Standardized testing can lead to a 2-tier education system (Part 1)

Part 1: The Problem with High Stakes Tests

One of the recommendations in the Glaze report, was for an external office to oversee standardized testing, a “Student Progress Assessment Office”. But what do we mean by standardized tests? How are they different from ones the teacher makes up?

Standardized tests are created outside the classroom, and are used to compare students, classes, programs, and policies. They are often created by departments of education, or by private business interests (textbook publishers are major players in the industry). A useful distinction is based on what happens with the results. High stakes tests are those whose scores are used to assign serious consequences for educators, students or schools. Test scores which are used for “streaming” children into various levels or to determine students’ career prospects at an early age are a prime example of “high stakes”. High stakes tests can also be used to determine consequences for schools. In Britain, where children sit standardized exams known as SATs every 4 years, League Tables publish every school’s results, and those schools at the bottom can be deemed failing, and closed. Teachers can be judged based on their students’ performance on these tests, and sometimes paid accordingly. Children can be denied access to schools and programs based on them – in Britain, SATs are extremely high stakes. More detail on the negative effects of high stakes tests can be found in previous blog posts. (Joy in Learning)

The purpose of low stakes tests is diagnosis – the objective is to assist learning by providing information to administrators, to teachers and to the takers of the tests which can help them improve. The main comparison is between an individual’s or program’s progress over time. For example, a teacher may administer a diagnostic reading assessment to an individual child, looking to assess their strengths, progress since the last assessment and their needs. When these results are acted upon, there is a direct benefit to the student. Sometimes tests are administered to a representative sample of the population to assess how a program or a teaching approach is working. These can be very valuable to educational planning and curriculum development, but the results of individual students or teachers are not singled out.

My criteria for a good assessment tool is simply this: does it help students learn? Most high stakes tests do not help the students who take them improve their own learning – and are not intended to. Either students get results too late to do anything about them, or the results are simply a grade or number, with no explanation of how it was achieved.

Low stakes tests, on the other hand, can help students, teachers and administrators learn. Large scale, randomly sampled tests can give us valuable information about policies and programs that work. The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), administered by the OECD for the past 18 years, is an example of a test that tries to do precisely that. It is given to 15 year olds around the world every 3 years and measures “what students know and can do” in reading, math and science. Because it also gives students and teachers questionnaires to gather data on many other aspects of their lives, such as socio-economic status, attendance records, attitudes towards school etc., PISA data can be used to analyze which factors matter most for learning. And because it is low stakes, and is only administered to a sample of students, there are no adverse repercussions of low scores for the takers of the tests or their teachers – which means that results are not skewed by “teaching to the test” and drilling students in how to maximize test scores.

During my university days, I took courses in test design, and an important thing I learned is how difficult it is to design a test that is truly objective – cultural, class and intellectual biases are inherent in most standardized tests. I was happy to teach at a school for most of my career that did not rely on them, and in fact used a variety of “authentic assessment” measures designed to help students learn from their work. I look at all standardized test results with healthy skepticism – they can be a useful diagnostic when well designed, but even low stakes tests on randomized samples are blunt instruments for measuring a school’s or program’s worth.

Because of these experiences, I am always amazed when I hear government or business people talk about standardized tests as if they were some kind of holy grail of measurement. I find it remarkable when a business leader (who has no personal experience of education within the last forty years) can talk about a “national emergency” because test results drop by 2%. https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/education/canadas-fall-in-math-education-ranking-sets-off-red-flags/article15730663/  Apparently, to some people, these tests are more “objective” than teachers’ feedback – an attitude that has contributed to a lack of trust of teachers. Educators know how unreliable they are; plus, they see the fall-out of high stakes tests in the narrowing of the curriculum, children’s stress, and the sometimes drastic consequences that follow. Educators around the world are leading the charge against high stakes tests.

PISA, on the other hand, is meant to be low stakes and has over the years produced evidence-based, statistically significant connections between policies and academic results. Each round of testing produces about 6 huge volumes of analysis.  For example, they have found that countries where “streaming” (based on high stakes tests) is practiced perform less well on average. Years of early childhood education are positively correlated to PISA results. “PISA 2012 also finds that the highest-performing school systems are those that allocate educational resources more equitably among advantaged and disadvantaged schools and that grant more autonomy over curricula and assessments to individual schools.” https://www.oecd.org/pisa/keyfindings/pisa-2012-results-volume-I.pdf  PISA has even pointed out the positive impact of principals and teachers collaborating – something our government has chosen to ignore.

Sometimes there are problems with the way PISA compares countries, particularly when certain cities in China are considered as separate countries, and then not surprisingly get the highest results in the world (Shanghai for example). Mary Campbell’s article in the Cape Breton Spectator points out some other problems. https://capebretonspectator.com/2018/02/21/pisa-assessment-glaze-ns-schools/  However, PISA has produced some valuable directions for educational policy makers, if they choose to listen, and is a rough barometer of how our schools are doing compared to the rest of the world. Canada does exceptionally well on PISA, and Nova Scotia holds its own within Canada as a small, less well-off province.

Test scores can be seriously misinterpreted – as I have discussed in a previous blog post, “Why a College of Educators?”. We have just seen how the Glaze report has used them to justify its recommendations, and how the government has incorporated them into Bill 72, the Nova Scotia Education Reform Act, which was passed yesterday.  But nothing in Bill 72 will improve standardized test results (nor will it help children learn, which is not the same thing). The biggest impact may well be an increase in the government’s ability to impose more tests on the school system, to try to control teachers and their “managers” in finer detail, to impose new programs on schools and soon to justify more privatization. It has happened in Britain, and it’s not pretty. It will happen here if we do not fight the implementation of this bill.

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Oxford lecturers, on strike for several weeks, have now won their battle…the university will keep their pensions the way they were.

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No 2-tier Education! Day -1

Today is the last post in this series. Tomorrow, the legislature sits, parents and teachers will demonstrate, there will have hopefully been fruitful talks between the union and the government, and perhaps there will be a way forward that will not involve a teachers’ strike.

In this countdown to Legislature Day, I have tried to flesh out some of the effects that recommendations in the Glaze report will have if adopted. I have focussed on the most contentious ones, because they are contentious for a reason – they will contribute to a more centralized, authoritarian, business oriented system that will have negative impacts on everyone, especially students. Our Canadian ideal of equity in education will go out the window, opening the door to a two-tiered education system, the deficiencies of which are so clearly on display in Britain.

Now to summarize very briefly what I have been trying to say in the series:

  1. a top-down authoritarian approach to teachers tends to be counter-productive because the vast proportion of teachers are in the profession because they want to contribute. They want their students to succeed, and to have “shared responsibility” for school improvement. When teachers are given the autonomy, respect and time to collaborate they will produce the best results. Principals are also part of the teaching team, and should be there to support teachers, not just to monitor them.
  2. Standardized schooling, monitored by standardized tests, results in a narrow, joyless curriculum that will not prepare students for the future. When “raising standards” is interpreted to mean solely “getting good scores on standardized tests” there are all kinds of negative results, particularly for schools labelled as “bad”, and especially for disadvantaged students.
  3. Education should not be seen as a commodity – everyone should be assured that their child will get a good education in the public schools. Parents are not “consumers” and the idea of shopping around for the best schools is a ridiculous one, especially in rural Nova Scotia. Most fundamentally, children are not widgets who should be “produced” in standardized units of “human capital”.
  4. Improvements in equity also improve excellence. Finland discovered this when they started to reform their system. Addressing child poverty and building a strong universal early childhood programme are the starting steps on the path to a truly excellent education system.
  5. Britain is not a model to follow. Decades of ignoring, marginalizing and dictating to teachers has resulted in a huge teacher shortage here, but have not “raised standards” (as shown in international comparisons). Recent cutbacks have only widened the gap between good and failing schools.

Now, where do we go from here? What would I like to see the government do with the Glaze report? What would I like to see the Teachers Union negotiate for?

First, before we go any further, as teachers know well, it is not “flipflopping” to actually learn. Changing your mind when presented with new evidence is what rational people do. Indeed, making mistakes is how we all learn, and the mark of a good leader is one who can listen and absorb new information before deciding on a course of action.

Before accepting any of the 11 first recommendations of the Glaze report, the government needs to share the research and sources the report and recommendations are based on with teachers and the public, and then listen to the experts, teachers, about any new/different evidence they may have. Then they should set up a process for genuine consultation, with teachers, and with the public and a date for implementation that respects the need for consultation. It is ridiculous that there is more public consultation about  putting a bus lane on Gottingen Street than there has been about dissolving school boards, a fundamental piece of our democracy.

Here are the 7 recommendations (out of the first 11) that I feel qualified to comment on, with my thoughts on them, since I won’t be around for public consultations:

1.Unify the system by dissolving the seven elected regional school boards and create one provincial advisory council. The structure of the Conseil scolaire acadien provincial (CSAP) board will not change. 2. Money saved from dissolving elected boards (expenses/stipends) will go back into the education system. 3. A portion of the money saved will go to enhance the role and influence of School Advisory Councils (SACs) for all schools (or families of schools) in the province to strengthen the local voice in schools.

This is a frightening and bad idea, particularly when it is recognized that the cost savings will be minimal. The plan for replacing regional input looks like it’s going to involve appointed, not elected, representatives. We all need to see that a new plan is going to actually be better than what it replaces. How exactly is this going to help students?

4.Ensure voices of Mi’kmaq and African Nova Scotians are heard at senior and ministerial levels.

Great idea, but now that some of those voices have been fired, I’d like to hear the plan.

5.Change the name of superintendents to Regional Executive Directors and enhance their role to focus on student achievement, reporting directly to the Deputy Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development.

What’s in a name? But, more importantly, what is meant by “focus on student achievement”- if standardized test results are going to be the only measure (and the idea of a special office for student assessment tells me that this is the way this is going) then this could lead to test results being used to judge teachers, which will be bad for kids.

6.Move principals, vice principals and other supervisory staff at the board level from the Nova Scotia Teachers Union (NSTU) while protecting salaries, pensions and benefits.

This has caused huge concern on the part of teachers and principals, not because it will weaken the union, (although it’s hard not to think that this is the government’s motivation) but because it will fundamentally affect the way schools collaborate and teachers work together. It will negatively affect students – a BAD idea.

7.Create a provincial College of Educators, a self-regulating professional association, for teachers.

This is a bad idea on so many fronts (see point 1 in the summary). It has caused disruption and a rise in the number of grievances in Ontario, has been tried and abandoned in BC and is the core of an authoritative, top down system as Britain has. It will also cost huge amounts, for something that will not help students.

Let’s look at evidence, and follow good educational examples, not bad ones. We do not have to sacrifice equity on the altar of excellence – Finland focused on equity, and excellence followed. Let’s recognize that we have to start early – establishing universal early childhood education (perhaps by expanding the new pre-primary program) and working to eliminate child poverty have been shown to improve outcomes across the board. Let’s make teaching into a respected profession that people want to join, and then give teachers the autonomy and time to collaborate that will help students (and also help prevent the teacher shortage that will be our lot if we continue down this path). Let’s  wait for the report on inclusion, due out soon, and act on its recommendations, as well as implement firm class size caps.

The Glaze report was a rush job, with no research or consultation with teachers. If it is imposed on Nova Scotians it will send our province down the road to a 2 tiered education system – in which many students will be very poorly served.  The government’s priority should be talking to the teachers right now – not ramming through these hastily commissioned recommendations.

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Teamwork!

A Downward Spiral – Day -2

Yesterday, I discovered that the local school in my area (St. Gregory the Great Catholic school) has been designated by the school inspections agency (Ofsted) as “needs improvement”. As it turns out, I live on the working class side of Oxford, a now very multicultural area, which used to house the workers at the Morris car factory. Today’s mini is made by BMW in a plant just on the other side of the ring road from us.

I did a little digging about “my” school, which is literally about 3 blocks away. Leaving aside the religious aspect, which I have many reservations about, I discovered that St.Gregory the Great was transformed into an academy around 2012 and taken over by the Domenic Barberi Multi-Academy Trust which is, I think, a charitable trust run under the auspices of the Birmingham Catholic Diocese (note: many of these trusts are for profit). It is fairly unique in that it is a primary/secondary school combined. Last May, it was put under “special measures” after a “section 5 inspection”. It had received a rating of 4 or “inadequate”.

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I looked up the school’s latest Ofsted report, which happened on January 17/18 of this year. The report consisted of a one page letter from Her Majesty’s Inspector to the acting Head, a two page summary of the 5 points of difficulty from the last inspection 9 months previously, and a 5 page report of recommendations. You can find it here:  http://stgregory.oxon.sch.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/Ofsted-monitoring-inspection-Jan-2018.pdf

I’m going to summarize, but I encourage you to read the original report, if only to experience some of the punitive tone and corporate language used.

Basically in the very brief letter, there were 3 recommendations, 2 of which are: “The school’s improvement plan is not fit for purpose.”  And, “I strongly recommend that the school does not seek to appoint newly qualified teachers.”

In the second section, there are 5 directives listed from the last inspection, 2 of which are vague exhortations to “do better”: “Improve the effectiveness of leadership and management” and “Raise pupils’ achievement through key stages 1 to 4, by: 
– accelerating pupils’ progress so they make good progress over time”

The final section, the Report, gets to the nitty gritty. In it we learn that since the last inspection ( only 9 months before) no less than 35 staff have left the school, and there have been 22 new appointments made, 16 of them teachers. Staff who have left include the Principal and the vice Principal – was that what the inspector meant by “improve effectiveness of leadership” or had they just had enough?

Now what pops into my head? First, that’s a huge staff turnover in 9 months. Second, there has been a crisis in leadership, and third, there are 13 fewer staff than there were 9 months ago!

And what is the recommendation of the school inspector? That they NOT hire newly qualified teachers. It is well known that there is a huge teacher shortage here, – the Education Secretary has a whole department addressing it. And what is one of their solutions? To allow unqualified university graduates to train while teaching (rather like the Teach for America program which puts unqualified university graduates in schools). So, it sounds like if St. Gregory the Great is not going to hire newly qualified teachers, perhaps unqualified teachers would be a better bet.

The report is not all negative. The inspector itemizes some improvements, and commends the staff that are left for the “resilience, commitment and sheer hard work of all staff who work directly with pupils.” There were many other issues that bear more investigation, such as the suggestion that there has been improper handling of the special funds for poor pupils, problems in the governance of the trust, mention of an “isolation” room, attendance issues and more. But what is absolutely stark is that here is a struggling school in a working class area, understaffed and overworked, with a school improvement plan that is not “fit for purpose” and an unrealistic plan for hiring to fill the gaps. Reading between the lines, I sense a demoralized, exhausted staff, and with their hiring difficulties, I doubt the situation will change any time soon.

When we went past the school this afternoon, we saw that the inspection report is posted on the school gate, so that all the parents and all the students can see that their school has been deemed “inadequate”.

What is that supposed to do to the self-confidence and aspirations of students?

Which bright young new teachers will be attracted to work there?

What middle class families will want their children to go there?

The labelling and shaming of Ofsted is so often here the first instalment on a downward spiral. Middle class parents and the teachers who have other options leave for greener pastures. The best young new teachers go elsewhere. Remaining teachers are demoralized and over-worked, partly because they have to deal with students who cannot see the point of schooling that has been officially labelled “inadequate”.  I wonder how many Nova Scotian teachers would last a year in such a place.

Shopping for schooling – Day -3

This is just a quick post because it’s the weekend…I have talked a lot about the “commodification of education” in previous posts, but I thought this was a practical illustration of how far it has gone in Britain.

The Oxford Mail has a convenient website to help parents compare schools. I searched for secondary schools within a 5 mile radius of Oxford – there were 34 of them; 23 independent schools, 9 “academies” which are run with public money but by private “trusts”, 2 “maintained” (what we used to call comprehensives) and 3 “special” schools (not sure yet what that means). That in itself is amazing – the ratio of independent to state schools is approximately 2-1. I hope Oxford is not typical of most British cities.

I took the first 5 state schools to compare.

Here are some definitions:

Ofsted is the school inspectorate – each school gets inspected about every 4 years unless there is a request. The rating scale goes from 1 (outstanding) to 4 (inadequate). 2 is “good” and 3 is “needs improvement”. The independent schools apparently have their own inspection system, which surprise, surprise doesn’t get reported. I note that my neighbourhood school, in a working class neighbourhood, gets a 3.

5 A*-C GCSE’s : this is the percentage of 15 year olds who get 5 passes on their standardized tests

2 or more A-levels: this is the percentage of grads who passed at least 2 A levels (keeping in mind that most students only take 2 or 3 A-levels

It seems that the other categories are not applicable – too bad since they might be the most useful (at least to me).

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http://www.oxfordmail.co.uk/education/secondary-schools-in-oxford/

Now, based on that information, I want my kid to go to Wheatley Park. So we apply, and since we’re out of area, they don’t have to accept us….unless they have space, and my kid has really high scores on their SATs  (the tests that 11 year olds take when they finish primary school). So Wheatley Park takes a whole lot of high achieving kids from out of area, and their scores go up, and poor old Gregory the Great….

And what about the aspirations of a student who has no choice but to go to a school that is labeled “needs improvement”? Or the self-image of  a primary student in an “inadequate” school, who asked her headteacher, “Does that mean the students are inadequate too?”

Thankfully, I don’t have a child to enrol…but I did go through this last time I lived in Britain, only without the handy comparative tool, and without the Ofsted ratings.

Is this what we’re aiming for in NS?

“Equity and Excellence”? Day -4

Yesterday, I showed how an over-reliance on standardized tests leads to a narrow, “joyless” curriculum, as well as stressed teachers and students. Creativity, critical thinking, co-operation and genuine communication (the 21st Century skills that are so important for children) are not easy to test, so in Britain they are taught less and less. There is a spiral effect of low job satisfaction leading to teachers leaving the profession leading to more stress on the ones that are left; this has played out in Britain, and is starting to affect Nova Scotia.

But that is not the end of the story. An increase in standardized testing, combined with the other contentious recommendations of the Glaze report, the College of Educators, the weakening of the teachers’ union and the silencing of voices from the regions is all part of the kind of reforms (GERM) that have led to running education on a business model; a model that will provide the kind of workers that the free market wants – enough literacy to read the manuals and follow instructions. As this is happening, the elite and more ambitious parents will abandon the public system in order to give their children the kind of education that includes the 21st C skills, the arts and everything else lacking in the state system. The state system will get worse, as the government finds ways to cut costs, sometimes by contracting it out to corporations, and as disheartened teachers move away or into independent schools. This is what has happened in Britain and has resulted in a decrease in equity of outcomes for students.

I happen to be living in Oxford at present, home of one of highest ranking universities in the world (if you believe those rankings). In this rarified atmosphere, it is instructive to know that well over 40% of its undergraduates come from independent schools. That’s a disproportionate number, considering that only about 7% of British children attend them. This is the pinnacle of the inequity which infects the British education system, which starts with children living in poverty and compounds as they face not only hunger, poorer schools, competition from more privileged children who get extra tutoring and support at home, and then finally enormous university fees.

So much for the ideal that education can be a route out of poverty, that it is a mechanism for social mobility. As Britain started on its education reforms, the government said that was one of the goals – not only to “raise standards” but also to give every child an equal chance. As we saw in yesterday’s post, it has failed to do either. Part of their problem is that they chose to define excellence as what they could measure – test scores. When Finland set out to reform its education system, it made a conscious effort to make it more equitable, and the excellence followed; everyone benefited.

Canada still ranks very highly internationally in equity when it comes to education; doing well in school here is not as dependent on what strata of society one comes from as it is in many more unequal countries. I believe this is a Canadian ideal, and we can be very proud of how well we have done. So here’s the question, given that the second foundational principle of the Glaze report is “Equity and Excellence”, why does it recommend implementing reforms that will make us more like Britain and the US, two of the most unequal countries in the world, and will have the effect of increasing inequity in our education system?  Why, when it is well known that poverty is such a contributor to poor results in school, is it mentioned only 3 times in the whole report, with no recommendations aimed at alleviating it?

Something to think about over the weekend!

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Meanwhile, university lecturers all over this country have gone on strike over their pension plans which the government wants to decimate. I’m glad to see the students support them!

Joy in learning…good for students and teachers! Day -5

The theme I’d like to address over the next couple of days is something that seems to be getting lost in all the discussion over the Glaze report, and that is what I will call the “joy of learning”. I like to think that we’d prefer our children to love school, and to come out of it with a love of learning that will last them all their lives (of course we want them to have knowledge and skills too, but of what use are they if students aren’t interested in using them?) Who is on the frontlines, charged with passing this on to students?

Teachers, of course, and their administrators.  During the past few weeks, I have read so many heartbreaking testaments to how teachers love their jobs, but are finding it more and more difficult to keep their joy in learning alive. The recent survey by Educators for Social Justice has just shared a “sneak peek” of its preliminary results, of what teachers love about their jobs – it is well worth seeing, and I look forward to the full results when they will tell us what they need to keep that up.    

Yesterday, the teachers union announced they had received a strong mandate to strike over this issue. Keeping in mind that this would be an illegal strike, and teachers, in my experience are some of the most law-abiding people around, I think that this is an indication of the depths of conviction that they have about these issues. And the fact that they are not planning to strike right away, but instead want to talk with the Minister (who has said, fine, he’ll talk, but nothing’s going to change) shows how reluctant they are to disrupt student learning. 

I am hoping that the talks with the Minister will work, and that when he is presented with some solid evidence from educational experts (like PISA, education academics and NS teachers in the classroom) he will have a change of heart, and mind. Perhaps learning that there is solid academic evidence from international studies like PISA that teacher job satisfaction is one of the biggest predictors of excellent academic outcomes will give him something to think about.

One of the recommendations from the Glaze report, “take assessment responsibility away from the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development and establish an independent Student Progress Assessment Office (SPAO) to develop high-quality student assessments and report directly to the public” has very ominous overtones to me. I taught in Britain about 16 years ago when their incredibly centralized examination system was beefed up – to the point where 7 year olds were taking them. It’s only become worse since then.

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Today, I’d like to start addressing the issue of how standardized testing, when it is used to control teachers and studentscan seriously interfere with the “joy of learning” in the classroom, and therefore with better outcomes for children. I wrote this piece about 4 years ago in an earlier draft of my book. I think it interesting that just yesterday, a half page ad in the Guardian newspaper (print version) was offering to pay people to train to be teachers – and this in a country where average post-secondary tuition is about $16,000 annually. There is a serious teacher shortage in Britain today.

Standardized Curricula and Examinations: Britain’s Case

Britain’s relentless drive to increase test scores has had a host of negative effects on students and teachers. In the decade since I taught there, the “reforms” have become more entrenched, “failing” schools have been closed, to the point that they have one of the worst records in the developed world for teacher recruitment and retention. Almost 50% of teachers leave the profession after 5 years. This is in spite of having relatively good salaries and benefits. Britain is an example of a system that has eroded teachers’ autonomy (deskilling them) and has led to them feeling undervalued. Parents want their children to feel valued…it is much more difficult for teachers to convey this to children when they feel undervalued themselves.

Comparison of PISA results for reading (mean scores)PISAUK reading

What are some of the factors that have led to this situation?  Britain’s top-down, centralized educational system, in which curriculum, and assessment are created at the national level, and foisted on schools can take a lot of blame. The highly standardized curriculum and testing that goes along with it leave little room for teachers’ creativity or initiative. The National Literacy and Numeracy hours were highly prescriptive lessons that had to be followed precisely. Right from the beginning in 1998, teachers pointed out that these plans did not meet the needs of many of the children, but they were not listened to. And, over the years, teachers have complained that they are forced to teach to the test, and this has resulted in the narrowing of the curriculum, to the point that it has become joyless and repetitive.

Then there was the drive to improve teaching, by establishing reward systems for effective teachers. When I was teaching in Britain, teachers at my school had to submit all their extracurricular hours, professional development activities and “successes” for consideration for advancement. I witnessed the time and stress that went into all this record-keeping, as well as the inherent unfairness. Why were some activities (like coaching football) counted, and others such as volunteering at the school fete, which took place in the evening, not? In addition, this system was competitive, pitting teachers against each other and encouraging them to look out only for themselves instead of collaborating with each other. For example, teachers would be more inclined to plan by themselves, so that when they experienced a “success” they would get all the credit.

Finally, the examination system, with its consequences for “failing” schools, puts huge pressures on teachers, and consequently on their students. Not least is the fact that teachers’ unions have been complaining about the extent of the testing for years, and have not been listened to. Then on top of the assessment that children go through, teachers have to put up with the OFSTED assessments of their schools every 4 years or so in which inspectors are free to barge into classrooms at any time. It is no wonder the job satisfaction rate among British teachers is so low!

A “Secret Teacher” (from a column in the British Guardian newspaper that allows teachers to write anonymously about their situation) says, “In the last few years of my teaching career some excellent, talented, charismatic teachers just disappeared. I remember one colleague was observed and “dropped in” on 30 times in one term after their results didn’t meet impossible targets. Who can endure that long? I know lots of teachers who have given up and resigned in July, quite exhausted by this process of performance management, only for their results to be among the best in a department when published in August. Monitoring and managing performance is not always a precise science.”

The Chief Inspector of Schools, Michael Wilshaw actually said, “If anyone says to you that ‘staff morale is at an all time low’ you know you are doing something right.” One wonders when the British educational establishment will recognize that when teachers have autonomy, trust and time to collaborate, their job satisfaction will be higher and they will be more likely to pass on their joy in learning to their students.  This will lead to better educational outcomes – as has been shown over and over by PISA, and many other studies.

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Countdown to Bill 72: A day-by-day look at the Glaze recommendations

What Mike Harris did to Ontario: Day -6

When I first read the Glaze report, after being on holiday for a month, my 2 first impressions were 1. It’s just what Mike Harris did in Ontario! and 2. She didn’t consult any teachers! It was a bit of a shock, but it was even worse when I heard that the government was planning to accept all the most draconian recommendations right away – with no more discussion.

So I remembered a piece I had researched and written for my book about 4 years ago about what did happen in Ontario (it was cut from the final version), and thought it would be appropriate to publish it here, just to give a little perspective.

Mike Harris and the Common Sense Revolution

It was a crisp, sunny Saturday in late October of 1997, when, happening to be in Toronto for the weekend, I joined my brother and sister-in-law (both teachers) at Queen’s Park for one of the biggest demonstrations I had ever attended. The teachers surrounding me were mad as hell at the Ontario government for their proposed new Bill 160, which among other things, would take away their right to strike.

It had all started in the early 90’s when the government was under increased criticism for the perceived lack of global competitiveness of the Ontario education system. Mike Harris’s new majority government gained power in 1995 on promises of a “Common Sense Revolution” – less spending, lower taxes and a reduction of the deficit. A new centrally mandated curriculum had been produced, and one of the first things the Harris government did (after reducing the education budget by $400 million) was to implement Bill 160, “The Education Quality Improvement Act”. Bill 160 took away teachers’ hard won right to strike, removed principals and vice-principals from the unions, increased the length of the school year, removed limitations for class size, and allowed the use of untrained teachers in the class rooms. It also created EQAO (Education Quality and Accountability Office) and implemented standardized testing for grades 3, 6,9 and 12.

The unions tried to negotiate with the government to make changes to Bill 160, after it was passed, to no avail. The demonstration I attended was part of the protests against the bill and shortly after, teachers walked out for 2 weeks. The relentless negative publicity about this “illegal” strike (even though the bill had not yet been implemented) was damaging for the teachers, and the lack of unity among their many unions was apparent when 3 of them went back to work, without having any of their demands met. The remaining unions had little choice but to follow.

An Ontario teacher friend reminisces about her early years, pre-“Common Sense Revolution”, “They remain my most memorable years of teaching – theme based, whole language, much use of the arts to teach information and concepts, and most importantly, time to learn who these young people were and what mattered to them. We covered what they were ready to learn and were most interested in (and passionate about!) Now, I feel if I were to revert to that style of teaching, I wouldn’t get the necessary material covered, I wouldn’t have sufficient proof to support my evaluation, and I wouldn’t be able to complete the report card with integrity.”

This period marked Canada’s GERM moment; fortunately Mike Harris was gone before it could really take hold as it did in Britain and the USA. But some of the anti-teacher, anti-union sentiment that floats around today can be blamed on the government propaganda around that strike. And it is interesting that the two people with whom I attended the demonstration have both taken early retirement, wearied after years of fighting against the standardization of education ushered in by the Harris’ era.

Afterword

A couple of thoughts: thankfully, Nova Scotia has only one teachers union, so they have one strong, united voice.

I have 2 granddaughters attending public schools in Toronto. Although I haven’t been focussing much on what is happening there recently, I know that the first few years of the eldest child’s schooling were constantly interrupted by work-to-rule strikes. I know that she did not write the Gr. 3 EQAO tests 2 years ago because the teachers were protesting them, and that was fine by me. Volunteering in their classrooms, and talking to their teachers over the years has given me the impression that teachers are none too happy. And of course, it annoys me that when you look up their school (in a nice diverse neighbourhood) the first thing it tells you is their rankings on the EQAO tests!

So I don’t have any doubts that the government is trying to make us into a little Ontario, perhaps in the hopes that we’ll shoot to the top of the Canadian rankings. A very sad ambition, and it will have negative effects for students.

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Countdown to Bill 72: A day-by-day look at the Glaze recommendations

When your principal isn’t your pal…Day -7

When I was a student in elementary school, the way I was taught to remember the tricky difference between the spellings of ‘principle’ and ‘principal’ was, “Always remember, your principal is your pal”. Maybe that was overstating things a bit, but it certainly beats making principals into “management”, as the Glaze report recommends.

According to many international comparison studies, some of the attributes of schools that best predict student success are trust and collaboration among teachers and leaders. As PISA and other studies have demonstrated, “When students, teachers, parents and the school principals know and trust each other, work together and share information, ideas and goals, students – particularly disadvantaged students – benefit.”*

Those international research findings fit entirely with my own practical experience. I was Headteacher at Halifax Independent School for 15 years. This school would be called a “democratic” school here in Britain, where I am temporarily living. Here it is a blanket name for all schools loosely based on the philosophy of John Dewey, who said that, “…the development of such a democratic society is dependent to a large degree on the democratization of schools and schooling.”

As a Headteacher, I also taught, and was considered a “leader among equals”. I wouldn’t have dreamed of walking into a staff meeting and announcing, “I (or the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development) have decided that starting on Monday, we are all going to use this new computer program to keep track of our students. If I don’t see everyone doing it by the end of next week there will be consequences”. I would have (quite rightly) been laughed out of the room. We implemented many changes while I was Head Teacher, but because of lots of collaboration, they were implemented effectively.

My school’s program was enriched by constantly hearing teachers’ and parents’ voices who were looking for ways to improve it. Every new initiative was discussed and if consensus wasn’t reached, voted on (yes, sometimes by the children too). In fact it was the epitome of the “shared responsibility” for school improvement that Pasi Sahlberg talks about in his book “Finnish Lessons”. It is one of the reasons Finland does so well on international comparative tests.

I considered my role as a supporter of the teachers, as the person who would smooth the way so that they could do their jobs without too much distraction. As someone who was often the public face of the school, I would occasionally have to do difficult things like tell an employee that they were no longer needed. I gave teachers the autonomy to do what they were trained to do in the classroom, the time to collaborate with me and the other teachers, and then I respected and trusted their judgement and their voices.

The type of collaboration between teachers and principals that many schools in NS enjoy today actually contributes to the wellbeing of their students, as well as academic success. Taking Principals and Vice Principals out of the bargaining unit and making them into “management” will prevent much of this collaboration, if it doesn’t finish it entirely. In Ontario, it is well documented that since principals and VPs were considered management, the number of grievances escalated dramatically – this indicates that collaboration is not happening to the same extent.

Picture this: In a collaborative school, a newish teacher is having difficulty with one particular student. Nothing the teacher tries seems to work with her, and it is starting to affect other children in the class. The teacher comes to me, the principal, for help, and we decide to bring it up at a meeting with other teachers who have dealt with that child. Everyone at the meeting shares ideas about what has worked for them with that child. Later, I go and observe her class, and we mutually decide that the child can come and spend a few minutes with me next time there are difficulties. Soon the situation resolves itself, but whenever there is a relapse, the teacher knows that she has my support and I am not far away.

Now, how could that sort of collaboration work in a top-down, authoritarian school? If I was “management” would that teacher feel free to come to me and admit that they are being less than perfect? Knowing that failure might mean discipline, might she not keep her head down and continue struggling on her own (to the detriment of the other students in her class)? And with a “College of Educators” looming over her head, would it not be even less likely that this teacher would come forward?

In Britain, where teachers and principals aren’t in the same union, the government brings in supposed “super-heads” to turn around failing schools (translation: make their scores on standardized tests go up). These people are paid enormous amounts of money, money which is not benefiting children. Jenn Doyle, a NS teacher who taught for 10 years in Britain, describes the process: “My school (in Britain) wasn’t an academy when I left, but when our Headteacher retired he got replaced by one of the ‘super-heads’ that was more like a manager than a head teacher. He never took the time to get to know the kids. The respect was not there like we were used to. He had more assistant heads and two deputy heads to manage behaviour and other issues. He was a data cruncher. And more into finances than we were used to. All of the children’s progress was tracked and we were expected to explain why children didn’t progress at the expected rate. He brought in performance related pay alongside appraisals and if your kids didn’t progress your pay wouldn’t go up. There has been a complete turnover of staff. Some even left teaching.”

I know the government is trying to spin this as, “The NSTU is only against this issue because they will lose members and their membership dues.” If this is true, why did the union turn down the government’s offer of $800,000 “compensation” for the loss? Teachers know that collaboration and co-operation work better, and there is a wealth of evidence that collaboration between teachers and principals is central to a school system that really helps students. Making principals into “management” is NOT the way to go.

* “Collaborative schools, collaborative students” PISA 2015 results, Volume 5

The Glaze Report fiasco

Part 1: Why a “College of Educators” ? …among other things

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Yes, there need to be changes in education in NS, but they need to be in the right direction and be based on EVIDENCE and CONSULTATION. The Glaze report “Raising the Bar” was commissioned and completed hastily and is full of basic errors. It claims to be based on extensive consultation, yet teachers who should be considered the experts on education were barely consulted, nor were groups like the Black Educators Association.

When I first read the Glaze report, I was shocked to find that it starts with the premise that Nova Scotia students are underperforming and that education in this province is in a state of disarray. However she provides no evidence of either of these. The first premise is simply not true; NS students outperform most students in OECD countries in the Program for International Student Assessments (PISA), and are in the middle of the pack as far as Canada is concerned. It is worthwhile mentioning that the 4 biggest and richest provinces are the ones that do better on PISA tests: NS does better than Saskatchewan, Manitoba, NB, Nfld and mostly PEI.

PISA 2015 NSresults

* results out of 600

I have included the UK and US scores here as countries that we often compare ourselves to. NS does much better than they do in all areas. Many of the reforms proposed in the Glaze report would actually move us closer to the UK and US systems.

The second premise, that education in NS is in a big mess, may have some merit, but I would propose that one main reason is the imposition of Bill 75 last year (when teachers were ordered back to work, with a non-negotiated contract that was for less than the cost of living). The resulting teacher dissatisfaction just exacerbated the stress and overwork teachers have been feeling for years. Students in the classroom are not immune from this stress, and will inevitably be even more affected when teachers start leaving the profession. But this was not even mentioned in the Glaze report.

Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil is trying to spin it that he’s giving Nova Scotia the nasty medicine that it needs in order to cure its disease of overspending and wastefulness perpetrated by sloppy workers protected by bloated unions. His message is that it’s the right thing to do, if difficult.

The medicine may or may not cure the disease, but is likely to kill the patient. He is adopting all the recommendations hastily, without looking at the evidence and without consulting with the experts (teachers and parents).

Many of the most contentious recommendations in the Glaze report were lifted from 2 places: what Mike Harris forced on Ontario over 20 years ago and an Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS) document, “Maintaining Spotless Records, Teacher Misconduct and the Teaching Profession” (Bennett and Mitchell, 2014) which sells the same old snake oil. There are many things that are wrong with the recommendations, but in this post I’d like to specifically address one of them, the establishment of the College of Teachers. Bennett and Mitchell advance the view that the teaching profession is rife with incompetent, unprofessional teachers whose union protects them at all costs, allowing them all to maintain “spotless records”. In actual fact, NS has one of the highest rates of suspension of teaching licenses in the country with its present system, contrary to Bennett’s assertion that they’re allowed to get off scot free with all manner of abuses. Based on this false premise, the authors contend that Nova Scotia needs a professional regulatory body such as a College of Teachers, and that it should “require the public disclosure of all proceedings and decisions”.

I ask the question, is it really in the public interest to know that a beginning teacher was having difficulty with classroom management, and needed some extra guidance for a few months? Or that a teacher suffering from severe stress was disciplined for missing staff meetings? In the private and most of the public sector, these are matters between the employee and their employer, and unless the misdemeanors are actual crimes, they should stay that way. What is the evidence that punishment and naming and shaming of teachers actually improves results for students? For the above mentioned examples, which I suspect are the large majority of disciplinary matters dealt with, extra support and attention from school leaders is often what is needed. Once we have the “College” that type of support will be much more difficult to arrange. British Columbia once had a “College of Educators” but it didn’t work, and they got rid of it.

For an illustration of how a College can work see this story from a few weeks ago: https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/education/former-ontario-principal-pleads-guilty-to-tampering-with-eqao-test/article37748090/

I’m guessing this principal won’t darken a school door again – and from my perspective (as one who doesn’t believe in universal high stakes standardized tests), she is someone who may have been doing what her conscience told her.

The AIMS report was also full of inaccuracies, which even the Minister of Education at the time pointed out – not least of which was the mistaken idea that the teachers’ union was responsible for disciplining teachers. http://thechronicleherald.ca/novascotia/1195183-aims-teacher-report-gets-low-marks Unfortunately, several of these inaccuracies were reflected in the Glaze report, and the notion the AIMS report furthered, that the teaching profession was full of bad apples and incompetent teachers, has proven hard to shake.

It’s worthwhile looking at who runs and funds AIMS – take a look at https://frostededucation.com “Follow the money in education reform” to get an idea of why it might want to undermine public trust in education. Another article you might want to take a look at is “Made in Canada Education Privatization” http://perspectives.ctf-fce.ca/en/article/3144/

Both these articles deal with what is really behind all these reforms – the increased commodification of education. Putting the profit motive into the classroom can generate big money for the fortunate few, but as we have seen in both the UK and US, it produces poor results for students. When shareholders are involved, which comes first, profit or students?

I’m living in a country right now (Britain) where there are “Education Trusts”, which are private corporations that are now running whole slews of “Academies” and “Free Schools”. Recently the BBC reported on some of the head teachers of these schools who earn up to $260,000, and chief executives of the trusts who bring in up to $875,000 annually. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-42959627 . Nova Scotia doesn’t want to be like them! They have mass teacher shortages, and huge divisions between good schools and “failing schools”, which are mostly in poor neighbourhoods. And the Tory government wants to bring back Grammar schools, which are selective schools that will perpetuate and worsen inequity. In spite of all their “reforms” over the past 20 years, they barely exceed the OECD average on PISA, and do much worse than Nova Scotia.

Education is not a business, children are not widgets and teachers aren’t assembly line workers (here in Britain, headteachers refer to the “line managers” who actually deal with teachers – I think they mean department heads). No one should be making a profit from education… but right now in Nova Scotia there are already many private interests profiting from it. Think Sylvan learning, Oxford, Spell Read, all doing amazingly well by dealing with kids whose teachers can’t cope with their individual needs because of the system’s failed inclusion policy. Think Churchill Academy, Bridgeway and Landmark East – private schools where the government pays for children with severe learning disabilities because the schools can’t cope. This is how the increased privatization of public education starts.

The proposed “College of Educators” is only one of the recommendations of the Glaze report that will have negative impacts. Several of the others, including the dissolution of elected school boards, the removal of principals and VPs from the union, and the establishment of an office for standardized testing will all have the effect of centralizing education and putting control of it in fewer hands (a policy which has had disastrous effects on healthcare in NS). This will result in less voice in public education.

Why centralize education? For efficiency so that cost savings can be returned to the classroom? I read that the salaries of the entire elected Halifax school board add up to about half the salary being paid to the new Deputy Minister, imported from Ontario. Education is not about the cheapest way to turn the most children into productive workers. This kind of language opens the door to the notion that perhaps private companies can deliver some aspects of education more efficiently. When it is a business, we’ll find that the profits will not be reinvested in students. Just yesterday I was reading about a group of education business leaders who presented to the British House of Commons in 1999 about the role of privatization in education. At the time there were only about 3 companies, and they said their role would be tiny, and that they could do better than the public education sector at turning around failing schools. 8 years later, in 2008, one of those business leaders sold out of his company, and his personal net worth then was about 15 million pounds. Heaven knows what it is today.

As well as a lack of consultation with the real experts, teachers and parents, the Nova Scotia government is ignoring all the evidence of international comparative tests. These experts, and many others, say that most of the recommendations already accepted will produce a GERM type system (see previous post) resulting in more privatization and poorer results like they have in Britain and the US. I ask the question, why is Nova Scotia trying to emulate these bad examples, instead of a country like Finland, where there is little privatization of education?

A little background – an excerpt from “Best School” (2017)

“In the mid-1970s, Britain was a leader in the world in progressive education. While I was doing my teaching degree, we looked to British schools as a model — open classrooms, child-centred learning and the integrated day were just some of the things we read about. Unfortunately, the British system had little time to develop and extend this experiment before a backlash in the 1980s. The term “child-centred education” was suddenly turned into code for wishy-washy, anything-goes time wasting. By the end of the 1980s, British education was transformed into a very traditional, centrally controlled system. The pendulum had swung back with a vengeance.

By the time I was teaching in Britain in 2001 to 2002, the rout of progressive education was complete. The schools I visited and taught at were grim places. From the head teacher to the youngest student, everyone was on edge — totally focused on the Scholastic Achievement Tests (SATs) and the centrally defined curriculum. While I was there, the “National Literacy Hour” introduced a set of literacy lessons that teachers were expected to stand in front of their classes and deliver every day. These incredibly detailed lessons, created by a national board, included precise words to use and set times for each activity. They were exactly the same for all classes, all over the country — and they certainly did not work for my class. I wondered exactly which children would benefit from this one-size-fits-all model of education.

Education became a tool of the marketplace, producing what it thought “the market” needed. But creativity and critical thinking were not part of their vision, nor was ensuring that children loved learning and could develop the future skills that an ever-changing world would need. In these “reforms,” the process of learning was reduced to preparing children to answer test questions correctly. Huge amounts of education spending were devoted to creating, administering and interpreting these standardized tests. But the needs of individual children were left behind.

The British reforms are an example of what has been called the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM) of the 2000s, which also spawned “No Child Left Behind” and the “Race for the Top” in the US. This movement, which ironically started with the idealistic goal to give every child the same opportunity, actually ended up entrenching inequality in the system. At the same time, it has done nothing to improve standings on international educational comparisons.

In Canada we have often imported ideas from the UK and the US. Fortunately, Canada has not yet travelled as far down the path of standardized education as these countries have. Although standardized testing has increased dramatically since the 1970s, most school boards in Canada have not reached the point of using standardized test results as sticks with which to beat school administrators or carrots to reward so-called excellent teachers or schools. This is happening in both the UK and the US, where poorly performing schools are at risk of closing, and boards are considering merit pay for teachers.

But has that been working for them? Are American and British schools actually getting better at teaching children what they need to know? How do they fare internationally? How do they stack up against Canada and other countries?
Canada consistently outstrips both countries on most international educational measures by large margins. One of the most important international comparisons, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) done by the organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), tests a representative sample of fifteen-year-olds from sixty-five countries every three years. They measure “what students know and can do” in reading, mathematics and science, but also give extensive questionnaires to gather data on many other aspects of students’ lives. Socio-economic status, attendance records at school, education level of teachers and amount spent by the government on education are just a few examples of the types of data collected.

Over the years, the PISA studies have generated a huge amount of information about educational policy and have become more influential. Some of their clearest findings show that many of the characteristics of the GERM systems are actually correlated with poorer academic performance. Canada, however, scores very highly overall, usually ranking in the top ten countries in the fifteen years the tests have been administered. Canada also consistently tops all the high-performing countries in equity: doing well in school here is not as dependent on what strata of society one comes from as it is in many more unequal countries.

But the big finding for me was the discovery of Finland’s education miracle. In the first PISA study in 2000, Finland came out on top out of the forty-three OECD countries. It had earlier radically reformed its education system, borrow- ing many progressive aspects from Canadian and British schools of the previous era. The aim of these reforms was not to produce better results on international academic tests, but to make sure that every child in the country was given an equal opportunity to succeed in the school system — in other words, to achieve equity in education. The excellence was a side effect…

…The PISA data has enabled the OECD to show rigorously what I had long suspected from practical experience: that some characteristics of schools — such as highly trained, respected teachers; a lack of stratification (streaming); making sure that all children are taught according to their needs; collaboration among teachers and local school control over curricula and assessments — actually produce better academic results in international comparisons. So why do GERM countries continue down the same path, despite most research about child development as well as the evidence provided by international comparative stud- ies such as PISA? We are not immune to GERM here in Canada — in recent years, provincial governments have exerted more control over curricula and demanded more “accountability” from teachers and school boards. Why has education become more “traditional” than it was forty years ago?”