Thursday, March 14, 2013

Those Who Can't Do...

Source: CBC News: Province Won't Limit Classroom Sizes, Minister Says

There certainly is no shortage of things to talk about; from SGI motorcycle rates, to unanimous approval to move forward with "Howard's Law" on asbestos, it was hard to decide what should be the first thing to move on to.

But, as you've no doubt guessed from the title, I'm going to focus on education. Education is one of those questions that almost rivals the "chicken or the egg" in terms of complexity, if only because it seems we all have a desire to improve our education system, but few know the best way of achieving that. So far, the Saskatchewan Party government has taken some dumbfounding moves in their desire to improve education.

We all remember how they robbed school boards of the ability to set their own mill rates, denying them the ability to have stable and regular funding. We all remember how they slashed Educational Assistant programs, laying off hundreds of EAs across the province.

In another move of shortsightedness, they pushed back the start of the school dates to correspond with holidays; and now are forcing schools to shove extra time into their schedules now as a result. And we now hear that standardized testing is going to become a norm across the province, though the ministry and Minister Russ Marchuk have yet to determine when, who, what, and how to administer such testing.

It comes to this moment where we should discuss Finland. (LINK) The link is a nice infographic that shows some details about the Finnish Education System, which has become a sort of idealized system as people begin to learn more and more about it. I highly recommend clicking on the link and reading through it, but I will also use some of the facts they incorporate here.

For starters, let's look at some of the Canadian-Finnish comparisons; Finnish high school graduation rates are 93%, where Canada's is 78% (that number, much to our shame, would drop considerably if we compared it to Aboriginal graduation rates). Finnish students outperform other nations by a considerable margin on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), scoring an around 560 while Canada lags behind at the 530 mark.

On the issue of standardized testing, Finnish students take only ONE standardized test in their entire school career at the age of 16. Whereas an American student in New York will take TEN standardized tests before even entering high school, with American students collectively taking ONE HUNDRED MILLION standardized tests a year.

Considering the proof in the pudding, given Finland's lead when compared to other nations, it seems quite odd that Saskatchewan would consider adopting a new system that revolves around standardized testing.

Then there are the other flaws. We have long known that standardized tests often have a bias, usually around first languages, which inherently sets up some students to fail regardless of their actual intelligence level. Furthermore, these sort of general exams do not actually encourage actual learning. It restricts the curriculum, narrowing a teacher's focus on a few subjects at the sacrifice of others.

It also does nothing to help foster rational thinking and independent thought.

Then there is the concern of where standardized testing can lead. We all remember George W. Bush's "No Child Left Behind" initiative, which uses the idea of standardized testing to not only grade students but to grade teacher performance and school performance. In the end, rather than improve education this move diminished it as schools lowered passing scores on these tests in order to avoid funding cuts.

Is this Brad Wall's prelude to a new school funding formula based on standardized testing performance?

Let us hope not, but I wouldn't put it past him; given that we've seen school budgets cut, and his government has once again refused to pump any more money into the system (as they have announced they will not be reviewing the educational tax rate in the upcoming budget.)

Now, let's get to one other difference between Finland and the rest of the world: Class size. NDP Education critic David Forbes talked about how he's heard of a kindergarten class that will have 94 students in Saskatoon, and called on the government to introduce measures to control class sizes. The government has come forward and said that such measures are not on the table, and that they leave it up to the school boards to allocate resources as needed for large classes (resources, which as we've mentioned have been significantly clawed back).

Again, using our handy link, we see that in New York there is ONE teacher for every TWENTY-FOUR students. In Finland, the rate is ONE teacher to every TWELVE students. On top of this, children in the Finnish system don't experience heavy homework loads until they are in teens; which in turn, produces less work for the teacher to mark allowing them to spend more time TEACHING.

Growing classes are not a new thing and not going away, they are a new normal. When I graduated from high school in 2005, we had a class size of about 90 or so students. The next year, that number swelled to over 120; and from keeping in touch with teachers from high school, it is my understanding that there always seems to be more and more students than the year before.

Cutting EAs, and forcing teachers to adhere to standardized testing is not going to enhance education; especially not when it's a ratio of ONE to NINETY and UP.

The fact of the matter is that we need to be increasing our resources to teachers, not tying their hands in one area and then expecting them to pick up slack at the same time. All the moves taken by this government seem incredibly shortsighted and unlikely to enhance childhood education, if anything they are increasing the odds of stunting childhood education and putting more strain onto the system.

There is a need for educational reform and a change to the status quo, but let's focus on changes on emulating a system that works better than ours (like the one in Finland) rather than one that already in worse shape than our own (like the USA's).

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