Alberta schools are getting worse, not better

December 20, 2013

There is an old saying that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results. By this standard, the Redford government must be insane—at least when it comes to public education reform.

Over the last decade, the Department of Education has initiated a radical overhaul of public education in this province. Less reliance on standardized testing, a discovery-based math curriculum, reduced emphasis on academic content, and new grading schemes are but a few examples. But, the results have not been encouraging.

In fact, recently released data from the Programme for International Assessment (PISA) paints a grim picture of a province in academic decline. Nowhere has the decline been more precipitous than in math. While Alberta students used to lead the country in math scores, they are now merely average. Without a dramatic shift back to the academic basics, this downward trend will almost certainly continue.

Education minister Jeff Johnson paid lip service to the problem last week but gave no indication that he plans to reverse course. Of course, there was little reason to expect otherwise. As one of the key architects behind the 2009 Inspiring Education report, Johnson has a vested interest in continuing his department’s current direction.

However, once you strip away his report’s soaring rhetoric and cut through the edu-babble, Inspiring Education was merely a recycled presentation of the failed progressive ideologies of the past. Its pledge to move education away from learning specific knowledge and skills to a process of inquiry and discovery has been the typical rallying cry of progressive educators for more than a century.

For example, back in 1918 educational theorist William Heard Kilpatrick outlined his “project method” in an article published in the Teachers College Record. Just like Inspiring Education, Kilpatrick advocated the integration of subject areas and downplayed the importance of academic content. In fact, Inspiring Education is so similar to Kilpatrick’s philosophy that it could have been written by him if he were still alive.

Sadly, Kilpatrick’s progressive philosophy had a profoundly negative impact on public education in North America. While a small number of education professors opposed Kilpatrick’s philosophy, most education schools adopted his ideas and passed them on to future generations of teachers.

Until recently, Alberta stood out as a beacon of common sense against the onslaught of this progressive ideology. Its commitment to parental choice, rigorous standardized testing, and solid academic content made Alberta unique in Canada. Alberta students had the highest PISA scores in Canada and one of the best in the world. Unfortunately, as the Redford government continues to dismantle the best features of Alberta’s once proud school system, students pay the price.

Teachers frustrated with the decline in academic standards shouldn’t expect any help from the Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA). In its 2012 research update entitled A Great School for All: Transforming Education in Alberta, the ATA praised the province’s Inspiring Education report as “a positive first step.” Incredibly, the ATA wants to go even further down the progressive path of education reform.

Much of the ATA’s report is an endorsement of Finland’s education system and the so-called “fourth way” paradigm of American educator Andy Hargreaves.  This admiration of Finland stems from the way its schools incorporate aspects of progressive ideology in their practice. As a result, the ATA seeks to remake Alberta’s education system in the image of Finland.

Unfortunately for them, Finland dropped from its once high standing on PISA. While still one of the higher performing nations, Finland’s results have declined over the last decade and now scores at almost exactly the same level as Canada. Asian countries such as Singapore, South Korea, and Shanghai, all of whom use traditional methods of instruction, have significantly surpassed Finland. As a result, Finland has lost its lustre as a model of school reform; Alberta should be looking to countries like Singapore instead of Finland.

To make matters worse, as the Redford government continues to water down academic standards, some school boards are replacing percentage grades on report cards with confusing and imprecise letter grades. This makes it difficult for parents to understand how their children are doing. Acting on the advice of misguided assessment gurus, some schools even adopted rigid no-zero policies, as Edmonton teacher Lynden Dorval found out last year.

If the Redford government continues on the failed progressive path of reform, academic achievement will continue to decline. Without a major course correction, things are going to get a lot worse before they get better.  Insanity, as they say, is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Alberta’s parents deserve better.

Standardized testing is needed now

December 5, 2013

Published in the Winnipeg Free Press.

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a series of skills-based tests written by students from 65 OECD countries, has been published. The results aren’t good for Manitoba.

Compared with other provinces, our students rank near the bottom in mathematics, reading and science. To make matters worse, Manitoba’s decline continued a trend that began more than a decade ago.

In what looked like an obvious attempt at deflection, the Department of Education sent out a flurry of press releases trumpeting some of its education initiatives on the same day the PISA data were released.

Smaller class sizes, back-to-basics math instruction and new report cards all feature prominently.

Clearly, the government wants parents and taxpayers to believe that everything is under control in the public schools. Don’t worry about the declining performance of our students, look at all the good things that are happening.

Now some of these initiatives do have promise. Most notably, recent changes to the K-8 math curriculum requiring students to memorize math facts and use the standard algorithms for addition, subtraction, multiplication and division will, no doubt, improve the math skills of our students.

The research literature, however, is inconclusive on whether class-size caps and new report cards will make much difference in student academic achievement.

Instead of engaging in a snow job, the Department of Education should answer one fundamental question: How will it evaluate the effectiveness of these and other education initiatives?

Commonly used criteria such as high school graduation rates, attendance rates and student attitude surveys don’t really tell parents and taxpayers much about academic achievement.

Since the PISA tests are conducted only once every three years, we won’t get the next report until 2016. If we remain with the status quo, Manitoba will continue being at the bottom.

There is a better option. Manitoba could follow the lead of every other Canadian province and bring back standardized testing.

Under the previous government, Manitoba students wrote standardized tests in grades 3, 6, 9 and 12.

Since the NDP came into power in 1999, these tests have been systematically eliminated, with the exception of the Grade 12 tests.

Interestingly, the elimination of standardized testing closely coincides with the steady decline in students’ academic achievement on the PISA tests.

Annual standardized tests at a few grade levels would make it possible to measure the effectiveness of new education initiatives. Instead of waiting three years until the next PISA test, the department should create its own tests that are based on the provincial curriculum.

With information obtained from properly designed standardized tests, the government could react more quickly when problems are identified. Provincial tests could also identify areas of excellence.

One of the most common arguments against using standardized testing is that those countries that have them, such as the United States, have worse PISA results.

There are two major problems with this argument. First, the standardized tests used in Canadian provinces bear almost no resemblance to the American tests. The narrowly defined, high-stakes exams used in many American states are much different than the balanced, curriculum-based tests used in higher-performing provinces such as Alberta.

Second, most of the top-performing countries on PISA (such as Singapore, Japan and South Korea) have standardized testing in place. Overall, the results show well-designed standardized tests can benefit student academic performance.

Without standardized tests to keep schools focused on the fundamentals, schools often drift away from an academic focus.

From school division amalgamations to extra physical education credits to social justice initiatives, the Department of Education has, over the last decade, focused on everything except improving the academic achievement of our students. Receiving a wake-up call every three years from the PISA results isn’t enough to make the department change course.

In order to move up from the bottom of the pack, schools need a sharper focus on the academic basics.

This will only happen if parents and taxpayers force the department to measure academic results with standardized tests.

Without this accountability, our province will continue to drift aimlessly until the next PISA results arrive in three years.

Then it will be too late for the students who are in high school now.