The no-zero policy finally gets a failing grade

October 10, 2017

Published by Troy Media

The long-standing no-zero policy in Newfoundland and Labrador schools is no more. The chief executive officer of the English School District recently announced that teachers are once again free to deduct marks for late work and assign marks of zero when work doesn’t come in at all.

This is a significant step forward, not only because no-zero policies have proven to be ineffective, but because the school district has long refused to acknowledge that it had one in place. As recently as 2015, the previous CEO, Darrin Pike, told the media that the English School District did not have a no-zero policy.

Teachers knew better, of course. That’s the reason the Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers’ Association never relented in its demand to revoke this misguided policy.

No-zero policies are the brainchild of assessment gurus like Ken O’Connor and Damian Cooper, who claim that report cards should rigidly separate student behaviour from their academic achievement. They maintain that because handing work in late, cheating on assignments or not submitting an assignment are behaviours, these actions should not have an impact on a student’s final mark in the course. Instead, teachers were expected to deal with these behavioural issues and assign marks only on the work that comes in.

This might make sense in theory, but anyone who teaches in a real classroom with real students knows it almost never works. The moment students find out that they can hand in their work any time or not hand it in at all with no penalty, teacher deadlines become meaningless. Similarly, if the worst consequence for cheating is being required to redo the assignment, then some students will take the risk. After all, they have nothing to lose.

To further illustrate the absurdity of no-zero policies, consider what happens in a class where students are expected to hand in 10 assignments. Since teachers can’t give zeroes for work that doesn’t come in, students figure out that it makes more sense to pick the assignments they actually submit.

Of course, nowhere in the real world do things operate in such a ridiculous manner. Employees are required to complete all of their tasks, not just the ones they like to do. Not only does failure to complete work lead to a loss in pay, employees who act this way quickly find themselves unemployed.

Now that the no-zero policy has finally been repealed, Newfoundland and Labrador educators should consider what lessons can be learned from this debacle.

The first is that bad education policies have incredible staying power. Newfoundland and Labrador teachers have laboured under the absurd no-zero policy for half a decade. It took years of lobbying from teachers and parents to get the English School District to see the light on this issue.

Second, the battle against a misguided policy needs to be waged on two fronts. On one hand, it’s important to provide solid reasons why a policy is mistaken. But the other front is in getting a school district to acknowledge that a particular policy even exists. Even though the no-zero policy was as plain as day to teachers, successive CEOs continually denied that the policy existed, which made it difficult to mobilize pressure on the school district.

A third lesson is that evidence alone will not result in a policy change. Even when research studies exposed as a house of cards the claims made by assessment gurus, supporters of the no-zero approach remained unfazed. The no-zero policy is finally gone from Newfoundland and Labrador because teachers, parents, journalists and politicians read the research evidence and spoke out, forcing the school district to make the right decision.

Finally, no-zero policies are merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to misguided educational policies. From rigid inclusion to project-based discovery learning to differentiated instruction, Newfoundland and Labrador teachers are bombarded with bad ideas. Instead of trusting the professional judgment of teachers who read and understand the research literature, school and divisional administrators force teachers to adopt the latest fads.

Getting rid of the no-zero policy was a step in the right direction. However, this is no time for teachers and parents to be complacent. There are a whole lot of other misguided educational policies that need to be axed.

Let’s hope the pressure continues and meaningful change happens.

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.

A childish obsession with adultism

August 24, 2017

Like most people, I believe that there are significant differences between adults and children, particularly when it comes to maturity levels. These differences explain why voting is restricted to adults, why children cannot purchase alcohol or cigarettes, and why all children are required to attend school. There are good reasons why children do not have the same rights as adults.

However, to some politically correct activists, this common-sense principle is actually unjust discrimination. They even have a word for it—adultism.

Adam Fletcher, the founder of SoundOut School Consulting (soundout.org), is an educational consultant and speaker based in the United States. He writes extensively about school reform and argues that schools need to do much more to empower students. He also believes that adultism is the main thing holding schools back.

In an article entitled “Adultism in Schools,” Fletcher sets forth a sweeping definition of adultism. “Bias towards adults happens anytime the opinions, ideas, knowledge, beliefs, abilities, attitudes, or cultures of adults are held above those of people who aren’t considered adults because they are not considered adults. Because of this, our very conception of schools is adultism at work,” explains Fletcher.

Well, when you put it that way, our entire society is guilty of adultism. Apparently, it’s discriminatory to believe that the opinions of adults have any more validity than those of children. When it comes to running a school, students should have just as much input as teachers and principals. Anything less than full equality is adultism.

Lest you think I am exaggerating, Fletcher does not shrink from the logical implications of his quest to eliminate adultism. He contrasts “convenient” student voice with “inconvenient” student voice and notes approvingly that the latter includes topics that impact teaching or governance of the school. Fletcher even complains about the fact that school board meeting rooms and school counselor offices are designed for adults rather than for children.

Of course, old-fashioned people like me would probably argue that these rooms were built that way because only adults are school board trustees and school counselors. I might also point out that meeting rooms and offices are adult work spaces that need to be appropriately designed for professionals to do their work. But there I go again with my adultist bias.

Fletcher’s crusade against adultism stems from his desire to transform schools into student-centred institutions. He believes that “Adultism makes schools today ineffective.” He even quotes from well-known education writers John Dewey and Paulo Freire to show that his anti-adultist agenda fits logically with their progressive ideals.

However, while John Dewey and Paulo Freire were strong proponents of student-centred learning, neither of them went nearly as far as Fletcher. Ironically, by quoting these two education writers, Fletcher is guilty of adultism himself since he didn’t quote any children to back up his position. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that all education writers are adults.

Incredibly, far from being a laughingstock in education circles, Fletcher’s ideas are being taken seriously in schools across North America. His organization, SoundOut School Consulting, provides teacher professional development in school divisions and Fletcher is a highly sought after public speaker. His website is replete with endorsements from education professors, teachers, and school administrators.

It never ceases to amaze me how crackpot theories like Fletcher’s opposition to adultism manage to infiltrate the school system. Giving students a moderate amount of input into how schools are run is one thing. Radically overhauling schools so that we don’t favour adult voices in any way is another thing entirely.

Fletcher’s obsession with adultism is downright childish. It deserves to be rejected.

A very expensive contract to honour

May 13, 2017

Published in the Telegraph Journal (New Brunswick)

Suppose a province and a teachers’ union were in the midst of negotiating a new contract. Student enrolment is rising steadily and the province wants to keep costs down. So, the provincial bargaining team proposes a new clause which guarantees that the number of teachers will not increase over the life of the agreement—no matter how many more students enrol.

Of course, no teachers’ union worth its salt would ever agree to such a clause, for the simple reason that it would make it impossible for schools to respond effectively to the pressures that come with increased enrolment. The union would doubtless argue that with more students comes a need for more teachers. And it would be right to do so.

However, if this principle is true, then it logically works the other way. If student enrolment declines, fewer teachers are required. A province with 100,000 students should have about half as many teachers as a province with 200,000 students. Demand for teaching positions is directly dependant on the number of students who need to be taught.

Unfortunately, the New Brunswick government has ignored common sense in its new teachers’ contract. The contract states that the total number of teachers across the province shall not fall below 7,280 during the five-year contract, no matter how much student enrolment declines.

The issue is not an abstract one for New Brunswick. Between 2002 and 2014, enrolment declined by 18 percent. While the recent influx of Syrian refugees last year led to a small resurgence in student numbers, this year was an exception to a long-term trend.

As a case in point, recently released census numbers show that the Canadian population is aging, particularly in Atlantic Canada. One in five Atlantic Canadians is 65 years or older and this number continues to rise. In contrast, the number of school-aged children continues to drop. Short of a complete demographic turnaround, the New Brunswick government had better be prepared for a society with more seniors and fewer children.

By guaranteeing a minimum number of teachers regardless of student enrolment, the New Brunswick government has essentially delinked teacher supply from student population. This is a windfall for the New Brunswick Teachers’ Federation since it no longer needs to be concerned about decreased union dues from a reduced number of teachers. Now the union can safely plan its budget for the next five years without worrying about its bottom line.

If the union succeeds in keeping this clause in future contracts, NB taxpayers will have to pay salaries for 7,280 teachers in perpetuity, even when the total student population won’t remotely justify the expense.

No doubt the province will defend this agreement by arguing that more teachers will result in better student achievement. However, there is no reason to assume that this is the case. Even if these extra teachers are used to decrease class sizes, research is mixed on whether this will significantly improve student achievement.

As John Hattie, the director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute, has pointed out, reducing class size has a modest impact on student achievement but a huge impact on education budgets. If the province is serious about improving student achievement, it would be much wiser to focus on improving instructional practices than simply adding more teachers to the payroll.

In addition, it’s quite likely that many surplus teachers will not even be assigned to classrooms at all. Rather, they will fill the growth industry for non-teaching positions in school divisions. Whether they are called instructional facilitators, learning coaches, support teachers, or assessment consultants, they will add to the growing ranks of non-teaching teachers. As the number of students continues to decline, more non-teaching positions will be created to accommodate the surplus.

It was foolish for the New Brunswick government to enshrine a minimum number of teachers in its latest contract. Teacher supply should remain directly linked with student population.

No gain, lots of pain from cutting private school funding

March 8, 2017

Published in the Edmonton Journal

Never let a good budget crisis go to waste. That must be why various labour groups have banded together to demand the end of private school funding.

Facing a record-high deficit, Alberta’s NDP government is under considerable pressure to reduce costs without jeopardizing core services. Public Interest Alberta (PIA), a labour-supported advocacy group, thinks it has found the perfect solution. It wants the government to eliminate the $248 million it provides to private schools and reallocate this money to public schools.

By doing this, PIA argues, public boards will be able to reduce class sizes, cut school fees, increase classroom supports, and introduce school lunch programs. In a striking coincidence, each of these items happens to coincide with an NDP campaign promise.

However, there are good reasons to reject cutting private school funding. An extra $248 million to public school boards sounds like a lot — until we remember total public school funding in 2016-17 will be about $7.2 billion. Basic math tells us $248 million adds a mere 3.4 per cent to the total education budget.

PIA would have government disrupt the education of thousands of students in accredited private schools with long-standing funding arrangements with the province for the sake of increasing public school board budgets by 3.4 per cent. Anyone who thinks this is enough money to transform public education needs to remember this expenditure would barely make a dent in class sizes, let alone anything else PIA would like to see happen.

It gets worse when we realize private schools actually save the province a lot of money. While government provides partial funding for the operating costs of accredited private schools, it does not pay for capital costs. This year alone, the total capital costs for public schools amount to $1.8 billion over and above the $7.2 billion in operational costs.

If all 29,000 students currently enrolled in private schools transferred to the public system, school boards would undoubtedly need to construct new classrooms and possibly even new schools. All the capital funds would need to come straight from the province, putting even more pressure on the provincial budget.

Furthermore, per-student funding to private schools amounts to only about $5,200 per student, in contrast with the approximately $11,000 per student in public schools. Transferring all 29,000 private school students to public schools would cost the government $168 million each year since the province would now be on the hook for an extra $5,800 for each student. If PIA is worried about large class sizes now, it had better be prepared for even bigger classes should their proposal be adopted by the Alberta government.

Private school funding is an easy target for labour groups like PIA because, at first glance, it appears unfair for government to subsidize parents who send their children to private schools. After all, they argue, if parents want an elite education for their children, they should pay for it themselves.

The problem with this reasoning is it portrays the funding as a subsidy to private schools rather than as support to parents who choose a different educational option for their children. In other words, the money should simply follow the student. All Alberta families pay school taxes and are entitled to receive some benefit from the taxes they pay, especially when they enrol their children in schools that teach the Alberta curriculum and hire certified teachers.

It is both surprising and disappointing the Edmonton Public Schools board has joined PIA in its request to cut private school funding. For nearly 40 years, the board has led the way in promoting school choice. Students in Edmonton have a wide variety of options to choose from and this long-standing flexibility has been largely responsible for the relatively small number of private schools in Edmonton.

Thus, if public school boards are concerned about the proliferation of private schools, they should follow Edmonton’s example and provide more options. Providing parents with more choices is always a better approach than curtailing the choices they currently have.

There is little to be gained from chopping private school funding and much to be lost. Hopefully the Alberta government is wise enough to reject this short-sighted proposal.

Improve teacher working conditions by dumping bad ideas

February 15, 2017

Published in The Telegram (St. John’s)

Newfoundland and Labrador teachers are stressed. In a recent presentation to the Premier’s Task Force on Improving Education Outcomes, the Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers’ Association presented compelling data, both scientific and anecdotal, showing that the working conditions for classroom teachers are not good.

Teachers have classes of many students with severe behavioral problems, significant cognitive disabilities and diverse academic skills. With only limited support, teachers find it difficult to provide adequate instruction. They are pressured to develop multiple lesson plans for each class to accommodate the variety of individual needs.

Frankly, this expectation is unrealistic — it sets teachers up for failure.

Over the last 30 years, Newfoundland and Labrador, like other provinces, has moved to an inclusive education model. In principle, this makes sense. Students deserve to be educated with their peers. While some students require specialized support, there are good reasons to include all students in regular classrooms to the greatest degree possible.

However, problems arise when faulty educational theories are pushed on teachers who have little choice but to comply. The worst, without a doubt, is that teachers should replace structured, whole-class teaching with project-based discovery learning. Even though there is a wealth of evidence supporting traditional teaching techniques, school administrators, Department of Education officials and Faculty of Education professors often push an ideological agenda against traditional methods.

Interestingly, traditional classrooms are exactly what many students with learning disabilities benefit from the most. A structured classroom with desks facing the front and a clear and focused lesson delivered by a competent teacher is an excellent environment in which to learn. Instead, teachers are told to seat their students in groups, facing each other, and let them learn together at their own pace.

This is a recipe for disaster, particularly in classrooms with students who have behavioral challenges.

Differentiated instruction is a fad often pushed on teachers. Based largely on the work of Carol Ann Tomlinson, an American educator, differentiated instruction tells teachers to adapt their lessons to the individual learning styles of each student. While this sounds good in theory, it falls apart in practice since it is impossible for teachers to design multiple effective lessons for each course they teach every single day.

What ends up happening is teachers divide their classes into groups and try to give mini-lessons to each of these small groups, while hoping that the remaining students remain focused enough on their independent assignments to not cause too much distraction. It is a horrendously inefficient way to teach and it creates an impossible workload for teachers. Teachers burn out in short order. To make matters worse, there is no empirical evidence that differentiated instruction actually works.

For example, Bryan Goodwin of Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning stated in his 2010 report, Changing the Odds for Student Success: What Matters Most, that there is a “dearth of evidence supporting differentiated instruction” and that “(the) extent to which teachers differentiate instruction in their classrooms is not a key variable in student success.” Unfortunately, teachers rarely hear about this evidence.

One of the key faults of differentiated instruction is that it is based on the even faultier notion of individual learning styles. While many teachers accept the gospel that some students are visual learners, some are auditory learners and others are tactile-kinesthetic learners, there is not a shred of evidence supporting this theory.

Dr. John Hattie, director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute at the University of Melbourne, reviewed thousands of studies about student achievement. In his 2012 book, “Visible Learning for Teachers,” Hattie bluntly states there is “zero supporting evidence” for learning styles.

The damage caused by this failed theory is substantial. Instead of providing well-designed whole class lessons, teachers waste hours trying to adapt to the so-called learning styles of each student. As a result, teachers end up working harder, getting worse results, and burning themselves out.

Things need to change in Newfoundland and Labrador. Instead of forcing teachers to adopt failed theories and foolish fads, teachers should be empowered to use the most effective methods. Dumping bad ideas and bad practices would go a long way to improving the effectiveness of teachers in the province.

Ghosts of flawed teaching techniques threaten to haunt Alberta classrooms

January 13, 2017

Published in the Calgary Herald

Never underestimate the staying power of a bad idea. Nowhere is this truer than in the field of education policy.

Education gurus come up with new ideas, temporarily retreat from them when they prove to be a flop, and then rename them and try again with a new crop of unsuspecting teachers and principals.

Perhaps the worst of these “new” ideas is the notion that specific content knowledge doesn’t matter a whole lot. Since knowledge is changing more rapidly than ever before, the gurus argue that students should not waste time memorizing a bunch of useless facts. Hence, the move away from teacher-directed instruction to various manifestations of inquiry- or project-based learning.

In 2009, the previous Alberta government unveiled its Inspiring Education initiative, which was replete with edu-babble. The report that ushered in the brave new world of education emphasized that students need to “learn how to learn,” become “life-long learners” and “apply multiple literacies.”

Not surprisingly, Inspiring Education said that schools should move away from the “industrial model,” become more “learner-centred,” and have a greater emphasis on “experiential learning.”

However, there was nothing new about Inspiring Education, as it did little more than repackage some very old ideas. In 1918, William Heard Kilpatrick, a well-known American education professor, wrote an article for the Teachers College Record entitled The Project Method in which he outlined the approach.

In true progressive fashion, Kilpatrick made sure to explain that the process of learning is far more important than any specific factual content. Had Kilpatrick not written this article nearly 100 years ago, one might have thought he plagiarized it from the Inspiring Education report.

Despite an avalanche of criticism from academics and other subject-area experts, the government pushed its Inspiring Education agenda forward. The department of education even went so far as to create a two-minute promotional video that proclaimed “Everything is changing.”

At the same time, the government announced its intention to scrap many of Alberta’s top-notch standardized exams and replace them with assessments that focused on the process of learning and not on the content.

And then the election happened. In a surprising development, the Progressive Conservative dynasty was toppled by Rachel Notley’s NDP.

Initially, there were some encouraging signs that newly minted Education Minister David Eggen would scrap the Inspiring Education agenda and bring back a much-needed academic focus. His decision to add a 15-minute calculator-free component to the Grade 6 provincial math assessment was a welcome rebuke to the failed discovery math approach that has taken hold of Alberta schools.

Sadly, despite this positive step, there are many indications that the ghost of Inspiring Education lives on. The Alberta government is currently in the midst of a curriculum review process that has every indication of moving away from specific content knowledge and focusing more on the nebulous process of learning.

The public survey being used to gather feedback consists of a series of questions that talk about various “ways of knowing” and various “21st century competencies.” The phrasing of these questions certainly makes it appear that parents are being led to a predetermined conclusion. The Guiding Framework for the Design and Development of Kindergarten to Grade 12 Provincial Curriculum, which was recently published by Alberta Education, shows that the fix is in.

This framework is long on the values it wants students to adopt and short on the importance of content knowledge. Even worse is the three-minute promotional video on the department’s website that promotes “student-centred” learning and describes teachers as learning facilitators. It dismisses textbooks as “artificial constructs” and suggests that classrooms need to be more like the real world. William Heard Kilpatrick would have been proud.

While the government might have changed last year, the same bad ideas are still alive and well in Alberta Education. Until the education minister fully renounces the Inspiring Education agenda, Alberta’s world-renowned education system will continue to decline.

Manitoba schools need to get back to basics

December 19, 2016

Published in the Winnipeg Free Press

Once again, Manitoba students have ranked near the bottom in Canada in the areas of science, math and reading. The Program for International Student Assessment, an international assessment of 15-year-olds conducted every three years by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, showed Manitoba students are six months to one year behind students in top-performing provinces such as British Columbia, Alberta and Quebec.

Anyone who tries to dismiss these results as a one-time anomaly must grapple with the fact results dating back to 2003 show a slow but steady decline. The Pan-Canadian Assessment Program, a different assessment protocol completed by Grade 8 students across Canada, shows a similar decline for Manitoba. In fact, the latest round of Pan-Canadian tests placed Manitoba students dead last.

If the Manitoba government is serious about raising the academic performance of Manitoba students, it needs to do three things.

First, Manitoba should follow the example of nearly every other province and re-establish standardized tests at a variety of grade levels. British Columbia’s Foundation Skills Assessment for students in grades 4 and 7 and Ontario’s tests for grades 3, 6 and 9 students are good examples of effective testing programs.

Standardized tests are important because they provide a provincial benchmark that can be used to determine how students are faring. Well-designed standardized tests highlight areas of strength and also point out areas of weakness. Unfortunately, the near-total absence of standardized tests in Manitoba has resulted in a dearth of information about student academic performance.

It did not help matters when the previous NDP government refused to release what little performance data it had to parents and the public.

Second, the province needs to place a much stronger emphasis on the academic basics — and it needs to send a much clearer message that curricular knowledge matters. For example, despite some limited moves in the right direction in recent years, the math curriculum still remains tilted much too far in the direction of the discovery approach to learning. The other curricular areas, unfortunately, are also tilted in that direction.

As math professors and WISE Math co-founders Anna Stokke and Robert Craigen have pointed out, students must learn standard algorithms for addition, subtraction, multiplication and division as early as possible if they are going to succeed at higher levels of math.

Students also need to spend significant time practising and memorizing their math facts. Multiple research studies confirm that mastering the basics makes deeper learning possible.

When it comes to reading, schools need to do more than help students decode the words on a page. Students need content knowledge, which is the key to reading comprehension. All too often, teachers think of reading as something that can be taught in isolation from specific content. However, research is clear that reading comprehension soars when students have background knowledge about the topic. By contrast, if someone needs to look up the meaning of every other word in an article, that person will not understand the material and will probably not even try reading it.

Well-known education author E. D. Hirsch Jr. makes this point abundantly clear in his latest book, Why Knowledge Matters: Rescuing Our Children from Failed Educational Theories. Hirsch presents substantial evidence showing reading comprehension is closely linked to background knowledge. For many students, particularly those living in poverty, school is the only place they can get this required knowledge. It is, in fact, the only path to success for the many poor children in Manitoba.

It is not enough for schools to teach “critical thinking” skills, as if they exist in a vacuum. In far too many cases, schools attempt to get around the need for knowledge by teaching students generic comprehension strategies such as “finding the main idea,” “drawing logical inferences” and “close reading.” Hirsch clearly shows these strategies are not a substitute for background knowledge.

Finally, the government needs to promote teaching methods and practices that are supported by research, as do faculties of education. Obviously, students and teachers differ, and there is little to be gained from trying to force everyone to teach exactly the same way.

At the same time, some methods are more effective than others. As a case in point, there is a wealth of evidence supporting direct whole-class instruction by teachers and considerably less evidence supporting the “guide by the side” methods currently in vogue in education faculties and in too many classrooms.

Manitoba can do better. It will take a lot of hard work and a willingness to make changes, but Manitoba students and teachers are prepared for the challenge.