Doing More of the Same Won’t Improve Test Results

Commentary, Education, Michael Zwaagstra

Question: What’s the surest way to ensure future failure? Answer: Double up on past strategies that have led to present failures—a good example of which comes from Ontario where fully one-third of elementary students in that province are below the provincial standard for reading, writing and math.

Things aren’t looking much better in the upper grades since about half of the students not meeting the math standard in grade six remain below the standard in grade nine applied math. Considering that applied math is geared to students heading for the workforce or community college, these numbers are worrisome indeed.

Even more disappointing was the inadequate response from Kathleen Wynne, Ontario’s education minister. In an interview with the Canadian Press, Wynne acknowledged reason for concern. However, she went on to note the Ontario government has measures in place to address the situation. That includes reduced class sizes, more money for math and literacy coaches, and expanded availability of full-day kindergarten.

Unfortunately, none of these measures are likely to result in better test scores for students. While many people assume smaller class sizes result in improved learning, this belief is unsupported by research evidence. For example, class size limits imposed by state legislatures in California and Tennessee several years ago had a minimal impact on student performance but a major impact on total education spending. There is little reason to expect anything different in Ontario.

Also, math and literacy coaches are a fancy way to identify classroom teachers who provide demonstration lessons for other teachers. The idea that the provincial government needs to provide funding so teachers can share teaching strategies is a symptom of a much bigger problem. If collaboration and teamwork isn’t standard practice in Ontario schools today, putting formal math and literacy coaches in place will do little to change this culture.

The Simcoe County District School Board recently conducted a formal evaluation of the effectiveness of math and literacy coaches in improving student test scores. Although the report contains plenty of positive anecdotes from teachers who feel their teaching improved as a result of this training, the hard performance numbers showed little difference between schools with math and literacy coaches and those without them.

In addition, there is little evidence that expanding the availability of full-day kindergarten improves the academic performance of students. Countries such as the United States, Britain, and Sweden have committed millions of dollars to this type of initiative over the past few decades with little to show in the way of concrete results. There is no long-term research showing that more years of schooling for young children is the key to improving student academic performance.

In short, the measures proposed by Wynne are essentially cosmetic in nature and unlikely to make a significant difference in the quality of education students receive. Fundamental reforms at a more basic level are needed.

Ontario’s provincial government should start by examining the quality of the curriculum it provides to students. For example, many curriculum guides are unacceptably vague and fail to identify specific content students need to master.

Take a look at any English Language Arts guide. You’ll find little emphasis on proper grammar and spelling and virtually no prescribed books all students should read. In mathematics, many schools no longer expect students to memorize their multiplication tables and perform long division without the use of a calculator. With this lack of emphasis on concrete knowledge and skills, it’s no wonder students flounder and fail.

Since the results from Ontario’s provincial standards tests clearly indicate some schools outperform others, parents also need much greater ability on where to enrol their children, i.e., in successful schools. Many higher-income parents have the ability to move to neighbourhoods with better schools or pay for their children to attend private schools. However, lower-income families often find themselves trapped in failing schools.

Ontario could break this cycle of hopelessness by allowing parents to send their children to any school of their choice. The per-pupil funding provided to school boards for each student enrolled in their jurisdiction should instead be controlled by parents; the funding thus follows their children to any school. In this way, parents could use information about the academic success of schools to help them choose an appropriate school for their children. Successful schools will grow and prosper while failing schools will improve or be shut down.

The status quo in education is unsatisfactory. If parents want to see real improvements, those in charge of their schools need to make real changes.