Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Everything works

Punish a child to teach him a lesson and he'll learn that you can use power over those weaker than you to get what you want.

Reward students for high testsandgrades or punish them for low testsandgrades and you teach children that testsandgrades, not learning, are the point of school.

Use multiple choice tests as your primary form of assessment and you teach children that in the real world you don't have to generate your own response to solve problems.

Frame learning as a competition and you force children to see their peers as obstacles to their own success.

Assign boatloads of nightly homework to children and you encourage them to see learning as this thing they just need to get done before they can return to their regularly scheduled lives.

Praise administrators for their district or school's standardized test scores and you push them to place pressure on their teachers to attain higher scores by whatever means available.

Mandate teachers to attend one-size-fits-all, "drive-by" professional development sessions and you teach them that professional development is something done to them rather than by them.

Catch children being good and you encourage them to be good so they get caught.

Everything "works". The question is: works to do what?

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Discipline is Distracting

To focus on discipline is to ignore the real problem: We will never be able to get students (or anyone else) to be in good order if, day after day, we try to force them to do what they do not find satisfying.
-William Glasser

Often we express sincere frustration when we can't get someone (who usually has less power than us) to do what we want them to do.

When we catch ourselves or others making this complaint, we need to resist engaging in carrots and sticks -- instead we need to first reflect on the task that we are demanding be done. 

If it is sincerely something that no one would ever want to do willingly, then we shouldn't be surprised that we are met with resistance.

If it is something that we would sincerely wish others to be inherently interested in and authentically engaged with, then we must move away from doing things to people to gain compliance and shift towards working with people in an effort to encourage engagement.

The real problem isn't that you can't get them to do what you want - the real problem is that they don't see why they would want to, and force won't solve this problem; in fact, it will only make things worse. 

Which is why discipline is distracting.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Judging schools via Test Scores: A challenge

This is an open letter and challenge for anyone who believes they can use test score data and school rankings to judge the quality of a school.

I taught at Westpark Middle School in Red Deer, Alberta for 9 years.

And I am currently in my second year teaching at the Red Deer Regional Hospital Education Program.

Both schools are in Red Deer Public.

If you believe you can judge these schools via their test score data on Provincial Achievement Tests, Diplomas, or by a third party's rankings such as the Fraser Institute, please do so in a comment or email me at

Linda Darling Hammond with Dan Rather

  • Everyone should care about countries like Finland that have found progressive ways to improve their education system.
  • States and provinces in Canada and the United States are often the same geographic and population sizes as progressive countries such as Finland, Singapore and Korea. This is important because the responsibilities for education in Canada and the US are at the provincial and state governments. 
  • There are very large, high achieving countries such as Canada and Australia who have very diverse populations that are pursuing very different education reforms than the United States.
  • One of the America's greatest failures is their lack of equity.
  • 1 in 100 people in America are in prison. America risks becoming a Prison Nation unless every citizen is afforded the opportunity to be successful. There is a school-to-prison-pipeline in America.
  • Education is not a private-good -- it's a public-good.
  • We all benefit or we all hurt -- depending on the quality of education other people's kids get.
  • Californians pay $50,000 a year on an in-mate when they could have paid $10,000 a year to give an education. Most inmates are high school drop-outs and functionally illiterate.

Friday, February 24, 2012

The American Contradiction

In the United States corporate reformers, also known as educational deformers, have created an American Contradiction:

Use PISA scores to show that public education in the United States is failing but then implement market-based reforms that are almost entirely contradictory to the reforms and policies found in high achieving countries.
 For more on this American Contradiction, I suggest you take a look at Marc Tucker's Standing on the Shoulders of Giants.

NOTE: After reading John Spencer's comment on this post, I changed this post from "the American Paradox" to "the American Contradiction". I agree with John, it better describes what is going on.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Funds spent on teachers good for real learning

Jonathan Teghtmeyer

This was written by Jonathan Teghtmeyer who is with the Alberta Teachers` Association.This post first appeared on the Alberta Teachers` Association website

A troubling narrative is emerging from school boards. According to some superintendents and school board trustees, 80 per cent of education spending goes to employee costs—salary, wages and benefits. The subtext of this narrative is that employee costs are out of control, they have increased over the years and if only we can control employee costs then more money can be directed toward students.

Not only is this narrative damaging to the teaching profession and others in the education sector, but the figure on which it’s based is inaccurate.

According to Alberta Education’s 2010/11 audited financial statements, $4.5 billion was spent on salaries, wages and employee benefits against total expenses of $6.7 billion. In other words, 67 per cent of funds was spent on people.

Other ways of calculation might increase that figure, but none drives it up to 80 per cent. If you look at the expenses of school boards, they spent $4.4 billion on employee costs out of a budget of $5.9 billion—a ratio of 74 per cent. Digging deeper, we find that school boards spent $3.2 billion of $5.9 billion on salaries and benefits for certificated staff—showing that teacher costs are only 54 per cent of school board expenses.

A few people have stated that not only are employment costs rising, but that 10 years ago costs were 20 per cent less. Actually, the proportion of board expenses related to employees has remained largely stable over time.

This troubling narrative implies that the portion of the budget not spent on salaries is what makes a difference in the level of education that students receive, thus suggesting that money spent on employees doesn’t make a difference for students. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Money spent on employees puts teachers in classrooms and funds teaching assistants who work with students with special needs. It pays for librarians, counsellors and support staff, who ensure that schools operate smoothly and meet the needs of our students. It shouldn’t be surprising, therefore, that employee costs are significant. Education is a service industry delivered by educated professionals and qualified support staff. The best investment for students comes by adding to the employee cost side of the budget.

While some of the remaining 20 per cent is spent on textbooks or technology, it’s also spent on transportation, energy costs, provincial testing, governance and system administration. But surrounding students with tools (pencils, paper, textbooks and computers) doesn’t guarantee meaningful learning. It is the adults in the school who spark the fuse of learning and ensure that inanimate tools become instruments for discovery. The role of the teacher as catalyst is critical to learning.

More than anything, in a world of infinite information from a ­multitude of sources, the skills to search, sort, filter, adjudicate and analyze information become paramount. While students may be able to access information without the direct instruction of teachers, they will require more guidance, supervision and mentorship than ever before. Teachers will be required to plan curriculum objectives, guide students by implementing learning strategies, assist with the synthesis of information and evaluate the learning outcomes. As these activities become more personalized, students will require more one-on-one time with teachers, which is money well spent. And that is good for education.

I welcome your comments—contact me at

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Alberta advertising undermining assessment

This kind of political advertising undermines the progressive assessment practices that the province of Alberta has been working on for years.

It makes little sense for teachers to work their tales of to improve their assessment practices in ways that provide children with non-graded information that they require to improve only to have the province tell parents to look for graded feedback.

To be clear, this post has nothing to do with the $6.5 billion invested in education.

It can be hard enough for parents to accept that school for their children might look and feel different than when they went to school, and it makes it really really hard to influence change when the government holds up traditions, that we are trying to change, as signals for success.

Someone reading this post might think "oh come on, Joe. Lighten up." To this I respond with: 6.5 billion is a lot of money, and the education of our children is nothing to take lightly. Many parents work so hard at their jobs and parenting their children that they don't have much time or effort in their day to think about pedagogy, so when we do try and catch their eye with advertisements like this, we better be acutely aware of what we are telling them.

In this case, we are telling them to look for something that some progressive Alberta teachers have been trying to move beyond.

For more on the research against grading:

Grading and the fear of failure

Grading and commenting

The Case Against Grades

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

David King on Alberta's Education Act Part II

This was written by David King who is a former Alberta Minister of Education. This is 2 of 2 posts on Alberta's new Education Act. This post first appeared on King's blog here.

by David King

The new Education Act suffers in comparison to all the announcements of its coming. Ministers and M.L.A.s talked about a “new paradigm”, framing the conditions for a system that would anticipate the future and nurse it to reality.

The new Act simply doesn’t deliver. Ordinarily, Albertans could overlook the hype and be glad to see an important piece of legislation “cleaned up”, “sharpened”… — choose your adjective for modest incremental improvement.

The problem is that the Government of Alberta itself – and insistently — raised the subject of the 21st century being radically different from the 20th. The Government of Alberta, through the Inspiring Education process, encouraged Albertans to think about education in new ways, and repeatedly assured us that startling insights could be harnessed. The new Act, we were told, could assuredly be – would be — quite different from the familiarSchool Act.

It is a mixed blessing that Albertans bought the government’s line. Albertans were persuaded to see that we can’t continue educating as we have done in the past. They were persuaded to imagine a variety of new, positive, and possible educational outcomes, as well as a variety of new ways of organizing to provide education. They were persuaded to believe that Alberta could be “first into the future”.

The new Education Act suggests that we are going to be “last out of the past”.

Having been awakened, by the government and others, to the virtual certainty of great change, Albertans are now frustrated by the government’s lack of imagination and lack of courage.

Have you read Sir Kenneth Robinson’s latest book on what is coming to education? (Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative)

Are you familiar with what is happening in Finland? (Pasi Sahlberg – Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland?

Have you watched Sebastian Thurn, on Youtube (

There are three quick and effective measures of innovation in any piece of legislation.

First, does the legislation contain new words or phrases that are important enough to be defined for the purposes of the legislation. The proposed Education Act has two such words or phrases: “bullying”, and “non-school building” are not defined in the current School Act. Their context in the Act makes clear that they simply acknowledge longstanding practice: they are no springboard to the future of education.

Second, does the legislation have Parts and Divisions that suggest a new way of looking at the subject? The new Education Act has 2 new Parts (Opportunities for Learning; Responsibilities and Dispute Resolution), yet the sections contained within the Parts are lifted almost entirely from the existing School Act. Aside from legislating Bullying Awareness Week, and creating a Student Advisory Council, and implementing a Complex Education Needs Tribunal there is nothing new. Bullying Awareness Week can be celebrated without a legislative mandate, the previous Minister created a Student Advisory Council without the need of legislation, the Complex Education Needs Tribunal is an incremental improvement on a system already in place.

What is really interesting about Part 3, Division 1 (Responsibilities and Disputes Resolution: Responsibilities) is that the responsibilities of students, parents, boards, and trustees are specified (basically, these are consolidations of what is found in the current Act). The one critical actor left without specified responsibilities is the provincial government, notwithstanding the fact that for three years, throughout the Inspiring Education process, the government insisted that its role was “assurance”. The bullied might be more comforted if the government accepted responsibility for assuring freedom from bullying, perhaps by assuring that gay-straight clubs could operate in any publicly funded school in the province. Parents might be more comforted if the government accepted responsibility for assuring access to secular public education, on a timely basis, and in schools that are safe, healthful, and well-maintained. The parents of special needs students might be more comforted if the government accepted responsibility to assure funding for high cost special programs.

As a reader digs into the proposed new Education Act, are there any hidden gems?

Section 51(1) extends natural person powers to school boards. That is hardly an innovation, since municipal government has had the same benefit for more than 15 years. Nevertheless school boards have been lobbying for this: they should be grateful, shouldn’t they?

The problem is, the innovation is put forward in section 51(1) and rudely snatched away in section 51(2) “With respect to any right, power, or privilege exercisable by a board, the Minister may , by regulation, (a) prohibit or restrict the use of the right, power, or privilege; (b) provide that the right, power or privilege is to be exercised subject to any terms or conditions prescribed in the regulations.”

The Minister, without reference to the Legislative Assembly, can compromise the natural person powers of a school board, at any time, and in any way, and without any need to justify the compromise. Tomorrow, he could make it illegal for them to be doing something that is might be legal for them to do today.

The corresponding section in the Municipal Government Act says this: “6. A municipality has natural person powers, except to the extent that they are limited by this or any other enactment.”

The corresponding section of the Business Corporations Act says this: 16(1) A corporation has the capacity and, subject to this Act, the rights, powers and privileges of a natural person.

The introduction, in the new Education Act, of “natural person powers” for school boards is nothing but cynicism writ large. If the provincial government treated corporations the same way, the reaction would be immediate, immense, and unbearable for the provincial government.

The provincial government is not easily going to loosen its grip on school boards.

Yet, in the face of uncertainty, when the future cannot be known with confidence, experience and the natural sciences all confirm that the most intelligent way to confront the future is with diversity. As Willis Harmon once noted — in uncertain times, the best thing to do is decentralize (decision-making), disperse (resources), and diversify (responses). One only wants a highly centralized system when one is convinced that the central authority will be 100% correct, 100% of the time, about 100% of the issues. To put it another way, said Harmon, we don’t engineer survivability, in nature or in build systems, by making key components bigger. We introduce redundancy. Nature has not improved our eyesight by working on one better eye in the middle of our forehead: she has given us two eyes. NASA doesn’t improve the shuttle by concentrating on one computer: they connect redundant computers.

The proposed new Education Act should be rejected in principle. It embodies two principles, both of which are wrong. In principle it is mediocre, and we should expect better from our provincial government, especially when they themselves set a higher bar, especially when public conversation and evidence from other jurisdictions makes clear that we can do better. In principle, it faces us squarely into the past, rather than into the future. It is wrong that we should stifle our imagination and use our considerable resources to be the last out of the past, when we need to be – and can be – the first into the future.

Monday, February 20, 2012

David King on Alberta's Education Act Part I

This was written by David King who is a former Alberta Minister of Education. This is 1 of 2 posts on Alberta's new Education Act. This post first appeared on King's blog here.

by David King

In 2008 the then Minister of Education initiated a province-wide conversation about the future of K – 12 education in Alberta. The department contributed to the conversation by providing a structure – Inspiring Education – and Albertans contributed by providing content.

Although many of the participants felt that the government’s management of the Inspiring Education process was biased in favour of self-interest, and that this bias was reflected in the wrap-up, nevertheless the conversation was valuable.

From it came ‘standards’ by which to draft new legislation. These standards were never codified and agreed to in a formal way, but it would probably be fair to characterize public consensus around the following points.

  1. The new Act should be clear about the foundational principles. (As the Minister of the day said, the new Act should be principle-based.)
  2. The legislation should oblige the government to uphold foundational principles, without discretion to abdicate responsibility. The government itself claimed that its primary responsibility was to “assure” needful outcomes. (The legislation should hold the government’s feet to the fire, as much as the government sometimes holds others’ feet to the fire.)
  3. The new Act should represent a commitment to the future (with all the attendant risk and uncertainty), rather than to the past. (Albertans want to be first into the future, rather than last out of the past.)
  4. The role of the provincial government, as reflected in the new Act, should be to declare the goal and set the direction (by looking at the stars), and the role of the school operators should be to cover the ground and achieve the objectives that move us toward the goal(s).
  5. The new Act should provide a legislative framework for oversight for all types of educational delivery, with as much operational freedom as is useful for good government, sufficient boundaries to be clear about public purposes and goals, and openness to as yet unimagined types of educational delivery.
Assuming agreement about the ‘standards’, the next important focal point should be on principles. What principles should be clearly expressed in the new Act? Again, based on the Inspiring Education conversations, the following suggest themselves.
  1. The new Act should explicitly acknowledge and commit to the principle that public education is the preferred institution for education, recognizing that public school education is unique for three reasons: 1) it is inclusive without pre-conditions of any kind and it is inclusive of all who are students and of all adults as part of the community that governs it; 2) it is a deliberate model of a civil democratic community, so the government of public school education is democratic and public school education exists to promote an understanding of, and commitment to, democracy; and, 3) local democracy and local community are the ground from which springs every other community and democratic understanding. Public school jurisdictions should be given meaningful natural person powers.
  2. The new Act should explicitly acknowledge and commit to the principle that the public interest in assuring education for every child is not only for the benefit of the child: education serves the public purpose of creating and sustaining our society, and the provincial government controls education for the purpose of assuring that children are exposed to ideas and practices of good citizenship in a civil democratic society;
  3. The new Act should explicitly acknowledge that public school boards are a local general purpose government, dealing on a daily basis with the mandate of more than a dozen provincial government departments, and their range of freedom should reflect this.
  4. The new Education Act should embody democracy, including the following ideas:
  • all participants are worthy of trust;
  • inclusion, respect, and diversity, without pre-conditions of any kind;
  • the people who will be most effected by decisions are the people who should have most responsibility for making and implementing the decisions, and public school jurisdictions should have the capacity to accept mandates from local electors and accomplish locally determined mandates;
  • open, transparent government, at all levels; and,
  • elected representatives are accountable to their electorate, not to other elected representatives.
  • all participants(for example, students as well as teachers) are producers of education, not merely consumers of it.

The Education Bill introduced to the Alberta Legislative Assembly today (February 14th) should be tested against these standards and principles.

Probably the first thing that strikes a reader of the Bill is that it is very similar to the current School Act. It relies upon concepts and organizational structures that are more than 100 years old. Most notably, it relies upon well-used words and phrases because they have been tested in the courts (often more than 60 years ago), and their meaning is well known to anyone who wants to continue living and working in the historic paradigm. The government’s stated reason for rejecting new ideas and new language is that newness represents risk for the government, since the ideas and words have not been tested in the courts. In its organization and language the Bill represents an explicit rejection of new ways of thinking, new models, new language.

The second thing that might strike a reader is that there is no declaration of aspirations or principles within the body of the Act. Some of the “Whereas” clauses allude to aspirations and principles, but “Whereas” clauses are advisory only; they are not decisive. The Whereas clauses may make all of us feel good, but they are not in any way binding. There is no description, in the body of the Act, of the intended outcomes that the provincial government or local school operators are accountable for assuring. Consequently, the entire Act is procedural: it focuses on means, without regard for ends. The Minister and the department can direct or sanction any school operator at any time, for any reason, because, in the absence of ends statements in the Act the Minister and department can enforce whatever end they choose, and their choice can change from day to day. On the other hand, in the absence of clearly stated expectations in the Act, the Minister and the department can decline to assure anything. For example, the general public may believe that every child is entitled to access a public education that is non-denominational in flavour, and the Minister may agree that such access is fundamentally important for every child, while at the same time declining to act in a timely fashion to assure it. Or, the Minister may say that safe and healthy schools are essential to good education, while the government defers school renovations.

The Act treats all delivery systems as being essentially equal. There is only a procedural definition of public school education, or of any other form of education. There is nothing suggesting that public school education is the preferred means of education, and no statement that public school education is important to the attainment of public policy. There is nothing to make clear that a necessary work of education is to create and sustain a civil democratic society. There is no statement that the government of education is to be democratic.

More, in an upcoming post.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Scantrons for Science

Dave Martin's witty post on Why we really do need scantrons finished by inviting others to share creative ways scantrons could be used to support real learning. Craig left this brilliant comment:

Drop a scantron off the school and time how long it takes to drift down to the ground. Next, poke all the holes out of the scantron sheet and re-time. Do you the holes make it fall faster? Slower?

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Leave Dueck where we left him

"We need to prepare kids for their future not our past."

Here is a response to an Edmonton Journal article by David Staples titled Spare the tests, spoil the school system, former deputy minister says
First, some quick background. Jim Dueck is a former Assistant Deputy Minister who parted ways with Alberta Education in 2010. Dueck's departure was a part of an Alberta Education realignment that saw the Accountability and Reporting Division eliminated.

Dueck's exit and the elimination of the Accountability and Reporting Division reflected new priorities for our province.

Now Alison Redford is our premier and she has yet to make good on her election promise to abolish grade 3 and 6 Provincial Achievement Tests, but her Minister of Education Thomas Lukazsuk has said that he is in the process of reviewing them.

This has Dueck angry and bitter.

Here is a response to a number of Dueck's arguments:

First off, Dueck's title is problematic: Spare the tests, spoil the school system is a play on spare the rod, spoil the child. This should tell you all you need to know about Jim Dueck's definition of accountability. When he says he wants to hold teachers accountable, what he really means is that he wants to punish them.

I'm not a policy-maker, but is this really solid foundation for policy in a democracy? Do we really want to create and perpetuate a relationship between government, teachers and the public that is built on testing and punishing? It's time to break down these combative political barriers and do what's best for children. It's time we collaborated in order to provide our children with the schools they deserve.

Let's now take a few of Dueck's quotes:
DUECK: Alberta school teachers inflate the grades of students, so much that report cards can’t always be trusted.
Even if there is a discrepancy between teacher grades and standardized test scores that does not prove that one is more or less valid than the other. Instead, Dueck simply leaves it to your imagination to assume that because they are lower, the test scores are more valid. 

The other problem here is that standardized test scores are designed to have a range of scores. That is, not every child can get 100%. This means that these tests were designed to rank students not rate systems. These tests were never intended to attempt to replace or supplement the report card.

It's also important to note that real learning is not found in teacher grades or student tests. The best way to know if a child is learning is to watch them learn. There is no substitute. Testsandgrades merely offer a crutch to those who wish to judge schools without ever spending time in schools.
DUECK: Teachers are against standardized provincial tests not because they’re bad policy but because such tests hold teachers more accountable.
False dichotomies can be fun but they are rarely helpful in advancing a sophisticated conversation. In fact, this comment of Dueck's doesn't even constitute an argument - it's a rhetorical trick to dupe you into thinking that resistance to standardized tests equals a fear of accountability. Teachers are not afraid of accountability, but they are acutely aware of the costs of standardized testing and the cancerous effects they have on depth of thinking, quality of teaching and interest in learning.
DUECK: An excellent teacher can make a huge difference to a student, and deserves both recognition and bonus pay.
Saying that teachers play a large role in student learning is one thing, but assuming that that role can be quantified in some kind of merit pay/accountability scheme is quite another. The truth is a reliable measure of teacher efficiency does not exist and on top of that, there is no agreement on what constitutes "good" teaching. And because, as one education researcher put it, "measurable outcomes may be the least significant result of learning", there is good reason to believe that these tests measure what matters least. That's why we should never suggest that high scores are prima facia evidence of excellent teaching.

While it is also true that the teacher is likely the most important in-class variable that affects learning, a student's world is a whole lot bigger than the classroom. A teacher's effectiveness often pales in comparison to out-of-class variables like socio-economics, health care and education levels of parents. To be clear, saying that poverty is not an excuse is to make excuses for ignoring poverty.

Merit pay systems tend to have disastrous effects as they tend to encourage professionals to avoid providing services to those most in need. They are also insulting to educators because they assume that teachers lack the motivation to do their jobs - as if they could do better but refrain until the proper bribes or threats are applied.
DUECK: The Fraser Institute’s system of ranking Alberta’s schools is fundamentally flawed... A better method is to rank schools on how much each school is able to improve the test scores of its student population from year to year. The schools where students improve the most should rank the highest.
I will agree that the Fraser Institute's ranking system is no good, but Dueck's is no better. Ask any teacher
and they will tell you that the individual students who make up their classes from year to year have a huge affect on the entire class's performance. It is well documented that using student test scores to judge schools or teachers is prone to error - in some cases up to 25% error. This means that a teacher or school might be classified as excellent one year and poor the next.

Another problem with measuring improvement is that the same score gains might not be equivalent. Getting students to improve from 40% to 50% may look the same as moving students from 70% to 80% but who says they are equal for the teachers? Smarter or higher income kids might be easier to teach or maybe less skilled or lower income kids start at the bottom so it's easier to move up and show improvement. Can you see how simply saying we'll measure improvement rather than raw scores is not as simple of a fix as it might sound?

For more on why measuring improvement with Value-Added Measurements does not work see here, here, here, here, here and here.
DUECK: If you lower class sizes through an entire system, students don’t learn more, they learn less.
If class size didn't matter, we would only need one teacher. Clearly this is ridiculous. My daughter Kayley is starting kindergarten this year and I care very much how many children will share her teacher. Relationships matter. Take away all the brick and mortar, Smartboards and laptops and all that really matters in the end is the relationship between the mentor and the protege, the teacher and the student. 

Want proof? Think back on your favorite teacher - I bet you don't remember much about the content they taught you but I bet you remember distinctly how they made you feel. For more on why class size matters check out this article.

Reducing class sizes may not be a sufficient change to improve student learning, but it most certainly is necessary.
DUECK: But without such accountability, Manitoba dropped from fifth to ninth among Canadian provinces in national language arts tests and from fourth to ninth in math from 2000 to 2009. Alberta, with its big focus on testing, continued to rank first or second among Canadian provinces, Dueck says.
When I take my umbrella to work, it rains. Does that mean my umbrella made it rain? Clearly not, and if you understand the difference between correlation and association, you will quickly see that Dueck can only assume that the lack of test-based accountability was the cause of the lower test scores in Manitoba.

I would be interested in talking to some Manitobans about this decrease in test scores to find out what possible benefits less emphasis on testing had on more important criteria such as graduation rates, money relocated to learning, and the children's desire to go on learning for its own sake.
DUECK: As for the criticism that increased testing could lead to obsession with these tests and too much “teaching to the test,” Dueck says: “I hope so. Teaching to the test is what we want because the test is on the curriculum.”
Because all standardized tests in Alberta are paper and pencil, and mostly multiple choice, they can only test a sample of the curriculum (actually this is true of almost all tests, regardless of format). For example, out of the 200 learner outcomes in grade 9 science, only 63 (32%) can be assessed. That Dueck openly encourages teaching to the test is to openly encourage teachers to narrow the educational opportunities that children will experience in the name of test-preparation.
DUECK: Great teachers make a massive difference to a child, Dueck says. In one major Tennessee study, it was found that an average student who had weak teachers three years in a row would drop to the 45th percentile, while average students with great teachers three years in a row would rise to the 96th percentile. “I have no difficult in saying to a teacher, ‘You’re so valuable, you deserve more (pay) than the superintendent.’”
The Tennessee study (and others like it) that Dueck enjoys citing are problematic. It's kind of complicated (you can read about them here and here) but essentially these studies are predicated under circular logic: they define effective teachers as those who raise test scores, then use test scores gains to determine who's an effective teacher.

Most importantly, these kinds of studies assume that students and teachers are randomly assigned to schools and over looks that they are not. Value-added models that measure for improvement typically act as if this is not important when it really is. Politically, studies like this are often used by data-mongers who wish to show that academic success starts and ends with the teacher, ignoring other factors such as income, health care, housing and other out-of-school factors. We know better than this, and so should Dueck.

To conclude:

Inspring Education is a bold move by Alberta to transform our education system in a way that sets up all children for a great education. Could someone show me the standardized tests that measure engaged thinking, ethical citizenry and an entrepreneurial spirit?

The lofty goals of Inspring Action can not and will not become reality if we limit ourselves to the same narrow-minded measures of standardized tests. When can we aspire to something more meaningful and sophisticated than ideological grunts: "test scores are low, make them go up."

If Albertans want to ignore Inspring Action and transformational change, then Jim Dueck is our man. But if Albertans want to be first into the future, rather than last out of the past, then it's time to leave Dueck where we left him and focus on meaningful learning rather than test preparation.

If you want to imagine a way forward, take a look at this.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

What's the meaning of these marks?

Political cartoons are often funny because they hold a healthy dose of truth, and this one is no exception. I can remember living in fear as a child and later on as a teacher that someone, somewhere was waiting to scold or reprimand me for the grades I had "earned" or the grades I was assigning.

The point of this cartoon isn't that things have changed a lot since 1961; in fact, it's quite the opposite -- the point here is to ask why has so little changed?

The expressions in the comic should tell us all we need to know about how little things have changed. While the smug teacher and fearful child have exchanged roles, the parents remain angry.

A work or learning environment that is built on a foundation of smugness, fear and anger is destined for failure. So what is the source of all these destructive and counter-productive feelings?

The Grade Book.

Teaching and learning has been hijacked by testsandgrades. The entire system is driven to distraction. In many ways its rotten at the core. We've confused measurement with assessment and forgotten that the root word for assessment is assidere with translates into 'to sit beside'. We've come to see assessment as a spreadsheet when it's really a conversation.

Testsandgrades were originally tools used by teachers, but today teachers are tools used by testsandgrades. This shouldn't come as any surprise, especially if you are familiar with some of Marshal McLuhan's work who once said:
We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.
Testsandgrades are instruments of control that merely garnish short-term compliance at a time when what we really need is engagement. This is precisely why professional learning communities that are driven by testsandgrades are prisons for teachers made by teachers.

The less time and effort you spend with students the greater the urge and perceived need to rely on testsandgrades.  Teachers who rely on a spreadsheet during parent-teacher interviews, and parents who demand to see the spreadsheet, are all the proof we need that reductionist data such as testsandgrades excuses adults from playing an authentic and active role in their children's education.

Ultimately this comic should teach us that whether you are proud of high testsandgrades or ashamed of low ones, you are perpetuating the problem.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Vouchers, direct instruction and standardized testing

"Standardized exams serve mostly to make dreadful froms of teaching appear successful."

-Alfie Kohn

Edmonton Journal blogger David Staples wrote a post titled "Redford will be dealing a blow to elementary students if the government axes provincial achievement tests."

Staples laments Alberta's newly elected Premier Alison Redford's campaign promise to do away with grade 3 and 6 provincial achievement tests. He is also critical that Redford's education minister Thomas Lukaszuk is currently reviewing how provincial achievement tests are conducted.

Before any changes are made, David Staples implores Redford to consult with all kinds of experts on testing, including Mark Holmes, professor emeritus at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.

I had never heard of Mark Holmes so I googled him and found that he is an honorary patron with The Society for Quality Education (SQE). Here's what I learned.

Essentially, SQE believes the root of the problem in public schools is child-centered learning. They believe that progressive education that encourages children to play an active role in constructing an understanding from the inside out while interacting with others is nothing more than a fad.

Holmes and SQE are critical of the idea that learning should be customized to meet the individual needs and interests of each student. They are unimpressed that child-centered learning is designed to be fun, engaging and hands-on.

They go on to make the sweeping generalization that girls tend to respond well to child-centered learning, but low-income students and boys suffer.

It's important to note that the only evidence they use to claim any of this are standardized test scores.

So what is their solution? Holmes and SQE want public education to get back to the basics with more emphasis on reading, writing and numeracy with a strong focus on direct instruction and lecturing, including phonics, drills, and rote learning.

The way forward, they suggest, is by taking money from the provincial public schools' budget and provide parents with school vouchers. The idea being that funding would follow the student to whichever school the families choose, which would force schools to place a portion of their already scarce resources towards competing against each other to attract students.

It's been said before that the real purpose of the scientific method is to make sure ideology and mother nature hasn't misled us into thinking something that you don't actually know. I'm all for changing and improving education, but is there any evidence that endorses a 'back to basics' learning environment with school vouchers?

In the U.S., Milwaukee's voucher program was launched in 1998 and now serves 20,000 low income students and remains the longest-running program in the United States. In Milwaukee, the voucher program claimed to have two goals: the first was to provide a better education for poor children and the second was to create a competitive market among public schools, forcing all schools to improve. The theory being a rising tide would lift all boats.

Milwaukee has had vouchers for years, so it might be interesting to see whether they have fulfilled their mandate. American education historian Diane Ravitch writes, "Milwaukee's 21-year experiment has demonstrated that competition did not cause all boats to rise." Even if standardized test scores told us all we needed to know about these schools (and they don't), students in Milwaukee public schools continue to get higher scores than students in voucher schools. Vouchers fail even when held to their own unimaginative and narrow criteria (standardized test scores).

Pedro Noguera is a Professor of Education at New York University where his research focuses on the ways in which schools are influenced by social and economic conditions in the urban environment. Noguera explains that there are problems with using vouchers as a means to improve schools for poor children. He writes:
The problem with using vouchers as a means to expand access to quality schools for poor children is that it is based on the premise that parents are the one's who do the choosing. The truth of the matter is that schools are the ones who choose and not parents. 
When a low-income parent shows up at a private school, especially an elite school with few poor children of color, there is no guarantee that their child will be chosen for admission - even if the parent has a voucher. This is particularly true if the child has learning disabilities, behavior problems or doesn't speak English very well. As we've seen with many charter schools, such children are often under-served because they are harder to serve and possession of a voucher won't change that. Many private schools maintain quality through selective admissions and vouchers won't change that either. 
Moreover, choice assumes that a parent has access to information on the choices available and transportation. Neither of these can be assumed. Many parents choose a school based on how close it is to their home or work, rather than the school's reputation. Many are unwilling to send their children to schools in neighborhoods far from their homes, particularly if transportation is not provided.
The irony here is that organizations like the SQE, political parties like the Wild Rose Alliance and other American Education Deformers, continue to prop up vouchers in the face of mounting evidence against their use.

Vouchers and choice tend to benefit those who have already "won the lottery" and often alienates and marginalizes those who can least afford it. Competition and the free market is for the strong. Public education is for all. See the problem?
So if vouchers haven't proven to help poor children learn better, will a 'back to basics' movement help them?

I've heard a lot of people complain about school. I've worked with unhappy parents and angry students who have shared with me how they have been wounded by school. I've listened to politicians and policy-makers describe why schools need to improve. In fact, I spend a good chunk of my time on my blog writing about how school should look a little less like school.

I even participated in Alberta Education's Inspiring Action that engages Albertans in a dialogue about transforming our education system, but I have never, and I mean never, heard anyone ever suggest that what school needs is more lectures, more direct instruction, more worksheets, more textbook drills and more rote learning.

When I hear someone say that we need to get back to basics, my immediate response is "when did we leave?" In his book The Schools Our Children Deserve, Alfie Kohn writes:
Proponents of traditional education often complain that the model they favor is on the wane. They're apt to describe themselves as a brave minority under siege, fighting an uphill battle for old-fashioned methods that have been driven out of the schools by an educational establishment united in its desire for radical change.
Such claims are understandable as a political strategy; it's always rhetorically advantageous to position yourself as outside the establishment and to describe whatever you oppose as "fashionable." To those of us who spend time in real schools, though, claims about the dominance of progressive teaching represent an inversion of the truth so audacious as to be downright comical. As we slip into a new century, traditional education is alive and well - as I see it - damaging a whole new generation of students. If this isn't always obvious, it may be because we rarely think about how many aspects of education could be different but aren't. What we take for granted as being necessary features of the school experiences are actually reflections of one kind of schooling - the traditional kind. 
Consider: Just as we did, our kids spend most of their time in school with children their own age. Most of high school instruction is still divided into 45-50 minute periods. Students still have very little to say about what they will do and how they will learn. Good behaviour or meritorious academic performance, as determined unilaterally by adults, is still rewarded; deviations are still punished. Grades are still handed out; awards assemblies are still held. Students are still "tracked," particularly in the older grades, so that some take honors and advanced placement courses while others get "basic" this and "remedial" that. Kids may be permitted to learn in groups periodically, but at the end of the day eyes must still be kept on one's own paper. Even from a purely physical standpoint, schools today look much as they did decades ago.
While it's true that traditional education can be found in rich and poor communities, the truth is that poor children are often subjected to poor teaching more often than their affluent peers.

In his article The Pedagogy of Poverty Versus Good Teaching, Martin Haberman writes about a typical form of teaching that has become accepted as basic. Children living in poverty are often provided a wealth of ritualistic routines that have teachers lecture, test and punish non-compliance while the students play a passive, seated role of regurgitating factual information. In this environment, Haberman explains, students can 'succeed' without ever becoming engaged or thoughtful.

Like Haberman, author Jonathan Kozol adds: "The children of the suburbs learn to think and to interrogate reality," while inner-city kids "are trained for non-reflective acquiescence." Paulo Freire's book The Pedagogy of the Oppressed further outlines the oppressive nature of an education that is simply done to us by someone else.

Debra Stipek, dean of School Education at Stanford University puts it this way: "Drill-and-skill is not how middle class children got their edge, so why use a strategy to help poor kids catch up that didn't help middle class kids in the first place?"

In his article Poor Teaching for Poor Children... in the name of Reform, Alfie Kohn outlines a stinging indictment of the sit-and-get, spew-and-forget characteristics of a traditional education. Kohn writes:
The pedagogy of poverty is not what’s best for the poor. There’s plenty of precedent. A three-year study (published by the U.S. Department of Education) of 140 elementary classrooms with high concentrations of poor children found that students whose teachers emphasized “meaning and understanding” were far more successful than those who received basic-skills instruction. The researchers concluded by decisively rejecting “schooling for the children of poverty . . . [that] emphasizes basic skills, sequential curricula, and tight control of instruction by the teacher.
Learning is not like instant mashed potatoes; kids have not been through an industrial process of cooking, mashing and dehydrating to yield packaged convenience learning that can be reconstituted in the classroom in seconds by simply adding direct instruction and testing.
To suggest that school for any student, regardless of their socio-economic status, needs to be less actively child-centered and more passive not only ignores 60 years of research, but it also borders somewhere between ridiculous and asinine.

As for standardized tests, they tell us as much about learning as reality television tells us about reality. Very little of what matters most in schools can be reduced to a number, and as long as we continue to stifle the education debate by limiting ourselves to the narrow measurements of standardized tests, cancerous and destructive forms of education reform will continue to look appealing. As one educational researcher put it, "Measurable outcomes may be the least significant results of learning."

A rule of thumb I use: A person's understanding for standardized testing rapidly diminishes with their demands to test younger and younger children. Virtually all specialists condemn the practice of giving standardized tests to children younger than 8 or 9 years old.

Anyone who suggests that 5 year olds should be tested as soon as they enter school, followed by annual testing clearly hasn't paid attention to the cancerous effects of 10 years of No Child Left Behind's testing policies in the United States. Nor have they been paying attention to China's recent desire to liberate their nation from standardized testing's reign of terror. Like those who favor vouchers and direct instruction, pro-standardized testers are unfazed by research or real life -- for them, ideology trumps reason.

It's interesting that support for standardized testing intensifies the further you get from the students. There's a reason for this -- standardized test scores provide people who have absolutely no desire to spend time with children the opportunity to judge and control what goes on inside of schools without ever stepping foot in schools.

It makes little sense to pursue reform strategies such as vouchers, direct instruction and standardized testing which are absent in countries with the most successful education systems. As an Albertan who is both a parent and an educator, I would rather Premier Redford and Minister Lukaszuk spend their time with more informed and inspring people than those who are willing to advance their ideology and play politics with education at our children's peril.

Finland and Professional Development

In Finland, they spend six times more every year on teacher professional development than on student assessment and testing.

In his book Finnish Lessons, Pasi Sahlberg writes:
The Finnish state budget allocates normally about 30 million U.S. dollars each year to professional development of teachers and school principals through various forms of university courses and in-service training (compared with 5 million U.S. dollars for student assessment and testing!). The main purpose of this investment in human development is to ensure equal access to further training, particularly for teachers working in more disadvantaged schools. This professional development support is contracted to service providers on a competitive basis. The government initially determines to the focus of the desired training, based on current national educational-developments needs. Local education authorities that own the schools and also employ all the teachers make an investment of similar scale in professional development of their education personnel each year. The Ministry of Education, in collaboration with municipalities, plans to double public funding for teacher professional development by 2016.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Spelling Insensitivity

The next time you are grading a student's written work, remember to try not to come across like Caleb.

Here are a couple other posts I've written on spelling:

Inspiring Spelling

Spelling Implications

Thursday, February 9, 2012

A Clear and Present Danger - A Minister of Education

This was written by Stephen Murgatroyd who is an author, consultant, imaginer - engaged in a wide range of activities around the world. Fun, imaginative, witty... and available for consulting and writing assignments. This post first appeared on his blog here. Murgatroyd tweets here and blogs here.

by Stephen Murgatroyd

A Minister of Education, a former teacher, who does not understand schooling and the need for the transformation of schooling is a clear and present danger to society, its economic competitiveness and to the future of literally thousands of young people. But it can happen.

A Minister who does not understand that by teaching less, students can learn more through their project based learning and engaged co-creation of knowledge is a dangerous Minister. Just because teaching has changed since this Minister gave up the profession doesn’t mean we have to go back to how it was.

A Minister who sees time on task for teachers as more important as quality learning through school based curriculum is a dangerous Minister. Such a Minister does not understand that centralized curriculum which specifies what and how students learn is no longer the “right” solution to the challenges of todays classroom. What is needed are teachers, using a Provincial framework for learning outcomes, developing curriculum which has meaning and value to the students in their classroom now. This takes preparation time for quality learning.

A Minister who has been seduced by the technology vendors into thinking that Wi-Fi on school buses and more technology in classrooms is a dangerous Minister. There is no compelling evidence that, after spending close to $2 billion on technology since 1998 in a single Province, learning outcomes have changed or improved as a result. Indeed, by focusing on enhanced classroom driven learning that makes use of the talents and professionalism of teachers as well as the willingness and enthusiasm of learners is likely to be a better investment than Wi-Fi on school buses, iPads for every child or a Smart-Board in every classroom.

A Minister who is not sure that replacing standardized tests with a focus on quality assurance is a dangerous Minister. Standardized testing for all students at certain grades is, at best, an expensive distraction and, at worst, a recipe for stagnation. The tests tell us little about learning and even less about teaching. Some politicians think they are tests of teaching quality. Some think they determine school outcomes and should influence resource allocations. Most of us know that they are like a Kodak-moment taken in the dark on a windy afternoon. What we need is a refocus on assessment of student learning which can influence learning outcomes. In terms of public assurance, we need a system of public assurance, built around school development plans, sampling of students and experimental and research based evidence. 

A Minister who doesn’t understand that the key to success in any school system are highly engaged and satisfied teachers working with students who feel highly engaged in their learning is a clear and present danger to our education system. The best predictors of student outcomes are teacher satisfaction and student engagement. A Minister who is seeking to minimize the former and ignore the latter is a clear and present danger to the system. Good solid work on rethinking curriculum is being abandoned in the name of expediency, popularism and the ambitions of the Minister.

Education matters. It matters because all of our future depends on more smart people with high level skills, especially in the trades and in the creative and imagination professions, being in more places in our workforce. We need creative, team playing, mindful and productive citizens with keen literacy skills, skills in critical thinking and a passion for design to enter all trades, professions and areas of work. We need them now.

A Minister who stalls true educational change and transformation is a danger to the future prosperity and well-being of a community.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

"A love for learning" is not realistic

"Anyone who begins to call himself a realist is prepared to do something he is secretly ashamed of doing" 
-Sydney Harris

Imagine if real learning was both the teacher's and student’s first and only priority. Imagine if teachers could pursue their passion for teaching and learning in a way that allowed students to get swept up with a love for learning.

When most teachers get into teaching, they imagine the pursuit of a love for learning as not only a possibility but as their destiny… and yet, how many teachers fall victim to the grind of the system and lose sight of why they became a teacher in the first place? Many teachers fall victim to the bureaucratic friction of the system, allowing the kids’ needs to become a distant second to the system’s needs.

In fact, some teachers become so disillusioned (and lost) that they scoff and shrug at the idea that children should be nurtured and inspired to further their love for learning. In other words, these cynics see “a love for learning” as not only corny but wholly unrealistic.

I would rather be corny or utopian than a realist who is prepared to do something he is secretly ashamed of doing.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Rejecting & replacing PLCs

This post was written by a high school teacher in the Mid West, United States. It first appeared on Alfie Kohn's website here.

by anonymous high school teacher

“Professional Learning Communities”… had been presented to us about three years ago, based on the DuFour model: you define your subject's core concepts, teach them, collect data, compare the data, and basically, whoever is teaching it "best" shows everyone else how they do it. This sounds great, except for its focus on numerical data and its misguided premise that every subject area can be broken down into core concepts which then have to be quantified. What this means is that we'll only identify concepts that can be quantified. For instance, when I teach research writing, I consider it absolutely essential that each student is tapping into a longstanding and deep interest. I spend lots of time making sure this happens. How should I come up with a number for that? It is easier to come up with a number for conventions, so if we follow this process through, we'll end up de-emphasizing what I consider to be the most important part of writing and focusing on the less important but quantifiable measures.

I'm all for professional learning communities, but I thought they shouldn't be focused on data but on more important discussions like…how do we make sure that learning is responsive to students' needs, lives, and humanity? How can we make sure that we're always building and helping students build experiences, context, and meaning for any skills that they might need? And how can we make sure that we always approach our students with the understanding the learning is relational and that our policies, attitudes, classroom structures, and interactions need to reflect that understanding? It is quite possible to collect data and reteach to pump up those scores (so that we're seemingly successful) without addressing or engaging in any of those important questions, ultimately undermining true learning and engagement.

So, I got involved with the school improvement team, and we took over planning for PLCs and in-services. First, we talked about how the focus on data might get in the way of the most important things, and we began to ask those questions. The school improvement team decided to reject the DuFour model and forge our own. Instead of looking at core concepts, we looked at our own most significant connection with our subject area, and used that to think of our ideal experiences for students -- how to engage them in thinking like mathematicians or historians or writers or scientists instead of how to drill them in the vocabulary of those subject areas or how to break down the skills. We wrote a school mission statement based on engagement, relational learning, and using the perspectives of each subject area to engage the pressing issues and problems of the world, workplace, and higher education. This year, we're focusing in-services and small study groups on what relational learning, constructivism, and engagement mean and look like in our classrooms. We decided that any "data" we collect before we focus on that would be null anyway; the version of learning perpetuated by assessment programs goes against our understanding of people and learning, so we won't be influenced by that.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Join me for a #sschat on de-grading

Join me Monday, February 6, 2012 at 7:00 pm EST for a special Elluminate session on #sschat where we will discuss de-grading.

Our one-hour chat will feature a 15-20 minute summary of why we need to shift from degrading to de-grading, and the remaining 40-45 minutes of the hour will be reserved for a question and answer session.

Here is the link to the Elluminate Room:

If you can't make this event, feel free to leave a question here in a comment.

I have written a whole wack of posts on Abolishing Grading, but here are two that might find your interest:

What leads to success?

My de-grading philosophy Q & A

And of course, I am always looking for new members of the Grading Moratorium.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

What's up with Finland?

Have you noticed there seems to be a buzz about Finland's education system? In this session, we'll take a look at some of Finland's education policies and reforms that have helped them become one of the best education nations in the world.

We will examine Finnish Lessons on:

  • Formative and Summative Assessment
  • Teacher preparation
  • Curriculum (personalization vs standardization)
  • Homework
  • Equity
  • Poverty
  • Demographics
  • Economy
  • Accountability vs Responsibility
  • Teach Less, Learn More
  • Test Less, Learn Better
For more on Finland, check out these posts:

Paradoxes of Finland Phenomenon

Sahlberg's Ten Big Ideas on Finland

What Finland has *not* done

Irmeli Halinen on Finnish Curriculum

Pasi Sahlberg on Finland and Alberta


Finland's Paradoxes

What Americans keep ignoring about Finland's school success

The Children Must Play

TedTalk on Finland

My slideshow:

View more presentations from bowerjj.

For more information about booking Joe Bower for a lecture or workshop, please contact by e-mail:

Return to Joe's list of presentations

Friday, February 3, 2012

Marion Brady on Education Reform

Marion Brady's post on titled Education Reform: An Order-of-Magnitude Improvement is a brilliant read.

He starts off by challenging the conventional wisdom around today's education reforms (what Pasi Sahlberg calls GERM):
Imagine the present corporately promoted education reform effort as a truck, its tires nearly flat from the weight of the many unexamined assumptions it carries. 
On board: An assumption that punishment and rewards effectively motivate; that machines can measure the quality of human thought; that learning is hard, unpleasant work; that what the young need to know is some agreed-upon, standard body of knowledge; that doing more rigorously what we've always done will raise test scores; that teacher talk and textbook text can teach complex ideas; that ... well, you get the idea.
In similar fashion, I wrote a post titled You say you want this, so then why are you doing that? that attempts to myth-bust some of the knee jerk reactions we have towards what a good education looks like.

Brady not only criticizes today's top-down mandated, content-bloated, prefabricated curricula, but he also provides a feel for what real learning looks and feels like:
Our sense-making system - like the concept of gravity before Sir Isaac Newton - is so familiar we don't think of it as a system. And, when it's pointed out, we tend to dismiss it as too simple and obvious to be important, much less the key to educational transformation. But made explicit and put to work, our implicitly known knowledge organizer moves learner performance to levels far beyond the reach of the measurement capabilities of standardized tests, including the ones on which international comparisons are based. 
Skillful use of the system can't be taught in the usual sense of the word - can't, that is, be transferred in useable form from mind to mind by words on a page, images on a screen or lectures from a stage. Learners have to construct understanding for themselves. 
To appreciate the teaching-learning challenge, imagine trying to explain water to a fish. Success requires that the utterly familiar be made "strange enough to see." A five-hour lecture to a fish on the subject of water wouldn't match the memorable experience of being lifted out of the water for a five-second exposure to air. 
Experience is the best teacher, but attention must be paid. Adolescents, encouraged to look long and hard at particular, ordinary experiences - and to think and talk about what they're doing - eventually discover their basic, five-element approach to sense-making. They've lived long enough to have experiences they can analyze, are mature enough to examine those experiences introspectively and haven't yet been programmed by schooling to sort what they know into disconnected boxes with subject-matter labels. 
Reasoning their way to those five distinct kinds of information, they "own" the foundation of their knowledge-categorizing and -manipulating system. No reading from a textbook, no listening to a lecture, no viewing of a video production, will ever match the level of understanding of ideas that emerge from firsthand experience refined by dialogue.

For more on rethinking curriculum and lesson planning, check out this page.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Rethinking Exam Week

Lori Cullen is the principal of Erin Woods School in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. She blogs here.

by Lori Cullen

One has to ponder the question “why,” on many occasions. A recent “why” has come to me this month as January is the mid-term point of the school year and most high schools are in the midst of exams that mark the end of term one. “Finals” as they are called run for three weeks. Three weeks of no classes, and no learning. When we know better, why do we do this? Why do we persist in this practice?

The ironic part is we know better. We know that high stakes, final exams that provide no opportunity for feedback or further learning are not representative of a student’s knowledge or understanding, and do nothing to further a student’s knowledge or understanding which is arguably the point of school.

Image via Wikipedia
An argument that is often launched for those who believe in and rely on final exams often goes something like this… “How will I know what they have learned, if I don’t give them an exam? How will they prove that they have learned anything at all?” To those, I offer up the following response:

  1. Formative Evaluation – In his book Visible Learning by John Hattie, the effects of formative Evaluation were found to have a d = .90 or standard deviation of .90. Hattie describes this effect size as, “…a 1.0 standard deviation increase is typically associated with advancing student children’s achievement by two to three years, improving the rate of learning by 50%…” (pp 7 of Visible Learning). Thus, formative evaluation strategies in the classroom would not only give teachers information about what a student knows, but work to increase a student’s rate of learning by almost 50%.
  2. Self-reported Grades d=1.44 where Cohen argues, “…an effect size of d=1.0 should be regarded as a large, blatantly obvious, and grossly perceptible difference…” (pp 8 Visible Learning). Hattie found that even without tests, “…high school students have a reasonably accurate understanding of their level of achievement… This should questions the necessity of so many tests when students appear to already have much of the information the tests supposedly provide…” (pp 44 Visible Learning).
  3. Feedback (d=.73). “When teachers seek, or at least are open to feedback from students as to what a student knows, what they understand….then teaching and learning can be synchronized and powerful.” (pp 173 Visible Learning)

When assuming the reason for a final exam is to find out what students know or best case what students have learned, my question back to a teacher would be “Why don’t you already know?” I believe that if effective teaching and learning practices such as formative evaluation, self-reported grades and feedback are consistently and appropriately utilized by teachers, a final exam would simply provide them with a weak, irrelevant example of what they already know.

Hattie, John, Visible Learning A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement, Routledge, 2009.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Rethinking Exam Week

By Anonymous

During this time of the year high school classes are looking extremely different. Instead of teachers teaching, they will be watching students write exams. Instead of students sitting at tables talking, they will be silent in long rows in a gymnasium. Collaboration will be called cheating as it may inflate a grade. Schools will be calculating passing grades, money for credits and unfortunately….. any teaching that does occur will have the focus of "getting through the exam" and deep real learning will be the last priority of some schools.

I would like to take a deeper look at final exams. Most classes, other than diplomas, put a weighting of 30% on their exam, and thus makes the exam meaningless for some. WHY? Let’s dig deeper, on the exams for classes that are not a Grade 12 course, to understand why….

If we look strictly at this percentage, this means that any student over a mark of 71% cannot fail the class and students under a mark of 28% cannot pass the class. Therefore only students in the range of 28%-71% should be writing the exams. Now that we have eliminated many students from the final, we should dig even further.

Most students, even in the 28%-71%, don’t need to write. As most exams are multiple choice or at least heavy with multiple choice, with 4 choices on each question, then a student, by strictly guessing, should score a 25%. The interval now becomes 28%-61%, as, only students in this range, are dependent on a certain mark on the final to determine whether or not they pass the course. I would hope that few students fall in this range, but most classes would have a few in this range. 

Now let’s look at the students who have a mark between 28%-61%. For the most part, these students are weak, having troubles with an important concept, and most likely have gaps in their learning. We now come to crossroads as a teacher, as two options present themselves. Do we take these students, who are obviously struggling with the course, and test them again or….do we teach them?

Now we should only be talking about very few students in each course, and the exam usually takes 3 hours to write. Imagine the learning which could occur with 1-1 help in a 3 hour block with a weak student? Does this same learning occur by giving them a scantron sheet and ask them to sit in a row?
I suggest that school take a look at their exam week and ask “Is this week for learning or determining who passes and fails?” If the answer is the latter, then I suggest you be upfront with your stakeholders and put a sign outside your school saying “For an entire month, two weeks during each semester, your child will not learn at this school”. If the answer is the former then the school should be re-evaluating exam week.

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