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.

There’s no critical thinking without a base of knowledge

November 18, 2016

Published in Troy Media.

The recent presidential election campaign was one of the worst in American history. Two sides entrenched themselves at opposite ends of the spectrum, slugged it out, and showed little interest in intelligent engagement.

In many ways, it was a campaign of ignorance. Fortunately, there is a remedy for ignorance—promote knowledge.

Knowledge is powerful because it combats ignorance. It is a lot harder to hold on to misguided beliefs or inaccurate stereotypes when presented with hard, cold facts. Ignorant election campaigns are likely to become the norm because public schools in the United States are more interested in trendy fads than in the knowledge that students so desperately need.

However, Canadians cannot be complacent. While our situation is better, surveys commissioned by Historica Canada reveal significant gaps in young people’s knowledge about history. As a case in point, last year more than one in four Canadians could not identify the name of our first prime minister and a similar number did not know that Confederation took place in 1867. This is unacceptable.

All Canadian high school graduates should have a clear understanding of the key events, dates, and people in Canadian history. For example, everyone should know about the treaties made between the First Nations and the Crown, the circumstances that led to Confederation in 1867, and Canada’s involvement in the two World Wars. We must identify the core knowledge that all students need to possess when they graduate and then we must structure the curriculum around this knowledge.

The concept of core knowledge extends beyond Canadian history. There are also specific scientific facts and theories that all students must know. It is unconscionable that anyone would graduate from high school without at least a basic understanding of meteorology, plate tectonics, and astronomy.

Similarly, students must learn how to do basic math and be able to use these skills to solve everyday problems. As for social studies, students should at least understand what is parliamentary democracy and how it works in Canada.

Unfortunately, the obsession that many ministries of education have with the 21st Century Learning fad has led to a reduced emphasis on knowledge. Trite phrases such as “the world is changing faster than ever before” and “we need to prepare students for jobs that don’t yet exist” are used to defend an educational philosophy that de-emphasizes factual content and replaces it with a nebulous process of learning.

While the 21st Century Learning advocates claim to value critical thinking, they fail to recognize that critical thinking can only take place in the context of understanding that requires knowledge about which to think critically. It is impossible to think critically about something you know nothing about. This is why core knowledge is important.

Knowledge is also the key to reading comprehension. All too often educators think of reading as a transferable skill 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. In contrast, if someone needs to look up the meaning of every other word in an article, that person will not understand the article, and probably would 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 considerable research evidence showing that reading comprehension is closely linked to background knowledge. For many students, particularly those living in poverty, school is the only place where they can get this required knowledge. It is the only path to success for poor children.

It is not enough for schools to teach so-called 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 shows that these strategies are not a substitute for background knowledge.

Frankly, 21st Century Learning advocates, in both the US and Canada, are promoting a misguided approach to learning. Facts and knowledge are not obsolete in the 21st Century—they are more important than ever. The best way to help students become critical thinkers is to make sure they acquire as much knowledge about as many subjects as possible. This will only happen when schools put knowledge at the forefront.

If we want students to become productive, mature citizens, we need to help them become knowledgeable. That is the cure for ignorance.

 

Memorization, practice and critical thinking go hand-in-hand

August 31, 2016

Published in the Telegraph Journal (Saint John)

All students should become critical thinkers. This goal is agreed upon by virtually all educators. The ability to synthesize and evaluate information and come up with new ways of looking at things is highly prized in education circles from kindergarten to graduate school. As it should be.

Given the importance of critical thinking, it’s not surprising that schools across the country proudly trumpet the progress they make in developing this skill. It’s also become increasingly common for provincial education departments to rave about “21st Century skills,” one of which is critical thinking.

As a case in point, the New Brunswick government recently released its 10-year education plan entitled Expecting the Best from Everyone. In the section on student learning, the document places critical thinking at the top of its list of 21st Century skills. Critical thinking, together with other 21st Century skills, are deemed so important that they “must be embedded in expectations for students.”

Yet, in its rush to downplay the importance of curriculum content, New Brunswick’s education department is falling for the glitzy and over-hyped promises of the 21st Century skills movement and discarding tools we know work.

The reality is that if we want students to become critical thinkers, they need to memorize facts – lots of them. They also need to spend lots of time doing rote learning – consolidating knowledge and skills by practice and repetition – so that the facts become embedded in their long-term memories. This is not the focus of the 21st Century skills movement, but it is supported by a wealth of research evidence.

Dr. John Hattie is director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute at the University of Melbourne and one of the world’s foremost experts on educational research. His findings do not support the claim that critical thinking skills can be taught in isolation from content.

Hattie makes this clear in a recent Npj Science of Learning journal article: “These [21st Century] skills often are promoted as content free and are able to be developed in separate courses (e.g., critical thinking, resilience). Our model, however, suggests that such skills are likely to be best developed relative to some content. There is no need to develop learning strategy courses or teach the various strategies outside the context of the content,” explains Hattie.

The reason for Hattie’s conclusion is simple; students cannot think critically about something they know nothing about. Surface learning, which includes the memorization of basic facts and vocabulary, is just as important as deep learning since deep learning cannot take place in the absence of knowledge. Students need to acquire lots of knowledge, most of which needs to be taught directly by competent teachers.

Once surface knowledge has been acquired, students need to consolidate it so it becomes part of their long-term memories which they can automatically retrieve later when they want to think critically. As Hattie explains, “Although some may not ‘enjoy’ this phase, it does involve a willingness to practice, to be curious and to explore again, and a willingness to tolerate ambiguity and uncertainty during this investment phase.”

Critical thinking cannot be taught in isolation because it depends on content. For example, there is a huge difference between applying advanced mathematical principles and analyzing the factors that led to a major historical event. Both require critical thinking, but there is no reason to assume that students can do either of these things without first acquiring substantial background knowledge and then consolidating it through practice.

Proponents of 21st Century skills may think of critical thinking as an isolated skill that does not depend on specific content, but research from Hattie and many other psychologists shows otherwise. It is a huge mistake to downplay curriculum content and replace it with critical thinking strategies.

If we want students to become critical thinkers, we need to make sure they acquire and consolidate as much surface knowledge as possible. Only then will deeper learning take place.

Good teachers matter most

May 20, 2016

Published in The Guardian (Charlottetown, PEI)

MLA Sidney MacEwen made headlines earlier this month after he challenged the Minister of Education to enforce class-size limits. Mr. MacEwen zeroed in on supposedly large kindergarten classes, and called on the government to place a hard cap on the number of kids in them.

Politicians mean well when they call for smaller classes. But the evidence-based, educational research shows that capping class sizes has only limited effectiveness and often makes it more difficult to improve student achievement.

John Hattie, Director of the Melbourne Education Research at the University of Melbourne, is recognized as one of the world’s top educational researchers. He has analyzed hundreds of research studies to determine the factors that most influence student achievement, and found that capping class size brings a huge cost but has only a small benefit.

In the “International Guide to Student Achievement” (2013), Hattie concluded, “there is a voluminous literature that does not support the claim that learning outcomes are markedly enhanced when class sizes are reduced.” One of the most commonly referenced research studies on class size took place in the state of Tennessee from 1985-89. It found that while students in the smaller classes generally displayed modest academic improvement, this factor’s effect on student achievement remained quite small. This is a point that various studies agree upon.

Reducing class sizes is expensive, as government has to hire additional teachers and construct new classrooms. It is important to ask whether it makes sense to allow the education budget to be eaten up by an initiative with such little effect.

Instead of reducing class size, P.E.I. should focus on reforms that actually improve student achievement. One thing the education research is clear about is that the quality of the teacher in the classroom matters more than almost anything else. A class of 30 students with a great teacher is far better off than a class of 15 with a poor teacher.

When it comes to improving instruction, the evidence is clear: traditional, teacher-centred methodologies such as direct instruction are considerably more effective than student-centred methodologies such as discovery learning. That was the conclusion of Jeanne Chall, a former professor in the Harvard Graduate School of Education and founder of the Harvard Reading Laboratory.

Her final book, “The Academic Achievement Challenge: What Really Works in the Classroom” (2000), concluded, “traditional, teacher-centred schools … are more effective than progressive, student-centred schools for the academic achievement of most children.” Teacher-centred education was especially beneficial for “children of less educated families, inner-city children, and those with learning difficulties at all social levels.”

It is unfortunate that many schools across Atlantic Canada continue to promote ineffective discovery learning practices. As long as schools remain in the grip of this misguided trend, class sizes are basically irrelevant. Improving classroom instruction may not be as simple as reducing class size, but it would be a whole lot more effective.

Education fads do our kids no favours

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.

Technology should not drive education reform

October 22, 2015

Published in Troy Media

A recent OECD report dropped a bombshell on those who view technology as the driving force of education reform. The report found that “students who use computers very frequently at school do a lot worse in most learning outcomes, even after accounting for social background and student demographics.”

The report was authored by Andreas Schleicher, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) education director.

Hopefully this report slows down the mad rush to equip students of all ages with the latest computer gadgets.

Not only is this mindset incredibly expensive, it often undermines student learning.

At the same time, it is important not to react too far in the opposite direction. Schleicher does not advocate removing all computers from schools–they do have some benefits. For example, computers make it possible for teachers to provide up-to-date information to students, particularly in subjects like science where new discoveries happen regularly. Banishing computers from classrooms, particularly in high school, would be an unfortunate overreaction to Schleicher’s report.

So why does technology have such a poor track record in improving student achievement? After all, the OECD report is not nearly the first time education researchers have pointed out the limited benefits of technology in schools. Larry Cuban, for example, an education professor at Stanford University, has said for years that technology manufacturers regularly make overhyped and unsubstantiated promises about the latest gadgets.

Even researchers who believe that technology is beneficial in classrooms have warned against implementing it uncritically. In the International Handbook on Student Achievement (2013), Peter Reimann and Anindito Aditomo of the University of Sydney, reviewed a number of research studies and found that technology has “a positive, albeit small, impact on students’ achievement across many content areas.” They go on to caution that “claims that any particular technology will necessarily bring large, radical, or revolutionary improvement in academic achievement should be met with skepticism.”

Perhaps the best way to address this issue is to ask what actually has the biggest impact on student achievement. The answers are not hard to find. Strong teacher-student relationships, direct instruction, coherent curriculum, focused practice, and timely feedback from teachers all have large positive impacts on student achievement. Each of these can take place in the presence or absence of technology. So neither implementing nor removing technology is the key to improving student achievement.

Unfortunately, some of the strongest advocates of integrating technology in the classroom are simultaneously pushing education reforms that go against the research evidence. One of the most obvious examples is Alberta’s Inspiring Education initiative, which downplays the need for teachers to impart specific knowledge and skills to students. Nowhere is this blind adherence to ideology more apparent than in the province’s stubborn refusal to abandon discovery math, despite mountains of research showing the superiority of direct instruction and focused practice.

The age-old saying that a teacher should be a “guide by the side” rather than a “sage on the stage” is not only bad poetry, it is bad advice. Teachers should be front and centre in the classroom teaching, explaining new concepts, showing students how to solve problems, and providing immediate, corrective feedback so students can fix their mistakes right away and not two weeks later. Thus, teachers should be encouraged to set the direction of learning and provide clear, focused lessons to their students.

All too often, technology is used to push teachers off to the side and deemphasize direct instruction. It is no coincidence that the wholesale adoption of technology in the classroom is a central component of Alberta’s Inspiring Education initiative. In fact, the Inspiring Education blueprint goes so far as to say that students need to “use these new technologies as designers and creators of knowledge.” In other words, teachers should just get out of the way and let students get on with the business of creating new knowledge—a surefire recipe for educational failure.

When technology leads to a greater reliance on ineffective instructional practices, it is bound to have a negative impact on student achievement. The recent OECD report serves as a poignant reminder that it is a mistake to put all your educational eggs in the technology basket. Instead, schools should focus on doing things the evidence actually supports. The quality of teaching is far more important than the type of technology used in the classroom.