An awkward fact the teachers’ union ex-president never quite grasped

That the ‘progress’ of education for the last half century has been one of steady decline

As H. Mark Ramsankar retired last month after four years as president of the Alberta Teachers Association, I recalled a highly illuminating public comment he made back in 2013 in defence of Alberta’s school system. David Staples of the Edmonton Journal, who then and still offers the most competent media commentary on that system, had suggested that what it most needed was not smaller classes, but better teachers.

As foremost spokesperson for the ATA, President Ramsankar responded, not by defending the teachers, but by attacking Mr. Staples. “It’s beginning to become clear the type of education David Staples wants in Alberta,” wrote Mr. Ramsankar. “He has advocated for larger classes, more standardized testing, back to basic curriculum, skill and drill direct instruction, and using grades as carrots and sticks for student behaviour. He seems happy to revert to a 19th Century industrial model of education.”

This little commentary actually tells us more about Mr, Ramsankar than it does about Mr. Staples. The ATA president did not realize at the time, and no doubt has never discovered since, that the school system in the late 19th Century and in the first half of the 20th was, by any measurable standard, far superior to the one we have today. A modern Grade 12 student, confronted with the departmental examinations in mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology or English grammar of the year, say, 1945, would not have the least idea what many of the questions were about. In other words, our “progress” in the last half of the 20th Century and opening years of the 21st, has been one of steady decline. The lamentable experience has been that the more we spend on our educational system, the worse it gets in terms of measurable results.

That’s why the management — meaning most. not all, of the departmental bureaucracy, along with the teachers’ union, and what one uncharitable observer calls “the Zoo” (i.e., the education faculties of the universities) — will do everything it can to avoid objective and competitive testing of any kind. Whether it be student against student, school against school, provincial systems, or national systems, the management opposes it. Why? Because the tests again and again show what a calamitous ruin has been made of what once the best school system in the world. And who is leaving us behind? Asia mostly, Australia, Finland, and always, incidentally, by using the same methods we once used and then, urged by the Zoo, we discarded.

“We should not expend too much energy talking about narrow measurements,” writes Mr. Ramsankar. He means things like exams in maths, the sciences, or language, set by groups like the International Student Assessment. Many teachers, it is charged, simply “teach the exam” — that is, focus solely on the questions likely to appear on the paper, rather than teach the subject as a whole. But if the exam is competent, it will test all the significant areas of the subject. No one could possibly pass the exam without knowing the subject. So why not come clean, Mr. Ramsankar? The reason many teachers hate the exams, is that they’re being tested along with the students.

Mr. Ramsankar favours instead an emphasis on what he calls “twenty-first-century skills,” which he identifies as “creativity, ingenuity, collaboration, problem solving, and critical thinking.” No one can question, of course, these very high goals, but no one can objectively measure a student’s progress in them either. How can one really know for sure whether this or that student emerged after a year in Ms. Jones’s class with notably greater creativity, ingenuity. ability to think critically, solve problems and “collaborate” (whatever that means)? One can’t.

On the other hand, skills or the lack of them in mathematics, physics and the grammatical construction of the language can be observed and measured with hideous accuracy on a well composed test or exam– to the consequent glory or shame of both teacher and student. Small wonder that the union hates them. How much more comfortable it is to aim at the soaring aspirations of Mr. Ramshankar’s “21st Century skills,”– skills so lacking in the schools that went before, he implies, that they produced, among other things, outdated people like David Staples.

After all, what was produced by the generation schooled by the odious “19th Century industrial model of education?” Well there are a few things. In the 1930s, for instance, they endured and overcame the world’s worst-ever economic depression. In the 1940s, they won the world’s biggest and most deadly war. In the 1970s , they overcame history’s biggest-ever slave state, and by the century’s end they had extended through medicine the average human life by about 20 years, and (by the way) put men on the moon. And all of them were the product of an educational system that Mr. Ramsankar and his colleagues from the Zoo have struggled hard to destroy, while others are adopting the same system to outperform us.

What a life-time accomplishment for you to look back on, Mr. Ramsankar, as you now go on to become president-designate of the Canadian Teachers Federation. Here you will be able to extend nationally your tireless efforts to safeguard Canadian teachers and students against the unpleasantness of tests, exams and other instances of Real Life that can so easily distress them.

Ted Byfield was founder and publisher of Alberta Report news magazine, general editor of Alberta in the Twentieth Century. a 12-volume history of the province, and general editor of The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years, a 12-volume history of Christianity. His column on education appears in The Christians.com, a web journal. He has recently authored two little books on modern pedagogy: Why History Matters and The Revolution Nobody Covered. You can order both copies here.

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3 thoughts on “An awkward fact the teachers’ union ex-president never quite grasped

  1. This is correct. Good tests can determine how well the schools in general, and the individual students, are doing. Finland actually tests only at the end of high school, and what the teachers do up to that point is up to them. It is assumed that they are professionals. I could wish that we had no more than three levels of testing, grades 4, 8, and 12 — grade 3 is too young, and in grade 8 the kids are crazy enough that a looming test might knock some seriousness into them — and that the tests were based on international standards rather than subjective and geared to the curriculum. As we have seen over the past two generations, the curriculum swings like a pendulum.

    But I would go further. Even the ‘industrial’ model of education was a substantial step down from a ‘classical’ model. John Dewey’s direct intention was to develop a compliant population, needed to work in factories. It was ‘democratic’ mostly in a rather communist sense. Classical education, on the other hand, offered centuries of success in introducing students to the Great Conversation which began in ancient times. We have lost the ability to think ‘liberally’ (= the liberal arts: grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, music). Of course, in contemporary education, the natural sciences are expanded in accordance with how much more has been discovered since way back when. But in losing this Great Conversation we have become ‘chronological snobs’, convinced that whatever is NOW is BEST (= ‘progress’), and ignorant of history. See a summary of C.S. Lewis’ thinking on this at https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chronological_snobbery

    This is why homeschooling, particularly on a classical model, cannot help but do better than what is offered in the schools. See “The Lost Tools of Learning”, a speech by Dorothy Sayers. http://gbt.org/text/sayers.html

    Here are two quotes that suggest that our current NDP government is doing exactly what Dewey envisioned: “I believe that education is the fundamental method of social progress and reform.” and “Schools should take an active part in directing social change, and share in the construction of a new social order.”

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  2. Ted
    People are paid for what they can do, not for what they know, unless of course they are game show contestants of a type. I twenty years of recruiting engineers I have seen the decline of skills in the graduates. And yes, while we focused on the necessary technical skills e.g. the maths and sciences etc, we came to learn that it were other things that make a great engineer. Many of the things mention by this ex ATA president.
    However, while trying to understand what separated the great from the mediocre, we came to learn the problem sovling, leadership, confidence and the prime one, communication skills were the most important and hardest to develop. The other can easily be developed.
    So we investigaged how these were developed. While there are a few factors, I would attribute it one, simply put. Adversity. As one grows up they have to experience ascending levels of advesity and over come them to achieve goals.
    Per Ardua Ad Astra. The RCAF motto that I grew up around, I never truely understood this motto until discovering the Adversity factory. I used to think the literal transition was ‘It was difficult to get to the stars’ but i think it really means ‘You do not get through the stars without going through adversity’
    The other thing I think is true, is things like overcoming diversity comes from you total learning environment and that one of the most important is play. And that there seems to be a fine period in our life to learn thes vital life skills. e.g. I never seen a college graduate become a problem solver if they were not one already, other than what almost anyone can do, become an experiental problems solver. e.g. solving the same problem over and over.
    An example of what I speak.
    We had a situation where the ‘experts’ had worked for over 3 weeks trying to solve a customers problem with our equipment. It finally got escalated to my department to help out. I sent my best problem solver, who know nothing of the equipment nor situation, and the problem was resolved in 1 day. How did he do that so quickly when experst struggled for weeks and failed. I will give you a hint, all the experts grew up in a culture that does not tolerate failure in the learning process.

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