Popular Posts

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Buying Grades Is Just Good Business

The June 18 Sun front page story “Struggling students buying passing grades” should come as no surprise.  Those who control public education in B.C. and their counterparts in the rest of Canada have long since adopted the U.S. concept that education is a business that should be managed and regarded like any other commercial enterprise.  School administrators, ministers of education, trustees and even some teachers frequently refer to students as clients or customers, learning as the education product and teaching as a service to be delivered. Who then can fault schools that seek the ultimate business goal: profit? Indeed, school districts have used foreign exchange students for years as a source of income. Each exchange student a district can attract must pay the full cost of his or her education to the district, some $8000+.  In addition, schools with declining enrolment have bolstered their numbers by becoming specialty schools: Hockey Academies or Schools of Fine Arts, or some other specialty to attract students from neighbouring “domestic markets.”  Of course, each additional full-time student brings in more per capita funding from the Ministry.
Of greater importance is that this shoe-horning of public education into a business model has led to the adoption of corporate management strategies.  Decisions are made at the government level without consultation and handed down through the corporate hierarchy to school boards, superintendants, principals and finally to teachers.  The only determination of school success is what can be measured: test scores, drop-out rates, dollars spent, percentage of graduates, etc.  These can be graphed, plotted, analysed and then used to develop ways to adapt business practices and develop strategies to improve them.  Individual districts have tried to follow the late Steven Covey’s sure-fire practices for improvement, have fiddled with the “culture” of the schools, and held hundreds of hours of consultations with “stakeholders;” all of which have led to no measureable improvement in anything, or indeed any significant change at all.   The Province has altered course requirements, refocused the curriculum on career planning, increased emphasis on the accreditation process, and then decreased it (too expensive).  Still the statistical improvement demanded by the Ministry remained elusive, so they tried what had consistently failed in the United States: legislating improvement.  The Ministry demanded that each school submit a plan outlining how it would achieve measurable improvement and then employed four Super-Superintendents to oversee and ensure success.  The result? What a surprise; no real improvement, only more emphasis on those practices designed to give superficial proof of success. Secondary classroom marks are elevated so that when combined with mandatory government exam marks as required by the Ministry, the overall total is improved. Students who “can’t handle” regular classroom situations are provided with programs that consist of watered down courses they complete by doing a series of worksheets or computerized lessons, the content of which is a fraction of the regular classroom course.  They miraculously achieve B’s and A’s on courses that they previously could not pass.  Failure is eliminated; only success, when and if it is achieved, is recorded.  Consequences of doing little or no school work are continuously postponed. If a student can’t complete courses by the time he or she is nineteen, the adult requirements for graduation kick in and are only two-thirds of those for normal graduation.  By sitting tight, and postponing any and all work, a student can graduate with very little effort, and  the school can still use the outcome as a statistical success.
The serious issues facing public education -- issues of relevance, the use of technology, student achievement – are beyond the scope of the current corporate business model to deal with. As long as the policy makers try to impose flawed, business model solutions to public education from the top down, they will continue to be stymied. But since the alternative is a model of collegial cooperation and consensus building with the only people who really understand how to create positive, successful learning environments, the teachers, the likelihood of that changing soon is remote.  Until then, the Ministry of Education should congratulate those private schools making money by fudging marks; isn’t profit the point?

No Zero Policy Deserves A Zero

The recent  newspaper report of the teacher in Edmonton, Lynden Dorval, suspended by his school board for assigning zeroes for assignments that were never completed, is a classic example of education theory clashing with class room reality.  Popular education theory today requires that the public school system assume responsibility for student success.  Under this theory, student failure is the system’s failure, teachers must find ways to “empower” students to achieve something, and courses are never failed; they are merely Incomplete.  Thus achievement is postponed, put off, placed in the to do column until some unspecified date. Students are empowered to defer responsibility for completing their work on time or at all. 
            While school counsellors and administrators continually talk to students about the consequences of bad choices, the Ministry and school boards have continually postponed or eliminated the negative consequences of bad choices.   Schools in B.C. for years have been forbidden to put failing grades on report cards, replacing the “F” with an “I” for Incomplete.  The concept of failing was considered too harmful to student self-esteem to be countenanced. Ross Sheppard High School and other schools in the Edmonton school district have expanded the definition of what is harmful to include zeroes for work that was never completed.
The policy is a distortion of a basically sound concept: Academic grades should be determined solely on the quality of the students’ work, not other factors.  This grew out of the practice many teachers had of docking marks for assignments that were handed in late, for students who arrived late to class or missed planned tests or quizzes without a note from home excusing them, etc. Reduction of students’ marks was a form of punishment designed to alter their behaviour and was a misuse of the grading system. However, awarding zeroes for assignments not done is not a punishment of student behaviour. These are marks based on the students’ work, or in this case, the absence of it, just as students who leave questions blank on tests are given zeroes for those blanks.
The apologists for the No Zero policy excuse the students who fail to hand in assignments by saying that there are factors in their lives that prevent them from doing the work, and that giving them a zero is penalizing or punishing them for those contributing factors.  The apologists conveniently fail to appreciate that those zeroes are in fact in keeping with their own definition of what a grade should be: an appraisal solely of a student’s work. A failing grade indicates that the work failed to meet the required standard for completion.  Not doing it at all falls within the definition of not meeting the required standard.  Grades are not measurements of potential, student ability, effort, personality, character or anything other than the work itself.  When no work is done, a zero is the only accurate numerical indicator.
Teachers of high school academic courses already provide extra help when asked, accept late papers, allow students to rewrite assignments, provide alternate assignments for those with academic challenges, and offer unprecedented numbers of options for special projects and term papers.  Schools offer English and Math courses with differing levels of difficulty, and a variety of Science courses and alternate electives.  As well, the academic requirements for graduation from high school have never been easier. An unintended by-product of all this is that the responsibility for student success has been shifted more and more away from the student and placed on the school system and on teachers. By prohibiting the use of the zero to indicate that no work at all has been done, the system has finally assumed total responsibility for that success.  The system now refuses to admit that students are capable of doing nothing, but instead will find some way for those students do something.  The nature, importance, seriousness of the work they end up doing, its quantity and quality, its relevance and significance may be questionable, but they will find a way to replace that zero with a real number.  Many high school students will applaud this final surrender of their responsibility.  Unfortunately, it is a corruption of educational theory that will provide only the illusion of success and confirm in the minds of the public that public education has lost its way. 
The No Zero policy truly deserves a zero.

The New Curriculum: Following the Yellow Brick Road

The Ministry of Education’s attempt to transform the British Columbia public school curriculum proves that its view of education has finally been reduced to the level of adolescent musing. When I was a senior in high school in 1964, a number of my classmates and I complained to our teachers that we wanted to study concepts, not facts.  We were ignored, of course, by our teachers and the administration, and with good reason: we were wrong.  I didn’t realize we were wrong until my first year of university when I discovered that concepts can only be discussed and debated when one is in possession of a very large number of facts.  What concept would one want to consider?  Evolution? The historical significance of gunpowder?  The value of triangulation in the construction of roof trusses?  Homer Simpson’s influence on American thought? Without facts at one’s disposal, any discussion of a concept becomes merely an expression of uninformed opinion, a reality that the social media embrace and that even the traditional media now encourage with their new emphasis on “feedback” from readers and viewers.
            Yet this is the vision of the Ministry of Education: a population of students that have somehow “learned” concepts without learning any facts. The “Overview” of the curriculum’s transformation on the Ministry’s website states: “Educators say the current curriculum has too many objectives to cover and with so many objectives it can in some ways restrict student learning. Moreover, its highly prescriptive nature puts it at odds with the vision of a more personalized learning experience set out in BC’s Education Plan. Similarly, it tends to focus on teaching children factual content rather than concepts and processes – emphasizing what they learn over how they learn, which is exactly the opposite of what modern education should strive to do. In today’s technology-enabled world, students have virtually instant access to a limitless amount of information. The greater value of education for every student is not in learning the information but in learning the skills they need to successfully find, consume, think about and apply it in their lives.” Private school teachers and administrators must be laughing.  Their success is based on offering exactly the opposite view of education.
            I don’t know who the educators are that are steering the Ministry in this direction, but I doubt that they were ever successful classroom teachers.  Students are not always eager learners; school work is often hard. Instead of struggling to ensure that students master content that is difficult, it is much easier to have them learn only what they want to learn, to pursue “personalized learning.” To state that “too many objectives” actually “restrict student learning” is illogical and laughable. In addition, for a Minister of Education to state that what students learn is not as important as how they learn only confirms that he has succumbed to the latest, nonsensical EdSpeak and will strengthen the view of many British Columbians that public education is failing.  The 21st Century will require more than ever a well-informed, knowledgeable public.  What that public learns or doesn’t learn in school is of vital importance.  Knowledge exists only after the acquisition, analysis and synthesis of relevant information.  The central task of the public school system has always been to, first, provide students with that relevant information and then, second, to teach the skills of analysis and synthesis so that they can develop the knowledge to make the informed decisions that society requires.  The Minister and the “educators” that have steered his decisions apparently think that when facts are learned they merely sit in the brain in tidy, discreet little packages waiting to be regurgitated on school exams.  The lack of understanding about the way the human mind works is astonishing.  Learning is a creative process.   Each student internalizes information differently.  That information can and will be combined with, compared to, and used with a vast array of other experiences and bits of information in ways and at times that cannot be predicted. 
To decrease the number of educational objectives and to de-emphasize and devalue content is to surrender to the contemporary views that opinion and fact are interchangeable, that truth and belief are indistinguishable, and that the Internet/Tweetisphere, like the Great and Terrible Oz, is all-knowing and all-powerful.
The Minister, alas, does not apparently have the heart to look behind the screen.