Measuring what matters in education is a vitally important public policy issue fraught with controversy. Since 2000, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has succeeded through the Program of International Student Assessment (PISA) in establishing the global benchmark for student achievement in the fundamentals of reading, mathematics and science. Over sixty countries have come together to support student achievement testing and most participating nations have developed comparable national and state/provincial cyclical assessment programs. That global consensus is now under fire by a revivified movement of North American educators purporting to be ‘education progressives.’
A “Measuring What Matters” movement has arisen attempting to “broaden the measures of success,” but essentially committed to either “soften” the standards or banish standardized testing all together. The Ontario Broader Success project, initiated by Annie Kidder and People for Education, is in the vanguard of the attempt to water down student testing by incorporating “softer” competencies and socially progressive attitudes. A growing band of North American education progressives, endorsed by education gadfly Alfie Kohn, issued a May 6, 2014 OECD PISA Letter objecting to ” the negative consequences of the PISA rankings” and claiming that “measuring a great diversity of educational traditions and cultures using a single, narrow, biased yardstick could, in the end, do irreparable harm to our schools and our students.”
The real agenda of the Canadian insurgency is to broaden the definition of student success and chip away at the foundation of student testing and public accountability. In June 2013, People for Education released a Broader Measures of Success report which gave a clearer picture of the end game. Building upon its long-held skepticism about testing, Kidder and P4E announced a five-year project to “broaden the definition of school success” to encompass more than “literacy and numeracy.” The report, produced by researcher Kelly Gallagher-Mackay, proposed a new framework of six domains, only one of which was related to “academic achievement.” Indeed, the P4E model attempted to sublimate academic achievement in the pursuit of five other goals: physical and mental health, social-emotional development, creativity and innovation, and school climate.
One of the most credible proponents of the Broader Success agenda is Dr. Charles Ungerleider, a UBC professor and former BC Minister of Education. Much of the substance of the critique comes from Dr. Ungerleider, a well compensated educational consultant committed to empowering teachers and thereby improving instruction. In a very revealing BC Public Affairs show, Your Education Matters with Dr. Paul Shaffer, Ungerleider laid bare the goals of the movement. “We should broaden the definition of success on a system-wide basis,” he stated. ” We can assess a student’s moral framework…evaluate the level of social responsibility…and evaluate compassion for fellow human beings.”
Ungerleider claims to support student testing, but he is adamantly opposed to “the misuse of (student performance) information.” Ranking schools based upon student results qualifies as “a misuse of information” perpetrated by think tanks like the Fraser Institute and AIMS. Promoting a broader concept of school success is, he advises Shaffer, the best way to “educate the public about what’s wrong with school rankings.”
The Broader Success movement is going all out to win the support of Canadian teachers unions like the Alberta Teachers Association. On March 27, 2014, the ATA Magazine virtually endorsed their approach by publishing a short column written by Kidder, Gallagher-Mackay and Ungerleider. It appealed to teachers who are generally allergic to student testing and accountability. “By changing what is measured, ” the trio wrote, ” the initiative will support positive change in schools and make more room for the curriculum, programs and resources that support health, creativity, citizenship, social-emotional skills and positive school climate.” All three of them repeated that message in a May 26, 2013 presentation at the Canadian Society for the Study of Education Conference at Brock University.
The Ontario Government appears to be listening to the Broader Success advocates, judging from the April 2014 policy statement Achieving Excellence: A Renewed Vision for Education in Ontario. Consistent with the Dalton McGuinty-Kathleen Wynne policy orientation, the new direction document attempts to move beyond instilling the fundamentals and embraces the pursuit of “soft” competencies and skills. Achieving excellence as measured in PISA reading and mathematics scores remains first in priority, but the Ministry of Education is now tilting in the direction of “ensuring equity” and “promoting well-being.”
Where is Ontario public education heading? The Achieving Excellence policy statement provides a few clues. It appears that Ontario, trading in on its claim to be one of “the world’s highest performing school systems,” is now flirting with the Broader Success policy panacea. Annie Kidder and People for Education no longer qualify as “outsiders” and have succeeded in burrowing into the Ontario education establishment. With Dr. Ben Levin out-of-commission and Dr. Michael Fullan in a 21st Century Learning orbit, the system has lost its moorings and pinning down its future direction is purely a matter of speculation.
Focusing on student educational deficits can become the system-wide raison d’etre in the absence of clear aspirational standards. That is the focus of Ungerleider and People for Education. The highly successful Educational Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) is no longer in the forefront, and that is a bad omen. Recent research by Australian John Guenther pointing out the value of assessing the social capital of school-community partnerships and the effectiveness of alternative special education programs for at-risk children are lost on the Ontario educational insiders. So are legitimate concerns raised about the costs of rebuilding a complete battery of system-wide “soft” measures. Where student assessment standards whither and public accountability falters, mediocrity is not far behind.
Why are North American ‘neo-progressive’ educators abandoning academic standards and looking to broaden or kill the PISA assessments? What is the real purpose of Ontario’s People for Education initiative promoting Broader Success measures for students and schools? To what extent is that initiative motivated by the desire to return to an “accountability-free ” school system? Can moral standards and social responsibility be quantified, and — if so- for what purpose? Finally, will any of these changes produce students who are better educated, productive, resilient, and prepared to thrive in the 21st century?