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School Board elections are in the air in Ontario and Quebec –and ordinary citizens are being exhorted to get out and vote in the Fall of 2014 for the school trustee of their choice. In Ontario, the school boards’ associations are going all out to whip up enthusiasm with a snazzy “It’s All in Your Hands” public awareness campaign. It comes with a rather upbeat video and a promotional piece entitled, “What Do Trustees Do?”  One of  Ontario’s biggest political junkies, Steve Paikin, host of TVO’s The Agenda has gotten into the act, posting a rousing commentary, “Overlook Your Trustee at Your Peril,”  intended to boost voter participation.

First100DaysLogoThe public appeal attempts to convince municipal voters that elected school boards still matter and that school trustees can be “your voice” in the  local educational decision-making process. The Ontario provincial education budget tops $21 billion per year, so someone has to make a few key decisions at the provincial and local board levels. Much of that spending is transferred from the province to the 72 boards and 10 School Authorities and a surprising amount of that spending remains controlled by democratically-elected school boards.

Publicly-elected trustees, in theory, do have a role in deciding how the dollars will be spent at the district and school level.  Since the mid-1990s, however, that role has been significantly eroded, first through the loss of tax levying powers, and now through changes in school governance that limit the autonomy of individual trustees. Today, elected trustees, known as “School Board Members,” are widely viewed as representatives of the board to the community rather than the voice of citizens at the board table. Centralization of public education has also promoted more bureaucratic modes of operation, further constraining both trustee and parent input into local decision-making processes. In addition, elected trustees are mostly part-timers who are only paid the most modest stipends, ranging from $9,000 to $25,000 a year.

Democratically-elected school boards have been in a shambles in Quebec for most of the past decade. Elections for Quebec school trustees known as school commissioners  hit a new low in the November 2007 election, held — as usual–independent of the province’s regular cycle of municipal elections. The voter participation rate was only 7.9 per cent overall ( and 16.7 per cent in the English boards), leading to the suspension of the whole electoral process for seven years. Now, school board elections are  back, on November 2, 2014, with a major change and a “last chance” challenge from the Quebec Minister of Education.  School Board Chairs will, for the first time, be elected by the whole district, in an attempt to generate more capable, committed board leadership.

Elected trustees are schooled to believe that theirs is “a complicated job” where they have to mediate between the school administration and local citizens.  With the recent erosion of trustee powers, it’s actually an exasperating and mostly thankless one. No wonder municipal school board election turnouts range from 20 per cent to 30 per cent across Ontario.  On October 27, 2014, a small number of votes can make a difference between returning a burned-out “rubber stamp” trustee or injecting some fresh talent.  Low turnout and an under-informed electorate can really threaten the legitimacy of the whole system and especially the democratic accountability of public education.

Every once in a while, a ‘creative disruption’ arises that attracts notice and threatens to disturb the comfortable status quo.  The Rainbow District School Board in Sudbury is now experiencing just that kind of disturbance. It was triggered by a wave of school closures from 2010 to 2012.  Banning citizens from the Board Office and squashing a move to lift a “no-trespass” order against opposing school board candidates is so rare that it has now attracted headlines and editorial criticism. For the first time in years, the local press and a band of citizens are openly questioning the Board Chair Doreen Dewar’s leadership and the RDSB’s inclination to go into hiding to avoid a public scrutiny that’s growing in intensity.

The most exciting Ontario School Board election development is the emergence of  “The first 100 Days” coalition fielding seven candidates in the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board elections.  Sparked by the closure of Parkview School and inspired by activist Joanne St. Jacques, they have banded together under a broad school reform platform that includes putting a five-year moratorium on school closures.  It comes at a time when the board will see a big turnover in trustees, and after a tumultuous term of school closings and demolitions, including  a controversial decision to shift the school board headquarters out of the downtown.

Strict policy governance rules, introduced in stages since the mid-1990s, are eating away at responsible, accountable school trusteeship. They also stand in sharp contrast to the Ontario Municipal Act giving “broad authority” to Councils and granting Councillors much broader powers defined “not narrowly and with undue strictness.” The prevailing “corporate governance” model is completely out-of-step with current thinking on effective board governance. “Shared decision-making” and “generative policy-making” advocated by Harvard University’s Richard Chait are now widely recognized as best governance practice in the North American public and non-profit sector, almost everywhere except inside school boards.

Open, shared and generative leadership is exactly what Canadian school boards need to restore proper accountability and repair public trust. That approach not only produces better decisions, but serves to attract higher calibre board members with something significant to contribute to public service. One can only hope that the coming elections in Ontario and Quebec will advance that process.

What do School Trustees do under the current ‘Corporate Governance’ model?  Whatever happened to the spirit and tradition of independently-minded, responsible school trusteeship? Why do School Boards lapse into protective, insular modes of thinking and operations, effectively shutting out concerned parents and taxpayers?  Will the coming cycle of school board elections really change anything?  

Sitting in the dimly lit, bunker-like Conference Room on a sunny Saturday afternoon in Canada’s last surviving Wandlyn Inn was a little depressing. Listening to a veteran Nova Scotia School Superintendent explain — with clinical precision– the new Hub School Model regulations released in July 2014 was almost too much to bear. The session title gave it all away: “The Operation, Opportunities and Challenges of the Community Hub Model.”  A funny thing has happened to an exciting idea on its way to implementation.

NSSSILogoSmall school activist Kate Oland, a veteran of several Cape Breton school closure battles, was rendered virtually numb. After fighting to save her Middle River School, co-founding the Nova Scotia Small School Initiative, celebrating the April 3, 2013 school closure moratorium, and welcoming the Hub School guidelines, it had all come down to this: the Superintendent in charge of advancing the project still didn’t seem to “get it”: open the school doors to the community and let social innovation in.

Community hub projects come alive with proactive leadership and the scent of social innovation.The founder of Toronto’s Centre of Social Innovation, Tonya Surman, speaking in Sydney, Cape Breton in April 2014, was right on the mark. “You’ve got to be able to dream about what’s possible, ” and she added “social change takes time.”

NewDawnErikaSheaA “New Dawn’ arrived for Holy Angels Academy in Sydney, Cape Breton, but three years after its closure as a public school. Today it’s a thriving Centre for Social Innovation hosting a lively mix of 20 commercial and non-profit enterprises.

That transformation, spearheaded by Rankin MacSween’s New Dawn Enterprises Limited, should be on the curriculum for the training of School Superintendents. It’s time to embrace economic renewal and social enterprise, particularly in a struggling economic province like Nova Scotia.  Founded in 1976 initially as a community development fund to combat plant and mine closures, New Dawn is now a beacon of light for faltering communities on the verge of losing their schools.

With the adoption of the School Hub regulations, the Nova Scotia Education Department is coaxing school boards into being more proactive in transforming emptying schools into shared use facilities and potentially revenue generating operations.

The Hub School guidelines, in the hands of reluctant administrators, may threaten to extinguish community spirit and enterprise. Developed by a faceless team of school administrators, it treats Hub School proposals as “business case briefs” and guides proponents through a virtual “obstacle course” of new approval rules. Serving existing students should come first, but why is the “protection of property” so prominent in the regulations?

Three Nova Scotia community-school groups in River John, Maitland, and Wentworth are fighting to save their schools and fully committed to supporting the “Hubification” process. Economic and social innovation thrives when it is welcomed, as in the case of the New Dawn success in Sydney. It perishes on sterile ground marked off like the hurdles on a high school track field.

Economic renewal and social innovation are possible under the right conditions. What’s the secret to unlocking Social Innovation and revitalizing our schools? What has happened to the Nova Scotia Community Hub School Model on its way to implementation? Is it still possible for small school advocates to clear the latest hurdles and transform schools into true community hubs?

First Nations Education in Canada has been the focus of a great deal of controversy and discussion in recent months. The latest proposed “solution” put forth, the First Nation Education Act  (Bill C-33), was built around an enhanced federal financial contribution. The bill was, however, ultimately rejected by many first nations and subsequently abandoned by the government. In our Northern Policy Institute research report, “Picking up the Pieces,” Dr. Jonathan Anuik and I demonstrate why the education reform proposed in the proposed Bill C-33 missed the mark.

PickUpPiecesCoverMore money in the form of increased capital funding might have brought modest gains to on-reserve schooling, but replacing one bureaucracy with another rarely changes the state of education or improves the quality of student learning at the school or community level.

A community school-based approach, respectful of what Indigenous scholars such as Marie Battiste term the “learning spirit,” that supports a real shift in the locus of decision-making, stands a far better chance of making a difference and improving the achievement of all Indigenous children and youth.

Education governance is a contested democratic terrain. Provincial district school boards across Canada are currently facing a public crisis of confidence, and the proposed Act ran the risk of perpetuating that problem by extending it into First Nations communities.  Publicly elected trustees and school-level administrators now voice serious concerns, most recently in a 2013 Canadian School Boards Association study, that “centralization” is slowly choking-off local-decision-making and rendering elected boards powerless. Simply enabling the establishment of school boards may well reinforce that centralization impulse.

First Nations control over education now involves a transformation enabling First Nations to develop educational programs and practices rooted in Indigenous knowledge systems and consistent with Aboriginal ways of learning, exemplified recently in what First Nations call Holistic Lifelong Learning Models. However, instead of accepting the centrality of First Nations knowledge systems as an essential pre-condition to discussion, Ottawa focused on advancing a plan more narrowly focused on improving employability skills, reflected in student achievement and graduation rates.

The declaration between the federal government and the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) on February 2014 speaks of “mutual accountability” yet insisted upon a core curriculum that “meets or exceeds provincial standards,” requiring students to meet minimum attendance standards, teachers to be officially certified, and schools to award “widely-recognized” diplomas and certificates. Following the declaration, a small group of First Nations people, sparked by Blood First Nations activist Twila Eagle-Bear Singer, began wearing “blue dots” symbolizing the tradition of exclusion. Subsequently, First Nations leaders across Canada not party to the national agreement coalesced, forcing the AFNs Chief Shawn Atleo to resign and the rejection of Bill C-33.

With the federal bill broken into pieces, we propose an alternative model for First Nations schools that we term “Community School-Based Management” renewal. That approach embraces a mode of decision-making that has much in common with First Nations ways and practices, and most notably the “Talking Circle” tradition of the Mi’kmaq.

Pioneered in the Edmonton Public Schools in the 1980s and now adopted by the World Bank in its international education initiatives, the essential concept of “school-based management” would seem to be more in accord with the aspirations of First Nations for a greater measure of self-government in education.

The First Nations population is not only young but growing rapidly, creating a sense of urgency. Forty-two percent of the country’s registered Indian population is 19 years of age or younger as compared to 25% of the Canadian population as a whole. By 2026, the on-reserve First Nation population of 407,300 in 2000 is expected to increase by 64% to 667,900.

Educating First Nations children and youth is best left to communities and families themselves. One promising example is the Mi`kmaw Kina`matnewey (MK), a Nova Scotian Mi`kmaw school authority of autonomous schools founded in 1992, formally recognized by the federal and provincial governments in 1997, and now consisting of a dozen Mi’kmaw First Nations. It is, what MK negotiator John Donnelly aptly describes as “an overnight success — years in-the-making.”

We urge the Canadian government to invest in supporting and expanding promising community-led initiatives like the MK involving teachers, parents, and families outside of the existing span of administrative control to achieve longer-term goals of improved literacy, academic achievement, and life chances.

It’s time to pick up the pieces and start over again. Community school-based renewal rather than bureaucratic reform will build sustainable school communities, unlock the First Nations “learning spirit,” and truly engage children and youth on and off First Nations reserves.

Where did the Stephen Harper Government go wrong with the proposed First Nations Education Act?  What can be learned from the toppling of National Chief Shawn Atleo and the demise of Bill C-33?  Why do federal authorities look to bureaucratic solutions and put such faith in introducing school boards into reserve communities? Is it possible to seed a “community-schools” model and build upon First Nations ways of learning?  If so, what would be a realistic timeline for achieving improved student life chances?

A new Canadian study, “Teacher Incentive Pay That Works,” produced by Vicki Alger for the Fraser Institute, contends that performance bonuses and other incentives  for teachers would improve teaching and ultimately student achievement standards.  Since performance-based rewards are common in other professions, Alger makes the case that they should be adopted in education, as a means of ensuring that our students remain “competitive” on the world stage.

HattieBookCoverMaking the case for Teacher Merit Pay is popular in certain circles outside of education.  It may be a noble idea, designed to reward the high performers, but it tends to fall apart when we turn to the formidable challenge of implementation in the schools.

Two critical questions arise:  Would teachers respond to Teacher Pay Incentives by improving their teaching and focusing more on the performance of their students?  And, if so, should we tie teacher evaluation and salary increases, in part,  to student performance levels?  The Fraser Institute says “Yes,” but the current research on improving teacher quality indicates otherwise.

Most of the proposed and implemented schemes linking teacher evaluation/compensation with student performance levels are, in the words of leading Australian researcher Stephen Dinham, “half-baked plans.”  While the Fraser Institute researchers review ten global case studies, they are only able to identify three or four that are working effectively, namely those in Washington (DC), Dallas (TX), Chile, and the United Kingdom.  The Washington, DC, IMPACT Program, for example, was born out of a well-publicized “student performance crisis” during Commissioner Michelle Rhee’s short-lived tenure and the jury is still out on its ultimate effectiveness.

Teaching matters – and far more than North American ‘progressive” educators were ever prepared to admit. The prevailing notion, widely held since the 1960s, was that socio-economic status disadvantage (SES) was the main determinant of student performance. For students from disadvantages backgrounds and communities, SES and family background were like “life sentences.”  Recent research over the past 20 years, synthesized by New Zealander John Hattie, has essentially rejected that presumption. Poor student achievement, we know know, is far more spread out across the full SES spectrum.

HattieAchievementVarianceWhat really matters in influencing and determining student achievement?  Since the 2008 book Visible Learning by John Hattie, we can answer that question with far more certainty. Based upon a synthesis of hundreds of studies, Hattie has demonstrated that teachers and teaching really do matter. Although about 50 per cent of student performance is closely related to SES, prior learning, and home expectations, about 30 per cent of the achievement variance is determined by the quality of teaching.  School leadership, resources, and supports represent  about 20 % of the variance.

Teacher incentive and rewards programs may well work, but not the kind proposed by the Fraser Institute.  Indeed, leading Teacher Quality researchers Hattie and Dinham have both set out teacher improvement plans with a more convincing rationale, based upon actual in-school research. That’s why it’s a bit shocking not to find either Hattie or Dinham even referenced in the Fraser Institute study.

The Australian “Career Ladder” Teacher Performance plan and salary scale, initiated by Dr. Stephen Dinham, in 2009, is far superior to any referenced in the Fraser Institute study. Like the preferred Fraser Institute models, it is aimed at raising teaching standards  and tied, in part, to student performance data.  Where it differs is in its far more sophisticated and nuanced approach to fostering both higher quality teaching and professional growth. Instead of  jettisoning established salary scales, the Australian model builds in a more flexible, competency-based ladder to minimize the role of seniority in the career progression.

Here’s how it works.  Clear national performance standards are established for Australian teachers, with five levels reflecting stages of  professional competence and development. The teaching categories are: C1: Graduate/Certified; C2: Proficient (Regular); c3: Highly Proficient (Growth-Oriented); C4: Lead Teacher; and C5: School Leader.  You progress up the salary scale by achieving higher levels of competency, but are not rewarded unless and until you meet higher level teaching standards.  Standardized test results documenting student performance levels are used, in moderation, as one indicator among several of teacher quality and effectiveness.

The Australian plan may retain the familiar grid, but it also provides a pay-for-performance incentive. Salaries are calibrated according to professional performance levels akin to the professorial career ladder.  In the model, C1 teachers at $30,000 = 1.0; C2 teachers are 1.25 ($37,500); C3 teachers are 2.0 ($60,000); C4 teachers are 2.5 ($75.000); and C5 lead teachers are 3.0 ($9o,000). Teachers who demonstrate excellence and professional growth can be accelerated to higher levels; those who simply conform or stagnate are plateaued or assigned to a lower salary level.  Extremely talented teachers rise rapidly and stagnant teachers are, over a number of years, counselled out of the profession.

Improving the quality of teaching is now finally rising to the top of the Canadian education policy agenda.  Adopting “half-baked” schemes such as those currently being piloted or implemented in numerous American states is definitely not the way to go for our provincial systems.  In most of the best programs, student performance results are factored in, so the testing systems are critical to establishing benchmarks in a wider array of subjects, from elementary literacy and numeracy to high school subject exit exams.  Phasing out standardized tests makes little sense if you are serious about eventually factoring student performance into teacher assessment and compensation.

What might actually work to improve the quality of teaching in the schools?  Should we start by establishing professional teaching standards along the career ladder?  If the teacher salary grid was retained, but re-engineered around teacher competencies and performance levels, would teachers embrace that opportunity?  How long might it take to establish a set of student performance benchmarks that could reliably be integrated into teacher performance/compensation programs?

The McTutor World is on the rise. Private tutoring is growing by leaps and bounds and it’s now the fastest growing segment of Canadian K-12 education. Since the financial meltdown of 2008, the tutoring business has rebounded, particularly in major Canadian cities and the burgeoning suburbs. From 2010 to 2013, Kumon Math centre enrollment in Canada rose by 23% and is now averaging 5 % growth a year. It’s estimated that one in three city parents in Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver and Calgary now hire private tutors for their kids.

PrivateTutorsSylvanMy recent radio interviews on CBC Radio Drive Home shows (September 4-5, 2014) focused on the trend and tackled the bigger question of why today’s parents are turning increasingly to after-school tutors to supplement the regular school program. That’s a question that begs for a more thorough, in-depth explanation.

The expansion of private tutoring is driven by a combination of factors. The world is changing and, for good or ill, we now inhabit an increasingly competitive global world. International student testing is one symptom and so are provincial testing programs — and parents are better informed than ever before on where students and schools rank in terms of student achievement.  While high school graduation rates are rising, student performance indicators are either flat-lined or declining, especially in Atlantic Canada. In most Canadian provinces, university educated parents also have higher expectations for their children and the entire public education system is geared more to university preparation than to employability skills.

System issues play a critical role in convincing parents to turn to tutors. Promoting “Success for All” has come to signify a decline in standards and the entrenchment of “social promotion” reflected in student reports overflowing with edu-babble about “learning outcomes” but saying little about the pupils themselves.  When parents see their kids struggling to read and unable to perform simple calculations, reassurances that “everything is fine” raises more red flags.

New elementary school curricula in Literacy and Mathematics only compound the problem —and both “Discovery Math” and “Whole Language” reading approaches now face a groundswell of parental dissent, especially in Manitoba, Alberta, British Columbia, and Ontario.  It’s no accident that the private tutors provide early reading instruction utilizing systematic phonics and most teach Math using traditional numbers based methods.

The tutoring business is definitely market-driven and more sensitive to public demand and expectations. Canadian academic researchers Scott Davies and Janice Aurini have shown the dramatic shift, starting in the mid-1990s, toward the franchising of private tutoring. Up until then, tutoring was mostly a “cottage industry” run in homes and local libraries, mainly serving high schoolers, and focusing on homework completion and test/exam preparation. With the entry of franchises like Sylvan Learning, Oxford Learning, and Kumon, tutoring evolved into private “learning centres” in cities and the affluent suburbs.  The new tutoring centres, typically compact 1,200 sq. ft spaces in shopping plazas, offered initial learning level assessments, study skills programs, Math skills instruction, career planning, and even high school and university admissions testing preparation.

Hiring private tutors can be costly, but parents today are determined to come to the rescue of their struggling kids or to give the motivated child an extra edge.  Today it’s gone far beyond introducing your child to reading with “Fun with Phonics” and some Walmart stores even stock John Mighton’s tutoring books for the JUMP Math program. An initial assessment costs $99 to $125 and can be irresistable after reading those jargon-filled, mark-less reports. For a full tutoring program, two nights a week, the costs can easily reach $2,o00 to $3,000 a school year.  Once enrolled, parents are far more likely to look to private independent schools, a more expensive option, but one that can make after-school family life a lot simpler and less hectic.

The tutoring explosion is putting real pressure on today’s public schools. Operating from 8:30 am until 3:00 pm, with “bankers’ hours,” regular schools are doing their best to cope with the new demands and competition, in the form of virtual learning and after-hours tutoring programs.  Parents are expecting more and, like Netflicks, on demand!  That  is likely to be at the centre of a much larger public conversation about the future of traditional, bricks and mortar, limited hours schooling.

What explains the phenomenal growth of private tutoring?  With public schools closing at 3:00 pm, will today’s parents turn increasingly to online, virtual education to plug the holes and address the skills deficit?  How will we insure that access to private tutors does not further deepen the educational inequities already present in Canada and the United States? Will the “Shadow Education” system expand to the point that public schools are forced to respond to the competition?  

 

Alberta’s most unlikely hero, Physics teacher Lynden Dorval, has finally been vindicated.  Two years after he was fired in September 2012 by the Edmonton Public Schools for giving his high school students zeros for incomplete work, an Alberta appeal tribunal ruled on August 29, 2014 that he was “unfairly dismissed” and restored his lost salary and pension. There is justice, it seems, in the education world.  The bigger question is – how did it happen and will it encourage more teachers to stand-up  against eroding educational standards?

LyndenDorvalEPSPhotoThe Physics teacher at Ross Sheppard High School, was a 33-year veteran with an “unblemished” teaching record.  He stood his ground when a new Principal arrived and intervened to end the common practice of teaching students a valuable life lesson – failing to hand in an assignment or missing a test without a valid reason – would result in a mark of zero. In Dorval’s case, he even gave students fair warning and a second chance before taking that step.  It worked because Dorval , according to the tribunal, had “the best record in the school and perhaps the province for completion rates.”

The “no zeros” issue  came to a head when the school’s computer generated reports were programmed to substitute “blanks” for zeros, eliminating the practice.  Dorval considered banning zeros “a stupid idea” and said he “simply couldn’t follow it.”  Two other teachers did the same but escaped any repercussions.

The Alberta tribunal’s decision supported Dorval because he had raised very legitimate questions about whether the policy was good for students.  In the wording of the decision, “the school board did not act reasonably in suspending the teacher. The implementation of the new assessment policy has several demonstrable problems.” Specifically, since there was “no accountability or penalty for missing assignments in the new policy, there was little incentive for a student to actually complete the assignment.”

The written ruling was particularly harsh in its criticism of the principal and former superintendent Edgar Schmidt.  It agreed that Dorval was made an example for challenging the principal’s authority and found that the policy was imposed without proper consultation with teachers, students, or parents. Even more telling, the tribunal was very critical of the Edmonton board for denying Dorval due process during its September 2012 dismissal hearing.

The sheer idiocy of the Edmonton Public Schools student assessment policy was clear to most outside the system. Faced with a groundswell of resistance, the Edmonton board of elected trustees itself backtracked, approving a revised student assessment policy (protecting the Lynden Dorvals) and explicitly allowing zero as a possible mark.

School system Student Evaluation policy remains a total mystery to most parents and to tuned-in high school students.  Over the past two decades, provincial testing programs and school-based student evaluation have been moving in opposite directions.

Provincial tests such as the Ontario EQAO assessments hold students accountable for measuring up to criteria-referenced standards, while school board consultants promote the new “Assessment for Learning” (AfL) theories, pushing-up graduation rates through a combination of “no fail” and “do-over” student evaluation practices.  Defenders of such ‘soft, pass everyone’ practices like AfL consultant Damian Cooper   tend to see enforcing higher standards as a dire threat to student self-esteem.

Public school authorities have a way of silencing independently-minded teachers and many pay a professional price for openly expressing dissenting views. A small number of those educators stumble upon Canadian independent schools which generally thrive on giving teachers the freedom to challenge students and to actually teach.  Thousands of public school teachers just accept the limits on freedom of expression, soldier on and mutter, below their breath, “I’m a teacher, so I’m not allowed to have an opinion.”

Why did Lynden Dorval become an Alberta teacher hero?  It comes down to this: He said “No” to further erosion of teacher autonomy and standards.

 

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?

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