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Archive for the ‘Teacher Quality/Evaluation’ Category

“Mini-crises” in Canadian K-12 education come and go, but some leave a lasting aroma and continue, quite unfairly, to shape public perceptions of teachers and the entire school system.  Across Canada, the mere mention of “Drake University” and “bird courses” evokes vivid memories of Nova Scotia’s 2014-15 raging controversy over five hundred experienced teachers finding a loophole and securing certification and salary upgrades by taking DVD video courses (including many in coaching) through the Extension Department of Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa.

The Nova Scotia Teachers Union (NSTU) leadership rallied to the defense of the Drake University course registrants and that made matters far worse, in the eyes of close education observers and the informed public. How and why the NSTU leadership felt compelled to come forward to defend such inappropriate actions was the fundamental question addressed in my March 2014 AIMS research report, Maintaining Spotless Records, co-authored with Karen Mitchell, a Nova Scotian who served as a member of the Ontario College of Teachers Governing Board from 1997 to 2005. In that report, we showed that the Drake University controversy was a symptom of a bigger problem – the fact that “teacher oversight bodies were for the birds” in Nova Scotia and a few other Canadian provinces.

The infamous Drake University “bird course” fiasco simply will not go away. A June 2017 teacher arbitration case only demonstrates, once again, that the province’s teacher’s union still does not get it – cutting corners and taking ‘quickie’ courses is no way to ether enhance teacher professionalism or improve graduate teacher education in Nova Scotia or elsewhere.

Labour arbitrator Eric K. Slone’s recent arbitration ruling on the Drake University DVD courses upheld the NSTU’s claim that former Education Minister Karen Casey erred in rescinding prior approvals of the aptly labelled “bird courses.” All it really proves is that such bodies exist to enforce the terms of the contract. Carefully reviewing the 59-page report, we clearly see how the union utilizes the process to achieve its ends. It’s made easier when the Education Department mounts such a feeble defense of the Minister’s actions.

The essential facts are clear: From January 2008 until February 2014, a surge of 546 teachers secured approval from the then Registrar of Teacher Certification, Paul Cantelo, to complete Integrated Programs based upon Drake University video correspondence courses. On April 15, 2014, following a CBC-News investigation report, Minister Casey advised former NSTU President Shelley Morse that the Department would no longer recognize such courses as “approved studies for an increase in teacher certification’ (i.e., teacher salary upgrades). Upon further investigation, the Minister announced on March 3, 2015 that the Department would no longer recognize such programs to be completed after that date and would require the candidates to complete their studies through a recognized university, pre-approved by the Department.

That sparked a “policy grievance” filed by the NSTU objecting to rescinding prior approvals and led, eventually to hearing from April 4 to 12, and the arbitration award released on June 19, 2017. The testimony makes it clear that the deck was stacked in favour of the union.  Six hand-picked teachers who took Drake University DVD upgrade courses testified that they found them of value, including two who already held Masters of Education degrees.

Former Executive Director of the Centre for Learning Excellence, Monica Williams (PhD, St. Francis-Xavier, 2014), attempted to defend the Minister’s actions and provided fresh evidence supporting claims that the courses “lacked rigour,” but was deemed, by the arbitrator, to not be an expert.  She left her position in July 2016 and is now a member of the provincial Inclusion Commission. None of the leading faculty of education experts, including MSVU professor Robert Berard and SFX Physical Education professor Daniel Robinson, were even called to give evidence.

Part of the problem for the Department is the revolving door of departmental responsibility. The Registrar who actually approved most of the courses is no longer with the province and now working at MSVU and the architect of the provincial Teaching Excellence agenda has also moved on to other responsibilities.

The arbitrator claims that he is not evaluating the quality of the courses, but then accepts anecdotal evidence from Drake U course teachers and uses it as the basis of his ruling. Why he did not insist upon expert testimony on the validity of the courses is hard to fathom.

The whole Drake University “bird course” episode is a truly sad spectacle.  Some five hundred Nova Scotia teachers found a certification loophole and utilized it to secure certification to upgrade their salaries by between $6,000 and $8,000 annually. The Minister and her Department investigated and found those courses deficient in four critical areas, as reported to a Ministerial Advisory Council.  Williams, the former Director in charge of Teacher Excellence, was appalled at the quality of the applications, the “lack of rigour” of those courses, and the fact that most, if not all candidates, secured perfect scores.

Claiming that the labour arbitration was a victory for anyone is just as preposterous as the claim that video correspondence courses offered by the Drake University extension department are in any way equivalent to legitimate graduate courses in our region’s universities.  What a sad day it is for the profession when this decision is celebrated as a win for anyone.

What does the Drake University “bird course” fiasco demonstrate when it comes to the state of teacher professionalism? Why would a provincial teachers’ union stake its credibility on defending the actions of such teachers?  Is the Nova Scotia labour arbitration ruling representative of decisions emanating from such proceedings?  What’s standing in the way of teachers standing up for higher standards in defense of the profession? 

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A recent visit to the St. Andrew’s Episcopal School Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning (CTTL) in Potomac, MD, opened my eyes and forced me to confront my preconceived notion about the efficacy of “brain science” in guiding teaching practice. Director of the CTTL Glenn Whitman and his Research Head Ian Kelleher are leaders in the “neuroteach” movement deeply committed to applying sound, research-based principles from cognitive psychology and neuroscience in the real life classroom. Their new book, Neuroteach: Brain Science and the Future of Education, also attempts to sort out the ‘wheat’ from the ‘chaff’ in this burgeoning field.

neuroteachcttlcoverSince my faculty of education days, the critical pedagogical concept of “crap-detection” introduced in Charles Weingarten and Neil Postman’s 1969 classic Teaching as a Subversive Activity has loomed ever larger in my thinking about education. The whole notion actually originated with the great novelist Ernest Hemingway who when asked if there were one quality needed, above all others, to be a good writer, replied, “Yes, a built-in, shock-proof, crap detector.” For at least two decades, listening to various and sundry travelling education consultants promoting “brain-based learning” has tended to set-off my own internal crap-detector.

That perception was further cemented by reading Daniel T. Willingham’s 2012 book, When Can You Trust the Experts: How to Tell Good Science from Bad in Education. The field of teaching and learning , he warned us, is “awash in conflicting goals, research ‘wars’, and profiteers” and we need to be vigilant in critically evaluating new pedagogical ideas and less persuaded by “bad evidence” drawn particularly from neuroscience. He provided us with a helpful shortcut to help in assessing the latest panacea: “strip it and flip it, trace it, analyze it, and make your own decision about whether to adopt it.”  In short, become an informed consumer of initiatives floating on unproven theories or based upon dubious research evidence. 

Whitman and Kelleher’s book Neuroteach and the CTTL both venture into contested terrain in the larger debate over the value of neuroscience in informing and guiding classroom teaching. Like many such cutting-edge ventures, the CTTL is housed in an impresssive state-of-the-art learning centre and comes beautifully packaged in booklets exhorting teachers to “think differently and deeply” about their practice.  Upon closer examination, however, there is more to this initiative than meets the eye.

Whitman and Kelleher are plainly aware of the wall of skepticism aroused by pseudoscience and expressed in hushed tones in today’s high school staff rooms. British education gadfly David Didau (@LearningSpy) put it best: “While cognitive psychology is playing an increasingly important role in how teachers understand their craft and how students can best learn, neuroscience has, for the most part, remained the realm of quacks and snake-oil salesmen.” In such a field, Whitman and Kelleher are a breath of fresh air – playing an important role in bridging the gap between sound research and classroom practice.  They also use “crap-detection” in helping us to understand “the complexities of the science of learning.”

The CTTL is school-based and focused specifically on improving teaching practice by applying the best research in cognitive psychology and neuroscience. Some readers of Neuroteach may be put-off by the optimistic, aspirational tone and tendency to appropriate “transformational” rhetoric. It’s a bit of a stretch to imagine teachers caught up in the euphoria as they “begin to rewire each other’s brain, to develop neural pathways and connections informed by mind, brain and education science.” Not everyone possesses an “ambitious brain” and will be easily convinced to either stop teaching as they were once taught or to abandon teaching to their own “learning strengths.” ( p. 7).  Some outstanding teachers, we all know, do both.

neuroteachpcknowledgeWhitman and Kelleher, to their credit, do deliver more than the usual messianic educational progressivism. Educators familiar with Tom Bennett’s ground-breaking work with researchED will heartily approve of certain sections of this book.  It’s encouraging to see British teacher-researcher Carl Hendrick’s classroom wisdom brought to a North American audience. The doctor who still uses leeches to treat his patients and, when questioned on it, replies “it works for me” is, as Carl reminds us, simply not good enough these days. Research-informed teachers will also be pleased to see Professor Robert Coe, head of Britain’s College of Teaching, cited for his penetrating observation: “The problem with what’s obvious is that it is often wrong.”  This applies not only to the traditional “leeches” but to supposed 21st century psuedoscientific curatives.

The proposed CTTL teacher research agenda is a welcome contribution to the field of teacher growth and development.  Focusing on two different strands makes good sense: 1) mastering MBE (mind-brain-education) science and 2) curriculum understanding ( p. 153).  The primary objective, according to Whitman and Kelleher, is to marry curriculum understanding and teaching strategies informed by MBE science to achieve pedagogical content knowledge. 

The CTTL approach aligns well with Rob Coe’s recent Sutton Trust research review identifying six “research-backed components of “great teaching,” all cast within the context of assessing “teacher quality.” Coe’s top two factors match the two strands underlying the CTTL program philosophy: 1) content knowledge; and 2) quality of instruction, both of which show “strong evidence of impact on student outcomes.”  In essence, “knowing your stuff” still matters and applying the lessons of MBE science can make you even better as a teacher.

Cutting through the accretion of “crap” in cognitive psychology and neuroscience is not easy. What can be done to develop in new teachers and everyday classroom teachers what Postman termed a “built-in crap detector”?  Is it possible to transform teacher development into something approaching immersion in research-informed practice?  How can we separate initiatives like the CTTL from the commercial and trendy purveyors of pseudoscience? 

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The Chinese city of Shanghai has a school system that produces students who soar far above the rest.  On the 2009 and 2012 Programme of International Student Achievement (PISA) tests, administered to 15-year-olds worldwide, Shanghai-China students ranked first in all three major domains –mathematics, reading and science.

ShanghaiTeacherUntil recently, the secret of that astounding student achievement success was essentially shrouded in mystery.  With the release of the May 17 World Bank study, “How Shanghai Does It,” the answers are beginning to emerge, providing vitally-important lessons for education policy-makers in Canadian school systems and far beyond.

The World Bank report on Shanghai education, issued by World Bank research director Harry Patrinos, provides a counterpoint to the prevailing narrative that North American school systems should look to Finland for lessons on school improvement. It demonstrates, in incredible detail, what lies behind Shanghai-China’s rise to ‘education super-nova.’

The report, based upon SABER, a comprehensive World Bank system for benchmarking school system performance, delves deeply into how and why Shanghai students achieve excellent learning results. In the process, it smashes a few stubborn stereotypes and dispels the image of a mechanistic, test-driven, joyless educational enterprise.

Shanghai’s student successes stem, according to the World Bank, from a focus on teaching excellence. What’s unique about Shanghai-China is the way it “grooms, supports, and manages” teachers to raise educational quality and to a culture which accords great respect to the “teaching profession.”

We know that Shanghai students break records for extraordinary test scores, but lesser known is the success achieved in raising the floor for overall student achievement. The city has the highest share of disadvantaged students in the top 25 per cent range on PISA tests, and that is no accident. Educational equity is becoming a higher priority, especially targeting children of migrants.

Teachers in Shanghai are, by all accounts, well-trained and mentored after they become licensed to teach in schools. Ongoing professional development is not only offered, as in Canada, but integrated into a “collegial and supportive” professional growth process.  Subject mastery and pedagogical training go together in developing skilled and accomplished teachers.

Teaching time is organized far differently than in Canadian schools.  The Chinese teachers spend only one-third of their time actually teaching and far more emphasis is placed on preparation of demonstration lessons. Teaching effectiveness is the clear priority, not scattered efforts spread across a range of classes.

Teaching is also rewarded far differently.  Instead of being paid on a lock-step grid based upon seniority, Shanghai teachers move up the ladder based upon merit and guided by principals who are trained as instructional leaders not building administrators.

The biggest surprise is how Shanghai’s school system works to reduce educational inequalities. While education funding is vested in the school district, a proportion of the ‘education tax’ is specifically allocated to poor and low performing school districts.

ShanghaiSchoolBBCOne educational innovation worth emulating is what is known as the “entrusted school” management model to help raise up underperforming schools.  High-performing Shanghai schools are “twinned” with struggling schools within the state system. Instead of establishing private schools or creating charters, the Chinese use “twinning” to extend management, training, and resource support to teachers and students in the struggling schools.

Since 2006, the world of education has been enraptured with the so-called “Finnish Miracle,” while Shanghai-China has surged far ahead in student achievement. Instead of hitching our school improvement wagon to Finnish education promoter extraordinaire Pasi Sahlberg and his Finnish lessons, we should be looking at best practice anywhere and everywhere.

Let’s start by finding out where exactly we rank and what might be the areas that need improvement.  We generate lots of national, provincial and international student performance data, so why not put it to better use?

A really bold initiative would be to invite the World Bank to assess one Canadian provincial school system in relation to the SABER benchmarks.  The State of Maryland in the United States has already done so, and the SABER report for Maryland demonstrates just how incredibly valuable it can be in planning for, and advancing, school improvement.

The Finnish Education Miracle has begun to lose its lustre. Perhaps it’s time to consider edutourism junkets to Shanghai instead of Helsinki – in search of educational excellence as well as innovative teaching-learning ideas.

*An earlier version of this Commentary appeared in The Telegraph-Journal, provincial edition, based in Saint John, NB.

Will the World Bank report on Shanghai’s Educational Success be a wake-up call for North American educational leaders? Do popular stereotypes about Chinese education obscure our vision of Shanghai’s remarkable student performance achievements? Should we be producing more detailed studies of “Shanghai Lessons” for educators? And which Canadian province will be the first to follow Maryland in stepping-up to participate in the SABER assessment of school system effectiveness? 

 

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A funny thing has happened to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Education Office on its way to the fifth annual International Summit on the Teaching Profession (ISTP 2015). An ambitious international movement, initiated in March 2011 in New York City and dedicated to “Improving Teacher Quality Around the World” now sounds ‘warm and fuzzy’ on those professional issues that really matter – building better teachers, improving classroom instruction, and ensuring teaching effectiveness.

ISTP2015LogoWhen the world’s Education Ministers and over 400 invited delegates from 17 countries arrive at the Banff Springs Hotel on March 29 and 30, the word “test” and the acronym “PISA” will scarcely be heard. Instead of focusing on raising student achievement levels, the OECD Education Bureau has “gone soft” with an ISTP theme and policy paper that soft-pedals raising standards in favour of supporting teachers and building their confidence to prepare students for a rather nebulous “rapidly changing world.”

Mounting criticism of International Test Mania, dubbed “PISAfication,” the rise of a vocal American-led anti-standardized testing movement, and a partnership with Big Teacher, the Education International union federation, have all caused the mastermind of the International Teaching Summits, Andreas Schleicher, Director for Education and Skills, OECD, to change his tune. In place of weighty policy briefs stuffed with OECD student and teacher performance data, we now have a mighty thin 59-page brief spouting rather mundane banalities about supporting teachers in producing “21st-century learners.”

The ISTP 2015 agenda is clearly the work of three influential education experts, the formidable Schleicher, Ontario’s ageless education change wizard Michael Fullan, and Stanford University education professor Linda Darling-Hammond, passed over in 2008 by President Barack Obama in his choice for U.S. Secretary of Education. Two of the three in that troika have spent their careers urging governments to invest in teachers and enhance professional support programs rather than to focus on student and teacher accountability.

Since Canada has no federal Department of Education, alone among the leading OECD countries, the titular head of our national delegation and host of ISTP 2015 will be Alberta Education Minister Gordon Dirks, currently serving as Chair of the Council of Ministers of Education of Canada (CMEC). Dianne Woloschuk, President, Canadian Teachers’ Federation, will be at his side, modelling the collegial partnership model so common in the higher echelons of Canada’s provincial and territorial school systems.

The Alberta Teacher Summit is particularly focused on promoting the so-called “learning partnership” between “education ministers and teacher’s union leaders” and that is obvious from the media releases and invitation lists. While Mike Cooper of the Toronto-based Learning Partnership is on the planning team, the only visible partnerships with business are with the leading “learning corporations” like Pearson International and SMART Technologies who tend to underwrite most of the sessions promoting their systems, products, and curricula.

The Great Powers will be represented by Arne Duncan, United States Secretary of Education, and Hao Ping, Vice Minister of Education, Peoples’ Republic of China, although much of the agenda runs counter to their current ‘higher standards’ educational reform priorities.

Judging from the laudatory treatment of Finland in the ISTP 2015 policy brief, Krista Kiuru, Minister of Education and Science, will be there to provide fresh evidence of the superiority of Finnish teachers and their extraordinary professionalism. Even though Finnish students have slipped on recent PISA tests, that system continues to be the “holy grail” for teachers opposed to regular student testing and school choice of any kind.

Anyone looking for specific policy measures to improve the quality of teaching will be disappointed with the official menu. The ISTP2015 brief and the results of TALIS 2013, the 2013 OECD study of teacher competencies and perspectives, which included 20 teachers in each of 200 schools in Canada, focuses on ways of strengthening teachers’ confidence levels and helping them to overcome “risk-aversion” to innovation.

After five consecutive years of Summitry, it is high time to get into the real nitty-gritty and build actual classroom teachers into the process. From the outside looking in, the Summit resembles a gathering of education ministers and system insiders who purport to know what’s best for teachers as well as students in today’s classrooms. In other words, a high altitude “risk-free” summit.

Two fundamental questions arise: Whatever happened to all the recent independent research calling for major reforms to teacher education, professional standards, and classroom accountability? And most importantly, where are the exemplary classroom teachers on that star-studded international guest list?

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American education historian Diane Ravitch once enjoyed a reputation as one of the leading public intellectuals of our time. After four decades of impressive historical research and compelling writing pushing at the boundaries of education reform, she has now emerged almost unrecognizable as the fiercest critic of school reform in the United States. Her two most recent books, The Death and Life of the Great American School System (2010) and the sequel Reign of Error (2013), bear witness to that radical transformation and provide clues to the fundamental question: What in the world has happened to Diane Ravitch?

RavitchDeathCoverHer 2010 national best seller, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, marks a radical break in her reform advocacy. Much of the book is a revisionist interpretation of the previous decade of education reform, but it also represents a startling about-face. The leading advocate of testing and accountability emerges, almost born-again, as a fierce critic of the Barak Obama –Arne Duncan ‘Race to the Top’ reform agenda, especially standardized testing, school choice and the closure of low-performing schools. “I too had fallen for the latest panaceas and miracle cures,” she confesses, but, as time wore on, simply “lost the faith” (pp. 3 and 4).

Always known for her independent, contrarian streak, Ravitch was again swimming against the tide. Under George W. Bush’s NCLB , she contended that the whole standards movement had been “hijacked” by the testing movement. Instead of focusing upon curriculum reform, “standardized test scores” were considered “the primary measure of school quality.” “Good education,” she wrote, “cannot be achieved by a strategy of testing children, shaming educators, and closing schools”(p. 111). Charter schools, according to Ravitch, had strayed from the original concept best articulated in 1988 by then American Federation of Teachers president Albert Shanker. Instead of becoming a vehicle for empowering teachers to initiate innovative methods of reaching disaffected students, it evolved into a means of advancing privatization, producing an “education industry” dominated by entrepreneurs, philanthropists, and venture capitalists (pp. 123-4). Test-based accountability, Ravitch now claimed, narrowed the curriculum and was being used in inappropriate ways to identify ‘failing schools,’ fire educators, determine bonuses, and close schools, distorting the purpose of schooling altogether (p. 167).

Ravitch focuses much of her scathing criticism on what she termed the “Billionaire Boys’ Club.” Since the turn of the millennium, she claims that the traditional educational foundation world had been significantly changed by the emergence of a new breed of venture philanthropists. By 2002, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, and the Eli Broad Foundation had emerged to frame and dominate the school reform agenda. School choice, turnaround schools strategies, and competitive market incentives were all harnessed in mostly failed attempts to leverage improved student test scores. “with so much money and power aligned against the neighbourhood public school and the teaching profession, she bluntly forecast that “public education itself is placed at risk” (p. 222).

Ravitch’s The Fall and Life of the Great American School System harkened back to A Nation at Risk and made a compelling case that American school reform has lost its way. In rejecting the charter school panacea and test-based accountability, she sets out a reasonable, balanced approach to educational improvement. Raising academic standards utilizing the Common Core Curriculum continue to be the centrepiece of her reformist philosophy, but she is more sanguine about the likelihood of reaching a national consensus, settling for a sound balanced curriculum including history, civics, geography, literature, the arts and sciences, foreign languages, and physical/health education. “ If our schools had an excellent curriculum, appropriate assessment and well-educated teachers,” she concludes, “we would be way ahead of where we are now in renewing our school system’ (p. 239).

Swept up in the wave of public reaction to her 2010 book, Ravitch sought to answer the question posed but not fully explored – where should American education be heading? A completely reformed fiery warrior emerges in Reign of Error, a book with an attention grabbing, inflammatory subtitle: “The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools.” Expanding upon her critique of the American venture philanthropists, she restates her strong opposition to blind faith in charters, testing excesses, shuttering ‘failing’ schools, and removing ‘bad’ teachers. Without the same tone of authenticity and humility, Reign of Error descends into polemic and reads, for the most part, like an angry diatribe. Not quite prepared to provide a constructive path forward, she simply sets out to crush her former allies, now seen as enemies, real and imagined.

RavitchSoundBitesIn the opening chapter of Reign of Error, Diane Ravitch stuns the reader by claiming that there is “no crisis” in American education. “Public education is not broken,” she writes. “It is not failing or declining. Our urban schools are in trouble because of concentrated poverty and racial segregation….Public education is in crisis only so far as society is and only so far as this new narrative of crisis has de-stabilized it” (p. 4). In her book introduction, she also states: “ I do not contend that schools are fine just as they are. They are not. American education needs higher standards for those who enter the teaching profession. It needs higher standards for those who become principals and superintendents. It needs stronger and deeper curriculum in every subject…” (p. xii). You will look in vain, as New Jersey teaching expert Grant Wiggins (2013) noted, for any serious discussion of how to tackle that second set of problems.

The “crisis” myth, according to the newly radicalized Diane Ravitch, is only sustained by “orchestrated attacks” on teachers and principals. “These attacks,” she declares,” create a false sense of crisis and serve the interests of those who want to privatize the public schools.” In an attempt to overturn the prevailing narrative, she argues that these ‘outsiders’ represent not reform but the status quo in education. Together, they form a dangerous bipartisan alliance committed to “corporate reform” and encompassing a broad spectrum from Education Secretary Duncan to Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and the Bezos Foundation, from the Hoover Institution to Hollywood, purveyors of films like Waiting for Superman. Since education is not really in crisis, Ravitch contends that all of these interests are destroying the public school system while pursuing an illusion.

Making such claims can win you legions of followers inside the system, but also damage your credibility as a respected scholar purporting to present an “evidence-based” assessment of the state of education. In the chapter entitled “The Facts about the International Test Scores,” Ravitch’s analysis simply does not hold water, especially when it comes to the mathematics scores of U.S. students, compared with other top performing countries. While U.S. grade 4 students do perform reasonably well on basic operations, they are not competitive with the Taiwanese, for example, at higher performance levels. Seventeen-year old Americans, not referenced by Ravitch, have stagnated in reading and mathematics since the first tests in the early 1970s.

In defending teacher autonomy, Ravitch tends to ignore research on the impact of effective teaching on student achievement levels. If New Zealander John Hattie (2008) is correct, teaching may well account for 30 cent or more of student improvement and highly effective teachers can add an extra year or two of growth in achievement level. Without advocating for the firing of teachers on the basis of ‘half-baked’ test-based assessment systems, there is much evidence that poor performance is tolerated for variety of reasons. National estimates from the U.S. Department of Education confirm that, on average, school districts only dismiss 1.4% of tenured teachers and 0.7% of probationary teachers each year.

Instead of focusing so much on the sinister influence of “Billionaire Boys’ Club,” Ravitch might have been more convincing if she had actually produced a coherent reform agenda based upon curriculum improvement and enhancing teacher effectiveness. More vigorous advocacy on her part might have bolstered and possibly salvaged more of the Common Core Curriculum which she campaigned so hard to get on the national policy agenda. Rather than tackling the structural problems, Ravitch may have exerted more impact by venturing into what Larry Cuban (2013) terms the “Black Box” of the classroom. Improving teaching pedagogy, student assessment, and the consistency of teaching, educators like Wiggins insist, would certainly help far more to advance school improvement and student learning, whatever the form or organization of the school.

Over the past five years, Diane Ravitch has become more of an education reform warrior than a credible scholar, especially when she ventures well outside the field of educational history. Since discovering Twitter five years ago, she has become a serial tweeter spewing out snappy 140 character comments and regularly goes ad hominem with those holding opposite views. Standing on the Save Our Schools rally platform on the Ellipse in July 2011, Ravitch spoke for only eight minutes, all in punchy protest sentences. Slogans and sloganeering, as Brian Crittenden reminded us back in 1969, are no substitute for serious thinking and confronting the many contradictions in educational discourse.

American education reform today is a contested terrain occupied by tribalists. Side-stepping critical education reform issues such as teacher quality that might offend camp followers is right out-of-character for Ravitch, the once independently-minded public intellectual. Former reform allies like Frederick Hess, a respected conservative policy analyst, who welcomed The Fall and Life of the Great American School System, now chastise her for becoming a virtual mouthpiece of the teachers’ unions. Whether you think education is in crisis or not, Ravitch’s latest books provide an inventive, perplexing re-interpretation, but will do little to help us overcome the current impasse.

Why is American education reform such a polarized field of public policy?  What happens to respected scholars like Diane Ravitch when they get absorbed into the Manichean world view?  Whatever happened to Ravitch’s deep commitment to putting higher standards and curriculum reform before teacher autonomy and advocacy? Will the tribalism fostered in the School Wars ultimately lead anywhere?

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The Maritime province of Nova Scotia is now fully engaged in a rather unique education reform experiment.  A recent Education Review, headed by former Lieutenant-Governor Myra Freeman, went to the public with a very broad, diffuse agenda and opened the door through online surveys to allow 19,000 Nova Scotians to identify the Primary to Grade 12 system’s strengths and weaknesses and to register their ‘satisfaction level” with the state of curriculum, teaching, and learning.

ClassroomSceneThe Nova Scotia Government got an earful, especially from parents, community members and regular teachers.  It came in the form of an October 30, 2014 report, entitled, Disrupting the Status Quo:  Nova Scotians Demand a Better Future for Every Student. “When 50 per cent of Nova Scotians are not satisfied,” Education Minister Karen Casey declared, “I know it’s time for change.”

The stark reality, unearthed by the Minister’s Panel on Education survey exercise, led by Freeman, is that education “insiders” and “outsiders” inhabit parallel universes. A majority of parents and community members think that, putting it crudely, “the system sucks.” Two out of three school administrators, board staff, and hand-picked high school students are quite satisfied with the world as it is in the schools.

Boring down into the findings of the Freeman panel’s nine-month long study and survey findings, a major shakeup may well be ahead, but it’s still hard to divine a clear set of priorities. The minister and her department appear to be “crowd-sourcing” their educational vision.

While Freeman was introducing her Oct. 30 report, two bulletin boards full of strategic change planning schematics on the wall in the Department of Education briefing room caught my eye. The display board to the left entitled “DoE Strengths & Challenges” was pretty predictable, but the board on the right, under the headline “Change Ed Vision” was more revealing. Under “Managing Change through Communication,” it stated “the Dept. of Ed is a leader in innovative collaboration & learning for the success of every student.” Such formulaic edu-babble seemed totally at odds with Freeman’s well-rehearsed call for “disruptive” change.

The external messaging is, of course, dramatically different than the internal strategizing. With the system’s clients demanding changes, the time for tinkering with the system should be over. The diagnosis may be “patient condition critical,” but the panel’s prescriptions are all over the map, attempting to address seven rather disparate afflictions.

With seven “themes” and 30 guiding recommendations, the broad, “holistic approach” is so scattered that it’s ripe for cherry-picking and instant analysis. Empowering school boards to “fire teachers for sub-standard performance” and “increasing the number of credits needed for graduation from high school” captured the headlines, but hardly constitute an overall turnaround strategy.

A deeper dive reveals evidence of serious deficiencies in the system. While Ben Levin’s  April 2011 education review declared Nova Scotia to be a “good system,” the Freeman panel learned otherwise. “The current system,” they conclude, “is failing our students and the public has sent a strong message that there is an urgent need for change.”

Many parts of the system are deemed to “not be working well” and need major reform. “A one size-fits-all curriculum,” to cite a glaring example, “is not serving students well. The pace is too slow for some, too fast for others.”

NSPrepNextGradeSerious parental concerns have been registered over the quality of teaching and learning. Only 62 per cent of parent respondents felt that students receive “highly effective teaching in their classes.” Most alarmingly, only 49 per cent of parents and some 33 per cent of community members feel students are being “well prepared to move onto the next grade.” Fewer still believe graduates are being “well prepared” for either university or the workforce.

Critical questions have been posed and expectations raised sky-high for system-wide change. Surveying those scattered recommendations, a few possible policy initiatives do present themselves. Teacher quality reform, toyed with in the 2012 Kids & Learning First report, is back on the public agenda. On the heels of our March 2014 AIMS report, “Maintaining Spotless Records,” it’s now morphed into setting higher faculty of education admission standards, more rigorous teacher performance evaluation and removing administrators from the teachers’ union.

The February 2014 public row over Drake University “bird course” teacher salary upgrades obviously struck a chord with the public, if not with the teachers’ union. “Initial teacher classification, advancement in classification levels, and pay increases,” the panel recognizes, “need to be tied to system requirements and strong performance in assigned duties.”

Student conduct and discipline may well finally get addressed. The panel heard, loud and clear, that “punctuality, attendance, organization, and responsibility” were lacking, adversely affecting graduates’ “job and life-related competencies.”

After a decade of promoting higher graduation levels and adopting “no fail” policies, the panel found “social promotion” was causing a whole set of new student performance problems. Openly confronting the “attainment-achievement” gap and aligning grade progression with actual student competency levels will be a massive undertaking.

Inclusion of special education students continues to be a serious concern for teachers as well as parents and student support staff. Fewer than one in three respondents in those categories feel special education services are “meeting the needs of all students.” Instead of confronting the problem head on, the panel reverts to the usual response — add “more learning supports.”

The Freeman report’s rhetoric about “disrupting the status quo” echoes the battle cry of Ray Ivany’s Now or Never Nova Scotia report. It all sounds good, but it’s still hard to imagine two consummate insiders, Freeman and Casey, leading the charge. Winning over those wedded to the status quo will be a formidable challenge.

What does “disruptive change” actually mean in education – and do “insiders” and “outsiders” see it the same way?  Who’s defending the Status Quo in Nova Scotia and elsewhere — and where are they hiding?  Are calls for “disruptive change” just a way of blowing-off stem and intended more as “expressions of sentiment” rather than policy direction?  Will education ‘ insiders’ ever warm to such changes or will it require a wholesale change in school administration at every level?

 

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A new Canadian study, “Teacher Incentive Pay That Works,” produced by Vicki Alger for the Fraser Institute, contends that performance bonuses and other incentives  for teachers would improve teaching and ultimately student achievement standards.  Since performance-based rewards are common in other professions, Alger makes the case that they should be adopted in education, as a means of ensuring that our students remain “competitive” on the world stage.

HattieBookCoverMaking the case for Teacher Merit Pay is popular in certain circles outside of education.  It may be a noble idea, designed to reward the high performers, but it tends to fall apart when we turn to the formidable challenge of implementation in the schools.

Two critical questions arise:  Would teachers respond to Teacher Pay Incentives by improving their teaching and focusing more on the performance of their students?  And, if so, should we tie teacher evaluation and salary increases, in part,  to student performance levels?  The Fraser Institute says “Yes,” but the current research on improving teacher quality indicates otherwise.

Most of the proposed and implemented schemes linking teacher evaluation/compensation with student performance levels are, in the words of leading Australian researcher Stephen Dinham, “half-baked plans.”  While the Fraser Institute researchers review ten global case studies, they are only able to identify three or four that are working effectively, namely those in Washington (DC), Dallas (TX), Chile, and the United Kingdom.  The Washington, DC, IMPACT Program, for example, was born out of a well-publicized “student performance crisis” during Commissioner Michelle Rhee’s short-lived tenure and the jury is still out on its ultimate effectiveness.

Teaching matters – and far more than North American ‘progressive” educators were ever prepared to admit. The prevailing notion, widely held since the 1960s, was that socio-economic status disadvantage (SES) was the main determinant of student performance. For students from disadvantages backgrounds and communities, SES and family background were like “life sentences.”  Recent research over the past 20 years, synthesized by New Zealander John Hattie, has essentially rejected that presumption. Poor student achievement, we know know, is far more spread out across the full SES spectrum.

HattieAchievementVarianceWhat really matters in influencing and determining student achievement?  Since the 2008 book Visible Learning by John Hattie, we can answer that question with far more certainty. Based upon a synthesis of hundreds of studies, Hattie has demonstrated that teachers and teaching really do matter. Although about 50 per cent of student performance is closely related to SES, prior learning, and home expectations, about 30 per cent of the achievement variance is determined by the quality of teaching.  School leadership, resources, and supports represent  about 20 % of the variance.

Teacher incentive and rewards programs may well work, but not the kind proposed by the Fraser Institute.  Indeed, leading Teacher Quality researchers Hattie and Dinham have both set out teacher improvement plans with a more convincing rationale, based upon actual in-school research. That’s why it’s a bit shocking not to find either Hattie or Dinham even referenced in the Fraser Institute study.

The Australian “Career Ladder” Teacher Performance plan and salary scale, initiated by Dr. Stephen Dinham, in 2009, is far superior to any referenced in the Fraser Institute study. Like the preferred Fraser Institute models, it is aimed at raising teaching standards  and tied, in part, to student performance data.  Where it differs is in its far more sophisticated and nuanced approach to fostering both higher quality teaching and professional growth. Instead of  jettisoning established salary scales, the Australian model builds in a more flexible, competency-based ladder to minimize the role of seniority in the career progression.

Here’s how it works.  Clear national performance standards are established for Australian teachers, with five levels reflecting stages of  professional competence and development. The teaching categories are: C1: Graduate/Certified; C2: Proficient (Regular); c3: Highly Proficient (Growth-Oriented); C4: Lead Teacher; and C5: School Leader.  You progress up the salary scale by achieving higher levels of competency, but are not rewarded unless and until you meet higher level teaching standards.  Standardized test results documenting student performance levels are used, in moderation, as one indicator among several of teacher quality and effectiveness.

The Australian plan may retain the familiar grid, but it also provides a pay-for-performance incentive. Salaries are calibrated according to professional performance levels akin to the professorial career ladder.  In the model, C1 teachers at $30,000 = 1.0; C2 teachers are 1.25 ($37,500); C3 teachers are 2.0 ($60,000); C4 teachers are 2.5 ($75.000); and C5 lead teachers are 3.0 ($9o,000). Teachers who demonstrate excellence and professional growth can be accelerated to higher levels; those who simply conform or stagnate are plateaued or assigned to a lower salary level.  Extremely talented teachers rise rapidly and stagnant teachers are, over a number of years, counselled out of the profession.

Improving the quality of teaching is now finally rising to the top of the Canadian education policy agenda.  Adopting “half-baked” schemes such as those currently being piloted or implemented in numerous American states is definitely not the way to go for our provincial systems.  In most of the best programs, student performance results are factored in, so the testing systems are critical to establishing benchmarks in a wider array of subjects, from elementary literacy and numeracy to high school subject exit exams.  Phasing out standardized tests makes little sense if you are serious about eventually factoring student performance into teacher assessment and compensation.

What might actually work to improve the quality of teaching in the schools?  Should we start by establishing professional teaching standards along the career ladder?  If the teacher salary grid was retained, but re-engineered around teacher competencies and performance levels, would teachers embrace that opportunity?  How long might it take to establish a set of student performance benchmarks that could reliably be integrated into teacher performance/compensation programs?

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