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Allana Loh’s neighbourhood cries out for radical change. Only one out of every two children attending her north-end Dartmouth elementary school currently graduates from high school.  Three years ago, she and her friend Roseanna Cleveland raised money to finance a feasibility study aimed at securing a Dartmouth site sponsored by Pathways to Education.  Now she is campaigning to bring a proven literacy program, SpellRead  into her daughter’s school, Harbour View Elementary, to boost its alarmingly low literacy rates.

PathwaysTakeAction14She and her group, the Take Action Society, experience, first hand, the debilitating effects of  “unequal education.”  Since 2010, they have been working to create positive change in a community that struggles with a high crime rate, drugs, poverty and lower levels of education. They have built a community garden, painted a large mural outside the school and organized community cleanups.

Now Loh is convinced that only a bold initiative can bring about the need radical change. “We would like to have Dartmouth North declared an education reconstruction zone.”  Speaking out is rare, but Loh and the Take Action Society are far from alone in seeking bold and more comprehensive approaches to community-school regeneration.

A powerful new series of investigative news reports, produced by Teri  Pecoskie at the Hamilton Spectator, and headlined “Unequal Education,” has ripped the lid of the problem of educational inequalities in urban school systems. “As school reformer Horace Mann famously put it, education is a great equalizer, ” she wrote. “It’s the balance wheel of the social machinery. Something that offers every child, regardless of personal circumstance, a fair shot at success. In Hamilton, though, there’s nothing equal about education. The fact is, where you are born, and to whom, can have a profound effect on your future.”

The Spectator analysis of six years of Ontario EQAO test results reveals huge gaps in academic achievement in Hamilton schools, despite significant investments aimed at levelling the playing field. When education is so important to the future of our kids and our city, why do such disparities continue to exist, and what can be done to fix them? Pecoskie spent months researching the issue and provides the answers in a special five-part series.

Through interactive graphics, The Spectator , compares, in graphic detail, student test scores with socio-economic factors in each school neighbourhood. Students at St. Patrick School in the poorer east end of downtown Hamilton, she found, are badly trailing in performance, compared to those  at St. Thomas the Apostle in Waterdown, where only 15 per cent of the children come from low income households.

The stark revelations in Pecoskie’s series are not new, but they demonstrate conclusively that bold initiatives will be required to turn student performance around in these struggling school communities. Her findings also add weight and significance to the findings of researchers preparing feasibility studies foe Pathways to Education. Since its inception in 2001, Pathways has identified over 14 different neighbourhoods across Canada which qualify as high student dropout zones.

Struggling students in faltering schools cry out for more radical, innovative community-based solutions. Proven educational development programs like Pathways to Education in Halifax Spryfield , sponsored by Chebucto Community Connections, are demonstrating what a “wrap-around” child and youth support program can accomplish in a few short years. So has the pioneering community support stay-in-school venture known as the Epic Youth Peer Breakthrough Program in Sydney, Cape Breton.

School communities in crisis cannot afford to wait until they secure another Pathways to Education site, perhaps a decade from now. Armed with what we know know about struggling neighbourhoods, let’s start by identifying the potential “education reconstruction zones” and enlisting the support of a cross-section of public and private sector partners from Community Services to the United Way to the local chambers of commerce.

THe stark inequalities are clear and it’s time for action where it counts  in the Premier’s Offices and our corporate board rooms. Since 2010, President Barack Obama and the U.S. Education Department have blazed the policy trail. Starting with 21 American communities and $10 million, the “Promise Neighbourhoods” initiative, inspired by the Harlem Children’s Zone, has begun to transform poor urban and rural neighbourhoods with “cradle –to-career services.”

Allana Loh is giving voice to the voiceless, The Spectator has smashed the myth of equal opportunities, and Pathways to Education has charted the course.   Struggling school communities are worthy candidates for domestic social and economic reconstruction projects. What we need is bold leadership committed to a more comprehensive, targeted “reconstruction zone” strategy expanding educational opportunities for all children.

Whatever happened to the vision of public education as “the great equalizer?”  What can we learn from the findings of the Pathways to Education studies and the recent Spectator “Unequal Education” series?  Will more of the same in the form of more funding for existing programs, student supports, and special education  ever succeed in making a dent in the problem? Is it time to identify “education reconstruction zones” and to mobilize a wider range of resources targeted on struggling neighbourhhoods  and aimed at significantly raising graduation rates?

The state of  the teaching profession is a critical public policy issue — and one that rarely gets addressed unless, and until, periodic revelations surface of “professional misconduct” involving a small minority of so-called “bad apples” who besmirch the reputation of committed, caring and upstanding teachers everywhere.

TeachingProfessionDozens of Canadian teachers in Nova Scotia were recently revealed to have been boosting their salaries by thousands of dollars, acquiring additional credentials by taking “bird courses” offered through a distance learning program at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa.

The Drake course debacle became a full-blown controversy when Shelley Morse, president of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union, spoke up defending the teachers who took the easy route to secure hefty salary increases. Over the previous three years, some 41 teachers were discovered to have taken Drake courses, mostly in sports coaching and not acceptable for admission as graduate credits, to secure teacher salary upgrades of from $6,000 to $8,000 a year, and 505 teachers, in total, had initiated similar plans, representing two out of every three registered to take out-of-province courses.

Even after Education Minister Karen Casey called for a full investigation of the Drake courses, Morse remained undeterred. To the union president and her provincial executive, it was not a question of professionalism, but rather an unprovoked assault on teachers and another episode in the education “blame game.”

My latest AIMS research report, co-authored with Karen Mitchell, a Nova Scotian who served as a member of the Ontario College of Teachers Governing Board from 1997 to 2005, pointed out that this seemingly isolated episode revealed deeper problems besetting the teaching profession.

Establishing and maintaining professional standards in Canada has, in practice, been delegated to provincial teachers’ unions and federations. Nova Scotia demonstrates how that approach turns professional matters over to the employers (school boards) and results in professional bodies like the NSTU propping up particularly loose regulations, virtually guaranteeing “spotless records” for teachers.

The province has about 9,400 P-12 public school teachers, all of whom are members of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union. Today the Nova Scotia government has abrogated its responsibility to uphold teaching standards by leaving matters to the province’s school boards. Under the Teaching Profession Act , the province essentially delegates to the union its responsibility for both professional development and upholding teaching standards. The province also has five university faculties of education, each offering B.Ed. and graduate programs leading to a teaching certificate and advanced degrees.

While Nova Scotia conducts periodic reviews of teacher education, the universities operate in an autonomous fashion. No independent body exists either to oversee or to accredit the province’s university teacher education programs or out-of-province added qualification programs.

Utilizing Nova Scotia as a test case, our AIMS policy paper makes the case for adopting a more robust provincial policy regimen to ensure the highest teaching standards as well as to “weed out” under-performing teachers and so-called “bad apples” who pose risks to students.

The four-year-long battle (2009-13) to remove New Germany school teacher Peter Speight in the wake of his sexual offence case drove the point home. It cost taxpayers well over $250,000 in settlement fees and revealed, albeit in exaggerated form, the damage inflicted by failing to set and uphold professional ethics and standards in Nova Scotia schools.

Promoting, maintaining and enforcing professional standards now falls between various horses — the Education Department’s certification branch, the school boards, and the professional committee of the NSTU, the teachers’ union also entrusted with protecting its members from moral and “criminal allegations.”

The NSTU staff manual does contain a “code of ethics,” but it is not a public declaration, nor does it appear to be applied when cases are before the courts or arbitration tribunals. The professional committee operates in a closed and private fashion, shielded by a regimen of publicly displayed “privacy principles.” That committee, overseeing all matters of “professional misconduct” and behaviour “unbecoming a teacher,” publishes no minutes and is not required to disclose any data with respect to any and all teacher resignations, retirements or dismissals.

We are left completely unaware of cases such as that of Peter Speight until parents mount local school board protests or the criminal case goes to court and appears in public proceedings.

One reform option is to establish a fully independent College of Teachers with a clear provincial mandate to ensure Teacher Quality (TQ) and identify, establish, and enforce professional standards of practice. In the report, we reconstruct the rise and fall of the B.C. College of Teachers from 1988 until its demise in 2011 amid controversy over  internal conflicts and public revelations of keeping “bad teaching records spotless.”

After assessing the recognized strengths and critical shortcomings of two earlier College of Teachers ventures in Ontario and British Columbia, we proposed a better model for Nova Scotia and its neighbouring Atlantic provinces – the establishment of a teacher regulation branch with an independent board capable of upholding and enforcing professional performance and conduct standards.

The AIMS report really set the cat among the pigeons in Nova Scotia’s rather inward looking provincial school system.  When the NSTU refused to comment and went into hiding, the Minister of Education finally responded with the explanation that disciplining teachers was the role of school boards, implying that the union was not a professional body at all. The Halifax Regional School Board was then compelled to make public its disciplinary practices and record, reporting that only 1 teacher out of 4,000 was disciplined for performance issues each year.

The teaching profession is facing a crisis of confidence and the situation now calls for a major reform of teacher certification and regulation. Starting in Nova Scotia and following the lead of B.C., we called for the establishment of a new, more independent teacher regulation branch with a clear mandate to raise professional teaching standards, rebuild public trust, properly vet teacher education programs, and safeguard students in the schools.

Whatever happened to Teaching Standards upheld by members of the profession themselves?  Are teachers’ unions like the NSTU (focusing primarily on “protective services”) capable of  honouring their commitments under the Teaching Profession Act to deal with “conduct unbecoming a teacher”? In view of the collapse of the B.C. College of Teachers, has the potential for a truly self-governing profession been lost here in Canada?

 

The latest report on the state of School Choice in Canada dropped out of thin air on February 27, 2014 and hit with barely a thud. Produced for the Vancouver-based Fraser Institute, the report entitled Measuring Choice and Competition in Canadian Education generated a predictable media response. “Alberta leads the nation in offering parents and kids more school options compared to its provincial counterparts,” The Calgary Herald chirped.  “In terms of choice, it’s very clear that Alberta goes out of its way purposefully, strategically, to provide parents with choice not only within the public system but outside the public system,” stated Jason Clemens, executive vice-president of the Fraser Institute and co-author of the report. So, you might ask, what else is new?

SchoolChoiceRallyThe Fraser Institute study  provided a very useful comparative analysis of the range of school choices available from most (Alberta and BC) to least (all of Atlantic Canada, except for New Brunswick).  Like most previous North American reports, it turned to free market economic theory to make its case. Increasing school choice and competition, Clemens and his co-authors argue,  spurs “quality, lower prices and innovation,” which in turn leads to improved student performance and an enhanced education system.

School choice in Canada, according to the Fraser Institute, now encompasses having parallel public and separate school systems (both in French and English) and so Canada is, by virtue of this factor, supposedly more open to choice than might be thought, given the relative uniformity of bureaucratic structures and provincial curricula.  Once again, Alberta is the exemplary province, the only one to authorize charter schools and provide some funding to students who are homeschooled.

“The presence of charter schools in Alberta provides an additional source of choice, which provides parents with additional options outside of traditional linguistic and religious alternatives offered by public school boards,” reads the report. Conversely, the Atlantic Provinces offer “comparatively little parental choice and competition among schools.”

“It’s pretty hard to look at any metric in the independent school sector, public or home-schooling where Alberta is not at the top of the list in terms of trying to proactively provide parents with more choice,” Clemens said. He also pointed to a growing body of research in Europe and the U.S. that suggest a “clear link” between parental choice and student performance.   Then, he attempted to apply that to Canada, arguing that it explained, in many ways, why BC and Alberta tend to ” do pretty well on education testing and education performance generally.”

The School Choice report is disappointing, especially for those who favour expanding the range of choice available in Canada’s provincial school systems. Parents and students in the 21st century are so accustomed to having and making choices in life that the public school systems are completely out of sync with the rest of society. Instead of relying on the tired old arguments of Milton Friedman and the free market theorists, the case would have had far more bite if it had been based upon the rights of students and parents as “‘consumers of education’ to better schools more attuned to student needs.

Students and parents in all Canadian provinces, including Alberta, would benefit from more school choices inside the public school system. There is only one choice for the vast majority of Atlantic Canadians living in Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, and Prince Edward Island. Over 95% of all K-12 students in these three provinces are offered only one brand of school, the standard English Public School model. In New Brunswick, some 28% of all students attend Francophone schools, but their curriculum and program are, with a few exceptions, a French mirror image of the Anglophone version.

Atlantic Canada is, putting it bluntly, a “take it or leave it” public system where only more affluent families have an alternative, the odd private independent school and homeschooling, enrolling only 1 to 2.5% of the total student population. Out of 430 total schools in Nova Scotia, only 30 are private or independent (without public funding) and they only enroll 2,949 students or 2.2 % of the total provincial enrollment.  About 2,600 First Nations students (2.1%) do attend very small Mi’kmaw Education Authority schools in 13 different native communities. Fewer than 250 Nova Scotia students receive tax support to attend special schools for kids with severe learning disabilities.

Alberta, upon closer examination, is not quite the nirvana painted by the Fraser Institute.  Some 70.4 % of Alberta students attend the “one big system” ( Public/English), 22.9% the Catholic/French systems, 4.6% private/independent, 1.3% charter schools, and 1.6% are home schooled, receiving some $1650 per year for resources. Under the Alberta Charter School law, the numbers of publicly-funded charters are limited (to 15) and enrollments are capped, leaving 8,000 students on waiting lists in Calgary alone.  Introducing charter schools in the mid-1990s hardly proved destabilizing because the flow was restricted and only 1% of the student population were able choose them.

Public fears about charter schools are fueled by defenders of the existing educational order — and appear to be not only irrational but unfounded. Giving parents and students more school choices and more variety in terms of alternative programs would not be ‘the end of the world.’  Students and parents in Canada’s largest urban school systems like Toronto, Edmonton and Vancouver, already have many school choice options and have “open school boundaries” allowing students to attend schools of their own choice.  School district “boundary reviews” provoke an intense public outcry for good reason – the school board is dictating where your children are going to attend school.

School choice is gradually emerging as a fundamental human right for students and families. Choosing the best school for your child should not be so difficult or next-to-impossible without significant financial means. School systems would benefit from being more open and responsive to a wider range of student needs and aspirations. The only challenge is to build in safeguards to prevent a mass exodus and to ensure that actions are taken to improve under-performing schools. That is the kind of “transition planning” that will make a real difference in the lives and educational outcomes of students.

Why is the School Choice Debate in Canada so theory-ridden and ideologically stilted?  Why do School Choice advocates rely so heavily on Milton Friedman and the free market theorists? Why, on the other hand, do Canada’s so-called ‘educational progressives’ cling to the established system and respond with cliche-ridden critiques of creeping “neo-liberalism” and “privatization”?  What if we simply gave students and parents a wider array of public school options and stopped worrying about limiting their choices?

Closing schools at the first sign of a coming snowstorm is a 20th century tradition that may soon come to an end.  So is turning on the morning radio or TV bright and early in eager anticipation of the predictable announcement. The local Storm Centre list makes it official: “School’s out again.”

SnowDaySceneNow comes news from the American “snow belt” states that the storm day itself may be threatened by, of all things, the gradual advance of 21st century e-learning. Already, U.S. school districts from Pittsburgh, Pa., to Westerville City, Ohio, to Trimble County, Ky. are beginning to take full advantage of the Internet to convert snow days into cyber-learning days.

While many Canadian and American  school boards continue to declare snow days, idling millions of students and thousands of teachers, a viable alternative to cancelling school days is slowly emerging in the United States. Since August of 2011, the State of Ohio has authorized school districts to develop “e-day plans” for storm days, implementing them once five days have been lost in the school year. It’s a very ingenious response to the significant loss of student learning time.

School snow days are back with a vengeance in the current school year. So far in 2013-14, students in Nova Scotia, Canada’s largest Maritime province,  have already lost from three to 12.5 full school days, depending upon the school board, mostly as a result of storm cancellations. Two of the regional boards, Chignecto-Central (CCRSB) and Annapolis Valley (AVRSB), are on pace to break the previous record of 14 lost days, set during the 2008-09 school year.

Five years ago, the high incidence of school cancellations sparked a provincewide debate. Jim Gunn’s storm days report (December 2009) documented the extent of the problem and recommended a number of operational changes to minimize the impact upon the system. My own April 2010 policy report for the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS) compared school days lost in boards across Canada and contended that the number of days lost in 2008-09 hurt student performance, particularly on the June 2009 Grade 12 mathematics exams.

A few minor policy adjustments have been implemented since then. Schools in the Halifax regional board are, as a result of David Cameron’s 2011 board motion, now closed more often by families of schools, conserving time lost in walkable city school zones. The CCRSB has also attempted to be more flexible, not always closing across the board. In the South Shore school board, a “back roads closure plan” has been implemented, keeping school buses operating on snowy days and allowing more schools to stay open.

School days are still being written off by system administrators and school principals and the Education Department continues to take a laissez-faire approach. Working parents and concerned community members who raise any objections are treated as “kill-joys” or chastised for their lack of concern for child safety on hazardous roads. Why worry? some say. Enjoy the family time and be happy.

Why are the three Maritime provinces so out of sync with other Canadian school systems and most American states? School boards in Calgary, Winnipeg, south central Ontario and the Quebec Eastern Townships all experience brutal storms and heavy snow, but rarely, if ever, close their schools. School officials in Calgary, Winnipeg, and York Region maintain that students are safer in school and in buses rather than cars.

What changed the dynamic in the American snow belt states? Political and business leadership was critical. State governors and school commissioners, at the urging of business employers, responded to public concerns when school was cancelled repeatedly, disrupting working families and affecting productivity levels in the plant or business office.

How did it happen? Concerned parents pressed state governors and legislators to take action to stop the erosion of instructional time. School districts in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Wheeling, West Virginia, and rural Kentucky sought to eliminate the lost days entirely by introducing make-up school days in place of professional development days or at the end of the term.

The best solution came out of Ohio. After five days lost, school districts were authorized to institute either “e-lesson days” or to provide make-up days to guarantee a minimum number of instructional days each year. Faced with those options, some 86 Ohio schools have now registered to offer e-days during school storm closures. On those days, teachers go online at 10 a.m. and provide lessons online until 5 p.m., providing a full day of online learning.

E-days do work best in digital-learning, networked lap-top schools, but surprising numbers of schools rely solely on school-to-home computer connections. Since most of today’s homes have networked home computers or mobile devices, more students report in than on some regular school days.

Turning disposable storm days into e-learning days is clearly the wave of the present as well as the future. It’s time to get serious about moving forward with 21st century learning and to tackle the problem of throw-away school days.

What’s standing in the way of implementing E-Learning Days in schools?  The Internet is no longer a novelty and the 21st century began almost 15 years ago. Go ahead and give us your rationalizations.

One of the most stimulating recent ‘think pieces,’  Houman Harouni’s  “What should a School be?has set the cat among the pigeons in the North American education world.  Originally published in The American Reader (Vol. 8, 2013), the Harvard researcher’s article essentially challenges educationists to think more broadly and seek fresh insights from outside their intellectual cocoons.  While many education observers claim that “the school system is broken,”  few actually stop to do what is known as a “deeper dive.”  In our post-modern era of globalization and connectivity, fewer still pause to ask whether the purpose of education should be completely subsumed by“dancing with robots.”

DancingwithRobotsEducation does matter but that is difficult to discern surveying the public debate over the current state and future of schooling.  Harouni, the agent provocateur, captures the  current dialectic in magical prose: “Whether test scores do or don’t measure learning; whether schools should be privatized; whether Wikipedia will replace the teacher; whether we will ever escape Algebra; whether we can measure the ways which kids of color ‘fail’ or ‘succeed’ on exams; whether to teach like a ‘champion,’ a ‘guide.’ or a ‘pirate’; whether the arts are a right or a privilege; all these questions owe their importance to the system of schooling that turned them into questions in the first place.” 

The entire North American education debate, Houman Harouni  contends, “keeps folding back into itself” because it accepts established parameters and is almost entirely based upon “self-referential questions” that perpetuate  “a system that has stagnated for seven generations.”  The promise of grace and salvation, in his view, is not enough to “justify the existence of the modern educational system.”  Leading philosophers of education from John Dewey to today’s ‘pedagodfathers’ , with few exceptions, “do a bang-up job of hiding their complacency behind idealistic cants on the potential of schooling.’”  While it endears them to educators, it is offered up to justify “the existence of schools as distinct spaces”  amid “the absolute dissolution of communities in urban areas.”

What is the purpose of schooling?  Contemporary platitudes are usually served up to answer this question expressing some variation on the theme of ‘preparing students for success in the competitive 21st century global world.’ Such statements are accepted at face value and anyone raising a question about its primacy is invariably ignored or dismissed as a ‘turn-back-the-clocker.’  This state of affairs alone demonstrates why the world needs more education thinkers and fewer technocrats.

Schools are vital civic and social institutions but schooling is never openly discussed unless it’s said to be “in crisis.” Education matters because five hours a day, five days a week, from September to June, children and youth are its captives, up to the age of 16 or 18 years.  At their best, public schools can  inspire student curiosity and instil civic responsibility; at their worst they become what John Taylor Gatto termed “weapons of mass instruction.”  For many education theorists, like Louis Althusser, they essentially serve to “reproduce social relations” and slot young people into jobs suited to their own social class. While schools play a vital societal role, Althusser correctly observed that “hardly anyone lends an ear to its music: it is so silent!”

Since the mid-1970s, Harouni claims that serious discourse about education was abandoned to ‘the educationists.‘ Cultural critics, sociologists, and outside scholars  simply “washed their hands of education.”  Progressive educators came to dominate the field, free to conduct research in pursuit of resources, and seemingly “not bothered by their seclusion.”  Today teachers, faculty of education students, and young researchers learn to show “open disdain for any opinion on education that doesn’t come from inside the field.”  Pointed questions are deflected with a wave of the hand and the dismissive statement, “but has she ever taught?”  Any economist or “crossover” academic is listened to politely, then safely ignored.

Today’s educationists thrive on their own isolationism. Political or sociological critiques that challenge the prevailing “liberal social order” or “progressive pedagogy” are not welcome inside the modern schoolhouse. This does  allow educationists to merely shrug-off the core contradictions of their practice. Student-centred learning and promoting student happiness, we are assured, can coexist with raising standards and expecting more from today’s students. Classes would be so much more creative if only we could rid them of student performance testing. It’s tempting to agree with Harouni that schooling has to be “built up as much as it needs to be torn down brick by brick.”

Progressive education as promoted by John Dewey’s later day disciples has always tended to see mass education as the cure for social inequities and underestimated the impact of the class division of labour.  Now progressive education is essentially ignoring what social critics term “the end of labour” and best represented by the slow disappearance of the eight hour work day.  Promoters of “21st century learning” see technology as the salvation and many now parrot “the rhetoric of international competition.”

Progressivism has spawned a new 21st century mutation. Today’s children must be schooled to survive and perhaps thrive “dancing with robots.”  The future success of North American “middle class children,” Frank Levy and Richard Murnane insist in Dancing with Robots (2013), will be determined by their preparedness for the changing “human labor market.”

Schooling, we are told, must adapt to the changing 21st century workplace. Does this sound familiar? Menial, unskilled job functions will be computerized and labour provided more cheaply in developing countries. Tomorrow’s economy will require three kinds of work: solving unstructured problems, working with new information, and carrying-out non routine tasks. Our educational future now rests upon our collective capacity to “sharply increase” the proportion of North American children with “the foundational skills needed to develop job-relevant knowledge and to learn efficiently over a lifetime.”

Educational futurists appropriating the rhetoric of progressivism and acting at the behest of “big data” and “big technology” are, somehow, preying on our weaknesses.  ‘Fresh thinking’ from “Third Way” researchers like Levy and Murnane, based at MIT and Harvard, seems to be trying to fill “the silence” in contemporary educational discourse. Critical  perspectives informed by Paul Goodman’s Compulsory Mis-Education and Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968) are simply being ignored or marginalized in the public domain.  Where critical, independent thinking perishes, schools do not normally thrive.

Preparing our kids for success is being reduced to “dancing with robots.”  And, for those who see a more noble calling for schooling, it is somehow disconcerting.  It’s time to ask “is that all?”

The century-old trend towards school consolidation and ever bigger schools is driven by a peculiar logic. School consolidators, posing as modernizers and progressives, tend to rely upon a few standard lines. “Student enrollment has dropped, so we cannot afford to keep your small school open. Now don’t get emotional on us. It simply comes down to a matter of dollars and cents.”

What’s wrong with this conventional school planning and design logic?  A growing body of North American education research on the “dollars and sense” of school size is exploding the myth and now suggest that smaller scale schools are not only better for students but, more surprisingly, more cost effective for school boards.  Whereas school consolidation and “economies-of-scale” were once merely accepted truths, supported by little evidence, newer studies are demonstrating that true small schools also deliver better results in academic achievement, high school completion rates, student safety and social connectedness.

ClassroomDropOutsSchool sizes continued to grow until the first decade of the 2000s with little research support, coherent analysis, or public scrutiny.  One influential study, J.B. Conant’s 1959 book, The American High School Today, fed the growth hormone with a fateful recommendation that no high school should have a graduating class of less than 100 students.  High schools were then  increasingly consolidated and, in the United States, the number of high schools with more than 1,500 students doubled and, by 2010, 40 % of America’s high schools enrolled more than 1,000 students.

The most popular, safest and single most effective model of schooling, the small schools model, was not only overlooked but effectively marginalized by policy makers and school facilities planners. Independent scholarly research in support of smaller schools, especially for secondary school students, gradually began to surface.  Such empirical research, however, rarely made it to the table where policy is made –in the ministry of education, superintendent’s office, school architect’s workplace, or even the university faculties of education.

One of the first studies to challenge the prevailing orthodoxy was Dollars & Sense: The Cost Effectiveness of Small Schools (Knowledge Works Foundation, 2002).  Written by Barbara Kent Lawrence and a team of recognized experts, it very effectively demolished the central arguments made by large school defenders based upon so-called “economies of scale.” Small schools, the authors, claimed actually cost less to build based upon the metric of cost per student. They made the compelling case that large schools, compared to small  schools, have:

  • Higher administrative overhead
  • Higher maintenance costs
  • Increased transportation costs
  • Lower graduation rates
  • Higher rates of vandalism
  • Higher absenteeism
  • Lower teacher satisfaction

In addition to dispelling myths about “economies-of-scale,” the authors proposed specific guidelines for Ideal School Sizes, specifying upper limits:

High Schools (9-12), 75 students per grade, 300 total enrollment

Middle Schools (5-8), 50 students per grade level, 200 total enrollment

Elementary Schools (1-8), 25 students per grade level, 200 total enrollment

Elementary Schools (1-6), 25 students per grade level, 150 total enrollment

The authors of Dollars & Sense also rejected claims that the benefits of “smallness” could be achieved by designing and creating “schools-within-a-school” (SWaS). They recognized that turning over-sized facilities into SWaS design schools may be practical, but recommended against designing new schools where large numbers of students (Grades K-12) were reconfigured into divisions in particular sections or linked buildings.

Craig B. Howley’s landmark 2008 Educational Planning article, “Don’t Supersize Me,” provided the concrete evidence that building small schools was more cost effective.  Comparing 87 smaller Grade 9-12 schools with 81 larger schools, his research demonstrated that the smaller schools (138 to 600 students) were, on average, no more expensive per student to build than the larger schools (enrolling 601-999 students), and were actually less costly per square foot ($96 vs. $110). Furthermore, the new planned larger schools were oversized when actual enrollments were considered, making them more expensive per student, the key cost metric.

During a nine year period, from 2000 to 2009, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation took a $2 billion run at the problem with mixed results. “Comprehensive” high schools were declared harmful to the academic advancement and welfare of American students.  Mega-high schools with as many as 4,500 students educated under a single roof were found to be breeding apathy, sapping students’ motivation to learn and teachers’ commitment to teaching. Beginning in 2000, the Gates Foundation poured some $2 billion into replacing these dropout factories, funding 1,600 new, mostly urban high schools of a few hundred students each, some of them in restructured comprehensive high schools, others in new locations.

The massive Gates Small School initiative, centred on Portland, Oregon, ran into structural barriers, sparked teacher union resistance, and  did not produce quick results.  Trying to re-size schools and re-invent decadent school cultures proved more challenging than expected, and the Gates Foundation ran out of patience when student test scores remained stagnant. “Many of the small schools that we invested in did not improve students’ achievement in any significant way,” Bill Gates wrote in 2009. The foundation then made a sharp turn and shifted its attention and resources to teacher quality reform strategies.

The campaign for more personalized urban and regional high schools—structured and designed to forge more meaningful connections between students and adults in a concerted effort to boost  student achievement—is still supported by a raft of research and student and teacher surveys. American  authorities on student dropouts consistently report that students don’t care because they don’t feel valued. “When adolescents trust their teachers … they’re more likely to persist through graduation,” claims University of Michigan’s Valerie Lee and a colleague.

The Gates experiments did provide some vitally-important lessons.  Reducing school sizes alone is not enough to turn around under-performing schools. In the case of New York City, shutting down twenty large, under-performing high schools worked better in improving graduation rates (from 47 to 63%) because the principals of the 200 new smaller schools that were created as replacements had the power to hire their own teachers and staff.

The Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) charter schools, created on the “small school ” model also fared much better than the mainstream reconfigured urban high schools.  Principals and teachers at KIPP schools, for example, pride themselves on knowing every student’s name—something the schools are able to do mostly because they’re small, with average enrollments of 300.  Even in his 2009 critique of the Small Schools Initiative, Bill Gates praised the small-scale KIPP schools. Their strong results may reflect the combination of smaller size, high standards,  longer school days, and employing their own teachers and staff.

Creating smaller schools and a more intimate school climate in the absence of high standards and good teaching isn’t enough.  There’s no guarantee that small schools, in and of themselves,  will create good climates.  Having said that, smaller schools are more likely to create the sense of connectedness among students and teachers that motivates them both to work hard, according to the Dollars & Sense researchers.  Generating a level of genuine caring and mutual obligation between students and teachers is also found far less frequently in large, comprehensive high schools. Small schools, in other words, are more likely to create the conditions that make learning possible.

Writing in the Washington Monthly (July 6, 2010), Thomas Toch put it best.  Breaking up large dysfunctional high schools into smaller units may not work miracles, but is likely a step in the right direction. Smaller school settings are still proving to be one of a number of important means to the desired end:  getting students and teachers in impoverished neighborhoods or marginalized rural communities to invest more in their work still looks like the best route toward “lifting achievement” and getting “a far wider range of students” through high school and onto post-secondary education.

How big is too big when it comes to schools?  Why do ministries of education and school boards continue to subscribe to the myth of “economies of scale”?  What were the painful lessons of Bill and Melinda Gates’ 2000 to 2009 Small School Initiative project?  What can be done to bring public policy in relation to school size more in line with current research supporting the building of smaller schools and the re-sizing of  regional mega-schools ? 


Amy Chua, the infamous Asian American “Tiger Mother,” is back with a provocative new book, The Triple Package, that started generating monsoon-high waves even before its publication. Teaming up with her spouse, fellow Yale law professor Jed Rubenfeld, Chua tackles what is considered a taboo subject – why certain “cultural groups” in the United States are “astonishingly successful” and perform particularly well in school.

TriplePackageCoverStudying the more materialistic measures of success — income, occupational, status and test scores — Chua and Rubenfeld  claim that top performers come disproportionately from certain cultural groups, most notably Chinese Americans and Mormons.  While the controversial book focuses on American immigrant student success, it might well apply here in Canada where Asian Canadian students are now academically soaring in the major cities of Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal.

The central thesis of Chua and Rubenfeld’s The Triple Package is not only plausible, but defensible, and that’s what’s driving the legion of critics crazy. According to the authors, three traits breed success: a superiority complex, insecurity, and impulse control.  Only when this “Triple Package” comes together does it “generate drive, grit, and systematic disproportionate group success.”  Lost in the largely hostile initial reviews in The New York Post, The Guardian, and Salon.com is any reference to Chua’s rather forthright analysis of the downsides of “The Triple Package” –the burden of carrying a family’s high expectations, and the deep insecurities instilled in children that may exact a psychological price later in life.

Since the early 2000s, Canadian educational leaders and researchers have begun to conduct demographic studies that yielded some unexpected and perhaps unwanted results.  Driven by the Educational Equity research agenda, they have focused almost exclusively on the deficits, studying under-performing student groups and attempting to close what is known as the “learning gap.”

In the case of the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), Canada’s largest public school system,  the first comprehensive “demographic snapshot” released in June of 2008 was presented as a wake-up call demonstrating how “the system was failing to help students overcome roadblocks of culture, poverty and family background.”  Then Director of Education Gerry Connelly was quoted in The Toronto Star issuing a fateful pledge: “I am bringing an action plan to address the underachievement of marginalized students that will specify targets and actions to break the cycle over the next five years (2008-2013).”  Those five years are now up, and the latest TDSB Demographic Profile for 2011-12 seems to accept the dictates of “socio-economic gravity” when it comes to school success.

Leading researchers like Dr. Bruce Garnett, Research Director in BC District 36 (Surrey),  produces fine immigrant student studies, but is not entirely helpful in explaining why students from some “cultural groups” are far outperforming others.  After just completing his PhD at UBC in 2008, he seemed to rule out the potential of looking at “the minefield” of demographics and student excellence. “This isn’t some kind of horse race, ” he told The Toronto Star, and we do this kind of research in the interest of equity because we know know kids from different countries can come to school with different degrees of preparedness, depending upon the dominant values of the culture.” He then hastened to add that it was “dangerous to use this kind of data to make genetic assumptions.”

TDSBScanRacialProfileMounting evidence is accumulating that Garnett cannot afford, any longer, to avoid turning over that stone. The latest TDSB Environmental Scan for 2010-11 and particularly the Census Portraits for demographic groups has rendered such blinkered approaches almost untenable. Toronto school board research specialist, Maria Yau, and OISE Graduate student Sangeetha Navaratnam, have blown a hole in earlier research assumptions. The most recent Census Portrait of Toronto’s East Asian Students actually confirms the “Triple Package” thesis, and so do the findings of the South Asian demographic analysis.

The TDSB research findings for the East Asian and South Asian students, now representing some 40% of the TDSB student population, are impossible to ignore.  Taken together, they are now the majority group in the system, larger than the “White” population (31%), and clearly driving recent improvements academic achievement and graduation rates.  What explains their recent success?  The three East Asian sub-groups from China, Hong Kong, and Korea, according to Yau, share several “commonalities” (i.e., traits): they achieve well academically, spend far more time per week on homework and studying (14-15 hours, almost double that of”white” students); and have parents more likely to expect them to go to university.

Asian Canadian students in the TDSB are also setting the academic pace, even though they are not drawn from the most economically-favoured, high income communities. Their academic achievement levels of East Asian students are truly outstanding, especially when so many start as “E.S.L” students.  Between 85% and 89% of East Asian students achieve Levels 3 and 4 on the provincial  Grade 6 Math test, some 25 to 30 points higher than the TDSB average., and a higher percentage at Grade 10 (84% to 69%) are on track to earn a high school graduation diploma. South Asian students, originally from Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan, Guyana, and Bangladesh, are also performing well, all (except the Guyanese) with Grade 6 Math scores 2% to 15% above the board average.

Asian Canadian students in the TDSB are beating the socio-economic odds and performing very well in school. While it is true that more East Asian parents, except those from Hong Kong, have university degrees, parents from China are actually most likely to be in the two lowest income groups  (i.e., with annual household incomes of less than $30,000 or between $30,000 and $49,000 per year).  South Asian students tend to come from larger families and their parents , except for the Guyanese, are also mostly university educated. Once again, South Asian students have parents mostly in the lowest two income groups, earning under $50,000 per year.

American immigrant student research is proving to be closer to the mark than comparable work conducted by Canadian researchers.  While Bruce Garnett and OISE researcher Jim Cummins focus on race and language as a disability affecting E.S.L. students, American scholars Grace Kao (University of Pennsylvania) and the late John Ogbu (UC Berkeley) saw great strengths in recently arrived immigrant students. Since 1995, Dr. Kao’s  “model minorities” thesis has gained wide currency. She has made a compelling case that Chinese and Korean Americans are imbued with a strong sense of cultural values attaching great importance to achieving economic success through schooling and higher education.

Nigerian American Ogbu added credence to the “model minority” explanation by documenting the radically differing academic achievement levels achieved by children of “voluntary” immigrants compared to those from refugee or involuntary minority communities.   In short, students from voluntary immigrant groups like the Chinese, Koreans, and East Asians, have higher hopes for school success and apply more effort than the so-called “colonized” and “conquered” immigrants such as Aftrican-American or First Nations children.

The ground-breaking American studies of Kao and Ogbu, buttressed by recent TDSB demographic research, strongly suggest that Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld’s controversial book The Triple Package should not be dismissed as completely off-base and might help to shed more light in the dark corner of North American education.

Why are Canadian Asian students performing so well in Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal public schools?  Do East Asian and South Asian students exhibit what Amy Chua terms “The Triple Package” of a superiority complex, insecurity, and impulse control?  If not, then what else explains their “academic trajectories” and pace-setting achievement levels?  And perhaps most significantly, where would Canadian schools (particularly in Toronto and Vancouver) rank in international student assessments without the presence of these high performing students?

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