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Mar 17 2014

On secrecy in the schools

I recently have had some problems with the public schools in Calgary (specifically those run by the Calgary Board of Education). A few years ago, the new “discovery math” failed my eldest daughter, forcing significant investment in tutors to correct the damage caused by Alberta Education and the CBE.  This also led to my support of Dr. Nhung Tran-Davies’ petition to fix the math curriculum in Alberta.

Last year, my eldest daughter had to suffer through a science teacher who was, in my opinion, not quite competent.    I gave the teacher the benefit of the doubt, because you never know if a teenager is really grasping the concepts or giving you the whole story.  But that teacher confused such topics as valence and isotope, and when challenged on it actually giggled…  My daughter survived that class, and has moved on to high school.

Where things have not improved.   Now, she has a teacher you might be ok – but I am suspicious because her teaching method appears to involve having vague presentations and then telling the students to read the textbook and fill out a workbook.  They could do that in a correspondence course.  Further, my daughter who seems to understand the concepts and usually rates straight A’s and suddenly is getting a C.

Anyway, my latest complaint is that I asked my daughter to show me the unit exam (Grade 10 Physics) to see where she went wrong.  She said the teacher didn’t let them keep their exam.  I told her to ask for it so I could see it.  She was told that the school policy was that exams were “secure” and she couldn’t have a copy of her exam.  I then emailed the teacher and asked for a scanned copy of the exam.  I was also told that the exam was “secure” and I couldn’t have a copy.  I could however, book an appointment to come and review the exam, or they could have it available during my 10 minute parent-teacher meeting.   Lots of time to review a physics exam.

I complained, again via email,  that I couldn’t understand the “secure” exam policy.  How could a publicly funded institution keep this a secret from the parents and taxpayers.  This is when the teacher stopped talking to me.  I received a phone call from the vice-principal, who reiterated the policy and offered for me to come into the school to review the exam.   I asked for him to explain the secure exam policy, and he stated that it grew out of the provincial diploma exams, which he said “obviously” had to be kept secret.  I stated that when I wrote the diploma exams 25 years ago the previous term’s exams had been posted on bulletin boards, WITH SOLUTIONS, for the next term’s students to use as a study guide, and for past students to understand where they might have gone wrong.  He said that things had changed due to changes in policy and that they kept exams secure to prevent students who hadn’t written the exam yet from getting their hands on it.  I advised that it seemed ridiculous that I should have to submit a Freedom of Information Request with the Provincial Government to get my hands on a Grade 10 Science Exam…

Now, my experience with any organization is that if you are trying to keep something secret it usually means you have something to hide, especially if there isn’t a business secrecy or national security reason.   Public sector endeavors should almost never need to keep such mundane documents secret.  Unless they have something to hide.

I have two theories:

  1. The exams are kept secure so they can reuse the exam over and over again, minimizing the work teachers needs to do to write and mark exams.  This also allows teachers with less experience or expertise to be assigned to teach a course, knowing they don’t have to write an exam.  This may not be the case in this situation, but there are other circumstances I haven’t disclosed here (yet) that lead me to be suspicious.
  2. The exams are kept secure to prevent parents from seeing exactly how the teachers are marking exams – because it may expose the fact inexperienced teachers have been assigned.  If a teacher marks incorrectly because they don’t understand the subject matter, it is easier to cover up if you hide the evidence.

I will update this page as this develops – I will be attending my parent-teacher meeting on Thursday and plan on photographing the exam if necessary.   I also encourage others to share their experiences.

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  1. Nicola Timmerman

    What got me was not secrecy, but the blatant environmental bias for climate change in the science exams in Quebec. My son almost didn’t make it into the international stream of high school when a second chance was offered to do this because he got a bad mark on a science exam because he said the number of new cars in China caused pollution, not climate change. I noticed that a lot of math questions also are around climate change. If you don’t follow the party line, you may not get into science programmes in university and you certainly won’t get a lot of the scholarships which are around the party line.

  2. Ira

    Definitely photograph that exam. Or, at least, try. I suspect they’ll tell you you’re not allowed to do that.

    I look forward to your updates.

  3. Fake

    Dear Technical Bard:

    Home school your child. The results will be much better.

  4. Nathalie

    It’s funny how much school has changed since I was in it. I’m 40 now. Even in the elementary level none of the tests the kids take, if they take any at all, are ever shown to the kids. The teachers use it to generate the grade on the report card, and I use that concept very loosely as there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason as to how they actually hand out their grades. It seems to be a lot more subjective than evidence based. I am very curious myself as to what happens with your situation.

    Good luck!

  5. Cynical Bard

    I suspect the real problem is that many teacher graduated with a major in English , Phys Ed or Music , and are then required to each math or science, when they have no background in it, I did not get an Education Degree, but specialized in science and math. After I had worked for 25 years, I lost my job and was invited, by a High School Principal, to teach Chemistry. The catch was that I had to teach in French. And I don’t speak French, even though I got ~80% in high school French, which in hindsight was complete waste of time. I can think of few branches of mathematics that would have been more useful.

    I guess getting a French Major to teach Chemistry is harder than getting Phys. Ed major to do it.

  1. Secrecy in Schools, Followup » Musings of the Technical Bard

    […] « On secrecy in the schools […]

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