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Archive for the ‘Academic Achievement’ Category

Student achievement varies a great deal across the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries. Good teachers can have a significant impact upon their students’ learning and achievement and there is now research to support that contention.  What makes some teachers more effective than others is less clear.  It remains one question that cries out for further in-depth study.

A comprehensive research study reported in the latest issue of Education Next (Vol. 19, Spring 2019) tackles that fundamental question on an international comparative scale. Three American researchers, Eric A Hanushek, Marc Piopiunik, and Simon Wiederhold, not only demonstrate that teachers’ cognitive skills vary widely among developed nations, but that such differences matter greatly for student performance in school.

Developing, recruiting and training a teacher force with higher cognitive skills (Hanushek, Piopiunik, Wiederhold 2019) can be critical in improving student learning. “An increase of one standard deviation in teacher cognitive skills,” they claim, “is associated with an increase of 10 to 15 per cent of a standard deviation in student performance.” Comparing reading and math scores in 31 OECD countries, teachers in Finland come out with the highest cognitive skills. One quarter of the gaps in average student performance across countries would be closed if each of them were to raise the level of teachers’ cognitive skills to that of Finland.

What’s most fascinating about this study is the large role Canadian teachers play in the comparative data analysis for teacher cognitive skills.  Of the 6,402 teacher test-takers in 31 countries, the largest group, 834 (13 per cent), were from Canada. Based upon data gleaned from the OECD Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), we now know where Canadian teachers rank in terms of their numeracy and literacy skills (See Figure 1). We also have a clearer indication of how Canadians with Bachelor’s degrees and Master’s or Doctoral degrees rate in terms of their core cognitive skills.

Teachers from Canada fare reasonably well, in the top third, in the comparative analysis of cognitive skills. In literacy, teachers in Canada perform above average, with a median score of 308 points out of 500 compared to the sample-wide average of 295 points.  If there’s a problem, it’s in terms of numeracy skills, where they perform slightly above the teacher-wide sample with a median score of 293, compared to the average of 292 points. Adult Canadians with Bachelor’s degrees actually outperform teachers in numeracy skills by 7 points. Teachers in Finland and Japan, for example, perform better than Canadians with Master’s or Doctoral degrees.

Since the September 2010 appearance of  the McKInsey & Company study “Closing the talent gap,,” American policy-makers have considered teachers’ own academic performance as “a key predictor” of higher student achievement, based upon teacher recruitment practices in countries that perform well on international tests. High scoring countries like Singapore, Finland and Korea, for example, recruit their teacher force from the top third of their academic cohorts in university.

Securing sound data on the actual quality of recent Canadian teacher education cohorts is challenging because of the paucity of reported information. One claim that Canadian teachers come from the “top one third of high school graduates” put forward in a 2010 McKinsey & Company OECD study looks highly suspect.

A September 2008 review of Initial Teacher Education Programs  (Gambhir, Evans, Broad, Gaskell 2008), reported that admission cut-offs ranged from 65 per cent to over 90 per cent, depending upon the faculty of education. Most of the Canadian universities with Faculty of Education programs, to cite another fact, still have grade cut-off averages for acceptance in the Arts and Science that hover between 70 per cent and 75 per cent. With the exception of OISE, Western, Queen’s and UBC, teacher candidates are not drawn from the top third of their academic cohort, particularly in mathematics and sciences.

Differences in teachers’ cognitive skills within a country also seem to have a bearing upon student performance. Plotting student performance difference between math and reading ( at the country level) against the difference in teacher cognitive skills between numeracy and literacy yields some intriguing results (Figure 2). An increase of teacher cognitive skills of one standard deviation is estimated to improve student achievement by 11 per cent of standard deviation. The data for Canada shows a teacher test-score difference between numeracy and literacy of -12 points

The brand new American study (Hanushek, Piopiunik, Wiederhold 2019) also demonstrates that paying teachers better is a possible factor in attracting and retaining teachers with higher cognitive skills. In terms of wage premiums, teachers’ earnings in higher performing countries are generally higher, as borne out by Ireland, Germany and Korea, where teachers earn 30 to 45 per cent more than comparable college graduates in other jobs.

Teachers in Canada earn 17 per cent more than their comparators, while those in the USA and Sweden earn 22 per cent less. Increasing teacher pay has potential value in the United States where salaries discourage the ‘best and brightest’ from entering teaching. There is a caveat, noted by Hanushek and his research team:  Changes in policy must ensure that “higher salaries go to more effective teachers.”

Do smarter teachers make for smarter students? How sound is the evidence that teachers who know more are actually better teachers? Why do we put so much stock in improving student learning in literacy/reading and mathematics?  What potential flaws can you spot in this type of research? 

 

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Two of North America’s better known school change theorists, Andy Hargreaves and Dennis Shirley, have just published a fascinating article in Education Canada (December 2018) entitled “Well-being and success: Opposites that need to attract.” Looking back over Ontario’s implementation of the ‘Student Well-Being Agenda’ since 2014, the two Boston College consultants hired to both guide and review that agenda sound wistful but they do identify a few of the potential pitfalls. The article’s sub-title even hints at the now visible contradictions.

From 2014 to 2018, Hargreaves, Shirley and their Boston College research team were hired by the Ontario Directors of Education (CODE) to work with ten of Ontario’s 72 school boards to “understand the work they were doing on the ground” to implement the Ontario Ministry of Education’s educational change agenda.

The mandated provincial reform agenda embraced “four pillars”: achieving broadly defined excellence; securing equity for all students; promoting well-being (and positive feelings about learning); and establishing public confidence in the system.  Their mandate was to assess how the four pillars were being implemented and not whether they represented the right direction for the province. 

Hargreaves and Shirley are very skillful promoters of Ontario’s public school system. They are leading education change theorists and Ontario under the Kathleen Wynne Government might be described as “their baby.” “Canada is a global leader” in educational change, they confidently state, and that is why Ontario and Alberta are Exhibits A and B at education summits around the world. The latest iteration of Ontario educational boosterism even comes with a newly-minted slogan – “Leading from the Middle” (LfM)  It is, we are informed, spreading worldwide to Singapore, New Zealand, and Scotland.

The notion that Canada’s education leaders, including Education Deputy Ministers and Regional Superintendents, “lead from the middle” is quite a stretch.  So is the claim that “LfM” was “invented in Ontario” because the two leading promoters were professors at Boston’s Lynch School of Education.

“Leading from the Middle” is hard to pull-off when you are the CEO of a school system.  You can talk that way and spout the right words. Schools and school districts embracing “LfM,” we are told, do not just ” join up the dots” between policies at the top and practice at the bottom.” Instead, they lead “from the middle” with “shared, professional judgement, collective responsibility for initiating and implementing change” with “systemic impact that benefits all students.”

Ontario, Hargreaves and Shirley would have us believe, is moving from an “Age of Achievement and Effort” to an “Age of Learning, Well-being and Identity.”  That conclusion was reached after interviewing some 222 educators and Ministry officials implementing that agenda.  There was no hint in the CODE report (issued early in 2018)  of a coming storm (the Doug Ford hurricane)  let alone an upheaval that would stall this movement in its tracks.

Hargreaves and Shirley, based upon their Ministry-approved research, offer a number of conclusions, presented as incontestable truths: 1) Improved well-being increases achievement; 2) Academic achievement is crucial for well-being; and  3) Well-being has its own value and complements academic achievement. In sum, their research confirms the wisdom of Ontario Ministry directives from 2014 to 2018.

Most of the research actually cited in the Education Canada article is that conducted by advocates for, or contributors to, the Student-Well Being agenda. No one will be surprised to see the approving citations to work of Carol Campbell and others in Empowered Educators in Canada (2017), Carol Dweck’s Mindset: The new psychology of success (2007); and Leah M. Kuypers, Zones of Regulation (2011).  All conform nicely with the prevailing policy trends from 2014 to 2018.

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Dark clouds are spotted on the otherwise sunny horizon. The two CODE consultants sense that marrying student well-being with academic achievement may appear, to some, as contradictory. Then comes a warning : “In testing times, be wary of cheap shots that are easily made against well-being or achievement. On one hand, we don’t want a school system that is obsessed with well-being to the point where young people live in a superficial and self-indulgent world of undemanding happiness. That path leads to a nation of narcissistic adults who feel that success and earned expertise are unimportant., and all that matters is the needs and opinions of themselves and others who happen to agree with them.”

That passage concludes with a telling comment: “True well-being doesn’t come without sacrifice and struggle, perseverance, and empathy for others.” That’s quite an admission from two of the chief proponents of the Ontario “Student Well-Being agenda.’

The warning is counterbalanced by an obligatory reference to the wisdom of pursuing student achievement and well-being together. Unless I’m wrong, there’s also a grudging acknowledgement that student achievement still comes first and when it doesn’t educators default to more comfortable habitats – whether it’s worshiping the “god of self esteem” (1968 to 1992) or the new secular religion of “mindfulness” and “self-regulation” (2009-2018).

The prophecy that ends the Hargreaves-Shirley research summary is already coming to pass in Ontario education. The Well-Being policy agenda is now imperiled.  “Back to fundamentals” education and heavy investments in student well-being initiatives do not mix. “When budget cuts loom,” they note, “initiatives in yoga or meditation, or support roles in counselling and similar areas” are seen as dispensable, compared to literacy and math.

What are Andy Hargreaves and Dennis Shirley really saying in their retrospective on Ontario’s recent obsession with “Student Well-Being” and “Success for All”? Did Ontario really “invent” Leading from the Middle? How plausible is it for Regional Superintendents to “lead from the middle’?   If student achievement is paramount, then why not cite the academic literature that demonstrates its primacy? How much of the Dalton McGuinty-Kathleen Wynne education policy agenda will actually survive the Ford Revolution in Ontario politics? 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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