Essay

BUT WHAT ABOUT SPELLING?

A survivor of the progressive 70s applauds the return to school basics

BRIAN BERGMAN April 12 2004
Essay

BUT WHAT ABOUT SPELLING?

A survivor of the progressive 70s applauds the return to school basics

BRIAN BERGMAN April 12 2004

BUT WHAT ABOUT SPELLING?

Essay

A survivor of the progressive 70s applauds the return to school basics

BRIAN BERGMAN

I CAN STILL SEE my very practical father shaking his head in dismay as he pored over my latest high-school report card. A bare passing grade in chemistry and biology. No mark at all in math, a subject I’d been allowed to drop after a dismal Grade 10 performance. But beside courses with such highfalutin names as “The Novel As Social Fiction” and “Utopia”—half-year “electives” I took instead of the standard English and social studies curriculum—my marks were all in the 80to 90-per-cent range. Dad was a man of few words, a blessing for me in this instance. But his pained expression said it all: what’s to become of you, boy?

I got by. After earning a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Alberta in 1978,1 became a journalist and, contrary to my father’s unspoken fears, never had to go back to my family, cap in hand. But attending high school in the 1970s—the last great heyday of so-called progressive education-scarred me all the same. Then, it all seemed wonderful and—a buzzword of the era—liberating. Now, I shudder to realize that I never read a word of Shakespeare in high school (somehow none of my “electives” touched on the greatest writer in English literature). My grasp of history (a subject that had been replaced by social studies, with a heavy focus on current affairs) barely reached beyond the Vietnam War. Through university, personal study and my job, I’ve filled in some of these gaps. But I still can’t do a lick of math.

WHAT could be more ironic than an educator saying facts and skills are the ‘least significant aspects’ of schooling?

a

Since my high-school days, the pendulum has swung back to some semblance of sanity. For one thing, most provinces have introduced more rigorous testing in key subject areas. Ontario’s Grade 10 literacy test, which students must pass if they want to finish high school, is a prominent, albeit controversial example (and one that is currentiy under review). Across Canada, students in lower grades are now regularly given province-wide achievement tests. While the exams have no bearing on grades, they do provide valuable information on how well students, and schools, are performing. As well, most provinces (Ontario, Quebec and Prince Edward Island being the exceptions) and all three territories require students to write some form of high-school diploma exams, which count for anything from 25 per cent to 50 per cent of their graduating mark. The remainder of their grade is determined through teachers’ assessments.

That strikes me as a healthy balance. The province-wide exams provide an objective benchmark of how well students are absorbing the core curriculum, while the input of teachers allows a more nuanced assessment of individual strengths and weaknesses the tests cannot measure. But the “progressives” are not appeased. They want teachers to be the sole arbiters of students’ grades (strike that: in some cases, they would actually like the kids to evaluate themselves). High-stakes standardized tests, they say, put undue pressure on students. Worse yet, they force instructors to “teach to the test.” To which people like me reply, “And your point is?”

Such exams, I’d argue, help focus teachers and school boards alike on delivering a more uniform and transparent standard of education, while discouraging ill-advised, and sometimes downright embarrassing, experimentation. That certainly seems to be the case in my home province of Alberta, where high-school diploma exams were scrapped in 1973 (just in time to spare me the indignity of writing them) and then reinstated nine years later. Utopia courses, I’m happy to report, are no longer in vogue.

The renewed emphasis on testing is just one example of how the shibboleths of yesteryear are being challenged. Under the “child-centred learning” model so eagerly embraced by educators in the 1970s, encouraging students’ creativity and fostering their sense of self-esteem became prime objectives. Teaching the rules of grammar, even basic spelling, clearly stifled the former, while a pass/fail system of grading dealt a potential blow to the latter. So we tried to do away with both. The result? A lot of barely literate students—and angry parents.

But the progressives will not give up without a fight. A recent cover story in this magazine ran under the provocative headline, “Why Report Cards Cheat Our Kids.” It reported on a Quebec school board pilot program that banishes grades in favour of “student learning profiles” charting a child’s progress over time—without any kind of performance ranking. But, as the article acknowledged, it’s a tough sell. Earlier “childcentred” attempts to replace letter grades with teachers’ descriptive comments met with fierce parental resistance, and were eventually overturned.

The next great battleground will be over the increasing use of standardized tests. Teachers’ unions (which, it must be stressed, don’t speak for all teachers) hate them. In May, the Canadian Teachers’ Federation will devote an entire conference to the subject. At the federation’s annual meeting last summer, outgoing president Doug Willard made his position clear. Willard ticked off the things he said province-wide tests cannot assess. Among them: initiative, creativity, imagination, curiosity, conceptual thinking, goodwill and—my personal favouriteirony. “What they can measure,” he added, “are isolated skills, specific facts and functions—the least interesting and least significant aspects of learning.”

Now, think about that for a moment. What are these “isolated skills” and “specific facts” Willard so lightly dismisses. Sentence structure? Spelling? The ability to work through a math problem? Understanding the difference between how a market economy and a centrally controlled one function? All of these are areas probed in the achievement tests taken by Alberta students at the end of Grades 3,6 and 9, and all seem quite pertinent to me. And while I’m all for a healthy appreciation of irony, my observation is that today’s kids, raised on endless episodes of The Simpsons, are no slackers in this regard. If they need any further instruction, they might ponder this: what could be more ironic than a senior educator who asserts that facts and skills are the “least significant aspects” of schooling?

There is a reason why a lot of parents, myself included, welcome the “back to the basics” initiatives underway in many provinces. We remember what progressive education did for us. We expect better for our own children. Iffl

brian.bergman@macleans.rogers.com