Over the past few months, the Atlantic Institute of Market Studies (AIMS) has been stirring the educational waters again, this time with a rather odd little stick.
Michael Zwaagstra is a teacher from, of all places, Manitoba, who has been knighted as an AIMS “Fellow in Common Sense Education”. Although I’m not really sure what a fellow has to do to earn a title in common sense, AIMS has seen fit to allow Zwaagstra to place a series of videos on its website which purport to help teachers, parents and students understand what it is that needs fixing in public education.
These vidoes, entitled the Common Sense Education Video Series, seem to essentially mirror Zwaagstra’s own book “What’s Wrong With Our Schools (and How Do We Fix Them) (2010) and are consistent with much of his recent commentary which has appeared in The Halifax Herald. His book contains chapters about how kids should not be socially passed from grade to grade, how they need more discipline, and how we need more standardized testing in schools. The videos talk about such things as what’s wrong with current math curriculum, and how assessment policies have gone awry. Overall, his message is that we need to get back to basics in education, that there needs to be more grounding in facts and content, and that less emphasis should be placed on what he calls “progressive” education practices.
Now, I have to admit, some of Zwaagstra’s ideas speak to me, (I mean, seriously, does anyone actually think that “no zeros” is a good idea?) and he does strike a chord with me when he discredits a few choice assessment gurus. However, I am concerned that we must beware the wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Consider the notion from his book that parents should have the ability to choose which schools their children attend based on “reliable information”. Even if this idea actually made any “common sense” in any area of the province outside of metro, how does this help education? Consider if a school “A” gets labelled “Good” and school “B” gets labelled “Bad”. Would any parent who could afford to not send their kids to the good school? School A would have lots of kids and lots of money, school B would have few kids with no money, and eventually, would shut down.
Secondly, as tempting as it may sound to get “back to basics” to improve standardized test scores, we must be cautious. The current maelstrom of educational change has its roots in standardization and has grown from the tainted soil of America’s “No Child Left Behind” debacle of the last decade. Education must be more than a mad scramble to be the best in training our kids to take standardized tests.
And what of Zwaagstra’s idea that kids need discipline and that “unruly” children should not be allowed to disrupt the education of others. Well, getting rid of “unruly” children may sound tempting to some, but where, exactly do these kids go? Out on the street? As a teacher, I don’t get to pick my kids. And in twenty years of teaching I know that every class has a “worst” behaved, just like each has a “best” behaved. Put those same kids in a different class, and their ranking on that particular scale is pretty likely to change. Then who becomes the “unruly” one?
AIMS remains a relatively right-wing organization (If you doubt that claim, read the recent and, I must admit, quite well written commentary by their chairperson, John Risley, available on their website, that argues against increasing taxes for the rich) and I get nervous when any educator is too far to either side of the political spectrum. However, it is the “leaning towards elitist” undertones of some of Zwaagstra’s ideas that has me most concerned.
If schools in our communities are going to be successful, they must be measured for excellence not by scores on a test, but by how they prepare our children, all of our children, for the life that awaits them outside the confines of our buildings. Any system that is measuring success in any other way should be met with at least some measure of skepticism. I like to think that schools in Nova Scotia are, to some measure, at least as concerned with raising children as they are with raising grades.
If AIMS wishes to ever be taken seriously when commenting on improving schools in this province, perhaps it’s time they found themselves a Fellow in Nova Scotian Education.
I’ll wait for my phone call.