Wednesday, March 2, 2011

117 outcomes in 94 days, and we still expect mastery?

On October 12, 2010 our government released an article called “More students achieve excellence in provincial testing  In the article it says
Excellence refers to students who demonstrate a mastery of the core subject material. Acceptable refers to students who demonstrate an understanding of the subject material.”
While another part explains,
“Results of the provincial achievement tests and diploma exams are a key element of Alberta Education’s Accountability Pillar, which places emphasis on achieving outcomes, reporting results and using results as the basis for improving programs and student results in subsequent years.”
I wanted to further investigate this level of mastery.  Some of my colleagues informed me that they must teach at “light speed” to ensure all of their students have a chance of achieving a level of mastery in the course when they write the mandated diploma exam.  After some simple counting I realized that in Biology 20 there are 91 outcomes while in Biology 30 there are 117 outcomes.  In our province, there are approximately 94 school days.
Now some simple math using the biology 30 outcomes:
The Bio 30 teachers I have spoken to spend the equivalent of 8 classes for exams and quizzes, 4 classes for reviewing for preparation for in class exams, and finally 5 days to prepare for the government diploma exam.  Therefore, out of 94 school days, there is actually only 77 days for learning.
117 outcomes in 77 days and the government actually use the word “mastery”?  Or are the amount of mandated outcomes the equivalent of the the amount of boxes on the cart in the picture above?
If we put the same level of importance on each outcome then each biology 30 teacher can only spend 0.65 of one class on each outcome.  If a class is 84 minutes long this equates to 55 min for each outcome in the course.  Simple question now, are we really supposed to believe that in 55 minutes a student can truly “master” a concept and demonstrate this level of mastery on an exam that places emphasis on achieving outcomes and reporting results?
Something has to give!  Our government needs to stop giving teachers such large scripts to follow in our class to ensure learning has occurred.   Should we be digging deeper or skimming the surface?


  1. That is the goal. Spreading the curriculum as thin as possible is done on PURPOSE. We do not want kids who think critically. They may start questioning the hoplessness of their future life as a compliant factory worker.

  2. Our educational system, as devised and conceived in the 19th century was intended to produce functioning and conforming citizens. Conformity has been de-emphasized in the last 40 years, with greater "sensitivity" to emotional "needs" by which we mean avoiding negative emotional reactions. This resulted in 'social promotion' and a lot of functional illiterates, more or less defeating the "functional" function of education. Higher demands on students is a good thing, and builds self-esteem better than coddling.
    I've been a substitute teacher for a number of years now, and although I don't live in Alberta any more, I've TAUGHT more than 94 days in at least a couple of recent years. I think our school year length in Arizona is more like 160 days from Aug. 8, 2010 to May 26, 2011, net of holidays and exams. Even so, class lengths are typically only 55 minutes, with effective teaching time being more like 45 minutes. That still works out to about 1 hour per "mastery", except that in the real world, class time is divided into review of prior lessons, probe for prior knowledge, introduce the topic, teach the new material and review the lesson (the "what we learned today" recap). Arizona school have also adopted a "tell them the objective and the functional mastery expected of them" philosophy, which also helps teachers focus on their task. This is typically done from about 5th grade onward with a note on the blackboard or whiteboard for all to see.
    The heart of "mastery" however, is in becoming familiar enough with the knowledge or skill that it is readily available when needed, and therefore, despite modern educational theory about analytical thinking, rote learning and repetition are still the key elements in this "mastery" approach. Unfortunately, mastery is required, and it is required in more things (facts, relationships, concepts) than were known when I went to school several decades ago. I am teaching things to "regular" biology students that were cutting edge university research in the 1960's. Not every student who studies biology in high school really needs mastery over knowledge of the functions of the endoplasmic reticulum, but they should probably understand what the mitochondria do. (Do you?) And for that matter the "quadratic formula" was taught differently when I learned it, but oddly, memorization of such formulae is NOT expected of Arizona students. They are provided with a sheet of basic formulae from which to "cheat" (?) on their standard state achievement tests. (Socrates complained that this new skill of "writing" was ruining students memorization skills, I have been told. [I did not hear it from Socrates directly, despite rumours to the contrary.])
    Critical and analytical thinking have to have some basis in a foundation of reasonably well mastered "facts" (and forumlae), and I have yet to be convinced by anyone that "mastering" the letters of the alphabet or the vocabulary of words for everyday objects is anything but repetitive and rote learning. Lucky for the students that they don't have to actually "master" the skill of explaining what they have mastered using the elaborate abstracted "education-ese" by which the departments of education like to define them.

  3. Have you looked at the middle years outcomes, they are even worse, granted we have more time, but it is still ridiculous.
    So teachers are left trying to figure out what's important and what's not, and then if a student does not get it, we are left with our hands tied and moving on anyways. And people wonder why students get left behind.

  4. Attempting to change the thinking of the bureaucratic collective, called the ministry of education, is a worthwhile goal but the truly valiant will work to change the way teachers believe they need to facilitate learning. Supporting teachers at all stages in their careers by creating sustainable models of professional mentorship will do far more, more quickly than expending energy attempting to change public policy. Policy makers seem to be in positions of power (and perhaps positions of influence) because they are politically minded, not necessarily because they understand the system they are attempting to reform!

  5. @Jenn L I've heard in grade 7 the number of outcomes is 1352. That's about 6-7 outcomes a day these 12 year olds are expected to Master!
    Teachers end up grouping outcomes together and leaving many out! I'm thankful I teach Grade 7 where there is no PAT or diploma at the end of the year.

  6. @d_martin05 I'm pretty sure I heard 1352 from you on twitter no?

  7. That is currect Paige, 1352 total outcomes!