More Canadian history needed in schools

February 14, 2018

Last fall, the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario demanded that John A. Macdonald’s name be stricken from all public schools in the province. More recently, Halifax’s city council voted to remove the Edward Cornwallis statue that had stood downtown since 1931. Both decisions were vigorously debated at the time and public opinion remains sharply divided.

These are two separate events about two different individuals. Nevertheless, the underlying theme is the same. Both Macdonald and Cornwallis stand accused of crimes against Indigenous people. Macdonald played a role in the establishment of residential schools while Cornwallis offered a bounty to anyone who captured or killed a Mi’kmaq person. However, Macdonald and Cornwallis also have many defenders since both individuals made significant contributions to their respective communities.

In order to think critically about Macdonald and Cornwallis, we need to know a lot of facts. In Macdonald’s case, we need to know about the time period in which he lived, his role as prime minister, and the impact of residential schools on Indigenous people. People who know nothing about Confederation, Macdonald, or residential schools are unlikely to have anything useful to contribute to this discussion.

Cornwallis was the military officer who founded Halifax in 1749. Like many other British officers of his time, Cornwallis saw nothing wrong with killing Indigenous warriors if they supported the French and appeared to be a threat to British colonists. As with Macdonald, it is necessary to know a lot about Cornwallis and the circumstances in which he lived in order to offer an informed opinion about his legacy.

There is only one place where all Canadians, regardless of where they live, have a real opportunity to acquire the historical knowledge they need to think critically about these and other issues. The vast majority of students attend school and this is where Canadian history must be taught and learned.

Unfortunately, things are not that simple. Many educators downplay the need for students to memorize specific facts, particularly since information is widely available on the internet. Instead, they want students to focus on so-called historical thinking skills through thematic study. This is largely the approach of Dr. Peter Seixas’s Historical Thinking Project, which has significantly influenced K-12 Canadian history education.

However, while broad-based historical themes such as change, continuity, cause, and consequence are important tools for analyzing controversial issues, they are not sufficient. Themes and overarching frameworks are useless unless they are situated within a rich knowledge base. Thus, there is still a place for teacher-led instruction and textbooks that place events in proper chronological order.

Twenty years ago, in his book Who Killed Canadian History?, renowned Canadian historian Jack Granatstein sounded the alarm about the lack of proper history education in schools. Granatstein argued that students were being shortchanged by social studies courses that presented a fragmented version of Canadian history. He wanted a much stronger emphasis on content knowledge that included the memorization of specific dates.

“The teaching of this content must be based on chronology, the basic tool of history…. Too much teaching in schools today takes a module of history and puts it before students to be digested, without much awareness of how it fits within a larger context,” explained Granatstein.

Among the four Western provinces, only Manitoba requires all high school students to take a Canadian history course that puts key events in a proper chronological framework. While Saskatchewan has a mandatory Canadian Studies course for Grade 12 students, the course is primarily thematic in nature.

Even worse, Alberta and British Columbia do not mandate Canadian history at all. Instead, they offer social studies courses covering themes such as ideology, genocide, nationalism, and globalization. While these courses might be very interesting, they do not substitute for a rigorous and chronologically based Canadian history course.

The governments of Alberta and British Columbia are both in the midst of rewriting their curriculum guides. Unfortunately, all indications are that content knowledge will receive even less emphasis than it does now. As a result, students will likely continue to learn an inadequate amount of Canadian history.

If we want Canadians to think critically about people like John A. Macdonald and Edward Cornwallis, we need to ensure they know the history of their country. Critical thinking best takes place in the presence of content knowledge.

Brainwashed students aren’t critical thinkers

January 4, 2018

Published by Troy Media

There is a fine line between teaching and brainwashing. Teaching informs students about the world around them and helps them become critical thinkers. In contrast, brainwashing provides students with heavily skewed information that leads to one predetermined conclusion.

It’s easy to mix these two things up if we aren’t careful.

People who work in schools are called teachers rather than brainwashers for very good reason—there is a world of difference between teaching students what to think and teaching them how to think. While teachers should challenge students’ thinking by exposing them to contrary ideas, teachers should not indoctrinate students with their personal worldview.

Unfortunately, there is reason to believe that some teachers are blurring the line between teaching and brainwashing. For example, a recent CBC story featured a Regina public school teacher who had his Grade 6/7 students spend most of November working on a variety of climate change projects. This unit culminated with a public event where students made presentations about how to stop climate change.

Obviously, climate change is an important issue and it makes sense for students to learn about it. However, the story also noted that the teacher recently spent time at an intensive training session led by former U.S. vice-president Al Gore. That teacher is now a “climate reality leader” who is expected to train other teachers about how to take action on climate change. This probably explains why he made his students watch Al Gore’s latest movie, An Inconvenient Sequel, during class.

The CBC story makes it clear that this teacher went far beyond informing students about climate change. His climate change unit was designed to make his students take action that conformed to what he learned at his Al Gore training institute. That isn’t teaching, it’s indoctrination.

We can expect to see more of this type of indoctrination if provincial curriculum guides continue to focus more on social justice than on learning a defined body of knowledge. For example, the Alberta government is currently rewriting its K-12 social studies curriculum and there is a disturbing lack of emphasis on specific historical facts and events. Instead, students will focus on broad themes such as diversity and environmental stewardship. This ambiguity practically invites teachers to indoctrinate students.

Fortunately, there is a better option. In order for students to become critical thinkers, they need to master a defined body of knowledge in a variety of subject areas. It cannot be assumed that students will naturally pick up the necessary knowledge while engaging in inquiry projects conducted within specific themes. For example, if students are going to grapple with major issues like climate change, they need to know a whole lot about meteorology. Much of this knowledge needs to come by direct instruction from the teacher. Otherwise it won’t be learned.

All too often, critical thinking is presented as an abstract skill when it is actually highly dependent on subject-specific content knowledge. Students cannot think critically about something they know nothing about.

Social justice appeals to a lot of teachers. It can be far more exciting to engage students in what seems to be an important social justice project than to painstakingly help them master basic curriculum content. However, there are no shortcuts where real learning is concerned. If students are going to become critical thinkers, they need to first learn a lot of basic facts and skills. This may not be as flashy, but it is essential to learning. Teachers must be responsible for the essentials of learning.

When this learning process is short-circuited, students are easily brainwashed. Students, particularly those in younger grades, are influenced by their teachers. If their teacher is passionate about what he recently learned at his Al Gore training institute, it’s easy for students to simply adopt their teacher’s beliefs. It may look like students are deeply engaged in the subject matter, but more often than not they are regurgitating what they know their teachers want to hear.

Obviously, we want to develop critical thinking in schools, and for this reason teachers need to take the time to help their students develop substantial subject-specific content knowledge. In addition, when controversial issues arise, teachers must make sure students are exposed to more than one perspective. That way students can make up their own minds about these issues.

Giving teachers a voice in professional development

November 17, 2017

Published in the Brandon Sun

Teaching is a challenging job. Anyone who has spent a few days in a school knows that teachers have a lot of demands placed upon them. Their responsibilities often go far beyond basic classroom instruction. From dealing with disruptive student behaviours to organizing extracurricular activities to supervising hallways and playgrounds, the workload of teachers is extremely demanding.

In order to face these and other challenges, teachers must continually improve their skills through professional development. This is far from easy, particularly since teachers must sort through the myriad of competing claims in the education world. Education fads are a dime a dozen, and they are becoming more prevalent.

Much of the problem stems from the substandard training provided by university education faculties, where preservice teachers are exposed to a plethora of fads, most of which are really bad ideas. Education fads such as individual learning styles, multiple intelligences, no-zero policies and 21st-century skills are but a few examples. Sadly, these and other fads are often reinforced at their professional development sessions after they become full-fledged teachers.

Fortunately, some teachers are pushing back against these bad ideas. One such group of teachers met recently in Toronto at the ResearchED conference. This is a new type of professional development conference that is put on by teachers for teachers. It began in Britain under the leadership of Tom Bennett, a well-known teacher and education writer. Since its first event in 2013, it has expanded to nine other countries and continues to grow every year. None of the organizers or speakers at ResearchED receives any compensation for their work. They participate because they believe in what they are doing — helping other teachers improve their teaching.

Teachers from across Canada came to hear from a variety of experts. Among the presenters were Dr. Daniel Ansari, Canada Research Chair in Developmental Neuroscience at Western University, Dr. John Mighton, mathematician and founder of JUMP Math, Martin Robinson, author of Trivium 21c, and Dr. Stan Kutcher, Sun Life Chair of Mental Health at Dalhousie University. In addition, a variety of classroom teachers led workshops about how they integrate the best research into their classrooms.

What makes ResearchED different from typical professional development conferences is that teachers are given a real voice in the discussions. Teachers are not simply expected to give lip service to the latest fad but are actually encouraged to openly challenge any claims made by the presenters. For many teachers, ResearchED is their first real opportunity to engage with the research in an environment that actually encourages critical thinking and honest debate.

I led a session at the Toronto ResearchED, so I had the opportunity to intellectually engage with teachers from all over the country. Sadly, many of them are under such pressure by school administrators to conform to the latest fads that they cannot make their identities publicly known.

In a desperate attempt to get their voices heard, they often resort to anonymous Twitter handles or anonymous blog posts.

Thankfully, ResearchED gave these teachers a chance to meet like-minded teachers and researchers from across Canada. Now they know that they are not alone.

During one of the sessions, Sachin Maharaj, a teacher with the Toronto District School Board, delivered an excellent presentation about teacher professionalism and career development. He made it clear that in order for teachers to become full-fledged professionals, they must take an active role in their own professional development. He also argued that it should be possible for teachers to enhance their pay and their status without moving out of teaching and into consulting or administration. After all, the best teachers belong in classrooms, not in offices.

Imagine what improvements we might see in Canadian education if all teacher professional development sessions were like ResearchED. Instead of listening to canned presentations and hearing about useless fads, teachers would actively review the latest research evidence and debate the pros and cons of using these strategies with their colleagues. Considering how much emphasis is put on critical thinking in schools today, it is ironic that so many teacher professional development sessions minimize debate and emphasize conformity.

Hopefully, conferences like ResearchED become the norm rather than the exception in teacher professional development. No teacher should have to create an anonymous Twitter account in order to be heard.

Subtracting new math in Saskatchewan

November 3, 2017

Published by the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.

Finally, after enduring years of fuzzy math, Saskatchewan parents may finally have cause for hope.

Not only did the provincial government’s latest throne speech acknowledge that Saskatchewan students have the worst math skills in the country, the speech pledged to address the problem with a “common-sense” plan that focuses on the basics. That is, indeed, good news for parents and children in Saskatchewan.

During a recent radio interview, newly-minted education minister Bronwyn Eyre made it clear that she intends to change the way math is taught in Saskatchewan schools. While Eyre is not the first education minister to bemoan the state of math scores, she is the first to propose a comprehensive set of reforms that would address the problem.

Among other things, Eyre expressed a willingness to implement cross-provincial numeracy assessments (a.k.a. standardized testing), spoke favourably about a back-to-basics approach to math instruction, and acknowledged that the current approach to math teaching was, in a word, driving parents and students “crazy”.

Eyre even suggested that students should have the right to a math textbook that actually shows them step-by-step how to solve math problems.

These statements are music to the ears of parents who are fed up seeing their children come home with nonsensical math assignments. When parents who work as accountants, engineers, or even university math professors have difficulty deciphering the convoluted word problems in textbooks such as Math Makes Sense, something is clearly amiss.

As these and many other frustrated parents already know, students need to master the basics in order to be successful in math. This means learning the standard algorithms for addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, and memorizing math facts such as the times table. Mastery of the basics provides students with the foundational skills necessary to tackle more advanced math problems.

However, if Saskatchewan’s education minister intends to introduce a common-sense approach to math instruction to schools, she will encounter heavy resistance from education professors and curriculum consultants. This resistance faces every education minister who challenges the educational establishment.

Most notably, the progressive education ideology, which de-emphasizes subject-specific content knowledge (such as learning the times tables) and encourages teachers to avoid direct instruction (actual teaching), now dominates the education system. Many math education professors, not to be confused with actual mathematicians, have built their entire careers on progressive ideology and will defend it vigorously, even in the face of contrary evidence.

As a case in point, Dr. Jo Boaler, a math education professor at Stanford University, is a regular speaker at teacher professional development conferences in Canada and the United States. Boaler’s ideas are about as far away from Minister Eyre’s proposed math reforms as it is possible to get. In particular, Boaler stridently opposes the use of timed math facts drills and discourages students from using the standard algorithms for adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing. Sadly, Boaler is only one of countless math education professors who promote this failed ideology.

While many grassroots teachers recognize the need for students to master the basics, the same cannot be said for the hundreds of math consultants who work for education departments and school boards. Many of them are devoted disciples of math education professors like Boaler.

As a case in point, Jennifer Brokofsky, the Coordinator of Mathematics for Saskatoon Public Schools, recently described Boaler as her “math hero” in an article she wrote for the Saskatchewan Mathematics Teachers’ Society. Thus, it is highly unlikely that Brokofsky and other like-minded education consultants are going to warmly welcome Minister Eyre’s new direction. Rather, they will do everything they can to stymie it.

Minister Eyre can also expect fierce resistance from within her own department. Many of the people working in the education department come from the ranks of education superintendents and curriculum consultants, most of whom have climbed the career ladder by espousing progressive education ideas and enacting progressive policies.

While Minister Eyre’s department officials may not openly oppose her planned reforms—at least not to her face– they won’t exactly help her either. Watch the British political satire Yes Minister to see what this passive resistance might look like.

Saskatchewan has an opportunity to make substantial reforms to math instruction. Hopefully, Minister Eyre overcomes resistance from the establishment and pushes ahead with some improvements.

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.