Saturday, May 28, 2016

The Manufacture of the Math Crisis in Alberta

Let’s be clear from the start: Alberta does not have a crisis in the teaching of mathematics or in the ability of students to achieve success in mathematics. Full stop.

What we do have is a clever politically motivated trick. Using standardized test data – PISA and Provincial Achievement Tests – we can see changes in results in mathematics when one period of time is compared to another. Math PISA scores for Alberta are down slightly between the last two test periods. If this is a crisis, then the forest fires in Northern Alberta are Armageddon.

Let us understand two things:

  • First, the key thing that standardized test scores measures is poverty and social class. Teachers have almost no significant impact on the test scores of students on such tests. Anyone who claims that they do is being disingenuous – we have known what they measure for over thirty years.
  • Second, Alberta’s student population is changing very quickly. Indeed, according to the OECD data, Alberta has classrooms which are among the most complex in the developed world – a range of cultures, skill levels, literacy skills and social backgrounds that require differentiated instruction. Between one set of measures and another, this demography gets more complex.

So we are measuring poverty with different cohorts. Makes little sense.

What the manufacturers of this crisis have done is looked at changes in outcome measures over time and “guessed” at why this has occurred, without taking account of these two statements of fact. It's rather like saying that there is a correlation between the films in which Nicolas Cage appears in and deaths by drowning or the age of Miss America and the number of murders by steam or vapours (these are actual correlations). They suggest that the “cause” of the crisis is “modern maths” and “constructivist teaching”. This is said in the complete absence of evidence – one of the things we might teach through modern mathematics is that evidence is the starting point for exploring understanding.

The idea of current teaching is not to be able to remember and recite tables, formulae, and solutions but to understand mathematics as a language and means for problem-solving. What the purpose of this work can be said to be is to enable students to look at a problem and use a mathematical understanding and language to solve that problem.

Think for a moment. If I were to say that I spoke six languages but didn't understand any of them, what would you think? You wouldn't ask me to do anything like translate a document or guide you through Puglia or the Ardeche. Equally, if I said I knew my times table but I had no idea why these multiplications were useful or what I could do with this knowledge, you would think me equally inept. But this is what the “back to basics” movement is all about. They want our students to test better, not to know how to think like a mathematician.

So the “math crisis” (sic) is an invention based on a half truth (a very nonmathematical way of thinking). But there is more.

When we ask who benefits from this manufactured crisis the answer soon becomes clear. The first group are government bureaucrats who can extend their control by focusing on testing, curriculum management and harassing teachers with new reporting mechanisms. They love a crisis. It makes them feel important. It also gives them something to do.

The second are commercial vendors of tests, textbooks, curriculum materials, technology and “apps”. They like stirring this crisis up since it helps sell product. With all of these kind of issues – follow the money. Who will win the money prize here? You can bet it will not be teachers.

A side benefit of the manufactured crisis is that it provides some – notably those infected by the neo-liberal GERM – with an opportunity to demoralize and belittle teachers. One might think that this would be wholly inappropriate kind of behaviour, but it is actually relished by some, especially neo-liberals with investments in the commercial entities who stand to benefit from the “crisis”. The maths crisis, they claim, is the fault of teachers who do not know enough mathematics using progressive methods to confuse students. Not only is this insulting (which is a part of their intention), it is not based on substantial evidence.

So let us stop seeing the performance of students on tests as anything more than what they are: a snapshot of the implications of inequality.

Trump and Ignorance

Why do we treat Donald J Trump, now the guaranteed nominee of the GOP for US President, as if he is a rational, sane and intelligent human?

All the evidence points to the fact that he is a narcissistic, ego-centric, extroverted bully who has a reprehensible level of knowledge about the world, about his own country and about Government. He seems unaware of simple things, like respect, courtesy, and compassion and is seemingly incapable of understanding complex things like energy markets, science, foreign policy or economics.

He looks to be a successful business man, but in this claim he is also delusional. He makes claims about his business acumen which are nonsensical – like his net worth (much less than publicly stated), his Art of the Deal being the “best-selling business book of all time” (nowhere near close), his ability to enter and conquer new markets (string of business failures), his avoidance of tax, his use of foreign workers and his profiting from companies he publicly derides. He is successful in some things, of this there is no doubt, but not everything he touches turns to gold.

He is a dangerous man. So far he has promised to break international treaties (NAFTA, WTO and the Paris Climate Change Agreement), actively intervene in markets (restore coal jobs), build a “beautiful” wall which Mexico will pay for (not going to happen), deport 11.5 million Mexicans, ban Muslims from entering the country (with a few exceptions for Muslims he likes), criminalize abortion, raise the minimum wage while at the same time lowering taxes on the rich, charge countries the full costs of American troops defending American interests on their land, pay for his supporters legal fees if they are charged with assaulting those who oppose him. This week he denied that California has a drought problem – preferring instead to buy into conspiracy theories that the Government of California is denying the flow of water (where does he think they are hiding it?) to much-needed areas. Trump is, let's say this out loud, an ignorant and dangerous person.

But the press treats all of his statements as if he were a serious thinker. They place him against Noam Chomsky and treat their statements as if they were on the same level. They are not.

Trump is ignorant, not just about social sensibility (just follow his twitter feed), but of how government works, the role and limits of the Presidency of the United States, how energy markets work, how treaties work, the law, science could go on. It is if he was a petulant teenager who had missed a lot of schooling while partying and having a good time who we are now expected to treat with the seriousness of a great philosopher.

And then we get to the nub of the issue. He is a Mussolini figure – doing for the US what Mussolini did for Italy before World War II. Giving hope, through ignorance, appeals to raw emotions and offers of action which could not possibly lead to good outcomes. He is feeding on and adding to anger, passions and a sense of lost identity which many Americans truly feel.

“Make America Great Again” is his slogan. He has offered a set of suggested actions which will make America poor again, a laughing stock and a place which many smart people feel not only uncomfortable staying in but unwelcome. Thinking will not be encouraged – more likely prosecuted. One thing for sure – Trump will do well for himself. It is actually all he cares about.

What is even more disturbing is that a growingly angry American electorate are more than likely to elect this bigot to the Presidency. It will not be the first time someone with a very high General Ignorance score has occupied the Oval Office, but it will be the first time someone has done so in an age where scrutiny is intense and every word uttered can be analyzed to death. He will be subject to global abuse and shaming, which will just make him angry.

Trump will not be a happy President – he will spend most of his time frustrated, angry and threatening legal action. I also suspect that impeachment will never be far from the lips of some members of Congress. It will be especially difficult for him if, as some suspect, the GOP loses control of congress.

Trump will not make American great again. Trump will make Trump rich again. That seems to me to be the prime agenda.

Friday, April 29, 2016

5 Bold Actions for Our Minister of Education

Our Minister of Education, Hon David Eggen, did something interesting this last week. He spent several days with teachers, Principals and system leaders at the Alberta Teachers Association uLead event in Banff. He also offered a workshop and spoke on a panel (with the Minister from New South Wales) about the future. He spoke about the sovereignty of the profession and the work of school boards. He spoke of equity and rationalized his campaign for LGTBQ community as part of this equity struggle. He is clearly passionate about the role and a compassionate man. He deserves to be successful.

But I have doubts – about his focus, his capacity to be bold and about the speed at which he is willing to work. I have five suggestions for bold, aligned and creative actions which would show courageous yet relevant leadership for our schools:

  1.      Immediately announce the end to the Grade 3 SLA’s and the end of the Provincial PAT’s before the next election. Move to a sampling system of outcome assessment, rotating across all subjects, not just maths, literacy, and science. Withdraw from PISA, TIMMS, and other international assessment and demonstrate faith and commitment to rich accountability and the profession. These actions will signal both our confidence in our work as well as a recognition that standardized testing has little to do with the work of schools and teachers
  2.      Rescind the Ministerial order related to curriculum. It's a nonsense and gets in the way. Adopt a “less is more” approach to curriculum and partner with the specialist councils of the ATA to secure curriculum development. See the work as simplifying the curriculum while enabling the work of the profession to reflect local conditions.  Focus not on workforce competencies but on a broad, liberal education and creativity.
  3.     Reduce the number of school boards, which are no longer able to engage in meaningful collective bargaining. Move to regional boards. End the requirement that Superintendents, appointed by Boards, should also require the approval of the Minister. Why does a population of less than 5 million need so much infrastructure and so many "sunshine" leaders?
  4.      Transfer full responsibility for the profession – certification, review, discipline, and recertification – to the profession. Treat teachers like Doctors and elevate their status.
  5.      Reduce the size of the Ministry from its 700+ personnel to no more that 250, signaling that the role of the Ministry is to support and enable, not to manage and control. Stop it getting in the way of the work of schools.

We need to recognize that the infrastructure of control and accountability was built for a different time. It is time to change. Be bold, Minister. Do this work now.