Poor Math Scores – Should We Really Blame the Teacher?

I am listening to a rebroadcast of a CBC Ottawa interview on the Ontario Math curriculum with Mary Reid from OISE. This is one of a series of interviews and articles seeking to understand why students, especially in elementary school, are doing so poorly in math. You can hear the full interview here.

The interview was really nothing new until around the 5-minute mark when Mary Reid makes the classic argument that I always find misses the mark. At this point, Dr Reid dismisses any problem with EQAO and squarely puts the blame on teachers and their training for low math scores in Ontario.

Teachers, she says are not ready for inquiry-based learning. Teachers have high anxiety and low content knowledge when it comes to the inquiry approach. Professional development takes a ‘one size fits all approach’ whatever that means. So, because of the teacher’s high anxiety levels, we are failing at the inquiry-based approach.

These ‘highly anxious’ math teachers then pass this anxiety on to their students.

Then the argument takes on a bizarre note – research shows, according to Dr Reid that it really is the female teachers who are to blame. Female teachers especially pass on this anxiety to their female students, not the male students. This is what the ‘research’ shows. How do you even test for that?

We have been doing inquiry-based math in Ontario for a long time. Over the years, math results in grade 3 and 6 EQAO tests have steadily gone down. During this same period of time, teachers have been continually blamed for not being strong and skilled enough to effectively teach math.

The human factor always comes out – if you are really skilled and somehow ‘get’ the inquiry approach, your kids will do well. If not, your kids will do poorly. I only thank my lucky stars that I never had to teach math in such a poisoned atmosphere. How do elementary teachers do this when they are continually blamed by OISE professors and senior administrators for failing their students?

Why do we not look at the tests? Why do we not examine the curriculum or the inquiry approach?

As long as we see our teachers as lacking something we will continue to have problems when it comes to the math curriculum. It is now time to stop this fruitless blaming and look critically at EQAO and the curriculum.

We certainly need to look at how we assess learning in our schools. Today in the Globe and Mail, Sir Ken Robinson was interviewed and came much closer to a true assessment of our current system.

We need to recognize that children have a huge range of natural abilities and they all have them differently. Our education systems are designed to focus on a small band of those. If you have a narrow conception of ability, you end up with a very big conception of disability.

Sir Ken Robinson, Globe & Mail, September 8, 2017

The sooner we take a really creative approach to how we do education in Ontario the sooner we will be able to liberate our teachers and students to learn, live and grow in our schools. We really need to learn to stop blaming our frontline educators and move on to something much better.

 

Is leadership an innovative endeavour? – Response to George Couros

In January, George Couros asked this question and answered it with a definite “yes”.

I totally agree with his answer and his caveat that it should be an innovative endeavor.

My concern is that the urge to innovate seems to dissipate the higher people reach up the leadership ladder. There is certainly more pressure to follow the company line and as this pressure increases, the ability to innovate declines.

But when you see the challenges that are facing schools and organizations, if “leaders” are not also “innovators”, there is a danger of irrelevance.

George Couros

As George Couros writes, the inability to think outside the conventional ‘box’ can lead torganizations like school boards to become irrelevant.

Almost as a response to this challenge, Larry Ferlazzo has written a good series on leadership –  Response: Support Curriculum Innovations by ‘Failing Forward’

This three-part series offers a whole variety of ideas and suggestions from some of the top education leaders in the United Staes on how to support innovation in schools. One suggestion from Mark Estrada, principal of Lockhart Junior High School in Lockhart, Texas is very interesting.

School leaders and teachers must develop a growth mindset as Keith Heggart describes in a recent article.

  • Teachers and administrators must model a growth mindset

  • Create space and time for new idea development

  • Build time for self-reflection

  • Administrators must provide positive formative feedback

We are all familiar with the concept of ‘growth mindset’, and we want our students and teachers to embrace this idea. We don’t, however, insist that a growth mindset be adopted by school and district leadership. In my opinion, after working for years as an administrator in a large Ontario school board, a growth mindset amongst our leadership is sorely lacking.

I would argue that what we experience in many schools and certainly at the district level is a preservation mindset. Keep everything moving, nudge forward a little, pick up the newest fad in education, but basically keep things the way they are and celebrate compliance as the gold standard.

Those who do not accept this as the standard operating procedure are not welcome at the table.

So, while I applaud writers like George Couros, Larry Ferlazzo, and Mark Estrada who work hard to extend the reach of new ideas on leadership, I have to ask – who is reading these articles, and who is simply paying mouth service to ideas about innovation, change, and bold leadership?

If our education leaders are not overly concerned with real innovation, do they risk becoming irrelevant?

From CBC’s The 180 – It’s Time to End Public Funding for Catholic Schools

This morning on CBC’s The 180, there was a great 7-minute feature on public funding of Catholic schools. You can listen to the piece here.

The piece is really interesting. Charles Pascal, a professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, has been making the argument that Ontario should have one secular school system for some time.

The topic is re-emerging in Ontario since OPEN – One Public Education Now launched a court challenge stating that public funding of Catholic schools violates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Two points struck me in this piece. First, politicians in Ontario are terribly risk-adverse and are not willing to challenge a political decision that was first taken back in the days of Egerton Ryerson to publicly fund Catholic schools. Pascal raises the question of why legislators are so afraid. Similar moves have been made in Newfoundland and Quebec in the past few years and the sky did not fall.

In Ontario, touching funding of Catholic schools is considered the ‘The Third Rail’ According to Wikipedia, the third rail of a nation’s politics is a metaphor for any issue so controversial that it is “charged” and “untouchable” to the extent that any politician or public official who dares to broach the subject will invariably suffer politically.

The second point that was very interesting had to do with public opinion about Catholic schools. According to Pascal, up to 70% of Ontario’s population is in favour of one public system, but the 30% in favour are powerful and as Pascal characterizes it ‘voracious’ in their support of the system.

I can understand this. Everytime I post on this topic, I get all sorts of negative comments and sometimes these attacks come from Catholic educators, some I worked with for years. I will get more negative comments after this post – mostly in the vein of not being ‘loyal’ or being naive about how the world works etc, etc. I will be unfollowed or blocked by more Catholic educators. So it goes.

To be clear, I worked in the Catholic system for 31 years the last six as a principal. Based on my experience, there is no logical reason for keeping this system in place. I was a committed Catholic educator for all these years, but to me fairness and equity are more important that propping up a system that is now an anachronism.

 

School Boards in Ontario – Rethinking Governance in Education

Egerton Ryerson, education reformer from Ontario’s past

I think there is lots to write about on the topic of governance in education in Ontario. Recently, the Globe and Mail has tackled this topic, questioning the need for elected boards. It is a really good read and asks important questions on how we organize education in Canada.

The topic has been covered several times by Sheila Stewart in her blog. Her posts are very thought provoking and are important to read if we are interested in this topic. She rightly notes that this is a complex issue with no easy solutions:

There has been a fair bit of discussion about the role and relevancy of education trustees in Ontario lately.  There are many questions, if not confusion, about their role and purpose.  The topic can get quite complex and it is not an easy discussion.  I suspect there is something unique about the culture of every single board of trustees that is in place at each of Ontario’s 72 school boards.  I don’t know the answers regarding what they should be doing, or if they should exist or not.  How can an unbiased discussion about alternatives occur? How can the discussion be kept to be about the role, and not personalities and politics?

The trustee – parent connection in #onted

 

I think we all should be interested in how our education system is organized. We have a system that has been in place going back to the 19th century. Local control of education was established as far back as 1816. Much of our current governance structure hails from this time. The 1816 legislation was, at the time a boon to a growing community. It provided for local control and the appointment of trustees:

The law provided that the people of any village, town, or township might meet together and arrange to establish one or more schools, at each of which the attendance must be not less than twenty. Three suitable trustees were to be chosen to conduct the school, appoint teachers, and select textbooks from a list prescribed by a District Board of Education.

Egerton Ryerson and Education in Upper Canada, Putman, John Harold (1866-1940)

If you follow the story of education in Ontario the name Egerton Ryerson will come up. In 1846, he reorganized the system of education in Ontario, establishing District Superintendents, Normal Schools (later teacher colleges), property taxes for the support of schools, standards for texts and a whole host of regulations establishing a system of education in the new province.

The last review of education governance took place in 2009. It’s a little shocking when you look at the people who were responsible for this review. All were trustees, former school board directors or university professors. From what I can see, this was a group very interested in maintaining the status quo in Ontario. The recommendations from the review do not upset the apple cart, but strongly support the structure first envisioned back in 1846.

Calls for education reform in Ontario and other jurisdictions rarely call for an overall review of governance. Instead, we focus on adjusting teaching methods, exhorting educators to become more ‘connected’ or more innovative within the current box that exists and improving our EQAO scores.

It seems like the greatest call for education reform, especially in Ontario comes in the form of opposition to EQAO. Peter Cameron writes in his post Test Time…stress time?

Perhaps it’s not that teachers need to change; in fact I’d argue that we are always innovating and evolving for the good of our students. Perhaps it’s EQAO that needs to be innovative in how they assess our kids . WHAT IF students could submit ePortfolios, podcasts, videos and screencasts to demonstrate their learning? Better yet, WHAT IF EQAO could send PEOPLE to our schools, to spend time, sitting and listening to our students?

Writing like this is so important – we need educators to challenge a system that seems to have lost its ability to be self critical. I agree with Peter, what would happen, for example, if superintendents became primarily responsible for the success of a small collection of schools and their current ‘busy’ portfolios like ‘student success’ and ‘safe schools’ be turned over to education officials actually trained to deal with these portfolios?

We do not write about what trustees do in the current system apart from vague declarations that education must remain ‘in public hands’. What does that actually mean? Education is highly technical these days. It is unlikely that most trustees even understand what is going on in education. This means they are totally at the mercy of board officials – superintendents and directors that really are not accountable to anyone. These officials have the real power in the system, they can be very good and use their authority responsibly, but there are others who abuse this power and do little to improve the system for our students.

One observation – we have an excellent medical system here in Ontario and no equivalent of local elected boards. How does a system, rooted in reforms over 150 years old actually serve the children in our province? Governance is a topic long overdue for discussion in Ontario.