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Wednesday 28 November 2012

Can the Education/Trades Partnership save public education? Maybe.

The education initiatives recently announced by BC Education Minister Don McRae are the best proposals the Ministry has made in 20 years. They should serve as a model for a reformation of public education, but they won’t if the Ministry sees them as merely a minor and temporary component of their much advertised Jobs Plan strategy.
The reason they should serve as a model is that, if fully implemented, the reforms will engage thousands of students who have been perennially unengaged by the school system. The Ministry’s programs were created with the Industry Training Authority; they consist of Discover Trades, Secondary School Apprenticeship (SSA), Accelerated Credit Enrolment in Industry Training (ACE-IT) and Youth Exploring Skills to Industry Training (YES2IT) and put mechanisms in place that will expose students to a wide variety of trades that are interesting, stimulating and lucrative. More importantly the students will come in contact with successful, intelligent, interesting and successful trades people, men and women who make good livings and are enthusiastic about their work. That is of key importance because it provides students with a vision of a positive and attainable future. Of course, they will have to work to attain that future, beginning with school. 
Creating the desire to do the necessary work is a component that has been missing from education reform.  The “student centered” education reforms of the last thirty years have consistently assumed that the responsibility for learning belonged to everyone, but  the students.  Time tables, school structure, teaching methods, course requirements, curricula all have been tinkered with, manipulated and repeatedly revised in order to improve poor student performance. Standardized testing has been increased to make schools “accountable” and to cudgel them into making their students achieve higher scores. Not surprisingly, more testing did not really inspire struggling students. However, they welcomed the eased standards, multiple course options, Alternate Learning centres, and relaxed graduation requirements, and even though none of those things improved overall student performance, politicians and educators continued with their efforts to make the system more student centered. Former British Columbia Minister of Education George Abbott announced before his departure in 2012 that, in the future, students and their parents would be creating their own curricula, based on what they wanted to study and what they thought was best for their own future. Of course, this will hardly help underachieving students and their parents who often have only a vague vision of their future opportunities. The new Ministry initiatives do the opposite, providing real concrete options and possibilities and stimulating the desire to work and succeed.
The “learning gap” between Asian students and our students which has panicked so many politicians and educators is based on no more than a difference in the amount of effort Asian students are willing to exert compared to ours. Their families, their communities, the world in which they live provide for them a vision of a future in which, as educated people, they can and will lead significant, satisfying lives.  As a result, they want to work to achieve that future. That view of themselves has not been generated in many of our students. Of course, our thousands of high achieving students are now and have always been self-motivated and goal oriented, and out perform almost all other students world-wide.   However, they aren’t the students targeted by 30 years of education reform. The joint education/trades programs may finally provide many of those students with a vision of their future that, like their Asian counterparts, will inspire them to put in the effort that a sound education requires: studying, memorizing, practicing, sometimes completing assignments that to a young person seem irrelevant.
For the reforms to be successful, however, they have to be seen, not as a stop gap economic measure to keep jobs in BC, part of a $15 million one time job creation expenditure, but as the beginning of an educational reformation that takes seriously the idea that students must do the work, that high achievement means high effort, but that public education exists to help everyone achieve a place in society that is valuable and satisfying.  And if successful, perhaps the Fraser Institute will finally be forced to consider the number of students accepted into apprenticeships as a standard of success equal to that of university admissions.

Saturday 10 November 2012

Sal Khan’s program: no quick fix

Sal Khan is a young, enthusiastic technophile and educator.  He hopes to solve the problem of poor performance in Math courses that plagues the U.S. public school system with his comprehensive, computer centered teaching program for mathematics.  It allows students to work at their own rate, moving from math topic to math topic in a sequential manner that takes into account individual learning styles and interest levels.  Khan believes that this approach is going to revolutionize public education; Bill Gates agrees, calling Khan’s vision the future of education. Unfortunately, both Khan and Gates have misdiagnosed the problem and, while the program will benefit many students, the students who are the source of the school system’s poor performance will not be helped.
In his promotional video, Khan declares that his program “flips the classroom” because, instead of teachers presenting new math concepts at school to an entire class, students tackle new material alone at home on their computers.  They then come to school to do the exercises that demonstrate how well they have grasped the new concepts.  This, Khan explains, allows teachers to provide individualized classroom help to students as they work their way through their exercises.
Unfortunately, that key aspect of Khan’s program is its Achilles’ heel. Many students in the public system will simply not bother to learn the new concepts at home.  No matter how clever the software or entertaining the program, the work that Mr. Khan imagines will be eagerly completed by students will often simply not be done.  Of course, students who love math, or at least want to succeed in math, will love Khan’s program. But they aren’t the students who are causing the panic in public education.  They aren’t the thousands who cannot achieve acceptable marks on standardized tests, who perform way below grade level, and who swell the ranks of the numerically challenged. Those students will arrive in class passively expecting to be taught, exerting as little effort as possible; or will be so disinterested that learning new math concepts will be impossible.
The problem, oddly enough, is one of metaphor, not mathematics.
The Khans, the Gateses, the eager education reformers all share characteristics that made them successful. They are all focussed and highly intelligent; they were all good in school and eager learners. They share the metaphorical framework that taught them to value hard work, sacrifice, optimism and the postponement of gratification.  They believe that like them all students deep down love learning, and that therefore, if students aren’t learning, it’s the fault of the system.  Their many successes in life make them sure that if they could control all the elements of public education: the delivery systems (computers, smart boards, software), the educational environment and the teachers’ training and methodology, then student performance would reach new heights. Their perception of the problem is empirical; the solution behaviourist.  Let us analyze, then control the educational input, they say, and we can predict the outcomes. 
Unfortunately, the students in need of help have never lived in the world the Gateses and Khans live in. The metaphorical framework that makes up their world view and perception of themselves is far different. They have not received satisfaction from accomplishment; they have not seen the positive results of hard work, or felt confidence in the future. Their concept of a role model does not include any engineers, architects, visual artists or doctors. Like many young people, their peers exert more influence on them than adults, but their peers are motivated and inspired by the metaphors generated by the media, corporate interests, popular culture and the mythology of their own particular environment.  The rewards of a formal education are vague and remote. Gratification, if it is to occur at all, must be immediate and concrete; otherwise it may be lost.  Therefore any education system that wants them to learn the abstractions of mathematics is so outside their experience or interest that it seems ludicrous. 
That is why experienced educators are always concerned about the environment in which students find themselves.  That is why they say that social and economic factors are so important to education and why they are always sceptical of the latest quick fix program.  Until educational reform seriously takes into account the effect of the metaphorical world that students construct in and around themselves, the reforms will fail.  Students have to want to do the school work.  Neither Sal Khan nor even Bill Gates can make them.

Wednesday 5 September 2012

Buying Grades Is Just Good Business

The June 18 Sun front page story “Struggling students buying passing grades” should come as no surprise.  Those who control public education in B.C. and their counterparts in the rest of Canada have long since adopted the U.S. concept that education is a business that should be managed and regarded like any other commercial enterprise.  School administrators, ministers of education, trustees and even some teachers frequently refer to students as clients or customers, learning as the education product and teaching as a service to be delivered. Who then can fault schools that seek the ultimate business goal: profit? Indeed, school districts have used foreign exchange students for years as a source of income. Each exchange student a district can attract must pay the full cost of his or her education to the district, some $8000+.  In addition, schools with declining enrolment have bolstered their numbers by becoming specialty schools: Hockey Academies or Schools of Fine Arts, or some other specialty to attract students from neighbouring “domestic markets.”  Of course, each additional full-time student brings in more per capita funding from the Ministry.
Of greater importance is that this shoe-horning of public education into a business model has led to the adoption of corporate management strategies.  Decisions are made at the government level without consultation and handed down through the corporate hierarchy to school boards, superintendants, principals and finally to teachers.  The only determination of school success is what can be measured: test scores, drop-out rates, dollars spent, percentage of graduates, etc.  These can be graphed, plotted, analysed and then used to develop ways to adapt business practices and develop strategies to improve them.  Individual districts have tried to follow the late Steven Covey’s sure-fire practices for improvement, have fiddled with the “culture” of the schools, and held hundreds of hours of consultations with “stakeholders;” all of which have led to no measureable improvement in anything, or indeed any significant change at all.   The Province has altered course requirements, refocused the curriculum on career planning, increased emphasis on the accreditation process, and then decreased it (too expensive).  Still the statistical improvement demanded by the Ministry remained elusive, so they tried what had consistently failed in the United States: legislating improvement.  The Ministry demanded that each school submit a plan outlining how it would achieve measurable improvement and then employed four Super-Superintendents to oversee and ensure success.  The result? What a surprise; no real improvement, only more emphasis on those practices designed to give superficial proof of success. Secondary classroom marks are elevated so that when combined with mandatory government exam marks as required by the Ministry, the overall total is improved. Students who “can’t handle” regular classroom situations are provided with programs that consist of watered down courses they complete by doing a series of worksheets or computerized lessons, the content of which is a fraction of the regular classroom course.  They miraculously achieve B’s and A’s on courses that they previously could not pass.  Failure is eliminated; only success, when and if it is achieved, is recorded.  Consequences of doing little or no school work are continuously postponed. If a student can’t complete courses by the time he or she is nineteen, the adult requirements for graduation kick in and are only two-thirds of those for normal graduation.  By sitting tight, and postponing any and all work, a student can graduate with very little effort, and  the school can still use the outcome as a statistical success.
The serious issues facing public education -- issues of relevance, the use of technology, student achievement – are beyond the scope of the current corporate business model to deal with. As long as the policy makers try to impose flawed, business model solutions to public education from the top down, they will continue to be stymied. But since the alternative is a model of collegial cooperation and consensus building with the only people who really understand how to create positive, successful learning environments, the teachers, the likelihood of that changing soon is remote.  Until then, the Ministry of Education should congratulate those private schools making money by fudging marks; isn’t profit the point?

No Zero Policy Deserves A Zero

The recent  newspaper report of the teacher in Edmonton, Lynden Dorval, suspended by his school board for assigning zeroes for assignments that were never completed, is a classic example of education theory clashing with class room reality.  Popular education theory today requires that the public school system assume responsibility for student success.  Under this theory, student failure is the system’s failure, teachers must find ways to “empower” students to achieve something, and courses are never failed; they are merely Incomplete.  Thus achievement is postponed, put off, placed in the to do column until some unspecified date. Students are empowered to defer responsibility for completing their work on time or at all. 
            While school counsellors and administrators continually talk to students about the consequences of bad choices, the Ministry and school boards have continually postponed or eliminated the negative consequences of bad choices.   Schools in B.C. for years have been forbidden to put failing grades on report cards, replacing the “F” with an “I” for Incomplete.  The concept of failing was considered too harmful to student self-esteem to be countenanced. Ross Sheppard High School and other schools in the Edmonton school district have expanded the definition of what is harmful to include zeroes for work that was never completed.
The policy is a distortion of a basically sound concept: Academic grades should be determined solely on the quality of the students’ work, not other factors.  This grew out of the practice many teachers had of docking marks for assignments that were handed in late, for students who arrived late to class or missed planned tests or quizzes without a note from home excusing them, etc. Reduction of students’ marks was a form of punishment designed to alter their behaviour and was a misuse of the grading system. However, awarding zeroes for assignments not done is not a punishment of student behaviour. These are marks based on the students’ work, or in this case, the absence of it, just as students who leave questions blank on tests are given zeroes for those blanks.
The apologists for the No Zero policy excuse the students who fail to hand in assignments by saying that there are factors in their lives that prevent them from doing the work, and that giving them a zero is penalizing or punishing them for those contributing factors.  The apologists conveniently fail to appreciate that those zeroes are in fact in keeping with their own definition of what a grade should be: an appraisal solely of a student’s work. A failing grade indicates that the work failed to meet the required standard for completion.  Not doing it at all falls within the definition of not meeting the required standard.  Grades are not measurements of potential, student ability, effort, personality, character or anything other than the work itself.  When no work is done, a zero is the only accurate numerical indicator.
Teachers of high school academic courses already provide extra help when asked, accept late papers, allow students to rewrite assignments, provide alternate assignments for those with academic challenges, and offer unprecedented numbers of options for special projects and term papers.  Schools offer English and Math courses with differing levels of difficulty, and a variety of Science courses and alternate electives.  As well, the academic requirements for graduation from high school have never been easier. An unintended by-product of all this is that the responsibility for student success has been shifted more and more away from the student and placed on the school system and on teachers. By prohibiting the use of the zero to indicate that no work at all has been done, the system has finally assumed total responsibility for that success.  The system now refuses to admit that students are capable of doing nothing, but instead will find some way for those students do something.  The nature, importance, seriousness of the work they end up doing, its quantity and quality, its relevance and significance may be questionable, but they will find a way to replace that zero with a real number.  Many high school students will applaud this final surrender of their responsibility.  Unfortunately, it is a corruption of educational theory that will provide only the illusion of success and confirm in the minds of the public that public education has lost its way. 
The No Zero policy truly deserves a zero.

The New Curriculum: Following the Yellow Brick Road

The Ministry of Education’s attempt to transform the British Columbia public school curriculum proves that its view of education has finally been reduced to the level of adolescent musing. When I was a senior in high school in 1964, a number of my classmates and I complained to our teachers that we wanted to study concepts, not facts.  We were ignored, of course, by our teachers and the administration, and with good reason: we were wrong.  I didn’t realize we were wrong until my first year of university when I discovered that concepts can only be discussed and debated when one is in possession of a very large number of facts.  What concept would one want to consider?  Evolution? The historical significance of gunpowder?  The value of triangulation in the construction of roof trusses?  Homer Simpson’s influence on American thought? Without facts at one’s disposal, any discussion of a concept becomes merely an expression of uninformed opinion, a reality that the social media embrace and that even the traditional media now encourage with their new emphasis on “feedback” from readers and viewers.
            Yet this is the vision of the Ministry of Education: a population of students that have somehow “learned” concepts without learning any facts. The “Overview” of the curriculum’s transformation on the Ministry’s website states: “Educators say the current curriculum has too many objectives to cover and with so many objectives it can in some ways restrict student learning. Moreover, its highly prescriptive nature puts it at odds with the vision of a more personalized learning experience set out in BC’s Education Plan. Similarly, it tends to focus on teaching children factual content rather than concepts and processes – emphasizing what they learn over how they learn, which is exactly the opposite of what modern education should strive to do. In today’s technology-enabled world, students have virtually instant access to a limitless amount of information. The greater value of education for every student is not in learning the information but in learning the skills they need to successfully find, consume, think about and apply it in their lives.” Private school teachers and administrators must be laughing.  Their success is based on offering exactly the opposite view of education.
            I don’t know who the educators are that are steering the Ministry in this direction, but I doubt that they were ever successful classroom teachers.  Students are not always eager learners; school work is often hard. Instead of struggling to ensure that students master content that is difficult, it is much easier to have them learn only what they want to learn, to pursue “personalized learning.” To state that “too many objectives” actually “restrict student learning” is illogical and laughable. In addition, for a Minister of Education to state that what students learn is not as important as how they learn only confirms that he has succumbed to the latest, nonsensical EdSpeak and will strengthen the view of many British Columbians that public education is failing.  The 21st Century will require more than ever a well-informed, knowledgeable public.  What that public learns or doesn’t learn in school is of vital importance.  Knowledge exists only after the acquisition, analysis and synthesis of relevant information.  The central task of the public school system has always been to, first, provide students with that relevant information and then, second, to teach the skills of analysis and synthesis so that they can develop the knowledge to make the informed decisions that society requires.  The Minister and the “educators” that have steered his decisions apparently think that when facts are learned they merely sit in the brain in tidy, discreet little packages waiting to be regurgitated on school exams.  The lack of understanding about the way the human mind works is astonishing.  Learning is a creative process.   Each student internalizes information differently.  That information can and will be combined with, compared to, and used with a vast array of other experiences and bits of information in ways and at times that cannot be predicted. 
To decrease the number of educational objectives and to de-emphasize and devalue content is to surrender to the contemporary views that opinion and fact are interchangeable, that truth and belief are indistinguishable, and that the Internet/Tweetisphere, like the Great and Terrible Oz, is all-knowing and all-powerful.
The Minister, alas, does not apparently have the heart to look behind the screen. 

Monday 6 February 2012

Business Model Promotes Failure

I cringe at some of the decisions being made by politicians concerning public education.  The educational morass the United States find themselves in has not seeped north of the border yet to any dangerous degree, but our provincial politicians, strapped as they are for cash and worried about the next election are being tempted by the glowing promises and fear tactics so popular south of the border. 
In the last ten or so years, the cry down south has been to let private enterprise and the free market rescue their woefully underachieving urban school systems.  Extremely low scores on standardized tests have motivated the Gateses and Waltons and other vastly wealthy tycoons to cough up billions and billions of dollars to fund projects that reflect their vision of school systems being run, not by educators, but business school graduates.  They have poured money into school systems in New York, Chicago, San Diego, New Orleans and many other urban areas on the condition that the school systems do things their way, the corporate way.  If you wonder why teachers in British Columbia are concerned about the use of standardized test scores, you need look no further than these districts where the ultimate solution forged by the corporate vision has resulted in hundreds of teachers and principals being fired and schools closed because they did not raise their scores enough to suit the imposed business success model.
All of this activity is spurred on by the infamous No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation of 2002 with which the U.S. government mandated that every child must meet minimum standards in reading and mathematics by 2014. Since many schools started with only 25 or 30 per cent of their students meeting the set standards, the teachers in those schools knew the goal of 100% per cent mastery was going to be difficult to achieve.  Actually, any experienced teacher would have told you the goal was going to be impossible to achieve. That’s because teachers know only too well that the effects of poverty, poor family life, and weak English language skills are obstacles that are incredibly difficult to overcome.  Business tycoons don’t believe that of course.  They believe in what works for them, the carrot and the stick:  the carrot of cash and the stick of job loss.  Mandated by legislation, schools that meet improvement targets get big grants, schools that don’t get closed and the teachers get fired, to be replaced by new, charter schools run by private enterprise. Despite the fact that some schools spend as much as 60% of classroom time preparing for the two standardized tests, success has been minimal. A handful of charter schools, populated by students whose parents are motivated enough to apply for admission and then transport them every day to the school’s location, report increases in test scores.  Of course, the percentage of non-native English speakers and special needs students is smaller than in the urban public school population. Meanwhile all other subjects are deemed to be of little significance as teachers scramble to instruct their students in multiple choice test taking strategies.
We are lucky in British Columbia to have a school system that has a reasonably broad, varied and stimulating curriculum, and that has not yet succumbed to the U.S. view that public education is no different than a corporate enterprise.  Or that no knowledge of education is required to run schools.  We are heading that way however.  Principals are more and more being chosen for managerial skills than teaching skills or experience and have been for some time.  School boards spend almost all their time dealing with matters related to finances: trimming budgets, allocating resources, closing schools, or implementing programs that make up for a lack of parental guidance: anti-bullying
programs, drug and alcohol awareness programs, race/religion/sexual orientation understanding programs.  The only time they spend on matters related to academic achievement, the area that used to be thought of as the main purpose of public schools, is time spent considering the graphs and charts provided by superintendants showing  the progress or lack thereof of student achievement on standardized tests, often carefully disguised at the high school level in the blended marks that combine low test scores with elevated classroom scores.
Still, as long as school boards allow professional teachers to teach a well-rounded curriculum and politicians resist the temptation to dangle carrots and wield sticks, BC public schools should continue to be relatively successful.

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.