areas becoming equally confusing. For example, science courses will focus less on learning key scientific facts and theories and more on students discovering things for themselves, while history courses will focus more on social justice activism than on providing students with an accurate understanding of the past.

Equally concerning is the Inspiring Education video’s nonsensical claim that we have no idea what skills will be required in the future. In reality, virtually everyone agrees that students will still need to learn how to read and write, do math, and have a basic understanding of Canadian history and governance. These disciplines and skills will be just as useful twenty years from now as they are today and as they were 100 years ago.

If the Alberta government is determined to stick with its mantra that “everything is changing”, it should change its Inspiring Education campaign into something useful. Building on Alberta’s proven strengths would be a much better strategy than tearing everything down just for the sake of change.

Put students first when hiring substitute teachers

March 3, 2014

Published in The Chronicle Herald (Halifax)

Every spring brings the predictable spate of stories about the shortage of teaching jobs for new teachers. Declining student numbers mean the problem is particularly pronounced in Nova Scotia. As a result, many graduates languish for years on oversubscribed substitute lists.

Then in the fall comes a series of stories about how new teachers aren’t getting enough substitute days. Invariably, the blame is placed on retired teachers who continue to work as substitutes. According to the Nova Scotia Pension Agency, retired teachers can substitute up to 69.5 days in a school year without any reduction to their pensions.

Because of their proven experience, many principals prefer to bring in retired teachers rather than untested new teachers.

This doesn’t sit well with a considerable number of new teachers. They argue that retired teachers have already had their chance to teach and are being selfish by taking positions that could be filled by new teachers. Some school administrators in neighbouring provinces agree with this concern.

For example, the Anglophone East school district in New Brunswick officially excludes retired teachers from its substitute list. During a CBC interview last December, superintendent Gregg Ingersoll defended his district’s policy. “They (retired teachers) have already done their career, whereas these new people, this is their only income,” explained Ingersoll.

On the other side of this issue, retired teachers claim that banning them from substitute lists amounts to age discrimination. This was the argument put forward by Fred Hall, a 67-year-old retired teacher, who recently launched a human rights complaint against the Anglophone East school district. The New Brunswick Human Rights Commission has yet to rule on his case.

Thus, the issue is often presented as a choice between the interests of new teachers versus those of retired teachers. Lost in the shuffle is the one group whose interests should receive the most weight: students.

Substitutes are called in to fill in for regular teachers for reasons ranging from professional development sessions to illness to personal leave days. This means students can expect to see substitute teachers many times throughout a year. When calling in a substitute, the first thing school administrators should consider is the impact on student learning.

For example, a retired math teacher with 30 years of successful teaching experience will often be the right person to step into a high school teacher’s math class. On the other hand, a newly minted teacher who shows initiative and enthusiasm may be the right choice to take over a group of rambunctious Grade 8 students for the day. In all cases, the interests of students must be paramount.

As a result, substitute lists should be open to all qualified teachers, whether retired or not. Substitute teachers who know their subjects and can effectively manage classrooms should be called in as frequently as possible. Ineffective substitutes should be removed from the list entirely. The age of substitute teachers should be irrelevant; their ability to teach the students should be the only criterion.

Furthermore, school districts should avoid policies that unreasonably restrict the ability of administrators to hire the best substitute teachers. Forcing school principals to give an equal number of substitute opportunities to all teachers on an official list may benefit newly minted teachers, but isn’t in the best interests of students. When the regular teacher is absent, students deserve the substitute teacher who best provides a quality learning environment.

As for the plight of newly minted teachers unable to find a job, there is no easy solution to this problem. Education faculties continue to graduate far more teachers than needed in Nova Scotia schools. The ongoing decline in student numbers makes this problem even worse. Until things change, new graduates can expect to enter a difficult job market.

However, we cannot allow our sympathy for these new teachers to override the needs of students. Banning retired teachers from substitute lists may help some new teachers get a few extra days of work each year, but at the cost of depriving schools of many of the best available substitute teachers. This is not an acceptable tradeoff.

When this year’s news cycle brings with it the predictable stories about the plight of new teachers getting too little work, let’s remember whose interests matter the most. Principals should always put students first when hiring substitute teachers.