Iowa study shows ON “no-fail” policies fail

Although this article was first published a few days ago, I felt it was worth repeating. And, even though it is directed primarily at the Ontario Government, it would be relevant to any of Canada’s education ministries because the Iowa study is about how boards or districts of education (from the trustee down to the classroom teacher) can influence student achievement in either a positive or negative way.

The Lighthouse Study

The Iowa Association of School Boards’ (IASB) “Lighthouse Study” is about quantifiable, reliable measures of student achievement and school renewal versus simply accepting limitations and managing the system.

As a result, it can teach Ontario and other Canadian provincial governments and their school districts or boards a thing or two about how to improve student outcomes without lowering expectations or academic standards — which is exactly what is happening in Ontario right now.

A timeless study and reported in the fall of 2000, the IASB’s underlying message was a belief in students and their innate potential, combined with expectations of achievement regardless of a student’s circumstances. It was also about how a school district’s internal culture of improvement could affect student achievement in positive way.

In other words, student success is NOT about pushing students through the system or a “no-fail” policy that allows substandard work. The only group who benefits from that kind of policy is the government in question because they can claim reduced dropout statistics and increased graduation rates.

The students, on the other hand, would not benefit for very long because they would have to face their difficulties once they are in employment situations or working at the post-secondary level.

Background to the study

Some background for those readers who haven’t the time to read the study itself. The IASB research group wanted to find out if they could identify “links” between what school boards do and the achievement of students.

To look into that possible link, the researchers worked with six school districts in Georgia using census data to make sure they were using comparable data in terms of enrollment, percent of children living in poverty, spending per student, household income and other related factors. They also used verifiable data such as the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, which is administered to Grades 3, 5 and 8 and a high school graduation test. So, there was little in the way of subjective data used.

As well, they used seven key conditions for school renewal as the basis of questions they used to interview a cross section of board members, superintendents and school personnel. Those seven conditions were:  

  1. Shared leadership
  2. Continuous improvement and shared decision making
  3. Ability to create and sustain initiatives
  4. Supportive workplace for staff
  5. Staff development
  6. Support for school sites through data and information, and
  7. Community involvement.

What we can learn from the study

The results are fascinating. In the high achieving boards, student achievement was very high and there was a culture of belief in the students and the system. And, perhaps just as important, everyone was geared to renewal and able to move ahead on all fronts.

In the low-achieving boards, the reverse apparently happened. Rather than look at student potential and possible improvement, they looked at limitations. Moreover, while renewal goals were on paper, everyone got “stuck” at each stage of the process and simply spent most of their time “managing the system.”

Sound familiar? Ontario Minister of Education Kathleen Wynn and her officials need to read this study because “managing” student achievement and graduation rates is precisely what they are trying to do. As a result, students are leaving the school system ill prepared for the future. And,far too many Ontario boards of education (see also this link) seem to be dysfunctional because they are “stuck” on managing their systems.

Something to think about.

H/T to a regular reader for the link to the Lighthouse study.