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Today’s North American Education Debate is so circular that it’s getting to be tiresome. Surveying the Education Wars at a distance, it begins to resemble a “merry-go-round.” Recent serious contributions such as David L. Kirp’s New York Times column “Teaching is Not a Business” seem to get it half right. Peeling away the layers to get at its complexity is even posing a challenge for perceptive analysts like Frederick (Rick) Hess, curator of Education Week’s Straight Up blog. Few education observers in Canada have the temerity to even attempt a diagnosis let alone offer a prescription.

EdReformFuturesNorth American school reformers now routinely declare that “schools are broken and need to be fixed.”  Some committed school reform warriors seek to promote charter schools to introduce competition; others embrace “disruptive innovation” to unfreeze a monopolistic education system. Defenders of the status quo in public education respond that students are graduating at ever higher levels and, besides, “education is not a business.” A new breed of futurists wedded to technological transformation are attempting to use machines to implement system-wide “personalized learning.” It’s tempting to say “a pox on all their houses.”

The sad state of the Education Debate is most dramatically revealed in British Columbia public education, where the system is experiencing a protracted ‘crisis’. The gulf separating the Government and the BC Teachers Federation is now a canyon and the total breakdown has all the elements of a “class war” with students as the victims. In this game of brinkmanship, BCTF militants like Tobey Steeves are attempting to depict the conflict as “an encounter” with what Naomi Klein termed the “shock doctrine,” a cruel by-product of world-wide “disaster capitalism.”

It’s time to reclaim the sensible middle ground. More thoughtful educators like Kirp are correct in claiming that “teaching is not a business” and system-wide reforms based upon the business model are bound to fall far short of expectations. Failing to build professional relationships and organizational capacities can and do make or break any —and all –well-intentioned, clearly needed, school reforms.

The real lesson is that system-wide reforms live and die in the classroom.  “It’s impossible to improve education by doing an end run around inherently complicated and messy human relationships,” Kirp wisely points out. “All youngsters need to believe that they have a stake in the future, a goal worth striving for, if they’re going to make it in school. They need a champion, someone who believes in them, and that’s where teachers enter the picture. The most effective approaches foster bonds of caring between teachers and their students.”

Education policy reformers have been very slow to grasp what American educator Robert Evans once termed “the human side” of school change.  Here’s how it works: School reform initiatives come in waves and seasoned teachers do have a built-in “crap detector.”  Most veteran teachers have learned to be skeptical about “faddism” and can often be heard muttering, particularly in secondary school staff rooms , that “it too will pass.”  Change in education is threatening because it always signifies “a loss” of some kind, usually infringing upon teacher freedom or autonomy.

Waves of reform disappear as quickly as they arise at school level.  When provincial testing, or destreaming, or differentiated learning, or one-to-one student laptops fall short of initial expectations, policy-makers and school managers tend to blame it on “confusion” or “implementation problems.”  The severity of the implementation problem, as Rick Hess recently observed, is rarely acknowledged, and even then only when it is too late to turn back.

School reform breaks down and falls apart for a variety of interconnected reasons.  It is determined by how complex and technocratic the measure is (blended learning); whether it’s imposed from the top-down (provincial testing); whether the plan is fully baked (personalized learning); whether incentives exist for effective execution (teacher evaluation); or whether, in Canada, the teacher unions are fully on board with the change.

School leadership is a critical factor, particularly in school systems where superintendents and principals play musical chairs. Block scheduling, destreaming, outcome-based-learning, gradeless schools, and the holistic curriculum were all passing fads that attracted rather opportunistic champions.  Superintendents and principals who embraced them were promoted upwards, leaving others to make it actually work.  More problematic are the “serial champions of reforms” who move from one faddish initiative to another, swinging from student accountability to esteem-building, without missing a beat.

What matters in Canadian education is what happens in our 15,500 schools, spread over 10 provinces and three territories, educating some 5 million children. It is, as Rick Hess reminds us, all about implementation.  “Good policy” is too often stymied by poor implementation because we should be paying more attention, at the outset, to the visible and subterranean implementation challenges.  Introducing charter schools in Canada outside Alberta is perhaps a good example. What if that good, well-intentioned idea is best not pursued because the “winning conditions” are not present and, in any case, broadening parental school choice can be achieved more effectively through other means.

Why have a succession of North American school reform initiatives  since the 1970s come in waves and then disappeared?  In pursuing school reform, are we drawing the right lessons from the business world?  What can be done to find a sensible middle ground in the struggle to improve the performance of both schools and students? Is it possible for us to overcome that hardy perennial – “bad implementation”?  How critical are “organizational capacities” and the teacher-student-parent relationship?

School recess remains one of the favourite times of the day for most elementary school students. Until recently, it was also a largely forgotten part of school life. With the advent of the overprotected kid” and the spread of campaigns against bullying, obesity, and boredom, recess has become a hot topic for public discussion.  Many school administrators and psychologists now see ‘free play’ at recess to be dangerous and threatening, especially for marginalized or bullied kids.  A new breed of North American parents, armed with Lenore Skenazy’s 2010 best seller, Free-Range Kids, have risen in defense of  unstructured ‘free play’ as a critical component in the education of healthy, happy and creative children.

RecessBoyRecessSceneThree years ago, in November 2011, a St. Catharines, Ontario, elementary school hit the news by banning balls from recess after a child bystander was hit on the head on the playground. After an enterprising 10-year-old boy, Mathew Taylor, voiced his objections, started a petition, and secured a meeting with the principal, Lockview Public School rescinded the ball ban.  Mathew’s parents, Scott and Angela Taylor, only learned about the protest after the children had booked the meeting with the school principal. Banning balls at recess, in their view, was not only “a bit of an overreaction” but also a symptom of school boards “over-regulating the playground out of fear of lawsuits.”

Today’s school psychologists view the world through a child protection lens and tend to be hyper sensitive to the dangers lurking in and around schools, particularly on the playgrounds.  A recent CBC News report, aired in September 2013, only stoked those fears. “More than 28,000 children are injured every year on playgrounds across Canada, ” CBC reported, “and the rate of hospitalizations has gone up eight per cent between 2007 and 2012.”

Student injuries and accidents are upsetting — and their impact should not be minimized.  Since the 1970s, however, the Safe Playground movement has all but eliminated “Adventure  Playgrounds” and any equipment deemed dangerous, yet the incidence of accidents has remained essentially unchanged. One of Canada’s leading experts on playgrounds, Alex Smith, Founder of PlayGroundology, corroborates this, noting that he cannot recall one serious accident on Halifax’s 400 playgrounds over the past five years.

Public concern about children’s health and safety, according to British child health researcher Tim Gill, does not reflect the real level of risk. In his 2007 book, No Fear: Growing Up in a Risk-Averse Society, Gill points out that children are no more likely to be abducted or murdered than they were 30 years ago.  In 1971, some four out of five British kids aged 7 or 8 years walked or biked to school on their own; today fewer than one in ten do so.  Fear of being sued, he concedes, is a much bigger factor affecting the policies of school districts and providers of facilities for children.

School recess has been significantly eroded in both the United States and the United Kingdom. Since the 1970s and particularly so in the past two decades, school districts in the U.S. and Britain have reduced or eliminated recess time in order to allow for more instructional time.  Children have lost about 12 hours a week of free time, including a 25% reduction in play time and a 50% decrease in unstructured outdoor activities. In 2011, a U.S. study reported that only 57% of  school districts required regularly scheduled recess and some 40% of districts were either eliminating recess or considering such action.

Crusaders for “Free-Range Kids” such as American journalist Hanna Rosin do tend to wear ‘rose-coloured-glasses’ when it comes to minimizing the risks to children in completely unstructured free play environments.  More sensible child’s play advocates, like Megan Rosker, who campaigned to restore recess at her local Redington Shores, Florida school, see the need for some limits on “unstructured play” at elementary schools. “We need to strive for a more balanced parenting approach, ” she wrote  in November 2014, where “kids are receiving … free play, devoid of screen time,” and also “a lot of form and structure in their day” to enable them to go on to inventive, satisfying and  productive lives.

New research initiated by Brock University’s Dr. Lauren McNamara and generated by her “Recess Project” holds promise for breaking the impasse.  Her three year study from 2011 to 2014 demonstrated that most of today’s children have “forgotten how to play,” particularly outdoors.  While McNamara and her research team see the need for “free time” in a world where kids are highly programmed, they claim that there is a critical need to “re-teach kids” how to play, particularly during regular recess times.  Based upon local Niagara Region case studies, they show how activity levels soar and fighting subsides when new playground equipment is added and yard supervisors or junior leaders provide guidance to promote physical exercise, active engagement, and fair play among the kids.

Achieving the right balance is not as easy as outside experts might expect.  The Peel Region recess program, Playground Activity Leaders in Schools Program (PALS), initiated by a Toronto region health authority and touted by McNamara, is an attempt to move in that direction.  With a deft and diplomatic approach, it shows promise for reducing the incidence of bullying and inappropriate behaviour and increasing levels of physical activity, particularly among kids from grades 5 to 8.  Under certain types of administrative direction, it will quickly devolve into adults or their young surrogates “micromanaging recess.”

School recess is now under closer scrutiny and social psychologists are at work to either revamp “free play” or to eliminate the “free break time” altogether.  What is threatening recess in Canadian, British, and American schools?  Is unstructured free play for children endangered in today’s risk-averse society?  Is it possible to reform school recess to strike a balance between freedom and purposeful form?

 

The mysterious hand of the Canadian Indian Act is still present in First Nations communities, and is particularly evident in the realm of education. Until the late 1960s, schooling for First Nations children and youth was essentially “assimilationist.” “The primary purpose of formal education,” as stated in the report of the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, “was to indoctrinate Aboriginal peoples into a Christian, European world view, thereby ‘civilizing’ them” (Canada 1996, vol. 3, chap. 5, 2). Since the publication of “Indian Control of Indian Education” by the National Indian Brotherhood in 1972, over 40 years ago, policy changes in the form of federal-local education agreements, authorized under SGAs, for the most part have only reinforced the status quo of top-down, albeit partially delegated, federal control over education (Fallon and Paquette 2012, 3).

AtleoandHarperConformity with mainstream society, competition, and preparation for the workforce were viewed as the only way forward for all Canadian children and youth, including Aboriginals. Such assumptions effectively limited the scope of First Nations children’s educational, cultural, and social life by failing to recognize the legitimacy of Aboriginal holistic learning and indigenous knowledge (Marie Battiste 2002). Policies advocating the assimilation of Aboriginal students and, later on, their integration into provincial or non-Aboriginal schools were the prescriptions for “normal” educational provisions and practices deemed necessary to integrate children and youth into a hierarchically ordered, pluralist state (J.D. Moon 1993 ).

Modifications to the Indian Act regime merely perpetuate the status quo in terms of federal dominance over First Nations peoples. In such a hierarchical social order, students are being prepared for a world still dominated by federal officials or indirectly managed by a chief and band council acting at the behest of the agents of non-Aboriginal society. Whatever their traditional authority might have been,” American political scientist J. Donald Moon once wrote, the chief has “come to owe his power mainly to his relationships to the ruling stratum” (Moon, 15).

Managed devolution of power over education to First Nations  amount to extending federal oversight in education governance. Authority is delegated sufficient to meet the minimum standard of First Nations control in principle, but not in actual practice. Since about 1980, federal policy has promoted First Nations control of education in the context of a model of integration in which First Nations students are permitted to enrol in provincial school systems offering educational services and programs.

In addition, First Nations control over education has been gradually ceded to delegated education authorities as part of a larger strategy of fostering economic development in First Nations communities. Although presented as a means of decolonization, the federal and provincial governments have promoted self-government and local control primarily as a way of encouraging First Nations to give up traditional ways and enter the market society. Such experiments in devolution, as Gerald Fallon and Jerry Paquette aptly observe, have merely substituted a new form of neo-colonialism” that is “deeply rooted in a denial of First Nations peoples’ capacity to formulate their own conceptions of person and society” (2012, 12).

Recent federal-local agreements negotiated as part of the devolution movement in Nova Scotia and British Columbia look promising, but — through control of the purse — actually might perpetuate the hegemony of the federal and provincial governments over First Nations communities. With a few exceptions, the SGAs provide limited devolution of power framed within what Fallon and Paquette term “the municipal model of self-government.” Some administrative autonomy is ceded, but only within limits set by outside educational authorities controlled by federal and, mostly, provincial governments.

Despite appropriating the public language of First Nations empowerment, the real changes necessary to extend authentic “Aboriginalization” of education seem to be absent on the ground in First Nations communities and their schools. A decade ago, a report by Cynthia Wesley-Esquimault aptly entitled Reclaiming the Circle of Learning and written for the Ontario Assembly of Chiefs, warned that history was in danger of repeating itself in that recent shifts in the direction of devolution did not amount to fundamental change (Wesley-Esquimaux, 2004).

The proposed 2013 First Nations Education Act was the latest mutation of devolution. Under the guise of supporting devolution, the federal government proposed to establish what amounted to a new system appropriating the provincial school board model, with significant strings attached. Despite the friendly sounding rhetoric, the legislation sought to fill the supposed void at the centre of the “non-system” of First Nations education (Canada 2013c). Confronted with what was depicted as a “fractured mirror” in education governance, Ottawa opted to nudge First Nations in the direction of creating more confederated boards to manage the more than 550 First Nations schools scattered across Canada’s ten provinces.

Introducing a school board model, however, likely would curtail, rather than advance, the movement to community-based schools. A study for the Canadian School Boards Association, conducted from December 2010 to November 2011, raised red flags about the impact of centralization on the state of local democratic control in Canada’s provincially regulated school boards. Surveying national trends over the past two decades, the authors conclude that “the significance of the school district apparatus in Canada has diminished as provincial governments have enacted an aggressive centralization agenda” (Sheppard et al. 2013, 42).

In another paper, Gerald Galway and a Memorial University research team claim that democratic school board governance is in serious jeopardy because trustees and superintendents now operate in a politicized policy environment that is “antagonistic to local governance” (Galway et al. 2013, 27–28). Elected school boards subscribing to a corporate policy-making model have also tended to stifle trustee autonomy and to narrow the scope of local, community decision-making (Paul W. Bennett 2012).

The 2013 First Nations Education Act was rejected for good reason. Proposing conventional school board governance in First Nations communities will only impose a new set of system-wide standards and accountabilities while withholding curriculum autonomy and thwarting the introduction of holistic learning, Indigenous knowledge, and heritage languages.

*Adapted from Paul W. Bennett and Jonathan Anuik, Policy Research Paper, Northern Policy Institute (Sudbury and Thunder Bay, ON, forthcoming,  September 2014).

What lessons can be learned from the rejection of the 2013 Canadian First Nations Education Act?  Is the conventional image of First Nations education governance as a “fractured mirror” an accurate one?  Does the shelving of the federal intiative signal the death knell for top-down devolution? What’s stopping policy-makers from building a new model from the First Nations communities upward?

 

The dog days of mid-summer are upon us and the usual stories are appearing about the chronic issue of Summer Learning Slide for students of all ages.  Canadian education blogger Andrew Campbell recently aptly described it as “the annual hand wringing over Summer Learning Loss.”  His analysis of the situation is deadly accurate: It’s  something people complain about but little changes. The issue’s been around for over 30 years and along the way developed it’s own cottage industry with guidebooks,  a national Summer Learning PD conference, and a well funded TD Bank Summer Reading Club.

SummerReadingToday’s parents are targeted with ads and articles warning them not to let their children ‘waste’ their summer.  Many Canadian independent schools and some public schools get in on the act as they send students off with summer reading lists to prepare them for next year’s curriculum. For some reason, that’s where most public school educators draw the line.  It’s as if the summer was sacrosanct and essentially a “no schoolwork zone.”  Indeed, the whole summer is left to summer camp operators and enterprising educators who offer very stimulating private, for profit, study skills or learning discovery camps.

Much of the perennial public debate is consumed by promoters of  Year Round Schools and never gets to the nub of the matter.  If  Year Round schooling is a non-starter, let’s focus on more achievable alternatives. Why not, for example, consider the merits of providing greatly improved, publicly-funded, guided summer study programs, sparking student engagement in reading, mathematics, science, and creative discovery.

Summer Learning Loss is real, not imagined, and it affects student academic performance.   Simply put, it’s the loss of academic skills and knowledge over summer vacation. It’s measured by testing students in math and reading before they leave for summer vacation, retesting them after vacation and comparing the scores. A Fall 1996 literature review summarizing 39 studies found that, on average, students lose about a month of learning skills and knowledge each summer. By graduation an average student has lost about a year of progress due to Summer Learning Loss.

Students experience the most severe Learning Loss in cumulative subjects. Mathematics loss is greatest, with an equivalent of 2.6 months of math progress lost each summer or two and a half years by graduation. Loss in reading scores varies by socioeconomic status as students from low-income families lose about 2 months of reading progress each summer, while students from middle-income families actually gain. Over the years, the cumulative effect of the difference in summer experiences between low and middle-income families begins to have an impact. It becomes a is a major contributor to the widening  achievement gap between students of different socioeconomic status.

Summer camp entrepreneurs have been very savvy in identifying the need and in incorporating summer learning programs into their range of program options. Affluent parents raising children to be “university bound” see the Summer Learning Loss as a challenge to be overcome and have the resources to minimize its impact on their children.  It’s truly ironic that such families are more concerned than others about  children are falling behind in their learning over those idle, zoned-out, electronic-game dominated summer months.

High cost summer camps or family excursions with edutainment value may not be what explains the difference between the learning retention of middle and lower income students.  A recent study by McMaster University researcher Scott Davies reported that middle income students spend the summer with adults who read to them and use adult vocabulary in conversations. “It’s the daily conversations that are sophisticated and expand children’s vocabularies, and being read to regularly by seasoned readers, one-on-one. This informal role-modeling is available to affluent children seven days per week. Less advantaged children, in contrast, have less constant exposure to those quality resources.”

Guided summer study and reading programs can help to arrest and even reverse  Summer Learning Loss. Dr. Davies led a pilot project that targeted struggling low-income readers in Ontario with summer literacy camps. These 2-3 week camps provided the exposure these students were previously missing and in response, rather than losing reading skills they improved by one and a half months.

Growing numbers of American educators are stepping into the breach and addressing Summer Learning Loss.  California educator Larry Ferlazzo, for example, now provides summer courses online providing what amounts to a virtual summer school for his students. After watching his high school district summer school numbers drop from thousands to only four classes, he took steps to bridge the learning gap for his high school students. That’s being pro-active.

Given the mounting research on Summer Learning Loss, educational policy-makers would be well-advised to focus more of their attention on minimizing its impact upon student achievement.  Provincial and state governments spend millions on school improvement initiatives, including professional development, standardized testing and  the IT latest resources, all focused on closing the “achievement gap” over 10 months of the year. What if… some of those resources were invested in developing and offering summer study and reading programs, teacher-guided and online, to address the summertime loss of student knowledge and skills.

Why has the problem of Summer Learning Loss proven so difficult to address in public education systems?  With the rise of virtual schools and online learning, why do the summer months remain essentially “dead zones” for school system extended learning initiatives?  Given the resistance to Year Round Schools, why not put more of  our energies and resources into providing more accessible publicly-funded guided summer study programs?

 

“Personalized learning” is the latest iteration of “21st Century” innovation in education. Since 2010, it has emerged to fill what New Zealand education commentator Benjamin Riley aptly termed “an empty vessel” in the peculiar world of global education reform. Into that vessel can be poured any number of theories of learning or pet educational policies. “A term that can mean anything,” he warns us, “often signifies nothing.”

personalizeLearningIf “personalized learning” turns out to be more illusory than real, then North American school districts from “Crossroads of the Future” County (Iredall, NC) to the Province of British Columbia are embarked upon an experimental  education project of little substance and destination unknown. In the case of Canada’s Pacific province, that would be catastrophic coming in the wake of the current prolonged and bitterly divisive BC Teachers’ Strike.  At the very least, the growing concerns being raised about the wisdom and practicality of “Personalized Learning” should be enough to slow down, if not, derail, the latest educational bandwagon movement.

BCEdPLanThe B.C. Education Plan known as “Personalized Learning,” hatched in 2010 and implemented starting in 2012, is an ambitious  attempt to answer the call for “bold innovation” in public education. Inspired, in part, by Sir Ken Robinson’s 2010 TED Talks and supported by Pearson International, the world’s largest global learning corporation, it is in the vanguard of such projects worldwide.

In the rather grandiose BC Learns vision, progressive education pioneered by Chicago Lab School educator John Dewey has been ‘rebranded” for the 21st century. The new educational cant is a familiar one: “The greater value of education for every student is not in learning the information but in learning the skills they need to successfully find, consume, think about and apply it in their lives.” Such individualized learning will allow students to apply learned skills to real-world scenarios, says B.C. Education Minister Peter Fassbender.

Technology and ‘teaching machines’ rather than students seem to lie at the centre of the latest educational change movement. What its promoters seem to mean by “personalized learning” is that it should involve using technology to give students more freedom to control their education experience.  That sounds good, but what does it mean in practice?  American “Disruptive Innovation” theorist Clayton Christensen, provides this answer: “Blended learning involves leveraging the Internet to afford each student a more personalized learning experience, meaning increased student control over the time, place, path, and/or pace of his or her learning.”

We must “empower learners to learn any time, any place and at any pace, both in school and beyond,” proclaims the recent Aspen Institute report, Learners at the Center of the Networked World.  “Instead of organizing students by age and giving them all the same lesson, [students may] initiate their own learning, may follow different paths, and seek varied resources to help them meet their goals,” according to Alex Hernandez of the  Charter Schools Growth Fund.

The central arguments mobilized in support of such initiatives are highly suspect. Benjamin Riley’s recent June 20, 2014 commentary, “Don’t Personalize Learning,” exposed the fallacies associated with two of the core assumptions: (1) Students will learn more if they have more flexibility to choose their own “path” and what to learn (“the path argument”); and (2) students will learn more if they have more power over when they learn (“the pace argument”). Both of these assumptions, it might be noted, are also cardinal principles of the failed “progressive education” movement of the 1960s and early 1970s.

First, the “path argument “assumption that students always benefit from “constructing knowledge” is at odds with what we know about cognition or knowledge acquisition. Most of the educational research demonstrates that knowledge is cumulative. What a child is capable of learning depends upon her stage of development and what she already knows. When a child encounters new information, lacking the preexisting knowledge to put the information in context, she invariably becomes frustrated and finds it difficult to learn.  When learning is “personalized” students are left more on their own, and many – perhaps most-  are not really properly equipped to make sense of new information. Allowing students to “pick what comes next” may be fashionable, but professional teachers are still, for the most part, better at guiding student paths to learning.

Second, the problem with “the pace argument” is that it runs counter to cognitive science research.  We now know that the human brain is not naturally built to think. Students, left to their own devices, tend to choose ‘the easy route’ and to avoid thinking. That’s because thinking is hard and many students need to be challenged to raise their sights.  Introducing technology may promote more student engagement, but it’s a safe bet that many will continue to shy away from activities that they find hard and unpleasant. The “fun’ of initial discovery can be short-lived when it comes to applying those ‘learnings’ to solving deeper, more complex problems.

Registering such sound objections to “personalized learning” opens skeptics like me up to charges that you are archaic in your thinking or worse, wedded to the old “factory model” of education.  Defenders of futuristic education also jump to the conclusion that you are against technology in schools. Such allegations levelled at critics like Riley and Dan Willingham, author of Why Don’t Kids Like School?are patently false. Indeed, most of the leading critics are also attuned to the need to integrate ICT effectively and meaningfully  into today’s classrooms.

Personalization of learning is foundering, particularly in BC, because it is founded more upon progressive ideology than on sound, research-based pedagogy. Promoters of Personalized Learning in B.C. and Iredell County, NC, are implementing a pedagogical theory that runs counter to what we now know about how the mind works. If, as Dan Willingham has demonstrated, “children are more alike than different in how they think and learn,” then the whole initiative has been launched on a false set of assumptions. Betting big on Personalized Learning believing it will improve student learning is foolhardy in the face of cognitive science evidence to the contrary.

Signs are emerging in Canada that “Personalized Learning” is losing its allure.  A recent Nova Scotia School Boards Association (NSSBA) Discussion Paper,  written by Penny Milton and released in April 2014, appropriated much of the C21 Canada vision exemplified in Shifting Minds, but studiously avoided any mention of the BC iteration or any specific reference to “personalized learning.”  In spite of its claim to being “bold and innovative” in approach, it attempted to occupy the middle ground.  Much of the proposed NSSBA agenda was ‘boilerplate’ thinking stemming from the usual Canadian “research” sources, C21 Canada and  the Canadian Education Association. It’s also notably non-commital on student testing and assessment and focused mostly on rather mundane ‘in-the-box’ alternative programs.

What’s behind the recent appeal of Personalized Learning as an answer to the call for 21st Century innovation in education?   Why is Personalized Learning coming to be viewed as the progressive education cant re-branded for the 21st century classroom?  What are the chances that the BC Education Plan will actually work to improve student learning? Most importantly, how can we sensibly and effectively integrate IT into the classroom without completely dumbing-down curriculum and, once again, giving kids a virtual license to ‘do their own thing’ with questionable results?

 

Today the Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation (OECD) has succeeded in establishing the Program of International Student Assessment (PISA) test and national rankings as the “gold standard” in international education. Once every three years since 2000, PISA provides us with a global benchmark of where students 15 years of age rank in three core competencies — reading, mathematics, and science. Since its inception, United States educators have never been enamoured with international testing, in large part because American students rarely fare very well.

PISATestVisualSo, when the infamous OECD PISA Letter was published in early May 2014 in The Guardian and later The Washington Post, the academics and activists listed among the initial signatory list contained the names of some familiar American anti-testing crusaders, such as Heintz-Deiter Meyer (SUNY, Albany), David Berliner (Arizona State University), Mark Naison (BAT, Fordham University), Noam Chomsky (MIT) and Alfie Kohn, the irrepressible education gadfly. That letter, addressed to Andreas Schleicher, OECD, Paris, registered serious concerns about “the negative consequences of the PISA rankings” and appealed for a one cycle (three-year) delay in the further implementation of the tests.

The global campaign to discredit PISA earned a stiff rebuke in Canada. On June 11 and June 18, 2014, the C.D. Howe Institute released two short commentaries demonstrating the significant value of PISA test results and effectively countering the appeal of the anti-PISA Letter. Written by Education Fellow John Richards the two-part report highlighted the “Bad News” in Canada’s PISA Results and then proceeded to identify What Works (specific lessons to be learned) based upon an in-depth analysis of the once every three-year tests. In clear, understandable language, Richards identified four key findings to guide policies formulated to “put Canadian students back on track.”

The call for a pause in the PISA tests was clearly an attempt to derail the whole international movement to establish benchmarks of student performance and some standard of accountability for student achievement levels in over 60 countries around the world. It was mainly driven by American anti-testers, but the two Canadian-based signatories were radical, anti-colonialist academics, Henry Giroux (English and Cultural Studies, McMaster University) and Arlo Kempf ( Visiting Professor, Program Coordinator, School and Society, OISE).

Leading Canadian educationists like Dr. Paul Cappon (former CEO, Council on Learning) and even School Change guru Michael Fullan remain supporters of comparative international student assessments. That explains why no one of any real standing or clout from Canada was among the initial group, and, by late June, only 32 Canadian educationists could be found among the 1988 signatories from all over the globe. Most of the home-grown signatories were well known educators in what might be termed the “accountability-free” camp, many like E. Wayne Ross (UBC) and Marc Spooner (U Regina), fierce opponents of “neo-liberalism” and its supposed handmaiden, student testing.

John Richards’ recent C.D.Howe commentaries should, at least temporarily, silence the vocal band of Canadian anti-testers.  His first commentary made very effective use of PISA student results to bore deeply into our key strengths and issues of concern, province-by-province, focusing particularly on student competencies in mathematics. That comparative analysis is fair, judicious, and research-based in sharp contrast to the honey-coated PISA studies regularly offered up by the Council of Ministers of Education (Canada).

The PISA results tell the story. While he finds Canadian students overall “doing reasonably well,”  the main concern is statistical declines in all provinces in at least one subject, usually either mathematics or reading.  Quebec leads in Mathematics, but in no other subject.  Two provinces (PEI and Manitoba) experienced significant declines in all three subject areas. Performance levels have sharply declined ) over 30 points) in mathematics in both Manitoba and Canada’s former leader, Alberta. Such results are not a ringing endorsement of the Mathematics curriculum based upon the Western and Northern Canada Protocol (WNCP). 

The warning signs are, by now, well known, but the real value in Richards’ PISA Results analysis lies in his very precise explanation of the actual lessons to be learned by educators.  What really matters, based upon PISA results, are public access to early learning programs, posting of school-level student achievement results, paying professional level teacher salaries, and the competition provided by achievement-oriented private and  independent (not for profit) schools. Most significantly, his analysis confirms that smaller class sizes (below 20 pupils per class) and increasing mathematics teaching time have a negligible effect on student performance results.

The C.D. Howe PISA Results analysis hit home with The Globe and Mail, drawing a favourable editorial, but was predictably ignored by the established gatekeepers of Canada’s provincial education systems. Why the reluctance to confront such research-based, common sense findings?  “Outing” the chronic under-performance of students from certain provinces ( PEI, Manitoba, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia) is taboo, particularly inside the tight CMEC community and within the self-referenced Canadian Education Association (CEA) circles.  For the current Chair of CMEC, Alberta Education Minister Jeff Johnson any public talk of Alberta’s precipitous decline in Mathematics is an anathema.

Stung by the PISA warning shots, Canada’s provincial education gatekeepers tend to be less receptive to sound, research-based, practical policy correctives. That is a shame because the John Richards reports demonstrate that both “sides” in the ongoing  Education War are half-right and by mixing and matching we could fashion a much more viable, sustainable, effective policy agenda. Let’s tear up the existing and tiresome Neo-Con vs. Anti-Testing formulas — and re-frame education reform around what works – broader access to early learning, open accountability for student performance levels, paying respectable, professional-level teacher salaries, and welcoming useful competition from performance-driven private and independent schools.

What’s the  recent American Public Noise over “PISAfication” all about anyway?  Why do so many North American educators still tend to dismiss the PISA Test and the sound, research-based studies stemming from the international testing movement?  To what extent do John Richards’ recent C.D. Howe Institute studies suggest the need for a total realignment of provincial education reform initiatives?

 

 

A provocative and insightful article in the September 2013 issue of Our Schools/Ourselves paints a now familiar but largely mythical picture of the so-called “neo-liberal assault” on Canadian as well as American public education.  Written by Westmount High School teacher Robert Green, founder of MontrealTeachers4Chanage.org, it sought to explain why thousands of U.S. teachers were flocking to a “Badass Teacher” movement and suggested that Canadian teachers, facing similar threats, might consider doing the same.

BadAssDeweyAmerican public education, much like U.S. foreign policy, continues to be a fiercely contested ideological battleground. American-style school reformers claim to “put students first” and support raising achievement standards, school choice, and student testing, seeking to “turnaround” failing or under-performing schools and campaigning to improve Teacher Quality (TQ) in the classroom. Supporting that agenda with political clout and massive resources are education publishing giants like Pearson International  and major private foundations, led by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

BadAssRavitchDefenders of the American public school system are fighting school reforms they label and condemn as hoary intrusions driven by “corporate education reform,” best exemplified by OECD PISA Testing, and its step-child, Barack Obama’s Race to the Top national education agenda. Education historian -turned- advocate Diane Ravitch, author of The Death and Rise of the Great American School System (2010), has emerged as their patron saint and leading public warrior.  A more recent, militant offshoot of the American teacher unions, the Badass Teachers Association, surfaced in 2013 to lead mass actions, including a phone-in campaign calling for the removal of Arne Duncan as U.S. secretary of education.

A copycat “Badass Teacher” movement has sprouted up in a few Canadian provincial systems, but it has, so far, failed to catch fire or spread from one province to another. A small band of teacher union militants, such as Green of the Montreal Teachers Association, Ben Sichel of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union, and Tobey Steeves of the BC Teachers Federation, have been churning out commentaries, tweeting-up a storm, and appealing to their base of followers. Out in Red Deer, Alberta, Special Ed teacher Joe Bower, host of for the love of learning Blog, is famous for his serial retweets of Alfie Kohn pronouncements. It hasn’t worked because the school system they imagine and the corporate reform they fear don’t really exist here in Canada.

In the upside down world of Canadian education, the real “Badasses” are populist reformers of a completely different stripe attempting to penetrate and re-engineer a reasonably well-funded, mostly unaccountable liberal bureaucratic education state.  It’s next -to-impossible to whip up Canadian teachers when the system is so well preserved and protected by “Guardian Angels” and “Pussycats” — and “Fortress Education” serves so well in safeguarding teachers’ rights, prerogatives, and entitlements. After all, look what happens to “Bad Ass” policy advocates like economist Don Drummond, PC Leader Tim Hudak, and BC Education Minister Peter Fastbender who dare to propose structural reforms.

Today’s Canadian teachers’ union advocates profess to be true education reformers but they have little in common with ordinary blue collar workers, Arab Spring freedom fighters, or “Idle No More” activists.  Drawn from what Karl Marx would have termed the 21st century bourgeoisie, they see the education world with a somewhat false sense of class consciousness.  Like fellow members of the public sector, white collar professions, secure and comfortable with teacher tenure, step salary increases, and guaranteed retirement benefits, they certainly have a lot to defend in a changing global and fiercely competitive world.  The three major policy preoccupations, identified by Green — defending collective bargaining rights, curtailing and ending student and teacher assessments, and fighting (non-union) charter schools — reflect that siege mentality and a protective impulse rather than a desire to “change the world.”

BadAssGatesTransplanting American panaceas and political linguistics into Canadian education simply does not work, whether it’s parental “freedom of choice” or “badass teacherism.” None of Canada’s provinces, including British Columbia and Alberta, have really adopted the full “corporate education reform” agenda. Provincial testing regimes like the Ontario Education Quality and Accountablity (EQAO) program are focused on student improvement at school level and bear little resemblance (in intent or form) to the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) or Race to the Top initiatives in the United States.  Here all public schools are treated as “equally good” and none are publicly labelled “failing” enterprises. Protesting salary freezes or  back-to-work legislation is a far cry from fighting massive layoffs and the imposition of student results- based teacher evaluation systems.

Most of Canada’s educational austerity and school choice initiatives turn out to be paper tigers. Nova Scotia’s Back to Balance public policy from 2009 to 2012 hit a major educational roadblock: the NSTU’s well-financed KidsNotCuts/Cut to the Core counter insurgency. Embracing Don Drummond’s February 2012 Ontario Austerity program and teacher salary freezes cost “Education Premier” Dalton McGuinty his job and proved disastrous as the foundation for former Ontario PC Leader Tim Hudak’s June 2014 election campaign. Only two Canadian provinces, Quebec and BC, provide any significant funding for independent, alternative schools and Alberta’s legislative commitment to charter schools imposes strict limits on the numbers of schools and then student enrollments.

The Canadian educational kingdom is inhabited by a completely different variety of tribes. The “Guardian Angels”,  epitomized by Michael Fullan, Nina Bascia, Penny Milton, Charles Pascal and Charles Ungerleider,  are unabashed public school promoters with an unshakable faith in universal programs and spending more to educate fewer. They provide the visionary ideas, champion the holy grail of educational equity, and enjoy the, at times, fawning support of an influential band of “Pussycats” ( aka “teacher’s pets’) based at OISE and the faculties of education and avidly supported by Annie Kidder and her People for Education political action committee. Recently, the Vancouver Board of Education Chair Patti Bacchus has joined the cheerleading section in support of teachers, waving placards at BCTF protests.

If Canada has a truly “Badass” reform movement, it’s not to be found inside the teachers’ unions but rather spearheaded by a pesky band of populist school reformers, best exemplified by Malkin Dare, Doretta Wilson and the Society for Quality Education.  Operating in collaboration with autonomous parent reform groups such as WISE Math and the Nova Scotia Small Schools Initiative, they are the ones carrying the torch for better schools, structural innovation, higher teaching standards, and significant curriculum reform. School reform is not driven by education school research, but instead by policy studies produced by the C.D. Howe Institute and three independent think tanks in Vancouver, Winnipeg, and Halifax.  Most of Canada’s true education reformers are not educators at all, but rather “crossovers” with a fierce commitment to raising standards, restoring fundamental student skills, and securing (without excuses) the best possible education for our children.

Who’s Who in the upside down world of Canadian education reform? Why are the Canadian and American school systems so different when it comes to educational tribes and their commitment to genuine school reform?  Would a “Badass Teachers” movement gain any traction, between labour contract disruptions, in Canada’s provincial education systems?  In short, with apologies to the old TV Quiz Show, will the real school reformers please stand up and be counted?

 

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