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Monday, 19 September 2011

Fads and Whims Dominate Educational Reform

Public education, we are told, is failing. Those making this claim often say high school graduates are untrained and unprepared for work, or without the skills and knowledge needed for academic university courses. The system, we are told by pundits, columnists, futurists and a wide variety of educational gurus, is failing to keep up with the social and technological changes of the twenty-first century. The public school system must embrace change to remain relevant, they say.

The changes that are advocated always include the introduction of more technology and alterations that make the system more student-centered and less teacher centered. One of the areas in which educational reform is based on fallacious argument is in the use of terminology. Student centered for example, is considered a positive attribute of the system no matter how it is used. Advocates for reform push for student-centered courses and student-centered classrooms. They want to abandon traditional courses of study for those that appeal to students. They propose polling students and parents for ideas that interest them and that they feel will be useful. Within the courses themselves they propose that students determine the direction of study by choosing assignments, content and even methods of evaluation that they find appealing. These advocates propose that public schools abandon the model of teacher as  instructor  in favour of teacher as facilitator. At the same time, they say that less emphasis must be placed on facts (now often referred to derisively as factoids), and more time on competencies.

Socrates would weep.  Not because he was strongly opposed to educational change – he thought that teaching everyone to write down their thoughts would weaken their ability to think clearly and destroy the oratorical skills democracies require – but because the logic behind the contemporary educational change movement is so weak.

Indeed, for the last thirty years the changes that have occurred in public education, as well as those that are contemplated today, have been based on what Socrates or any 19th century English public (private) school boy would have recognized as logical fallacies.

One of the most common has been the fallacy classically referred to as  post hoc, ergo propter hoc: “after that, therefore because of that.”  That fallacy has led to the policy of keeping students in school at any cost. The reason given for that policy is statistical and always the same: students who graduate from high school make more money than those who drop out; therefore, keeping students in school until they graduate will cause them to make more money.  Of course, the reason that students who graduate make more money in the work place than those who drop out may be that they are more motivated to succeed and have greater knowledge and skills. However the Ministry and school boards have not concerned themselves with that possibility because those reasons for success cannot be easily measured and turned into statistics.  Instead, school boards and high schools have been required simply to keep students in school, at all costs. In order to make students want to stay in school, those responsible for school policy have attempted to eliminate everything that students might feel is negative; student “success” has become a priority. In the last 25 years, graduation requirements have been eased, alternate academic courses developed (Communications 11 and 12, four levels of Math), and many non-academic courses created provincially and locally that not only are appealing in content, but in which evaluation of student performance is designed to ensure success. The Ministry has helped by not allowing failing marks to be recorded on a student’s record and has eased the requirements for adult equivalent graduation.  As a result, a student unable or unwilling to pass enough courses for graduation can simply wait until their nineteenth birthday when they will receive the same diploma, but based on fewer course credits.

Recently, the Department of Education in Nevada has begun to implement the concept that merit pay should be meted out to teachers based on the level of involvement the parents of their students take in their children’s education. They acknowledge that merit pay based on student performance has not really worked, but since statistics show that student performance is directly related to the level of parental involvement, making teachers responsible for involving parents not only makes sense, but is a necessary extension of a teacher’s responsibility.

Once again the post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy manifests itself. The reason that students have performed better when their parents have voluntarily involved themselves in their education may have a lot to do with encouragement, homework help, and the passing on to the students of a belief in the value of education. Coercing parents to reluctantly fill seats at meetings or sign homework sheets will not necessarily foster anything but resentment.  Forcing teachers to take on this responsibility as a condition of employment and remuneration not only gives credence to an illogical assumption, but takes valuable teacher time away from vital course preparation and student evaluation activities.

Those who control public education have always been eager to announce educational innovation. Usually this is because the secret to advancement both in the educational and political hierarchy has always been to be seen to be a person who is an instrument of change and progress. Unfortunately, while the careers of principals, superintendents and Ministers of education may have prospered, the level of satisfaction with the public system appears to have declined. 
In no other field is innovation so quickly and enthusiastically embraced, nor so quickly abandoned. Open area schools,  ITIP, Covey, outcome-based evaluation, merit pay, Copernican timetables, sustained reading, student portfolios, the Year: 2000, IRP’s and a whole host of acronym’s, programs, fads and revolutionary techniques have all promised measurable improvement in student learning and have all largely been either scaled back or abandoned. Jargon and catch phrases are likewise quickly adopted and then used continually to demonstrate that the speaker is in the forefront of educational innovation. Paradigm shift was used by educational innovators in the nineties so often that it eventually produced audible groans in the audience and was dropped. Guide on the side likewise became poisonous. The more vague the term, the more popular it often is. Today personalized learning, hands-on program, technological change and competencies are being used continually and vaguely as words which have no specific meaning but identify the person using them as a true educational innovator and leader. Until experienced classroom teachers are consulted in a meaningful manner to determine what really works in the classroom and an effort is made by Ministries of Education to determine what really should be taught to all Canadians, public education will continue to be a field exploited by the uninformed and the ambitious to the detriment of society.

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