Schools should focus on the essentials

Originally published by the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, March 15, 2012.             Original Link

When everything is a priority, nothing is a priority. Nowhere does this expression hold true more than in our public schools.

Although the length of the school day has remained essentially unchanged for the last few decades, the same cannot be said about the expectations placed upon classroom teachers. In addition to providing academic instruction, a classroom teacher today is expected to fill the roles of social worker, nurse, police officer, and counselor, to name just a few. With all of these responsibilities, it’s a wonder teachers have time to do any teaching at all.

Provincial governments don’t make it any easier when they regularly expand the mandate of public schools into areas that go far beyond academic instruction. For example, the Manitoba government encourages schools to focus on social justice and environmental sustainability initiatives while the Ontario government micromanages schools down to the level of banning unhealthy food from canteens. None of this has much, if anything, to do with the instructional mandate of schools.

Fortunately some educators have begun pushing back against this trend. Mike Schmoker’s new book, Focus: Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning, shows how important it is for schools to focus on the essentials. As a former teacher and school administrator, Schmoker writes with the confidence of someone with firsthand experience in the field.

In Schmoker’s view, schools need to focus on three simple things: a reasonably coherent curriculum, sound lessons, and purposeful reading and writing in every discipline. Any school without each of these three things already in place should refuse to begin any new initiative until these essentials are firmly in place.

Schmoker argues that curriculum documents are unnecessarily complex and often swamped in meaningless verbiage. This is most apparent in English Language Arts (ELA) where thick curriculum guides contain almost nothing of substance. Trivial standards such as “find the main idea,” “identify the proper sequence of events,” and “distinguish between major and minor characters” do little to promote meaningful literacy.

In fact, these guides are so generic and useless that high school teachers can faithfully teach the entire ELA curriculum without requiring students to read a single complete book or write a single formal essay.

According to Schmoker, a simplified ELA curriculum that identifies specific books and articles all students should read and specifies the number and length of formal papers to be written at each grade level would go a long way to improve academic standards. Curriculum standards should be based on academic content rather than meaningless edu-babble.

As for classroom instruction, Schmoker argues that the last thing students need more of is 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 a specific learning objective, provides direct instruction focused on that objective, and regularly checks for student understanding.

Schmoker also notes that students are more likely to learn when teachers focus on providing effective, whole-class lessons rather than trying to cater to the individual learning style of every student. He provides several examples of schools in high-poverty neighbourhoods where their students are reading well above grade level. In these schools, early years teachers engage all students in learning through whole-class lessons with regular checks for understanding.

The incorporation of purposeful reading and writing in every discipline is also recommended by Schmoker. He argues that many teachers are too quick to avoid the use of textbooks in classroom instruction. Reading dense, complex prose found in textbooks is an excellent way for students to improve their reading skills and acquire valuable content knowledge simultaneously.

Students should also spend more time writing tightly focused essays in which they interact with books and articles. Schmoker asserts that essay writing is an excellent all-in-one assessment of a student’s reading and writing abilities and should therefore be done regularly.

Schmoker is absolutely right when he notes that some things have a much bigger impact on student achievement than others. Ensuring that schools have a coherent curriculum, sound lessons, and purposeful reading and writing activities are essential to improving the amount of student learning that takes place.

Instead of adding new initiatives and dumping more responsibilities on teachers, provincial politicians and school division administrators should follow Schmoker’s advice and focus on what matters the most. Students and teachers alike would benefit greatly from this approach.

Promoting failure in Canadian high schools

Originally published by the National Post, September 23, 2009.
Original Link

With orientation sessions over and several weeks of classes under their belts, first-year university students realize they face a challenging academic year. Unfortunately, several recent studies revealed what many of us already know: too many high school graduates are unprepared for university.

Using data from Statistics Canada, the Persistence in Post-Secondary Education in Canada report found about 14 per cent of university students drop out in their first year. Reasons cited for quitting include failure to meet deadlines, poor academic performance, and inadequate study habits. Almost one million students participated in the survey so there is little doubt these results are representative of the general student population.

This report comes as high schools continue to lower their academic standards and focus more on promoting student self-esteem than covering academic content. Considering the large number of students who enroll in post-secondary education after completing high school, it is disappointing that schools do not place greater emphasis on preparing students for life beyond their walls.

Many schools do not allow teachers to deduct marks for late assignments or academic dishonesty and make it almost impossible to assign zeroes for incomplete work. As a result, students who achieved high marks in school with minimal effort find out the hard way that things are quite different in university.

In a separate survey conducted by the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations, professors made it clear that they do not believe high schools do enough to prepare students for university. More than half of professors surveyed stated that students were less prepared now than students from just three years earlier.

Among other things, professors cited lower maturity levels, poor research skills, and expectations of success without the requisite effort as areas of concern. Sadly, none of this should come as a surprise to anyone familiar with educational trends in Canada since these are the type of graduates often produced by our system.

The problem begins in the early grades where social promotion–the practice of passing students to the next grade regardless of their academic achievement, is commonplace across the country. Personal self-esteem receives a higher priority in many schools than actual performance.

Thus, large numbers of high school students find themselves unable to handle the academic material at their respective grade levels. Although failure occurs at high school, teachers are still strongly encouraged to do everything possible to ensure students graduate. This often means watering down the curriculum content under the overused slogan, “We’re teaching students, not subjects.” As a result, classroom teachers see their subject matter expertise downplayed and replaced with an emphasis on “holistic” learning.

The problem with this approach is it undermines the academic integrity of a high school diploma. Employers and post-secondary institutions assume students possess a certain amount of academic skill and knowledge when they receive a diploma. Graduates lacking in these skills find that the real world is considerably less accommodating of their unique learning styles.

The president of the Ontario faculty association, Brian Brown, made his opinion about the lack of preparedness among high school graduates very clear. “It is very troubling that a majority of respondents are witnessing a decline in student preparedness. Study after study shows that success in university is linked to the preparedness of students for the rigours of the university curriculum.”

Despite Professor Brown’s perceptive analysis, provincial education departments consistently give low priority to university preparedness. In provinces such as Manitoba, all provincial standards tests except those in grade 12 were eliminated over the past decade while Alberta’s education minister, Dave Hancock, recently mused about overhauling the School Act to place less emphasis on teacher instruction and more on student-initiated learning. These are not the type of reforms our students need.

Education ministers must pay attention to survey results showing how woefully unprepared high school graduates are for university. Provincial education departments should not reduce the number of standardized tests administered, discourage teachers from lecturing to their students, or downplay the importance of learning content. These are the very things students need if they are going to be successful in their academic studies beyond high school.

We’ve spent enough time focusing on the self-esteem of our students. Let’s raise our standards and make sure students get the education they deserve. This may make high school more challenging to complete, but students will benefit in the long-run. And they’ll feel better about their real, as opposed to imagined, accomplishments.