“There is nothing new under the sun.”
This ancient saying certainly rings true in the debate on public education today. As evidence, teacher unions across the country regularly recycle the same old chestnuts. Standardized testing is bad for students, wealthy business leaders want to destroy public education, think tanks cannot be trusted, and charter schools have no right to exist are but a few examples.
True to form, Nova Scotia teacher and union leader Grant Frost recycles these points in his new book, “The Attack on Nova Scotia Schools: The Story Behind 25 Years of Tumultuous Change.” Predictably, Frost endorses everything that teachers’ unions support and attacks anything that they oppose. His writing is nothing if not consistent.
Frost spends the first part of his book arguing that public education has been unfairly criticized over the last 60 years. He particularly opposes the so-called Global Education Reform Movement (GERM), which focuses on students learning the core competencies of literacy and numeracy and promotes accountability measures such as standardized testing. According to Frost, standardized testing limits the creativity of teachers because it forces teachers to teach to the test.
In common with other union leaders, Frost relies heavily on American examples in his book. For example, he points out significant flaws with the No Child Left Behind legislation in the United States that required students to write high-stakes literacy and numeracy tests every year. But no Canadian province tests students this frequently, nor does any province use standardized test results to evaluate teachers.
Since most standardized tests in this country are curriculum-based, teaching to the test simply means teaching the curriculum. Moreover, there is considerable scope for teachers to teach material that is wider and deeper than the test items assess.
When Frost finally turns his focus toward Canada, he directs much of his ire at think tanks such as the Fraser Institute and the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS). By identifying the wealthy benefactors of these think tanks and pointing out their strong support for free market principles, he claims the think tanks have a secret agenda to destroy public education. However, there is more bluster than substance in his claims.
For example, Frost makes much of the fact that Fraser and AIMS support charter schools, which are publicly funded schools that operate independently of school boards. Like other teacher union leaders, he believes that charter schools undermine public education and fail to improve student achievement. To prove his point, he describes charter school failures in the United States but glosses over the success of many charter schools in Alberta.
It’s not hard to see why Frost spent as little time as possible describing Alberta’s charter schools. Had he dug deeper, he would have had to explain the success of Foundations for the Future Charter Academy, a high-performing charter school in Calgary with several thousand parents on its wait list. He would also have had to acknowledge that the tiny rural hamlet of Valhalla saved its only school from imminent closure by creating a community-based charter school. These success stories, and many others, contradict Frost’s predetermined conclusion that charter schools are bad for students.
At one point, Frost briefly goes off script and expresses frustration with no-zero assessment policies. Considering the grief that no-zero policies have caused for many Canadian teachers, it’s too bad he doesn’t give this controversial issue the attention it needs. Instead, he simplistically claims that “public pressure” was the reason these policies came into existence.
However, anyone with any knowledge of the no-zero debate knows that it had nothing to do with public pressure but resulted from the impressive marketing effort of self-styled assessment gurus such as Ken O’Connor. When Edmonton physics teacher Lynden Dorval was fired in 2012 for opposing his school’s no-zero policy, the massive outpouring of support for Dorval left no doubt that the only people who supported no-zero policies were the consultants who made a living peddling their impractical assessment theories.
If Frost is looking for the real problems facing public education, he need look no further than the failed progressive education ideas coming from the United States. Since he and other teacher union leaders are fans of American education historian Diane Ravitch, they should read her 2000 book “Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms.” In it, Ravitch shows how William Heard Kilpatrick’s progressive philosophy came to dominate Columbia University's Teachers College, which was the most influential teacher education institution in the United States.
From there, these bad ideas quickly spread to teacher training institutions across both the United States and Canada. Progressive education might not be part of GERM, but it is much more contagious and a whole lot more deadly.
Even though there is a wealth of research supporting the importance of a content-rich curriculum, structured classrooms, and direct instruction, teachers are still pressured to adopt the latest progressive fad. It would be helpful if teacher unions did more to support those teachers who are courageously standing up for evidence-based practices.
The Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF) is a fortunate exception. Not only did OSSTF lead the charge against no-zero policies when they first came to Ontario, OSSTF was the first teachers’ union in the world to sponsor a researchED conference. Unlike so many other professional development conferences, researchED encourages teachers to look at the evidence for themselves and to reject ideas that lack sufficient evidence of their effectiveness. Other unions should follow OSSTF’s example and encourage their members to challenge ineffective teaching practices.
In order to address the real challenges facing public education, we must go beyond the standard union talking points and promote evidence-based teaching practices. Our students deserve nothing less.