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.

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.

A Parents’ Guide to Common Sense Education in Alberta

September 11, 2014

Alberta parents frustrated with fuzzy math assignments, confusing report cards, and low academic standards are about to get some much-needed help. The Frontier Centre has released A Parents’ Guide to Common Sense Education in Alberta. This handbook, written by Frontier research fellow and classroom teacher Michael Zwaagstra, shines a light on the problems with the Alberta government’s misguided “Inspiring Education” initiative.

“Parents are tired of the endless stream of failed education fads that keep resurfacing in our schools,” explains Zwaagstra. “This handbook will show parents that, contrary to what they hear from ‘Inspiring Education’ advocates, there is compelling research evidence for the effectiveness of traditional teaching methodologies.”

Zwaagstra sifts through the research studies and shows that many of the most common education fads (i.e. discovery learning, multiple intelligences, learning styles, etc.) lack empirical evidence. “It’s time we stop wasting our time on useless fads and start focusing on actually improving instruction in our schools,” concludes Zwaagstra.

This handbook also makes the case for report cards that make sense to students and parents. Zwaagstra shows that the reasons school board officials often give for removing percentage grades from report cards fail to withstand scrutiny. Parents have every right to demand their children receive report cards that make sense.

A Parents’ Guide to Common Sense Education in Alberta will empower parents and other concerned citizens by giving them the information they need to push back against public education’s foolish fads.

Scrapping achievement tests is a big mistake

May 14, 2013

Published in the Calgary Herald.

In a giant leap backward, Education Minister Jeff Johnson recently announced his plans to scrap the provincial achievement tests currently written by grades 3, 6 and 9 students. They will be replaced in the near future by more “student-friendly” assessments to be written at the beginning of the year.

It isn’t difficult to see the likely outcome from similarly wrong-headed decisions. Manitoba went down the same route in 1999 and the results have not been good. Before its current government, Manitoba had a full system of standards tests administered to grades 3, 6, 9 and 12 students, similar to what currently exists in Alberta. Over a decade, Manitoba eliminated its grades 3, 6 and 9 tests and replaced them with performance checklists given at the beginning of the school year.

During the same time period, Manitoba students went from the middle of the pack among Canadian provinces in their math and reading skills to second last. Only Prince Edward Island students turned in worse results. Interestingly, Manitoba and Prince Edward Island also happened to be the two provinces with the least amount of standardized testing. However, Prince Edward Island recently started implementing standards tests for grades 3, 6 and 9 students, leaving Manitoba as the only province without any standards tests before Grade 12.

Now the Alberta government plans to follow Manitoba’s example and join it in a race to the bottom. This is a disappointing development, especially since Alberta has long been the top performing province in the country.

To make matters worse, none of the reasons the government gives for eliminating the provincial achievement tests makes much sense. For example, Johnson claimed the current tests are too stressful for students and need to be replaced by more “student-friendly” assessments. However, other than anecdotal stories offered up by testing opponents, no one has been able to demonstrate why the tests are too stressful for students. Students have written these tests successfully for more than 30 years and there is no reason why they should now be considered too stressful.

Apparently, the education minister thinks that writing the provincial achievement tests on a single day adds to the stress of these exams. So he plans to replace them with assessments written over several days. However, there is no reason to conclude that stretching out the time over which a test is written makes it any less stressful. But it does increase the likelihood more students will miss at least part of the test if they are absent on any of the test days.

Ironically, these new tests may take up even more time than the provincial achievement tests. It has certainly been the experience of Manitoba teachers, particularly at the Grade 3 level, as Ben Levin, former deputy minister of education for Manitoba, acknowledged in his book, Governing Education. They are therefore unlikely to accomplish the goal of freeing up more class time for instruction.

Another argument for replacing the PATs with an assessment at the beginning of the year is that the data will help teachers target their instruction to the needs of their students. This is a weak argument, since one of the main reasons teachers’ unions give for their opposition to standardized testing is that teachers already know where their students are at. In other words, teachers shouldn’t need the data from a provincial assessment to provide good instruction.

In addition, writing the PATs at the end of the school year makes perfect sense. The PATs are an objective measurement tool that, when combined with the data provided by teachers from their own assessments, gives a more complete picture of overall student achievement for that year. Giving tests at the beginning of the year removes accountability since it is easy to blame poor performance on summer learning loss or on last year’s teachers.

Finally, since students are often most ready to learn in September, teachers will end up wasting valuable instructional time at the beginning of the school year. In contrast, virtually all teachers know that June is the worst time for students to try to learn new concepts. So if we are going to make the most efficient use of instructional time, it makes sense to have students write standardized tests at the end of the year rather than at the beginning.

Scrapping the provincial achievement tests makes no sense. The Alberta government should reverse its giant leap backward and keep the PATs in their current form.