What We Believe
The People Behind SQE
First and foremost, we are mostly parents and now, in some cases, grandparents. Most of us have at least one child who had serious problems at school - difficulty learning to read; lack of challenging material; bullying, and so on. All of us did whatever we could to help our children overcome their difficulties - massive home support, paid tutors, private schools - whatever it took. But once we had saved our own children, we started to worry about the other kids - the ones whose parents can't rescue them because they can't afford it or don't know how.
Some of us are or were teachers ourselves, and so we have a perspective on education problems from the other side as well. Like so many teachers, some of us have actually been hampered in our attempts to do a good job. We know there is a better way, and that is why we became involved with the Society for Quality Education.
We want every child to succeed in school.
The Root of the Problem
In a nutshell, most public schools are not using the most effective teaching methods and materials available. And, as a result, the students are not learning nearly as much as they could.
The Reason Why Good Methods are Being Rejected
Over the course of the 20th century, the philosophy of "progressivism" took hold in faculties of education. Jumping on the progressive bandwagon became a sure-fire way for educators to earn kudos from their colleagues and get their research published. Championing more traditional methods, on the other hand, became a career-limiting move at most North American faculties of education, remaining so to this day. As a result of the bias towards progressivism, public education has become vulnerable to fads (unproven but widely-adopted ideas), some longer-lasting than others. One prominent example of a relatively short-lived fad was the concept of open-concept classrooms, which put multiple elementary classes into one large room. Of course, the resulting noise levels made effective teaching impossible, and this progressive method was abandoned after a few years, but not before millions of dollars had been spent tearing down and then a few years later re-erecting classroom walls. There have been numerous other short-lived fads in our schools, but the current approach, dubbed "child-centred learning", is the longest-lasting fad in North American education. The child-centred approach expects the classroom teacher to customize his or her instruction to meet the individual needs and interests of each and every student - while also making learning easy and fun. child-centred learning emphasizes hands-on, discovery-based learning and an emphasis on the development of "higher-order thinking skills". Practices such as direct teaching, a focus on factual knowledge, and drilling new concepts are strongly discouraged. The child-centred philosophy is so dominant that today few teachers receive training in alternative teaching approaches in their pre-service courses, nor do most school boards offer them as professional development. Indeed, some younger teachers were themselves educated in child-centred classrooms and thus know no other way. In addition, the use of non child-centred methods is frowned upon by the Ministry of Education and school board consultants. The Trillium List, Ontario's list of approved texts, contains mostly child-centred textbooks. Even the provincial curriculum and tests are child-centred. Most classroom teachers want to do their best for their students, but their hands are tied.
The Results of Child-Centred Learning
For some students, most of them girls, the results of child-centred learning are excellent. However, for other students, in particular low-income students and boys, the results of child-centred learning are disastrous. The distressingly-high numbers of disadvantaged students who drop out of school and the alarming decrease in the proportion of males in Canadian universities was predicted many years ago by critics of child-centred education.
Child-centred learning increases the differences among children - and, the higher the grade, the greater the differences become. A typical grade 3 class, for instance, would have students ranging in ability from grade 1 to grade 4. By grade 8, the spread might be from grade 2 to grade 10 or even higher. This makes things very difficult for the grade 8 teacher of course - not to mention the students working at a grade 2 level.
The upshot is that, despite the fact that some students are achieving well, the province's overall average is powerfully depressed by its long tail of under-achieving students.
The Evidence That Ontario Students Are Not Learning Enough
The percentages of students who pass the Ontario provincial grades 3, 6, and 9 tests are at a virtual standstill at approximately 65 per cent of students - this despite changes to the tests that make them easier! The results of the most recent international comparisons of student achievement (TIMSS and PIRLS) are available from the Education Quality and Accountability Office. They report a significant decline in the academic achievement of Ontario students between 2003 and 2011.
One exception to this pattern has been the OECD's PISA tests. Many people think Canada's high standing on these tests means Ontario students are doing well academically. But there is more to this story than meets the eye. In fact, the PISA tests say nothing about advanced academic learning - like, say, the ability to read difficult text or set up an algebraic equation. Rather, the PISA tests measure how well students can use simple arithmetic and literacy skills to solve everyday problems. In any case, the scores of Ontario students on the PISA tests declined slightly between 2006 and 2009 - a period during which the students in some other countries are galloping ahead.
Our Proposed Alternative to Child-Centred Learning
We know that the world in which today's schools operate - and students learn - is very different from the world of 50 years ago. An education that is predominantly based on textbooks and rote learning from kindergarten through grade 12 will not adequately prepare students for today's world of instant communication and access to information and rapid technological change.
But some things have remained constant within this technological whirlwind. The ability to read and write well and the ability to calculate and analyze numerical data are still skills that anyone who wants to succeed in higher-value, higher-paying jobs in the information economy needs to master. Indeed, even in our personal lives, being able to understand and contribute to the public discourse on today's major issues, e.g. the looming pension crisis, requires good literacy and numeracy skills.
SQE favours the approach supported by the most extensive and credible research: a strong focus on direct instruction, including phonics, drill, and rote learning, in the early years to establish a solid base of literacy and numeracy on which to build students' education in the higher grades. Once students have this base, the judicious use of less traditional methods, such as discovery and computer-assisted learning and a focus on higher-order skills, can be very effective ways to engage students and improve learning outcomes.
Spending More Money Won’t Work
In Kansas City, MO, a judge forced the city to spend nearly $2 billion on its schools between 1985 and 1999. With this money, the school board went on a spending spree. Among other things, it bought 15 new schools, higher teacher salaries, an Olympic-size swimming pool with an underwater viewing room, television and animation studios, a robotics lab, a 25-acre wildlife sanctuary, a zoo, a model United Nations with simultaneous translation capacity, and field trips to Mexico and Senegal. the student-teacher ratio was lowered to 13 to 1. Despite all this spending however, test scores did not rise, the black-white gap did not diminish, and there was less, not more, integration between the races. Of course, the Kansas City experiment is an extreme case, but its failure is similar to that of other jurisdictions that have tried to spend their way to better educational results.
Strong Accountability Measures Are Not Enough
Some people think the way to improve schools is to bring in tough accountability measures, like a rigorous curriculum, high-stakes testing, and standardized reporting. These things too have been tried and, although they have had a slightly-greater success than increased spending, accountability measures are at best a partial solution. In Ontario, for example, the Mike Harris government brought in all of the accountability measures mentioned above - and then some. And the measures did seem to yield a modest improvement in student achievement at first. But even before the PC government was voted out of office, the bureaucratic mice started to eat away at its accountability measures. Today, most of them are neutralized or gone. The curriculum and testing are dumbed down. The school councils are mostly pussy cats. The Ontario College of Teachers has been captured by the teachers' unions. Teacher testing has been scrapped. Ontario's experience is, alas, typical. Accountability measures, by themselves, are simply not enough to generate significant, lasting improvement.
The Solution to Poor Student Learning
The way forward is to make it possible for parents to choose schools that offer alternatives to the child-centred approach. Some parents have that choice today - if they have the minimum of $8,000 per child per year that it costs to send their children to independent schools. Many parents, even those with quite limited household incomes, believe strongly enough in the superiority of traditional methods that they make great sacrifices to afford independent schools. Others home-school or send their children to after-school tutoring services that rely heavily on direct instruction. Unfortunately, circumstances prevent many other parents from accessing these options, and the unfairness is compounded by the fact that the children of less-advantaged parents tend to fare much worse in child-centred classrooms. That is why we favour more choice among publicly-funded schools.
But as we noted earlier, because of the top-to-bottom dominance of the child-centred philosophy in publicly-funded schools and the resistance to alternative approaches, it will be difficult to develop enough alternative options within school boards if we don't at the same time make it possible for all parents to access alternatives outside the system - for example, charter schools or tax-supported independent schools and home-schools.
While we favour direct instruction for our own children, we do not believe that direct instruction should be imposed on all children. Parents should be given the power to choose their children's schools from a large variety of different schooling options (year-round schools, all-boys schools, small neighbourhood schools, Montessori schools, International Baccalaureate schools, sports schools, special-needs schools, traditional schools, distance schools - the options are limited only by their ability to attract a viable number of students). The result would be that every school would be forced to compete for students by improving its service and responsiveness. An added bonus is that the wide diversity of school choices would improve the chances that parents could find schools that are a good match for their children's particular needs.
There is a high degree of choice available in most other sectors these days - day care, restaurants, tutoring services, university programs, reading material, all offering a competitive service. There is no reason why parents should not enjoy school choices that offer similarly-excellent service and responsiveness.
What Parents Can Do
Parents' first priority must be to ensure that their own children get a decent education. Malkin Dare's free book is a practical blueprint on how to go about this. Additional information can be accessed here. To ask a question about your child's educational problems, click here.
However, not all children are lucky enough to have parents who can help them. There is an urgent need to modify the system to make it easier for parents to help their own children. Even recent immigrants. Even illiterate parents. Even single parents. Their children deserve the same access to an excellent education.
The only people who can make this happen are their provincially-elected representatives. Unfortunately, most politicians shrink from supporting school choice policies (thereby antagonizing the powerful teachers' unions) unless they are sure it will translate into a lot of votes. It will take the united voices of thousands of parents to convince provincial legislators to make it possible for more parents to choose good schools for their children. If you agree with this goal, you can help by talking to other people, including your elected member of provincial parliament. You can also write letters and call in to radio phone-in shows. For further information, visit our newsletter archives (especially "Activist Activities") and read our blog.
Lastly, you can help by supporting us financially. We receive no government funding but are generously supported by grants from the Donner Canadian Foundation, the W. Garfield Weston Foundation, the Atlas Economic Research Foundation, the Pirie Foundation, and by the contributions of hundreds of individual supporters. For more information about making a donation, click here. To contact us about other ways to become involved, click here.