lovehate: When Achievement Becomes Anathema to Education

It's not often that I allow my day job to creep into lovehatethings. In fact, I enjoy using LHT to wind down and express ideas outside of work most evenings while hockey plays mute across the room. Tonight though, and partially because I was encompassed by it all day, I want to share the text submission of a presentation I made to the Standing Committee on Social Policy at Queen's Park in Toronto.

The topic was "Student Achievement" and the new legislation (Bill 177) they seek to impose would make it the responsibility or everyone, from teachers to educational assistants to school board trustees, to ensure th at Student Achievement targets were being met. The trouble is, while the Bill (which passed 2nd Reading in the House) actually includes Student Achievement in its title, a definition or standard for Student Achievement is NOWHERE TO BE FOUND. In other words, my job performance is now based on something that is undefined.

I realize that this may be boring as sin to any of you who aren't either living in Ontario or tied to public education, but I'm too tired to write anything else tonight.

A couple of quick definitions to start:

EQAO = Education Quality and Accountability Office which is also the group that provides and grades the standardized test at the grades 3, 6, 9, and 10 level.

Deming's Disciples = William Deming, the father of modern productivity and quality control in industrial settings, revolutionized post-war Japan with the work ethic that the country would become famous for. Unfortunately, while his theories hold well for manufacturing concerns, several educational theorists tried to apply them to education in the 1970s and 1980s under the guise of the Effective Schools movement. The major flaw lies in the fact that students are not widgets, and you can't throw away bad ones when they hit the "factory" floor.



Submission to the Standing Committee on Social Policy

Hearings on Bill 177 – An Act to Amend the Education Act with respect to School Board Governance and Student Achievement

With the term “Student Achievement” ready to be cast in stone, or at least into the Education Act anyway, as a key goal for all students, education workers and now trustees across Ontario, one should have a concrete definition in order to set goals and know potential risks for job performance.

What then is our clear concrete definition of “Student Achievement”? I suppose one could look to the Education Act and find what the Ministry of Education has deemed “Student Achievement” to be. After all, when Bill 177 passes, school boards will be able to taken over by the Ministry. Locally-elected trustees could be denied their abilities to represent their constituents. You would think the trustees, and municipal voters across the province, might like to know what standards they are being held to. But, alas, no such definition exists in the pages of Bill 177.

In lieu of a provincial definition, perhaps local school boards could define their own parameters for “student achievement” in a clear, concise manner so everyone could easily “get on board”. After all, the term is plastered all over school board websites and PR materials while becoming the blanket defense for every questionable action a board takes. If they close a program or a school, if they add fees for specialized programs, if they seek to segregate students by gender or ethnicity, it’s all under the guise of “student achievement”. Surely they must have a working framework to define the term. Yet it’s nowhere to be found.

In lieu of a concrete definition, which, one thinks, should be required for a term that attained ubiquity across Ontario’s education system, perhaps a teacher is expected to cobble together some kind of amorphous metric of what “student achievement” is on an individual basis. I’ve been told for years that a diploma is important, so let’s include that piece. I’ve been sold on the corporate stock ticker stats of EQAO scores, so we’ll assume those are important too. I could throw credits in there as well, but credits are a subset of the diploma, so we’ll assume you can’t have one without the other. And while EQAO was originally a subset of graduation as well, the Ministry has found ways around that, so we must consider it on its own. In reality then, if we are to parse down “student achievement” for the purposes of this Ministry and this Bill, we are left with two things: a diploma and EQAO scores. 

To test any definition, one should reach for the parameters and exercise the tolerances that constitute it. For instance, if a diploma is our first indicator of “student achievement”, doesn’t that mean a student with ten or twenty marks of 50% on the way to a diploma has met the criterion? Are grades even relevant any longer, or have credits been reduced to pass/fail? Is a student with twenty credits at 50% someone who has “achieved”? If so, the Ministry of Education can incorporate a very simple baseline into a standardized definition. But the Ministry always said that Level 3 or mark in the “70s” is the provincial expectation. Does it make sense that a student can achieve by getting a diploma, yet not meet the provincial expectation? It’s quite unclear as to which direction the Ministry wants to go with respect to including credits in any standard definition. If accumulated credits become suspect, then doesn’t that make the resultant diploma suspect as well?

Credits aside, EQAO scores must surely be an indicator that can fit into “student achievement” definition with little to no fuss. We should simply be able to assume that passing the EQAO tests must be good enough for “achievement”. We should be able to assume that, but we find it difficult to do so, because, as a teacher, EQAO tests are insulting to my profession. The Education Quality and Accountability Office, by its very name, suggests educators are not doing their jobs. At some point in recent history, someone at the Ministry of Education became convinced that teachers, educating students, and evaluating their work by attaching a grade and associated skills wasn’t good enough. Surely teachers couldn’t be trusted with education, and there had to be a way to tell if students really weren’t getting the education they deserved.

There’s a subtle irony in that the EQAO evolved out of fears of inconsistency about education in Ontario. The selfsame EQAO scores which now prompt visions of administrative career advancement and under the guise of “student achievement” goals have prompted a fear on behalf of education workers in Ontario about state of education. 

And so we’ve come to the real crux of the issue: in talking of “student achievement” very rarely does one speak of education. People talk of scores, stats, credits, diplomas and, in the end, far fewer people are concerned with a student’s education than a student’s stat sheet. I’m not a math teacher, but two simple equations are clear to me: Achievement does NOT equal Education, and Data Collection does NOT equal Learning.

I was incredibly disheartened, though not very surprised, upon perusing a draft of the proposed “Learning for All K-12” document that came across my desk a couple of weeks ago. While I’ve never been a fan of “Deming’s Disciples” of education that formulated the Effective Schools movement’s “Learning Communities”, backed “No Child Left Behind” in the United States, and are rife with quotations in the draft document, at least they spoke of “education” and “learning”. Yet, in the document, the Ministry has chosen to place their “Achievement Agenda” language side by side with these sources as if to co-opt their credibility. We cannot make achievement equal education by proximity of words on a page. Achievements are trophies earned at the end of a process. Education IS the process. To place more importance on the trophy than the process is demeaning to all education stakeholders.

Education workers are providers, mentors and facilitators of education. We are not stock brokers trying to maximize a student’s EQAO number so we can “buy low and sell high”. We don’t treat student learning as graphing points; we view it as a process. We are loathe to reduce a year’s worth of dedicated curricular efforts to help educate students down to a data-inspired administrative-mandate of “let them redo one assignment, so you can let them pass the course”. Finally, and perhaps seemingly contrary to tone of my submission to this point, while we don’t really see a need for this soon-to-be-enshrined undefined term, we are actually all for students meeting whichever nebulous definition of “achievement” is the order of the day, as long as it’s measured on the back of true learning and real education and not at the expense of it.

lovehate: In Drugs We Trust

Disclaimer: I am not a doctor, do not play one on TV, do not pretend to know many doctors, and really am just making shit up... ENJOY!

In many posts about internet and web culture, I've often lamented about the about how the dominant nature of authority in social media is misplaced. One viral video or well-placed link by another authority figure can vault Twitter followers into the stratosphere or blog hits through the roof. Another thing I always maintain is that as much as we call social media "new" by examining the technologies, proliferation and aggregation of ideas, age-old problems that have plagued media (and in many cases society) have not been, and will never be, eliminated from the model. I am, however, starting to gain a new appreciation for the marriage of new and old, and how the old proclivities of trust with authority figures is bleeding through an API near you.

People have always held a reverence for doctors. There is an unbridled trust that washes over someone upon walking into a doctor's office that is perhaps only ever present in two other places in your lifetime, grade school and church. Put a "D" "R" "period" before someone's name and they instantly become an authority figure on any number of subjects that they may or may not have ANY expertise in whatsoever.

But guess what folks, there are crappy doctors out there. And I'm not talking bad bedside manner or someone who can't get their system to work with your benefits plan. I'm talking about people who just plain don't know what they're talking about because almost EVERYTHING about their profession is an educated guess. There are some who are great at making those guesses and others who seem to choose "All of the above" in order to prescribe you everything from placebos to poison in an effort to weed out some of the things that MIGHT be the actual problem.

I'd never even claim that they don't care. I'm sure they do, to the extent that their knowledge allows them, but their lives are consumed by paranoid patients, pharma sales reps and hypochondriacs who will ingest or inject anything that gets written onto a little white pad in a language that isn't discernable to anyone outside of the sterile community.

We are told the pandemic is coming as doctor's quotations are trotted out across news tickers on cable news networks and interviews are replayed of how many people could die if it spreads. We're told to wash our hands and report strange issuances of sneezing and coughing and fever. We're told that help is on the way in the form of an injection that you MUST have once... alright, maybe twice... alright, maybe with a spray or bottle of pills to boot. We're told it's coming and we cower in our living rooms, basking in the warm glow of our television sets hyping up our own paranoia with every throat scratch, sneeze or cough. We try to think of ways we can get to the front of the line when they dole out the miracle injection that will save us from the disease that's sure to kill millions but leave us and a chosen few to pick up after the earth has died screaming. We believe that if a drug company tells doctor's the injection will work, and the doctor's tell us it will work, we'd be foolhardy to disbelieve.

We buy into the marketing of diseases. How can big pharma sell a "swine flu" vaccine? Everyone will believe that if they haven't been in contact with livestock, they won't need the shot. They'll only be able to convince between 10% to 20% of the population that it's necessary. 

Let's re-brand it. Cal it H1N1. No one knows what the hell that means, but it sounds science-fictiony and futuristic like THX-1138. Let's say that it resembles the regular flu so much that it'll be tough to distinguish between the two... but make sure they know that the regular flu shot won't do on its own. Let's upsell. It's not just Barbie, it's the Barbie in the Barbie convertible.

Let's tell people it's killing thousands of people overseas, where the common cold kills tens of thousands every year. Let's elevate the threat for young people and the elderly so that parents fret for their children and their parents. Let's release statistics to news agencies that ignore that normal deaths from regular flu every year and tell stories about all-star student athletes dying of this disease. Let's get people primed up because we're going to stick them and then stick them with the bill.

Above all, let's hope the strain runs its course because we don't want anyone to know the awful secret that if we actually had a treatment or inoculation that worked we probably could've saved the all-star student athlete. If we REALLY had a viable shot, wouldn't it make sense to roll it out immediately instead of playing a political and marketing game of building up enough supply... but not QUITE enough to prevent people from scurrying to line up for it right away. Would we be able to finally convince the huge demographic that chooses NOT to get a regular flu shot every year, and still NEVER gets the flu, that this is Armageddon?

They don't have to convince us. They have doctor's as their front line. We are the home team crowd. The Pharma League sets the rules. The Lobby Franchise prints up the tickets. The sales force coaches send in the plays. And the team of doctors take the field. They are ready to give it their all. They are ready to do their best. But they don't call the play. They don't make the equipment. They don't set the rules.

Think about that as you're bent over taking a needle in the ass from the second team nose tackle.