Be wary of quick fixes for Nova Scotia’s education system

With recent standardized assessment scores from Nova Scotian schools causing alarm, and education minister Karen Casey about to release her action plan to reform the P-12 education system, there are a few things that are important to remember.

Youth in Whitney Pier, Cape Breton's Boys and Girls' Club. Photo: Grade 8 students from the Whitney Pier Youth Club
Youth in Whitney Pier, Cape Breton’s Boys and Girls’ Club. Photo: Grade 8 students from the Whitney Pier Youth Club

First, there has not been any serious analysis that attempts to explain why test scores are down. Some commentators have said or implied that modern teaching methods are to blame. The idea here is that we need to get “back to basics,” that schools these days are full of warm fuzzies but not reading, writing and ‘rithmetic. Drill the kids on their times tables, just like in old times, and all will be well.  But as anyone who has spent some time working in a school knows, the reality of our classrooms is much more varied and complex. Teachers and educational leaders are constantly revising and reflecting upon our practice. We blend more traditional techniques with new ideas, adjusting to the needs of our students. Experienced teachers will tell you that over time a “pendulum” swings back and forth between traditional and modern teaching methods: higher-ups will encourage one for a period of time, usually several years, and then move back to the other.

But didn’t the old ways work just fine? some might ask. Why fix what isn’t broken?

Again, the truth behind our perception of the “old ways” is more complex. On what do we base the idea that something “worked” in the past? For whom did it work?

We often view the past through rose-coloured glasses of academic rigour. But we forget that our standards for public education have changed. In my grandparents’ time, many people didn’t finish high school. Today, it’s expected that everyone will. We have much more knowledge of specific learning difficulties and disabilities that permits us to offer education to many more students, regardless of their circumstances. A “back-to-basics” rallying cry is attractive, but simplistic. (There’s a political dimension to this argument too, which you can read about here.) Too much focus on the so-called basics also can take away from the rich, varied curriculum all kids deserve, and which parents who can afford to send their kids to expensive private schools enjoy.

There is one thing we that know for sure affects student success: poverty. The lowest results on standardized assessments are consistently found in schools in the poorest areas.

Indeed, though more data is needed, poverty is probably the best explanation for Nova Scotia’s low test scores. A recent report notes that 1 in 6 children in Nova Scotia lives in poverty, including a staggering 1 in 3 in Cape Breton. As the famous quote by education author Alfie Kohn says, standardized tests “offer a remarkably precise method for gauging the size of the houses near the school where the test was administered. ”

Teachers in high-poverty schools often do great things in enormously difficult conditions, yet are still shamed for their students’ test scores. Rather than focusing on some of the more sensationalist suggestions for improving these scores, such as firing teachers whose students do badly (imagine the effect on a high-poverty school of having its teaching staff turn over year after year), we should acknowledge that improving student success involves concrete, systemic solutions for addressing poverty, such as higher minimum wages and income assistance payments.

As well, we shouldn’t get hung up on improved test scores as an end in themselves. I won’t get into the myriad problems with standardized testing in this space, but much has been written on the limitations of what these tests actually tell us (essentially, how good kids are at writing tests on a given day). While test results are easily digestible as media sound bites, they should not be given as much emphasis as they sometimes seem to be in setting educational policy.

There’s lots that can be done to improve public education. Let’s hope any forthcoming changes are made for the right reasons.

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