Alberta throws a stick of dynamite into education system

Being tested and labelled at an early age can have a devastating effect on a child’s self-esteem and intellectual potential

If Steve Bannon isn’t on the Alberta government’s payroll, he certainly is its muse.

Bannon is the notorious former strategic adviser to U.S. President Donald Trump.

His views on the benefits of disruption might well inform Premier Jason Kenney’s government tactics of mass disruption in many sectors. These include the most vital areas of health care and education.

A major review of the curriculum for kindergarten-to-Grade-12 education has recently been completed and the panel has submitted its report. The recommendations are wide-ranging but what concerns me most relates to standardized testing. The recommendation is that standardized literacy and numeracy tests be administered from Grades 1 through 5, ostensibly to catch and correct any learning difficulties.

On its face, this sounds sensible because when learning difficulties are caught early, remedial action can be taken quickly.

But why would it require a standardized test to diagnose problems? Surely teachers are best placed to identify students who are struggling to achieve what their peers have mastered.

These tests exert undue pressure on children and teachers alike, causing the latter to ‘teach to the test’ to the detriment of other important subjects.

When children first start school, they’re adjusting to a very different environment where they have to learn to socialize and to submit to the discipline required for an orderly classroom. As they navigate these new experiences, it’s important that they enjoy the process, that we don’t stifle their curiosity and creativity by causing anxiety.

Being tested and labelled at an early age can have a devastating effect on a child’s self-esteem and intellectual potential. An experiment conducted in an elementary school in the United States illustrates the impact of labels. At the beginning of the school year, researchers administered a test (which was a ruse) and arbitrarily identified 20 per cent of students in each class as “star” students. The findings of the study were that the evaluations became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Many “stars” rose to the challenge, but when children in the control group (which constituted 80 per cent of each class) excelled, their teachers viewed the results with suspicion.

That approximately 10 per cent of children suffer extreme anxiety at the prospect of standardized tests is of greater concern. Health issues associated with such testing include stomach aches and vomiting, headaches, sleep problems and depression.

Teachers are also anxious that their students perform well because their teaching skills are being tested as well: in many jurisdictions in the U.S., teacher pay is tied to student performance. So it isn’t surprising that nearly half of American teachers have considered leaving the profession due to standardized testing. Nor should it come as a surprise that teachers and school administrators have been sent to jail for inflating marks by altering students’ answers and other fraudulent tactics.

Perhaps we can learn something from Finland, where there’s a strong emphasis on quality and equity in education. High school graduation rates in Finland are 97 per cent compared to Alberta’s 73 per cent (the lowest in Canada). Finnish children aren’t tested until the final year of their high school education. Until then, although students are unaware of their performance in relation to their classmates, their teachers engage in an ongoing process of evaluation and assessment of their individual needs. Yet Finnish students perform very well on the Programme for International Student Assessment tests for 15-year-olds administered in multiple countries by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

Teaching is a highly valued profession in Finland, and the status of teachers is on par with doctors and lawyers. All teachers have a master’s degree and there’s intense competition for teaching jobs.

It isn’t possible to replicate Finland’s results because they exist in a unique socio-political context. However, I would hope that important education system principles like trust in teachers and visionary leadership aren’t beyond us.

Learning involves more than performing on standardized tests and subjecting young children to them helps no one. More generally, the slavish emphasis on math and science depreciates subjects that produce creative, well-rounded humans who can think critically.

To engage in major revisions to the curriculum without any input from teachers is staggering. It sends a strong signal to the profession that its input is irrelevant and its expertise is dispensable. That’s hardly a basis for a harmonious relationship.

Such tactics only make sense to a government that believes that something good might come out of throwing a stick of dynamite into the province’s education system.

Doreen Barrie is an adjunct assistant professor in the Political Science Department at the University of Calgary.

© Troy Media


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