Monday, January 31, 2011

What can the revolution in Egypt teach us about 21st century learning?

It has been a dramatic week in the world. I've found it hard to stay focused on education issues while revolution has spread across north Africa from Tunisia to Egypt and Yemen. It is not every day that hundreds of thousands of ordinary people take history into their hands, but when they do they have the capacity for incredible change.

The media has made much of the use of twitter, Facebook and other electronic tools to organize during these uprisings. But to understand what is happening, it's historical import and what to think about it requires skills far beyond the ability to enter your latest tweet. Rather, some old fashioned twentieth century skills are in order, I believe, for today's global citizens.

Perhaps we should inform our development of 21st century learning on a late 19th century thinker - John Dewey. Wikipedia describes briefly his conception of the relationship between democracy and education:

In his advocacy of democracy, Dewey considered two fundamental elements—schools and civil society—as being major topics needing attention and reconstruction to encourage experimental intelligence and plurality. Dewey asserted that complete democracy was to be obtained not just by extending voting rights but also by ensuring that there exists a fully formed public opinion, accomplished by effective communication among citizens, experts, and politicians, with the latter being accountable for the policies they adopt.

That public opinion, first developed and fostered in public schools, is an essential feature of democracy. Rather than the ability to score well on standardized tests, we should be developing the capacity to inquire, question and analyze. Rather than focus on the work skills needed for the 21st century, we should focus on the citizenship skills for the 21st century.

Here is another educational philosopher I hope we all turn to in guidance for 21st century learning, Paolo Freire:

"Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world."

Let's hope the incredible events shaking the middle east open a discussion about citizenship and democracy and the tranformative role of our education system here at home.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

BCPSEA - the wrong people to bargain with teachers

The BC Public School Employer's Association is not popular with teachers. It was imposed as a provincial bargaining agent in the mid-90's and teachers were denied their right to bargain locally, directly with their school Trustees. BCPSEA has failed to negotiate agreements in every round of bargaining except 2006, when a government signing bonus was on the table. Government intervention has been used in every other case.

BCPSEA is not an organization of educators. It's employees are bureaucrats with very large salaries who typically have degrees in HR or business. These are the people that are entrusted with negotiating with teachers to reach the best collective agreements to serve Boards of Education who deliver educational programs in schools. It just doesn't make sense. And it is galling to read one of the first "tweets" from BCPSEA announcing their entrance to the twittersphere:

"Spread the word in your District. BCPSEA updates now on Twitter. The first and most accurate factual information on education issues."

Perhaps if you go to your lawyer or banker to seek information and expertise on educational issues, you might equally trust BCPSEA. I personally would ask an educator.

Local teacher associations around the province are frustrated with the impact BCPSEA has had on relations with their local school Boards. Every time we try to work with Boards to modify our collective agreements where a provision clearly isn't working for either party, BCPSEA interferes. This has hampered our ability to discuss standardized testing, class size and composition, the school year, to name just a few issues. These issues are critical to students and families, and their interests should not be represented by unaccountable bureaucrats.

BCPSEA is accountable to almost no one. Yes, they are directed by a Council elected by representatives of school Trustees. But that is a far cry from the type of accountability that locally elected Trustees have. We used to negotiate directly with these locally elected Trustees. If a Board did something unpopular in the community, the Trustees would know come the next election. In contrast, BCPSEA employees never answer to the public. A parent can phone their Trustee. They would have trouble getting in touch with their BCPSEA representative and they would have even more trouble having them listen and act on their concern.

It is interesting that the one small piece of accountability there is - the election of the Chair by Trustee reps - actually got exercised this weekend. In a suprise "upset" (as Janet Steffenhagen called it), former Chair Ron Christensen was ousted and replaced by Mel Joy at last weekend's BCPSEA Annual General Meeting. I hope this was a response to the decades long failure of BCPSEA to act in a way that assists and improves Boards' ability to deliver quality education.

Teachers are hoping this round to bargain a whole lot more with our local Boards. We believe that sensible solutions to local issues that will serve the local community are best made by those who live and work there and understand the needs. They are best developed by those directly elected by the parents and citizens in that community.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

BCPSEA discusses bargaining, media and the wired more censorship on the way?

Today representatives from School Boards around the province are meeting with the provincial public school bargaining agent, the BC Public School Employers Association. On the agenda is "Bargaining, media and the wired world".

I certainly hope that School Board officials and Trustees will honor and respect their employee's rights to discuss education issues in the public and with parents.

The recent fracas over the letters distributed to parents about the FSA does not bode well. Nor does the fact that practically every time teachers try to inform parents of educational concerns via a letter home, school Boards try to interfere.

Victoria has another case regarding letters sent home by teachers in relation to class size and composition. In the letters, teachers indicated that the class was over the limits in the School Act. The very same information is publicly posted by the Ministry of Education in January, but our Board said teachers should not be distributing letters home to parents in September.

Another dispute is taking place in Prince Rupert, where the Board of Education does not want teachers to distribute material different than the template letter printed by the BCTF about FSAs.

Despite having successfully won several arbitration awards based on teachers' constitution right to free speech, school Boards continue to interfere with letters and materials teachers wish to share with parents.

Another example took place at a high school in Victoria a few weeks ago. A teacher had posters for a public meeting regarding "wifi in schools" at a table during a parent evening. The school administration physically removed the posters.

Arbitrators and the courts have stated that teachers have an important role in the public dialogue on education issues. Yet we often find it a challenge to express ourselves when BCPSEA and Boards of Education intervene.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Is this the first crack in the BC government's wage freeze mandate?

I was excited to read today that CUPE workers have rejected an agreement that contains a zero wage increase. I'm not tracking that closely, but maybe this is the first example of a group of workers saying no to an agreement under the wage freeze mandate.

The mandate is the bargaining framework set out by PSEC for public sector agreements in the 2010 - 2012 time period. Yet inflation is running at about 1.8% and the economy growing faster than that. BC has been a net winner from the increase in commodity prices and it should not be just corporate profits that are up. BC workers have a right to share in those economic benefits and no worker should have to take a wage freeze, which is really a wage cut when inflation is factored in, during non-recessionary periods.

See the news release here:

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Teacher bargaining in the news

Janet Steffenhagen has been slowly adding posts on the upcoming round of teacher bargaining. See today's "Report Card" for her latest (

It has been five years since we last negotiated, and in that time I have seen less funding for schools, more stress and workload on teachers, and no improvements in class sizes or composition and a deterioration of services for students with special needs.

In my District, we are focusing on two objectives - teacher workload and professional rights. Teachers in Victoria are becoming ill from work related stress at an alarming rate. In a five year period, one in ten teachers needs to take a medical leave. This is double the average for similar size Districts. This is just one reason why we need to address local working conditions for teachers.

I will be posting more on teacher bargaining as we progress as I serve on both my local and the provincial bargaining team. For some background, please see an article I co-authored that was published in Teacher Magazine (

Sunday, January 23, 2011

What will "personalized" learning look like? A cynic's view

Part of the dialogue surrounding 21st Century Learning encourages "personalized" learning. This idea has been particularly highlighted in British Columbia in documents from the Ministry and School Boards.

The basic idea is that rather than children conforming to a "cookie cutter" style school or classroom, there is more opportunity for children to design (or have designed for them) an educational program tailored to them individually. The student's interests and abilities would play as much of a factor in the design of the educational program as their age or catchment area.

It is an attractive idea, and harkens back to an earlier time of teaching and learning, when students received individual tutoring and apprenticeships. Prior to mass education systems, children (of the wealthy) would receive individual instruction in a variety of topics or subject areas by tutors or experts and would explore their interests, finally deciding on an area in which to apprentice. Each child's program could be designed in accordance with the interests and abilities of the child or the parents.

Of course, personalized learning, in which the student and teacher jointly select all of the learning topics/activities/projects specifically for that one student, is expensive. The type of learning that some children do in private, after school activities, is exactly this type of learning. Piano lessons, some sports training, dance academies - all are examples of more personalized learning as typically the student and parent together select the activity, and in most cases although there is some age discrimination, the placement of the child is by ability rather than other criteria. Many incorporate individual lessons in conjunction with group activities. This allows for a high degree of individualization for each student.

My own daughter attends viola lessons outside of school and it is an excellent model of education. We don't really need to reinvent the wheel to know what "21st century personalized learning" looks like - we just need the resources to pay for it.

She receives private instruction once a week for an hour. She participates in small group instruction twice or three times a month in different groupings for different experiences. She practices daily but under my supervision and as I attend the lessons I am able to provide some guidance during practice times. She performs twice or three times a year. She takes formal examinations as she is ready for them and they provide a goal to work towards and a confirmation she has attained a certain level of proficiency. She has the consistency of a single teacher who has traveled with her developmentally through her music studies. Because the small group is multi-age and multi-ability level, she has mentors and she is a teacher. She is able to have a lot of choice regarding the content of her program, because she moves through a "personalized" curriculum individually and in small groups. Every aspect of the learning program is focused on her educational needs.

What are the key features of this "personalized" learning?
  • Extremely small class sizes. Even group instruction in private settings is often 10 - 15 students. This is true for older students as well as younger. With this number of students, even in a group setting, the teacher is able to provide significant, meaningful one-on-one attention during instructions and practice. 
  • Regular individual instruction. This ensures that on a regular basis, the student is receiving instruction geared specifically to their current ability level. The education theorist Vygotsky understood that the best and most effective learning happens within a student's "zone of proximal development". That is, they are attempting to do whatever is just immediately harder than what they already know how to do. This is almost impossible in a group setting, as students learn at different rates. Individual instruction also allows for individualized curriculum. Each student can select, with their teacher, activities, content areas, projects and so forth that are meaningful to them or are the most suitable for the next stage in their learning.
  • Structured, monitored study/practice time, with a guide who is sufficiently knowledgeable to help and able to motivate the student to attend to what they often consider a "boring" task. Any parent who has helped with homework or cajoled their child to practice scales would understand this immediately.
  • Opportunities to "show what you know" - performances, mentoring of junior students, and occasional examinations to ensure proficiency of a set of learning outcomes.
  • Opportunities to work with others - small group projects, community events, social learning.
When I look at some of the models of "personalized" learning in the press today, they include some of these elements. They say things like, "the teacher becomes the guide on the side", "less time in classrooms and more in student-designed project work", "individualized pathways and choice". 

Rarely do they paint a "picture" of a typical personalized learning program, but when they do, it is never the one I imagine will come about in the real world. For anyone who has lived through the many bureaucratic education reforms of the last fifty years, most of which came with woefully inadequate funding to support them, the cynicism level will be high. 

What does the private instruction cost? Compare how many students receive instruction from a full time teacher:
  • My daughter's viola teacher has a "case load" of about 20 - 25 students per year. Plus many many hours of parent time are involved (from all 20 - 25 parents).
  • A classroom teacher in the public system for one "subject" in a secondary school has on average 210 students per year. The students may or may not be getting the parent time. Depends on the student. A classroom teacher in the lower grades will have only 30 students, but they are responsible for at least four subject areas: literacy, mathematics, social studies and science. Some of our elective teachers in the lower grades have incredibly high case loads - up to 300 students.
For the same one teacher, five to ten times as many students are being "educated". Or put another way, each student is getting 1/10th of the teacher time and attention. Or the private model is five to ten times more expensive.

And so for anyone who knows the real cost of personalized learning and also the level of funding typical in our schools, we fear the picture will end up something like this:
  •  The "instruction" part will take place in very large classes, akin to lecture halls. Rather than specific, individualized instruction, it will be like a first year college course. Most of the students won't be able to follow and many will be bored. The format will encourage "talk and chalk" style learning, simply because of the numbers.
  • The "learning activities" will be "student driven" - a euphemism for do it yourself. Perhaps a small amount of time will be available to meet with a teacher, but it will be woefully insufficient, because the teacher will have hundreds of students on their "caseload". Students who are not self motivated will flounder. This is what the portfolio program looked like and part of why it failed, even thought portfolios themselves are an excellent idea.
  • Supervised study/practice time will not be with teachers. They are too expensive. We see this already in "resource rooms" with one teacher and several educational assistants or in over-sized classes that should be split into two but instead are provided an educational assistant who is unlikely to have any training is the subject area.
  • Student "choice" will be that individual teachers will have to offer a wide variety of courses / areas of study, but they won't have adequate preparation time to develop them and they may not have the expertise. Already it is common for elective courses in secondary schools to place up to 5 or 6 different course curricula into a single classroom at a single time with a single teacher. Some teachers are preparing upwards of 8, 9, 10 different courses during a single semester. And they are assigned 192 minutes per week of preparation time to do it. That is maybe 20 minutes per course to provide 6 or 7 hours of instruction. 
Am I too cynical? If I didn't see children sign up to take their Daily Physical Activity through online PE courses, perhaps I would have more faith. If I didn't watch the portfolio program thrust onto schools with almost zero funding only to frustrate parents and die a slow death, perhaps I would have more hope.

Until we invest significantly more resources in the school system, we simply will not implement meaningful change. Every child deserves a personalized education, but if politicians mean it, they had better be prepared to pay for it and not just talk about it.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Has Margaret MacDiarmid forgotten about report cards?

I just read Minister of Education Margaret MacDiarmid's article in the Times Colonist.

Here is my response, sent to the editor. Maybe the Times Colonist will publish it.

Margaret MacDiarmid, in her Saturday article for the Times Colonist, writes, "it is important for every parent to know whether their child has the reading, writing and math skills they need to be successful in life."


That is why teachers continuously assess and test children and why we report at least three times per year to parents. Report card grades are based on a variety of assessments, administered on a variety of occasions, which assess the particular learning outcomes for which the children have received instruction. 

Compare this to the FSA, which occurs on a single day, covers much of the grade 4/7 curriculum but occurs half way through the year, contains primarily multiple choice questions, and is known for erratic marking practices with respect to written answer questions (the limited time for paid marking has led to considerable criticism from teachers).

Any particular student may score considerably below their actual ability level on such a test for a variety of reasons. They didn't sleep well. They have test anxiety. They are unfamiliar with the particular question format or a single word in the question. They are hungry. They had a quarrel with their best friend and are distracted. The curriculum for that question has not yet been covered in class. 

Report cards are a far better measure of student ability. They are based on a cumulative collection of assessments. Any one "bad" test will not completely skew the total grade. They use a variety of testing techniques and allow children to express their knowledge and abilities in a variety of ways. All of these factors make them more reliable than a single standardized test. 

Yes, Ms. MacDiarmid, parents deserve information on their child's performance. That is why teachers take reporting three times per year very seriously.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

One Grade Four Teachers Feelings on the FSA

This is a guest post by a Victoria teacher...

Before I got ready to administer the FSA last spring I asked myself why. Would it provide my students or school with any meaningful feedback? If my class scored particularly low in, say, reading comprehension, would I even find out? Does anyone from the Ministry of Education or the board office come to my school and provide my low scoring students with extra support or resources? Did I really need to know how my class does in comparison to a class in Smithers? I already know how my students are doing. I have been teaching them for close to 6 months.

It would take close to 5 hours over the course of one week for my twelve grade four students to complete all sections of the test (I also had thirteen grade fives to think about). Again, what meaningful benefit would they gain from this exercise? I can’t use it for report cards. I can’t adjust my lessons, teaching style or even acquire resources because I never find out where the students made errors. Ultimately the test would do nothing to enhance the learning in my classroom.

So this is the message I relayed to parents. Of course I gave them the standard union handout, but I also made a point to talk with each parent. I told them that the test was challenging (and potentially stressful), took about a week to complete and used up close to 5 hours of instructional time. I told them that I would not see the actual test after it had been marked. I would not be able to see where the students went wrong (or right). I told them it would not be part of their upcoming report card mark. I told them that I wasn’t really interested in how our school ranked or how we were doing compared to those students in Smithers. So guess what happened? Not one of my grade 4 students wrote the test. All of the parents signed the form to have their child exempted from the test. All I did was state my opinion and parents listened.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Victoria schools pressure parents not to withdraw?

Last week a parent shared with me a letter she received from the Principal and Vice Principal of Arbutus Middle School. The concern was that she would not be able to withdraw her child from writing the FSAs.

The Victoria Trustees passed a motion last year that all parent requests to withdraw would be honoured. This came after a parent spoke up at a meeting about a phone call he had pressuring him not to withdraw his child. The motion read:

That the Board of Education of School District No. 61 (Greater Victoria)
continues to honour all parent requests to withdraw from the Foundation Skills
Assessment testing.

It was passed at the January 18, 2010 Board meeting.

Yet even after this motion, teachers continue to report that Principals are telephoning all parents who submit a withdrawal request. While the rationale is reportedly to ensure all requests are bone fide, the letter from Arbutus certainly has a different tone. In particular, the letter suggests that the Labour Relations Board ruled that students must participate in the FSA. The Labour Relations Board made no such ruling and would not even have jurisdiction over student participation.

Here is an excerpt from the letter sent by the Principal and Vice Principal:

January 7, 2011

Dear Grade 7 Parents/Guardians,
As a grade 7 parent you may receive a notice in a sealed envelope published by the BCTF. The following information is important to note:
·         This information is a BCTF initiative.
·         Ruling by the Labour Relations Board requires teachers to administer the FSA and students to participate; however, there may be exceptions due to designated learning, physical disabilities, or medical concerns.  We will review our students’ needs carefully and contacted parents of children who this applies to.

If you have any questions, please feel free to contact us at the school.

As the debate on FSAs heats up, there is an undeniable tension between the claims of the Ministry and the reality for schools. The Ministry claims that the FSA is a "snapshot". For this to be true, no preparation or "teaching to the test" should occur, no Administrator or anyone else should be making any decisions or actions that would in any way influence the outcome of the tests. Parents should not be prepping their children and sample tests should not be published on the web. And yet individual schools reputations are inseparabely linked to the outcomes through the Fraser Institute rankings. At the school level, Administrators feel pressure to have good results. This makes their school "look good" and probably has an impact on enrollment levels. In an atmosphere of budget shortfalls, enrollment dips can lead to school closures. All of which contributes to an environment where individuals are motivated to try and ensure the test results of their school are high.

Schools should not be under this pressure. FSAs, to be a "snapshot" of the system, should be administered on a random sample basis.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Educators twitter on what learning in the 21st century should look like

If you follow the #bced or #caned hashtags on twitter you might have seen a whole lot of interesting discussion lately. Educators are weighing in on their vision for learning in the 21st century...less ranking, more teaching. Intrinsic motivation, not extrinsic rewards.Click on the web links below for some more food for thought.

Here are a few interesting tweets:

Christopher Lister
discussing possibility of doing away with letter grades at our elem school. 21 Century Learning.
Joe Bower
Competition is for the strong. Public education is for everyone. See the problem?
What About Doing Away With Grades?

Chris Wejr
The Wejr Board - Questioning Awards and Grades

Saturday, January 15, 2011

FSAs, Merit Pay, Awards - Why rankings have no place in public schools

Three items have made the news lately that all share one feature - they all rely on rankings. FSAs are used to rank schools by comparing student marks. Merit pay is a type of teacher ranking that provides monetary awards to teachers ranked more highly than others. Awards ceremonies typically rank students with awards based on students marks or other criteria.

In a public school system, all three of these rankings exhibit the same fundamental problem - they provide stimulus or incentive to some within the system, but they can denigrate, demoralize and dis-empower others.

For every student, teacher or Administrator who feels positive about the school ranking that shows up in the Fraser Institute report, there is another feeling negative. Having sat in a staff room of a school near the bottom of the ranking, I can say without hesitation that a low ranking does not motivate anyone to perform better the next year. Rather it worsens morale and depresses individuals. It devalues the work and efforts of students, parents, teachers and everyone else in that school community.

Similarly, a merit pay system that awards a portion of school teachers typically alienates and frustrates those not receiving the award. Given the highly variable nature of a teachers job - different students, different resources, different levels of needs, different parental support systems, different Administrators... - no system can be a fair measure and so no system will be perceived as a fair measure. It is no surprise that in Denver, where a merit pay system was instituted, only one third of teachers report positive morale. Perhaps this is the same one third who is receiving the merit bonuses.

Finally, student awards can be a wonderful experience for the students who receive them. But for the others, it is yet another reminder that they are not as good, not as smart, not as successful. A very interesting blog post from a BC Principal discusses why their school eliminated awards for these types of reasons (see: )

A public school system should be based on the premise that it's primary function is to provide each and every child the best educational opportunity available. It should not provide a better one for some students (because they have the "merit" teacher, for example). It should aim to ensure every single child reaches a minimum level of skill and knowledge to function in our democratic society. It should aim to have a minimum standard of excellence for all the educators and professionals who provide services for children.

The Charter for Public Education, a document based on citizen input from across BC, describes the function of a public school system: "Learners, parents, early childhood educators, teachers, support staff, administrators school boards, post-secondary educators, the Government of British Columbia and communities to work in partnership to meet the needs of all learners." (see:

Competition and rankings do not support this vision. Instead, they pit student against student, teacher against teacher, school against school. Merit pay does not encourage sharing of teaching resources or mentoring amongst colleagues. Awards do not encourage students to assist their peers. School rankings do not encourage schools and districts to work cooperatively. Instead, they want to out-do each other. This is fundamentally contrary to a vision to meet every learners needs.

Much has been said on the need to "incentivize" the school system. The US "Reach for the Top" program is based fundamentally on this premise. But incentives promote individuals or small groups to act in their own interest, not in the interest of the greater good or the system as a whole. It is this reason that they don't work and in fact can be counter productive.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Friedman or Finland?: Why we shouldn't rank schools

Note: This article is based on ideas from: Reframing Public Education - Countering school rankings and debunking the neoliberal agenda by Donald Gutstein, available at:

BC teachers have spent considerable time and effort debunking the Fraser Institute rankings. For those of us working in schools with children, we know instinctively that these rankings are not reliable, and do nothing to help children and education. We see first hand the negative effects low rankings have on children and schools. We often look to Finland, an education system that consistently scores near the top of international rankings but has no standardized testing internally.

But often the focus of our critique is that the rankings are unreliable – they use the wrong data, they don’t take into account other aspects of school life, they are a narrow measure. While all of this is true, we need to engage the public in more significant discussion – that ranking in and of itself is wrong.

School rankings go hand in hand with school “choice”. They are part of an educational framework in which parents select schools and the rankings are the means by which they make a judgement about which school to select. School choice is seen as a “right” of parents and a mechanism for accountability – bad schools will be identified because parents will flee. The model is based on market forces. Students are “clients”. Schools provide “services”. Competition is the mechanism to ensure quality.

This framework did not come out of nowhere. In fact, its origins are with Milton Friedman, one of the primary proponent of neo-Liberal ideology and the privatization of public school systems. Donald Gutstein, in his excellent analysis of the origins of these ideas, explains Friedman’s enterprise:

“The school report card is a prime illustration of how neoliberal think tanks repackage doctrine in a form that second-hand dealers in ideas, in this case commercial media, can retail to the general public, or at least to parents of school-aged children. The doctrine was first enunciated by Milton Friedman in his 1955 essay, “The role of government in education”.

Friedman worried about “the trend toward collectivism” and called for “the denationalization of education”. He complained that public schools, “government schools” he called them, had an unfair advantage over private schools because parents could send their children to public schools without special payment. Very few parents could send their children to private or parochial schools unless they too were subsidized.

… Friedman proposed a system of vouchers, which local governments would give to each child through the child’s family to pay for a general education at any type of school the family deemed appropriate.

…In 1995, Friedman renewed his call to privatize public education in a major article in the Washington Post. Public schools were not really public at all, he claimed, but simply private fiefs primarily of the administrators and the union officials. Government schools needed competition from the private sector, which could transform education, just like UPS and Federal Express had transformed package and message delivery. Once again Friedman recommended vouchers as the way forward, but vouchers were not to be seen as an end in themselves. They were a means to make a transition from a government to a market system. Vouchers, however, were a hard-sell in a country that believed in the separation of church and state. Many people were opposed to the use of government-financed vouchers to send children to religious schools.

So neoliberals developed report cards as an interim measure, to build momentum for vouchers.”

Friedman’s ideas were actively adopted by the Fraser Institute, who hired Peter Cowley with the purpose of creating a Canadian school ranking system to further the privatization agenda.

In British Columbia, the subsidization of private schools came not in the form of vouchers, but in another form: government legislation that provides 55% public funding for private school students. And the ability for parents to “choose” schools came with the opening of catchments in 2002 and the ability of parents to select a school of their choice. Combined, they provide public funding for private schooling and the illusion that a market driven system is guaranteeing school quality. Ranking provide the mechanism for parents to do the “shopping” and have the illusion that school choice = school quality.

But what is lost is the basic tenet of a public system – the notion that every child in every neighbourhood deserves an equal educational opportunity. What is also lost is a large portion of the funding that should be going to public schools instead being diverted into the private system through the 55% funding regime. In fact, over the last decade the amount of public money going to support private schools has increased while public school funding has stagnated.

And so the need to “reframe” the rankings discussion. It’s not that the rankings are bad rankings. It’s that ranking schools is bad.

What is at stake is not whether or not the rankings are good or bad, justified or flawed. What is at stake is the notion of a public education system as a public good. A system equally available to everyone. A system where each and every child gets a high quality education. Where the right is to a quality public education, not to choose a school. Where every school is excellent.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

A New Year, A New Attack on Teachers?

Not five days into the new year, and teachers must once again respond to a media onslaught over merit pay prompted by Liberal leader hopeful Kevin Falcon. Falcon wants to introduce merit pay for teachers - an idea that has been shown to fail where implemented.

But also at its core this idea has three faulty assumptions:

The first is that the primary problem with public schools is bad teachers. The second is that pay incentives will improve teacher performance. The third is that teacher performance can be measured. All are wrong and any school reform based on these assumptions is sure to fail.

Of all the factors that influence a student's school success, teacher "quality" is low on the list in terms of relative influence. Yes there are better teachers and worse teachers and yes there are some who should not be teaching. But a child poverty rate of close to 20% is far more influential on student success than which teacher they are placed with.The best teacher in the world may not be able to turn around a student who is poor, homeless, parentless, ill - to give just a few examples. It is instructive that graduation rates in BC are the lowest amongst students with special needs, aboriginal students and students in care - by a substantial amount (less than 50% compared to about 80% for the total population).

Within the school environment, many factors influence the student's success, of which the teacher is only one: class size, learning supports, facilities, libraries, curriculum, resources (textbooks, etc.), technology.

If any of the school "reformers" really had an interest in improving student performance, they would a) be looking at all the "inputs" into a student's educational experience and choosing the one's that matter most, and b) they would see from past experiments that merit pay simply has never worked.

The idea and it's failures are over a hundred years old. Alfie Kohn reports: "Wade Nelson, a professor at Winona State University, dug up a government commission's evaluation of England's mid-19th-century "payment by results" plan. His summary of that evaluation: Schools became "impoverished learning environments in which nearly total emphasis on performance on the examination left little opportunity for learning." The plan was abandoned" (

Recent experiments have met with similar failures and the idea is typically abandoned when student test results don't change. (

The "blame the teacher" mentality is further destructive in that it creates an atmosphere where the best teachers leave the profession. Diane Ravitch reports on how the two highest ranking school systems in the recent international PISA tests have one thing in common - they support teachers and provide assistance to struggling teachers, classes and schools. (

And exactly what do we consider to be "quality" teaching when merit systems are introduced? In the US, the push has been for standardized test scores as the primary measure. Obama's "Reach for the Top" federal grants were given only to those states that are using test scores as part of the merit pay equation. Yet the "measurements" are seriously flawed. Which teacher is responsible - this year's or last year's? What do you test in Kindergarden? What if the tests differ year to year? How do you accurately account for differences in class size, composition and other factors beyond the teacher's control? Should a teacher with a class with a high number receiving outside tutoring get a "merit" bonus because their students do better on tests? Should a teacher who is assigned the most challenging class in the school lose out on their "merit" pay bonus because the students do worse? (For a real life example, see:

Merit pay creates division and competition between teachers. It hinders collaboration and collegiality. If based on test scores, it rewards the wrong type of learning - rote and fact based, rather than problem solving and critical thinking. We don't use merit pay for doctors, politicians or judges - why should we for teachers?