SCHOOL FOR THOUGHT
Those of you who read the comments to our postings will be interested in this Rita Smith blog about Joanne Gross, as Joanne is a frequent commenter.
There are lots of nuggets in Rita's posting besides Joanne's story - the revelation that the Premier views full-day kindergarten as free daycare, a plug for Doretta/SQE, some educators' venomous hatred of systematic phonics, and the fact that there is no reading component to full-day kindergarten.
Michael Zwaagstra has this excellent article in the Calgary Herald in which he describes the clash between the Alberta Minister of Education and the province's parents. The Minister of Education is strongly supporting constructivist math, refusing to put standard algorithms back in the math curriculum, while the parents are citing research evidence that supports the use of standard alorithms and debunks constructist math generally. Mr. Zwaagstra concludes that the battle between the minister and the parents can't go on forever and that the minister is going to be forced to back down.
This battle embodies themes that I have witnessed many times over the years, and so far the education side has never backed down. Be it report cards or school closures or teaching methods or school councils - you name it and the education side has won it. Even though the children belong to the parents, even though the money comes from the taxpayers - the education side has always stonewalled any protest and waited it out. They count on the fact that the parents have limited time and attention spans and will sooner or later go away, while the educators have all the power and all the time in the world.
My prediction is that the Alberta Minister of Education will stick to his guns and eventually the parents will give up, perhaps sending their own children to private school or Kumon.
This week Educhatter is writing about the correlation between poor educational outcomes and low income. Most educators think low socioeconomic students are doomed, and their low expectations are pretty much a self-fulfilling prophecy. But of course it's not at all true: low-income students can achieve at very high levels if taught properly (see this article).
A society that closes its eyes to this important truth is an unjust society that punishes poor children and perpetuates class differences.
When I graduated from an Ontario high school in 1964, the percentage of students awarded an Ontario scholarship was probably about 5%. Earning an Ontario scholarship was a real accomplishment and successful students were given $400 (real money in those days). A few years later, the provincial exit exams ("departmentals") were abolished, and the percentage of Ontario scholarships started to rise. According to this Maclean's article, by the eighties something like 40% of students were being given Ontario scholarships and currently it's more than 60%.
As a result of this grade inflation, the prestigious International Baccalaureate program is being forced to inflate its grades as well, so that its graduates have an equal chance to get into the university of their choice and win scholarships. more
Without the discipline of external exit exams, individual schools can award any marks they wish and, as we have seen, they wish to award ever-higher marks. With no external standards, it is impossible to compare the marks of students in different schools, and universities are flying blind when it comes to admissions. The result is that many woefully-unprepared students gain university admittance only to flunk out. The Maclean's article has more on this wasteful phenomenon.
Not only do external exit exams yield more objective marks and deter grade inflation, they also enhance student achievement according to a number of studies by Professor John Bishop of Cornell University.
In this TED talk, Bill Gates talks about his foundation's recent initiative to help teachers improve by providing them with feedback and effective tools. It all sounds very good, but I have two reservations that I suggest you ponder as you watch the clip. The first is that Mr. Gates claims Canadian teachers get systematic feedback about their teaching - which comes as news to me. And the second is that Mr. Gates' initiative depends on finding teachers who want to improve and are willing to do the hard slogging to make it happen, but I'm guessing there are quite a few teachers for whom this is not the case.
Click here for an interesting article about the pros and cons of virtual schools. This is a school choice option that is often forgotten about, but online courses are improving all the time and gradually moving into the mainstream. According to the article, there are currently about 315,000 American kids enrolled in online schools, Click here for a list of Ontario online schools.
Ontario's People for Education wants to broaden the indicators of school success beyond reading, writing, and math. more
It seems to me that this kind of broadening could be usefully done in a situation where schools were already succeeding in the sense that all of their graduates were proficient at reading, writing, and math. But of course this is not the case at all.
Call me cynical, but this looks to me like a strategy to deflect attention from schools' poor results in terms of reading, writing, and math by adding a whole bunch more goals. If you have 25 goals and are succeeding at most of them, then failures in a few areas can be easily overlooked.
The teaching of reading, writing, and math is schools' job number one since students need proficiency in these areas in order to succeed in life.
If public schools can't give all of their students these basic tools, the answer is not to play down their importance. The answer is to make it possible for public school students to escape to schools that will give them the basic tools they need.
The British Columbia Teachers' Federation (BCTF) has kindly prepared this useful summary of teacher pay across Canada. Of course, the BCTF's point is how hard done by BC teachers are, and it is true that teachers at the top of the scale make "only" about $81,500, compared to, say, Ontario teachers who make about $93,000. And we can safely leave it up to the BCTF to ride this particular horse far and fast.
The larger issue, however, is whether public school teachers' salaries are inflated. Certainly teachers at private schools earn considerably less, an indication of what the market would pay in the absence of teachers' unions. And there are many reasons why young people are clamouring to become teachers - teachers get about 12 weeks of vacation a year plus lots of additional days off here and there. Teachers' pensions are bountiful and teachers can retire at the age of 55 or so. Teachers are required to be at work only about seven hours a day Monday to Friday, and additional work is optional. Teachers' work conditions are very comfortable and their job satisfaction is through the roof if they do a good job. On top of all this, teachers have job security.
In fact, it probably isn't necessary to add high salaries to the list of incentives for becoming a teacher. The nature of the job itself offers lots of perks and would likely attract more than enough would-be teachers, even without the high salaries and benefits. And there is actually a downside to the high salaries and benefits (other than the taxpayer burden): inept teachers - whether burnt-out or just plain incompetent - have a huge incentive to stay on the job until retirement.
GUEST BLOG BY ANGELA MACLEOD IRONS, FOUNDER OF ALBERTA'S PARENTS FOR CHOICE IN EDUCATION
Despite the public outcry by parents, the Alberta government is still forging ahead with its plan to completely redesign the elementary and secondary school curriculum. Known as “Inspiring Education,” this new program will result in a complete overhaul to Alberta’s education system. In the government’s own words, they are “changing everything.”
Traditionally, curriculum served to determine what a student is to learn at each grade level. Inspiring Education focuses instead on how children should be learning, rather than on what information and skills (e.g. reading, writing) a child should master. The focus of Inspiring Education is engaged thinking, ethical citizenry, and an entrepreneurial spirit. This sounds very trendy, but these “Three Es” should not be replacing the Three Rs – reading, (w)riting and (a)rithmetic.
Alberta parents are understandably upset and concerned. In 2008 a new mathematics curriculum, “discovery math,” was introduced – this is a program that focuses more on creative problem solving than the teaching of basic arithmetic such as addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. he results have been extremely disappointing. In 2003, Alberta had the largest percentage of high-performers in mathematics across Canada, as well as the lowest number of students who performed significantly below standard, according to the OECD. Ten years later the number of students who are failing has more than doubled from 7.4 to 15.1 per cent while our number of high performers has shrunk from 26.8 to 16.9 per cent.
Parents have been telling the government that discovery math isn’t working, but instead of listening they are promising more of the same Inspiring Education promises to do to other subjects – science, English, social studies, etc. – what has already been done to math.
At Parents for Choice in Education we have been active and vocal critics of both discovery math and Inspiring Education. I recently had an open editorial published in the Calgary Herald and have been interviewed by local media. I have been in contact with Wildrose Party Education Critic Bruce McAllister, as well as Dr. Nhung Tran-Davies – the Alberta parent who has been petitioning the government regarding discovery math – in order to best coordinate our approaches. We have been using our presence on social media in order to keep parents up to date on new developments.
However, as a non-profit organization, Parents for Choice in Education relies on the generous support of concerned individuals such as you in order to offset the cost of our operations. If we are going to be successful at changing the government’s mind on Inspiring Education we need to continue speaking out on this issue. I am writing you today to ask you to consider making a donation so that we can continue to fight for the future of all of Alberta’s children.
For your convenience, secure donations can be made through PayPal on our website, available here: www.parentchoice.ca/donate . Alternatively, cheques may be mailed to:
Parents for Choice in Education
PO Box 1824
As always, I am more than happy to hear from individuals concerned about education in Alberta, so please feel free to contact me at any time.
If your house was on fire, would you ignore the fire and focus on planting flowers in your windowboxes? This is obviously a rhetorical question, yet this is metaphorically what the Ontario government is doing with yesterday's announcement that it will be investing $150 million in "technology and learning tools such as new digital tablets, netbooks, cameras, software and professional development for teachers".
Math scores are dropping on the provincial tests, while language, math, and science scores are dropping on international comparisons of student achievement. Parents are signing petitions, newspapers are writing editorials, talk radio and the Internet are full of fulmination, but the Ontario government is choosing to ignore the protests and instead buy more computers. Let them eat cake, apparently.