Friday, August 12, 2011

Ted Morton and Education

On August 10 I attended a Progressive Conservative leadership question and answer session at the Alberta Teachers Association's Summer Conference. All six candidates attended: Doug Horner, Gary Mar, Allison Redford, Rick Orman, Doug Griffiths and Ted Morton.

I posted a summary of what the candidates said here.

Ted Morton
Afterward, the candidates made themselves available for discussion with individual teachers, so I approached Ted Morton.

Here is a summary of our discussion.

I introduced myself as a teacher and a farmer from Red Deer. Ted was very kind and asked me a number of questions about my family's farm. After some pleasantries I shifted the conversation to education.

During the Q & A the candidates were asked about whether they thought the Alberta Teachers Association should be restructured (read: separate union functions from professional functions perhaps similar to British Columbia). No candidate thought it would be appropriate for government to meddle in what is the teacher's responsibility to organize themselves.

Morton's response went something like this: student achievement in Alberta is very high so I see no need to fix what isn't broken.

Such a statement might at first seem awfully benign but whenever I hear someone use the words student achievement I always stop them and ask what they mean by student achievement. Sadly, student achievement has come to mean nothing more than higher test scores. And so that was my question to Ted Morton: what do you mean when you say student achievement?

Morton's response went something like this:

I am first referring to our scores on standardized testing. We test out well in comparison to other places in Canada and the world. But I know that there are other important things that are not a part of those scores that are more anecdotal evidence.

I then asked him if he was familiar with the American Education system and some of the troubles they are experiencing. His response was something like this:

Well, I know they rank like 30 something in the world in some subjects which is lower.

My response to Morton:

Ted, if all you know about a country, state, province, city, school district, school, classroom or an individual student's education are their test scores, then you don't know much about their education. If you know that some of that other anecdotal evidence is just as, or maybe even more, important than the test scores, then when you say student achievement you need to stop meaning test scores and start meaning the things that the tests can never measure like empathy, responsibility, ethics, creativity and sense of humor.

I then asked him if he was familiar with how the Americans are attempting to hold teachers "accountable" for student "achievement" by tying teacher pay to test scores. He was not familiar.

I asked him if he was familiar with Campbell's Law. He was not. So I took a minute to inform him why this was important for the Albertan context. It went something like this:

Every time we take something as complex and messy as real learning and reduce it to something as artificially and conveniently simplistic as a test score we distort and distract everyone from what is really going on in Alberta schools.

When test scores drive education two things happen. Firstly, the learning opportunities kids get are narrowed significantly to merely what will be tested and secondly, schools built on real learning and good teaching are turned into nothing more than test preparation factories and children into data.

When we place enormous importance and high stakes on any single measurement, like standardized test scores, Campbell's Law tells us that that measurement will become corrupted and will no longer serve as a reliable and valid indicator for the social processes it was suppose to monitor.

In the end, all politicians should heed what one American politician meant when he said:
Making students accountable for test scores works well on a bumper sticker and it allows many politicians to look good by saying that they will not tolerate failure. But it represents a hollow promise. Far from improving education, high- stakes testing marks a major retreat from fairness, from accuracy, from quality, and from equity.
While I can empathize with how Ted Morton might have felt at a Teachers' Conference, which might be described as the equivalent to dropping a vile of blood in a shark tank, I think Morton would have faired far better had he provided something more than familiar hollow promises.


  1. You'd think his experience as a university professor might have given him some more insight. Did he really just reduce his class to essays and exams?

  2. Hey Greg, why you don't think that? Could you answer your opinion?

  3. Great job! addition to reporting, thanks

  4. While I appreciate and agree with some of the points made in this article, it seems to suggest that Ted Morton views standardized tests as the only indicator of academic success. Although I believe that standardized tests help students prepare for the challenging world that awaits them, I think rigourous testing must be balanced by accountable teachers that facilitate a student's ability to meet their own potential . As someone who was voted as one the University of Calgary's most popular professors, it seems that Morton is aware of the need for more qualitative approaches to teaching.

    That being said, I enjoy how this article identifies the need to consider a more holistic approach to improving education.

  5. I don’t even want to stop reading this post! Very well written and to the point - I’ll link back from my blog roll at my energy blog when I update next.


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