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.