Manitoba schools need to get back to basics

December 19, 2016

Published in the Winnipeg Free Press

Once again, Manitoba students have ranked near the bottom in Canada in the areas of science, math and reading. The Program for International Student Assessment, an international assessment of 15-year-olds conducted every three years by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, showed Manitoba students are six months to one year behind students in top-performing provinces such as British Columbia, Alberta and Quebec.

Anyone who tries to dismiss these results as a one-time anomaly must grapple with the fact results dating back to 2003 show a slow but steady decline. The Pan-Canadian Assessment Program, a different assessment protocol completed by Grade 8 students across Canada, shows a similar decline for Manitoba. In fact, the latest round of Pan-Canadian tests placed Manitoba students dead last.

If the Manitoba government is serious about raising the academic performance of Manitoba students, it needs to do three things.

First, Manitoba should follow the example of nearly every other province and re-establish standardized tests at a variety of grade levels. British Columbia’s Foundation Skills Assessment for students in grades 4 and 7 and Ontario’s tests for grades 3, 6 and 9 students are good examples of effective testing programs.

Standardized tests are important because they provide a provincial benchmark that can be used to determine how students are faring. Well-designed standardized tests highlight areas of strength and also point out areas of weakness. Unfortunately, the near-total absence of standardized tests in Manitoba has resulted in a dearth of information about student academic performance.

It did not help matters when the previous NDP government refused to release what little performance data it had to parents and the public.

Second, the province needs to place a much stronger emphasis on the academic basics — and it needs to send a much clearer message that curricular knowledge matters. For example, despite some limited moves in the right direction in recent years, the math curriculum still remains tilted much too far in the direction of the discovery approach to learning. The other curricular areas, unfortunately, are also tilted in that direction.

As math professors and WISE Math co-founders Anna Stokke and Robert Craigen have pointed out, students must learn standard algorithms for addition, subtraction, multiplication and division as early as possible if they are going to succeed at higher levels of math.

Students also need to spend significant time practising and memorizing their math facts. Multiple research studies confirm that mastering the basics makes deeper learning possible.

When it comes to reading, schools need to do more than help students decode the words on a page. Students need content knowledge, which is the key to reading comprehension. All too often, teachers think of reading as something that can be taught in isolation from specific content. However, research is clear that reading comprehension soars when students have background knowledge about the topic. By contrast, if someone needs to look up the meaning of every other word in an article, that person will not understand the material and will probably not even try reading it.

Well-known education author E. D. Hirsch Jr. makes this point abundantly clear in his latest book, Why Knowledge Matters: Rescuing Our Children from Failed Educational Theories. Hirsch presents substantial evidence showing reading comprehension is closely linked to background knowledge. For many students, particularly those living in poverty, school is the only place they can get this required knowledge. It is, in fact, the only path to success for the many poor children in Manitoba.

It is not enough for schools to teach “critical thinking” skills, as if they exist in a vacuum. In far too many cases, schools attempt to get around the need for knowledge by teaching students generic comprehension strategies such as “finding the main idea,” “drawing logical inferences” and “close reading.” Hirsch clearly shows these strategies are not a substitute for background knowledge.

Finally, the government needs to promote teaching methods and practices that are supported by research, as do faculties of education. Obviously, students and teachers differ, and there is little to be gained from trying to force everyone to teach exactly the same way.

At the same time, some methods are more effective than others. As a case in point, there is a wealth of evidence supporting direct whole-class instruction by teachers and considerably less evidence supporting the “guide by the side” methods currently in vogue in education faculties and in too many classrooms.

Manitoba can do better. It will take a lot of hard work and a willingness to make changes, but Manitoba students and teachers are prepared for the challenge.

Why not gauge progress with a follow-up exam?

Originally published by The Chronicle Herald, June 28, 2012. Original Link

Is it possible to walk and chew gum at the same time?

Apparently not, at least when it comes to education policy in Nova Scotia.

Beginning in the 2013-14 school year, Nova Scotia’s Education Department will change the grade levels at which standardized exams are written.

The most notable change is moving math and literacy exams out of Grade 12 and into Grade 10.

The government defended its decision by arguing that writing the exams earlier gives schools an opportunity to correct problems identified by the assessment. That part seems reasonable enough.

Getting reliable information about student achievement earlier in high school could help teachers better focus their instruction.

What doesn’t make sense is the notion that adding standardized exams in Grade 10 necessitates their removal in Grade 12. Assessment of student learning is not a zero-sum-game and there is no reason to assume students cannot write standardized exams twice in their high school career.

It’s like a car manufacturing plant adding an extra inspection earlier in the assembly line process but simultaneously removing any requirement to inspect the final product.

Without that final check at the end, no one knows whether the car was actually built properly.

Similarly, removing the Grade 12 standardized exams makes it impossible to determine whether schools have been successful in helping students master the basics.

In addition, during the transition period, no high school students will write any standardized exams at all.

Next year, neither Grade 10 nor Grade 12 students will write standardized exams which means no data will be collected on either of these student groups. It is disappointing that the government is willing to let several entire grades slip through the cracks.

Most other provinces require Grade 12 students to write standardized exams in some subjects. High-performing provinces such as Alberta and British Columbia require Grade 12 students to write standardized exams as does Newfoundland and Labrador.

Even Manitoba, the province that has systematically dismantled its standardized testing system over the last 13 years, has chosen to keep its Grade 12 exams.

Since many high school graduates go on to post-secondary education, it is important they be prepared for the reality that they will write many exams in college or university.

Writing a provincial final exam in their last year of school is an excellent way of preparing students for what lies ahead.

The current assessment philosophy in vogue across the country, including in Nova Scotia, is known as assessment for learning.

It emphasizes the distinction between formative assessment (preliminary feedback) and summative assessment (final tests/exams).

Because of this philosophy, teachers are encouraged to make assessment more about giving constructive feedback than simply measuring academic progress at the end.

When applied to standardized exams, it’s not difficult to see why the province wants students to write them at earlier grade levels so as to better use them to inform instructional practice.

What doesn’t logically follow is the idea that summative assessment becomes less important. You need both formative and summative assessment.

Thus, a balanced approach to the standardized exam issue would be to have students write standardized exams in both grades 10 and 12.

We don’t have to look far to see how this could look. In the Chignecto-Central regional school board, students currently write standardized tests in Grade 10 along with the provincially mandated Grade 12 exams.

Obviously this isn’t a problem, since their students have the highest academic average in the province.

Lest anyone claim standardized testing is an economic hardship, it should be noted that the entire budget of Evaluation Services is approximately $3 million while the provincial education budget is $1.1 billion.

This works out to less than 0.3 per cent of the total education budget. Thus, adding or subtracting one standardized exam has virtually no impact on the bottom line.

The Nova Scotia government should do the right thing and keep standardized exams in Grade 12 while still adding them at Grade 10.

More information about student achievement is always a good thing. In this case, we can have our cake and eat it too.


NDP secrecy on schools insulting

Originally published by the Winnipeg Free Press, March 24, 2011. Original Link

For many years, Manitoba has earned a reputation as a middle-of-the-road province with an adversity to extremes.

In one area of provincial policy, however, Manitoba boldly stands alone. It is the only province that stubbornly refuses to make information about student academic performance available to the general public.

The Atlantic Institute for Market Studies and the Frontier Centre for Public Policy recently released a report on public schools in Manitoba and Saskatchewan. In order to compile this report, these think-tanks needed information such as school graduation rates, attendance records and student performance on standards tests.

Whereas Saskatchewan willingly released most of the requested information, Manitoba Education and Literacy refused to co-operate.

As a result, the report contains virtually no useful information about Manitoba high schools. The NDP government’s emphasis on keeping student performance data secret put us offside with Saskatchewan and sets us apart from the practice of every other province in Canada.

Information that is routinely available in other parts of the country remains locked away in Manitoba. Education Minister Nancy Allan made a number of media appearances in an attempt to justify her government’s stance against accountability. During a recent CBC radio interview, Allan offered up her usual talking points.

In her initial argument, Allan pointed out that the province released a report called A Profile of Student Learning and Performance in Manitoba on its website. The report is limited to providing only student data on a provincewide basis. This makes it useful only to people naive enough to believe that all schools in Manitoba are exactly the same.

When challenged on this point, Allan argued there was no benefit to breaking down the information any further. According to Allan, if that kind of data were available to the public then it might be misused by think-tanks who wish to rank schools on the basis of performance.

With all due respect to Minister Allan, that is an absurd reason to keep information away from the public. Using this logic, the province should also prevent regional health authorities from releasing any regional health care data just in case some think-tank decides to “misuse” the information and ranks hospitals on the basis of performance. If everything is the same across the province, perhaps the government should also mandate that MPI stop charging different insurance rates to drivers based on where they live and instead average everything out on a provincewide basis.

This paternalistic approach to information by the NDP government is insulting to the public. We don’t need Minister Allan or anyone else from the government telling us that these data are being kept away from us for our own good.

In addition, there is good reason for concern about student academic achievement in Manitoba. Last year, the Programme for International Student Assessment found that Manitoba now comes in second-last among Canadian provinces in reading and mathematics. In fact, this assessment shows that provincewide academic results have steadily declined since the NDP took power in 1999. The government probably thinks it has good reason to keep academic data away from Manitobans — particularly during an election year.

It was ironic that during the same radio interview Allan pointed to the strong PISA results from Finland as proof that we don’t need standards tests in this province. Finland, she noted, does not have a lot of standards tests and yet still does very well on international comparisons of student achievement.

Aside from the obvious irony of using results from a standards test to prove we don’t need standards testing, there are other reasons to be cautious about comparisons with Finland. The population in Finland is considerably more homogenous than in Canada and schooling is only compulsory until the end of Grade 9. Local schools also have considerably more autonomy than they do in Manitoba.

Unless the NDP is considering implementing these examples from the Finnish model, it might be wise for Allan to avoid simplistic comparisons with other countries.

In the meantime, Manitoba needs to follow the example of other provinces and make academic achievement data available to the public. People have a right to know how their schools are doing.

Purdue University study confronts edu-babble

Originally published in the Vancouver Sun, February 8, 2011. Original Link

It is wrong to force students to memorize information simply because it’s going to be on a test. Research shows that rote learning is largely out-of-date in the 21st century. Instead of telling students what they need to learn, teachers should encourage them to construct their own understanding of the world around them. The progressive approach to education is far more useful to students than the mindless regurgitation of mere facts.”

Anyone involved in education knows these types of edu-babble statements are often heard in teacher-training institutions. Education professors continually push teachers to move away from traditional methods of instruction.

A friend of mine who graduated several years ago with his bachelor of education degree told me the main question on one of his final exams: “Explain why testing is a poor way to authentically assess student learning.” The irony of testing students on their understanding of why testing is bad never seemed to sink in for that professor.

Unfortunately, this anti-testing mantra affects more than just educational theory in Canada. Over the last decade, Manitoba eliminated most provincial standards tests, while at the school level, many administrators expect teachers to reduce their use of tests in the classroom. These administrators claim that students benefit more from hands-on activities than from memorizing items scheduled to appear on the next test.

However, a new research study published in the Jan. 21 edition of the journal Science presents a significant challenge to the reigning educational ideology. Researchers from Purdue University had 200 college students read several paragraphs about a scientific topic, such as how the digestive system works. Students were then divided into several groups, with each group using a different study technique. The study found that students who took a test in which they wrote out the key concepts by memory significantly outperformed students who did not take a test.

A week later the same groups of students were given a short-answer test about the material in question. Once again, students who had studied for a test one week earlier substantially outperformed everyone else. Even the students themselves were surprised at the difference studying for a test made to their long-term retention of the subject matter. These results certainly challenge the assumption that students who study for tests simply forget the material immediately afterwards.

The lead researcher on this study, psychology professor Jeffrey Karpicke, noted that these results confirm the importance of actively committing concepts to memory. “But learning is fundamentally about retrieving, and our research shows that practising retrieval while you study is crucial to learning. Self-testing enriches and improves the learning process, and there needs to be more focus on using retrieval as a learning strategy,” stated Karpicke.

In other words, learning, particularly in the lower grades, has more to do with acquiring existing knowledge than constructing completely new knowledge. There is a core base of knowledge and skills that all students need to acquire, and schools are responsible for ensuring that this happens.

The Purdue University study lends considerable weight to the position that teachers should require their students to write tests on a regular basis. Although this does not necessitate the complete abandonment of other assessment methods, it does mean that professional development for teachers should recognize the value of traditional teaching methods.

One of the arguments commonly used against this approach is that it encourages rote learning instead of critical thinking.

The problem with this argument is it creates a false dichotomy, since critical thinking can only take place if students possess the necessary knowledge base about a subject matter. For example, students who memorize their basic math facts are far better positioned to master complex mathematical concepts than those who never learn them.

In addition, if we want to help students retain the knowledge they acquire in school, it makes sense for schools to require students to write final exams in core subject areas. It is not difficult to see how the process of studying for final exams helps students retain key concepts from their courses. None of this means that teachers should rely exclusively on making students memorize information for tests. However, we must ensure that testing remains a central component of what happens in school.