Teachers Catharine Hogan and Robert Green discuss grade inflation, student stress and the problems with Quebec’s curriculum with James Mennie of the Montreal Gazette, sitting in for CJAD’s Tommy Schnurmacher:
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.
Teachers Catharine Hogan and Robert Green discuss the pressures to inflate grades that have resulted from Quebec’s Bill 88 with CJAD’s Tommy Shnurmacher:
By Robert Green
The last week has seen some alarming developments with respect to the myopic focus on success rates and standardized test results that has been at the heart of US education reform since the introduction of George Bush’s No Child Left Behind law.
The first development is the indictment of 35 Atlanta educators for their participation in a massive fraud scandal involving teachers and administrators colluding to change answers on standardized tests. The district superintendant Beverly Hill has been charged with racketeering, theft, influencing witnesses, conspiracy and making false statements. She could face up to 45 years in prison. The New York Times quoted teacher and whistle-blower Jackie Parks as stating that “the cheating had been going on so long, we considered it part of our jobs.”
The second development was the release of a survey by The National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest) indicating that the situation in Atlanta was far from unique. The survey found evidence of score manipulation in at least 37 states. “Across the U.S., strategies that boost scores without improving learning — including outright cheating, narrow teaching to the test and pushing out low-scoring students — are widespread,” said FairTest Public Education Director Bob Schaeffer. “These corrupt practices are inevitable consequences of the politically mandated overuse and misuse of high-stakes exams.”
In its analysis FairTest identifies over 50 ways that schools ‘cheat’ in order to manipulate results on high stakes standardized tests. These include:
The Conflict in Context: A Québec high school teacher’s perspective on the movement for accessible education
By Robert Green
I teach a secondary five level course called ‘The Contemporary World’ at a public English high school in Montreal. One of the messages I am constantly trying to pass on to my students is that in attempting to understand world events, we should always be wary of overly simplistic formulations. Events do not occur in a vacuum. The historical and political context in which an event occurs always matters.
In recent months, as the student strike in Québec has come to dominate the headlines, I have found myself repeating a very similar message in discussions with students, friends, neighbours and colleagues. The mainstream media has been very successful at framing this conflict in the narrowest of terms; as being strictly about students not wanting to pay a $1,625 tuition increase. With such a simplistic framing of the issue it has been very easy for people to agree with commentators who characterize Québec students as irrational and entitled because they already pay the lowest tuition in Canada.
The problem with this analysis is that if indeed this movement is merely about irrational, entitled students, how does one explain the series of historic demonstrations of between two and four-hundred-thousand people? How does one explain the fact that these demonstrations were filled not just with students, but with teachers such as myself, university and Cégep [college] professors, parents, senior citizens groups, union members, etc.? There’s something missing from the simplistic picture the media is offering us.
In examining the student strike within its broader historical and political context, I hope to offer a more complete picture of the issue. In so doing I also hope to articulate why, as a public school teacher and as a citizen of Québec, I find it important to actively support the movement for accessible education.
By Robert Green
A week rarely passes in Quebec where there is not one news story or another about members of a local community clashing with school board or government bureaucrats over an issue involving schools. Because many feel that the centralized bureaucracies that manage our schools are out of touch with the needs of local communities, they argue for greater school autonomy. On the other hand, some degree of centralized management is needed in order to maintain equitable access to resources and system-wide standards. Indeed the question of local autonomy versus centralized management is one of the key issues every government must face in managing its education system.
One of the major trends in North America involving the issue of school autonomy is the use of incentivized ‘performance indicators’ as a means for government to impose its will on schools. This is the philosophy behind George Bush’s ‘No Child Left Behind’ (NCLB) law that ties school funding and/or teacher pay to various measurable indicators of school success. More often than not this involves standardized test scores.
After ten years of such policies, the US has not improved its achievement rates at all. It has, however, succeeded in transforming its public schools to serve a single purpose: prep for high stakes standardized tests. Not only have American schools been canceling art classes, phys ed and even recess in order to focus more on test prep, but there has also been a wave of high profile fraud scandals throughout the US, some involving hundreds of teachers and administrators systematically changing the test responses of students to avoid their schools being shut down or defunded. The only other thing such policies have achieved is millions in profits for the corporations that own the private charter schools and have been all too happy to receive the public dollars formerly dedicated to the public system.
By Robert Green
Although the next provincial election in Quebec may still be well over a year away, education is already emerging as one of its central issues. While the student protests for accessible education have directed much of society’s focus towards a number of issues at the post-secondary level, there are also many reasons for Quebecers to be concerned about what is being proposed at the elementary and secondary levels.
Both Francois Legault’s Coalition pour l’Avenir du Québec (CAQ) and the governing Liberals (PLQ) seem intent on importing to Quebec aspects of the American corporate education reform agenda at the heart of George Bush’s ‘No Child Left Behind’ policy. Legault wants to bring the American war on teachers unions north. If elected his party intends to remove the tenure process that provides teachers with professional autonomy and job security. Meanwhile the Liberals, through their Bill 88 passed last year, have been flirting with the notion of using performance indicators to determine school funding.
What all parties seem to agree on is that Quebec’s education system is in crisis and needs to be fixed.
This, however, is nothing new. For at least the last twenty years politicians have been wringing their hands over the Quebec education system’s poor performance and high drop-out rate. Their response has been one ill-fated policy-fix after another. Prior to this latest focus on performance-based incentives, it was curriculum reform that was supposed to serve as our miracle cure.
But the problem with miracle cures is that they tend not to be based on evidence.
Indeed evidence is what is missing most from the current debate about the future of Quebec’s education system. What is needed is a government willing to consider the numerous policy options that a wide body of research, both in Canada and abroad, has shown to be effective in improving educational outcomes.
By Robert Green
Back in 2008, before the Quebec Liberals passed Bill 88, QPAT submitted a brief to the National Assembly outlining its position on the Bill. It warned that the Bill would bring Quebec down the same path of “results-based testing” that held an “iron grip” on the US education system. It cited the failure of such policies to improve results and outlined the many reasons why holding schools exclusively responsible for the success of their students is unjust. The Brief also questioned the lack of government funding being offered to attain the proposed improvements. In short, the brief presented Bill 88 as having serious negative implications for both teachers and students.
Indeed, the QPAT Brief raised many of the points discussed in the article posted more recently on this blog, “Is No Child Left Behind Coming to Quebec?”
However, since this Bill was passed in 2008 QPAT’s serious concern about its implications seems to have all but disappeared. QPAT has done next to nothing to inform either its members or the public at large of the Bill’s dire implications. The first mention of Bill 88 to the members came in the June 2008 issue of QPAT’s Liaison newsletter. Gone were the dire warnings about the “iron-grip of results-based testing”. Instead the members were soothed with the following: “Some concerns about this bill exist, but it may provide for greater consistency among school boards in implementing certain MELS policies”. Exactly what those concerns were was never mentioned.
By Robert Green
The release of the 2010 documentary ‘Waiting for Superman’ represented a high point for corporate education reformers in the US. With backing from Bill Gates and several other billionaires, the documentary received an enormous amount of media attention including being featured on the Oprah Winfrey Show.
However, since its release a grassroots movement has been growing to counter the film’s message that teacher’s unions are the problem and that more standardized testing and more semi-private charter schools are the solution. In short this movement of teachers and parents has exposed ‘Waiting for Superman’ for what it is: slick propaganda aimed at destroying public education and enriching the corporate interests behind the charter schools and the multi-billion dollar standardized testing industry.
Teachers, parents and indeed all citizens concerned about public education in Quebec need to familiarize themselves with the grassroots efforts to resist the corporate education reform agenda in the US because elements of that agenda are now being promoted by the two political parties most likely to win the next election. Liberal Education Minister Line Beauchamps has been musing publicly about her intentions to use the performance contracts imposed on schools through Bill 88 to defund underperforming schools. Meanwhile Francois Legault is proposing to enact a merit pay system for teachers while stripping them of their union-protected job security. Thus far, the various unions representing teachers in Quebec have done little to inform either their members or the public-at-large of just how disastrous such policies have been in the US.
By Robert Green
An abbreviated version of this op-ed appeared in the Montreal Gazette September 14, 2011 under the title “A reform that will miss its target – No child left behind was a disaster for the U.S. education system. Why should Quebec go down a similar road?”
In the spring of 2008 Jean Charest’s Liberals passed a reform of Quebec’s Education Act entitled Bill 88. Though the bill had far reaching implications for Quebec’s public schools there was relatively little public debate and discussion about its content.
This past spring one of the major implications of this bill became clear as the governing boards of each of Quebec’s public schools were required by the MELS (Ministère de l’Éducation, du Loisir et du Sport) to sign what is being called a “Management and Educational Success Agreement”. These agreements identify numerous objectives for the school with specific measurable targets such as “to increase graduation rates from 83% to 86%” or “the success rate for mathematics 404 will increase from 42% to 45%”. Some of these performance indicators are determined by the school board while others are determined by the schools.
So what could possibly be wrong with asking schools to set such measurable targets? The answer to this question lies south of the border where the use of such performance indicators has been at the heart of a revolution in public education that began with George Bush’s 2001 “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) legislation and has been accelerated by Barack Obama. The appeal of this revolution is in the simplicity of its message: use high-stakes standardized testing to hold teachers and schools accountable for the success or failure of their students. Reward success; punish failure. This means offering both the carrot of additional funding or ‘merit-pay’ (often in exchange for union-protected job security) and the stick of threatened school closure or loss of employment.