Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Wrong on Education

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Dec 29, 2011

Norbert Cunningham treats Moncton to his own special treatment of education, inspired by Margaret Wente (Globe and Mail Dec. 15: "Why Alex can't add (or subtract, multiply or divide)) beginning with his recommendations on math lessons flavoured by his own style of social psychology:

There's a problem here and it's not the educational specifics. Nor, in
the case of bizarre approaches to teaching math, is it just that those
in charge of our education system are themselves intellectually
incapable of understanding basic principles of math (i.e. 'division' in
math doesn't involve conflict and doesn't need to be called 'sharing,'
which is a different idea). 

Though what he really wants to attack is the whole idea of sharing (if you can't wait for it, go down to the last few paragraphs) he's going to get there by means of attacking the education system. Which he doesn't really know about - but still has strong opinions on.

What we thus get are constantly changing 'standards' (improvements,
we're told) that hide the fact the system is failing. When the
statistics from year to year and decade to decade cannot be reliably
compared, there's only anecdotes. But gosh the anecdotal evidence is
overwhelming: our school systems is neither excellent nor getting

That's our Norbert - "To hell with the statistics! I have good old-fashioned (made in the 18th century) New Brunswick intuition!" Before addressing editorial writer Norbert Cunningham's concerns about the dropout rate at Canadian schools, let's look at the actual data. Here are the statistics from Human Resources and Skills Development Canada:

And lest we suppose this is a snapshot of an isolated statistic, here are some more figures regarding educational attainment in Canada:

These tables illustrated an unmitigated path of success over 20 years, an almost ceaseless advance toward greater and more equitable educational achievement in Canada. The number of drop-outs was steadily reduced from 16.6 percent in 1990 to about half of that today. The number of people with college certificates or university degrees has steadily increased.

Perhaps the concern is that Canada is not faring well internationally? It's hard to make that case. Almost half of all Canadians completed post-secondary education, the highest percentage among OECD member countries, and well above the OECD average of 28.4%. Add to that trades and vocational certification (not included in OECD numbers) and Canada fares extremely well.

Similarly, Canadian students score exceptionally well in the OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment tests, or PISA. The students in our best schools - in Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia - score with the best in the world - they are the best in the world. Even in Canada's less advanced provinces, including here in New Brunswick, students score even with the United States in reading and well above the U.S. in mathematics - and consistently well when compared with the rest of the world. Read the numbers for yourself. And there's more data saying the same thing.

Yes, we could do better. In particular, our record in First Nations communities is of concern; "In 2006, 41% of the Aboriginal population had post-secondary certification; only 8% had a university degree." Rural communities tend to do less well than the cities, and regions slow to adopt newer educational methodologies - notably the Maritime provinces - also fare more poorly.

So, now, with some facts at our disposal (and there are many more painting the same picture; this is hardly cherry-picking) let's examine Norbert Cunningham's concerns.

He writes (and I'll quote at length, to set the stage):

In our post-war society it became increasingly difficult for people who dropped out of school to find good work with a reasonable hope for an economically secure future. Only a few decades before, it was the norm, particularly for boys, to quit school. University was not 'for everyone.' That evolved in the 1960s. And without at least high school jobs became scarce. But dropout rates remained higher than what most caring people thought was acceptable. It was also generally treated as irrelevant that the same dropout rates were far lower than ever before. What to do? The virtually unanimous answer from newly minted experts was to assume -- never close to proven to this day -- that the persistent dropout rate was caused by flawed teaching methods. That's given us fad after fad, failure after failure.
One wonders what data - if any - Cunningham is looking at in order to draw this conclusion. While the data depict a continuously improving situation, Cunningham reports"fad after fad, failure after failure." One has to ask, what failure? Yes, to be sure, eight percent is still too high (and is only partially mitigated by people who graduate high school as adults, such as myself). But where is the fad and failure in a generation of steady improvement?

But what Cunningham is really after is the straw man argument he sets up in the previous paragraph, the assertion by "newly minted experts" that "the persistent dropout rate was caused by flawed teaching methods." This was just an assumption, he argues. "Never close to proven to this day." And, he writes,

It ignores variability in human nature, interests and abilities. Can't talk about that, it's not fair, was the ethos; everyone's capable. It wasn't 'science' or even evidence based, just dogma married to incredibly sloppy self-justifying research. Both are still thriving.

Cunningham's argument errs on two grounds. First, it is simply not true that newly minted experts simply assumed that the problem lay in teaching methods. Numerous studies exist; we could, for example, examine this report that reviews 203 peer-reviewed studies on the causes of drop-outs:

The research review identified two types of factors that predict whether students drop out or graduate from high school: factors associated with individual characteristics of students, and factors associated with the institutional characteristics of their families, schools, and communities.

Exactly the opposite of what Cunningham claims! There was research, ample research, a wide-ranging series of examinations, and they identified factors related to individual students and their surrounding communities. Yes, teaching methods would be addressed - educators have little power to control socio-economic factors. But these pedagogical changes would address individual student variability and their community.

Different studies produce varying results, but the bulk of educational research yielded similar conclusions, leading to the development of what we today call "progressive" educational policies. These are the policies widely employed in places like Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia (and employed less frequently in places like New Brunswick, largely due to the protestations of people like Cunningham) and which have led - along with national advances in social equity and personal wealth - to the educational outcomes we see today.

(How does Cunningham react to proof that Canadians are the best in the world? Like this: "International ratings, such as PISA scores, become meaningless, for the problem isn't confined to Canada -- being near the top of rankings
merely means you're among the best of a global crop producing
increasingly impoverished yields." Never mind that absolute measurements - like literacy rates and drop-out rates - are steadily improving. There's still some mythical 'better' that only Cunningham can lead us to.)

Now we get two paragraphs of incoherent rambling (I'm sorry - but there's no other way to say it). First he argues that the putative failures were the "failure of a one-size-fits-all system to adapt to students. Quite so - but that's exactly what many of the pedagogical changes address.

Then he jumps to funding: "Could intractable dropout rates be the result of governments never (not once) putting the kind of money into education that would be required to eliminate dropping out?" Could be - but we see higher drop-out rates in Alberta, despite massive funding - the result of rural and First Nations conditions. Equity - not raw spending - is what makes the difference. 

Then he defends streaming. "We've seen bizarre, illogical efforts: 'streaming' was declared inherently 'bad' and discouraging to kids heading into a trade. Out it went, baby, bathwater and basin too. In New Brunswick that meant an end, until just recently, to even trying to teach trades." This would be a surprise to the New Brunswick Community College system - and inexplicable given the already-cited statistics showing a 50 percent increase in trades certification over the last 20 years. Discouraging streaming resulted in more trades education, not less. Because 'putting the dumb kids into trades' serves neither them, nor the trades, well at all.

Then he returns to an argument already widely accepted by today's educators: that "students are not widgets on an assembly line, each to be stamped out identically." 

The system isn't coming close to reaching all students. The path we're on fiddles with teaching methods rather than provide the resources to reach all. Lying to ourselves instead of fixing the issues or otherwise accepting reality makes only politicians and bureaucrats feel good. Few believe the lies about 'new' fads: witness decades of complaints testifying to their consistent failure. The culprits are primarily the politicians, administrators, bureaucrats and 'experts.' It's shameful. Deliberate, conscious choices have created a downward spiral of mediocrity.

After his attack on the Canadian educational system, which is doing better than most to cater to individual student needs (I actually wrote a column specifically on this a few years back - does he know that students in Edmonton, for example, can choose from any school in the city?) the reader is left wondering whether he knows what is happening in Canadian schools at all! Or even New Brunswick schools!

Perhaps he should view this video about 21st century learning in New Brunswick (from his comments we have to judge that he has never seen it). Or perhaps this brochure on the program: 

Public education in the industrial era was founded on discipline and facts. In the 21st Century individual and societal success will be founded on creativity. Creative thinkers will be in demand to guide business innovation and to solve complex societal issues, some of global proportions.  NB3-21C is designed to produce creative problem solvers. Today, creativity trumps regurgitation of facts. Facts you can access on the internet.

This is not the system Cunningham is criticizing. And while the current government in pulling back on the progressive education program in the province (which will result, I can say confidently, in a reduction in the gains we've seen over the last few years) it has not abandoned it whole-scale and gone back to the traditional system. So what, exactly, is Cunningham criticizing? We can say confidently that he knows little to nothing about the Canadian system. My best guess is that he is probably attacking some of the American education reformers writing in the Conservative policy papers he reads from south of the border (that's just a guess - but what else could be be criticizing? A Dickens novel?).

Cunningham goes off the deep end to conclude his column:

Dump the 'experts'; dump the bureaucrats ensuring confusion about results reigns; and dump the lies to, and slander of, parents and other critics. Dump the assumptions of dogma for valid fact (and do the valid studies -- surprisingly few exist). Set curriculum and methodology locally. Real expertise does exist. Ban outside 'experts' from any contact with the system. 

One wonders what Cunningham means by an 'outside expert' - would I qualify, having lived in the province only 10 years?perhaps the people in the Department of Education who crafted the 21st century education plan would qualify, despite their focus on individual achievement and creativity. Who knows? Perhaps what he means is that curriculum and methodology should be set by the writers at the local paper. He certainly doesn't mean the teachers! Or maybe he does...

Development days that merely perpetuate a rotten system are worse than pointless. It's not as foolhardy as it may sound. It puts faith in the common sense, experience and intuition of teachers -- and goods one have plenty. They don't need, and never have, those 'experts' in universities who are using research methodology that'd earn a failure for any first year science undergrad in the next building over. I don't exaggerate. For heaven's sake, university administrators, it's time to insist on meaningful standards too. Anything less and nothing significant will change; we'll be waiting for an unlikely miracle.

Sure - depend on the teachers, he says. But make sure they don't get any of that book larnin! Because then they'll be filled with fool ideas (like, I guess, ideas from Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia? The best educational jurisdictions in the world?) 

In the end, Cunningham takes the same approach so many other pundits in the same New Brunswick newspaper have for so many years: attack anything from outside the province as unproven and untested, eschew 'science' (in favour of "common sense, experience and intuition") while at the same time attacking opponents for not being scientific (they just follow "a naive assumption"). And repeat repeat repeat the dogma of the day - that Canada's educational system is doing poorly and that it is the 'experts' that are to blame. To follow, I suppose, a "made-in-New Brunswick" approach (that just coincidentally favours some major corporations already entrenched in the province).

And he is appealing - you can see it pretty clearly if you read between the lines - to the age-old mythology that some people are just born geniuses, or gifted athletes, or musicians, or so on. That's the 'difference' (and not individual desire or creativity) that he celebrates. That's the justification, in his mind, for some people being 'gifted' and other people being 'streamed'. It's a rejection - implicit, never stated, and hence never defended - of decades of studies pointing to the socio-economic basis of educational outcomes. Cunningham believes that some people are simply better than others, that they deserve their privilege, and presumably their wealth. It's an appeal to a sort of social Darwinism that has no basis in evidence (but which lives on in the "common sense, experience and intuition" of people who have not been contaminated by 'science' and 'experts'. That's the dogma - if you note, it is repeated (repeat repeat repeat) throughout the column.

But it's wrong. If you look at the data on educational attainment - actually look at it, instead of pretending you did - you see that those nations that do well are those that practice a high degree of social equity. Read what the data says (see especially pp. 104-105 about achieving equity and improving support for weaker students). That separating and widening the difference between gifted and otherwise harms both. That even if the 'natural genius' theory is correct (though it probably isn't - more genius can be explained by hard work) the suggestion that the rich should get richer at the expense of the poor results in everybody getting poorer. Which is why - in a nutshell - the New Brunswick economy continues to struggle.

Cunningham's commentary does a disservice to education in Canada and New Brunswick, a disservice by labeling a generation of success a "failure", but misrepresenting the state of that educational system, by attacking the people responsible for that success, and by suggesting that there is some sort of local home-spun wisdom that would result in better outcomes. Wrong, on all fronts - and next time Cunningham deigns to write on education, he should do his homework.

p.s. the local newspapers are apparently going behind a firewall some time in 2012. Most people believe it's because they want the revenue - though most such efforts lose money. I think it's to keep columns like this, and the rest of the 'coverage' in this 'newspaper' hidden from public view and the increasing volume of criticism to which it has been subjected.

p.p.s the local newspaper restricts commentary to 1000 words. Having one's own blog - and being able to link to the evidence - is a lot better.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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