Distractions are sometimes good for learning

August 27, 2015

Published in the Winnipeg Free Press

Most teachers and students know the conventional do’s and don’ts of proper studying habits. For example, students should find a quiet environment free of distractions. Don’t play any background music, and don’t let your mind wander. And above all, don’t stop working when you are making good progress.

These do’s and don’ts exist because conventional wisdom has it that distractions are bad for learning. For a long time, this made intuitive sense and fit my notions about proper learning. But then I began to realize something—it didn’t always match my own work habits or my experiences with students.

In fact, I’ve found that I often do my best work when I start and stop frequently. For example, when writing a column, like this one, I will often stop to check Facebook or surf the internet for a few minutes. Then I get up and walk around and mull things over in my mind.

These interruptions happen most frequently when I’m right in the middle of a critical point of my work. And yet somehow I always manage to finish my columns on time and to an appropriate standard. Either I never learned how to work properly or something is wrong with the notion that distractions are always bad.

It turns out that my gradually shifting views about the merits of distraction now have significant scientific support. A new book by New York Times science reporter Benedict Carey does an excellent job of skewering many of the most common misconceptions about learning. How We Learn summarizes the research findings of cognitive psychology and applies them to everyday life.

For example, Carey describes an experiment that compared students who studied for a test in a quiet room versus those who studied with jazz or Mozart playing in the background. Surprisingly, students who studied in the quiet environment did worse on the tests.

Carey suggests that music and other background noises can actually enrich the study environment as students form valuable associations that help them remember the material. Apparently it is possible for students to study effectively and listen to their ipods at the same time.

Even interruptions may not be as bad as previously thought. Carey describes a major experimental study in which 164 students and teachers were given a series of short tasks to complete. However, instead of letting them proceed uninterrupted, researchers interrupted the participants at random intervals before they could finish some of their tasks. After the time was up, participants were then asked to list as many of the tasks as they could remember.

Researchers were surprised to discover that participants remembered the interrupted tasks with almost twice the frequency as the uninterrupted tasks. Apparently something about being interrupted caused participants to remember that task more vividly. This was particularly true when the interruptions took place when participants were most engrossed in the task at hand. In other words, one of the best ways to remember a task is to be interrupted right when you are in the middle of it.

According to Carey, interrupting our work at a critical moment and letting it percolate in our minds can help with the learning process. Carey explains that when we stop in the middle of a difficult problem and do something else for awhile, we give our brains the opportunity to ponder it further and look for alternative solutions. So maybe it isn’t the end of the world when a student responds to a text message or walks around the classroom for a moment before moving on to the next math problem.

There is, however, one important caveat. It is one thing for students to briefly distract themselves; it is another thing entirely when they are regularly distracted by the actions of others. Some distractions make it hard to concentrate and are very bad for learning. As a result, teachers must still remain in control of their classrooms and provide students with a focused learning environment.

A balanced approach is needed. Students deserve a learning environment that is both structured and flexible. Some distractions are good for learning while others are not. It’s time to update the standard do’s and don’ts of proper studying to reflect the findings of modern cognitive science.

Report cards: Teachers should be free to say what they really think

March 18, 2015

Published in the Chronicle Herald (Halifax)

Nova Scotia Education Minister Karen Casey has demonstrated achievement of some of the learning outcomes for this year. She recognizes that parents deserve to receive report cards that actually make sense. But she has not yet demonstrated the ability to significantly revise the onerous comment-writing guidelines and would benefit from using some common sense.

The above paragraph is an example of the mind-numbing drivel many teachers are still required to write on students’ report cards. Instead of simply stating the obvious, teachers must follow a laborious set of comment writing criteria at all grade levels.

For example, the Tri-County Regional School Board in rural Nova Scotia provides its teachers with a 15-page manual called Creating Strong Report Card Comments. Among other things, teachers are expected to identify at least one strength, challenge, and next step for each student in every subject area.

Think this is easy? The manual also reminds teachers not to refer to any behaviours such as study habits, homework completion, attendance, or attitude in their comments. The manual even provides a list of “useful” descriptors such as: “successfully interprets,” “has not yet demonstrated understanding,” and “needs more time to develop.”

So instead of telling parents that their kids would get better marks if they studied for tests, showed up for class and finished their homework, teachers are forced to write comments with useless verbiage. Not only that, every comment is expected to relate to a specific learning outcome.

Hence parents must decipher verbiage such as: “She could identify some cultural groups that have settled in, but struggled to explain their impact on, Canada. Student only occasionally used this learning to demonstrate an understanding of the interactions among people and places over time and the resulting effects on the environment. She needs to consider alternate points of view.”

This comment was taken verbatim from Tri-County’s report card manual.

Much of this verbiage stems from requiring teachers to identify an outcome-specific strength in every subject even when the student is doing poorly and obviously needs to put more effort into his work.

Similarly, teachers must provide specific challenges and next steps for high-achieving students who need to keep doing what they are doing. However, in these situations, old-fashioned comments such as “More effort required” or “Excellent progress” would be a better way of getting the message across.

Commendably, Ms. Casey acknowledged last year that report cards could not be understood by parents. She even ordered some sensible changes such as including percentage marks on grades 7 and 8 report cards, and telling teachers to cut back on the impersonal, bureaucratic language.

However, her department’s press release announcing these changes still mentions strengths, challenges, and next steps teachers are expected to include in every comment. For the most part, the same onerous and convoluted comment-writing guidelines must be followed by teachers.

Rigid assessment guidelines are behind other nonsensical ideas such as no-zero policies, which insisted that incomplete or late work should not affect a student’s academic mark. Schools with no-zero policies quickly discovered that without firm deadlines, students are free to hand in their assignments whenever they want. It didn’t take long for classroom teachers to conclude that this was yet another ivory tower idea that didn’t work in real classrooms.

The same can be said for onerous report card guidelines. Forcing teachers to include strengths, challenges, and next steps in every comment without making reference to behaviour has more to do with enforcing a particular assessment ideology than improving student achievement. In the end, no one benefits — except consultants who get paid to try to solve the problems they themselves have created.

Things would work a lot better if teachers could just write whatever comments they think are appropriate on report cards. After all, they have five or more years of university education and they should know how to write reasonable and appropriate comments on their own. In the area of assessment, teachers need more professional autonomy —not less.

In this case, the next step for the education minister is obvious. She needs to reject her department’s rigid assessment ideology and empower teachers to use their own judgment on report cards.

Handwriting is still an important skill

January 22, 2015

Published in the National Post.

Many progressive educators believe that handwriting is obsolete in the 21st century. It isn’t hard to see how they came to this conclusion. Computers are everywhere and an increasing number of schools expect students, even those in grade 1, to do their work on handheld tablets. So why bother teaching students how to handwrite?

Unfortunately, much of the debate about handwriting tends to dwell on minor issues. For example, supporters and opponents of handwriting argue about how often students will find themselves in situations where computers are not available. They squabble over whether handwritten signatures on legal documents will eventually be replaced by electronic signatures. Finally, they differ on the need for students to read historical documents in their original, handwritten, form.

However, as important as these questions seem, they miss the bigger picture. The more important issue is whether learning how to handwrite helps students to master important skills such as reading, and whether writing words on paper is better for learning than typing them on tablet. If the answer to these questions is yes, then it makes sense to keep paper and pencils in the classroom.

Fortunately, research gives us a clear answer. Dr. Hetty Roessingh is a professor in the Werklund School of Education at the University of Calgary and an expert in the field of language and literacy. She has found that making students print letters by hand, particularly before the end of the second grade, plays an important role in their reading development.

According to Roessingh, printing creates memory traces in the brain that assist with the recognition of letter shapes. Typing on a keyboard does not have the same impact. In other words, handwriting helps students move information from their short-term memories into their long-term memories, while typing does not.

When students practice printing by hand, they learn how to read and write more quickly and more accurately. Contrary to popular myth, repetition is not a bad thing. Only by committing foundational skills to long-term memory can students move on to more advanced tasks. Students who get insufficient practice in printing letters by hand invariably develop weaker writing skills than students who regularly practice the skill.

In the upper elementary grades, it is still important for students to learn cursive writing. Roessingh notes that connecting letters together in a script makes it possible for students to write more quickly and this contributes to the quality of the writing outcomes. “When writing by hand becomes both legible and fluent, reflecting a sense of automaticity, the writer is able to generate more text. Precious, scarce working memory spaces becomes available to select better vocabulary and get it into the page in interesting, organized ways,” explains Roessingh.

The importance of automaticity is strongly supported by cognitive psychologists. As Drs. Jeroen van Merriёnboer and John Sweller note in the June 2005 edition of Educational Psychology Review, our working memory has a very limited storage capacity. In order to make proper use of it, we need to transfer information to our long-term memory. We then organize this information into various “cognitive schemata” that help us solve more complex problems. Thus, students who handwrite fluently can engage with more challenging text than students who still struggle with basic vocabulary because more information has been transferred to their long-term memories.

Learning does not come automatically. For most students, it is genuinely hard work as our brains are not naturally wired for the foundational skills of reading and writing. To achieve mastery, these skills need to be explicitly taught, regularly practiced, and constantly reinforced. Learning how to write individual letters and words by hand, and doing so fluently, is essential to entrench reading as an automatic skill.

In contrast, primary grade students who do their assignments on keyboards and tablets miss out on this valuable skill development. Instead of training their brains to memorize particular letters each time they painstakingly print a word, they simply press a button to get the letter they want. Often the spell-checker feature supplies the correct spellings so students never learn how to independently spell more challenging words.

Far from being obsolete, handwriting remains an important skill in the 21st century and beyond. Paper and pencil may not be as flashy as the latest handheld tablet, but it will help students learn a lot more. Sometimes the simple things really do work best.

No-zero policies just as misguided as ever

January 14, 2015

Published in The Telegram (St. John’s, NL)

Never underestimate the staying power of a bad idea, especially in education. The no-zero policy in Newfoundland and Labrador schools is a prime example.

It’s been almost four years since the former Eastern School District officially implemented a no-zero policy. Teachers were no longer permitted to give zeros when work never came in, deduct marks for late assignments, or penalize students caught cheating on tests or assignments.

Despite widespread criticism from parents and teachers, school district administrators held firm to this bad idea. The neighbouring Western School District quickly followed with its own no-zero policy. Now, with the recent amalgamation of all English language school districts into a single province-wide school board, a de facto no-zero policy appears to be in effect across the province.

The philosophy underlying no-zero policies is quite simple. Proponents believe teachers should always separate behaviour from achievement when grading students. Since cheating on tests, handing in late work, and refusing to submit assignments are all examples of behaviour, they should not affect students’ academic grades. Instead, they argue, teachers should correct poor behavior in other ways.

Like many other education fads, this one sounds great in theory but quickly falls apart when implemented with real high school students. Once students find out about their school’s no-zero policy, it doesn’t take them long to conclude that assignment due dates have become mere suggestions. Without the ability to seriously penalize tardiness, teachers end up pleading with students to hand their assignments in.

No-zero policies became popular because they have been promoted by assessment consultants who lead professional development workshops. Ontario-based assessment consultants Ken O’Connor and Damian Cooper are two of the best-known advocates of no-zero policies. It should come as little surprise that both men spoke at education workshops in Atlantic Canada shortly before Eastern School District’s no-zero policy was formally adopted.

No-zero policies have also appeared in other provinces. In 2012, Edmonton physics teacher Lynden Dorval was fired by his school board for disobeying his principal’s no-zeros edict. Dorval went public with his concerns and steadfastly refused to budge from his position that the no-zero policy was a very bad idea.

Things did not go well for no-zero supporters. Not only did Dorval receive overwhelming public support for his stand, the Alberta Board of Reference recently ruled that his termination was unjust. In other words, Dorval had the professional right to challenge his school’s misguided policy.

Shortly after Dorval’s case became public, I analyzed the arguments used to support no-zero policies. The case for no-zero policies turned out to be very weak.

For example, Ken O’Connor regularly argues that zeros cause students to withdraw from learning and, to back up this claim, cites an article written by Thomas Guskey, an American education professor. When I looked up Guskey’s article, I found that he uses only one research study to support this argument — a 1992 article in the British Columbia Journal of Special Education by Deborah Selby and Sharon Murphy.

In their article, Selby and Murphy describe the experiences of six learning-disabled students in a mainstreamed classroom.

These students had negative experiences with letter grades and blamed themselves for their poor marks. While this might be true for the students in this study, it is patently absurd to generalize the experiences of six learning-disabled students to the whole student population.

Clearly, parents are right to be skeptical when assessment gurus claim that “decades of educational research” support no-zero policies.

It should come as little surprise that regular classroom teachers are some of the strongest opponents of no-zero policies. They know what it is like to work with real students, and they are not beholden to theories concocted by ivory tower academics.

Fortunately, there is a way for the English school board to extract itself from the no-zero quagmire. It should simply allow teachers to use their professional discretion when dealing with late or incomplete assignments. Sometimes students deserve an extension and sometimes they don’t. Since teachers are trained professionals, they are capable of making these decisions themselves.

No-zero policies are just as misguided now as they were four years ago. It’s time to end this province’s failed experiment with them.

Knowledge is more important than ever in schools

December 10, 2014

Published in the Chronicle Herald (Halifax)

Imagine that you are a fly on the wall in a faculty of education classroom or in a teachers’ professional development session. What would you hear?

Chances are that you would hear about the need for teachers to establish a student-centred classroom environment in which a hands-on discovery approach prevails. In fact, teachers are regularly told to focus more on the so-called process of learning than on specific academic content.

The degree to which factual knowledge is de-emphasized and even disparaged in educational circles usually comes as a surprise to most parents and taxpayers. After all, school is generally assumed to be as a place where students learn specific knowledge and skills so they eventually become productive citizens.

Instead, teachers are told in faculties of education and professional development sessions that they are simply “guides on the side” who facilitate the creation of new knowledge by students. This is where failed innovations such as fuzzy math, whole language, and open-area classrooms find their root. At the heart is a bizarre notion that there is little need to impart specific factual knowledge to students.

However, despite the widespread acceptance of this ideology by education professors and education department officials, there is remarkably little evidence supporting it. In fact, the weight of the research evidence comes down squarely on the side of those who advocate for the direct instruction of specific factual knowledge.

For example, educational researcher John Hattie and cognitive psychologist Gregory Yates do not mince words in their 2014 book, Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn, when they say:

“But there is little basis to suggest that personal discovery within itself assists a person to actually learn…. The discovery learning process demands a high level of non-productive mental effort, which could be more profitably directed to genuine knowledge building.”

Far from being irrelevant pieces of trivia, factual knowledge provides students with the essential building blocks that make higher-level learning possible. It is not hard to see why this is so. Take two students, one who knows many facts about Métis leader Louis Riel and another who has never heard anything about him. It shouldn’t take too long to figure out which student is more likely to develop a deep understanding of the historical grievances of the Métis people.

The same principle holds true in other subject areas. Mathematics is an obvious case in point. A student who knows his multiplication tables by memory is far more likely to succeed at solving algebraic equations than a student who needs a calculator to answer basic questions such as 5 x 6. This is because the student who does not know the multiplication tables is more likely to become bogged down and confused by sequential, multi-step problems.

Cognitive psychologists have developed a term for this important concept—cognitive load, which means there is a limit to the amount of information that can be easily stored in our working memory. This is why, for example, we usually struggle to remember a newly introduced seven-digit phone number.

However, once a phone number has been committed to our long-term memories through frequent repetition, we no longer have difficulty remembering it. Because this phone number now comes to mind automatically, it produces a very low cognitive load. The same holds true with the subject matter knowledge that is taught in school. Students who know their basic math facts experience less cognitive load when solving advanced math problems than students who do not.

In his 2009 book, Why Don’t Students Like School?, cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham summarizes the importance of factual knowledge. “The very processes that teachers care about most—critical thinking processes such as reasoning and problem solving—are intimately intertwined with factual knowledge that is stored in long-term memory (not just found in the environment).”

In other words, students cannot think critically about a major historical event if they know nothing about the event in question. Nor can they solve multi-step algebraic equations without knowing the correct order of operations. A broad knowledge base is absolutely essential to the development of critical thinking skills.

Thus, despite what prospective teachers may hear from their education professors, students benefit greatly when their teachers directly impart knowledge to them. In order for students to think critically, they must become knowledgeable first.

Despite promises, fuzzy education agenda endures

November 14, 2014

Published in the Calgary Herald.

During the Progressive Conservative leadership race, Jim Prentice said that Alberta schools needed to focus on the academic basics. He even appointed Gordon Dirks as minister of education, someone known to be sympathetic to traditional education ideas.

In this appointment, Prentice signalled a willingness to change course from the previous government’s disastrous Inspiring Education initiative.

Parents looking for change had further cause for hope when Prentice, once he became premier, shuffled Greg Bass out of the deputy minister of education portfolio. With Bass’s removal, Alberta Education lost its most prominent discovery learning evangelist.

However, despite a new premier, new minister of education and a new deputy minister, the old Inspiring Education initiative still remains intact. Its nonsensical Everything is Changing video can still be viewed on the department’s website, while the supporting documents also remain. If Prentice genuinely wants to change direction in Alberta Education, he must remove this material from his government’s website.

Even more concerning is the government’s lack of action on the provincial math curriculum.

While the former education minister, Jeff Johnson, reluctantly agreed to revise the math curriculum by requiring students to memorize basic math facts, he did not go nearly far enough. Fuzzy math textbooks, such as Math Makes Sense, remain in use and there is still no requirement for students to learn standard algorithms for addition, subtraction, multiplication and division.

In a recent letter to Dr. Nhung Tran-Davies, the Calmar mother who initiated the widely popular back-to-basics math petition, Education Minister Gordon Dirks declined to meet with her and referred her to Amaya Ortigosa, the team leader for mathematics K-9 with Alberta Education. Considering that Ortigosa is a strong proponent of discovery learning, Tran-Davies is unlikely to get very far with her concerns.

To make matters worse, Dirks noted that even with the recent revisions, the math curriculum would not require students to learn the standard algorithms. Instead, it will continue to expect students to use a variety of problem-solving strategies, some more effective than others. In other words, nothing is going to change, and students and their parents and can look forward to fuzzy math homework assignments for many years to come.

Unfortunately, there are other ways in which the Inspiring Education agenda is moving ahead. Alberta school boards are continuing with their plans to eliminate percentage grades from report cards and promote no-zero policies. The Calgary Board of Education, for example, recently removed percentage grades from all K-9 report cards and may soon do the same with Grade 10 to 12 report cards.

Parents of K-9 students in Calgary must now wade through a series of checklists for various outcomes in each subject area in order to find out how their children are doing. With no percentage grades and only four achievement levels for each outcome, it will be difficult for parents to help their children set goals for improving their performances. More importantly, students will only receive two formal report cards each year. As a result, parents will get only one opportunity to review a formal report card and help their children before year-end.

On its website, the Calgary Board of Education notes that, “Alberta is shifting toward a new vision for education based on the information gathered through Inspiring Education.” Like many other school divisions in the province, the CBE is still redesigning assessment and reporting practices to reflect this old policy direction. In other words, the CBE still acts as if there has not been a new mandate.

The CBE’s commitment to fuzzy assessment policies goes even further. Its recommended reading list for parents includes, among other things, an article by Alfie Kohn, who says that schools should not give students any grades at all, and an article by Thomas Guskey, who says there are good reasons for no-zero policies.

Obviously, the CBE would not recommend these articles to parents and teachers if they did not reflect the direction the board wishes to take its schools. All parents should be concerned about this direction and they should let the new premier and minister of education know what they think.

Despite initial positive signs, Premier Jim Prentice and Education Minister Gordon Dirks have yet to make meaningful changes to the misguided Inspiring Education initiative. Until they do, Alberta Education bureaucrats and school board officials will continue dismantling this province’s once top-performing education system. This does not bode well for students or their parents.

Mediocrity in, mediocrity out

October 22, 2014

Published in the Winnipeg Free Press

It’s been two weeks since Manitoba got the bad news on its results from the Canada-wide tests of students, and I’m still waiting to hear how the provincial government thinks it can arrest the slide.

The results from the latest Pan-Canadian Assessment Program (PCAP) tests are, to say the least, very disappointing. Over the last 15 years, the reading, math, and science scores have declined from near the Canadian average to the bottom of the pack, even though Manitoba spends more per K-12 student than every other province except Alberta.

The current government has been in power since 1999. It should be ashamed of these results. So should educational leaders who have supported this government’s education agenda.

However, it didn’t take long for the government’s supporters to offer excuses. Predictably, Manitoba Teachers’ Society president Paul Olson blamed the poor results on the low socioeconomic status of Manitoba students. But other provinces also have many low income families, and they performed significantly better than Manitoba students.

Education Minister James Allum acknowledges that these test results are unacceptable. But, his so-called action plan shows he is attempting to deflect blame, just like the Manitoba Teachers’ Society, rather than accept responsibility for making substantial changes.

Allum said Prince Edward Island students showed significant improvement and Manitoba should follow P.E.I. by having more test preparation sessions with the students before they write the next PCAP tests.

He does not appear to understand what really happened in P.E.I. Prior to 2007, P.E.I. students had no standardized testing, and they consistently scored last in the country. Then P.E.I. introduced standardized tests at grades 3, 6 and 9 and used the results to sharpen their teachers’ focus on the academic basics. Not surprisingly, the latest PCAP results show that P.E.I. students have made substantial gains.

Teaching Manitoba students the tricks of test-taking will not lift them from the bottom. Rather, the government should use standardized testing to evaluate student achievement in key subject areas at various grade levels, like P.E.I. recently did. The results of the tests should be made public — as they are in every other province — so parents know how well their children are doing. Standardized testing reminds schools of the importance of the core academics and focuses teachers on the curriculum.

Allum also said that he is committed to “ensuring better accountability by working with school divisions to set goals and track progress in essential math and reading skills.” Manitoba is the least transparent province in the country when it comes to student achievement; the government has a long way to go.

Last year, the government reluctantly made important changes to the math curriculum when it restored standard algorithms and declared that students must memorize basic math facts. But most schools still use discovery-based textbooks, such as Math Makes Sense and Math Focus, which are more likely to confuse students than enlighten them. Better textbooks are needed.

In addition, considerable research shows that traditional teaching methods, such as direct instruction, help students learn the curriculum. Sadly, discovery-based methods are still pushed on prospective teachers in faculties of education. Discovery learning encourages students to figure out things for themselves and come up with their own ways of solving problems. This works fine for university graduate and post-graduate students but not so well for Grade 1 students learning how to add and subtract for the first time.

The discovery-based philosophy, also known as constructivism, is embedded in provincial curriculum guides. This is why academic content seems to receive less and less emphasis each time a new guide comes out. These guides need to be rewritten to place a proper emphasis on specific knowledge and skills.

If the NDP government is serious about improving the academic performance of Manitoba students, it must make a number of substantial changes. Focusing on the academic basics, introducing standardized testing at a variety of grade levels, publishing the results for parents to see, and freeing teachers from education fads would go a long way to lifting Manitoba students from the bottom in reading math and science.

It’s time to end the excuses and begin the serious work. Our students deserve nothing less.

Standardized tests benefit P.E.I. students

October 16, 2014

Published in The Guardian (Charlottetown)

Standardized testing has long been a topic of significant debate in the Prince Edward Island legislature. During one particularly heated exchange on December 4, 2013, MLA James Aylward asked the education minister why he “continue(s) to waste $1.6 million annually on these tests which appear to be having no impact at all on the education system and on our students?”

Recent data from the Pan-Canadian Assessment Program (PCAP) should help the education minister decisively lay Aylward’s rhetorical question to rest. Since the introduction of standardized testing in 2007, P.E.I. students have risen from the bottom in the country to near the middle in science, reading, and mathematics.

In fact, P.E.I. posted some of the most impressive gains in the country. Since 2007, P.E.I. students improved by 26 points in reading and 32 points in mathematics. Not only did the PCAP report flag these improvements as statistically significant, they were larger than the gains posted by any other province. This evidence suggests that P.E.I.’s standardized tests have led to a sharper focus on the academic basics in this province.

This stands in stark contrast with the province that now sits at the bottom of the academic heap. Over the last fifteen years, the Manitoba government did the exact opposite of P.E.I. and systematically abolished all its standardized tests, with the exception of those at the grade 12 level. During that same time period, Manitoba saw its academic results decline from near the Canadian average to dead last. While P.E.I. posted the most significant gains, Manitoba posted the most significant decline.

Interestingly, when it comes to per-student expenditures, Manitoba ranks near the top in Canada. According to Statistics Canada, Manitoba’s per-student spending comes in a close second to that of Alberta. In the 2010-2011 school year, Manitoba spent an average of $13,150 per student, which was more than $500 higher than the national average and almost $2,000 higher than what P.E.I. spent per student. Clearly, more spending does not necessarily lead to better academic results.

Nevertheless, standardized testing has its critics. Last year, Gilles Arsenault, president of the P.E.I. Teachers’ Federation, raised concerns about the $1.6 million spent annually on these tests, arguing that they could be put to better use in the classroom. However, this argument is merely a smokescreen. The reality is that the Teachers’ Federation would likely oppose standardized testing even if it was free since that is the ideological position taken by every other teachers’ union in Canada.

As for the $1.6 million cost, this makes up only 0.3 per cent of the Department of Education’s total budget. It hardly seems unreasonable for the department to spend 0.3 per cent of its budget on a reliable measure of student academic achievement. To put it another way, abolishing standardized testing would make it possible hire a grand total of 20 new teachers across the entire province. This makes about as much sense as selling off a hospital’s diagnostic equipment in order to hire a few extra surgeons.

It isn’t hard to see why standardized testing has been beneficial for students. With these tests in place, the provincial government now has a more accurate understanding of academic achievement throughout the province. This information makes it possible for the province to target additional support and intervention to schools with low results and also learn from schools that get better results.

Another benefit is that standardized tests help teachers focus their instruction on the mandated curriculum. Knowing that their students will be tested on the curriculum provides teachers with a strong incentive to cover the key concepts thoroughly. Without standardized tests in place, it is almost impossible to be sure if teachers have actually taught the complete curriculum.

In fact, both teacher-created assessments of student learning and standardized testing are essential for a balanced approach to student assessment. Teacher-created assessment ensures teachers can take individual student needs into account when designing and evaluating assignments and tests. Standardized testing introduces systematic balance with an objective measurement tool that makes it possible to determine whether provincial curriculum standards have been met.

When it comes to testing, the P.E.I. government is on the right track.

Is NSTU digging in against standardized tests?

October 8, 2014

Published in The Chronicle Herald (Halifax)

It looks like the Nova Scotia Teachers’ Union intends to step up its opposition to standardized testing — again. The Primary Elementary Teachers Association, one of its affiliates, plans to feature a keynote address by well-known testing opponent Alfie Kohn at its upcoming convention later this month.

Kohn is one of the most controversial education writers in North America today. It isn’t hard to see why. Kohn opposes not only standardized tests, but teacher-created tests and assignments as well. He doesn’t think students should receive grades, supports no-fail policies, and is critical of any form of direct instruction.

On Oct. 24, elementary teachers from across the province will gather at Casino Nova Scotia to hear Kohn address them on the topic of “Assessment and Challenging High-Stakes Testing.” No doubt these teachers will be encouraged to do everything in their power to oppose standardized testing in Nova Scotia.

Hopefully, at least some of the teachers who attend this conference will see through Kohn’s rhetoric and examine the evidence. In fact, there are many reasons why teachers should support, rather than oppose, standardized testing.

Perhaps the most important reason is that standardized tests make it possible to measure student academic achievement across the province. Because all students write the same test on the same day, the results are more reliable than are the results of teacher-created tests, which vary widely depending on each teacher.

This does not mean that teacher-created tests are unimportant. Rather, they simply need to be balanced with standardized tests in order to get a true picture of student academic achievement.

Another benefit of standardized testing is that it helps teachers focus their instruction on the mandated curriculum. Knowing that their students will be tested on the curriculum provides teachers with a strong incentive to cover the material thoroughly.

For the provincial government to set meaningful targets for academic skills in reading, writing and math, some form of standardized testing is essential. Otherwise, there is no way of knowing whether students have learned the curriculum.

Parents send their children to school with the expectation that they will learn specific knowledge and skills. Standardized testing holds teachers and principals accountable for meeting these expectations.

One of the arguments commonly made by opponents of standardized testing is that they are biased against students from minority groups and from disadvantaged backgrounds. There are two main problems with this argument.

First, if it is possible to identify examples of bias on standardized tests, it is also possible to correct these biases. Rather than simply throwing out the entire test because of a few examples of bias, why not make the necessary adjustments to ensure that the tests are fair?

The second problem is that it questions the ability of teachers to help all students learn the curriculum. Teachers regularly provide special assistance to students who are disadvantaged because of their linguistic or cultural experiences, and it is reasonable to think that this assistance will be provided when disadvantaged students are preparing to write standardized tests.

Another common argument against standardized testing is that it is too costly and the money could be better spent elsewhere. This argument also fails to withstand critical scrutiny.

The Evaluation Services division of the Department of Education is responsible for standardized testing in this province. It has a total annual budget of approximately $2.7 million. To put this amount in perspective, the Department of Education has a total annual budget of just over $1.2 billion.

In other words, standardized testing would make up only 0.2 per cent of total education spending in Nova Scotia. It seems reasonable to spend 0.2 per cent of the education budget on a reliable and valid evaluation of academic achievement. Eliminating standardized testing in the name of reducing costs makes about as much sense as removing diagnostic equipment from hospitals in order to save money.

When Nova Scotia teachers hear Alfie Kohn repeat the same worn-out arguments against standardized testing this fall, let’s hope at least some of them reject his faulty reasoning. Their union’s misguided opposition to standardized testing is a disservice to students, teachers, and parents.

Alberta teachers’ union misses the point about SLAs

October 1, 2014

The Alberta Teachers’ Association has correctly identified a problem but in doing so it has missed the bigger picture.

The ATA is worried about administering the province’s new Student Learning Assessments (SLA) for Grade 3 students. They say that teachers do not have enough time to administer and mark these assessments.

These concerns are well-founded. The SLAs were to be administered over a two week period and take up about four hours of teaching time. The ATA estimates that grading time would take about 45 minutes per student. With a typical class of 25 students, this amounts to more than 20 hours of extra work for each teacher.

This is outrageous, and it doesn’t take much digging to get to the root of the problem. The SLAs are another bad idea coming from the Alison Redford era. Astute political observers will recall that Redford won the Progressive Conservative leadership race largely by convincing thousands of non-PC supporters to take out party memberships and vote for her. Many of these were teachers.

Redford promised that she would scrap most of the province’s standardized tests and replace them with individualized learning assessments. Consequently, the Grade 3 tests have been replaced and grades 6 and 9 tests will soon follow. Redford is gone from the legislature, but her shortsighted policies, like this one, still remain on the agenda. Little did Redford’s enthusiastic union supporters realize that her SLAs would be a far greater burden for their members than the standardized tests they wanted abolished.

Instead of acknowledging the boondoggle it helped create, the ATA has focused on the teachers’ preparation time. The ATA apparently has no problem with scrapping well-designed standardized tests, and replacing them with inferior SLAs.  But, now it realizes that teachers need much more time to grade them. In other words, they want school boards to simply give teachers release time from their classroom responsibilities to grade these tests.

Unfortunately, the ATA’s proposed solution treats the symptom, not the problem. Replacing end-of-year standardized tests with process-based assessments at the beginning of the year always takes valuable time away from the work that teachers and students should be doing. That is exactly what happened in Manitoba when the government scrapped the Grade 3 standardized test.

Instead of giving teachers more time to teach, the new process-based assessment at the beginning of the year resulted in significantly less time. When the Manitoba government introduced similar assessments at higher grade levels, even more class time was lost. Throughout this process, Manitoba saw its achievement levels in math, science, and reading decline more than any other province.

While class time is always valuable, teachers know that it is most valuable at the beginning of the school year. During September and October, teachers are establishing important classroom routines, getting to know their students, and introducing new concepts. By the time June rolls around, students and teachers are often ready for end-of-the-year exams, whether standardized or teacher-created, to help students remain motivated and focused.

In contrast, the new SLAs will take away class time at the beginning of the year when teachers and students are ready to learn new concepts. Then, if ATA has its way, substitute teachers will be in the classroom to give teachers the time they need to grade the SLAs. As a result, Alberta students will lose valuable class time with their regular teachers.

The ATA is right to complain about the time the SLAs will take up, but is wrong to suggest that school boards hire substitute teachers to take over classrooms while teachers grade these assessments. Instead, the obvious solution is to reject Alison Redford’s misguided promise to abolish year-end standardized testing.

Premier Jim Prentice has a short window of opportunity to abandon the failed education policies of his predecessor and return to the path that helped Alberta become one of the top performing jurisdictions in the world. He needs to repudiate the misguided “Inspiring Education” agenda and retain the existing standardized tests at the end of the school year.