For those of you who don't know, "tatlo" is the number 3 in Tagalog.
Parents should be freaking out right about now. Even though we’ve had issues including Jeff Johnson’s insertion into Alberta Education, and the calculated release of the grossly uninformed Task Force on Teacher Excellence, the reason parents should have first started freaking out was introduced to us even earlier. As one very prolific Edmonton Journal columnist calls it, this reason is/was the “Great Canadian Math Debate”.
Since Ralph Klein was Premier, every four years Education, and particularly Teachers, get attacked. Interestingly enough, it always happens to land at exactly the halfway point between elections. Two years after the 2008 election, teachers were in a battle to get the raise they were guaranteed in a province-wide agreement led by the Premier Ed Stelmach. Then as they approached election season, the government offered some concessions to Teachers in hopes that they have a short memory. Unfortunately, Teachers do. Two years after the 2012 election, again Teachers are in a battle against the government, and now the battle even includes the Official Opposition. What concessions should we expect from the government during the 2016 election that they won’t claw back in 2018? Is the Wildrose, widely viewed as the next government, any different when they have joined in the attack themselves?
The Great Math "Debate"
First, Dr. Nhung Tran-Davies expressed a concern in a poorly-worded change.org petition (I originally dismissed it based on this very issue). It was rooted in the idea that Alberta students perform poorly on international tests in mathematics. It got a little attention. Then the Wildrose adopted it for talking points, Dr. Tran-Davies got an editor to correct (although not completely) the petition, and it developed into a “debate” pressed by the Official Opposition and a couple of very outspoken media personalities. The points of the "debate"; that the Alberta Government is trying to shift all of Education to an unproven “discovery” approach and is forcing instruction to ignore “basics” in math.
"Discovery" and "debate" are in quotation marks, because in actual fact both terms are misleading. The term "discovery" means to learn something for the first time. At which point, all learning is "discovery" learning. The term we should be using is "inquiry", which is more about investigating for understanding. The term "debate" connotes dialogue. There isn't much of that happening, mostly it's just a bunch of announcements of opinions. I should note that this blog does not constitute a dialogue, and therefore doesn't contribute much to the idea of "debate" either, but when in Rome...
The myths involved in this “debate” are plentiful. The problem is, nobody is debunking them completely (although some have approached it). So here is my attempt, finally, at doing just that.
The title of “Dr.” means that you are an expert in everything.
Dr. Nhung Tran-Davies is up-front about pointing out that she is no mathematician nor teacher. I give her kudos for that. However, other mathematics professors who have joined the “debate” seem to have forgotten that they profess (which largely means research) advanced math, and are not trained in Education. That unfortunately limits the value of their input (but to be clear, does not discount their concerns). Such individuals who can be considered experts of both math and education, such as Dr. Craig Loewen of the University of Lethbridge, have had constructive input into the curriculum.
Curriculum determines the approach used to instruct math concepts.
Teachers determine the approach used to instruct math concepts. Teachers are expected to use methods that are best for the students. There is no one-size-fits-all method to teaching math, but mastery is still expected nonetheless. Curriculum only informs what is to be taught.
Teachers are being forced to ignore "the basics".
Teachers are autonomous professionals. If a teacher feels as though they are not permitted to teach the basics, they should take their issue up with Member Services at the Alberta Teachers' Association. It is up to teachers how they feel it is best to deliver the curriculum to their unique and varied students, and oftentimes this requires a differentiated approach. To say that teachers are being force to ignore the "basics" is to say teachers are not autonomous professionals. If you fear that teachers are not given that autonomy, take your issue up with the Education Minister.
PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment), carried out by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, is a reliable measurement tool for the efficacy of a region’s math instruction.
Firstly, the OECD is for Economic, not Educational Cooperation and Development. This should be our first indicator that something is rotten in the state of ... well in this case, France.
Secondly, PISA is a measurement tool that uses data from different tests in different countries, and different countries report their results differently, almost in a self-selected manner. Certainly they’ll tell you it’s all the same test, but what they don’t advertise is that regions can also pick and choose various questions to be included in the test. If a country wants to improve their PISA scores, they simply need to make their math tests easier, or only have the best regions of their country participate. In Alberta’s case, our PISA score can drop simply because of the increase in our expectations of our math students, or because other countries pick only their best jurisdictions to report. Using PISA as a standardized test has the same problem as using Provincial Achievement Tests; a standardized test can't work if there are too many variables making each test subject different before you even test them. China reports only a few jurisdictions, Alberta reports the whole province. A student who grew up learning Isa, Dalawa, Tatlo writes the same Provincial Achievement Test as a student who grew up learning One, Two, Three. See the problem here?
Teachers have had meaningful input into the curriculum redesign process.
Even though the world’s leading regions in education (such as Finland) ask the Alberta Teachers Association for advice, curriculum redesign has kept the ATA at arm’s length. It hasn’t been until just a few months ago (years after curriculum redevelopment started) that Minister Jeff Johnson has started listening to the ATA and considerably relaxed his deadlines and expectations for the completion of the curriculum redesign and its implementation. Had teachers had meaningful input into the curriculum redesign process, you would have seen a much larger emphasis on professional development to prepare teachers for the new curriculum.
The Western and Northern Canadian Protocol (WNCP) predetermines the direction education will take, so consultation with the public is merely a smoke screen.
The WCNP is simply an organization of collaboration, not of predetermination. For that matter, if the WNCP were in fact predetermining education, then we should also see scores from the Yukon, NWT, Saskatchewan and Manitoba plunge, and that is not the case. There is ample evidence showing that results from public consultations have been considered in the curriculum redesign process.
With the introduction of Student Learning Assessments (SLAs), grades will disappear, and so will accountability.
SLAs are completed at the beginning of the year. They are to be used by teachers to guide their instruction. Grading strategies for the remainder of the year are determined by the School Board, various curricular departments within the board, School Administration and finally teachers, in that order. If a school chooses not to use grades, it is not because it is mandated as such from the government. Furthermore, any assessment strategy employed by a teacher should show that each student matches the SLA at the beginning of the year, and show a trend for the student of either maintaining or improving their understanding of the curricular concepts. Any student who shows evidence of a reduction in performance should also have documentation to indicate what strategies were used to address that reduction, and should also show evidence of subsequent improvement following those strategies. All this documentation exists, teachers are required to do it. Accountability is not a concern here.
David Staples provides no useful feedback.
David Staples shows a bias because that is his job. He is very good at his job, somehow finding justification for writing 42 columns on this supposed “debate”. In fact, many people across Canada are now equating his name with this whole "debate". This is the time of stardom a columnist dreams of, so to maintain this high-profile status that sells his column, he must write prolifically. And write he does. His viewpoints are based on the idea that “basic math” is needed for every child.
Personal anecdote; when I was learning math, I didn’t not learn it because I could memorize things. My father, in fact, taught me math using a very “discovery”, or rather an "inquiry" approach. This was 20 years ago. So to go back to “the way we used to do it” might just mean going back to “discovery” ... *ahem* ... "inquiry".
Nonetheless, Mr. Staples does provide an insight that allows us to identify issues that require rectifying. Taken with a grain of salt, it can be very useful. But make sure you take it with a grain of salt, because much like the first myth debunked, a columnist does not a journalist make; see Joe Bower for more discussion on this thought.
The Wildrose are representing the concerns of all Albertans in this "debate".
The Wildrose, rather than representing concerns, are telling Albertans what to be concerned about. In a telephone town hall that I can only describe as a “push poll”, the majority of individuals whose questions were aired were those that were speaking against teachers, math instruction, or curriculum redesign. Of 15 questioners that I noted, 1 educational aide got through long enough to praise teachers on their balanced instruction, 1 parent got through to do the same, and no teachers were aired. When I pressed them about how they chose which questions got through, it became evident that their town hall had not only self-selected data, but also inaccurate data. They couldn’t even find the question I had asked.
That question was “Danielle, when a parent comes to you expressing concern, do you ask first if they have approached their child’s teacher, and if they haven’t, do you direct them there?” I have never received a follow-up as they promised in the teletownpushpollhall.
You know what seems odd to me? Numbers that aren't divisible by two.
Being an Education Critic makes you an Education Expert.
The Wildrose are seemingly unware of the fact that they are arguing about one thing when the issue is something completely different; similar to arguing about how clouds are formed when the discussion is actually about acid rain. The Wildrose are caught in a problem in that they confuse the “what” of teaching with the “how” of teaching. For example, if you need to transport oil, there are many ways you can do it. You can pipe it, drive it, put it on a train, break it down into other products that are easier to consume like gasoline and ethanol, etc. So if you don’t want the oil on a train, what should you do?
By Wildrose logic, don’t use oil, use canola instead.
Certainly that would change the transport options, and moving to “greener” solutions is a noble goal, but we would lose all the value that exists in oil.
Curriculum defines “what” teachers are expected to impart to students, not “how”. Certainly “how” to teach something depends on what is being taught, but if parents are displeased with “how” teachers teach, asking them to try a different “how” makes far more sense than trying a different “what”.
In a meeting with Wildrose Education Critic Bruce McAllister and Leader Danielle Smith, I was told that they believe strongly in a “return to teaching the basics.” At first that sounds like a “what” item. But when they explain what they think the basics are, they suggest things like memorizing times tables, methods of long division, vertical addition and formula memorization. These are not the “what”, but rather the “how”. As I’ve learned, there are more than a few ways to skin a fish.
When I asked them how they know what the basics were, the response from Ms. Smith was “the easiest way for a student to learn.” Again, a “how”. My response and question was “what if the easiest way for a student to learn divisibility by 9 is by summing up the digits, not memorizing the times table?”
The two seconds of stunned silence was telling. So was the response from Mr. McAllister when it finally came; “we’re just going to have to agree to disagree on this.”
So we did.
I’m not saying don’t change curriculum, because in many cases a good curriculum update and overhaul is well overdue. I’m saying if you want to change the “how”, go to the person who actually make those decisions; go to the teacher.
However, who would want to go to a teacher now to discuss their child’s successes in school? After all, we are self-serving people who care more about our own then your children. But don’t worry, government has your back. They will ensure, from their offices in downtown Edmonton, that your child’s classroom is perfectly managed, and that teachers have so much oversight as to not have to think for themselves, or for your child, anymore. The government knows best.
And just in case you thought that was only a PC government, allow me to correct that misconception. Jeff Johnson believes the ATA cannot manage their own, which is why he has claimed himself savior of our discipline process. However, the Wildrose’s Rob Anderson jumped on the Johnson bandwagon. So, if the political pundits are correct and the blue and orange banners are replaced with green and pink ones in 2016, don’t expect any change to how they approach Education.
The only way to avoid that is to have an alternative. Kent Hehr had a dream of being a teacher cut short, but his passion cannot be ignored. Deron Bilous has been a teacher, so understands the profession. The Alberta Party is currently working on its Education Policy among other policies, soliciting input from all stakeholders. Ask each of these people about the Great Math "Debate", you will find a hugely different response than the one in the media.
Parents should be freaking out right about now. Regardless of which of the conservative parties take power in 2016, it won’t be professional educators making decisions about Education. It will be some elected official whose only adult experience in our schools was either delivering a Xerox machine, broadcasting a special interest segment on a morning news show, or spending 10 months bickering instead of running a school board.
According to Random House, a “task force” is a group or committee, usually of experts or specialists, formed for analyzing, investigating, or solving a specific problem.
It’s no wonder the public thinks there’s an excellence-deficit in teaching in Alberta. There’s a task force on it, so it must be a problem! Again, parents should be freaking out right about now.
But that’s not what Minister of Education Jeff Johnson says. When asked why he made the task force at all, he explains that we don’t have an excellence-deficit in teaching. He says the task force was to come up with recommendations to keep it that way.
So he put together a panel he calls experts in Education. Strange, then, that the organization considered a global leader in Educational Policy and Research, the Alberta Teachers’ Association, was not included in this panel. You know, that organization that Ministers of Education and Presidents of the world’s leading countries in Education like Finland, Singapore and more come to for advice? Yeah, that group.
When asked about this, he balks at the suggestion he didn’t include teachers on the panel, and reaffirms his belief that the panel is a “blue ribbon” expert panel.
Alright, let’s go with that. Of the people on the committee, it can be said that each one of them clearly value Education, but are they experts?
Four of them are MLAs, but simply being elected does not an expert make. Three people from post-secondary institutions, including the Chair of the Task Force, are experts, but not in K-12 Education (one of them not even in Education at all, but rather in Forestry). Only one post-secondary representative can be considered an expert in Education. One individual on the committee has a deep history rooted in Xerox Canada, just as the Minister of Education has, but sneaks onto the panel because she’s involved in a post-secondary institution. One person on the panel is a human resources expert. One person on the panel is a student, and while a great representative, not an expert in Education (the “I’m an expert because I’ve gone through school” argument doesn’t work). One is a past school board trustee and Alberta School Boards’ Association President, but again simply being elected does not an expert make. Rounding off the panel are two very passionate Principals, and certainly Educational leaders, but do they accurately represent all teachers in Alberta when they both come from the same school division, and were not elected nor appointed by elected members of the profession?
So of the members of this task force, only one is an expert in Educational research, and the rest, well, even one of the appointments smacks of cronyism.
It makes you wonder again why some of these people, including a Forestry expert’s and Xerox manager’s participation precluded inviting any of the ATA’s experts who are recognized around the world as leaders in Education and Educational research. Is it because forestry produces pulpwood, used to produce textbooks, possibly through Xerox machines?
So let’s go back to the concept of the excellence-deficit. What is “excellence”? Let’s go to the “Task Force’s” report.
We don’t know. But whatever it is, we want it in front of every student.
How can Johnson's Task Force provide recommendations on excellence if it doesn't even know what it looks like? That would be like me offering advice on how to rebuild a 1985 Pontiac Bonneville; just because I've driven one doesn't mean I know a thing about making it better.
In my teaching preparation program at the University of Lethbridge, this was one of the first discussions we would have in our Curriculum and Instruction class; what does an excellent teacher look like? Through a standard Think-Pair-Share activity, we discovered that everyone’s view of an excellent teacher depended upon our own individual needs, and yet a teacher had to try to meet every one of them. I recall my professor telling me “it’s hard, but if you’re passionate about it, you’ll make it happen.”
Now that we've decoded what constitutes a "blue-ribbon" panel according to Jeff Johnson, as well as what "excellence" is, let’s have a look at these recommendations. Some of the recommendations are awesome, but the fact that they show up in this report is redundant; they are the same things the ATA has been asking for years. Some of the recommendations are great considerations, poorly executed. Some of the recommendations undermine not only the profession, but the entire system of Education. It should be noted that I have summarized recommendations significantly, so to read the exact language, I recommend actually reading the report.
Let’s start with recommendations 1 and 6, which basically ask us to align everything with Inspiring Education. This makes sense, however when we get to the point where government tells post-secondary institutions how to prepare teachers, we might be looking at trouble.
Now to recommendations 2, 3, 22, 23 and 24 which all discuss the roles of school leaders, namely Principals. They also discuss the standards to which these school leaders should be held. This is dangerous territory, discussing holding school leaders to different standards than other teachers. The Task Force even states that teachers are all expected to share their expertise, regardless of any leadership designation. So if that is their belief, should they not all be held to the same gold standard? Any suggestion to hold Principals to a different standard suggests that Principals should not be considered teachers, but rather business managers. The truth is, in Alberta, Principals are teachers, they are roles that cannot be separated.
Now to recommendations 4, 11, 12, 18, 22 and 23, all of which have to do with practice review and teacher/school leader competency. First and foremost, teachers are not afraid of regular review. If anything, they should be pleased with the idea, so long as there are supports to enable professional development, and that the review process helps them advance their abilities in their profession, and advance the quality of education students receive. The problems come with the lack of research the Task Force seems to have actually undertaken, making recommendations on things they know little about. For example, they suggested that standards should receive regular review when they already do. They also suggest that teachers professional growth plans are whimsical documents with no relevance, when they produced no research to back that assertion up. They suggested that encouraging teachers through a sort of merit system would help, when research has shown time and time again that it doesn’t because education works best under a professional model, not an industrial model. They suggest a return to cyclical evaluations, a system we moved away from almost two decades ago, and a system that Ontario tried and failed at, showing how ineffective such a system would be in actually improving or assurance excellence in education. Frankly, I say bring on practice review, but in collaboration with the professional body. Teachers would love to become better at their job, if nothing else but to advance the profession and education on the whole. But doing it in such a way that undermines professional courtesy will also undermine the profession, and so you should not be surprised when teachers get defensive. My recommendation; start from scratch on practice review, involve the teachers, and you’ll get an even better system that is more accountable but still honours the profession. The fact that six of the report’s recommendations are built upon faulty, incomplete information, and attempt to make changes to teachers, not with teachers, should give people pause about the entire report.
Recommendation 5 gets a paragraph to itself. This recommendation asks teacher prep programs to look not only at marks, but other attributes of potential teachers. Does this mean universities will then be afforded the opportunity to refuse admission to a potential teacher because their Facebook profile happens to include a photo of their rendition of "Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy"? Or their race, sexual orientation, etc.? Hopefully that wasn’t the recommendation’s intent, but poor wording leaves open the opportunity.
Recommendation 7 also gets its own paragraph, but it gets its own title, too. I dub this recommendation the “Anybody Can Teach” recommendation. Basically, you don’t have to be trained in Education to become a teacher. This is hugely problematic. This could suggest that a busker could simply get a letter of authority and start teaching choir. They have no training in classroom management, assessment, instructional pedagogy, and in some cases don't even have the theoretical knowledge to properly support student learning. I didn't go to university for 6 years just to have a busker take my job.
Recommendations 8, 9, 10, 16 and 17 are among my favourite recommendations. They aren’t new, various organizations have been recommending it for years. Basically it amounts to mentorship. Give student teachers more experience time. Give first-year and struggling teachers mentorship opportunities. Give school leaders mentorship as well. I love these recommendations if implemented properly. Mentorship is useless without appropriate supports. If asked to mentor, a teacher or school leader needs to be afforded the time to be able to appropriately support their mentee. The mentee must also have the time available to interact with their mentor. There is a cost factor with this, but in my opinion, the quality of teaching that would result would far outweigh the costs of implementing. I’m worried, however, about Recommendation 9 which discusses part-time paid internships for first-year teachers, which would see tonnes of part-time positions, but no full-time positions, and this could be a killer for any profession; just look at the Nurses of Alberta for evidence on that.
Recommendations 13 and 14 are two more of my favourites, but again they are nothing new. Basically it suggests giving teachers the professional supports they need to get their jobs done spectacularly. If this means giving every teacher the professional development they need to operate current technology to its most efficient usage, I’m in. If this means giving every teacher some extra training on supporting the various special needs in the school, I’m in. If this means reducing the red tape to getting a student the support they need, I’m in (I have a student who might just be gifted, but because she moved to Canada after she turned 14, she is not “eligible” for the appropriate assessments to give her a gifted designation … so we limit her potential). If it means giving teachers time to collaborate and find best practices in delivering Education, then I’m in. However, this is not simply going to happen by batting our eyes at the issues; we must fund these solutions. While this recommendation is a great one, it misses addressing some far more significant issues, including ensuring excessive class size, poverty, foster care, or hunger aren’t the reasons why we need extra supports.
A slight concern about a framework for choosing school leaders in recommendation 15. At the outset this sounds like a good idea, but then we forget about the diversity of schools in the province. We have schools with 30 students, and other schools with 3000. Being an educational leader in Oyen is far different than being an educational leader in Edmonton. I suggest dropping this recommendation in favor of giving school boards the autonomy to make their own decisions to fill their own needs.
Recommendations 19 and 20 show to me one more time how little research the Task Force completed, or rather how much it ignored. First, the term “conduct” and “practice review” (a synonym in this case for measuring competence) are used interchangeably by the Task Force, yet are significantly different. They said separate the conduct and practice review systems, even though they are already separated. Secondly, the recommendations kill the Board of Reference, which basically would result in the ability for an employer to remove any teacher in any capacity without cause. I’m a squeaky wheel in my school because I value the education my students receive and expect my school to meet the highest educational standards; if I get too squeaky, will I get fired? There would be no protection for me, so I would be better off simply becoming a drone. This does not protect teachers, and holds students’ education at ransom. These are by far the worst recommendations in the Task Force’s report, but to be fair the confusion surrounding “conduct” and “practice review” is definitely worth clarifying.
Recommendation 21 rubbed me the wrong way, but not because of the idea of review or recertification, although I disagree with it, too (recertification wouldn’t be necessary with a strengthened practice review process as discussed before). As I said before, teachers should not be afraid of practice review, and strengthening the process should not be an idea demonized. However, to suggest the current system is flatly ineffective because the ATA “gets in the way” is a gross mischaracterization. Firstly, the preamble to this recommendation was far too emotional for my taste; it is the only section where the Task Force intentionally inserted emphasis by boldfacing “no” when describing how many teachers have had their certificate removed for incompetence in the past 10 years. The Task Force ignored the fact that the ATA has only had control of the review for 5 of those years, and can’t do anything unless a superintendent sends a particular case their way. This is because teachers’ competency is under a system of supervision called the Teacher Growth, Supervision and Evaluation Policy, another fact ignored by the Task Force. This policy ensures that only the teachers who are found through the regular supervision of their school leadership are not meeting the Teaching Quality Standards are either supported or removed, and the Task Force patently wrote it off as ineffective without explanation but then later asked us to follow it. The Task Force further erred by not including the fact that the ATA, in the past 3 years, has counselled over 200 teachers out of the profession because they shouldn’t be there (I know one of them); a fact the Task Force couldn’t possibly have known because they never consulted with the ATA. Now the ATA suggests that if there are bad teachers still out there, its superintendents’ fault for not reporting them to the ATA, however I’d rather suggest that superintendents must be doing a great job of finding those poor teachers and getting them the help they need to become better teachers without having to escalate to the ATA. The fact that “the Task Force found this statistic (no teachers losing their certificate for incompetence) almost inconceivable” makes sense, they didn’t even conceive of how practice review was happening in the first place. As for recertification, the Task Force reported other jurisdictions doing it already, but many of those jurisdictions are not considered among the best in the world for Education, as Alberta is. It makes little sense to model teacher certification after systems with lower results when a system already works here in a jurisdiction that has an enviable education system. Should practice review happen? Absolutely, and it’s a good thing too, because it already does. The Task Force’s only problem is that the review happens under a professional model, not under an industrial model.
Last but not least, the proverbial gun-to-the-head, recommendation 25. Basically it says “change everything, and if you can’t, split the ATA”. The idea that an organization cannot separate its self-interest (union) and public interest (professional) roles is ludicrous. Many organizations in Alberta do this already. More importantly, the self-interest teachers have is the public interest; we aren’t asking for huge lumps of money, we’re asking for better classroom conditions; we aren’t asking for diamond-studded pensions, we’re asking for supports so that we can do our job. The insinuation that teachers would not work to better the education system, but only to make our lives easier, is insulting. If we were interested in making our lives easier, we wouldn’t be teachers.
So let’s put this in context. Your child’s education is under the charge of professionals known as teachers. When those professionals are not given the supports they need to do their job well, it’s your child’s education that suffers. When those professionals are not given the autonomy they require to improve themselves, and by extension their schools and the education system, it’s your child’s education that suffers. When changes to an education system are dictated by a poorly informed, heavily biased task force without regard for the professional body of educators, it’s your child’s education that suffers.
When you take your Lamborghini in for maintenance, you take it into a Lamborghini-certified mechanic. Imagine if the mechanic hasn’t had any training for the past 5 years, so doesn’t really understand the latest technological developments. Imagine they have to try and maintain your car’s computer system with software that is obsolete. Imagine that mechanic being given only 2 hours to do a complete inspection of this high-performance vehicle. Imagine that mechanic doesn’t even get the opportunity to consult with other mechanics on how to better do his/her job. Imagine instead they have to complete evaluation after evaluation with no time or money afforded to them to develop their skills. Do you really think your mechanic has been valued? Wouldn’t you want your mechanic to have the tools and resources needed to maintain and improve your amazing little Aventador?
Assuming your answer is yes, why would we discuss measuring the excellence of the mechanic when the mechanic doesn’t even have the resources to do their job?
By the way, I’m not suggesting a Lamborghini is as valuable as your child, because it certainly isn’t, but it’s among the closest representations I could get.
So once again, parents should be freaking out right about now. If Jeff Johnson’s attack on teachers doesn’t freak you out, the devaluing of the people who spend hours with your kids every day should.
A reminder, the deadline for submitting your feedback on the recommendations is June 15, 2014. Alberta needs you to respond, please take the time to do so.