Nov 122014

Solidarity Halifax member Ben Sichel examines the Nova Scotia government’s education review. Originally published at No Need to Raise Your Hand. Ben is a teacher in Dartmouth and author of the P-12 education section for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives’ Alternative Provincial Budget.

The panel reviewing Nova Scotia’s education system has released its report. Disrupting the Status Quo: Nova Scotians Demand a Better Future for Every Student makes 30 recommendations for overhauling P-12 education, based on an extensive survey completed by 19,000 people.

Photo via flickr.
Photo via flickr.

When I first heard about the plan for an education review, I got my guard up. In the U.S., education “reform” led by wealthy interests has wreaked havoc on public education for decades now, overemphasizing standardized testing, narrowing the curriculum, funnelling public money to semi-private charter schools, and generally creating problems when it purported to fix them. The six-person panel hand-picked to conduct the review didn’t set my mind at ease.

The report released in Nova Scotia last week didn’t fully follow the U.S. formula, which is a good thing. It contains some very positive conclusions, such as the acknowledgement of how teacher workload issues affect student learning, and the need to focus on students’ physical and mental health.

Some of the report’s other conclusions, however, are more problematic, as are some elements that are left out. Without purporting to be comprehensive, here are some initial thoughts on the report of the education review panel.

1. The report gives too much importance to standardized test scores.
To its credit, the report mentions the need for a diverse, relevant curriculum, which would increase curricular time on things like the arts, life skills and civic engagement. But, it places a lot more emphasis on Nova Scotian students’ performance on standardized math, reading and science tests.

Never mind that there’s a case to be made that students’ performance on these tests is actually not that bad.  The more important point is that these test scores, while easily digestible in the media, don’t tell us much about what’s happening in our schools. They focus only on the skills which are thought to be the most economically useful, to the exclusion of all others.

There’s widespread criticism of these tests and the way they are used to shape educational priorities, and even protests and boycotts against them, but the education review panel’s report uses them prominently and uncritically to sound alarm bells. (For a fascinating look at why we should avoid embracing testing culture, see Diane Ravitch’s review of Yong Zhao’s book about testing in China and the U.S.)

2. “Firing bad teachers” is a red herring.

The recommendation that school boards be able “to dismiss teachers when performance issues warrant” made for good headlines, but if implemented would have no real impact on the quality of public education in this province.

The idea that so-called bad teachers with jobs for life are the biggest problem with public education can resonate with the public, since many people can recall a Mr. or Ms. So-and-so from their youth, usually an older teacher, who was boring, treated them unfairly, etc. If only we could get rid of them!

There are several problems with this line of reasoning. First, deciding which teachers are bad and which are good is quite complicated and subjective. Different students can have vastly different experiences with different teachers. Student test scores, often suggested as a way to judge teacher performance, are not much help, since many, many factors can affect student performance on tests.

In most jurisdictions teachers do receive evaluations, and in most cases only a very small percentage are deemed to be consistently ineffective. As in all professions, teachers can be dismissed for not performing their duties. If the report thinks more teachers should be dismissed, it’s worth considering a few corollary questions: would teachers be more inclined to compete rather than collaborate with each other if they knew that, for example, the bottom 2 per cent would be fired every year? And, even if these teachers were indeed dismissed, is there some way that a corps of “highly effective” teachers would suddenly appear to take their place?

None of this is to say that there aren’t some teachers (like this one) who probably shouldn’t be in the profession. But nor is job security (as afforded by a union) the absolute that some people think.  Rather, it’s an (imperfect) mechanism that aims to ensure fairness in the workplace and allows teachers to use their best judgment without fear of reprisal.

Focusing on firing “bad teachers” is a misguided approach to improving education. Dealing with issues like high rates of teacher attrition and turnover are much more important.

3. There are glaring omissions in the report. 

The report notes that teacher workload is too high, meaning teachers aren’t able to attend fully to the needs of their students. A large part of this problem is rightly attributed to class composition, i.e. the great diversity of academic and emotional student needs in any given classroom.

If class composition is an issue, however, so too is class size. Even in a relatively low-needs classroom a teacher will not be able to fully meet all students’ needs if that class has 38 or 42 students. Classes of this size are more and more common in Nova Scotian high schools, and classes with 35 students are not uncommon even in junior high schools.

It’s curious that large class sizes were not mentioned at all in the report.  I frequently hear about this concern from parents, students and fellow teachers.

We do know that the education review report was written with the stipulation that it could not call for increased funding. Since reducing class sizes can be expensive, it’s quite possible Minister Casey instructed review panel chair Myra Freeman not to include the issue in the report. Are classes of 40 students a problem nonetheless? Ask the students and teachers in them what they think.

Equally conspicuous in the report is the absence of any explicit mention of poverty and inequality. Economic status is the key predictor of student success in the classroom, a fact not mentioned once in the report. While a good education can of course help students earn a higher income later in life, the converse is also true: students need economic security in order to succeed at school. Any discussion of improving student success necessarily involves discussion of political measures to make society more equal.  (That said, the report’s suggestions to integrate more social services into the education system are welcome.)

4. Making decisions based on public opinion surveys, rather than research, could be problematic. Minister Karen Casey has promised an “action plan” for implementing the review panel’s report by January, and she’s indicated she will accept the report’s recommendations.

We shouldn’t forget, however, that the report is based on a survey of people’s perceptions, and while these can be valuable, they should be considered in conjunction with peer-reviewed research.

Take the issue of “social promotion,” for example, i.e. the practice of advancing students to the next grade even if they have not met all academic outcomes for their current grade level. This is a favourite target of casual critics who pine for the “good old days” of academic rigour. The report notes that this practice was of concern to a large number of survey respondents, since students are not ready for the next grade level.

But while the practice can indeed cause problems if there are not significant supports in place for struggling students, the impact of grade retention has been shown to be educationally “scarring” in a wealth of academic research. The panel’s report acknowledges this research (to its credit), but instead of calling outright for more supports for students, it offers vague prescriptions for restructuring, which, if not considered carefully, could result in grade retention under a different name.

Public opinion is perhaps helpful for making some policy decisions, but it’s even better when supported by for solid research.

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What jumped out at you in the education review panel’s report? Please leave comments here.


Note: Articles published by Solidarity Halifax members do not necessarily reflect positions held by the organization.



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