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American education historian Diane Ravitch once enjoyed a reputation as one of the leading public intellectuals of our time. After four decades of impressive historical research and compelling writing pushing at the boundaries of education reform, she has now emerged almost unrecognizable as the fiercest critic of school reform in the United States. Her two most recent books, The Death and Life of the Great American School System (2010) and the sequel Reign of Error (2013), bear witness to that radical transformation and provide clues to the fundamental question: What in the world has happened to Diane Ravitch?

RavitchDeathCoverHer 2010 national best seller, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, marks a radical break in her reform advocacy. Much of the book is a revisionist interpretation of the previous decade of education reform, but it also represents a startling about-face. The leading advocate of testing and accountability emerges, almost born-again, as a fierce critic of the Barak Obama –Arne Duncan ‘Race to the Top’ reform agenda, especially standardized testing, school choice and the closure of low-performing schools. “I too had fallen for the latest panaceas and miracle cures,” she confesses, but, as time wore on, simply “lost the faith” (pp. 3 and 4).

Always known for her independent, contrarian streak, Ravitch was again swimming against the tide. Under George W. Bush’s NCLB , she contended that the whole standards movement had been “hijacked” by the testing movement. Instead of focusing upon curriculum reform, “standardized test scores” were considered “the primary measure of school quality.” “Good education,” she wrote, “cannot be achieved by a strategy of testing children, shaming educators, and closing schools”(p. 111). Charter schools, according to Ravitch, had strayed from the original concept best articulated in 1988 by then American Federation of Teachers president Albert Shanker. Instead of becoming a vehicle for empowering teachers to initiate innovative methods of reaching disaffected students, it evolved into a means of advancing privatization, producing an “education industry” dominated by entrepreneurs, philanthropists, and venture capitalists (pp. 123-4). Test-based accountability, Ravitch now claimed, narrowed the curriculum and was being used in inappropriate ways to identify ‘failing schools,’ fire educators, determine bonuses, and close schools, distorting the purpose of schooling altogether (p. 167).

Ravitch focuses much of her scathing criticism on what she termed the “Billionaire Boys’ Club.” Since the turn of the millennium, she claims that the traditional educational foundation world had been significantly changed by the emergence of a new breed of venture philanthropists. By 2002, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, and the Eli Broad Foundation had emerged to frame and dominate the school reform agenda. School choice, turnaround schools strategies, and competitive market incentives were all harnessed in mostly failed attempts to leverage improved student test scores. “with so much money and power aligned against the neighbourhood public school and the teaching profession, she bluntly forecast that “public education itself is placed at risk” (p. 222).

Ravitch’s The Fall and Life of the Great American School System harkened back to A Nation at Risk and made a compelling case that American school reform has lost its way. In rejecting the charter school panacea and test-based accountability, she sets out a reasonable, balanced approach to educational improvement. Raising academic standards utilizing the Common Core Curriculum continue to be the centrepiece of her reformist philosophy, but she is more sanguine about the likelihood of reaching a national consensus, settling for a sound balanced curriculum including history, civics, geography, literature, the arts and sciences, foreign languages, and physical/health education. “ If our schools had an excellent curriculum, appropriate assessment and well-educated teachers,” she concludes, “we would be way ahead of where we are now in renewing our school system’ (p. 239).

Swept up in the wave of public reaction to her 2010 book, Ravitch sought to answer the question posed but not fully explored – where should American education be heading? A completely reformed fiery warrior emerges in Reign of Error, a book with an attention grabbing, inflammatory subtitle: “The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools.” Expanding upon her critique of the American venture philanthropists, she restates her strong opposition to blind faith in charters, testing excesses, shuttering ‘failing’ schools, and removing ‘bad’ teachers. Without the same tone of authenticity and humility, Reign of Error descends into polemic and reads, for the most part, like an angry diatribe. Not quite prepared to provide a constructive path forward, she simply sets out to crush her former allies, now seen as enemies, real and imagined.

RavitchSoundBitesIn the opening chapter of Reign of Error, Diane Ravitch stuns the reader by claiming that there is “no crisis” in American education. “Public education is not broken,” she writes. “It is not failing or declining. Our urban schools are in trouble because of concentrated poverty and racial segregation….Public education is in crisis only so far as society is and only so far as this new narrative of crisis has de-stabilized it” (p. 4). In her book introduction, she also states: “ I do not contend that schools are fine just as they are. They are not. American education needs higher standards for those who enter the teaching profession. It needs higher standards for those who become principals and superintendents. It needs stronger and deeper curriculum in every subject…” (p. xii). You will look in vain, as New Jersey teaching expert Grant Wiggins (2013) noted, for any serious discussion of how to tackle that second set of problems.

The “crisis” myth, according to the newly radicalized Diane Ravitch, is only sustained by “orchestrated attacks” on teachers and principals. “These attacks,” she declares,” create a false sense of crisis and serve the interests of those who want to privatize the public schools.” In an attempt to overturn the prevailing narrative, she argues that these ‘outsiders’ represent not reform but the status quo in education. Together, they form a dangerous bipartisan alliance committed to “corporate reform” and encompassing a broad spectrum from Education Secretary Duncan to Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and the Bezos Foundation, from the Hoover Institution to Hollywood, purveyors of films like Waiting for Superman. Since education is not really in crisis, Ravitch contends that all of these interests are destroying the public school system while pursuing an illusion.

Making such claims can win you legions of followers inside the system, but also damage your credibility as a respected scholar purporting to present an “evidence-based” assessment of the state of education. In the chapter entitled “The Facts about the International Test Scores,” Ravitch’s analysis simply does not hold water, especially when it comes to the mathematics scores of U.S. students, compared with other top performing countries. While U.S. grade 4 students do perform reasonably well on basic operations, they are not competitive with the Taiwanese, for example, at higher performance levels. Seventeen-year old Americans, not referenced by Ravitch, have stagnated in reading and mathematics since the first tests in the early 1970s.

In defending teacher autonomy, Ravitch tends to ignore research on the impact of effective teaching on student achievement levels. If New Zealander John Hattie (2008) is correct, teaching may well account for 30 cent or more of student improvement and highly effective teachers can add an extra year or two of growth in achievement level. Without advocating for the firing of teachers on the basis of ‘half-baked’ test-based assessment systems, there is much evidence that poor performance is tolerated for variety of reasons. National estimates from the U.S. Department of Education confirm that, on average, school districts only dismiss 1.4% of tenured teachers and 0.7% of probationary teachers each year.

Instead of focusing so much on the sinister influence of “Billionaire Boys’ Club,” Ravitch might have been more convincing if she had actually produced a coherent reform agenda based upon curriculum improvement and enhancing teacher effectiveness. More vigorous advocacy on her part might have bolstered and possibly salvaged more of the Common Core Curriculum which she campaigned so hard to get on the national policy agenda. Rather than tackling the structural problems, Ravitch may have exerted more impact by venturing into what Larry Cuban (2013) terms the “Black Box” of the classroom. Improving teaching pedagogy, student assessment, and the consistency of teaching, educators like Wiggins insist, would certainly help far more to advance school improvement and student learning, whatever the form or organization of the school.

Over the past five years, Diane Ravitch has become more of an education reform warrior than a credible scholar, especially when she ventures well outside the field of educational history. Since discovering Twitter five years ago, she has become a serial tweeter spewing out snappy 140 character comments and regularly goes ad hominem with those holding opposite views. Standing on the Save Our Schools rally platform on the Ellipse in July 2011, Ravitch spoke for only eight minutes, all in punchy protest sentences. Slogans and sloganeering, as Brian Crittenden reminded us back in 1969, are no substitute for serious thinking and confronting the many contradictions in educational discourse.

American education reform today is a contested terrain occupied by tribalists. Side-stepping critical education reform issues such as teacher quality that might offend camp followers is right out-of-character for Ravitch, the once independently-minded public intellectual. Former reform allies like Frederick Hess, a respected conservative policy analyst, who welcomed The Fall and Life of the Great American School System, now chastise her for becoming a virtual mouthpiece of the teachers’ unions. Whether you think education is in crisis or not, Ravitch’s latest books provide an inventive, perplexing re-interpretation, but will do little to help us overcome the current impasse.

Why is American education reform such a polarized field of public policy?  What happens to respected scholars like Diane Ravitch when they get absorbed into the Manichean world view?  Whatever happened to Ravitch’s deep commitment to putting higher standards and curriculum reform before teacher autonomy and advocacy? Will the tribalism fostered in the School Wars ultimately lead anywhere?

The Maritime province of Nova Scotia is now fully engaged in a rather unique education reform experiment.  A recent Education Review, headed by former Lieutenant-Governor Myra Freeman, went to the public with a very broad, diffuse agenda and opened the door through online surveys to allow 19,000 Nova Scotians to identify the Primary to Grade 12 system’s strengths and weaknesses and to register their ‘satisfaction level” with the state of curriculum, teaching, and learning.

ClassroomSceneThe Nova Scotia Government got an earful, especially from parents, community members and regular teachers.  It came in the form of an October 30, 2014 report, entitled, Disrupting the Status Quo:  Nova Scotians Demand a Better Future for Every Student. “When 50 per cent of Nova Scotians are not satisfied,” Education Minister Karen Casey declared, “I know it’s time for change.”

The stark reality, unearthed by the Minister’s Panel on Education survey exercise, led by Freeman, is that education “insiders” and “outsiders” inhabit parallel universes. A majority of parents and community members think that, putting it crudely, “the system sucks.” Two out of three school administrators, board staff, and hand-picked high school students are quite satisfied with the world as it is in the schools.

Boring down into the findings of the Freeman panel’s nine-month long study and survey findings, a major shakeup may well be ahead, but it’s still hard to divine a clear set of priorities. The minister and her department appear to be “crowd-sourcing” their educational vision.

While Freeman was introducing her Oct. 30 report, two bulletin boards full of strategic change planning schematics on the wall in the Department of Education briefing room caught my eye. The display board to the left entitled “DoE Strengths & Challenges” was pretty predictable, but the board on the right, under the headline “Change Ed Vision” was more revealing. Under “Managing Change through Communication,” it stated “the Dept. of Ed is a leader in innovative collaboration & learning for the success of every student.” Such formulaic edu-babble seemed totally at odds with Freeman’s well-rehearsed call for “disruptive” change.

The external messaging is, of course, dramatically different than the internal strategizing. With the system’s clients demanding changes, the time for tinkering with the system should be over. The diagnosis may be “patient condition critical,” but the panel’s prescriptions are all over the map, attempting to address seven rather disparate afflictions.

With seven “themes” and 30 guiding recommendations, the broad, “holistic approach” is so scattered that it’s ripe for cherry-picking and instant analysis. Empowering school boards to “fire teachers for sub-standard performance” and “increasing the number of credits needed for graduation from high school” captured the headlines, but hardly constitute an overall turnaround strategy.

A deeper dive reveals evidence of serious deficiencies in the system. While Ben Levin’s  April 2011 education review declared Nova Scotia to be a “good system,” the Freeman panel learned otherwise. “The current system,” they conclude, “is failing our students and the public has sent a strong message that there is an urgent need for change.”

Many parts of the system are deemed to “not be working well” and need major reform. “A one size-fits-all curriculum,” to cite a glaring example, “is not serving students well. The pace is too slow for some, too fast for others.”

NSPrepNextGradeSerious parental concerns have been registered over the quality of teaching and learning. Only 62 per cent of parent respondents felt that students receive “highly effective teaching in their classes.” Most alarmingly, only 49 per cent of parents and some 33 per cent of community members feel students are being “well prepared to move onto the next grade.” Fewer still believe graduates are being “well prepared” for either university or the workforce.

Critical questions have been posed and expectations raised sky-high for system-wide change. Surveying those scattered recommendations, a few possible policy initiatives do present themselves. Teacher quality reform, toyed with in the 2012 Kids & Learning First report, is back on the public agenda. On the heels of our March 2014 AIMS report, “Maintaining Spotless Records,” it’s now morphed into setting higher faculty of education admission standards, more rigorous teacher performance evaluation and removing administrators from the teachers’ union.

The February 2014 public row over Drake University “bird course” teacher salary upgrades obviously struck a chord with the public, if not with the teachers’ union. “Initial teacher classification, advancement in classification levels, and pay increases,” the panel recognizes, “need to be tied to system requirements and strong performance in assigned duties.”

Student conduct and discipline may well finally get addressed. The panel heard, loud and clear, that “punctuality, attendance, organization, and responsibility” were lacking, adversely affecting graduates’ “job and life-related competencies.”

After a decade of promoting higher graduation levels and adopting “no fail” policies, the panel found “social promotion” was causing a whole set of new student performance problems. Openly confronting the “attainment-achievement” gap and aligning grade progression with actual student competency levels will be a massive undertaking.

Inclusion of special education students continues to be a serious concern for teachers as well as parents and student support staff. Fewer than one in three respondents in those categories feel special education services are “meeting the needs of all students.” Instead of confronting the problem head on, the panel reverts to the usual response — add “more learning supports.”

The Freeman report’s rhetoric about “disrupting the status quo” echoes the battle cry of Ray Ivany’s Now or Never Nova Scotia report. It all sounds good, but it’s still hard to imagine two consummate insiders, Freeman and Casey, leading the charge. Winning over those wedded to the status quo will be a formidable challenge.

What does “disruptive change” actually mean in education – and do “insiders” and “outsiders” see it the same way?  Who’s defending the Status Quo in Nova Scotia and elsewhere — and where are they hiding?  Are calls for “disruptive change” just a way of blowing-off stem and intended more as “expressions of sentiment” rather than policy direction?  Will education ‘ insiders’ ever warm to such changes or will it require a wholesale change in school administration at every level?

 

Luke MacDonald, the leading champion of Sparks Fly,  is in the business of helping people to get active and healthy.  Since 1996, he’s been promoting a series of Youth Run projects and volunteering with Phoenix House as a community outreach dimension of of his own Halifax sports equipment shop, Aerobics First.  After 34 years in business, he’s now turned to promoting  stationary “spin bikes” and “self-regulation” as the way of reaching and re-engaging today’s ‘stressed-out,’ distracted school children.

LukeMacDonaldSparksFlyLuke is in the vanguard of the Canadian ‘self-regulation’ movement. Building on the research connecting improved mental concentration with physical exercise, the Run for Life Foundation (www.runforlife.ca) has developed the Sparks Fly program. With the support of private donors, Sparks Fly has placed child-sized spin bicycles into classrooms across Canada, including more than a dozen within the Halifax Regional School Board.

Here’s how it works: Students are encouraged to hop on the bike if they are having difficulty focusing on their lessons. The idea is that children learn to identify when they are having difficulties with attention, and then use physical activity as a stimulant to engage the parts of the brain that help with this cognitive skill. At Dalhousie University, a research team is also conducting a study to determine the optimal dose of exercise to promote improved cognitive functioning, focusing on university-age students.

The Sparks Fly spin bike project  has a practical, utilitarian objective — to help “stressed-out.’ distracted children focus and perform better in school.  “The ideal situation is that the bikes remain in the classroom,” Luke told The Chronicle Herald  during last year’s Fitness Week. “So when a student is feeling anxious, they just have to get on the bike. A little bit of movement can calm them, and they learn that.”

Halifax healthy living activist MacDonald experienced an epiphany, of sports, when he was awakened to its intellectual origins in the ‘self-regulation’ movement. Inspired by a powerful address by York University’s Dr. Stuart Shanker at “The Collision” conference in Waterloo and Dr. John Ratey’s book, The Spark, he was completely hooked on the initiative that attempted to marry physical activity with ‘self-regulation’ principles in elementary schools.

Self-regulation is the latest manifestation of neuroscience and it’s catching on as the latest panacea to grab the attention of today’s stressed children and high speed screenagers.  In an August 2014 Toronto Globe and Mail feature, social trends reporter Erin Anderssen was drawn to neuroscience as “a subversive solution.” “Cut math class,” she wrote, ” to dance–or walk, skip, play catch — the theory being that whatever gets the heart pumping will get the brain humming as well.”

Aerobic fitness is now touted by RunForLife.ca as one of the best ways to develop a child’s ability to self-regulate.  In simplest terms, self-regulation is the ability to stay calmly focused and alert.  Its research-based origins can be traced back to the famous 1989 “Marshmallow Test”  where only 30 per cent of four-year-olds left alone in a room for a few minutes could resist eating the tasty treat.

EurekaMindfulnessSelf-regulation is now being promoted as an educational alternative to “behaviour management” and is increasingly favoured by so-called progressive, child-centred elementary school educators. “Self-regulation,” in Shanker’s words, “does not involve making an effort to inhibit impulses” but rather “to reduce the stressors affecting the nervous system.”  It’s so widely accepted by Ontario child psychologists that it’s actually enshrined as “a measurement outcome” on the latest provincial school report cards.

Student learning initiatives based upon neuroscience now enjoy a patina of  scientific research respectability. Growing numbers of education observers are beginning to question the legitimacy of “self-regulation” in the context of its actual brain research origins.  A January 2014 Time Magazine feature, written by Kate Pickert, identified the movement as an outgrowth of what is termed “The Mindful Revolution,” the popular science of “finding focus in a stressed-out, multitasking culture.’  She and a number of North American scholars see self-regulation as a recent mutation of “Mindfulness,” a Stress Reduction curriculum (MBSR) developed in 1979by Jon Kabat-Zinn, an MIT-educated scientist heavily influenced by Buddhism.

Much of the rationale for ‘self-regulation’ echoes Kabat-Zinn’s MBSR neuroscience theories and some of its proponents make it sound like a “New Age retread” of previous prescriptions for stress.  Mindfulness is definitely rooted in Eastern philosophy, while it is being presented as “secular” in our schools.  Dr. Catherine Gidney at Fredericton’s St. Thomas University is currently exploring the historical context surrounding the implementation of mindfulness in Canadian classrooms. In doing so she documents some of pedagogical and spiritual concerns and objections that have been raised about this phenomenon.  A few other education scholars have also pointed out the laser-like focus of mindfulness on “the here and now” and its implicit lack of respect for wisdom and learned experience.

American writer and skeptic Dan Hurley, writing in New York Times Magazine (January 14, 2014), has also pointed out a few of its “unwanted side-effects.”  While presented as a virtual cure-all for “split focus’ distractibility, more recent research demonstrates that it sharpens focus , but actually impairs “implict learning,”  making it more difficult to ride a bicycle, speak grammatically, or read people’s facial expressions.  More concerning, it is being shown to inhibit “mind wandering” and the sort of “mind vacations” that often lead to epiphanies and Big Ideas.

Educators are always looking to improve upon current student behaviour management strategies. If Self-Regulation becomes dominant practice,  we may succeed in incorporating more physical activity and securing more attentiveness.  It’s fair to ask whether we will also be producing more placid kids — sacrificing intellectual risk taking, academic learning time, and perhaps a little creativity in our classrooms.

What explains the rise and spread of Self-Regulation as the latest educational panacea for modifying children’s behaviour in the schools?  How is the self-regulation movement connected to Eastern philosophy and should that be a matter of concern in essentially sectarian state schools?  What impact are Sparks Fly and comparable programs having on teaching and learning in elementary schools?  Is there any danger that Self-Regulation may actually curb creativity and historical-mindedness by inculcating “willpower” and stamping out “mind wandering” ?

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?

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