The Light of Knowledge

I recently read a piece by Tait Coles promoting the need for “critical pedagogy,” as though such a thing is the sole domain of punk teachers, catalysts, and system disruptors; it is taken as a foregone conclusion that traditional, knowledge-based education centered on a canon of any domain is not only ineffective in our brave new world, but racist.

Deliberate Strategy

Deliberate Strategy 2

This is beyond problematic. I’ve differed with many a “progressive” educator. I’ve sometimes come away feeling that a colleague may have drunk the Kool-Aid, a victim of an ITT programme of indoctrination that’s perpetuated in schools across the province. At worst, I’ve suspected that some such educators (those who are quick to do away with standardized curricula in an effort to blow open the whole system in deference to the whole child) are more interested in padding their own resumes as they climb the increasingly corporatized ladder of the world of education. However, I would never suggest that any of them are so maliciously motivated as to want to knowingly perpetuate an education system that ostensibly creates a caste-system wherein inequality is deliberately nurtured.

I quoted a link to Mr. Coles’s blog post via Rory Gribbell, along with a tweet regarding my initial impressions. Mr. Coles replied to my tweet by asking which part of his argument is “extrapolative” and “quasi.”

Twitter Start

While I’ll admit that Mr. Coles cites research, I’d hardly characterize his references as “evidence and data.” I’ll attempt to address my key points of disagreement.

First point of extrapolation:

Extrapolation 1

First of all, I’m not sure anyone is suggesting that the Common Core and Cultural Literacy approach is the only way to improve oneself through education. However, given that resources are always finite, I’d argue that it may be one of the best ways. Further, jumping from Hirsch’s premise that a common core would enable students to adequately participate in society to the idea that it’s a ruse designed to produce passive consumers is a non-sequitur. There’s not a hint of conspiracy in Hirsch’s vision unless one is twisting its interpretation to make it so. If we allow that, we could find conspiracy almost anywhere.

Second point of extrapolation:

Extrapolation 2

The most fervent proponents of Hirsch’s notion of cultural capital make the explicit argument that knowledge is arguably one of the best mechanisms whereby the marginalized can gain power. Having knowledge and understanding of the history of one’s oppressors, to use Coles’s paradigm (borrowed from Freire), is exactly what allows students to “understand their world.” How could they do so were they not familiar with how it came to be?

I would further suggest that Hirsch’s notion of cultural literacy doesn’t simply end with knowing the works of dead white men. I would posit that it goes much further: knowledge should serve to expand the student’s mind, both physiologically, through the building of neural pathways and networks, and intellectually, through the critical analysis of the material learned. Just because one reads Othello does not mean he must share Elizabethan views on race; in fact, this is the perfect opportunity to demonstrate to students the tenuous relationship between art and the culture in which it is produced.

I doubt that anyone is arguing that a canon can’t evolve, but to suggest that the absence of a common, shared knowledge and understanding of how we all got here somehow makes true freedom and equality possible is simplistic and lacks a nuanced treatment of the range of what makes us human, for better or worse.

NOTE: Greg Ashman unpacks a bit of Freire quite nicely here – much better than I could.

Third point of extrapolation:

Extrapolation 3

I would suggest that this is another extrapolation. To argue that black and minority ethnic students can only succeed in school when they “promote white self-interest” is offensive. Could it not be due to a studious work ethic? Could it not be due to intellectual ability? Could it not be due to having been inspired by “the best that has been thought and said” (a phrase used pejoratively in Coles’s blog post)?

I currently teach a bottom set English class comprised entirely of boys, albeit a rather diverse group. We read Othello in March and April – the actual Shakespearean text. For a month, I read to them every class, out loud, as they followed along. Their attendance was the most consistent it had been all semester. I’m not blowing sunshine when I say that EVERY ONE OF THEM loved it. We travelled back in time to Elizabethan England through language, culture, prejudices, and Shakespeare’s genius. They were all reluctant at first, but by the time I explained what “making the beast with two backs” was, they were hooked. They were hooked not because of some “Faustian bargain” I’ve taken to “de-culturalise” them, but because it’s a great story, and they were proud to have been trusted to handle the level of rigour we associate with the study of Shakespeare. The knowledge of this text, and the context in which it was created, now informs their knowledge, and their knowledge informed the reading of it. Learning requires such interaction. Nothing nefarious here, nothing that was “contaminated by power.” In fact, if I may be so bold, the whole endeavor is a perfect example of how traditional knowledge can be and often is transformative.

Fourth point of extrapolation:

Extrapolation 4

I would submit that this is another non-sequitur. I doubt that anyone is arguing that we should refuse to acknowledge that knowledge outside an approved curriculum exists. Also, I would suggest that by teaching students the history of human civilization, necessarily far from exhaustive, we are writing them into that history, not out of it. If nothing else, they become aware of it, and only then can they think critically, or think any way at all, about it, thus enabling them to participate more fully in democracy.

I would submit the U.S. system as an example, with apologies to my esteemed colleagues and all the lovely folk down south. For more than a hundred years, education in the U.S. has been de-centralized, in order to address the unique character, culture, and identity of each state. Few, if any, national standards existed, other than the SAT, but that was only for university-bound graduates. We now see a nation where science is often a matter of opinion, or political orientation, as seen in this clip from a recent “Scientific American” article:

Scientific American

Or this clip from a “Live Science” piece:

Live Science

Perhaps it’s a stretch, but in an education system where “anything goes,” where’s the line to be drawn? In the absence of a common core of knowledge, whose degree of evolution can be negotiated, how can we avoid such a piteous situation?

Fifth point of extrapolation:


While I’m not quite sure what is meant by “transformational knowledge,” I’m going to assume it’s the notion that when we truly learn and absorb something, it becomes part of us, and informs our being in the world. By suggesting that only knowledge grounded in one’s own culture (or experience) can precipitate this lovely sentiment is illogical. For every 50 students, you’d have 50 uniquely-designed curricula. I know this sounds like the Holy Grail for many trendy educators these days, but it’s not only impractical, it’s irresponsible.

Many years ago when I started teaching, in those few minutes before the bell would ring to signal the beginning of class, I’d often chat with my students about the previous evening’s television programs. Many of us had common tastes, and the students spoke with interest and excitement about their best-loved programs. I could connect with them, because we could discuss this area of common ground. Today, few of my students watch conventional television. They binge-watch series on Netflix or surf YouTube videos. There’s a sense of disjointedness that’s palpable as students watch these programs at different times, on-demand, or don’t watch the same programs at all, due to the myriad choices. The notion of common experience, even when it comes to something as banal as pop culture, is deteriorating. The effects, I’d argue, are more far-reaching than we might like to admit. I’ve written about that here.


Why is Mr. Coles’s blog post, then, a “quasi-argument?”

I use that term because saying something doesn’t make that thing a fact. Arguing a position wherein the original premise is extrapolated so far beyond its intellectual position doesn’t constitute an argument. While it’s evident that Mr. Coles is intelligent and well-read, his conclusions do not logically follow from his premise in this piece. He has employed the structure of argumentation, but not its essence, which must be grounded in systematic reasoning.

I believe wholeheartedly that a traditional education based on knowledge-rich curricula empowers and liberates all of us. I don’t think that those who disagree with me just want to watch the world burn. I’d appreciate the same courtesy.




Success for Every Student

I’ve always had a bit of an issue with the “success for every student” motto, and I imagine that this blog post will ruffle a few feathers.

First of all, success is a subjective term, and depending on a student’s proclivities and goals, the notion of success may manifest very differently for different individuals. Isn’t that reasonable, given the mantra that “every student is unique”? If so, why would we expect a catch-all definition of success (graduating high school, passing all courses) to apply to EVERY student? I think we have some very misguided goals.

My parents came to Canada relatively uneducated. My father spent many years working in the mountains, building the roads that take people to resort towns like Jasper and Banff. It was back-breaking work. He told us stories of how the men had to go out in unbearably cold temperatures when even the horses were kept from working, due to the fact that their lungs could freeze.

Being an extremely diligent man with loads of ambition, my father worked his way into a job as a boilermaker, where he was protected by burgeoning labour laws and an increasingly influential union. He proudly told us of how he became a supervisor for Imperial Oil. He was still a labourer, mind you, but as a supervisor, he could earn more money through both his regular salary and through overtime pay.

Many years later, my father met my mother, who came to Canada fifteen years after he did. Like him, she spoke not a word of English upon her arrival, and was not highly educated. My father barely completed grade 6 when the devastation of World War II made him an orphan and, later, a refugee. My mother, on the wrong side of the corrupt power of a communist country, failed grade 10 and struggled to make a living before she decided to follow her brothers to the land of milk and honey. She worked various part-time jobs while we were young as a night-janitor in an office and as a dishwasher in a restaurant, also on the night-shift. This allowed her to be home with us during the day.

While we were still rather young, my father’s health, after toiling many years in pretty brutal conditions, failed him. He could no longer work, so my mother had to find full-time employment. She felt like she hit the jackpot when she got a job working in an industrial laundry facility. The pay was really good, the hours were perfect, and she had never been afraid of hard work. However, in time, the back-breaking labour took a toll on her health as well.

My parents both worked rather menial jobs, but they were fiercely proud of their accomplishments. They came to a new country and taught themselves the language – they even learned to read on their own. Unfortunately, in those days, there were no immigration centres to help people like my parents. They were able to earn honest livings and buy their own home, a modest bungalow in a working class neighbourhood that may as well have been an estate. My dad mowed the lawn to make perfectly straight lines, my mom kept a vegetable garden that produced more than enough to feed us all summer, and that little house was always in “tip-top shape,” as my dad used to say. For all their troubles, both their children achieved advanced degrees in their fields and pursued lives worthy of their sacrifices.

My parents never gave the impression that they considered themselves inferior due to their “station” in life. Yes, they were rather common labourers, but as far as they were concerned, they were doing honest and necessary work and because of their jobs, they were able to support their family and put two children through university, as well as to provide financial help whenever it was needed. The nobility with which they approached work and life was inspirational, but I don’t know if it’s even possible today, and this is the problem.

When we tell students that EVERYONE can “succeed” in school, we are implying that if one does not do so, then he or she is of less value. And let’s face it: supporting a family on minimum wage today is near impossible – at least not in the manner my parents were able to support theirs. But that’s the rub, isn’t it? We DO still need people to pave roads, we DO still need people to pull the laundry out of industrial washing machines and sort it, we DO still need people to collect our garbage and so many other tasks that we take for granted as menial and unworthy jobs. Something is wrong with a system that looks down upon anyone who works an honest living just because they didn’t “succeed” in school.

Instead of lowering standards in education and offering increasingly vocational “courses” as early as middle school, we should focus on providing a solid educational foundation for all students and accept that some will achieve in this arena and some will not – and that should be okay. Keep expectations high and rigorous and work to encourage and inspire students for as long as possible. Barring severe cognitive difficulties, every student should learn to read. Every student should be proficient with arithmetic. Every student should have a foundation in civic responsibility and knowledge of their democratic rights. Every student should have the chance to stand on the shoulders of giants. But for those students who are perhaps not interested in an academic education, or for those students who struggle academically, instead of lowering the bar for them, and by extension, everyone else, why not provide them with a way out into the world where they don’t have to feel ashamed, but where they can earn a living wage and feel proud of contributing to society in some meaningful way, as my parents did?

The Power of One

America was built on an almost mythological image of the rugged, individual hero. We see this image represented in western films, where Alan Ladd’s Shane comes in to save the day and then rides out into the sunset. We see it again in action movies like when Bruce Willis’s John McClane saves an entire building from terrorists, virtually on his own. The power of one individual makes for a great story. But why does the lone hero do what he does? What happens when the story ends? This aspect seems to be getting lost in our 21st century experience.

Having recently read Eric Kalenze’s Education is Upside-Down: Reframing Reform to Focus on the Right Problems, I’ve been processing a number of the big ideas he addresses so brilliantly. There’s so much involved in righting an education system that’s gone so wrong, and Kalenze posits a number of reasonable and practical solutions in a well-structured, manageable plan for systemic advancement. The extended metaphor of “the funnel” cogently illustrates the problem with the K-12 education system in the U.S. as we know it now, as well as how the system can be positively changed in order to be effective for students as learners and for society as a whole.

Kalenze’s thesis begins with the idea that the purpose of the K-12 education system is to “funnel” a diverse group of individuals into a well-functioning, thriving society. This is obviously a debatable starting point, but I, for one, haven’t heard a more noble, practical, or achievable statement of purpose yet, so I was totally on board the Upside-Down bus from the first stop. I suppose if one disagrees with this premise, it might be a sticking point throughout the whole argument; however, Kalenze manages to persuasively disassemble key aspects of a number of opposing ideologies as he goes along, so if you didn’t agree with him from the outset, you might very well find yourself jumping aboard at a later stop. If not, you’re still left with a well-structured, well-researched, and well-argued perspective that will have undoubtedly caused you to re-evaluate some of your own beliefs about education, its purpose, and the various components that comprise an education system.

One of the main ideas that seems to have found residence in my own mind and doesn’t seem to be going anywhere is this notion that the funnel (K-12 education), right-side up, is meant to bring diverse individuals toward a common, functional existence in a societal experience that we all inevitably share. So, we have students from different cultural backgrounds, of varying aptitudes and abilities, interested in diverse subject matters, all with unique and individual personalities, all of whom, after compulsory schooling, will become part of society. They may go to post-secondary school, they’ll (hopefully) find jobs; many of them will join sub-sections of society, like religious communities, professional communities, or build their familial communities. The common thread here is that most of us have to live, on some level, with other people.

Given that our first stages of development are rather self-centered, it seems to make sense that we would, as a society, take special care to induct children into community living, while also respecting notions of individuality and the value of each person. This is where Kalenze’s metaphor pulls double-duty: he explains how a right-side up funnel should work, and then he explains how in the U.S. (and, increasingly, in Canada), the funnel is upside-down. From there, he illustrates how this upside-down funnel does (not) work. Kalenze suggests that contemporary society has gone too far in promoting the primacy of the individual and that this has been done at the expense of a well-functioning society. He goes on to explore the ways in which those young people who happen to be, largely for socio-economic reasons, situated above the narrow end of the funnel (mistakenly at the top), will more easily find their way through the funnel (K-12 education), and therefore into society. However, those who are not situated above the narrow end, perhaps for socio-economic reasons, or due to a lack of interest or engagement, or variances in abilities and aptitudes, slide down the sides outside the funnel (K-12 education), making active and effective participation in society much more difficult. This has negative repercussions both for the individual, and for society as a whole. Kalenze further argues that the myriad interventions to ameliorate some of the very obvious issues in K-12 education which have been implemented over the past few decades simply cannot succeed because of the fundamental systemic problem: the funnel is upside down.

The reasons for which the funnel is upside-down, and stays that way, are many, but Kalenze suggests that one of the reasons is our preoccupation with individualism. “Personalization” in K-12 education is one of the new buzz-word innovations, which posits that students learn differently and that they should be able to demonstrate their learning in a manner representative of their strengths. Further, the argument is that the system should accommodate for these variations whether through technological supports, differentiated instruction, accommodations for assessments, or even through differentiated assessment. Another reason that the funnel is upside-down has to do with our contemporary preoccupation with relativism in education. Who’s to say that students should learn the works and ideas of dead white men? Why is Shakespeare more relevant that Stephanie Meyer? What’s the point of memorizing times tables? Why should students have to write essays when they can make videos? These are the kinds of questions that will supposedly move K-12 education into the 21st century, where each individual student experiences success and can realize his or her own full potential.

I’ve spent a couple of weeks taking this all in. In the meantime, I’ve seen the recent absurdity play out on American college campuses as student activists have been attempting to silence views that they deem offensive or find uncomfortable. I’ve seen the reports from Ontario’s most recent EQAO results, which show that students are falling further behind in mathematics under that province’s focus on student-centered learning. Acquaintances who own small businesses have complained to me that their young employees are unreliable and lack the necessary work ethic to contribute effectively. University professors are shocked that many students seem to feel that simply showing up merits a good grade. I even heard a story from a former university athletics coach who had parents come in to question him about why their son didn’t make the team. And in my own experience, I’ve been feeling a growing sadness as I’ve come to realize that my own school lacks a sense of community and culture.

Why should any of this be surprising? If Eric Kalenze’s theory is to be accepted, and I think it should be, many people of the last couple of generations have been trained to believe that they’re each the center of their own tiny little universes. They’ve grown up in a K-12 education system that has catered to their individual needs and has lowered the bar whenever it was too high to reach. The worst thing I see is the growing sense of apathy and disenfranchisement that seems to have become increasingly representative of society in North America. I think this is the most sobering aspect of contemporary life, and K-12 education has played a part in this negative turn. This level of selfishness and dogmatic individualism has meant that people don’t feel part of something greater, that they want to “protect what’s theirs,” and that blame is often the first response when others seem to struggle. Politically, this mindset has been responsible for Donald Trump’s and Ben Carson’s rise in the polls. It’s influenced the reluctance to help refugees in their search for a better, more peaceful life. It’s fueled the cutting of social programs and has persuaded conservative governments to embrace austerity economics at the expense of features fundamental to a fulfilling life, from affordable post-secondary tuition to the implementation of a reasonable living wage.

The individual is important. A thriving society is comprised of individuals who thrive. But we cannot focus unduly on one without undermining the other. However, I think this is what’s happened. We’ve swung too far in our efforts to meet individual needs in K-12 education so that these individuals don’t know where to go beyond that. They can’t conceptualize their roles as pieces within a greater whole. With the funnel upside-down, we’re all pouring out every which way – no unity, no cohesion, no common goals. I’m an individual; what I think has inherent value; my needs are of prime importance. This kind of narrow-mindedness is not the key to advancing society and civilization. The power of one individual can be significant, but it’s most noble and fulfilling when applied to the service of a greater good.

Inclusion Confusion – Part 2

As a teacher of English Language Arts in high school, by the time I meet my students, they’re at the tail-end of their mandatory schooling. I’ve encountered a number of students who are allowed special accommodations in the classroom and for exams due to the fact that they struggle with reading. In the previous post on this topic, I outlined that some of these students are even allowed to have reading comprehension tests read to them, either through a recorded audio version of the exam, or by an educational assistant who reads the exam to the student in person. I very much struggle with the validity of a test that’s meant to measure reading and comprehension that does not require a student to read the test on his own. In my experience, it seems that the incidence of students who are allowed such accommodations has increased, so I investigated whether or not there was a statistical record to support my suspicions. I found that, indeed, the number of students with exceptional needs seems to have increased, at least according to The Blue Ribbon Panel on Inclusive Education in Alberta, published September 2014:

In addition to changes in policies and practices in inclusive education, the panel also reviewed data that revealed that the classroom itself has increased dramatically in complexity over the last number of years. Although exactitude is difficult, examining some of the available statistics supports anecdotal evidence that there are more students with exceptional needs in classrooms than ever before. Source: The Blue Ribbon Panel on Inclusive Education in Alberta

Currently, the average number of students identified as having special educational needs across grade levels is reportedly 25 per cent:Inclusion StatsSource: The State of Inclusion in Alberta Schools

Having recently read Robert Peal’s Progressively Worse  and E.D. Hirsch’s The Knowledge Deficit, I think, at least in the English Language Arts classroom, this trend can be, in part, attributed to the following two factors:

  1. In Alberta, students are taught to read in Grade One through a balanced literacy approach, a methodology that is continued through the primary years as students build reading competency.

With respect to this first point, students do not receive sole and explicit phonics instruction when learning to read. In Alberta, a “balanced” approach is taken, which means that phonics is simply one of a number of reading “strategies,” including the memorization of high-frequency words and the use of picture cues, among others. In Progressively Worse, Robert Peal comprehensively tracks the history of what he calls The Reading Wars in the U.K., a history that parallels much of what has occurred in Alberta. After much research into the many factors powering the tug-of-war between the whole language and systematic phonics approaches to teaching reading, and after citing numerous studies into the effectiveness of both methodologies, Peal reasonably concludes that systematic phonics is the superior methodology and that “for the effects of the phonics method to be beneficial, it must be taught ‘first, fast, and only’” (Peal 169). This is not what’s happening in Alberta. Why does that matter to a high school English teacher whose students all know how to read, if not fully comprehend? Peal cites several significant studies that determined that the early advantage of having learned to read using phonics is compounded for these pupils (Peal 171), meaning that students who were taught to read using a systematic phonics program in their first year of school were, on average, three years ahead of their chronological age in reading by grade seven. Conversely, students who were taught using a “balanced” approach did not experience near the same gains.

Many proponents of balanced literacy argue that they DO teach using phonics, but as Peal’s investigation reveals, its benefits are subverted if this method is confused with other strategies, something that is absolutely happening in Alberta. What’s just as disheartening is that primary teachers in Alberta are not, by any reasonable measure, reading specialists. In fact, teachers are often given assignments in grade one, without having had any training in teaching reading at all. It’s no wonder that by the time I see these students in high school, many have been diagnosed with a learning disability that manifests as poor reading comprehension. What am I to do so late in the game?

  1. In Alberta, an outcome-based curriculum promotes a focus on vague competencies rather than on building broad knowledge.

This is an example of the broad program of studies for ELA K-9:

Program of Studies

Source: ELA Program of Studies K-9

With respect to this second point, over the years Alberta has moved increasingly toward a competency-based model of education. My opinion of this has evolved over the past couple of years, as I’ve now come to understand the harmful nature of this kind of system. In The Knowledge Deficit, E.D. Hirsch argues that a focus on core knowledge through the explicit teaching of content has come to be seen as a dictatorial approach that perpetuates the traditional hegemony of dead white men. The result, he asserts, is the adoption of an anti-intellectualism that posits that skills can be learned in the absence of knowledge. As it relates to reading comprehension, a task that becomes increasingly interpretive by the time I see students in high school, it becomes clear that domain-specific knowledge has been sacrificed in favour of extended projects and presentations that were meant to develop abstract skills – but didn’t. Hirsch reminds us that even “cognitive scientists agree that reading comprehension requires ‘domain-specific’ knowledge about the things that a text refers to, and that understanding the text consists of integrating this prior knowledge” (Hirsch 17). The problem is that Alberta students have been robbed, in many instances, of this prior knowledge because they’ve been encouraged to make posters describing their feelings about a book of their choosing rather than reading a classic piece of literature and writing a thoughtful exposition of its value. Hirsch demonstrates that “since relevant, domain-specific knowledge is an absolute requirement for reading comprehension, there is no way around the need for children to gain broad general knowledge in order to gain broad general proficiency in reading” (Hirsch 39). Again, the school system in Alberta is not providing common, broad, knowledge-based curricula; in fact, it’s increasingly moving away from this, and the results are damning – many students do not have the fundamental knowledge to succeed independently in school. By the time I see these students in high school, I simply don’t have the time to catch them up on what they’ve missed, despite my best efforts.

The solution to dealing with struggling students appears to have been more readily diagnosing learning disabilities rather than getting at the core of the problem, which is a flawed curriculum and an ideologically-driven methodology. No amount of support and assistance with reading and writing can replace the absence of foundational knowledge in grammar, mechanics, and great, challenging literature.

Inclusion Confusion

I read this article on The Onion recently, and while it’s a great example of satire, I can tell you it’s actually not that far from the truth, and it’s what prompted me to write this post.

I’ve been nervous about writing this post for the past few months. I don’t know if there’s any way I can’t come off as insensitive. The truth is, I’m extremely sensitive to the issue of inclusive education; it’s just that I don’t think things are being managed properly here in Alberta.

For many students who are deemed to have special needs, the reality is that they’re simply average, a diagnosis that many parents today refuse to accept, and even find offensive, given that the last couple of generations have all been awarded ribbons in various competitions because everyone’s a winner. In the context of secondary education, this seems to mean that a 65% average just doesn’t cut it. I’m reminded of a recent Huffington Post article that might seem harsh, but that I find rather honest.

Of the almost 100 students I teach this semester, approximately 15 of them will receive some kind of accommodation when they write their diploma exams this January. These accommodations range from simply being allowed extra time, to actually having their English Language Arts comprehension test read to them. Yes. This is a legitimate accommodation for some students in Alberta.

I’m not sure how I feel about all of this. In the classroom, I find the management of students with special needs rather taxing. It often feels like a lot of busy work to prove that the school is doing something extra for the student, when, in fact, nothing of consequence is really being done. And when it is, it often feels like the teacher is the one making the extra effort, not the student in question. Then, there are parents who insist that their child is capable, and that he or she simply needs the right support to succeed. I am currently teaching a child for whom my school has invested tens of thousands of dollars, with little evidence of success. The forceful parent-advocates of this high-needs child have railroaded seemingly unlimited resources for the benefit of their one child. How is that possible? Because they care deeply about their child, they’re well-educated, they’re affluent, and they demand that something be done. In and of itself, this isn’t a bad thing – they want the best for their child – but their mission has siphoned resources and funds from other students, and from the school, in general.

And so it goes, it seems. In my experience at a high school populated by students of affluent families, when students are not achieving at an acceptable level, their parents often demand testing to identify learning or cognitive disabilities in their children. More often than not, schools pay for this testing. In another school at which I taught, one of a lower socio-economic demographic, parents were largely unaware that they could even request such testing. But in my current school, if a student is not achieving at the level his or her parents find acceptable, said parents will, without hesitation, demand that their child be tested, so that the child can be coded, so that accommodations can be made for his or her learning. I’ve even known the school to suggest that testing is not required, given that academic achievement is more of a behavioural issue, such as an apathetic attitude towards learning, a tendency to not complete assignments, or even an inconsistent attendance record. In those cases, parents pay the roughly $900 to get their child tested independently, and achieve the same goal, since almost every child who gets tested, is ascribed a “code,” even if it’s Code 54 – undiagnosed learning disability. For these students, pretty much any accommodation that parents request is granted, including the aforementioned “reader” for a reading comprehension test or “scribe” for an essay exam.

While I’m in favour of leveling the playing field for students who struggle academically, I’m seeing a bigger problem here. The Alberta Diploma Exams are rather rigorous achievement tests that are designed to assess students across the province on the programs of study in core subjects. While these exams have recently been minimized in value to 30% from their original 50% weighting, they’re still significant, and they play a major role in university and other post-secondary admissions. When students are provided with accommodations for these exams, this is not recorded on their transcripts. So if Student A writes her Physics 30 exam in the allotted three-hour time limit and Student B is allowed extra time and completes the same exam in six hours, no distinction is made anywhere on the reported results. Or if Student A completes the English 30-1 Part B (a reading comprehension test) in the allotted two-and-a-half hours on her own, with pencil and paper, while Student B is provided a reader, who reads the reading selections and questions to the student over the course of four hours, nowhere is this indicated on the transcript.

If Student A and B have different needs, this might seem like a reasonable scenario. I have a problem with it, particularly if a student can have a READING COMPREHENSION TEST READ TO HIM. I don’t see the sense in that. But beyond my aversion to this, in general, I see a more insidious issue at hand. In my experience at my current school, I’ve noticed that the squeaky wheel gets the grease. And affluent parents can be pretty squeaky. What if involved parents, themselves educated and influential, were dictating edicts that would allow their sons and daughters extra time on exams, readers for exams, private spaces for exams, and a number of other accommodations? In my view, that’s already happening. Increasingly, students who appear to have no cognitive disabilities, and whose psychological evaluations indicate as much (code 54), are being given accommodations for exams. The process for applying for these accommodations has become easier over the years, and accommodations are often provided due to nothing more than the demands of a well-intentioned and determined parent.

I’m concerned that while this process of identifying and supporting students with special needs is undoubtedly motivated by benevolence, it’s being co-opted by those with the knowledge and power to make the system work in their favour, and by teachers and administration who are too willing to succumb to pressure. The whole system of “inclusive education” in Alberta is riddled with problems; as a diploma-level teacher of a core subject, this is just one of the pressing issues that I think needs to be addressed.

When Will I Ever Need This?!?

Teachers have heard this question from students forever. Unfortunately, this narrow-minded, utilitarian view of education has been given credence in recent years by policy makers and educators themselves.

I don’t blame students when they ask this question; their perspectives are somewhat limited based on their limited life experience. Students today are surrounded by a culture of instant gratification where people gain celebrity status for no apparent talent, where their contemporaries develop million-dollar app ideas, and where every one of their fleeting thoughts can be broadcasted to the world through Facebook, Twitter, or whatever new platform is coming next. They’re distracted by all this noise, which makes focusing on the difficult proposition of connecting with the history of civilization through learning “the best which has been thought and said” rather arduous – yet all the more imperative.

As educators, as parents, as mentors, we must challenge the apathy of young people in this regard. This is difficult when I see commentary in newspapers and on social media where adults themselves question the point of studying Shakespeare and where our own Alberta Education ministry is bending over backwards to emphasize the importance of creating “authentic” learning tasks, as though by virtue of direct application, education is somehow made “useful.”

I recently travelled to Rome for the first time. Standing on the ruins of the early days of western civilization, I’d never felt more connected to humanity. I was filled with an appreciation for the history of art and of literature that prepared me to be able to recognize this connection. Later, in Venice, standing on the Rialto, my mind was flooded with images of Antonio spitting on Shylock, setting in motion one of the most intensely complex literary revenge stories in English literature. One day I’d like to visit Egypt and look up at the same sky that perhaps inspired Euclid to write The Elements. This is the power of knowledge. It connects us to that which came before us and helps us become our best selves. It allows us to situate ourselves within the greater context of the human experience. Knowledge links us with everyone who came before us and with everyone who will come after us.

When adults around me question the validity of learning algebra, of balancing chemical equations, of studying Shakespeare, or of understanding Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, I shake my head in disappointment. But when students groan and ask, “When will I ever need this? Ugh!” I see it as an opportunity. I can respond in a number of ways:

“You may want to compete on ‘Jeopardy’ someday.”

“So you can go to university and get a good job.”

Or . . .

“Because in working through symbolic mathematical representations you’re literally developing neural networks in your brain that will enhance your ability to solve all kinds of problems. Because in studying literature, you’re being afforded the opportunity to develop a sense of empathy for people who live outside of your limited experience as a subjective individual. Because in learning about history, your understanding of judgments and decisions is broadened, thus opening the world to you.”

Not everyone will have a passion for lifelong learning, in the academic sense, and that should be okay, too. But all children should be afforded the basic foundations of “the best which has been thought and said,” foundations that are being eroded by initiatives like Inspiring Education in Alberta. By treating students as consumers, we risk robbing them of their right to foundational knowledge in favour of fads and trends that frame education as a commodity that is only as valuable as the market dictates.

A Numbers Game

Last week in Alberta, Minister of Education Gordon Dirks announced that exit-level diploma exams in core subject areas will no longer be worth 50% of a student’s final grade, but that the weighting will instead drop to 30%. This seems to have been met with general favour among parents, teachers, and policymakers.

To be clear, this is not a hill on which I’d die. At the end of the day, I don’t think it makes a huge difference, although I am among those who favoured the 50% weighting. As a diploma-level teacher myself, the context of this kind of high-stakes exam, as a culmination of twelve years of learning in a given subject area, has been effective. It has served to create a common understanding of key aspects of a curriculum, providing a measure of consistency in the teaching and learning of that curriculum, as well as being a useful snapshot of the range of classrooms in Alberta. Further, the diploma exam has served as a necessary equalizer when taking into account post-secondary admission requirements for students within the “provincial classroom.” None of these benefits are necessarily negated with the change to a 30% weighting. My fear is that there may be, as there often is, unintended consequences:

  1. Overall, classroom marks tend to be higher than diploma exam scores. This is because throughout the term, students are assessed on the whole curriculum, they are usually assessed against various measures of achievement, they are often allowed to re-write tests, and they have resources available to them in many assessment situations. So if a student achieves 80% in class, they may reasonably achieve 70% on the diploma exam. With a 50% diploma exam weighting, the final grade is 75%. With a 30% diploma exam weighting, the final grade is 77%. This isn’t a huge difference. But if the majority of university applicants’ grades increase by such a margin, admission requirements will simply increase. Currently, the minimum admission requirement for Engineering at the University of Alberta for the 2015-2016 school year is 88%. Let’s say that goes up to 90%. The room for considering factors other than grades shrinks. Grade inflation may become more prevalent.
  2. If the discrepancy between the classroom grade and the diploma exam grade continues to increase beyond, say, 10%, universities may well consider an entrance exam similar to the SAT in the U.S. This is problematic because the current diploma exams are written by seconded teachers and subject experts who understand the outcomes of a given curriculum. The exam is designed based on exactly that, with the goal of measuring knowledge and understanding of what Alberta Education has set as the standard within our province. University entrance exams may not align as neatly with what students were supposed to have learned and may, in fact, allow for various biases that current exam developers work tirelessly to minimize. And, of course, students would likely have to pay to write such entrance exams, adding another layer of concern to this proposition.
  3. Students who pursue university-level post-secondary education often return to their high school teachers and claim that they were not prepared for the level of expectation and rigour at university. This feeling may be exacerbated with the new diploma exam weighting. Many have argued that university classes today do not even employ final exams weighted 50%. I looked into this. In Maths and Sciences at the university post-secondary level, it is absolutely common to have final exams weighted 50% or more. However, even with other courses, it may be true that final exams are more in the 30-35% weighting range. That said, if the midterm is included, that weighting, for two exams, goes to 55-65%. So while it doesn’t all come down to ONE exam, it certainly comes down to two, often with only one or two other assessments to mitigate the final grade.

The reality is that not all students will go on to university-level post-secondary study. So why employ a high-stakes exit exam that seems to, at least on some level, address post-secondary admission equalization? Perhaps that’s a good point, but I fear that the 17% of Alberta high-school students who transition directly to university will be the most disadvantaged by the new diploma exam weighting. Further, while only 17% of Alberta high-school students transition directly to university-level post-secondary study, more than 41% attend some kind of post-secondary institution, whether they be universities, colleges, or polytechnics. All of these have become increasingly competitive, and therefore a rigorous, objective, and comprehensive diploma exam worth 50% of a student’s grade seems fair to me.

I think the primary benefit of lowering the weighting of the diploma exam is to artificially improve provincial completion rates. Our most recent statistics for 3-year completion rates in Alberta indicate that 75% of students graduate. This, by many, is considered to be rather poor; that’s obviously debatable. However, if we consider 5-year completion rates, that statistic jumps to 82%, which starts to look better. This business of completion rates has long been a valid preoccupation of Alberta Education. However, the delicate balance between focusing on completion rates and focusing on excellence in education needs to be maintained; lowering the diploma exam weighting does not, to my mind, maintain that balance.

One final tidbit for consideration: With a 50% diploma exam weighting, if a student achieves 53% in class and 43% on the diploma exam (the top-end of a reasonable discrepancy), he or she earns a final grade of 48%. The same grades, applied to a 30% diploma exam weighting, sees the same student achieve a final grade of 50%. Good job, Alberta Education!

I predict that 3-year high-school completion rates in Alberta will rise to at least 80% for the 2015-2016 school year. Won’t that look nice on international education reports? Perhaps other countries will start asking what Alberta has done to improve its system and we’ll become the new edu-tourist destination – Finland is so over.