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Archive for April, 2017

Surveying the education public as well as ‘stakeholders’ for their opinion is the latest trend in Canadian K-12 education policy. Two recent Canadian education surveys conducted in Nova Scotia and Alberta provide some recent examples worthy of further discussion.  The recent release of Alberta Education Minister David Eggen’s curriculum survey results (April 13, 2017) also demonstrates that unsuspecting citizens may need help in penetrating through the official spin to get at the actual results.

Facing deep divisions in P-12 education over future directions, and not inclined to follow the research evidence, provincial authorities are going, more and more, to soliciting public opinion utilizing surveys with pre-determined outcomes.  Upon closed scrutiny, the Alberta survey seems wholly designed to confirm intended curriculum directions.

Conducting public surveys is not without its risks. In the case of the 2014 Nova Scotia Education Review survey, a largely unvarnished, no-holds-barred instrument actually backfired on the Education Department. When the N.S. Review Committee headed by Myra Freeman polled 18,500 residents, the results published in October 2014 proved a real jolt and sent the provincial teachers’ union into a tizzy, mostly focused on being excluded from shaping the survey and serving on the commission.

One half of Nova Scotians, the survey found, were “not satisfied with the public school system” and teachers as well as parents identified plenty of reasons why. The report, Disrupting the Status Quo, generated very high expectations — never honoured — that major reform was on the way.  A three-month NSTU teacher work-to-rule in 2016-17 effectively sunk the quality education reform plan and generated a completely new set of teacher-driven demands for improvement in “working conditions.”

Alberta Education had no desire to see that pattern repeated.  Minister Eggen’s curriculum survey looked, and sounded, skewed in the Education Department’s preferred direction – toward more of what is loosely termed “21st learning.” In Alberta Education futuristic doubletalk, the overarching goal is to produce students who “are agents of change to create the globe that they want to be part of.”

The survey, conducted in October and November 2016 succeeded in attracting some 32,390 respondents, of whom only slightly over half (57%) might be classed as ‘outside the system.’The proposed directions were presented as amorphous curriculum “themes” where respondents are clearly led to certain conclusions. You are, for example, asked whether you agree or disagree with this statement: “Through learning outcomes curriculum should support the development of literacy, numeracy and 21st century competencies.”  It is impossible to answer if you think basic numeracy and literacy should take precedence over the ill-defined futuristic skills.

Conducting the survey was also further confirmation of the provincial strategy to thwart mathematics education reform. With the Alberta “Back to Basics” petition, initiated by parent Dr. Nhung Tran-Davies of Calmar, AB, piling up 18,332 signatures, the survey attempts, in clumsy fashion, to override that hardened opinion.

The Department’s summary of responses does its best to conceal the extent of resistance to current K-12 Mathematics teaching and curricula.  Sifting through the Mathematics responses, teaching math facts, restoring step-by-step algorithmic thinking, limiting the use of computers, and mastering mental math far outweighed any preference for “21st century competencies” or its step-child, discovery math.

Instead of addressing these findings, Minister Eggen  ‘cherry-picked’ one example of the desire for ‘relevance’ – support for including financial literacy in grade 4 to 9 classes. That too is a clear sign that parents want their kids to be able to balance a set of sums.

Albertans’ written responses to the open-ended questions are the clearest indication of their true inclinations.  Out of the 15,724 respondents committed enough to do more than tick boxes, the largest segment, again (10 %), favoured refocusing on “math basics” and singled out “discovery math” as a problem. Combined with “learning the basics” (6%) and teaching practical skills (7%), one in four who made comments targeted the lack of rigour in the curriculum.

Judging from the wording of questions, the entire survey also skewed in the direction of student-centred teaching methods. That’s strange because the recent PISA 2015 global results report demonstrated conclusively that “explicit instruction” produced much better student results than “minimally-guided instruction.”

The inherent bias pops up elsewhere. “This survey,” it reported, “was intended to focus on the ‘what’ of current provincial curriculum not ‘how’ teachers teach it.”   Serious curriculum analysts know it’s now virtually impossible to separate the two in assessing program effectiveness.

Provincial education authorities were, at one time, given explicit mandates based upon either firm political policy positions or best practice research. When governments are lost and searching for direction, they may turn to the public to find their bearings. In the case of Alberta, it looks more like surveying for confirmation of the ‘educrats’ own pre-determined direction.

*A condensed version of this Commentary appeared in the Edmonton Journal, April 18, 2017.

Why do school systems survey the public?  Are Canadian provincial governments totally lost on K-12 education and simply looking for direction? Do our Education Department’s  harbour a secret agenda?  Or are they looking for public confirmation of pre-conceived plans for curriculum changes? 

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Alberta teacher Mike Tachynski, a high school science teacher at Edmonton’s Ross Sheppard High School, is a brave soul.  In late January 2017, he had the courage to speak up publicly about the critical, but largely buried, issue of grade inflation in Canadian high schools.  It was just one more indication that the province of Alberta, once the bastion of higher graduation expectations, was falling more into line with other ‘soft on standards’ provinces.

In the three minutes Tachynski was allotted to address the Edmonton Public Schools elected board, on January 31, 2017, he demonstrated that Alberta was not immune to the disease of grade inflation. Moving away from weighing final exams at 50 per cent of the final Grade 12 subject mark was already contributing to  ‘grade inflation’ leading to irregularities in grades that unfairly favoured some students over others. “Inflated grades create a lose-lose situation,” Tachynski told the board. Students whose teachers are presenting more rigorous challenges may understand the material better, but have a lower grade on their transcript. On the other hand, he said students with ‘artificially high grades’ may flounder when admitted to college and university programs.

The provincial data for June 2016, published in the Edmonton Journal,  supported Tachynski’s claim. Some 96 per cent of students were awarded a passing grade in Math 30-1 by their teachers, but only 71 per cent of those who took the diploma exam passed the test — a gap of 25 percentage points. For Chemistry 30, it was 15 percentage points.  Going back to 2008, the gaps in pass rates between teacher-marks and diploma exam results had grown in five of 12 subjects over the span of nine years.

What’s shocking about Alberta’s slide in standards is that, as recently as November 2011, Maclean’s Magazine had hailed that province as having Canada’s best education system based upon the standards of its graduating students. Based upon a 2011 University of Saskatchewan admission study of 12,000 first-year university student grades, Alberta high school graduates dropped only 6.4 points, compared to as much as 19.6 points for students from other provinces. It was attributed, at the time, to Alberta’s policy of basing 50 per cent of the final grades on diploma exam marks.

Grade inflation has been identified as a major concern since the early 1980s in most school systems in the English-speaking world. In 2009, Durham University in the U.K. studied the phenomenon and concluded that an ‘A’ grade was now roughly equivalent to a ‘C’ grade in 1980. Ten years ago, forty per cent of Ontario high school graduates were leaving with an ‘A’ average, eight times as many as in the more conventional British system. In Alberta at that time, it was only 20 per cent, in large part because of compulsory exams in the core subjects.

Former Alberta school administrator Jim Dueck has recently written about the internal struggle during the early 2000s to maintain the province’s more rigorous standards. “Superintendents were loathe to undertake any action to ameliorate the problem,” he wrote in his 2014 book, Education’s Flashpoints.  “Large-scale testing was contentious and acknowledging the significantly different results was thought to be inflamatory and likely lead to a backlash among union members, which at the time included principals.”

Co-author of the much discussed 2008 book Ivory Tower Blues, James Côté, a Western University sociology professor, insists that grade inflation ultimately hurts students. “It starts in high school. Giving higher grades is one way to reward kids fairly easily, boost their self-esteem and stop them from dropping out,” Côté said. “That’s the mandate our high schools are facing: lowering the dropout rate.” That’s why, he added, 60 per cent of students applying to university had an A average by 2008 and the mark ranges were compressed so much that it had “reached a point of crisis.”

High school grade inflation is now rampant in school systems right across Canada. Out east, the problem was first flagged in a May 2007 AIMS study focusing on the enormous gaps in New Brunswick and Newfoundland/Labrador between assigned class marks and diploma exam marks. In November of 2011, the University of Calgary’s Dean of Arts blew the whistle on the alarming extent of Ontario grade inflation. “There’s an arm’s race of A’s going on, ” he told the Calgary Herald.  Since Nova Scotia moved its provincial exams from Grade 12 to Grade 10 in June 2012, that province’s graduation rates have skyrocketed from 88.6 per cent to 92.5 per cent in 2014-15.

Students are well aware of the impact of high school grade inflation, especially when they take a real hit in their first set of university grades. It is, according to a former President of the Ontario Student Trustees’ Association, Zane Schwartz, a balloon that’s ready to pop.  “Until there is standardization, ” he wrote in a March 2013 Toronto Globe and Mail opinion column,” high-achieving students will keep being told they’re brilliant, low achieving students will keep getting pushed from grade to grade, and students grades will drop when they reach university.”  We can, he added, do more to “reign in rampant grade inflation and better prepare students for university environment.”  To date, it is my understanding, little has been done to act upon that level-headed student advice.

Why has grade inflation become so rampant in most Canadian high schools?  How much of the pressure for higher marks comes from university-bound students and their parents?  Why have provincial authorities, one after another, either abandoned Grade 12 provincial exams or devalued them in the determination of graduation marks? Is there a graceful way out of the current predicament? 

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School systems tend to be leery of trailbrazers, especially when it comes to instilling rigour and improved student behaviour.

One U.K. school head, Katharine Birbalsingh, stands out in this regard. Over the past three years, as headteacher at Michaela School in Brent, North London, she has earned a formidable reputation for her “no excuses” approach that has turned an inner city school serving largely ‘deprived children’ into a model of striving for excellence and ‘optimizing student behaviour.’  That reputation will only be enhanced by March 2017 U.K. Government report, Creating a Culture, authored by researchED founder Tom Bennett issuing a clarion call for school leadership to address the deplorable state of student behaviour in far too many state schools.

As the U.K.’s  leading behaviour expert, Bennett (much Younger and unrelated to me ) puts great stock in school leadership to set the course and  spearhead needed changes in tackling student behaviour and discipline, including setting high standards, being crystal clear about expectations, and having the courage to create effective “inclusion units” in higher level schools. Among his key recommendations are:

  • revise the certification for all headteachers, so that it includes a requirement to demonstrate knowledge of how to create a good behaviour culture;
  • introduce the use of a national standardised method that captures data on student behaviour which can then be used to compare schools;
  • fund schools to create internal inclusion units for direct intervention with a goal of returning special needs students to mainstream classes;
  • provide greater guidance for schools on how to manage and support the most challenging pupils.

Running through Bennett’s report is one consistent message: the importance of a strong culture of behaviour  initiated by the headteacher and running through the school.  It is also a message that needs to be heard on the other side of the Atlantic, in Canada and the United States.

All of this leads us back to Birbalsingh and her Michaela School. “Are school leaders born or made?” is a question difficult to answer.  Yet, some educators with a courage of conviction like Birbalsingh do seem destined to lead.

Decried by some as Britain’s “strictest head teacher,” she is definitely breaking the mold and winning converts to the so-called “Michaela Way” of educating children. Born in 1973 in New Zealand, while her father York University professor Frank Birbalsingh was teaching there as a visiting professor, she was raised in Toronto, moved to Warwick, England at age 15, and went on to graduate from New College, Oxford in French and philosophy studies. Education was certainly a high priority in her Guyanese-Jamaican family, going back to her grandfather, Ezrom S. Birbalsingh, former head of the Canadian Mission School in Better Hope, Guyana.

Birbalsingh was imbued with that same passion for education. Upon graduating,  she chose to teach and write (as ‘Miss Snuffy‘) about life in inner-city schools, producing a lively blog, To Miss With Love After reading E.D. Hirsch‘s classic, The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them (1999),  she was absolutely convinced about what was wrong with today’s schools and that public education should be about teaching children to pursue knowledge, not ‘learning skills.’  In October 2010, as head of a south London school, she spoke out at a British Conservative Party Conference, lambasting the education system exhibiting a “culture of excuses, of low standards” marooned in “a sea of bureaucracy” and contributing to “the chaos in our classrooms.” Forced to step down in the wake of the controversy, she bounced back in 2014 as the founding head of Michaela, one of London’s newest’free schools’ with alternative programs.

The Michaela Way, pioneered by Birbalsingh at the state-funded school, exemplifies, in many ways, the kind of model envisioned in Bennett’s student behaviour report. The school’s head is, to be sure, larger than life, in that school community.  Her book on the school, subtitled “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers,” is definitely radical by today’s mushy liberal education standards. “This book should be banned,” says New Schools Network Director Toby Young, because if the parent of any teenager gets hold of it, they would demand the same for their son or daughter.

In her book’s Introduction, “Free at Last,” Birbalsingh outlines her school’s mission this way: “‘Where’s the rigour?’ was what my friend and inspiration Michaela used to shout. Michaela loved to teach from the front. She liberated herself in her classroom by closing her door so that she could get on with what worked. She dis things differently, and so do we.” 

The Michaela School rises to most of the challenges cited in Tom Bennett’s report by essentially clearing away most of the obstacles that “impede improvement.” The vision articulated by Birbalsingh and her carefully recruited staff of youngish teachers is not only clearly articulated but put into action in class, the lunchroom, and in the halls.  Since the school head is skeptical about current teacher certification programs, most of the teaching staff have advanced subject specialist degrees (without official teaching papers) and are taught proper teaching and classroom management skills through a mentorship training program. High expectations pop out at you in school assemblies, on wall posters, and in classroom routines. The school, under Birbalsingh, exhibits consistency from top -to-bottom in a fashion that is inspiring to visiting educators and parents.

Michaela is different from the vast majority of public high schools in three significant ways: the laser focus on student discipline, the traditional style of teaching, and the explicit character education. “We teach kindness and gratitude,” Birbalsingh says,” because we think that children should be kind to each other and and to their teachers and be grateful for everything we do for them.”  That’s her way of describing the consistent focus on educating for respect and responsibility instead of pandering, far too often, to student whims and desires.

Michaela School is only three years old, so it has yet to face the biggest test of all — it’s first full U’K. school inspection and, in two years time, its first GCSE examination results.  With 30 per cent of students in the Michael school district of Bent on free school meals, all eyes will be on how Michaela fares on those national school and student assessments.  If Tom Bennett’s report is any indication, it will pass the ‘student behaviour’  test with flying colours.

How important is school leadership in setting the tone and improving student behaviour in schools?  Does Tom Bennett’s prescription for U.K. schools have significance as a possible guide for Canadian and American public high schools? What can be learned from the success of Michaela School in inner city London?  Would the Canadian system benefit from having a model school like Michaela to help break the cycle of eroding student discipline? 

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