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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Measuring what matters in education is a vitally important public policy issue fraught with controversy. Since 2000, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has succeeded through the Program of International Student Assessment (PISA) in establishing the global benchmark for student achievement in the fundamentals of reading, mathematics and science. Over sixty countries have come together to support student achievement testing and most participating nations have developed comparable national and state/provincial cyclical assessment programs. That global consensus is now under fire by a revivified movement of  North American educators purporting to be ‘education progressives.’

OntarioStudentVision2014“Measuring What Matters” movement has arisen attempting to “broaden the measures of success,” but essentially committed to either “soften” the standards or banish standardized testing all together.  The Ontario Broader Success project, initiated by Annie Kidder and People for Education, is in the vanguard of the attempt to water down student testing by incorporating “softer” competencies and socially progressive attitudes.  A growing band of North American education progressives, endorsed by education gadfly Alfie Kohn, issued a May 6, 2014 OECD PISA Letter objecting to ” the negative consequences of the PISA rankings” and claiming that “measuring a great diversity of educational traditions and cultures using a single, narrow, biased yardstick could, in the end, do irreparable harm to our schools and our students.”

The real agenda of the Canadian insurgency is to broaden the definition of student success and chip away at the foundation of student testing and public accountability.   In June 2013, People for Education released a Broader Measures of Success report which gave a clearer picture of the end game.  Building upon its long-held skepticism about testing, Kidder and P4E announced a five-year project to “broaden the definition of school success” to encompass more than “literacy and numeracy.”  The report, produced by researcher Kelly Gallagher-Mackay, proposed a new framework of six domains, only one of which was related to “academic achievement.”  Indeed, the P4E model attempted to sublimate academic achievement in the pursuit of five other goals:  physical and mental health, social-emotional development, creativity and innovation, and school climate.

One of the most credible proponents of the Broader Success agenda is Dr. Charles Ungerleider, a UBC professor and former BC Minister of Education.  Much of the substance of the critique comes from Dr. Ungerleider, a well compensated educational consultant committed to empowering teachers and thereby improving instruction.  In a very revealing BC Public Affairs show, Your Education Matters with Dr. Paul Shaffer, Ungerleider laid bare the goals of the  movement. “We should broaden the definition of success on a system-wide basis,” he stated. ” We can assess a student’s moral framework…evaluate the level of social responsibility…and evaluate compassion for fellow human beings.”

Ungerleider claims to support student testing, but he is adamantly opposed to “the misuse of (student performance) information.”  Ranking schools based upon student results qualifies as “a misuse of information”  perpetrated by think tanks like the Fraser Institute and AIMS. Promoting a broader concept of school success is, he advises Shaffer, the best way to “educate the public about what’s wrong with school rankings.”

The Broader Success movement is going all out to win the support of Canadian teachers unions like the Alberta Teachers Association.  On March 27, 2014, the ATA Magazine virtually endorsed their approach by publishing a short column written by Kidder, Gallagher-Mackay and Ungerleider. It appealed to teachers who are generally allergic to student testing and accountability. “By changing what is measured, ” the trio wrote, ” the initiative will support positive change in schools and make more room for the curriculum, programs and resources that support health, creativity, citizenship, social-emotional skills and positive school climate.”   All three of them repeated that message in a May 26, 2013 presentation at the Canadian Society for the Study of Education Conference at Brock University.

The Ontario Government appears to be listening to the Broader Success advocates, judging from the April 2014 policy statement Achieving Excellence: A Renewed Vision for Education in Ontario Consistent with the Dalton McGuinty-Kathleen Wynne policy orientation, the new direction document attempts to move beyond instilling the fundamentals and embraces the pursuit of “soft” competencies and skills. Achieving excellence as measured in PISA  reading and mathematics scores remains first in priority, but the Ministry of Education is now tilting in the direction of “ensuring equity” and “promoting well-being.”

Where is Ontario public education heading?  The Achieving Excellence policy statement provides a few clues. It appears that Ontario, trading in on its claim to be one of “the world’s highest performing school systems,” is now flirting with the Broader Success policy panacea. Annie Kidder and People for Education no longer qualify as “outsiders” and have succeeded in burrowing into the Ontario education establishment.   With Dr. Ben Levin out-of-commission and Dr. Michael Fullan in a 21st Century Learning orbit, the system has lost its moorings and pinning down its future direction is purely a matter of speculation.

Focusing on student educational deficits can become the system-wide raison d’etre in the absence of clear aspirational standards.  That is the focus of  Ungerleider and People for Education. The highly successful Educational Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) is no longer in the forefront, and that is a bad omen.  Recent research by Australian John Guenther pointing out the value of assessing the social capital of school-community partnerships and the effectiveness of alternative special education programs for at-risk children are lost on the Ontario educational insiders. So are legitimate concerns raised about the costs of rebuilding a complete battery of system-wide “soft” measures. Where student assessment standards whither and public accountability falters, mediocrity is not far behind.

Why are North American ‘neo-progressive’ educators abandoning academic standards and looking to broaden or kill the PISA assessments?  What is the real purpose of Ontario’s People for Education initiative promoting Broader Success measures for students and schools?  To what extent is that initiative motivated by the desire to return to an “accountability-free ” school system?  Can moral standards and social responsibility be quantified, and — if so- for what purpose?  Finally, will any of these changes produce students who are better educated, productive, resilient, and prepared to thrive in the 21st century?

For the past three months, parents of students attending Park West School in the Halifax suburb of Clayton Park have been in a state of upheaval. Concerned parents now find themselves essentially ensnared in a Boundary Review Process, managed by the Chief Superintendent, excluding the elected board, and providing political cover for “rezoning students” and implementing pre-determined school grade reconfiguration plans.

ParkWestSChoolBoundary Reviews are often contentious because they are a concrete demonstration of the coercive power of the education state. Under provincial Education Acts, school boards are entrusted with establishing school attendance zones (catchment areas) and “assigning students to various schools” in the district. Some boards spend an inordinate amount of their time and energy on enforcing attendance zones and on balancing “the catchment population with the capacity of the school.”

Major metropolitan boards in Vancouver, Edmonton, and Toronto have learned to become more flexible, establishing free attendance zones and broadening the range of school choice for parents. Atlantic Canada’s largest school board, the Halifax Regional School Board (HRSB) is more representative of the majority of school boards which invest much of their administrative time in re-engineering school communities to occupy vacant school spaces.

Most recently, the HRSB initiated an extensive 12 school boundary review process targeting two schools, Park West and Grosvenor Wentworth Park, deemed by the Superintendent and school officials  to have more than the optimum number of students. When the board’s real agenda, moving Park West’s Grades 7 to 9 students elsewhere, was eventually revealed, hundreds of Park West parents led by local Kumon Math manager Janet Lee, rose up in protest.

A clear majority of the Park West Parents are opposed to the enforced school reconfiguration and the shipping of their senior grades to a school some 45 minutes walk away.   While the school with 783 students is over capacity, it was never an issue until the board decided to “fix” the non-existent problem. School enrollment projections going forward, unearthed by the parents, show an actual decline of numbers and do not support the board’s preferred scenario.

The Boundary Review has proven just as divisive as a school closure process. A Save Park West School P-9 petition was posted on Change.org and generated a strong response from aggrieved parents and community members. Former HRSB board member, Dr. David Cameron, spoke out against the disruptive intervention in a healthy, harmonious and diverse school community. On April 13, 2013, Save Park West advocate Janet Lee issued a circular letter to 26 public officials and reporters lambasting the process.

Save Park West parents have expanded their critique to include the entire HRSB Boundary Review process. The 12-school Boundary Review Committee, appointed by the Superintendent, is, by all accounts, a totally staff-driven exercise, pitting parents from 10 schools against the two reps whose schools face reconfiguration or eventual closure. They have also discovered that this arbitrary, autocratic process has already claimed two earlier school victims, Cavalier Drive (P-9) and Bedford South (P-9), in the 2011-12 cycle of reviews.

A close-up look at HRSB Policy B.003- Creating School Populations (2013), demonstrates that it’s the Superintendent’s preferred process with decision-making criteria right out of a facilities planning manual. Nowhere is the Process really spelled out; instead the policy assigns total control to the Superintendent, who makes the recommendation to the board. Even the recently abandoned Nova Scotia School Review process provided more rights to parents and community representatives.

Serious concerns being raised about the fairness and legitimacy of the Boundary Review process are simply dismissed by the sitting HRSB Board Chair  as “board bashing.” The reality is quite different when you carefully consider the 11 different community complaints registered by Park West School parents, documenting a total lack of transparency, due process, and public legitimacy. The whole process is being tested and, like the provincial SChool Review Process, is slowly being exposed and discredited.

School Boundary Reviews are by their very nature often disputed  and potentially divisive. The Halifax Board model, however, is particularly so because it is so draconian and undemocratic compared to that of many other school boards. Back in 2011, former Lower Sackville trustee Donna Hubbard actually divulged that, in proposing grade configuration changes, she was only acting at the behest of the Superintendent and staff. More recently, Board member Sheryl Blumenthal-Harrison publicly disclosed that she had been warned to stay out of the Park West dispute or she was liable to “lose her vote at the Board table.”

The Halton Catholic District School Board’s policy, No. I-29, School Boundary Review Process (2003) is far superior in terms of democratic principles and governance practices.  The Board, rather than the Superintendent, oversees the whole process and elected Board members (trustees) are “invited to attend committee and community consultation session meetings as observers.”  While such processes are not perfect, they are light years ahead of the HRSB School Boundary Review policy in terms of their respect for the rights of parents to full, fair and unfettered participation in any matter directly impacting upon the future of their school.

Why are School Boundary Reviews so potentially divisive and damaging to school communities?  What’s the real purpose of “zoning students” and “reconfiguring schools”?  Are there situations when school boundary realignments might make good sense?  Is it time for large urban boards to consider free attendance zones and authorizing more cross-boundary students?

The latest Canadian Teachers’ Federation (CTF) survey reveals that public education is in a sorry state and it’s impacting upon teacher effectiveness in the regular classroom.  Over 90 per cent of the 8, 096 teachers surveyed online in February and March 2014, identified “class composition” as a source of “work-related stress.” “In general, teachers feel they do not have adequate supports and services to address the broad range of special needs in their classrooms,” CTF President Dianne Woloschuk stated upon release of the ” Work-Life Balance” study.

TeacherStressCTF14Teachers certainly feel “stressed -out” even though public school enrollment, except in a few high growth school districts,  is mostly in decline and more educational tax dollars are being spent to educate fewer school children. Their biggest concern is the changing composition of the regular classroom and, in particular, the constant demands to provide “individualized support” in that classroom for every type of special needs.  Given those broad trends, making the case to spend more money to sustain the “all-inclusive” classroom model, especially after Grade 6, is difficult to fathom.

The CTF findings do point to a “stressed-out” teacher force and this is worrisome for those of us committed to improved education, sounder policies, and better schools. They also raise serious questions about the state of education and effectiveness of current policies. Here are the most glaring examples:

- meeting the individual needs of all special needs kids in an inclusive classroom is next to impossible;
– three out of four educators cited interruptions to teaching by students;
– student absenteeism concerns 71 per cent of teachers;
-over six out of ten reported challenges in dealing with students’ personal or health-related issues.

Special Education services have turned regular classroom teaching into a virtual paperwork ordeal. Lack of time to plan assessments with colleagues was reported as a stressor by 86 per cent of teachers surveyed, while 85 per cent indicated marking and grading as a source of stress. Other stressors include increased administrative-related work and outdated technology.

The five policy changes proposed by the CTF all involve pouring more money into the ailing school system.  They appear, once again, in predictable fashion: lower class sizes, improve SE supports, expand prep time, reduce non-teaching tasks, and increase teaching resources.  None of them, except possibly creating smaller classes, really address the fundamental problem – “class composition” under the current inclusive education regime and the undercurrent of resistance to providing alternative special needs programs and expanding the range of specialized intensive support schools.

Given the daily classroom challenges and complex needs of today’s kids, it’s fair to ask “Is more money really the answer?”

The CTF is a national political action organization, representing teachers’ unions, and claiming to speak for nearly 200,000 elementary and secondary educators from 17 organizations (15 Members, one Affiliate Member and one Associate Member), from coast to coast to coast. Most of the constituent union groups produce “Teacher Stress” studies on a regular basis, usually in advance of province-wide bargaining sessions.

Among regular teachers, especially in junior and senior high schools, inclusive education is widely seen as desirable but next to impossible to implement.  It was invented and implemented over the past two decades, but never intended to accommodate the number of children now “coded” or “designated” for special education supports.  Even though class sizes have been declining in most provinces, managing let alone teaching those classes has rarely been more of a challenge.

A recent report produced by the Ontario funding lobby group, People for Education, is not helpful at all.  It’s founder Annie Kidder and core membership support the status quo in the all inclusive classroom, constantly pushing for more money and “more student supports” for every conceivable classroom problem. Appointing a Special Education Ombudsman, as conceived by P4E, would only solidify the existing student supports regime.

The odd teacher union leader breaks the faith and speaks out-of-school. That happened again this week when Shelley Morse, President of the Nova Scotia Teachers’ Union, attempted to explain why more funding and supports were needed, once again. “Years ago, when the inclusion policy was introduced, it was a wonderful concept but it has never been fully funded and that’s where a lot of the issues arise from,” she said.”We don’t have the proper materials and the funding is not there for the human resources that we need.”

Teacher stress, real and perhaps embellished for effect, is a legitimate educational workplace issue. Yet the proposed policy changes advanced by Canadian teacher union advocates don’t really address the “elephant in the schoolhouse.”  If “class composition” is the heart of the problem why beat around the bush? What’s so sacrosanct about the current Special Education model based upon “inclusion for all” in a one-size-fits all classroom system?   It’s time to ask whether inclusive education, implemented as a whole system approach, is either affordable or effective in meeting student needs along the full continuum of service.

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