A number of people have been questioning People for Education’s stand on EQAO testing. We have lately been accuses of lacking objectivity and ignoring the dire state of education in the province. This conversation will just heat up more when Waiting for Superman is released in Canada.
I think for us, what we’re talking about now, is just a natural extension of our conversations about the importance of having a vision for education in Ontario that goes beyond targets for test scores. When I’ve talked about testing in the media, I’ve tried to be clear that it is not testing in and of itself that is bad – obviously many forms of assessment are important – the problems come when test scores begin to drive education policy, or when the pressure to achieve certain targets begins to skew what we do in the education system.
Sometimes when the test scores are talked about, we hear that a substantial proportion of our children are struggling to meet fundamental learning expectations in reading, writing and math. But EQAO results do not show that. They show that well over 80% of students achieve 60% or better on the tests, and have been doing that for the last five years.
Last week was Premier McGuinty’s Building Blocks for Education Conference. At the conference, one of the interesting things that Andreas Schleicher from the OECD talked about was that there were things that were relatively easy to teach and to test, but that they were not necessarily the things that were the strongest indicators of ongoing long term success. We heard from Timo Lankinen, the Finnish Minister of Education as well. He explained that the Finns do not do census testing in only two subjects as we do in Ontario; instead they focus on a very broad core curriculum, and students stay in one school from ages 7 to 15 or 16. Then students choose from an array of secondary school choices. (This is definitely a form of streaming and one could and should look hard at problems in streaming kids.) But from 7 to 15, the emphasis in every school, for every student, is on strong teacher-student relationships, individual support for students, and what the Finns are calling, 21st Century Citizen Skills. The year before they start official school, the vast majority of Finnish 6-year-olds are enrolled in pre-school and before that, there are strong government-supported child care programs and substantial support for parents who wish to stay home with their children.
Some have said that our interest in the Finnish system contradicts our support for the Pascal vision for early learning because the Pascal vision is partly about starting school younger. But for us, the visionary part of the early learning plan is the integration of programs, policy and resources for families and children, so that kids from birth to 12 have access to all of the supports they needed to be successful, not just in school, but in their lives. The vision is for an early learning program to provide seamless full-day, full-year programs for 4 and 5 year olds, focused on early childhood development. All-day kindergarten is only one component of the vision, and cherry-picking it out from the rest of the plan, is seriously problematic.
Maybe what’s hardest to talk about is objectivity. We are trying to be as objective as possible by looking at many points of view and forming our own. So we read about and listen to, not only Michael Fullan and Michael Barber, but also people like Andy Hargreaves and Diane Ravitch – both former supporters of testing and targets regimes who now question what those policies have done to overall strong education. People like Andreas Schleicher and the Minister of Education from Singapore are talking these days about the importance of relationships between teachers and students and of the foundational competences provided by the arts and physical education. They are also strong believers in assessment, at the local and international level.
At People for Education, we are thinking a lot about the attributes of an educated citizen and wishing that our policy-makers were thinking harder about those things too.
I did not hear the speakers from Ontario at the Premier’s conference describe a strong 21st century vision for education – they remained focused on literacy and numeracy alone, and on improving test scores. Even Arne Duncan, the U.S. Secretary of Education who is a strong advocate for charters, test targets and shutting so-called underperforming schools, spoke at the conference about the importance of broad education and warned of the danger of testing narrowing the very definition of education.
So, I guess the question becomes, what is true objectivity? My daughter Katie was talking to me the other day about the problems that ensue when we only watch the news we agree with (in the states, Fox news versus people like John Stewart or the online news at the New Left media) – she worried that we just keep re-enforcing our own already set opinions. Maybe we end up defining objectivity as whatever supports our own views (e.g. I think the CBC is objective, Stephen Harper thinks it’s horribly left wing).
At People for Education, we really do try to be objective, and I really do try, when talking to the media, to say “on the one hand this, and on the other hand that”. The media doesn’t always like that sort of thing. They like their arguments black and white. Politics, too likes things in black and white. Test score targets are a nice simple political promise and go with the black and whiteness of much of our political landscape. The discussion becomes a simple one, of “up good, down bad.”
SO – where do we go from here? Let’s encourage more talk, more open evaluation of our pre-conceived ideas. This year, at our annual conference we’re going to take the time to collectively work on goals for next year. I hope that the session includes lots of different voices and gives us all great hopes for the future of public education.