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Archive for February, 2013

A truly weird little You Tube video, Education And Accountability, was posted on February 7, 2013 in an attempt to arouse support for a resurgent Canadian anti -student testing movement. Inspired by the appeal of the polished RSA animated videos, the amateurish Canadian version is a thinly veiled effort to discredit Ontario’s Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) and its well-established system of standardized student testing.  The broadside did not come from out-of-the-blue but rather sprang from the  team of Action Canada researchers who produced the 2012 policy paper, Real Accountability or Illusion of Success?, a call to review standardized testing in Ontario.

TestingIllusionCoverAsking ‘How Much Testing is Too Much Testing?‘ is a very legitimate and reasonable question to ask.  Since 1995, and the creation of EQAO, student testing has expanded in direct response to growing public demand for accountability in Canadian K-12 public education.  What the Action Canada team of Sebastien Despres, Steven Kuhn, Pauline Ngirumpatse, and Marie Josee Parent have done is to call for a review of the entire public accountability structure in the system. That video lays bare their hidden agenda which is to undermine hard-won public accountability in a system with a chronic aversion to responding to parent, student, or citizen concerns.

Reviewing the Action Canada report is painful for those familiar with the struggle in the early 1990s to bring back a semblance of public accountability to a runaway public education system.  The Ontario Royal Commission on Learning, for example, is identified as the point of origin of student testing, completely ignoring the public advocacy of the Coalition for Education Reform (1992-1995).  That’s a forgivable sin, but to ignore the rising public demand, even the role of Dr. Dennis Raphael in the Ministry of Education and Paul Cappon at the Council of Ministers of Education(CMEC) is truly amazing.  It is clear that the authors have no idea whatsoever about how alien the concept of accountability for student performance was in the Ontario public system.

The Action Canada author’s research is not only narrowly circumscribed, it’s incredibly selective.  Studying student assessment policies and considering only the work of anti-testers is what gives “education research” a bad name.  It’s actually entertaining to see the OISE “progressive” faction. most notably David Livingston and Kari Delhi, cited approvingly, while the true assessment experts, Mark Holmes and Stephen Lawton, warrant not a mention.  In places, the report shows that the young authors have not done their homework. Even the spin that the report puts on the Commission on Learning’s recommendation sounds like the later repentant thoughts of Co-Chair Gerald Caplan.

The Action Canada team has taken a run at the entire public accountability system in Ontario public education.  Their “Task Force” recommendations call upon the Ontario government to review: A. The Structure of the Tests relative to Objectives; B. The Impact of Testing within the Classroom; C. The Validity of Test Results; and D. Public Reporting and Use of Test Results.  Simply put, the little band of neo-progressives are asking whether, not how much, testing is good for student learning.

The report bears the unmistakable fingerprints of Canada’s leading foe of standardized testing, New York-born University of Ottawa education professor Dr. Joel Westheimer.  While the young researchers did hold a panel and hear other viewpoints, it’s obvious that they have swallowed whole Dr. Westheimer’s lively commentaries and inspirational talks.  Westheimer’s take on the excesses of No Child Left Behind, entitled  “No Child Left Thinking,” should have been referenced because it definitely contributed significantly to their thinking.

The Action Canada report is clearly aimed at bringing Ontario’s public accountability system to the ground.  It’s a clumsy, ill-considered attempt to turn-back-the-clock to a time when no one had to be accountable for much of anything in or out of the classroom.  The Canadian Education Association and the Ontario Principals’ Council were, of course, among the first to “like” the report on Facebook. Thoughtful critics of standardized testing, like Dr. Diane Ravitch and the American Common Core research group are rightly concerned about two impacts: the steady erosion of  Social Sciences teaching time and the potential for misuse in teacher evaluation.  It’s a little too obvious that the young researchers are out to “kill testing” instead of simply stopping student test results from being factored into value-added teacher evaluation programs.

What’s driving the recent move to review and limit standardized student testing in Canadian schools?  Does the Action Canada research report hold any water, let alone suggest a way forward?  Why did the organized voices of Canadian teachers and principals jump so quickly in endorsing this thin little policy paper?  What in the world makes educators so afraid of testing when they spend much of their careers testing and grading kids?

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TED Talks are all the rage in today’s North American education world.  Since British educational visionary Sir Ken Robinson’s 2006 star turn in “Schools Kill Creativity,”  the short You Tube video talks have become a staple at most provincial teachers’ conferences and local Professional Development Days.  Millions of people, mostly futuristic educators, university-educated parents, students, and techies, have lapped up the polished mini-lectures professing to extoll “Ideas Worth Sharing.”  The incredible buzz has fueled expansion of the “TED brand” and sparked mini-conferences around the world taking advantage of the organization’s name and populist appeal.

TEDLogoRedTED is the brainchild of a futurist.  It was founded in 1984 by American architect Richard Saul Wurman as a small “think tank” conference for visionaries and ‘egg heads’ from a wide range of fields interested in talking about the impact of technology on reshaping the world.  It’s true roots are in Long Beach, Southern California.

Not until after Chris Anderson assumed control in 2001 did the TED franchise turn into a global intellectual powerhouse.  Today TED Talks on video have attracted over 800 million viewings and the average TED video gets 40,000 views withing its first 24 hours.  The TED Talk series has made Sir Ken Robinson the  reigning “rock star” among North American educators. Now that Vancouver has been chosen the site for the next annual TED Conference, you can expect the hype to spread even more across Canada.

The initial spell cast by the TED Talk phenomenon is beginning to wear off, six years after the real take-off on You Tube. Most recently, The Globe and Mail’s Gary Mason (February 7, 2013) produced a fine commentary posing the fundamental question of whether the “Ideas Worth Sharing” might better be described as “a mountain of new-agey, mumbo-jumbo futurism that promises far more than it delivers.”

Prominent social critics and pedantic academic specialists are beginning to feast on the TED Talks, holding them up to much closer scrutiny.  A TED conference costs about $7,500 per person to attend, so the gatherings attract well-healed college educated adults with avante guard pretensions.  As Nathan Heller noted in The New Yorker (July 2012), TED Talks tend to feature style over substance and attract mostly uncritical audiences who are inclined to give standing ovations.

Leading academics, initially disdainful of  over-hyped TED Talk events,  are now beginning to weigh in with withering critiques. Former presenter, Evgeny Mozorov, writing in The New Republic (August 23, 2012), was merciless in his criticism of the genre. “Today TED, ” he stated, ” is an insatiable kingpin of international meme laundering – a place where ideas, regardless of their quality, go to seek celebrity, to live in the form of videos, tweets, and now e-books. In the world of TED… books become talks, talks become memes, memes become projects, projects become talks, talks become books –so it goes ad infinitum..” In the process, he claimed, “any shade of depth or nuance disappears into the virtual void.”

Some of the TED Talks, as Gary Mason recognized, do have impact and value, but the spread of the concept has led to rather amateurish TEDx attempts at replication.  Sir Ken Robinson’s classic talks on Schools Kill Creativity, The Learning Revolution, and Changing Education Paradigms have set the standard, but the TED Talk movement may have passed its prime. Far too many of the more recent TED Talks look like the work of imitators or worse, charlatans. Watching some of those speakers shilling for their utopian schools or flogging their books leaves the distinct impression that you are witnessing the polished presentation of “ideas that no footnotes can support.”

What does the growing mountain of TED Talks amount to –a burst of creative ideas or a pile of New Age mumbo-jumbo?  Aside from Sir Ken’s impressive performances, have any of the Ted Talkers changed your life or the way you look at the world?  Why do assembled crowds of educators, in captive audiences, break into applause at the end, then return to their schools settling back into their comfortable routines?  Are we really being taught to Sit Back and Listen to the Sophists of the 21st century world?  What is the “take away” for today’s educators genuinely committed to education reform?

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