Shifting the Burden and Charging On

Yesterday, Jonathan Teghtmeyer, a prominent figure in the Alberta Teachers’ Association (the teachers’ union in Alberta, Canada), tweeted a link to an editorial by Jo Boaler.


I responded by suggesting that we shouldn’t take such claims about math anxiety too seriously, given that this is an opinion piece by a scholar who makes her living on the theory of “math anxiety,” and who has since been largely discredited by her own colleagues at Stanford, after her Railside research was found to be, at best, poorly administered and, at worst, falsified. I was accused of an ad hominem attack. With the limitations of 140 characters, I certainly did seem to be guilty of the ad hominem attack, so I tried to clarify by pointing out that the studies she cited in the piece are questionable. Apparently, it now falls on me to explain.


I resent the position in which I now find myself. Mr. Teghtmeyer, a representative of teachers in Alberta, a group to which I belong, can apparently openly cite questionable and controversial opinions and I, a teacher who feels compelled to remain anonymous due to my contrarian views and the retaliation I fear, must now defend the practices that have historically propelled Alberta to the top of international education rankings, against unproven, untested, theoretical claims for a new way forward. Forgive me, but the onus is on YOU, Mr. Teghtmeyer, to prove that a CHANGE in traditional methods will produce improved results. But that’s not how the game is played. Instead, I’m wasting my Sunday going through an explanation of why you should think twice before you, as a representative of teachers in Alberta, defend a highly arguable claim. I could ignore all of this, but I’m particularly annoyed, so here goes . . .

I’m not especially vocal about the math debate here in Alberta, largely because I’m not a math teacher. However, this debate crosses curricular lines and it’s representative of a more philosophical and pedagogical impetus. Further, while some people may claim to be math specialists, thus having more to say about the issue than I, many teachers in Alberta teach subjects outside their area of specialization, so maybe I have a right to speak?

Jo Boaler is a highly controversial figure in the field of math teaching and pedagogy. This is not to disparage her, only to report some facts about her research. I think it’s relevant, given that Mr. Teghtmeyer’s position on the new timed section of the PAT hinges on such research, based on the notion that timed tests in math result in anxiety for students. Boaler’s premise is further contingent on a constructivist approach to teaching and learning, one which has caused her some professional problems. For some perspectives on Boaler and the theory of math “anxiety,” see here, here, here, and here.

As for the editorial, which is largely comprised of Boaler’s own opinions, she does cite three other sources that I deem questionable. I intend to explain (in more than 140 characters) to Mr. Teghtmeyer, and anyone else who may be interested, why this is the case.

The first link Boaler cites is an article from Current Directions in Psychological Science (Cleveland State University, 2002) by Mark Ashcraft. In this piece, Ashcraft admits that “there has been no thorough empirical work on the origins or causes of math anxiety,” and that, while traditional classroom methods” are risk factors for math anxiety,” this conclusion is “yet undocumented,” although he is determined that the condition exists. He also cites his “participants’ anecdotal (my emphasis) reports” of public embarrassment in math class. Nowhere does the article reference study size, or controls and variables. In fact, it seems to quite openly be a summary of anecdotal reports of people with an already-decided conclusion that they struggle with math and have faced anxiety. Even in the abstract, although Ashcraft claims that “some teaching styles are implicated as risk factors,” he admits that research is needed “on the origins of math anxiety.”


This is questionable, then, because we don’t know exactly how the “research” was conducted, and the article itself can offer no clear conclusions about the sources of math “anxiety,” if such a condition even exists.

The second source Boaler cites is from the University of Chicago’s Department of Psychology, although the page is not found when the link is followed. I found what I believe to be the article, or a comparable study related to math anxiety, here. The main problem with this piece is, again, that no methods are divulged. We don’t know the study size, nor the controls, nor the variables. What we do know is that the article is heavily self-referenced, citing its own authors in other “studies,” a well-known tactic of academics who have a dodgy foundational premise. The piece also cites Boaler’s third and final source from the editorial, titled “The Neurodevelopmental Basis of Math Anxiety,” by Young, Wu, and Menon, a paper co-authored by Boaler’s own colleagues at Stanford, and behind a paywall.

With respect to this third and final source cited by Boaler in the editorial, I found what I believe to be a free version of the paper here. The questionable aspect of this source is that it appears to be the basis for the previous citation, the Maloney and Beilock piece. Whenever a limited number of papers are cited in a circular manner, it should signal a red flag. In its references, this paper also cites the other two aforementioned papers. Further, Young et. al. claim that the effects of math anxiety are “unrelated to general anxiety, working memory, or reading ability,” a claim that is patently contradicted by the Ashcraft article, which suggests that math anxiety “compromises the activities of working memory, and hence should disrupt performance on any math task that relies on working memory.” Lastly, the Young et. al. article is the only one that provides information regarding its methods. Under that heading, we find that the study involved 46 participants, which can hardly provide conclusive results. In the final analysis, the Young et. al. paper is primarily a neurological study, largely concerned with fMRI mapping, and does not, itself, purport to identify any specific causes of math anxiety, only to suggest that the condition exists.

So . . . this is why I would suggest that the “studies” Boaler, a contentious enough figure in her own right, cites in her opinion piece are questionable. For a concise approach to evaluating educational research, Greg Ashman outlines a useful approach here.

Mr. Teghtmeyer seems to be against the introduction of a timed math fact component on the Grade 6 PAT here in Alberta. He uses the same argument as opponents of the Phonics Check in the U.K. These arguments are often clouded by the premise that teachers are already teaching math facts (or phonics, in the case of the U.K.), and that teachers can use any methods they deem fit. However, that’s not the case in reality. The truth is that the curriculum itself is aligned with a constructivist philosophy in which foundational knowledge is sacrificed in favour of unsubstantiated claims for “skills” and “understanding.” One can hardly blame parents and those with vested interests in education for trying to implement a system of checks and balances, be they explicit directions in programs of study, components of a PAT, or a significant weighting for diploma exams. They have legitimate concerns, and the onus should be on proponents of change to justify their claims.


The Case for Tests

The provincial government of Alberta has decided that it’s time to move on a curriculum review/redesign – a process already started under the former Conservative government. This is big news here, because it appears that this will be an all-encompassing process with far-reaching implications, not the least of which include an explicit focus on student-centered learning and cross-curricular competencies. These ideas sound nice in theory, but they rarely translate into anything tangible in practice. Further, Minister Eggen has vowed to collaborate with all stakeholders, including the Alberta Teachers’ Association. Again, this sounds reasonable, but the cacophony of voices may well lead to unintended consequences. However, I’ll reserve my judgement until I see something more concrete released. Perhaps they’ll get it right. We’ll have to wait and see.

One aspect of this review/redesign may include the abolition of our provincial achievement tests and diploma exams. Of course, this is still conjecture, but given the ATA’s position on such accountability measures, there’s a chance that the structure, implementation, and even existence of these exams will be affected.

As I’ve written before here and here, these exams are valuable tools that not only serve as periodic checks into the “provincial classroom,” but they ensure that key aspects of the curriculum in a given subject area have been taught and, hopefully, learned. Our testing context in Alberta does not remotely resemble some of the horror stories we see in the U.S. Nobody’s job is attached to students’ test scores. While we do have a “ranking report” produced by the Fraser Institute, the vast majority of parents send their kids to the community school or to the school that offers the programs they want anyway; few schools are meaningfully affected by the Frasier Institute’s ranking report. I’ve yet to see any tangible evidence that this ranking report is anything other than a political talking point.

We now have three provincial exams in twelve years of elementary and secondary schooling. Is that too much? I would vehemently argue that it is NOT too much. The PATs in grades 6 and 9 don’t even need to factor into students’ grades; it’s up to the teacher or school administrator whether or not to include the calculation of the PAT score into his or her students’ final marks. In grade 12, the final diploma exam has been reduced from a 50% weighting to a 30% weighting. This doesn’t make or break a student’s achievement in a course. And, again, teachers’ careers are not remotely connected to these test scores. Anecdote alert: My students always score well above provincial average and my discrepancy rates are low. This is rarely recognized by administration, other than perhaps privately, in passing. I’ve never been in a staff meeting where diploma scores were an agenda item, and every school has some good, bad, and ugly exam records. In my decade as a teacher, it seems the only one who cares about the diploma scores is me, and the teachers whose students will write these exams.

The point of this post will be to refute some of the “alternatives” to testing. I’ll not spend too much time defending Alberta’s achievement tests, other than to say they are reliable and valid, constructed by seconded teachers and subject specialists. Teachers who mark the written components are rigorously trained, combining elements of comparative judgement and rubric-referenced assessment, with checks and balances in place. While these exams admittedly do not assess the whole curriculum, they do demand a demonstration of comprehensive knowledge, and the application of it, wherein most of the outcomes that are not explicitly on the test are at least factors in the process of getting “the answer.” For more on assessment, see David Didau’s blog at and Daisy Christodoulou’s blog at

I have no rebuttal to those like Alfie Kohn who argue for the abolition of grades entirely; this is beyond my frame of reference and I think those who agree with Kohn are coming from entirely different philosophical and political dimensions than the ones in which our society is structured. For those who agree that there should be structures in place to monitor and enhance education in schools, here are some of the most common alternatives presented to testing.

1: “A sample approach. The same tests, just fewer of ’em. Accountability could be achieved at the district level by administering traditional standardized tests to a statistically representative sampling of students, rather than to every student every year.”

This isn’t a bad idea – in theory. Mathematically, as an accountability measure, sampling would achieve the same goal. However, in reality, every teacher knows that at the mention of assessment, several hands shoot up to ask, “Is this for marks?” I have my own way of dealing with that issue, but the reality is that if there are no “stakes,” not all students will take the exam seriously. It’s like the sample group is doing a favour for the ministry to track achievement in the province. Students’ levels of engagement in the exam would be comparable to their levels of engagement in a survey. We live in a “what’s in it for me?” culture, and if there’s nothing “in it” for them, the validity of these sampled scores would be compromised.

2: “Stealth assessment. Similar math and reading data, but collected differently.
The major textbook publishers, plus companies like Dreambox, Scholastic and the nonprofit Khan Academy, all sell software for students to practice math and English. These programs register every single answer a student gives.
The companies that develop this software argue that it presents the opportunity to eliminate the time, cost and anxiety of “stop and test” in favor of passively collecting data on students’ knowledge over a semester, year or entire school career. Valerie Shute, a professor at Florida State University and former principal research scientist at ETS, coined the term “stealth assessment” to describe this approach.”

Again, this isn’t a bad idea, as an ongoing assessment option. But the limitations with this are the same as the limitations with standardized achievement testing, it’s just another medium. The real issue here becomes one of privacy. Do we want our students’ data to be mined by corporations whose goal is to sell to them? Do we want our schools’ data mined by corporations with various interests? How would the collection of this data impact our society? If you think the Fraser Institute ranking report is bad, it would pale in comparison to the possibilities here.

3: “Multiple measures. Incorporate more, and different, kinds of data on student progress and school performance into accountability measures.”

This is already happening in classrooms in Alberta. Of course we don’t base a student’s achievement on a single test. Of course multiple measures are used throughout the year to assess a wide range of competencies using a wide range of methods. Suggestions in the article include social and emotional skills surveys, game-based assessments, and performance or portfolio-based assessments. Fine – include them all. This doesn’t negate the need for, or benefit of, traditional achievement testing. This is because we still need a more objective measure of achievement rather than simply a teacher’s subjective judgement. It’s all well and good to say that teachers are professionals and that their professional judgement should be respected; however, teachers are also human beings subject to biases, preferences, and partialities. I wouldn’t want my subjective judgement to be the sole factor in determining a student’s achievement. I welcome outside objective measures that serve to balance whatever flaws I may have inadvertently perpetuated in assessing my students.

When we mark the written component of the English Language Arts diploma exam, we spend almost an entire day working in groups to train for the task. The process begins a week before, with several Standards Confirmers selecting exemplars in every category of the rubric. They discuss these randomly selected papers and identify several dozen to serve as “hinges” when the rest of us come in to mark the 15 000 or so exams. I’ll sit at a table with five or six other teachers, and we begin by reviewing these standards, as they relate to the topics and texts for the marking session. We discuss our scoring and attempt to resolve any discrepancies in interpretation with practice papers. Reliability Reviews are conducted daily. If I have problems over the six or seven-day session, I bring the paper to the Table Leader, who clarifies the issue for me, or who passes it along to the original Standards Confirmers. Each paper is blind-marked by two different markers. If the discrepancy exceeds 10% or more than one level in one or more scoring categories, it goes to a third marker. I detail this here to demonstrate the rigorous standard according to which these exams are marked.

In my classroom, it’s just me. Teaching can be an isolating profession. Days and days can pass without speaking to another adult, particularly if one is teaching a full course load. If an assignment presents a problem, maybe I can ask the opinion of another teacher in the school, but many schools in the province employ only one English teacher, experienced or otherwise. I can employ all kinds of multiple measures, but the bottom line is that it’s still just me assessing them. Standardized objective tests provide the oversight to balance the flaws in subjective judgement. For more on this increasingly popular area of study, see Daisy Christodoulou’s thoughts here.

4: Inspections. Scotland is a place where you can see many of the approaches above in action. Unlike the rest of the U.K., it has no specifically government-mandated school tests. Schools do administer a sampling survey of math and literacy, and there is a series of high-school-exit/college-entrance exams that are high stakes for students. But national education policy emphasizes a wide range of approaches to assessment, including presentations, performances and reports. These are designed to measure higher-order skills like creativity, students’ well-being and technological literacy as well as traditional academics. Schools and teachers have a lot of control over the methods of evaluation.

I’m actually a fan of the idea of inspections, despite the myriad problems associated with this accountability measure, as well. Like any system, including testing, flaws need to be identified and rectified. In the above example, Scotland is cited. Coincidentally, a Scottish teacher was recently fired for being “too boring,” according to the inspection evaluation. Such examples are likely the reason the ATA abolished observations years ago, and why it would likely not support something similar in lieu of standardized achievement testing. Further, Scotland’s education system, which employs many of the above approaches, as noted in the NPR article, is not exactly revered. Their results are dropping – although without objective tests, I suppose we wouldn’t know this and everyone could just cheer about how great they are, no matter the country, province, or system.

The bottom line is that education is a system for which we, as a society, pay. Any system needs to have measures for accountability and oversight embedded. Standardized achievement testing serves this purpose, to some extent, among other purposes more connected to teaching and learning. Even Alberta’s Valhalla – Finland – has the National Matriculation Exam, a battery of tests in at least four subject areas. “Student musts complete all required tests of the examination within three consecutive exam periods of up to six hours each. All tests, except listening and reading comprehension in second domestic and foreign languages, are pencil-and-paper tests, typically requiring extensive writing in open-ended tasks.”  While Finland is known for its progressive approach to education, absent of high stakes testing throughout school, this series of exit exams is as high stakes as you can get; all students MUST pass them to graduate.

Most education systems accept that standardized testing benefits teaching and learning. In the UK, students write GCSEs as a requirement for graduation and A-Level exams for further education in university preparation. In France they write the Baccalaureat, in Germany, the Abitur, in other parts of central and Eastern Europe, the Matura, in Israel, the Bagrut, in South Africa, the Matric. They’re all high-stakes, with weightings ranging all the way up to 100%. Our little diploma exam in Alberta is worth 30% of a student’s final grade. That still leaves 70% to be determined by the classroom teacher. The other two achievement tests in grades 6 and 9 may not even be calculated in a student’s grade. Surely this is not the problem it’s being made out to be. Surely not everyone is blind to some truth regarding the evil of exams. Surely worldwide recognition of the value of standardized achievement testing suggests that we’ve been on to something for a while.

Ultimately, we cannot dispense with standardized achievement testing unless and until we have something to replace its value in teaching and learning and as a measure of accountability and oversight. I would bet that there may not be a “better” metric – at least I haven’t seen one yet.





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.