By Robert Green
A slightly edited version of this Op-ed appeared in the April 25 edition of the Montreal Gazette
Should the grades students receive on their report cards be the product of the professional judgment of those trained in pedagogy and the evaluation of learning or the product of the public relations needs of schools, school boards and the education ministry (MELS)? While most Quebecers would surely prefer to leave the evaluation of learning to the trained professionals, the reality is that since the 2008 passing of Bill 88 report cards are increasingly subject to the corrupting influences of political interests.
This is because Bill 88 makes success rates for schools and school boards all important. The bill obliges both schools and school boards to sign contracts committing them to make measured improvements in specific areas, such as math or literacy scores. The problem for principals and school board administrators is that they are being asked to achieve these goals in a context of ongoing budget cuts. Those with ambition must find creative ways to meet their goals.
The inevitable result is pressure being put on teachers to inflate their marks, or even worse, marks being changed by administrators without the teacher’s consent. The Federation Autonome de L’Enseignment, one of Quebec’s large teacher federations has recently reported this to be a growing problem amongst its members.
Changing the marks given by teachers also happens at the ministry level with secondary four and five courses through two processes ‘moderation’ and ‘conversion’. Ostensibly ‘moderation’ is to address discrepancies between class marks and marks on standardized provincial exams while ‘conversion’ is to address problems with exams deemed to be unfair or invalid in some way. However, the end result is that these two processes grant MELS the ability to fix success rates wherever it wishes, irrespective of the professional judgment of teachers.
In both cases, the perception of the vast majority of teachers is that all this is about lowering standards to meet goals rather than addressing the fundamental problems having to do with under-funding and a provincial curriculum that has never had the support of teachers.
To understand why Bill 88 is so problematic, the work of methodologist Donald T. Campbell is extremely illuminating. Back in 1976 he came up with an adage that has since become known as Campbell’s law. It states: “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.”
The former Soviet Union provides one of history’s best examples of Campbell’s law. One of the reasons why so few Western observers were able to predict the collapse of the Soviet Union was the complete absence of any reliable data with respect to its social indicators. Data had become so politicized by the apparatchiks running the Soviet state, that it became entirely unreliable.
A more recent example of Campbell’s law at work are the numerous fraud scandals that have swept the US education system since the introduction of George Bush’s ‘No Child Left Behind’ law, which like Bill 88 reduces the value of teachers and schools to measurable data. One such scandal in Atlanta Georgia involved over 800 teachers and administrators systematically changing marks on standardized tests.
Unless Quebecers want their education system to become yet another cautionary tale of Campbell’s law in action, they should be demanding that their government put the brakes on the myopic focus on success rates that is inherent in Bill 88.
This is not to say that data has no place in educational decision making. To the contrary, data is an important part of the picture. But it is not and should not be the whole picture.
Nor is this to say that schools and school boards should not be accountable. They should, but so should government. The fundamental problem with Bill 88 is that it directs accountability exclusively downward towards schools. There is no accountability whatsoever at the top end of the system, where decisions around funding and curriculum are made; decisions that are as critical to educational success as any decisions taken at the school level.
Successful models of school accountability are driven by community involvement not data. If government is serious about making schools more accountable, they should be looking at ways to increase parental participation and involvement in school life, not following the Americans down a path that only leads to fraud scandals, the lowering of academic standards and attacks on the professional integrity of teachers.