Former Islander says it’s important to know what’s going on in classrooms,
advocating regular visits from principals, other teachers.

by Nigel Armstrong

The public has a right to know the truth about what goes on in school classrooms, says a visiting education superintendent from Edmonton.

Angus McBeath delivered his message to the P.E.I. Task Force on Student Achievement during a presentation this week at the University of Prince Edward Island.
McBeath is a former Islander, who is now superintendent of schools in Edmonton.

One step in the process of keeping everyone informed is to have every student write standardized tests at certain points in the school year, said McBeath. The realm of education is full of critics that say standardized testing can have a negative effect on some students.

“I don’t know if testing damages kids or not,” he said. “I think it’s a fact of life.”

In Edmonton, schools are ranked based on the scores from those achievement tests. Schools create plans on how to improve their scores. Parents are free to choose which school their child will attend.

“I think it is important we tell the truth in education,” said McBeath. “Set targets, measure, and hold people accountable.”

Teachers need to be accountable in a public way as well, he said. Principals need to spend up to 50 per cent of the teaching day visiting classrooms to know exactly what is going on there.

“Teachers like it when you go into their room, not at first, but teachers feel supported because the principal knows what they are struggling with,” said McBeath.

When test scores and principal visits uncover a problem, the principal needs to know the best way to ensure that the teacher improves.

“They have to have a written plan of what they are going to do over time to strengthen that teacher,” said McBeath.

The same is true for students. The student and parents must be told what their score is on the standardized tests. The school must create a list of students who are not doing well and have a plan for each one to improve performance. Teachers show a lot of resistance to this kind of program because of a fear that it will reflect back on their performance, said McBeath.

“Most teachers feel guilty all the time,” he said. “There is always more you could do, always someone who is not learning.”

Despite the natural resistance to change, Edmonton forged ahead on its accountability programs and now not only principals are looking into classrooms, but so are fellow teachers. The goal is always positive improvement and the feedback must follow guidelines.

“It’s not anything goes,’ said McBeath, regarding what is said to the teacher being observed.

He said one common response from teachers was, “don’t you trust us?”

“I trust my banker but I like to get a statement every month,” said McBeath.

He said that research into professional development programs for teachers shows that very little of the information given to teachers at workshops and seminars results in real change to the way the teacher works in the classroom.

McBeath said the Edmonton model promotes a form of “job-embedded professional development.”