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.