Reaching for consensus: Part 2

If the goal of all these Nova Scotia Parents for Public Education (NSPPE) Town Halls is to reach consensus about what schools need, and as Trish Keeping said, take the information, go to the government with it and “make sure that reforms that are done in the future have some foresight”, there is a challenge awaiting us. As we have seen in other provinces, and in our recent history in Nova Scotia, there are organizations, often funded by business interests, that are advocating for a return to a more standardized form of education that most educators thought was in our past. Sometimes these interests are taken up by small groups of vocal citizens who manage to change the agenda – I’m thinking of Ontario where a few years ago a small group of people started advocating for an end to “discovery” math (something that actually has never existed there). The previous Ontario government conceded that perhaps elementary teachers needed more training, and could put more emphasis on learning basic facts (ie multiplication tables) and some changes were made. Then, the new government jumped wholeheartedly on the bandwagon, and now all teachers in Ontario have to pass a math test – even if they are not math teachers. This measure will have no impact on student learning and will just add to the stress teachers already experience. And all of this is based on the mistaken belief that teachers were allowing children to “discover” math concepts on their own with no guidance, were not teaching basic facts, and did not have any knowledge about teaching math. 

It turns out that some of the comments I heard at that first Town Hall about dyslexic children not getting the help they need have turned up since then, over and over again, in letters to the editor, in Facebook groups (Everyone Reads Nova Scotia), and now in a letter writing campaign to the provincial government. I sympathize with the difficulties these parents have experienced, and I believe we all share similar goals – we would like children’s reading difficulties dealt with within the public school system in a timely manner (so that parents do not have to resort to the private system), and we would like to see more equity between communities, so that academic achievement is not dependent on the community/class you belong to. 

But, on investigating some of the concerns suggested in the letter-writing campaign, I have some questions. First, a final report on the Commission of Inclusive Education has come out, and has not yet been adopted by the NS government. It calls for a three-tier model of support where the first tier is universal, whole class instruction, the second tier is targeted small group instruction and the third tier is intensive, individual instruction. I’ve heard calls for it to be adopted (both at the Town Hall, and from various teacher organizations), yet there is no call for adoption of the report in the list of concerns by this campaign other than “Fully funded individual (Tier 3) interventions for students with the greatest and most persistent reading difficulties” . Does this mean that the group does not advocate for the first and second tier interventions?

It seems that this group does believe in the first tier, universal classroom teaching since their first demand is that “explicit, systematic, code-based reading instruction” be part of the Nova Scotia curriculum, and that it form part of the outcomes. I find that the NS curriculum does include outcomes that deal with “word study”, and as a guideline, I find them quite helpful (as grade specific outcomes, I have reservations, but that’s another discussion). My questions: Does the group advocate for this explicit instruction in every grade for all children in the elementary school? What about the children that have already learned to read – do they need it too? What is wrong with the Tier 2 interventions – targeted, small group instruction – for those who because of their different rates of development did not benefit from it the first time?

Another demand is for “appropriate screenings and assessments for students at risk in Grades Primary and Grade 1”.  My questions: How do you know which students in those very early years are at risk? Educational psychologists and reading experts (and my own experience) tell me that the variability among what is considered normal at those ages is huge, so those assessments have limited validity.  Is there a new assessment (MRIs perhaps?) that can predict those students who will have difficulty with reading in the future better than the teachers that teach them?

Another demand is that “Practices not in line with the science of reading, such as three-cueing system and the widespread use of leveled readers in reading instruction should be phased out”. My questions: What is wrong with asking children to predict new words based on semantic (does that make sense?), syntactic (does that sound right?) or graphophonetic (does that look right?) clues? What is wrong with leveled books so that children can pick out books to read that they can read comfortably and feel confident while doing it?

Again, I have no questions about the second part of the demand for “Resources (in the form of a coherent program) and professional development for teachers in Grades Primary – 3 classrooms”. Teachers are generally eager for more professional development to help them do their job better. But I do have some questions about the “resources in the form of a coherent program” – What is this program? How is it better than what teachers already do? How much will it cost? Will it come with a standardized testing component?

I have written elsewhere on this blog about how a one-size-fits-all education system can kill the joy in learning. I have seen at firsthand (in England) what a school system that teaches systematic phonics at ever earlier ages in a rigid outcomes-based, standardized test-heavy curriculum does to children, and incidentally to equity in education. My big question: The NSPPE can be a powerful voice to lobby the government on its tone-deaf approach to education, so how can we reach a consensus on what to advocate for that will benefit all children, but at the same time is based on both evidence and the experience of those that work in the system?

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Molly Hurd’s perspectives on education have been developed out of her wide variety of teaching experiences in northern Quebec, rural Nova Scotia, Nigeria, Tanzania and Britain. She was also a teacher and head teacher at Halifax Independent School for twenty years. She believes passionately that keeping children’s natural love of learning alive throughout their school years is one of the very best things a school can do for its students. She is the author of “Best School in the World: How students, teachers and parents have created a model that can transform Canada’s public schools” published by Formac Publishing in 2017.

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