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Archive for May, 2019

Progressive education and its principal banner-bearer John Dewey remain popular in Canadian and American faculties of education and within the teaching profession, particularly among elementary school teachers. Educational theories based upon Dewey’s voluminous writings still hold great appeal among a wide swath of professors within education schools, encompassing educational psychologists and teacher educators. Citing Dewey in your work is common; less common is delving into the intellectual underpinnings and tenets of Deweyism.  While the Philosophy of Education is withering as a field, Dewey scholarship remains a bright spot and a gathering place for the so-called “romantics.”

A recent analysis of John Dewey and the state of educational philosophy dared to suggest that the father of modern progressivism may be “doomed to fade” in the galaxy. The short 2019 essay, authored by Dewey scholar David I Waddington, Professor of Educational Philosophy at Concordia University, posited that the “romance” showed signs of coming to an end.  That decline and ultimate fall, he forecast with a twinge of sadness, was foreshadowed by the decomposition of “modernity” and the “accelerating failure of the progressive movement’s social project.” The progressive movement’s current difficulties, he concluded, did not bode well for the future of Dewey scholarship in education schools and, by extension, research-informed practice in the schools.

Education schools carry the burden of a reputation for occupying a “low academic status” in the university. In the course of explaining that lowly status David Larabee (The Trouble with Ed Schools, 2006), attributed it in large part to the tendency of American schools of education to embrace Dewey’s progressivism with something approaching a religious fervour. He claimed that education schools exemplified a “romance with progressivism” forged in the early 20th century as teacher education moved decisively towards a strong professional training orientation. On the teaching side, this tied-in with preparing teachers for the classroom; on the research side, it was exemplified in the focus on developing new testing systems and building the bureaucratic administrative structure of the modern school system. Faculties of education became, in Waddington’s words, “handmaidens to the public school system” absorbed in training teachers and administrators, and later, higher-level consultants.

John Dewey’s progressivism filled a vacuum by providing a serviceable educational philosophy.  Few teacher educators gravitated to educational philosophy and most were satisfied with a general understanding of Dewey’s theories. A significant number of education professors, then as now, were deeply committed to “social justice education” and found in Dewey an aspirational philosophy that accorded with their own commitment to the “liberal reform project” of schooling.

Most education professors were pragmatic educators with surprisingly little interest or passion for matters of theory, cognitive science or discipline-based curriculum. Teacher educators had some control over classroom practice, so this became their primary focus, and curriculum was ceded to the policy branches of education departments. Dewey’s writings fit the orientation because they focused on how to teach rather than what to teach. Studies conducted from 1993 to 2006 revealed that alarming numbers of education professors were poorly read and, in some cases, unable to cite a single book or author in their field.

Schools of education needed all the credibility they could muster and they found that salvation in Dewey, widely regarded as one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century.  Many with a narrow focus on teacher preparation, psychology, or technical education latched onto Dewey and claimed him for what Waddington aptly describes as the “sad-sack home team.”

While the ghost of John Dewey still haunts teacher training schools, his influence is definitely on the wane.  The American education philosopher still has a hard core of camp followers, but his ideas embodied “the modern project” of reconstructing society through the reform of public institutions is in disrepute in the academy. “We are living amidst the wreckage of the modern project,” according to Waddington, and the “grand modern Deweyan metanarrative of education as the liberator of humanity now rings increasingly false.” Supporting modernity and the renewal of the liberal state is, after all, incompatible with “critical social justice scholarship” leaving Deweyites on a lonely academic perch.

Prominent critics of education schools are now piling-on with fresh evidence that those institutions are disconnected in other ways. Manitoba teacher and education policy analyst Michael Zwaagstra claims that most education faculties remain wedded to Deweyism and resistant to change.  “Education schools continue to downplay subject-specific knowledge and promote many of the same fads, albeit under new names,” he points out. “Today’s education students are fed useless platitudes such as the need to be a ‘guide on the side rather than a sage on the stage.'” 

Zwaagstra’s critique has a familiar ring:  “Instead of empowering future teachers with the confidence they need to effectively manage their classrooms, education professors promote theories that have little practical use in actual classrooms with real students.” Teacher candidates give high marks to classroom teachers in their practicum sessions, but  ‘one of the most common sentiments expressed by classroom teachers is that their education classes taught them little about how to teach.”

Hopeful signs are appearing as some practicing teachers have begun to take matters into their own hands. Zwaagstra and a growing band of researchED supporters draw hope and strength from the British teacher research movement founded in 2013 by Tom Bennett and slowly spreading (teacher-to-teacher) throughout Canada and the United States. In sharp contrast to education school approaches and education guru-led school change, researchED is “entirely teacher-directed and gives teachers an opportunity to directly engage with the research literature.” Freed-up from the ideological conformity expected by modern day Deweyites, teacher presenters come from a variety of perspectives and disciplines and teachers are left to make up their own minds regarding what they hear.

Why does John Dewey and his brand of progressivism still pervade so many faculties of education?  Will Deweyism survive the decline and fall of modernity and be exhumed from ‘the wreckage of the modern project’?  Where do today’s teacher training programs fall short?  Does the emergence of researchED in North America provide a glimmer of hope?  

 

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An April 2019 study, Academic Skill Deficiencies in four Ontario universities, has sent shock waves through the Canadian K-12 school system.  That study, spearheaded by two leading sociologists, York University’s J. Paul Grayson and Western University’s James Cote, has shone fresh light on a previously identified problem — growing evidence that secondary schools feeding universities are falling well short in addressing students’ skills deficiencies. What’s most surprising is that, over the past 15-years, dramatically rising graduation rates have not translated into improvements in students’ academic skills.

First year university and college professors have long complained about the quality of students entering their institutions.  This study, conducted at four Ontario universitiesYork, Western, Waterloo and Toronto, which together enrol 41 per cent of Ontario undergraduates — confirms much of the accumulated evidence. The researchers found that “only about 44 per cent of students felt they had the generic skills needed to do well in their academic studies, 41 per cent could be classified as at risk in academic settings because of limited levels of basic skills, and 16 per cent lacked almost all the skills needed for higher learning.”

This study was borne out of the sheer frustration experienced by Grayson and his York University colleague Robert Kenedy in trying to teach undergraduate Social Science students at York University. Their bias was clear – far too many appeared mostly unprepared for the demands of higher education, particularly in critical thinking, academic research and competent writing.  In late 2017 they surveyed 22,000 students from all disciplines and levels of study enrolled in the faculty of Liberal Arts and Professional Studies at York. Their questionnaire posed 50 questions to students of all demographic backgrounds. The key skill questions focused on writing ability, test-taking, analysis, time and group management, research, giving presentations and elemental numeracy. A year later, the same survey was performed at the three other universities cited. The results were remarkably consistent in all four universities.

University student reading in classroom

Such research findings shock Ontario educational leadership because they run completely counter to the prevailing assumption that Ontario’s K-12 school system ranks among the best in the world. Academic skill deficiencies of secondary school graduates, all too evident to first year university instructors and employers, too often escape the attention of those overseeing the system and PSE admissions offices looking to fill seats. It’s aptly named – the “big disconnect” –– referring to the growing gap between high school attainment and actual, demonstrable student achievement.

Critics of today’s “graduate everyone” school systems find confirmation in this study of their oft-repeated claim that the secondary-school system is “failing to meet basic pedagogical objectives” and “failing to cull incompetent students.” That is not really new because it was all flagged a decade ago in two academic critiques, co-authored by James Cote,  Ivory Tower Blues (2007) and Lowering Higher Education (2011). Back then, professors expressed grave concerns about students unable to accept criticism or remain engaged and conceded that they had dumbed down their courses and reduced the frequency of tests and assignments. What the most recent study shows is that not much has changed.

Far too many of today’s secondary school graduates are not only unprepared for university studies, but panic-stricken by the academic expectations.  One of Grayson and Kenedy’s students provided a sad example of this latest iteration of the problem: “IM IN FIRST YEAR AND IM DOING SO BAD AND IM SO SCARED BC IM FINDING IT REALLY HARD TO MANAGE MY TIME AND MY ANXIETY HAS GOTTEN SO BAD AND IDK WHAT TO DO AND IM SCARED OF GETTING KICKED OUT AND IM JUST SCARED.”

Two new dimensions have emerged that deserve more serious research and analysis: the radical differences in the quality of among secondary schools and the impact of academic acceleration programs, most notably the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Program. From what we know, university admissions offices now “rate high schools” on a top secret quality index and much prefer graduates applying with transcripts requiring far more rigorous academic courses. Both trends are indicative of a further ‘devaluation’ of the standard provincial graduation diploma.

Today’s students applying to university tend to have significantly inflated grades. That is why some universities do attempt to assess the relative quality of students graduating from various high schools, comparing incoming grades with those at the end of first year. In October 2018, a confidential report prepared for the University of Waterloo Engineering Program was uncovered that documented the existence of an “adjustment factor” used to determine which students were admitted into their top ranked, highly competitive program.

The downward adjustment factors applied to final marks from Ontario high schools averaged 16 percent, ranging from a low of 9.9 per cent (L’Amoreaux Collegiate, Agincourt) to a high of 27.5 per cent (Grimsby SS).  Students graduating from some other provinces fared worse;   New Brunswick applicants saw their marks downgraded by 24.5 per cent, meaning students applying with a 90 per cent average would be credited with only a 65.5 per cent by the University of Waterloo.

The academic skills deficits identified by the April 2019 study do not seem to apply to students applying with IB mark transcripts. Students graduating with the full International Baccalaureate Diploma (IBDP) are the most sought-after by Canadian universities, particularly in highly selective university programs leading to professional studies. In the case of Nova Scotia, IB university applicants now have their grades raised so as not to penalize them in competition with students from regular, non-IB high schools.

Four top Canadian universities, University of Toronto, University of British Columbia, McGill University, and the University of Alberta actively seek students applying with IB graduation transcripts. Students admitted with the IB Diploma do perform better in first year of university. Entry level grades are maintained because IB grades based upon IB external examinations are far more reliable as better predictors of four-year college outcomes.

One authoritative 2014 study, conducted by Andrew Arida for the University of British Columbia, demonstrated that IB admissions candidates possess more highly developed academic skills than those from regular non-IB high schools. They are particularly strong in reading comprehension (+25%), mastering research skills (+ 26%), making presentations ( +25%), clarity and effectiveness in writing ( +20%), and appreciation of racial and ethnic diversity (+13 %). This advantage is sustained to the end of first year university.  Those IB graduates were also more likely to participate in volunteering, join university clubs, and assist by tutoring other students.

Why are such a high proportion of today’s university-bound students in Ontario and elsewhere across Canada showing academic skills deficits?  What’s happened to the value of a secondary school graduation diploma in university, college and presumably the workplace? Why do provincial ministries, university leaders and school administrators greet reports on academic skills deficits with a deafening silence? Who is monitoring and addressing the identified inequities in levels of secondary school preparedness for higher education? Without academic acceleration programs like the IB, would matters be worse? 

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