Assessment in education: say what?

I’m going to repost a few of my earlier musings on education. I can’t help thinking that now is a good time.

Knowledge is power. Information is liberating. Education is the premise of progress, in every society, in every family.
Kofi Annan

I read a report in the local paper recently that awakened my frustration with the manner in which the press frequently covers matters related to education. Implicitly (and almost explicitly) the article lends support to the claim that “time on task” is the answer to virtually any existing educational deficit. By doing so such articles continue the trend of simplistic analysis of a very complex issue. It is the instructional equivalent of the oft-paraded boast that New Brunswick high schools graduate more students today than they did 30 years ago. Neither time on task (as a solution) nor graduation statistics (as proof of success in the system) provides the kind of detailed analysis of the system that might help people understand how broken that system really is.
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If we still had investigative journalism that could take the time needed, a story could be told of empty curricula wrapped in theoretical educational dogmatism, schools overburdened with the attempted implementation of social engineering, and classrooms as sites for ongoing experimentation in service of someone’s pet educational theory. It is far sadder and more dire than a simple addition of days can indicate.

As education has struggled, at the university level, to present itself as a viable social science in its own right – on a par with psychology, sociology, history, etc – it has been driven increasingly by the desire to present its claims as rooted in research and the scientific method. In itself, this isn’t so bad. It has long been my contention, however, that positioning education in such a way does little to actually serve students. For all of the talk of “student-centred” instruction, the theories that underpin the actual practice of such instruction view young people more as lab rats or commodities than they do complex and diverse human beings.
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How appropriate that just around the time I was thinking about this issue the Department of Education should release the latest results of its provincial assessment program. Be prepared for any number of follow-up editorials and/or commentaries pointing to the number of days students are out of the classroom, whether it be because teachers are involved in some form of professional development or a particularly harsh winter. In either case (or any other), it remains my contention that pointing to “time on task” is nothing more than continuing evidence of the lack of political will necessary if we are to take a hard look at the state of our educational system.

Consider: the prevailing view in our system – for the better part of three decades now – is that holding a student back a grade when he/she has failed to meet expectations is tantamount to inhumane. What is far more destructive, in my estimation, is moving a student forward into an environment where the resources to address any deficit are lacking. The young person in question falls further behind with each passing year but “accommodations” are made to ensure that forward progress is not interrupted. I can’t avoid mentioning the occasions, when I was teaching, where transcripts from middle school occasionally revealed students entering high school without having passed a single course in Grade 8. From the system’s perspective, it was simply time for such a student to move on.
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Such practices as “anecdotal report cards” – ostensibly an improvement over the old percentage or letter grades – simply obscure further an already murky picture of achievement. Teachers write accounts of student progress in light of “outcomes” – a term I personally despise because it does not offer anything definitive – rather than assign a “grade”, something that high schools, universities and community colleges will demand as a student moves through our educational system.

And then the anomaly: amidst all the “outcomes”, along comes the provincial assessment results. Reported how? As percentages! Now, admittedly, these percentages are not percentages as most of us of a certain age would remember them. These are not marks per se; rather, they indicate the percentage of students who have achieved an “appropriate” level of literacy. Now I ask you: how many people are truly aware of that distinction? For most, using the grade 2 reading assessment as an example, the results mean that 73.8% of students “passed”. Things are apparently looking up by Grade 9: 80.4% of those students “passed”.
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But let’s look at this from the perspective of another measure. We routinely hear that New Brunswick has an adult functional illiteracy rate of between 50-60%. In other words, when people find themselves in the real world of the workplace and day-to-day living, some 50-60% of adults struggle with basic tasks such as reading instructions, filling out an application, etc. Based upon provincial results, surely that functional illiteracy rate should be closer to 20%?

At what point will someone point to this glaring discrepancy? Surely it suggests that something is amiss in our assessment practices at the very least. But, more importantly, these assessments prevent the kind of careful scrutiny of programs that might lead to real improvement. Where you might ask?
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Curriculum, curriculum, curriculum. Teachers and educational systems need to reacquire an appreciation for fundamental skills. “Educational practice” is virtually the sole concern of education programs at universities. What has been lost in our current system is concern for what it is we expect students to KNOW. Until such time as we return to an appreciation of the central place that knowledge plays in nurturing reading and writing ability, math skills and, most importantly, critical thinking, the disparity between reported “results” on provincial assessments and more objective measures of adult literacy and numeracy will remain. In fact, results massaged in the service of political optics will probably increase any such disparity. In the immediate term, the student suffers; in the long term, we all do.

Aptitude: the missing link in 21st century educational theory

Ability is what you’re capable of doing. Motivation determines what you do. Attitude determines how well you do it.
– Lou Holtz

My daughter has started her own company, one that seeks to promote and to support entrepreneurs. We’ve spoken often about the things that she encounters but the one detail that I find consistently amazing concerns the number of jobs available in New Brunswick that cannot be filled. The problem? We lack people with the skills to fill those jobs.

In a recognizably simplistic approach, any number of individuals and organizations decry the educational system’s failure to provide the training necessary to ensure that young people graduate from schools and universities with the skills that the economy requires. Fundamentally, such a claim fails to acknowledge the complexity of human achievement and ability.

Perhaps the “economy” requires 100 computer programmers. In the minds of those who are so often critical of the system’s failure to produce those 100 programmers, it should be possible to fashion a curriculum that will produce those 100 programmers from the first 100 students that are enrolled in a school. If this strikes you as absurd, I say simply, good! The product oriented mentality that has come to infect so much of the discourse surrounding education has promoted a view of students as empty vessels waiting to be filled for whatever “outcome” is desired, primarily with an eye to economic concerns.

Please don’t think that I am deaf to economics. When I was teaching, I always assured students that seeking a good job that paid the bills required their attention. At the same time, somewhere along the line, we seem to have lost sight of the importance that, to my mind, was once given to aptitude and ability. Because of the ironic homogeneity of our society’s school system – which claims diversity as a central value – students are exposed to a curriculum standardized and uniform for virtually everyone. The little flexibility that exists is bounded by consistent messages that direct one and all to dream of university degrees and jobs that require advanced technical skills.

My teaching career was restricted to the high school level so my observations necessarily arise from that experience. When I started teaching, various trade opportunities existed at the high school level. Additionally, there were programs designed for students who realized they either lacked the interest or innate ability to be successful at the university level. I’m fairly certain that my last sentence would cause a measure of outrage in certain circles as it has become a brand of educational heresy to use a phrase such as “lacked innate ability”.

Rather than apologize, let me say it again, in another way, by virtue of a personal example. Somehow, I managed to make it through childhood without really learning to skate. I owned skates and even went skating a few times but I never really became anything even approaching adept. That being said, even if I had learned to skate and had practiced constantly, I do not believe I could have been the next Wayne Gretzky.

I really don’t believe many people would challenge the notion that certain athletes have abilities that are exceptional and cannot simply be learned. Why, I ask, is this realization so easily acknowledged when it comes to athletics? Why is it so difficult to apply it to other features of human endeavour?

What frustrated me so frequently throughout my teaching career was the determined unwillingness of those with the power to decide curriculum and the design of the school system to recognize that not all students are the same. I have always held that each of us has aptitudes and interests that need to be identified (primarily by ourselves!) and nurtured.

In my perfect school system, such would be the case. I applaud the many teachers I have known over the years who have held on to that ideal even as the system, driven by a product mindset, has been dominated by an underlying presumption that all students can be molded to fit only the most evident economic needs of the day.

The greatest irony of all? The system’s determined efforts to insist that the proper application of uniform curriculum will provide the needed workforce instead produces a few very well-prepared students and a generation of young people with few skills and little clear idea of what interests them or where they might fit in this advanced economy of ours. Hence the continuing inability of New Brunswick to make any improvement in the rate of illiteracy among adults even as the number of graduates from high school increases.

Until we are ready to acknowledge, in a real way, that differences matter – through curriculum designed to account for students of varying aptitudes and interests – we need not look for any substantial improvement in literacy and numeracy. Consequently, neither need we expect to see those many unfilled jobs being filled by graduates from New Brunswick schools.

Back to the Future

As educators, we are only as effective as what we know. If we have no working knowledge of what students studied in previous years, how can we build on their learning? If we have no insight into the curriculum in later grades, how can we prepare learners for future classes?          – Heidi Hayes Jacobs

I’ve just had the pleasure of rereading an old report on school improvement, a report commissioned in the early years of Bernard Lord’s government. While it has a somewhat unwieldy title – “Schools Teach – Parents and Communities Support – Children Learn – Everyone Benefits: A Review of the New Brunswick Education System Anglophone Sector” – it is more commonly referred to as the Scraba Report.

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Perhaps “pleasure” isn’t quite the word I’m looking for in light of the horrifying picture of education in New Brunswick that it delivers. Maybe “grim satisfaction” captures my response, a response that really hasn’t changed since I first read this work upon its release in 2002. The author of the report, Elana Scraba of Education Consulting International, provides an unstintingly brutal assessment of the failings of New Brunswick’s system at the time.

The good news, of course, is that the Lord government immediately adopted a majority of the recommendations the report provided and a new golden age in education in New Brunswick dawned. Since 2002, reforms in New Brunswick education have seen language and math skills improve dramatically while the literacy rate provincially has risen astronomically as a result. Employers report that recent graduates from high school come prepared for the work force while those who go on to post-secondary studies are top of their class no matter where they attend.

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And yes, sadly, that last paragraph was entirely fictional. You might even say that it was written with more than a little bitterness. I remember reading the Scraba Report back then with dismay. It managed to identify virtually every issue I had ever had with the system in New Brunswick, most importantly, the lack of emphasis on a core curriculum that was clearly defined and properly aligned with classroom practice and assessment.

But that’s just the beginning. Rereading the Scraba report, almost 15 years later is very much a “déjà vu all over again” experience. It seems inconceivable that I am reading about things that could easily be used as justification for another examination of New Brunswick’s system: core curriculum, inclusion, assessment results, French Immersion, lack of resources. These are the very things that are at the heart of the Scraba Report’s analysis and ultimate recommendations and they are the very same things that preoccupy much of the time of those who continue to care about education in New Brunswick today.

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The fact that most who might read this have never heard of the Scraba Report should tell you what happened to it. Back in 2002, for a brief moment, the report awakened hope that something real and substantial might happen. An article appeared in the NBTA News, disability groups responded positively, and the report, in general, created some waves. But then it was shelved, government moved on, and the report was left to gather dust. I wish I could say I was surprised. Allow me to digress.

Within a few years of the province implementing the English Language Proficiency Assessments (ELPAs) at the grade 9 level, a committee was struck that got together to review the make-up of the assessments. One representative from each district was sent to Fredericton (I was chosen to represent what was then School District 8) and this group came up with over 80 recommendations for improving everything from format to content. In the end, one (yes ONE) recommendation was adopted: changing when the assessment was administered.

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I offer that story of my experience as a small example of the larger travesty and as a reflection on the current controversy over reinstituting Grade One French Immersion. Both the shelving of the Scraba Report, and my experience with ELPAs, point to government’s unwillingness to tackle, in a substantive way, the confused mess that the NB educational system has become. While we have an incredible cohort of well-trained and dedicated teachers, I watched as, year after year, their enthusiasm and energy were drained by a system that cares too often about all the wrong things to the detriment of teachers, the system and, most importantly, to students.

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What does government care about in education you might ask? Quite frankly, I don’t think they know, except in the most general terms. As the Scraba Report emphasizes in many places in many ways, the kind of change NB needs will take many years. Among the recommendations at the time was “Declare a moratorium on curriculum change for four years”. From the political perspective, that would be a hard pill to swallow.

Education in New Brunswick has long been a way for political parties to claim that they are willing to “invest” in the future. Imagine being prevented from making any education related claims for an entire mandate. Imagine leaving education more properly in the hands of educators. Imagine a system that focused on essential skills and measured its success by students’ obtaining them. Dare to dream.

 

Learning to listen

The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected.
– G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936)

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If you’ve been following the fallout from Donald Trump’s election, one designation has been increasingly prominent in the analysis: “progressive.”

Perhaps you have long been familiar with this term (in the sense I am using it) but I first encountered it a couple of years ago. Progressives commonly define who and what society should champion, defend, promote, even believe. They commonly hold that they are beyond meaningful challenge by virtue of their positions’ intrinsic righteousness and, in fact, they are seldom challenged (at least until recently) because they tend to be on the “politically correct” side of many issues we commonly encounter in the press and other public forums.

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And the thing is, I commonly agree with their core assertions: climate change is real; LGBT rights are human rights; Islam is a religion, not a terrorist organization; women, for all the strides they have made, are still subject to misogyny, double standards and sexism; etc.

Unfortunately, for all of their good intentions, the progressives or, perhaps, the “liberal left” are victims of their own conviction and certainty. Any number of analysts have pointed to the tunnel vision of those who felt that Donald Trump was unelectable. While I share their despair at Trump’s election, I was never convinced that he couldn’t win. I fear those who were entirely disbelieving haven’t paid enough attention to history.

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And while we are fellow travelers in so many ways, the progressives and I diverge at a fundamental level. Progressives are too often, to my way of thinking, ideologues. As an idealist myself, I think it is important to recognize that someone can share many of the ideals proclaimed by progressives without falling into the ideologue trap, a trap that prevents the ideologue from carefully considering a reality that is, perhaps, staring you in the face.

The ideologue claims a position on an issue, commonly social/political, that is essentially unassailable, a secular version of fundamentalist religion you might say. Watching mainstream media outlets, particularly CNN, on election night in America was fascinating. I had been watching CNN in the weeks and months leading up to the election far more than I ever had.

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And make no mistake, the preference for and expectation of a Clinton victory was predominant. However much the various anchors tried for balance, each and every segment involved those who were defending Trump being exactly and exclusively that: defenders. And to be clear, I get it. Everything about Trump, his campaign, his rallies trended toward the repulsive – for me! At the same time, attention needed to be paid to the reality that a huge segment of the population found Trump to be preferable. The New York Times – giving credit where credit is due – has gone so far as to admit that they need to get out of the newsroom more and talk to people on the ground.

Progressive ideologues play easily into the hands of the so-called alt-right. The progressives’ ideological righteousness and the accompanying dismissal of any point-of-view that diverges from theirs contribute to the radicalization of what might otherwise be simply different opinions.

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Listening for and seeking to grasp differences, however, have become casualties of our preference for being pseudo-informed. When the public forum is dominated by 140-character tweets, headlines and sound-bites, the effect is insidious. Increasingly, few have time for a lengthy consideration of anything. Slogans take the place of arguments, positions become hardened and unassailable, and extremes become the norm.

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Canada, so far, has avoided this trap but we cannot be complacent. Conservative leadership candidate, Kellie Leitch – she of the “Canadian values test “ who wants to eliminate the CBC – has her followers and dismissing those who are sympathetic to the positions she brings forward will not convince them to give either consideration further thought. If we don’t learn to listen to one another, we risk outcomes a great many prefer not to imagine.

Let’s meet, before it’s too late

In the middle of the journey of our life I came to myself within a dark wood where the straight way was lost. – Dante

Recent events in the U.S. as well as an interview with one of the federal Conservative party leadership candidates has convinced me all the more that we need to see the emergence of a truly Progressive Conservative option in this country. I know this will distress an equal number of friends on either side of this paradoxical descriptor but it remains my preferred position.

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Kellie Leitch, federal Conservative MP and leadership hopeful, spoke with the host of Sunday Morning on CBC, largely trying to defend/avoid her position on a “Canadian values” test for prospective immigrants. According to her, some two thirds of Canadians are in favour of such a test. Really? I would need to see the question that led to that result or some other kind of evidence before I would even begin to believe it but I won’t make the mistake of dismissing such a claim.

That’s where the results of the U.S. election come into the picture. I was among the many here in Canada, the U.S. and around the world who just couldn’t believe that someone as apparently vile and unsuitable for high office as Donald Trump could possibly win the presidency. At the same time, for all of my personal revulsion, I am enough of a student of history to know that people can make choices, to put it mildly, that are not necessarily in their best interest.

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So I’ll pause right there. Chances are I’ve offended someone by now. Trump’s victory tells us that some 60 million people in the United States were able either to embrace whatever it is he stands for or, at the very least, to see him as preferable to the alternative, regardless of his flaws. So I’ve potentially ticked off 60 million. Perhaps someone who agrees in general with Kellie Leitch’s idea will see me as elitist. Someone else might think I’m going too easy on Trump and his supporters. Who knows.

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What I absolutely believe, however, is that the only way forward is to walk the middle ground. While Canada has not succumbed to the drastic polarization that we see in the U.S., I fear that we could be subject to the same forces as led to the rise of Donald Trump. I was never confident that he couldn’t win, however much, in my heart of hearts, I wanted to believe that he couldn’t. Through my experiences in politics, I know there are people who are quietly applauding a Trump victory (or, like Kellie Leitch, not so quietly). I don’t fully understand how anyone could but then neither can I fully understand much of what has happened in the world that I consider horrifying.

I’ve written, in other contexts (mostly surrounding education), of the dangers of fanaticism. While “progressives” might not like to hear it, I happen to think they fall into that category far too often. They believe that they occupy a moral high ground to which others might hope to ascend and, filled with the warmth of righteousness, disregard those who are, for whatever reason, unwilling or unable to climb that mountain with them.

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Conservatives (most Trump supporters, Tea Party and Kellie Leitch variety) are equally ideological. They contend that their view is sacrosanct, and that they alone represent what is righteous and good. Too often, especially in the U.S., a somewhat bizarre form of Christian fundamentalism is mixed in. Whatever the case, in the same manner as the progressives I’ve mentioned, they alone possess the “truth”.

Hence my affection for the “progressive conservative”. Some will, no doubt (some already have), argue that I am simply remaking the designation. I choose to leave that argument for another time. For now, I simply want to suggest that the paradoxical quality of the Progressive Conservative brand points to a much-needed balance. A great deal of ink has been spilled in the U.S. crediting Trump’s victory to the deafness of the progressive left to any voices but their own. Personally, I think that is overstating the case but I might take that up at another time as well.

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For now, suffice to say that I think that tunnel vision has become the order of the day all across the political spectrum. Sadly lacking just about everywhere are nuance and an acknowledgement of divergent positions that cannot simply be dismissed out of hand. When you ignore the FELT opinions of millions of people, don’t be surprised by a backlash.

Can we move to a middle ground? Can we imagine ourselves as progressive in some things (socially is the most commonly mentioned) and conservative in others (fiscally being the usual)? Such a clear division is, itself, an oversimplification. I would rather think of “progressive conservative” as a state of mind, one where you are always open to new information, hoping to clarify situations and understand more thoroughly and deeply.

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As an idealist, I refuse to adopt a stance which demonizes either the left or the right. I do not think anyone possesses some absolute truth to which all others must ascribe. Canadians rightly pride themselves on their overall fairness and respect for difference. At the same time, complacency fueled by a sense of moral superiority is a sure way to alienate lots of people. If Kellie Leitch’s claim to have 2/3 of Canadians supporting a “Canadian values” test is even somewhat true, then we need to have a national conversation. If someone objects to the designation “progressive conservative” then I’ll put it this way: please, let’s meet in the middle. And let’s do so before it’s too late. If you need an object lesson, consider this: you can’t unelect Donald Trump.

Education: understanding what it is (and isn’t)

If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.
― Albert Einstein

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As a retired teacher, I have been profoundly frustrated by the current government’s approach to education in New Brunswick, although I recognize they are simply following the example set by governments through many decades. The current state of education – reflected most recently in the Department of Education’s assessment results – requires a complex response to a complex issue.

 

Instead, typically, Premier Gallant offers the simplistic recommendation that we need to “invest in education”, with no reference to or recommendation regarding where such an investment should be targeted. As someone who has watched any number of initiatives implemented and later abandoned at a cost I would not want to calculate, I contend that such vague pseudo-optimism is distracting and fundamentally irresponsible. Rather than contributing to an analysis of the ever-escalating cost of public education in the face of continuing failures within the system, this simplistic approach stifles real and frank debate of where we have gone wrong.

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I say “where we have gone wrong” because of a distressing reality. Even as we have, year-to-year, increased spending in education, literacy has seen little sustained improvement among adults (those who have completed their formal education) and numeracy is notoriously problematic at virtually every level. While the recent assessments reinforce this reality, I don’t want to overstate their significance as a benchmark for success (or lack thereof) in schools. To emphasize my central concern, New Brunswick’s educational system has been in crisis for many years and throwing more money at it isn’t going to solve anything.

Temporary solutions often become permanent problems.
― Craig Bruce

During my time as a teacher, I saw the virtual elimination of vocational education; the institution of semestering in high schools; the implementation and abandonment of the “Foundation Program”; the marginalizing of physical education, literature, art and music courses; a focus on technology as a teaching methodology as well as a necessary component of the daily, in-class experience of students; a demand for evidence of ever-shifting “best practices” (shifting because the research that supports such practices frequently changes opinions regarding what is “best”) in classrooms; the division of high school into the foundation years (grades 9 and 10),where there are no credits, and the graduation years (grades 11 and 12) where there are credit requirements; a denigration of the idea of teachers as experts in a subject discipline which has intrinsic value (in favour of numerous administrative oversight positions that seek to educate teachers in the above-mentioned “best practices”); a corresponding demand that teachers abandon the idea that they should be imparters of knowledge in such areas.

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Any one of the above deserves further elaboration but, hopefully, the sheer volume of items suggests the ongoing demand for change in education; consider further that each of the above involved an “investment” of some kind, whether through curriculum changes, material acquisitions, additional administrative staff or other costs.

 

The evidence (including but not limited to assessments) we do have suggests that any of the above-noted changes have had, at best, a negligible impact on student achievement. The dollar cost of the many initiatives I have enumerated is more than I could calculate. Hopefully, my point is obvious: rather than calling yet again, without offering any specific direction, for additional “investment”, we need to look carefully at what we are doing. More specifically, I believe we need to look at our system and ask the most fundamental question: what do we want this system to accomplish? Until we know clearly what we are trying achieve in public schools, every decision we make will be little more than a shot in the dark; inevitably, it will also be very expensive.

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We all agree that the future depends on education (or “learning” if you prefer), but without a better and clearer idea of what we hope our schools can achieve, we will simply be throwing more money aimlessly at a system that has shown very little real improvement when it comes to the most fundamental of its tasks: graduating literate and numerate young people capable of moving along on their path of lifelong learning. If the future matters to us as much as we claim, we must take the time to know better how we plan to get there. Before we spend more, we need to know what we are paying for.

Vaguely seeking clarity: assessment in education 2016

Teaching is not a lost art, but the regard for it is a lost tradition.
—Jacques Barzun

Assessment in education (primarily within the public system) has become a political football unlike any other. Through any number of assessments – whether local, provincial or international – various constituencies either live in fear of, or celebrate, the release of the latest “results”.

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“Results” is in quotation marks here to indicate how difficult this term has become. To be fair, perhaps it has always been a more complicated term than was once allowed but the modern determination to parse and to dissect the achievement (or lack of the same) on any number of standardized assessments is both strenuous and relentless.

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Those who are old enough might hearken back to a supposed golden age where students were assigned a letter grade or a percentage. I say “supposed” because it doesn’t take a great deal of argument to convince someone that such a method of reporting can mean a great many different things. One persons “A” is another person’s “C” you might say.

While this clearly indicates the developing sense over the years of a need to offer a more precise and objective evaluation of student progress, as with so many things, the net result, in my estimation, has been negative. To put it another way, as I’ve watched what has unfolded re evaluation and assessment throughout my career and beyond, the cure has proven, again and again, to be far worse than the disease.

Objectivity has about as much substance as the Emperor’s new clothes.
-Connie Miller

While this situation can be blamed on any number of factors, a key element, I believe, is the ascendancy in the popular imagination of all things “objective”. In essence, a move has been afoot for a very long time to supplant human expertise and the exercise of judgement for what is held to be objective measures of just about anything. As a side note, one of the last redoubts of human judgement is the court system where the onus is on a judge to determine – in anything but a jury trial – the guilt or innocence of an accused as well as the sentence imposed should an accused be found guilty.

Conservative forces throughout the U.S. and Canada have been great proponents of mandatory minimums for any number of crimes, the explanation being variations on the “tough on crime” mantra. While that might sound good to some ears, all I hear is an ideological unwillingness to accept the informed judgement of those best placed to make judgements, namely, JUDGES! If it should happen that a given decision is deemed truly objectionable, it can be appealed. And so it should be.

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As for education, time was that the assessment of student progress was left exclusively to teachers, largely at the classroom level. Students came to class, teachers taught to a quite rigidly prescribed curriculum, teachers tested in various ways, a “grade” was assigned.

The unfortunate truth (and yet, an unavoidable one, I would argue) is that not all teachers are created equal. But then, neither are doctors, lawyers, engineers, carpenters, wait staff – add anyone you would like to the list! Seemingly we allow for such differences in every other instance. Education alone, it seems to me, has reached a place where every child is somehow supposed to be provided a uniquely tailored experience where, regardless of teacher, school, or any other factor, he/she can achieve certain “outcomes”.

Reality should be intruding by now and, if you are reading this, you are saying (hopefully) something along the line of “well that doesn’t seem realistic; not everyone can be expected to be the same (add or alter where needed but I suspect the point is clear).

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Perhaps the greatest irony at the heart of so much theory in education these days is the assertion that all children are unique even as schools seek to ensure uniform “outcomes” for all students.

Which brings us to “outcomes”, the vagary at the heart of modern assessment, at least the assessment we see in New Brunswick. I can’t comment on Math results on provincial assessments since I do not pretend to have any expertise in the area. As for English, I taught high school English for 28 years (the same at summer school for 7), worked on development teams for the Grade 11 English assessment for a number of years, “assessed those exams (as well as the current grade 9 English Language Proficiency Assessments) for more than half my career – you get the picture.

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So, as one professional no longer working in the system, I would like to say: “outcomes” are so vague and open to interpretation that they do not provide the kind of guidance a teacher needs when it comes to devising a curriculum. I believe with my heart, mind and soul that young children, especially, need clarity when it comes to expectations. “Outcomes” breed a vagueness in assessment that does not allow a student to know clearly where weaknesses need to be addressed. Conversely, they fail to provide an understandable account of strengths and “success” if you will.

However much modern educational theorists like to decry “grading” as harmful to self-esteem, failing to account for the “multiple intelligences” in each of us, etc., human beings do better when expectations are clear and the bar they have to reach is well-defined. Currently, one of the few indicators we have of such a measure even being allowable is the provincial assessment program. Even then, all we have is a statement of percentage deemed successful. Good luck to anyone trying to figure out just what it means to BE successful. That determination has be to left to the “professionals”. The rest of us simply wouldn’t understand.

Assessment in education: say what?

Knowledge is power. Information is liberating. Education is the premise of progress, in every society, in every family.
Kofi Annan

I read a report in the local paper recently that awakened my frustration with the manner in which the press frequently covers matters related to education. Implicitly (and almost explicitly) the article lends support to the claim that “time on task” is the answer to virtually any existing educational deficit. By doing so such articles continue the trend of simplistic analysis of a very complex issue. It is the instructional equivalent of the oft-paraded boast that New Brunswick high schools graduate more students today than they did 30 years ago. Neither time on task (as a solution) nor graduation statistics (as proof of success in the system) provides the kind of detailed analysis of the system that might help people understand how broken that system really is.
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If we still had investigative journalism that could take the time needed, a story could be told of empty curricula wrapped in theoretical educational dogmatism, schools overburdened with the attempted implementation of social engineering, and classrooms as sites for ongoing experimentation in service of someone’s pet educational theory. It is far sadder and more dire than a simple addition of days can indicate.

As education has struggled, at the university level, to present itself as a viable social science in its own right – on a par with psychology, sociology, history, etc – it has been driven increasingly by the desire to present its claims as rooted in research and the scientific method. In itself, this isn’t so bad. It has long been my contention, however, that positioning education in such a way does little to actually serve students. For all of the talk of “student-centred” instruction, the theories that underpin the actual practice of such instruction view young people more as lab rats or commodities than they do complex and diverse human beings.
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How appropriate that just around the time I was thinking about this issue the Department of Education should release the latest results of its provincial assessment program. Be prepared for any number of follow-up editorials and/or commentaries pointing to the number of days students are out of the classroom, whether it be because teachers are involved in some form of professional development or a particularly harsh winter. In either case (or any other), it remains my contention that pointing to “time on task” is nothing more than continuing evidence of the lack of political will necessary if we are to take a hard look at the state of our educational system.

Consider: the prevailing view in our system – for the better part of three decades now – is that holding a student back a grade when he/she has failed to meet expectations is tantamount to inhumane. What is far more destructive, in my estimation, is moving a student forward into an environment where the resources to address any deficit are lacking. The young person in question falls further behind with each passing year but “accommodations” are made to ensure that forward progress is not interrupted. I can’t avoid mentioning the occasions, when I was teaching, where transcripts from middle school occasionally revealed students entering high school without having passed a single course in Grade 8. From the system’s perspective, it was simply time for such a student to move on.
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Such practices as “anecdotal report cards” – ostensibly an improvement over the old percentage or letter grades – simply obscure further an already murky picture of achievement. Teachers write accounts of student progress in light of “outcomes” – a term I personally despise because it does not offer anything definitive – rather than assign a “grade”, something that high schools, universities and community colleges will demand as a student moves through our educational system.

And then the anomaly: amidst all the “outcomes”, along comes the provincial assessment results. Reported how? As percentages! Now, admittedly, these percentages are not percentages as most of us of a certain age would remember them. These are not marks per se; rather, they indicate the percentage of students who have achieved an “appropriate” level of literacy. Now I ask you: how many people are truly aware of that distinction? For most, using the grade 2 reading assessment as an example, the results mean that 73.8% of students “passed”. Things are apparently looking up by Grade 9: 80.4% of those students “passed”.
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But let’s look at this from the perspective of another measure. We routinely hear that New Brunswick has an adult functional illiteracy rate of between 50-60%. In other words, when people find themselves in the real world of the workplace and day-to-day living, some 50-60% of adults struggle with basic tasks such as reading instructions, filling out an application, etc. Based upon provincial results, surely that functional illiteracy rate should be closer to 20%?

At what point will someone point to this glaring discrepancy? Surely it suggests that something is amiss in our assessment practices at the very least. But, more importantly, these assessments prevent the kind of careful scrutiny of programs that might lead to real improvement. Where you might ask?
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Curriculum, curriculum, curriculum. Teachers and educational systems need to reacquire an appreciation for fundamental skills. “Educational practice” is virtually the sole concern of education programs at universities. What has been lost in our current system is concern for what it is we expect students to KNOW. Until such time as we return to an appreciation of the central place that knowledge plays in nurturing reading and writing ability, math skills and, most importantly, critical thinking, the disparity between reported “results” on provincial assessments and more objective measures of adult literacy and numeracy will remain. In fact, results massaged in the service of political optics will probably increase any such disparity. In the immediate term, the student suffers; in the long term, we all do.

Fear itself

Always do what you are afraid to do
– Ralph Waldo Emerson

Fear: it’s in the air. No matter where I go, regardless of the occasion, if I run into someone I haven’t seen in a while, the conversation eventually comes around to the question of Syrian refugees. And beneath virtually every opinion offered on the rightness or wrongness of Canada’s plan to welcome 25,000 souls to our shores before the end of 2015 lurks that undeniable element of fear.

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We occupy a privileged position here in Canada and, even more so, here in our little enclave on the East coast, far removed from the metropolises of Europe and elsewhere where the threat of yet another ISIS/ISIL outrage must feel incredibly imminent. The effectiveness of ISIS/ISIL’s approach to intimidation cannot be overstated. The unlimited scope of their attacks has put all of us on edge in a way that no group, in my memory, has ever been able to do.

Attacks on embassies, war ships, even the World Trade Towers, have the perverse logic of being symbols of something identifiable that the radical group opposes. In the latter case, in light of what we see as the inherent innocence of the victims (people going about their business, doing their jobs), the logic is profoundly offensive, but at least we can follow it: World Trade Centre as symbol of U.S. economic imperialism, etc., etc., etc.

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But Paris? What did anyone killed or wounded in that attack do? What was the landmark, the symbol, the thing that shouted “offensive” in the twisted minds of the death cult that pretends to have something to do with religion called ISIS/ISIL? A concert? A soccer match? A restaurant? As others have noted, the randomness of the targets is the very thing that has made them so effective. By striking somewhere that has no obvious benefit, the message is clear: everyone, everywhere is in the cross-hairs unless you are with us.

No wonder fear is evident, even here in small town New Brunswick.

But I’m here to add my voice to those who cry out against that fear. I am not suggesting that we abandon healthy caution but, as in all things, we owe it to ourselves and to those who are more immediately affected by the ongoing calamity in Syria and Iraq to not allow fear to overwhelm our better instincts. Never have I felt so in need of perspective.

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For the friends that I have talked to about this, the central concern is the obvious one: extremists infiltrating the ranks of refugees in order to insinuate themselves into positions where they can cause harm. That’s where that privileged position of ours comes in. With the exception of Air India decades ago and the lone wolf attacks in Ottawa and Quebec last year, we have largely been free of extremist attacks in Canada.

What’s it like, I’ve often wondered, to live in a place where the young girl approaching you across the square might be a suicide bomber, or where the car sitting idly outside a building might be rigged to detonate at any moment? What is it like, in other words, to live in a place where the threat of violent death is, realistically, a constant?

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And at that moment, I realize that that is not Canada. Here on the periphery of the violence that afflicts so much of the world, we look upon it with dismay and are grateful that it so rarely has an impact upon us. So, naturally, if we can be convinced to fear that same violence making its way to our shores, we will object to any action that could lead to that. Understandable.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m nervous. The world is looking like a dangerous place and the barrage of images of carnage and cruelty beyond measure in conjunction with the overreactions of crazies who want all refugees banned and tests of Christian belief administered, etc., all contribute to putting just about anyone on edge. At the same time, my rational self demands that I take a step back and act in spite of any visceral fear.

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While it might sound like overstatement, I really do think this issue is about Canadian identity. We cannot contend that we are (or aspire to be) the world’s most inclusive and fair-minded country while demanding that Syrian refugees pass litmus tests we would apply in no other circumstance. As I’ve tried to understand my own fear, I’ve further attempted to grasp just what it is we imagine needs to be done in addition to any current screening already applied to refugees.

Because the date, the end of the year, appears arbitrary, I hear myself saying that we need to abandon that. Even as I say it, I realize that my “logic” in saying so isn’t based on anything other than an unsettled feeling inside myself – fear, in other words. “Can’t be too careful” to quote the old adage.

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And I know we can’t! But what makes me think that the agencies responsible for such things in Canada are suddenly going to abandon caution and forego the responsibility they have for ensuring all of our safety? That just isn’t the Canada I believe in and those aren’t the Canadians I know.

The bottom line is I have to work on it – my fear, I mean. Because I am afraid. Canada has as much of a chance of being subjected to some kind of attack as anywhere else. But that is not, I have to tell myself, the same as welcoming refugees fleeing from a misery that I can’t even imagine. Emotion is as transferable as a bad cold, maybe even more easily spread, and I think we can all point to bad decisions we’ve made in our lives when emotion got the best of us. Let’s not let the same mistake get the best of our country. Too many lives hang in the balance.

“The collective wisdom . . .”

Miranda: Oh, brave new world, that has such people in’t.
The Tempest 5.1.188-9

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Portions of Miranda’s line from The Tempest have been used in many ways through the years, most notably – and ironically – as the title of Huxley’s dystopian novel, Brave New World. References to Huxley’s work can’t help appearing whenever a political change comes which seems to usher in an era of great promise. As I read the reactions to last week’s election victory by Justin Trudeau and the Liberal party, I couldn’t help smiling. I had been bothered by the course of this election for quite some time and I was glad it was over, a widely-held sentiment, I’m fairly certain, from sea to shining sea.

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I don’t think anyone needs me to wax poetical about the power of optimism and hope, but the contrasting campaigns of the election serve to illustrate how it can work when the time is right. Please note that last part: when the time is right. We would be practicing a form of revisionist history if we failed to acknowledge that, in other circumstances, negative campaigns can be very effective. Just ask Stephane Dion or Michael Ignatieff if you doubt that. The number of campaigns south of the border scuttled by attacks far more vicious than anything we would think of mounting in the Great White North are legion.

As we heard from innumerable pundits over the last few years (if you were listening), the evidence is inescapable: attack ads work. At the same time, this conclusion, as with so many others, lacks nuance. Some make the point that negativity can backfire but it tends to be more as an afterthought than a rebuttal of the central tenet that tarring the opposition with any available brush works. As I listened to ongoing coverage of the election results, many expressed surprise, especially with the majority result. To understand, though, I don’t think you need to look beyond the central player in it all: us.

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I’m never sure how well my little part of the country reflects the larger collective so I always avoided making any sweeping claims about how things were going to go as the election approached. At the same time, I was struck by the depth and ferocity of the opposition to Stephen Harper and his Conservative government just about everywhere I went. Never before had I seen anything like the “Stop Harper” campaign that manifested itself in signs, hashtags, strategic voting and a whole lot of ways about which I probably know nothing at all. While it could have something to do with the circles I travel in, the feeling was palpable, it seemed, just about everywhere other than amongst the true stalwarts among Conservative supporters. As I’ve said in previous blogs, this polarization concerns me.

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My hope, now, is that this particular election proves to be an anomaly; that Canadians will, by and large, return to the moderation that was celebrated in the media on the days following the election. The bitter rhetoric and enmity of the campaign was replaced by articles complimenting the rapid concession from Mr. Harper and his congratulating Mr. Trudeau while affirming that the electorate was always “right”. In turn, the two leaders appearing together and cordial while laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier reminded us that we were Canadians, after all.

For me, though, that’s where caution comes in. The Liberal victory has an inevitable character in retrospect. Alone among the three major party leaders, Justin Trudeau hitched his wagon pretty much exclusively to the mantra of hope and change and, quite simply, people were ready for that, longing for it, in fact. People, by and large, want to feel good about themselves and their choices. For the moment, I’m with them. Most people I know seem cheerier this week and that can’t be bad.

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But, as I said, we’re the constant through all of this and we will come to be dissatisfied in time with whatever and whoever ends up doing things that we don’t necessarily like. The grumbling will start and eventually a day will come when the current government will be swept away to a chorus of voices shouting about the need for change. If I’ve learned one thing, “change” is the one constant in every election at any level. And yes, it’s a good thing.

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At the same time, I hope we can hang on to the images and the editorials that were so much kinder to the departing prime minister and his government than anything seemed to be during the campaign. I’m not absolving Harper from blame for much of it, either. History will tell that tale as time goes on. I remain, however, fearful of Canada becoming too much like the United States where your opponents become the enemy within rather than just someone whose opinions differ in certain ways.

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Canada is a special place to me. Maybe I’m just another Canadian buying the propaganda but I really do think we are better than most at getting along and allowing for differences. The extremity of some of the rhetoric on both sides in this now-concluded election has concerned me. I hope it was of the moment and that my Canada is the gracious one I saw over the past week. As a Canadian, that’s the best I can hope for. Even Canadians, after all, are only human.