September 30, 2010

Saskatchewan Reform, Superman and the Media

This post was last updated on December 12th, 2011 at 03:15 pm

The education world is a buzz with the release of the new movie "Waiting for Superman". The media has embraced the movie and is joining the charge to make schools better. While everyone is in agreement that our system is broken, not everyone is siding with the methods and approach and even the pedagogy described in the movie. Here are three takes you should read before you get on the Oprah bandwagon.

Dear Ms. Winfrey

I'm Not Waiting For Superman

What Randi Weingarten Should Have Said

I also wrote a post a few years ago about Michelle Rhee and her methods.

The issues in the US have some similarities to our issues in Canada and Saskatchewan but we're now battling our own reform issues. Recently the Saskatoon Public School Division, our provinces largest district, implemented some new policies around grading that are in direct alignment with our new curriculum. In a nutshell, we're moving to outcomes based education and need to change some of our practices to stay true to that. The problem is that many of these practices appear to fly in the face of many things that have been mainstays in schools for years. The biggest problem you have when making these changes is in garnering support. In this case all stakeholders are having difficulty understanding these changes. Administrators, teachers, parents and students are questioning the changes. Our own Premier has come out publicly and is questioning these policies. There's nothing wrong with questioning change. Change is difficult and in this case, some of these changes at first glance can appear downright strange.

But this is a combination of poor communication and implementation as well as media who are in the business of creating controversy. Headlines like "Teaching Plagiarism" or "How to Succeed: Cut and Paste" all serve to incite readers and enable them to quickly jump on the bandwagon and find a target in school officials as incompetent idiots. Everyone in education realizes that it's one of the few businesses that everyone feels they are expert in. That makes it very difficult to consider alternatives when many leaders and strong voices were once successful under the current regime of schooling. You'd have to read most of my 500+ posts over the last 5 years to get a small glimpse of understanding of the changes that are occurring that require us to change. This is not about change, for change sake, this is about doing what is ethical and best for kids.

 I'm going to try and address some of the most common misconceptions in this new policy and while our division has fully implemented these ideas, rest assured that in the BEST INTEREST of students, we do hope to move forward.

Students are not penalized for late assignments. False. The major shift in this policy is separating grades from behaviour. If we're going to measure learning, time should not be a factor. The argument many are making is that this is unfair to students who get their work in on time and it isn't teaching them real world skills. Once again, if this is a behaviour issue, schools need to determine how to deal with poor behaviour. Traditionally, many teachers simply made students stay behind or docked them marks. Schools need to set guidelines and ways to deal with lates. There should be deadlines and there should be consequences for late assignments. The obvious consequences is that those finished, don't have it hanging over there head. But there can be other consequences, but losing marks shouldn't be one of them. It's not often a reflection of their learning, it's a behaviour and should be dealt with accordingly. The solution of docking marks was the simplest but I'm not sure it solves the problem and definitely doesn't reflect what a student knows and can do.

Students are not penalized for plagiarism. False. Like lates, they aren't penalized academically but as a behaviour. In this case, the obvious consequence is do it again. The other issue here is one of education and developmental appropriateness. If a 10 year old is caught cheating, I don't think the consequences should be the same as a university student who knows better. If our job is to educate, then we need to start from that premise. Sometimes educating may involve punishment but it needs to be appropriate.

Schools are getting soft on kids. False. These policies are not intending to make it easier for our kids but if implemented well, places more onus and ownership on students. The struggle comes in developing specific protocols as the school level that are fair for teachers as well. A team approach is required which once again, has not been the norm. Typically classroom teachers have had to carry the full load of both late assignments and cheating. I think the consequences for these behaviours should vary according to age and regularity. Giving student a zero for cheating is a pretty soft consequences as opposed to making them redo it and maybe tacking on some community service for example.

I really don't understand those who think behaviour and achievement should be lumped together. One argument is that there is a relationship between the two. Absolutely. But this is another example of our need to simplify. Instead of rich information about a student that pinpoints learning strengths and weaknesses and also reveals work habits and behaviours, we ask for a single number to define the entirety of a student. We say, that's how it is in the real world. That's where I might disagree. Suppose you were hiring an electrician, I might tell you that she's does outstanding work, goes above and beyond but she takes forever. Depending on your situation you may be fine with hiring her. I could also tell you of an electrician that is adequate but can be there tomorrow and will finish the same day. The more information we have, the better decision we can make. That's the entire purpose of this grading change. The problem is we want simple, clean evaluations that can be reduced to a two digit number. How sad and potentially useless. 

I'd encourage you to listen to the 11 minute interview with Ken O'Connor who is a noted expert on grading. You may want to explore the area of his website where people have asked him questions.

The recent discussions in the US is slightly more complicated and controversial because the argument around what schools should be about is at the core of the discussion. Media has encouraged the public to look for simple solutions to complex problems. This approach satisfies our human need to see the world in black and white, good and bad. I'm sorry to say it's not that simple and to say it is borders on arrogance. I work with teachers every day who know the challenges and difficulties of providing great learning for all students. In the case of the new grading policy, we all want simliar things. We want our students to be accountable. The one deeper philosophical debate is whether you believe that schools are about sorting and ranking students into smartest to dumbest, good to bad or if you believe it's about helping all students learn. Those interested in ranking or survival of the fittest may lean towards lumping achievement and behaviour together.

As I said, we know that even our own teachers are struggling with these ideas. They fundamentally shift many long held beliefs. The implementation of the concepts themselves are challenging. They require staffs to sit down and figure out how make this manageable. Again, our old system was very efficient in many ways but not always in the best interest of our students. I'm not yet comfortable with how we've helped teachers become part of these discussions, let alone the parents, Joe Public or even our students. Simplistic approaches and answers won't cut it.

Thanks to the media, they've reduced a very important conversation to a bucket load of stupid, mean spirited comments that will only polarize people instead of uniting them. (by the way, if you want to listen to an intelligent discussion about how to balance the idea of transparency and public commenting, have a listen to this CBC spark clip) I'm hoping our district can do better to inform all stakeholders as to why these changes are important and ultimately serve the best interest of students.

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