Provincial achievement tests are still important

September 7, 2017

Published by the Frontier Centre for Public Policy

Every year thousands of Alberta students take driver education classes in hopes of passing the all-important written and practical driving test. These classes are taught through a traditional, teacher-centred approach in which driving instructors teach students the rules of the road and show them how to drive on provincial roadways. It’s old-fashioned, but it works.

Suppose the people in charge of driver education schools decided to radically overhaul driver education. After all, students can’t possibly learn how to drive 21st century cars using 20th century driver education strategies. So, government officials change all driver education programs to a discovery approach where instructors don’t teach anymore but allow students to learn how to drive on their own.

Now imagine that after several years of “discovery driver education” the percentage of students passing the driving test declines precipitously. Instead of admitting that their discovery approach was wrong, driver education administrators blame the test by claiming it is faulty. After all, the test is stressful to students, provides only a snapshot of their performance and is a poor assessment of their actual driving ability. In response to pressure, the government gradually phases out the unfair test and a golden age of driving dawns in Alberta.

Of course, everyone should realize that this scenario is patently ridiculous. It would be the height of foolishness to radically overhaul driver education for the sake of an instructional theory and then, when the test proves the theory doesn’t work, blame the test rather than the theory. But that is exactly what is happening in Alberta education today.

Alberta curriculum guides are currently undergoing their largest overhaul in decades. As part of its commitment to so-called 21st Century Learning, the provincial government is reducing academic content and placing more emphasis on the process of learning, even though considerable research shows that generic learning skills, such as critical thinking, cannot be mastered without knowing substantial content knowledge.

Discovery math is a case in point. Despite grandiose promises made by discovery math advocates, student results on provincial achievement tests (PATs) have steadily declined over the last few years. The most recent results revealed that more than a quarter of Grade 6 students and nearly a third of Grade 9 students failed to meet the provincial standard of proficiency.

However, organizations favoring discovery learning blame the PATs rather than the faulty approach to math education. For example, the Alberta Teachers Association wants the PATs phased out entirely because it believes the tests are too stressful for students, do not measure what is really important, and cost too much money to administer.

Too bad their arguments are specious. While students may experience some stress prior to writing a test, this is a normal part of the educational experience, and a normal part of life. In addition, while the PATs are not perfect, they are closely correlated to the curriculum and are considered by expert psychometricians to be reliable and valid. As for the cost, the PATs make up a tiny fraction of the provincial education budget. Eliminating them would not free up much money for other things.

The key value of the PATs is in measuring student achievement across the province. Without the PATs, the province would have no way of tracking trends in student achievement or identifying schools that need additional support. The goal of PATs is not to evaluate teacher performance, but rather to determine whether students are adequately mastering the foundational knowledge and skills. When problems are accurately diagnosed, they can be addressed and corrected.

For example, the provincial government recently made some positive revisions to the math curriculum by requiring students to memorize the multiplication tables and solve simple math problems without using calculators. While these changes did not go nearly far enough, they likely would not have happened at all had the PATs not shown the clear failure of the discovery method.

Unfortunately, both the current NDP government and the previous PC government have systematically undermined the PATs with the end goal of removing them altogether. From lowering the value of Grade 12 diploma exams to eliminating the Grade 3 PATs to doubling the length of time students can take to write each exam, successive governments have sent a message that PATs are a low priority at best and harmful at worst. This is unfortunate.

Just as the driving test remains an important way of evaluating prospective drivers, the PATs are an essential component of student assessment. The Alberta government should strengthen the PATs rather than undermine them.

Content knowledge is the foundation of quality education

September 1, 2017

Published by the Waterloo Record

Content-rich instruction may not be as flashy as some of the educational alternatives but it’s a whole lot more effective.

Educators have long debated the importance of specific content knowledge in the curriculum. Progressive educators generally favour a non-content-specific learning process. Traditional educators say all students should master a defined body of knowledge.

The 21st century learning movement, with its emphasis on non-content-specific skills, such as critical thinking and creativity, is the latest manifestation of the progressive approach. A number of provinces — notably Alberta, British Columbia and Ontario — are making substantial curriculum changes to reflect the priorities of the 21st century learning movement. If this trend continues, content knowledge will get less emphasis in schools.

This shift away from content knowledge should give all Canadians cause for concern because such knowledge is essential in all subject areas and at all grade levels. There are several reasons why.

First, content knowledge is needed for reading comprehension. Give students an article to read about a topic they know nothing about and they’ll struggle to understand it. But they’ll have little difficulty reading an article or book when they possess background knowledge about the topic. The more they already know, the more effectively they can read and understand. Reading comprehension depends on background knowledge.

Second, content knowledge makes critical thinking possible. In many schools, the development of critical thinking skills is considered more important than the acquisition of specific content knowledge. However, this overlooks the fact that critical thinking can’t take place in the absence of specific content knowledge.

As a case in point, consider the recent proposal by the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario to remove Sir John A. Macdonald’s name from public schools. Is this a good idea or not?

In order to think critically about this question, you need to know a lot of things about John A. Macdonald and the cultural context he lived in. Macdonald is considered a Father of Confederation because of the very important role he played in bridging the divide between anglophones and francophones in mid-19th-century Canada. He also spearheaded the construction of the CPR railroad, which brought additional provinces into Confederation, and fiercely protected our country from American military aggression. These are significant accomplishments.

At the same time, Macdonald was a deeply flawed man. He drank too much, took bribes from railroad companies, brazenly handed out plum patronage jobs to his political cronies, and created a residential school system that harmed many Indigenous people. These flaws cannot be ignored. Rather, they must be weighed against his accomplishments.

People can’t think critically about something they know nothing about. While subject-specific content knowledge doesn’t guarantee critical thinking, it’s a prerequisite for critical thinking to take place.

Finally, content knowledge empowers students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Far too many students come to school from low socio-economic homes where they haven’t had the same learning opportunities as their more affluent classmates. They enter school at a significant disadvantage. However, schools can largely compensate for this gap by ensuring that all students receive content-rich instruction from an early age. Content-rich instruction is key to empowering students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Protecting content knowledge in schools begins with provincial education departments. Instead of reducing or downplaying the subject content, those who write curriculum guides must ensure that content at all grade levels is substantial and logically sequential. Whether the subject is math, science, English language arts or social studies, there’s no excuse for providing teachers with nearly content-free curriculum guides.

At the local level, superintendents and principals should set a tone of support for content-rich instruction.

Students deserve the best education teachers can provide. Knowledge is powerful, and good teachers know how to make their subjects come alive. By restoring knowledge to its rightful place, we can help ensure that all students receive a top-quality education.