Brian Gallant’s legacy for new Brunswick: 4 lost years

Listening to Brian Gallant since the failure of his brief attempt to carry on as premier in a minority legislature might lead one to believe that a grave error had been made. According to him, the four years of his Liberal mandate were evidence of a commitment to people and the province marked by innovative approaches, careful “investment” and a slow climb toward prosperity.

Such an assessment would be sad if it were possible to believe, for even a minute, that Mr. Gallant really believes all that. Only the most generous – or the most ardently Liberal – could possibly ascribe to the last four years of Liberal rule as anything but bordering on disaster.

The more obvious examples of ineptitude would include (but not be limited to): the province teetering on the fiscal cliff of credit downgrades since the Alward government left office; education “results” that have shown negligible improvement even as the concerns of all those with an interest in the system have escalated; the now former premier’s claim that he didn’t mean “net jobs” when he promised 10,000 of them; the property tax scandal that he would have us believe he knew nothing about; flood victims still waiting for compensation. Feel free to add any examples of your own

Brian Gallant’s miserable four years were concluded quite aptly with an election campaign that was judged absurd even by those who didn’t find it disgusting. Hardly a day went by without Mr. Gallant promising money of some kind for anything and everyone if he had any inkling that he might be able to garner a vote by doing so.

But the campaign took a far darker turn when the black and white posters of Blaine Higgs’ shadowed profile appeared. By choosing a view of Mr Higgs sporting a mustache and combining that profile with quotes taken entirely out of context, these ominous posters couldn’t help remind one of the Stephen Harper attacks on Michael Ignatieff. Because I’m, by nature, prone to some even darker reflections, I wonder if some bright light in the Liberal ranks didn’t think the poster’s photo would remind people of any number of historical fascists. It was politics at its dirtiest.

So I’m not buying the revisionist historical account offered by the now former premier. He was young and ambitious and did all that he could to obtain the leadership, undermine the government of David Alward, be elected premier and then proceed to spend in ways he hoped could buy him votes while stirring up the very linguistic divisions he now pretends to hope to heal. Some will argue that he was just being a politician like any other. If so, his defeat suggests that New Brunswick is ready for something – for someone – different. It is my ardent hope (and personal belief) that Blaine Higgs is that person.

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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.

There is no such thing as “inclusive education”!

First, I want to shout kudos to Erin Schryer and her calling to our attention the debunking of “whole language” while championing the return of phonics. Her defense of an “old-school” approach to language acquisition is long overdue in the public arena. As someone who taught English at the high school level for my entire career, I admit to my subversive activities, activities very much in concert with a belief that learning involves passing on things that a teacher knows to those who DON’T necessarily know yet.

And then there’s “inclusive education”. Nothing quite like a provocative title to engage those who have a different view. Just to be clear: I am (as I believe any compassionate human being would be) in favour of including one and all in society and ensuring that no person is excluded from anything simply because he or she is deemed “different” in some way. In other words, I am entirely in favour of social inclusion – seems like a no-brainer, really, for anyone who makes any claim to being fair-minded and “liberal” in the best sense of that too-often cheapened term.

I’m challenging “inclusive education” simply because I believe it doesn’t – nor can it – exist. What we DO have is “inclusive classrooms” and they are proving to be inimical to any hope we might have in New Brunswick of improving the education received by students of any and all varieties. In the same way that theories regarding whole language practices are being discarded because they fail to do what they purportedly have as their aim, namely, learning to read and write, so, too, is inclusive education an increasingly discredited practice because experience shows that students do not learn WELL let alone better in inclusive classrooms. If you doubt that, consider the virtually unshakeable adult functional illiteracy rate in this province of something in excess of 50%.

As the defenders of inclusive education twist themselves in knots by suggesting that “individual instruction” can somehow be conducted by one person to as many as 29 students in a classroom that may have upwards of 4 Educational Assistants tasked with monitoring and controlling the behaviours of students facing any number of behavioural and/or other challenges, the actual “education” of all students declines with each passing day.

Education in New Brunswick, systemically, needs to return to curriculum that focuses on basic skills acquisition. Remedial assistance has always been a component of the system and it should be targeted toward skills, not social engineering which is, essentially, what “inclusive education” means. The defenders of the current model believe that the social inclusiveness supposedly fostered in the “inclusive classroom” is more important than the skills our education system is expected to provide, no matter how much it has continued to fail in this regard. Our educational system must return to its core mission of providing skills and “learning” even as we, as a society, continue to embrace social inclusion in our day-to-day lives.

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?

Electoral reform: it’s not all about you!

Being political doesn’t only or principally mean caring what party wins the next election; to be political is to care about the happiness of strangers.
― Alain de Botton

An article this morning in the local paper caught my eye, dealing as it did with a favourite topic of mine: electoral reform. I’m probably not joined by a great many of my friends and acquaintances when I say that I am satisfied with the system we have inherited from the British. Proponents of proportional representation decry how their votes (and voices) are not counted in a system where a party which receives only 40% (for example) of the popular vote ends up with a majority of seats.

Let’s discount the obvious first. All votes that were cast were, very obviously, “counted”. That’s how a winner is determined in an individual constituency. But that’s not the sense in which the naysayers mean “counted”. In their view, in order for their votes to “count” (what they really mean is “matter”), they must see their collective numbers, across all constituencies, result in someone being elected under their party’s banner.

To my way of thinking, this represents a profound difference in how one values an electoral system and, in fact, government itself. Our current system allows local people the opportunity to elect a local representative. Once that councillor, MLA or MP is elected, he/she becomes EVERYONE’s representative. If you are among those who choose to believe that that is just not true, then I suspect you are more partisan and ideological in your thinking than I am.

Representation and governance are not the same thing. Every vote cast in an election is counted but the hard truth is that elections have winners and losers. Those who long for proportional representation will not consider their voices heard until such time as they have a legislator in place sporting the party colours. Governance, first and foremost, should be effective, and a system which tends to majority governments offers the best chance of that. Those in favour of proportional representation argue that it tends to make compromise inevitable. If you take a look around the world, all too often it ends up leading to gridlock and chaos.

No system is perfect and the current one could, undoubtedly, use improvement. Can we please get over the idea, though, that Canadian government is is dire need of an overhaul? We are a peaceful, wealthy, diverse and well-respected country. Surely our electoral system has played some role in making it that way.

As I said earlier, those who oppose the current system don’t like it when someone with whom they are directly affiliated fails to be elected in some way. And the unstated premise is that no one can conceivably represent someone’s interests unless such a person is of the same political stripe. I prefer a more optimistic view, one where the elected representative takes the charge of representing a constituency seriously and realizes that said constituency includes one and all. To me, such a view suggests a respect for diversity that we are, surely, very much in need of these days.