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.

Forgo failed education fads

June 5, 2014

Published in The Chronicle Herald (Halifax)

Nova Scotia schools could be in for some major changes. The Minister’s Panel on Education, struck by the Liberal government, will review public education and make recommendations. But if it embraces contemporary education fads, it will do more harm than good.

For parents eagerly awaiting the panel’s report, here’s a prediction of what’s likely to appear.

The panel will begin by pointing out that the world is changing rapidly while schools are still mired in “factory-model” education of the 19th century. Instead of getting students to memorize facts that will soon become outdated, the panel will recommend that teachers must focus on “helping students learn to learn.”

This will lead to the central theme in the panel’s report — the need to move Nova Scotia to a 21st-century learning model. It will recommend rewriting curriculum guides to focus less on content, and more on the process of learning. In addition, it will stress the need for schools to do a better job of integrating technology in classrooms.

How can I be so confident about what’s going to appear in the panel’s report? Because the same empty philosophy and shallow platitudes appear in similar reports from other provinces. The most obvious example is Alberta’s “Inspiring Education” initiative.

Released in 2010 with great fanfare, Inspiring Education suggested that Alberta’s education system needs a fundamental transformation. It trumpeted the importance of 21st-century skills and spoke about “the role of the teacher changing from that of a knowledge authority to an architect of learning.” And, for good measure, Inspiring Education concluded that “technology should play a broader role in the classroom.”

However, while the Alberta government appears enthusiastic about this new direction, this is not true for Alberta parents, teachers, and students.

For example, more than 14,000 parents signed a petition expressing their unhappiness with Alberta’s fuzzy math curriculum. They want the education minister to ensure students learn standard algorithms and memorize their math facts.

Currently, the math curriculum does none of this. Instead, it places a strong emphasis on the so-called discovery approach. Students are supposed to figure out ways of solving math problems by themselves while teachers are discouraged from providing direct instruction. Unfortunately, this is exactly the learning environment envisioned for all grades and subjects in Inspiring Education.

The Alberta education minister recently reinforced this direction with the release of his Task Force for Teaching Excellence report. In it, the task force insists that all teachers must “shift from the dissemination of information and recall of facts to a greater focus on inquiry and discovery.”

The task force also wants principals to evaluate teachers based on the degree to which they adopt this philosophy. Teachers would need to get re-certified every five years and, presumably, could lose their licences if they use a more traditional teaching approach.

It should come as little surprise that the Alberta Teachers’ Association is against these recommendations. Over 450 teacher delegates took the unprecedented step of unanimously voting no-confidence in the education minister at their annual meeting.

Clearly, Alberta’s Inspiring Education agenda is far from universally supported.

Despite the train wreck in Alberta, other provincial governments are moving in the same misguided direction. British Columbia’s education department is promoting the B.C. Education Plan, which similarly trumpets the need to change everything in schools because “the world is changing.”

Like Alberta, it wants to make teachers “shift from being the primary source of content to focus on helping students learn how to learn.”

Fortunately, Nova Scotia still has the opportunity to avoid these misguided educational reforms. Instead of copying empty slogans from the 21st century education movement, the Minister’s Panel on Education should examine ways to help teachers do their jobs more effectively. Less top-down micromanagement by bureaucrats, fewer useless education fads, and more empowerment of classroom teachers would be good places to start.

Nova Scotian parents and students deserve more than failed approaches and empty platitudes. Hopefully, the panel’s upcoming report will prove my pessimistic predictions wrong, and will propose evidence-based recommendations that would actually improve this province’s schools.

Unfortunately, it is more likely we will see more of the faddish and misguided policy advice that has emerged from similar review processes in other jurisdictions.

Charting new course for small schools

April 20, 2013

Published in The Chronicle Herald (Halifax)

The last few years have been difficult ones for public education in Nova Scotia. Declining student enrolment, poor academic results and unpopular school closures are just a few of the problems facing this province.

When it comes to school closures, trustees and parents are caught in a vicious cycle. As student numbers decline, the province reduces funding to public school boards. In order to balance their budgets, boards make unpopular decisions to close schools. Parents feel powerless as trustees ignore their impassioned pleas to keep community schools open.

However, instead of making parents fight a hopeless battle against monolithic and unresponsive school boards, the province should give them the tools they need to take meaningful action. It should follow the example of Alberta and pass charter schools legislation.

Charter schools are public schools that operate independently of school boards. They are governed by non-profit organizations and receive an annual per-student operational grant from the province. Charter schools have no religious affiliation, practise an open enrolment policy and follow the provincial curriculum. Currently, 13 charter schools operate in the province of Alberta.

Parents in rural Nova Scotia should take note of recent events in the tiny hamlet of Valhalla Centre in northwest Alberta. Several years ago, Valhalla Centre nearly lost its community school. However, instead of allowing the school board to proceed with closure, parents and other community members banded together, purchased the school building from the board, and established Valhalla Community School as an independently operated charter school.

Because the school now operates independently of the school board, the community adopted a charter that reflects local concerns and values. Valhalla Community School places a strong emphasis on rural leadership and requires its students to learn about board governance and parliamentary procedure. It also focuses on teacher-directed instruction, classical literature, drill and practice in mathematics, and accurate spelling and grammar. Interestingly, since becoming a charter school, student enrolment has steadily grown as it now attracts students from the wider geographical area.

Imagine what Nova Scotia parents could do if they had the same opportunity to establish charter schools as parents in Alberta. Charter schools legislation would make it possible for parents to keep their schools open while simultaneously refashioning them to better reflect the values of the local community.

Not only that, but charter schools can revolutionize education in urban centres as well. Consider the example of Foundations for the Future Charter Academy (FFCA) in Calgary. FFCA was established almost 20 years ago and its enrolment has steadily grown to almost 3,000 students today on seven different campuses.

Like Valhalla, FFCA places a strong emphasis on traditional academics and hard work. FFCA students wear uniforms, complete regular homework, memorize their math facts and learn to read by phonics. Its program is so popular with parents that it has more than 6,000 students on its wait list.

Many parents in Halifax would probably be very interested if a school like FFCA opened in their city. Since charter schools do not charge tuition, admission would be open to all parents, not just those who could afford high tuition fees.

Parents dissatisfied with the instruction provided in regular public schools would finally have an alternative.

However, the range of potential charter schools goes far beyond those who prefer a traditional model of education.

For example, the Boyle Street Education Centre in Calgary caters to at-risk youth in the 14 to 19 age group while Mother Earth’s Children’s Charter School in Stony Mountain focuses on aboriginal education. In addition, the Suzuki Charter School in Edmonton promotes advanced music skills at an early age using the approach of renowned musician Shinichi Suzuki.

Clearly, charter schools reflect the diversity of Canadian society.

In contrast, the one-size-fits-all model of public education in Nova Scotia does not meet the needs of a diverse population.

The natural trend towards increased central control by school board officials means school principals have limited control over their own schools and simply follow the dictates of the board.

Not only that, recent controversies around school closures have shown that school boards cannot effectively respond to the needs of parents and communities in the face of budget cuts.

Charter schools have the potential to transform public education in Nova Scotia. All the government needs to do is give them a chance.

Progressive ideology a failure

January 24, 2013

Published by The Chronicle Herald (Halfax)

One of the most common sayings prospective teachers hear in university is that a classroom teacher should be “a guide on the side rather than a sage on the stage.” This pithy quote sums up the progressive approach to education that dominates our public schools.

The progressive approach de-emphasizes subject matter knowledge and encourages students to construct their own understanding of the world around them. Teachers who make their students master basic math and reading skills through drill and practice are dismissed as old-fashioned, while teachers who involve students in open-ended inquiry projects are hailed as innovators.

While progressive educators claim their approach is supported by educational research, the reality is quite different. In fact, research evidence makes it clear that students benefit greatly from teachers who use traditional teaching techniques.

John Hattie is director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute at the University of Melbourne and one of the world’s leading experts on student achievement. His recent book, Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning, is based on a synthesis of more than 60,000 research studies.

Hattie does not shy away from critiquing the cherished dogmas of progressive ideology. Most notably, Hattie rejects the notion that teachers should act primarily as non-intrusive facilitators, arguing instead that teachers must assume an active role directing learning.

One thing all teachers should do is require students to develop their skills through practice. While progressive educators deride practice and repetition as “drill and kill,” Hattie argues that deliberate practice is an essential part of learning. He cites a number of research studies that demonstrate the importance of many hours of practice in order to develop expertise. Hattie even goes so far as to say that, in some cases, learning “is simply doing some things many times over.”

Progressives strongly support open-ended activities in the classroom in which students direct their own learning. However, Hattie cautions against too many open-ended activities (such as discovery learning, searching the Internet, and PowerPoint presentations) because students are easily distracted from what is important. Once again, teachers need to do far more than act as mere guides on the side.

While Hattie acknowledges the importance of helping students develop critical thinking skills and gain greater self-awareness, he differs starkly from progressives in his emphasis on content. “All of this depends on subject matter knowledge, because enquiry and critical evaluation is not divorced from knowing something,” concludes Hattie.

As for the progressive mantra that all students have their own individual learning styles (visual, auditory, tactile-kinesthetic, etc.), Hattie bluntly states there is “zero-evidence” for this theory. Hattie concludes that identifying learning styles is a “modern fad” and a “fruitless pursuit.” Other well-known experts, such as cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham, back up his assessment.

Unfortunately, education officials in Nova Scotia seem blissfully unaware of these findings. As a case in point, the government’s Kids & Learning First document calls on teachers to identify the individual learning styles of each student. Similarly, the Halifax regional school board’s formal assessment policy requires teachers to design “multiple assessment and evaluation strategies that meet the learning styles of students …” Clearly, the individual learning styles fad remains firmly entrenched in this province.

As a result of this unproven theory, many teachers burn themselves out trying to adapt their lessons to every student’s so-called learning style. Instead of wasting their time designing multiple lessons for each topic, teachers should put more effort into instructing the whole class at the same time. Students would learn more and teachers would have more time to focus on things that really matter.

Similarly, the provincial government could significantly improve math instruction if it adopted a curriculum that required students to learn the basic math facts and master the standard algorithms for addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. However, the government’s plan to adopt the math curriculum used by provinces in Western Canada is woefully inadequate since that curriculum is heavily influenced by progressive ideology. With this curriculum, Nova Scotia can expect more of the same poor results.

If the government is serious about improving education, it needs to reject the failed progressive ideology that maintains its stranglehold on public schools. Real change means empowering each teacher to be far more than a mere guide on the side.

How to make math education worse in Nova Scotia

Originally published in The Chronicle Herald (Halifax) on October 3, 2012. Link.

Parents have good reason to be concerned about the state of math education in this province. According to the Pan-Canadian Assessment Program, Nova Scotia students score significantly below the Canadian average in mathematics.

Earlier this year, the Nova Scotia government pledged to improve math instruction by adopting the Alberta math curriculum. Presumably, this means the purchase of new textbooks and lots of professional development seminars for teachers. Many of these training sessions will likely be co-ordinated by the Mathematics Teachers Association, an affiliate of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union.

However, the cure may be worse than the disease. Consider the decision of the Mathematics Teachers Association to have Dr. Marian Small give the keynote address at its upcoming conference on Oct. 25.

Dr. Small is the former dean of education at the University of New Brunswick and one of the foremost proponents of the “new math” approach in Canada. We can only assume that the Mathematics Teachers Association shares her perspective since it chose her as its keynote speaker.

Math Focus, the textbook series authored by Dr. Small, reflects her random abstract approach. For example, the standard algorithms for arithmetic, such as long division and vertical addition with a carry, are almost entirely absent. In their place, we find convoluted word problems, confusing instructions, and complicated diagrams. No wonder many parents find it difficult to help their kids with their math homework.

Recently, I had the opportunity to hear Dr. Small for myself. On Sept. 24, she gave an evening presentation to approximately 80 parents at an elementary school in Winnipeg, Man. Because of her prominence in the field of math education, I assumed she would be able to make an intelligent case for her position. I was wrong.

During her presentation, Dr. Small emphasized that there was more than one way to get the correct answer, and encouraged teachers to assign more open-ended and ambiguous math questions to their students. This way, she argued, all students would be more likely to get a correct answer on their questions. She added that all ways of solving math problems were equally valid and teachers should not make a student feel bad for using a different method.

At this point, I put up my hand and asked Dr. Small whether she felt teachers should include the standard algorithms as a component of math instruction. She replied that she did not. When I asked how she reconciled this with her earlier statement that all ways of solving math questions were equally valid, she insisted that the new math techniques were still better. The message I took from that exchange was that all methods are equally valid unless she didn’t personally agree with them.

I wasn’t the only audience member frustrated by the obvious logical inconsistencies in her presentation. Several math professors in the audience challenged some of Dr. Small’s claims about math instruction. At this point, Dr. Small shut down the questions and said that she was simply going to proceed with her presentation.

It was ironic that Dr. Small emphasized the importance of acknowledging the validity of other perspectives, but did exactly the opposite with her own presentation. She gave a one-sided lecture and refused to seriously dialogue with anyone who expressed an opposing view. This is what Nova Scotia math teachers have to look forward to on Oct. 25.

As for the much-vaunted decision of Nova Scotia’s Department of Education to adopt the Alberta math curriculum, there is much less to this change than meets the eye. Alberta actually has the same math curriculum as the other Western provinces, as evidenced by their shared Western and Northern Canadian Protocol (WNCP). Throughout the implementation of this new curriculum, Alberta has actually seen its math test scores decline.

The WNCP is heavily influenced by Dr. Small, as evidenced by the fact that her textbook series, Math Focus, is a recommended resource for teachers. In fact, the Mathematics Teachers Association proudly trumpets Dr. Small’s experience with the WNCP on its conference website.

Largely in response to the inadequacies of the WNCP curriculum, a group of math professors recently formed the Western Initiative for Strengthening Education in Math (WISE Math). Their website contains links to peer-reviewed research studies that provide solid evidence for a more traditional approach to math instruction.

If the Nova Scotia government is serious about improving math instruction, it needs to move away from a nebulous, feel-good curriculum and adopt a rigorous curriculum that emphasizes the necessary knowledge and skills.

Until then, we can expect math education to get worse in Nova Scotia.