Saturday, September 29, 2012

Numbers that count

Most of the education world is filled with numbers that shouldn't count. A book by John Hattie is making the rounds in BC and Canada. The book is used to develop a theme: that there is data-based evidence that class size and other working conditions don't matter that much, but teaching methods do. It is the usual message from the top - fix the teacher, not the conditions in which they work, or the conditions our children find themselves learning in.

Hattie's book is a meta-analysis - a complicated set of edubabble statistics to apparently show what is effective and not by reducing hundreds of studies on factors that influence student outcomes down to a single number. Finances: .12 (small). Peer tutoring: .5 (medium). Instructional quality: 1.0 (huge).

Just one small problem - what is he actually measuring, and should it be measured in the first place? What is a good student outcome? What did these studies measure? Our data-obsessed world produces an awful lot of questionable data, based on questionable assumptions. First and foremost in the education world is that "school quality" or good "outcomes" are measured by standardized test results.

This goes to the very heart of what schooling and education are about. Are they about doing an algebra problem correctly? Or are they about the broad range of knowledge, skills and abilities that enrich our lives and our society.

Professor Alfie Kohn has written on this subject at length and provides some healthy skepticism to the world of edu-statistics. In "Schooling Beyond Measure", he notes:

The habit of looking for numerical answers to just about any question can probably be traced back to overlapping academic traditions like behaviorism and scientism (the belief that all true knowledge is scientific), as well as the arrogance of economists or statisticians who think their methods can be applied to everything in life.  The resulting overreliance on numbers is, ironically, based more on faith than on reason.  And the results can be disturbing.
In education, the question “How do we assess (kids, teachers, schools)?” has morphed over the years into “How do we measure…?”  We’ve forgotten that assessment doesn’t require measurement -- and, moreover, that the most valuable forms of assessment are often qualitative (say, a narrative account of a child’s progress by an observant teacher who knows the child well) rather than quantitative (a standardized test score).  Yet the former may well be brushed aside in favor of the latter -- by people who don’t even bother to ask what was on the test.  It’s a number, so we sit up and pay attention.  Over time, the more data we accumulate, the less we really know.
All that said, I am of the belief there are a few numbers that we should pay attention to. Here are some.
1. The graduation rate in BC is 80%. This compares to 96% in Denmark. (see: Clearly we can do better at getting most students through high school and to a diploma. A little breakdown of BC's graduation rates is also instructive: for both special education students and aboriginal students the number is around 50%. Just this little bit of information is plenty for some policy decisions - we need to seriously re-invest in special and aboriginal education. And by re-invest I don't mean test more, for more data, but teach more, for more learning.
2. Class sizes. It seems to me it is the most basic and obvious thing that the amount of teacher time any student has access to will directly impact their learning. The same obvious fact holds true of group homes, foster homes and day cares, where adult/child ratios are mandated. At the extreme, hundreds of children with a few adults can result in serious physical and psychological damage (remember those Romanian orphanages ). But more back to our world, as every parent knows, a class of twenty is better than a class of thirty. More teacher time. More one-on-one instruction. More ability for the teacher to ensure pro-social behaviours. More time to address individual learning needs. It may be that a teacher can produce high standardized test scores with classes of thirty, forty or more, but is that what parents want when they send their children to school? A simple answer to this question came to my door last week. The Globe & Mail included in the paper a glossy magazine, "Our Kids: Canada's Private School Guide". For each school in the directory, they list basic information: Grades, Gender, Boarding options, Cost, Contact Information and just one other thing: Average Class Size. 
Here is a little "data" regarding class size averages in Victoria, where I live:
Glenlyon Norfork: 18 - 20
St. Margaret's School: 14 - 20
St. Michael's University School: 18 - 20
Queen Margaret's School: 18
Shawnigan Lake School: 14 -15
Public schools: 18 - 27

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Chicago teachers push back "reform" agenda

Chicago teachers ended their strike and returned to classrooms this week. The strike was particularly significant - this was the first teacher union in the US to make a significant push against the corporate reform agenda. It was the first teachers strike in Chicago in decades.

The Chicago board was seeking a number of concessions that have been introduced in other US cities including merit pay and reducing teachers' rights to recall when they lose work due to a school closure. While merit pay was dropped from the table, the recall provisions were scaled back, a concession on the part of the union.

But the success in fighting merit pay is important. Many US teacher unions have accepted forms of merit pay. Not only is this detrimental to the strength of their organization, by pitting their members against each other over salary, it also legitimizes the concept of merit pay when a teacher union agrees to it. (I have written before on the issue of merit pay, or see Alfie Kohn's excellent: The Folly of Merit Pay).

Moreover, although the school day and year was extended, there was a pay increase for teachers when the city faces a deficit situation. This is also important, as it represents a successful push back from making working people pay for deficits created by lowering corporate taxes and bailing out banks.

Perhaps a most important factor in the Chicago teachers strike was how it ended. A tentative agreement was reached early in the weekend. A Sunday meeting was then held with the "House of Delegates", who represent teachers in schools. At this meeting, the delegates voted to extend the strike until teachers themselves had the opportunity to look at the deal and give feedback to their delegates about whether to accept it. Thus, the strike did not end until every teacher in every school had the opportunity for democratic input. This is the outcome of a transformation in the Chicago Teachers Union after several years of rank and file organizing by teachers in schools against a bureaucratic union leadership that was not responsive to teachers. So while some certainly will question and disagree with ending the strike with concessions still in place, there was more involvement of the membership in the decision than just the leaders.

The corporate reform agenda represents an unprecedented attack on unions, on public education, and is emblematic of the drive to privatize. Other teachers unions have mistakenly lent this agenda credibility by accepting moderated versions of the "reforms", including merit pay, vouchers, charter schools, trigger laws, evaluation based on testing, to name a few.

The significance of the Chicago Teachers strike is that this time, ordinary teachers insisted that their union take a position opposed to these measures and instead in favour of public education, quality schooling, smaller class sizes and the rights of teachers to fair and reasonable pay and working conditions.

Hopefully, this will be a model for other teacher unions to build on.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Public school teachers or corporate online learning...

The wholesale elimination of public schools would be a political impossibility. So too would be the wholesale replacement of brick and mortar schools with online learning. As a result, those who seek to make profits from education by replacing teachers with machines typically do so in small steps. Privatizing creeps in slowly, as does the use of computers where a teacher used to work.

The recent announcement of contracts to Dynaread Special Education Corporation is a case in point. Crawford Bay School, in the Kootenay Lake District, has just signed up. (see:

Dynaread offers an online reading program for struggling readers. Like "Rosetta Stone", the program modifies the path a student takes based on answers to questions. The Dynaread web site acknowledges that no studies to date have determined its effectiveness nor compared it with traditional, teacher based reading programs.

It is not surprising a school would turn to such a program. BC has lost over 700 special education teachers. Students who are struggling with reading, math or in other areas, typically have just minutes per week with a specialist teacher to address their learning needs. Without any targeted funding for students with disabilities such as dyslexia, the inadequate funding will often end up in the form of a single educational assistant in a classroom who is meant to work with multiple children with highly variable needs, such as autism, behaviour problems, low IQ, and so forth. Teachers consistently have to address individual learning needs of many of their students without adequate time to plan or work with the students one-on-one. In the face of a serious shortage of special education teachers to address student learning needs, online programs are cheap alternative. As the Dynaread Corporation describes it, they are less staff intensive.

Where resources are adequate, struggling readers are assisted in a variety of ways. They can receive one-on-one instruction, using diagnostic tools and specific materials designed to ensure that the program meets the individual learners' needs. Many teachers also use small reading groups to ensure students are working at the appropriate level for their current ability or they have older students act as guides or mentors to younger students. This can be combined with large group instruction and reading activities that provide rich and varied experiences that encompass a wide variety of ways of talking about reading and exploring reading comprehension. All of these methods are social - they involve learning in an environment with other adults and children. They also involve learning beyond the nitty gritty specifics of verbal language skills. Students are learning a wide range of social skills, often discussions will break out, differences of opinion will be encountered and explored. Every learning activity also builds relationships - key to motivation and engagement.

While I have no doubt a computer can probably provide training in the most narrow meaning of reading and reading comprehension, this pales in comparison to the breadth of experiences teachers create in classrooms. This inadequacy is compounded with growing concerns over the amount of screen time children are exposed to. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than two hours of screen time per day, for all screen activities - TV, video games, computers. In many households, this limit is met without any screen time at all in school.

It can be difficult to contest any given introduction of technology in schools. Some do have genuine benefits as tools in a classroom. But the relentless push to use more technology and particularly to replace teaching time with computer time should be a warning. There is a bigger process at work, and decisions are not being made based on what's best for children. Rather, consistent underfunding is driving school boards into the hands of corporations waiting to reap profits from the K-12 sector.

Monday, September 17, 2012

On facts versus skills...

Today's 24 Hours posted a "debate" about the new curriculum proposal by the BC Ministry of Education. Unfortunately, both participants got it wrong (see:

The "facts versus skills" debate is a false dichotomy. Children need to learn some facts and children need to learn some skills. The most important question is not how many facts and how many skills, but rather which facts and which skills.

David Eby correctly points out that learning by rote for the purpose of ranking children using standardized tests in not a good use of our education system. But replacing that with rote repetition of skills for the workplace is equally problematic.

As with any educational change, it has to be considered in context: who is proposing this change and for what reason?

In this case, the change comes as part of the "BC Education Plan" - a plan devised in response to pressures from technology companies who want to take over more of what they view as the "business" of education, in response to funding pressures from a reduced tax base, and in response to an artificial attack on a free, publicly administered, comprehensive education system (otherwise known as "21st century learning").

In this context, the push to reduce the curricular requirements could be problematic. For example, rather than free teachers and students from the artificially narrow constraints of standardized tests, such as the Foundation Skills Assessment and the provincial exams, a lack of curriculum with the tests still in place is likely to encourage more teaching to the test, not less. The tests will replace the curriculum if test outcomes replace adherence to mandated curriculum as a form of "accountability".

In addition, during the tenure of this government, we have seen an attempt to marginalize progressive curriculum, rather than mandate it. In response to concerns about teaching about same sex families, for example, the government agreed to a new course, called Social Justice 12, but this course is optional. Most schools don't even offer it. Similarly, recent statistics on the enrollment in the optional First Nations courses show that only a tiny fraction of our students are choosing these courses. This means we are failing if the goal is to ensure a cultural and political understanding of First Nations among the whole population.

School curriculum functions as a mechanism to let us democratically choose what our children learn in order to be full participants in a democratic society. Thus, any given proposal has a political component to it.

Reducing curriculum while maintaining testing schemes and promoting technology and work skills over the liberal arts is reactionary, not progressive. It is part of a broader scheme to turn schools into workplace training centres rather than incubators for democratic citizens.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Chicago teachers strike over class size, wages

It all sounds so familiar. Under the false guise of "austerity" and "student's first" the Chicago public school board wants to eliminate teacher pay increases, increase class sizes and lengthen the school day.

After a summer of failed bargaining, Chicago teachers are today on strike for the first time since 1987. That also struck a familiar ring - the recent one day strike by BC government workers was also the first strike since 1987.

I have a feeling of cautious optimism. Optimism because after a very long time, and after many years fighting school closures (also sound familiar?), privatization through charter schools, and deteriorating working conditions, Chicago teachers are saying enough is enough. Cautious because as in so many so-called democracies these days, I am worried that there will be government intervention used to try and end the strike.

The changes that the Chicago Board wants to impose indeed mirror changes brought in by government's all over the planet. As Lois Weiner, a professor at New Jersey State University writes:

Though the titles and acronyms of policies differ from one country to another, the basics of the assault are the same: undercut the publicly- supported, publicly-controlled system of education, teachers' professionalism, and teacher unions as organizations. The very nature of education is being contested: the Fourth World Congress of the international organization of teacher unions, Education International (EI), held in Brazil, explored the theme "Education: Public Service or Commodity?" (see

The Chicago situation has all the tell tale signs:

* attempt to demote the profession by reducing pay and increasing working hours
* introduce a competitive (rather than collaborative) model for teachers using merit pay
* reduce the level of service and the quality of learning by increasing class sizes

To support Chicago teachers, you can find information on the Facebook page:

Here is a good backgrounder on the issues in this strikc:

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

More educational change? Really?

On the first day back at school, just after former Education Minister George Abbott announced his intention to resign from politics, and just before a cabinet shuffle, the BC Government decided to announce they are overhauling BC's curriculum.

The proposed curriculum changes were developed last year, during a protracted labour dispute with teachers. As a result, there has been no input from teachers' union and profession body, the BC Teachers Federation. It is a bit like changing the procedures for surgery in a hospital without asking the doctors. Crazy.

The changes are focused on so-called "21st century learning" - a euphemism for needing change that doesn't explain why change is needed. The basic idea is that somehow because the century changed from 20 to 21 we now need skill and technology oriented learning as opposed to content oriented learning. The rationale for the changes erroneously assume that education in the 20th century was one monolithic factory model. Nothing could be further from the truth. Very few classrooms today have desks in a row, there is very little rote learning of facts, much schooling is project and team oriented, and schools and Districts offer a plethora of locally developed courses on a wide variety of subject areas including the environment, psychology, social justice, to name a few.

One of the features of the proposal is to reduce the amount of prescribed content. I generally support this idea, as I believe teachers then have the freedom to develop lessons and units based on the particular students they are teaching and the local community in which they teach. However, I also believe it is important that we, as a society, democratically determine the content that schooling includes.

The proposal seems to take the idea of curriculum reform a bit far. Critical thinking, for example, must be embedded in a context - there is the subject matter about which students are thinking critically. Moreover, schooling provides us with factual information necessary to be informed democratic citizens. The First Nations curriculum and the Declaration of Human Rights are just two examples of specific curricular content I would not want to see removed.

Finally there is a danger in changing curriculum without changing the mandated testing that has invaded schools and teaching over the past two decades. Without specific curriculum, but with mandated testing, the tests themselves will more and more drive the teaching content.

But despite all these concerns, one has to wonder why a government so low in the polls, with cabinet Ministers leaving almost daily, would try and continue with a multi-year agenda developed without the input of the professionals who are in our classrooms every day.