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.

W.R.D. Coffey: teacher, mentor, friend

The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.
– William Arthur Ward

I’m heading to a funeral today. My grades 10-12 history teacher died last week after a long and, hopefully, happy life. If the latter is measured in the contribution one makes to the lives of those who knew him, then William R. D. (“Uncle Willy”, “Bill”) Coffey’s life was a happy one indeed. At least for me – but I am confident that I am speaking on behalf of a great many who knew him – his was an influence that continues to shape my thinking, my interests, my attitudes and so many small elements of my life, probably ones that I wouldn’t immediately recognize. For me, for always, he was a great teacher, one of the best.

That I am writing this almost 42 years after I last had him for a class (Canadian History in Grade 12) stands, perhaps, as the most telling testament of his influence. When I began my own teaching career, I had the good fortune to meet Bill as a colleague and a friend. I used to lunch with him and a few others on Fridays although that practice faded as more and more of the “old guard” retired and moved on to other pursuits.

If I happened to be wandering by, at times I would see Bill ensconced at Beatty and the Bistro on the ground floor of the Admiral Beatty complex. On occasion I would drop in to see him and say hello. Always the gentleman, he would take time and inquire regarding the details of my life and career. I honour him today. I will miss him.

When I think back to my time as a student in his class, by the standards of today’s educational theories, he probably wouldn’t have fit the mold of the “good teacher”. His classroom lacked extensive decorations, he wasn’t one to wander around observing students’ work; in fact, he spent most of his time behind his desk, if my memory serves me.

And yet, his “method” (hardly seems an appropriate term really) was enough to cause me, as a Grade 10 student, to read Thucydides “History of the Peloponnesian War” just for the fun of it. His gift was as a storyteller and what is history if not a panoramic unfolding story of humanity’s time on the planet?

He had traveled and frequently incorporated anecdotes of his visits to Greece and other parts of Europe and the world. He spoke of such things with a fervor that was infectious, at least for me, although, as I said earlier, I am confident that I am speaking on behalf of a large contingent of those who had him as a teacher over the years. All those who entered his classroom were treated with respect. To put it another way, he made you believe that you mattered.

Bill Coffey cared about his subject and his students. His caring was evident to all who knew him and St. Malachy’s Memorial High School, where he taught for most of his career, established, some years back, a WRD Coffey Award given to students who best exemplify the spirit that Mr. Coffey lived every day.

In sum, Mr William R. D. Coffey embodied, for me, the core of what teaching has always been about – and will continue to be about – however much university faculties and educational theorists try to convince us that it can be broken down to strategies to be implemented and technologies to be applied, regardless of who is doing the “teaching”. He cared deeply about learning, about young people and about the world. He wore his caring on his sleeve every day and he was quick to reach out to those in need of help and mentoring. My teacher, my mentor, my friend, Bill Coffey, can rest easy: his was a life well-lived.

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.

Educational change and the politics of distraction

Do not train children in learning by force and harshness, but direct them to it by what amuses their minds, so that you may be better able to discover with accuracy the peculiar bent of the genius of each. –Plato

As a former teacher, part of me can’t help feeling good about teachers receiving a raise. I know how long it takes to become certified (and, these days, employed) and I understand the job. At the same time, I’m leery of the New Brunswick Teachers’ Association’s crowing about the guarantee of a fixed number of teachers for the next five years.

Let’s be clear: for all its protestations, the NBTA is not in the business of improving education. Its responsibilities include seeking improvements in working conditions and salaries for teachers and that’s about it. No wonder then that it sees guaranteeing teachers’ jobs as a victory. In light of the current state of affairs in New Brunswick’s public education system, though, this may prove, ultimately, to be a very bad deal.

Speaking from experience, I can tell you that NB teachers are extremely reluctant to criticize openly anything about the system in which they work. Teachers in New Brunswick have a Code of Ethics which prevents them from criticizing their employer. While I happen to think this provision has been exaggerated in its application, that is irrelevant. Speak to teachers privately and virtually every one I know will tell you that the system, in its current form, is, to put it mildly, in crisis. At the same time, don’t expect them to make such a contention in a public forum.

Meanwhile, the public at large must contend with a government and a department that insists that things are always getting better and better. It doesn’t matter if New Brunswick students score abysmally on international standardized tests; it is equally irrelevant that New Brunswick has a functional illiteracy rate in excess of 50%, a figure that hasn’t moved in more than a generation; pay no mind to the proliferation of interventions sponsored by UNB, ELF and any number of other organizations that are trying to compensate for the existing inadequacies of the system.

Governments, always with an eye to polling numbers and the next election, feel compelled to claim that they are on the verge of the big breakthrough that is going to turn it all around. They are supported by a bevy of educational researchers and “specialists”, eager to implement the latest greatest approach being bandied about in Departments of Education in universities, primarily and ordinarily, in the US and Canada.

The value of such initiatives to government is the time it provides for the latest upset and/or outrage about poor results or critical reports to fade from public consciousness. Implementing something new allows governments to say “wait, we’ll see the big turnaround once this program is up and running”.

When things fail to improve and public concern escalates, the trick is to implement yet another new approach. If the target is constantly moving and changing, the day of reckoning is endlessly postponed. Neat trick, unless you happen to be one of the students who muddles through the system and finds him/herself unskilled and unemployable. Such is the fate of far too many young New Brunswickers who continue to swell the ranks of the functionally illiterate in our province.

Which takes me back to this latest contract the NBTA has inked with the province. It has long been my contention that the school SYSTEM is the villain in the continuing story of mediocrity (at best) in education in New Brunswick. The successes that occur, in my experience, are the result of the efforts of individual teachers to ensure that the young people in their care learn as best they can in a school system that is often at odds with such efforts.

I mention this because that viewpoint is very much contradicted by editorials and opinions that tend to appear in media. As I read recently in the Telegraph-Journal’s editorial response to the new teachers’ contract, the problem, in large measure, according to the editors, is that teachers are not held sufficiently accountable for results. I can understand the sentiment but I know it is based on a serious misunderstanding of the dynamics of the system in New Brunswick.

Such a situation works very well for governments, providing a distraction and a ready scapegoat, thus ensuring that the difficult job of truly reforming the system never even begins. Such was my experience through my teaching career and nothing I have either seen or heard suggests that anything fundamental has changed. Governments tinker around the edges, the workings of the system become increasingly impenetrable as they are wrapped in the latest eduspeak, and students flounder their way through.

And now we have a guaranteed number of teachers for the next five years even as enrolment is set to decline. While this might qualify as a union “victory” it may prove to be a hollow one. If nothing else changes in the system as it currently stands, the same mediocrity that is evident will continue unabated. Inevitably, the question will arise: “we’ve lowered teacher-student ratios and nothing has improved substantially? What is wrong with these teachers?”

I suppose the NBTA can hold out the hope that the usual strategy of government will apply. When public concern reaches a peak, look for something else to change, something that will promise to bring about the improvement everyone ostensibly wants. And, with the latest promise in hand, public concern will fade for a time. It’s a sad and persistent cycle. Is there someone out there who has the courage to change it?

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.

 

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.

Bicycles, attendance and the purpose of education

Spoon feeding in the long run teaches us nothing but the shape of the spoon. ~ Edward M. Forster

So I’m listening to a piece on CBC a couple of weeks ago regarding an idea someone in British Columbia has of licensing bicycles. Essentially, so the argument went, if people had to license bikes, thefts would be reduced, people would be more responsible, etc., etc. I’m sure most of us could come up with a rationale for such a thing. Personally, I don’t have a well-developed opinion on the matter. I don’t own a bike and I’m not familiar with the challenges bikers face. I have to say that, from the perspective of a motorist, bike lanes seem like a good idea. But that’s about it when it comes to my thinking on bikes.

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The people interviewed on CBC, of course, had far more to say about the issue than I could be expected to have. Of greatest interest to me, for the purposes of this particular blog, was the alternative suggested by someone that bicycle use and all the associated concerns (whatever they might be – as I said, I’m no expert of any kind in the field) should be rolled into a course that would be offered in the public schools. Since any proposed bicycle law was viewed as difficult to enforce, having schools develop and institute a bike curriculum was felt to be a better approach. Let’s leave that for a moment.

I haven’t been teaching in over five years now so I’m not quite as tuned in as I once was to what’s happening in schools these days but my attention was captured just yesterday when a bus went by with a lovely poster announcing, on behalf of Anglophone School District South (our local district), that student attendance was important. That jogged my memory. I recalled that I had heard and/or read another article that was summarizing the push that was being undertaken to improve student attendance, something that was equally an issue when I was still in the classroom.

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While these two items may seem entirely unrelated, both, in their way, point to some of the absurdities that the school system and teachers must deal with as they go about the incredibly difficult task of trying to be all things to everybody when it comes to the education of children.

A dedicated course on biking? Really? I’m not saying in any way that it is a bad thing for young people to learn all they can about bikes. At the same time, does anyone really imagine that amidst the many demands already placed upon the system and the teachers who labour there that adding just one more thing doesn’t make so much difference? Think again.

From virtually the onset of my own career as a teacher, though, – over 30 years ago – I’ve watched schools be considered as the natural repositories of responsibilities that might have, at one time, been deemed inappropriate for an educational setting. From courses with such names as “Family Living” through “Outdoor Pursuits”, the very idea of a school has moved far from its original conception as a place where young people went to learn basic skills that would enable them to succeed as citizens in adulthood.

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Please, don’t mistake my intentions: much of what has been added as far as curriculum goes has a place and can be easily defended. At the same time, the notion of the school as an agent of socialization has come to mean more than, in many cases, the acquisition of knowledge and/or skills. The emphasis on inclusion at the expense of virtually any other consideration (discipline, learning environment, effect on other students, etc.) is the clearest example of that.

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This latest push on attendance, though, is another manifestation of how expectations and the means of meeting those expectations seldom line up. When I saw the poster on the bus telling anyone reading it that student attendance mattered, I couldn’t help but chuckle. DUH! Does anyone question for a second that it matters?

At the same time, from my own experience, I felt the pain of those who had to devise a campaign for this big push to improve attendance. Over my time in the classroom, I saw any number of attendance policies come and go. At the core of all changes was the conflict between those who believed that only if some kind of consequence was involved could attendance be improved and those who insisted that it was all about making school more attractive to those who tended not to come.

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When I am confronted with the reasoning of the latter group, I confess I want to weep. These are the “school as socialization” theorists who picture human beings as eager learners who somehow get turned off when they are actually expected to be responsible for something. Never mind that as soon as they leave the cozy confines of public schools, a very unforgiving world expects a great deal.

As for the attendance policy here in New Brunswick, all attempts to encourage attendance must be undertaken in the face of the stark reality that not attending carries no consequence. To be clear, if I am a student and I choose not to attend class, the most I might suffer is a letter telling me I should come. Granted, the longer-term cost of no education is not being factored in, but you get my point.

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Initially, the argument was floated that poor attendance was the fault of teachers. They just weren’t interesting enough or something along those lines. Happily, we’re not so far gone (most of us) that we would allow that “opinion” to hold sway.

In different ways, both the bikes issue and the attendance policy point to how disconnected and confused we are when it comes to what we imagine schools can and should do. At one time, I would argue, society’s expectations of a school system were fairly clear. Over the last 40 years, especially, those expectations have diversified to the point where no one could easily specify just what they are except in the very broadest of terms. And as we all know, it’s difficult to arrive at any destination when we don’t know where we are going in the first place.

Some anecdotal musings

Misdirected focus on paperwork, on procedures, and on bureaucracy frustrates teachers and fails to give children the education they need.
– Christopher Bond

I happened to catch Cross-Country Checkup last night on CBC Radio and I couldn’t have asked for a better topic. Under consideration were Canada’s results on PISA math exams. The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), developed by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), is one commonly accepted measure these days of just how countries are doing generally in certain core subject areas (reading, math and science). Operating on a three-year cycle, the tests focus on one area at a time. Considering that some 70 countries have participated to date, PISA offers, at the very least, a kind of comparison of school systems. The interpretation of results and such comparisons is the devil amidst those details but I’ll leave that for another day.

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When I was teaching, PISA exams in English were administered on more than one occasion and the results were always regarded with what might be called suspicious interest. In my experience, real teachers – the ones who spend their time in classrooms with students rather than speculating from afar from some theoretically supported ivory tower – always view external standardized tests with a grain of salt. While I am among those who always had questions about their quality, I have never discounted them entirely. Through my work with New Brunswick’s own provincial assessments as well as with Advanced Placement exams, I am convinced that good standardized exams can provide a useful snapshot of basic skills.

The discussion on Cross-Country Checkup was the result of Canada’s less than stellar performance on the PISA exams seen in light of other studies which have argued that math and other basic skills are in decline across the country. Nowhere amidst such arguments is much room allowed for anecdotal reports but, as a retired teacher of high school English, I’m going to venture an opinion formed through years of dealing with students after they had made their way through a system that abandoned the teaching of grammar, asserted that spelling was largely irrelevant, insisted that memorization or any brand of rote learning was to be avoided, promoted writing without consideration for form: you get the picture. Guess what, over my approximately 30 year career, students proved less and less capable of reading, of writing or of anything requiring an even mildly sophisticated use of language. One way of summarizing things from my experience: tasks that I would assign to grade 11 students in 1982 were more than I could expect from grade 12 students in 2010.

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But, in today’s environment, nothing gets much of a hearing unless it is supported by “research”, a term deserving of quotation marks so that I might indicate how skeptically I view research in education. Considering everything I learned when I was a student, one of the key elements of effective research was the ability to control the variables that might have an effect on results. I’ve never been entirely clear how such control is possible in something as varied and changeable as a real classroom. But that, too, is subject that I have explored previously and that I will, no doubt, return to again.

As far as math is concerned, the debate concerns what, apparently, goes under a number of names but the designation that I had heard before was “discovery learning”. In brief, this is the theory (emphasis on “theory”) that memorizing times tables and learning specific operations (think long division for those of you who remember such archaic methods) is largely a waste of time. Instead, students are supposed to discover solutions on their own, the theory being that the student who can make such discoveries will remember things better and learn more thoroughly.

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Suffice to say I think this is hogwash. As it turns out, considerable “research” is emerging that supports my contention. At its heart, research critical of discovery learning argues that some foundation of basic knowledge of a subject is needed if any kind of discovery is going to go forward. DUH! At which point my mind is truly boggled. Does it really take years of meta-analysis, studies, investigations, reports, etc., etc., etc., to figure that out?!? To put it another way, it’s pretty hard to discover something when you don’t have the slightest clue what it might be you are looking for. Double DUH!

If my exasperation with all of this isn’t evident by now, you’re just not reading. Some of my greatest moments in teaching were those where students suddenly had an insight which made the work before them easier. They crossed over from accumulation of data to application and understanding, you might say (I’m doing my best to imitate a certain eduspeak with which, I confess, I have little expertise). But no such insight or epiphany was ever possible without the grunt-work that precedes such moments.

A change is in the wind, at least where math is concerned. More and more, educational systems are returning to things such as memorizing times-tables, practicing specific methods, learning the process, etc. Why is it that we can accept the need to repeatedly practice a golf swing or a slapshot if we want to improve our particular athletic skill while arguing that practice and technique are somehow irrelevant when it comes to higher order thinking?

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At this point, the theorists are no longer listening. I’ve made the mistake of asserting something based upon my experience, an anecdotal report of what I’ve seen work through my years as a teacher. I haven’t done a study nor have I sought to test my claims in some clearly and objectively measurable way. In this, though, I’m a bit of Luddite. I’m happy to listen to those who have walked the walk, those who are praised by students for the impact they have had on their education, for the success such people have helped students achieve. Their methods are varied and malleable, as varied and malleable as the people who have attended school in the past and continue to do so today. When those with the power to change the system begin to listen to the honest voices of real teachers, only then will we see the improvements we all believe we need.