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“Restructuring education” was a popular reform nostrum that dominated North American K-12 school reform in the early to mid 1990s. Emerging as a stepchild of the “Reinventing Government” movement, it was driven by a reform impulse to introduce school-based management as a means of busting the bureaucracy that dominated public education systems.  Centralization, consolidation, and bureaucracy eventually triumphed, aided and abetted by corporate managerialism, testing, and accountability. Twenty years on, it’s time to take a closer look at why decentralization  capsized and what lessons can be learned from the whole venture.

Today centralization is far advanced in all ten Canadian provincial education systems. A study for the Canadian School Boards Association, conducted from December 2010 to November 2011, raised red flags about the impact of centralization on the state of local democratic control in Canada’s provincially regulated school boards. Surveying national trends over the past two decades, the authors conclude that “the significance of the school district apparatus in Canada has diminished as provincial governments have enacted an aggressive centralization agenda” (Sheppard et al. 2013, 42).

School board trustees, once the bulwark of local school accountability, have been rendered almost powerless through a succession of “corporate model” governance reforms.  Two research studies in 2013 and 2016 produced by Gerald Galway and Bruce Sheppard demonstrated conclusively that democratic school board governance is in serious jeopardy because trustees and superintendents now operate in a politicized policy environment that is “antagonistic to local governance” (Galway et al. 2013, 27–28). Elected school boards subscribing to a corporate policy-making model have also tended to stifle trustee autonomy and to narrow the scope of local, community decision-making (Bennett 2012).

Community-school-based management was first implemented in Canada some 40 years ago in the Edmonton public schools by newly appointed superintendent Mike Strembitsky. In the words of former teachers’ union president Karen Beaton, Strembitsky’s innovation “turned the entire concept of the district upside down” (Neal 1991, 4; see also Ouchi 2008, 24). Adopting a completely new approach, he embarked on an initiative to give self-governance to principals and schools through the decentralization of decisions from the district office to the school. The central idea was deceptively simple: “Every decision which contributes to the instructional effectiveness of the school and which can be made at school level, should be made at school level” (Coleman 1984, 25). Most of the transfers have involved school-based budgeting and resource-allocation decisions, but the basic principle is also applied to all educational decisions.

Decentralized education governance was also implemented in Australia and New Zealand as well as in American cities, including Seattle, Washington and Houston, Texas.  From the 1990s until 2001 the decentralized model was fully established in both US cities and piloted in a few Canadian provinces, including Quebec and Nova Scotia. 

Since the publication of William G. Ouchi’s Making Schools Work (2008), school reformers have been more attuned to the centralizing tendencies of education systems and the advantages of school-based management. Those lessons have been absorbed and implemented in innovative systems around the globe; in particular, they have been adopted by the World Bank in its international educational decentralization development projects. One 2005 World Bank study perhaps put it best: “a service education is too complex to be efficiently produced and distributed in a centralized fashion.”

Introducing education restructuring in Nova Scotia in the mid-1990s proved to be impossible, given the intransigence and passive resistance of school administrators, including anxious school principals.

Three decentralized Governance Models were proposed in a 1994 NSDE Discussion paper and all embraced “school-based management” with school councils at each school site, ranging along the continuum from purely advisory councils to school council-school board shared leadership to totally decentralized school-based local governance. Much more educational authority and responsibility was to be transferred from school districts to the school-level and vested in school councils.  Those local councils were to have authority to make decisions in ten specified areas, including setting school priorities, developing a school budget and improvement plans, making recommendations on the hiring and dismissing of principals, appointing principals and staff, and producing community accountability reports.

A 1995 Nova Scotia Education Horizons report spelled out actual plans for school council governance and the reduction of school district structures from 22 regional boards to either five or seven, complete with illustrative maps and district-to-district student enrolment data. The Dr. John Savage government followed through on school district reduction, but gave ground on entrusting so much authority to school-level councils.  School Advisory Councils (SACs), established in 1995, provided periodic advice and improved school-community communications, but did little to shift the locus of education decision-making.

School boards consolidated and retrenched, and superintendents expanded their authority over not only elected boards, but the whole K-12 school system. Closing schools has led to bigger elementary and secondary school plants and administrators now routinely refer to their schools as “buildings.” Since 1995, School Advisory Councils (SACs) have struggled and floundered, most functioning under the thumb of principals and some competing with holdover home and school groups for legitimacy and recognition. Today, scanning school websites, you will look in vain for the names and contact information for anyone on the school advisory councils. If you inquire about the SAC, you are immediately referred to the school principal.

Provincial and regional school boards, as presently constituted, have completely lost their democratic legitimacy. and it’s time to replace them with a far more responsible, grounded and accountable system of school community-based governance. Like most informed parents, engaged citizens, and awakened communities, small school advocates find themselves on the outside looking in and puzzled by why our provincial school systems are so top down, bureaucratic, distant and seemingly impervious to change.

Abolishing school boards altogether or conducting provincial reviews of school closure regulations do not really change the situation – our P-12 school system operates more to serve those in charge than those it purportedly serves – children, parents, and local communities.  The time for restructuring education is now.

Why does education restructuring to decentralize school decision-making authority remain a vision beyond reach?  Whatever happened to the School-Based Management model successfully implemented in Edmonton Public Schools? What’s the connection between school-based management and effective local school governance?  How can we clear away the obstructions and obstacles and win the support of the educators who inhabit our schools? 

Today’s business leaders have a clear sense of where a better future lies for Canadians, especially those in Atlantic Canada. The Canadian Chamber of Commerce initiative Ten Ways to Build a Canada That Wins has identified a list of key opportunities Canada, and the Atlantic Region, can seize right now to “regain its competitiveness, improve its productivity and grow its economy.” Competitiveness, productivity and growth are the three cornerstones of that vision for Canada at 150 and this much is also clear – it cannot be done without a K-12 and Post-Secondary education system capable of nurturing and sustaining that vision.

Yet the educational world is a strange place with its own tribal conventions, familiar rituals, ingrained behaviours, and unique lexicon. Within the K-12 school system, educational reform evolves in waves where “quick fixes” and “fads” are fashionable and yesterday’s failed innovations can return, often recycled in new guises.

Today’s business leaders –like most citizens–also find themselves on the outside looking in and puzzled by why our provincial school systems are so top down, bureaucratic, distant and seemingly impervious to change.  Since Jennifer Lewington and Graham Orpwood described the School System as a “Fortress” maintaining clear  boundaries between “insiders and outsiders” back in 1993 not much has changed.  Being on an “advisory committee” gives you some access, but can easily become a vehicle for including you in a consultation process with pre-determined conclusions determined by the system’s insiders and serving the interests of the educational status quo.

Provincial education authorities, pressed by concerned parents, business councils and independent think tanks like the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS) have embraced standardized testing in the drive to improve literacy and numeracy, fundamentals deemed essential for success in the so-called “21st century knowledge-based economy.” Student testing and accountability may be widely accepted by the informed public, but they are far from secure. Provincial teachers’ unions remain unconvinced and continue to resist standardized testing and to propose all kinds of “softer” alternatives, including “assessment for learning,” “school accreditation,” and broadening testing to include “social and emotional learning.”

Two decades ago, the Metropolitan Toronto Learning Partnership was created and, to a large extent, that education-business alliance has tended to set the pattern for business involvement in public education. Today The Learning Partnership has expanded to become a national charitable organization dedicated to support, promote and advance publicly funded education in Canada.  With the support of major corporate donors, the LP brings together business, government, school boards, teachers, parents, labour and community organizations across Canada in “a spirit of long term committed partnerships.”  It’s time to ask whether that organization has done much to improve student achievement levels and to address concerns about the quality of high school graduates.

A change in focus and strategy is in order if the business voice for education reform is to be heard and heeded in the education sector. Our public school system is simply not good enough. Penetrating the honey-coated sheen of edu-babble and getting at the real underlying issues requires some clear-headed independent analysis. We might begin by addressing five significant issues that should be elevated to the top of the education policy agenda:

  • declining enrollment and school closures – and the potential for community-hub social enterprise schools,
  • the sunk cost trap — and the need to demonstrate that education dollars are being invested wisely,
  • the future of elected school boards — and alternatives building upon school-based governance and management,
  • the inclusive education morass — and the need to improve intensive support services;
  • the widening attainment-achievement gap — improving the quality of high school graduates.

In each case, in-depth analysis brings into sharper relief the critical need for a business voice committed to major surgery –educational restructuring and curriculum reform from the schools up rather than the top down.

The education system in Atlantic Canada, for example, has come a long way since the 1990s when the whole domain was essentially an “accountability-free zone.” Back in 2002, AIMS began to produce and publish a system of high school rankings that initially provoked howls of outrage among school board officials.  Today in Atlantic Canada, education departments and school boards have all accepted the need for provincial testing regimes to assess Primary to Grade 12 student performance, certainly in English literacy and mathematics.

Prodded and cajoled by the annual appearance of AIMS’s High School Report Cards, school boards became far more attuned to the need for improvement in student achievement results. While we have gained ground on standardized assessment of student achievement, final high school examinations have withered and, one -by-one been eliminated and graduation rates have gone through the roof, especially in the Maritime provinces. Without an active and engaged business presence, provincial tests assessing student competence in mathematics and literacy may be imperiled.  Student assessment reform aimed at broadening the focus to  “social and emotional learning” poses another threat. Most recently, a Nova Scotia School Transitions report issued in June 2016 proposed further “investment” in school-college-workplace bridging programs without ever assessing or addressing the decline in the preparedness of those very high school graduates.

Today, new and profoundly important questions are being raised:  What has the Learning Partnership actually achieved over two decades? What have we gained through the provincial testing regimes — and what have we lost?  Where is the dramatic improvement in student learning that we have been expecting?  If students and schools continue to under-perform, what comes next?  Should Canadian education reformers and our business allies begin looking at more radical reform measures such as “turnaround school” strategies, school-based management, or charter schools? 

Where might the business voice have the biggest impact? You would be best advised to either engage in these wider public policy questions or simply lobby and advocate for a respect for the fundamentals: good curriculum, quality teaching, clear student expectations, and more public accountability.  Standing on the sidelines has only served to perpetuate the status quo in a system that, first and foremost, serves the needs of educators rather than students and local school communities.

Revised and condensed from an Address the the Atlantic Chamber of Commerce, June 6, 2017, in Summerside, PEI. 

Principal Daniel Villeneuve of Saints-Anges Catholic Elementary School in North Bay, Ontario, is among the first wave of Canadian school leaders to take a stand against fidget spinners, the latest craze among children and teens world-wide. On May 23, 2017, he visited class after class to advise his students that the hand-held gadgets were being banned from school grounds. Marketed as a “stress reliever” for anxious or hyperactive kids, the spinners had become a “major distraction” interfering with teaching and learning affecting everyone in the classroom.

FidgetSpinnerCloseUpThe North Bay principal’s letter to parents, issued May 24, 2017, directly challenged the claim of the commercial product’s marketers that a fidget spinner “helps people focus and concentrate.”  He was crystal-clear about the real “issues with this toy”: 1) it makes noise; 2) it attracts attention; 3) most kids require two hands to make it spin; and 4) it distracts the user and others. For this reason, it was “banned from the school and the day care” and “must remain in the student’s school bag at school.”  What he didn’t say was perhaps obvious – it was driving teachers crazy and making teaching almost intolerable.

Most Canadian school authorities and far too many principals were simply asleep at the switch, compared to their counterparts in the United Kingdom, New York State, Southern California, and New Zealand.  By May 10, 2017, 32 per cent of America’s 200 top rated high schools had banned the spinners from their premises. With the exception of a few Western Canadian school boards, provincial educational leaders seemed to be taken-in by the latest student pacifier and the pseudoscience offered in support of such panaceas. How and why did it get so advanced, and take so long, before a few courageous school principals saw fit to weigh in to put a stop to the classroom disruption?

Fidget spinners, since their invention in the 1990s, have been used with some success to assist in teaching students severely challenged with autism. “We call them fidget tools because they really are tools,” Edmonton autism specialist Terri Duncan told CBC News. “Sometimes it helps to tune out other sensory information. Sometimes it helps them calm and focus. Sometimes it helps them with their breathing and relaxing. It’s a little bit different for every child.” They are one of a series of such tools, including fidget cubes, squishy balls, fuzzy rings, tangle puzzles, putty and even chews — colourful, tactile objects to meet the special needs of ASD children.  Fidget spinners, she adds, “can prevent kids from chewing on their fingers, from picking at their hands, picking at their clothes” and actually help them to concentrate more in class.

Serious problems arise when the fidget spinners are employed to simply relieve everyday stress and anxiety. One leading clinical psychologist, Dr. Jennifer Crosbie of Toronto’s Sick Children’s Hospital, sees value in the gadgets for treating autistic children, but is not a fan of their widespread use in classrooms.  In her words, “it’s too distracting” and “draws attention” to the user, disrupting the class. She and many other clinicians now recommend that schools limit their use to special education classes or interventions.

School authorities in Maritime Canada appear to have initially accepted the claims of the marketers and been swayed by their special education program consultants.  Self-regulation, championed by Dr. Shanker, has made inroads in elementary schools, many of which embrace “mindfulness” and employ “stress-reduction” strategies.  In the region’s largest school district, Halifax Regional School Board, the policy decision was left up to individual schools and frustrated teachers took to social media to complain about the constant distraction and ordeal of confiscating spinners to restore order. New Brunswick’s Anglophone school districts seeking to accommodate learning challenged students in inclusive classrooms accepted spinners as just another pacifying tool to complement their wiggle stools. In rural school communities such as Nova Scotia’s Shelburne and Pictou counties and towns such as Summerside, PEI, the craze popped up in schools totally unprepared with policies to deal with students fixated with the gadgets.

Prominent education critics and teacher researchers are now having a field day exposing the pseudoscience supporting the introduction of fidget spinners into today’s regular classrooms.  A Winnipeg psychologist, Kristen Wirth, finds little evidence testifying to their positive results and claims that it is a “placebo effect” where “we feel something is helping, but it may or may not be helping.”  Canada’s leading teen mental health expert, Dr. Stan Kutcher, sees “no substantive evidence on spinners” and warns parents and teachers to be wary of the out-sized claims made by marketers of the toys.

British teacher Tom Bennett, founder of researchED, is more adamant about the “latest menace” to effective teaching and learning in our schools.  The latest fad – fidget spinners – he sees as symptomatic of “education’s crypto-pathologies.”  Teachers today have to contend with students purportedly exhibiting “every trouble and symptom” of anxiety and stress.  Misdiagnoses, he claims, can lead to children feeling they have some insurmountable difficulty in reading, when what it requires is tutorial help and ongoing support.

“Many children do suffer from very real and very grave difficulties,” Bennett points out, and they need intensive support. When it comes to “fidget spinners,” he adds, “we need to develop a finer, collective nose for the bullshit, for the deliberately mysterious, for the (purely invented) halitosis of the classroom.”  In spite of the inflated claims of the marketers, “magic bullets and magic beans” won’t provide the solutions.

Why are today’s schools so susceptible to the inflated claims of marketers promoting the latest educational gadget?  Do popular inventions like the fidget spinner answer some inner need in today’s fast-paced, high anxiety, unsettled popular culture?  To what extent have Dr. Stuart Shanker and his student behaviour theorists made us more receptive to tools which are said to relieve stress and promote “self-regulation” in children?  Why do so many education leaders and school principals go along with the latest trend without looking deeper at its research-basis and broader impact? 

 

One of Canada’s provincial premiers, Brad Wall of Saskatchewan, has waded into the Catholic Separate School question and brought the issue of school choice, once again, to the fore.  In Late April 2017, he announced that, in direct response to a recent Court of the Queen’s Bench decision in the controversial Theodore Catholic School case, the province would be invoking the Charter “notwithstanding” clause to support the right of non-Catholics to attend the province’s Catholic schools.

A tiny local dispute, as is often the case, erupted into a  full-blown debate over the right of parents to choose the best school for their children.  It was sparked by the decision of 42 multi-denominational parents in the village of Theodore, fifteen years ago, to resist a public school closure and instead create a Catholic School Division and open their own publicly-funded Catholic school.

Premier Wall staked out his ground in defense of the right of parents to school choice encompassing public, separate and faith-based schools. It was a courageous decision given the complexity of the issue and the passions aroused by the Catholic question in public education.

Sorting out such a thorny educational-constitutional issue should not be left to the lawyers because it has far-reaching implications for parental school choice far beyond Saskatchewan.  That is why The National Post invited me to take a much closer look at the whole controversy.

The court decision to end funding for non-Catholics to attend such schools had great potential for massive disruption. Some 10,000 students and their parents province-wide were left in limbo facing the prospect of being forced out of their Catholic schools.

The Saskatchewan Catholic schools dispute is, for better or worse, a critical “test case” that may well determine the fate of the Catholic school option in Saskatchewan and perhaps elsewhere. It’s also about far more than the funding of Catholic schools in that province. School choice in Saskatchewan, as in Alberta and Ontario, rests, in many ways, on having parallel public and separate school systems, both in English and in French. Such options, freely accessible to everyone, provide more choice than is commonly recognized.

In spite of what look from the outside like uniform bureaucratic structures and curricula, such denominational and language options do allow for variations, particularly in core philosophy, academic focus, and student discipline.  One out of five Saskatchewan students (21.1 percent), 22.9 per cent of Alberta students, and 30.3 per cent of Ontario students were enrolled in fully-funded, principally Roman Catholic schools, in 2009-10, the most recent data.

Separate religiously oriented schools within the public education system not only offer choice but a measure of competition. Students and parents can opt for schools with provincially-approved religious instruction as an alternative to the predominantly secular, non-denominational public schools.

Saskatchewan is not the only province where the religious walls have recently come down. In many Catholic school districts across the three provinces, the relaxing of strict religious expectations and admittance of non-Catholics (or students of different faiths) has effectively expanded the range of choice, since such schools are no longer available exclusively to more religiously oriented families.

CharterSchoolCalgaryGirlsAlberta is hailed as Canada’s undisputed leader in the provision of a wide range of school choices. A February 2014 Fraser Institute report only bolstered that claim by demonstrating that Alberta offered six different publicly-funded options: regular public, francophone public, separate Catholic, separate francophone, separate Protestant, and charter schools.  The report’s principal author Jason Clemens noted 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.”

Next to Alberta and Ontario, Saskatchewan offers the most school options: regular public, public francophone, separate Catholic, and separate Protestant schools. The continued vitality of one of those options is imperiled by that Theodore school court decision.

School choice should not be simply taken for granted. The vast majority of Atlantic Canadians living in Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, and Prince Edward Island have only one real choice. 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 from 1 per cent to 3 per cent of the total student population. About 2,600 First Nations students in Nova Scotia (2.1%) do attend very small Mi’kmaw Education Authority (MK) 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.

Public fears about charter schools in Alberta are fueled by defenders of the existing educational order— and appear to be not only irrational but unfounded. Under that province’s  1993 Charter School law, the numbers of publicly-funded charters are limited (to 15) and enrollments are capped, 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.

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 benefit from being more open and responsive to a wider range of student needs and aspirations. Safeguards do need to be built-in to prevent a mass exodus and to provide some recourse in the case of under-performing schools.

Putting a stop to the removal of non-Catholics who have chosen to exercise their option of choosing an alternative to the ‘one-size-fits-all’ system is not only defensible, it’s advisable, especially in Saskatchewan. One can only hope that it derails any movement to further restrict parental choice in education.

What’s causing all the ruckus over the Saskatchewan separate school question?  Who gains when provinces move to “one big English language system” for all? How fundamental is the right to parental choice in Saskatchewan as well as Alberta and Ontario?  Should non-Catholics continue to have free, unimpeded access to Catholic separate schools?  Wherein lies the danger of broadening the range of choice in our provincial school systems? 

“All that glitters is not gold” is one of the better known English proverbs. It means that not everything that looks glittery and precious turns out to be.  That pearl of wisdom is also a tiny piece of true knowledge, found in Aesop’s Fables, Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and William Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, and it readily comes to mind when confronted with Michael Fullan and Maria Langworthy‘s recent conceptual invention, New Pedagogies of Deep Learning.

Since the launch of its first installment, A Rich Seam, with Sir Michael Barber at Pearson Learning in London, UK, back in January 2014, Fullan and Langworthy have been preaching the new gospel of Deep Learning at education conferences around the English-speaking world. “New teaching partnerships between teachers and students are the essential foundations of effective new pedagogies,” they claim, and are “beginning to emerge as digital access opens the door to broader and more varied sources of content knowledge.”  These new pedagogies are capable of not only motivating “bored students” and “alienated teachers,” but “blowing the lid off” learning in the 21st century classroom.

The New Pedagogues funded by Pearson International, the world’s largest “learning corporation,” exude great faith in the power of learning technology. Fresh from Microsoft and its global research team, Langworthy sees “exciting things” happening in schools world-wide when teachers set aside  knowledge “content delivery” and engage students using “collaboration” facilitated by the latest technology. While Fullan’s latest research partner holds a Ph.D. in Sociology from Boston University, she introduces herself  with the phrase “I am a learner” (rather than a teacher), and claims that A Rich Seam is “trying to put some substance and conceptual rigour” around the theory.

Fullan and Langworthy’s grand theory is heavy on imaginative thinking and incredibly light on content. Tapping into the “rich seam” of the new pedagogies involves “deep collaboration” to “learn from and with your students.”  Deep Learning seeks to develop what are termed Fullan’s Six Cs: character education, citizenship, collaboration, communication, creativity, and critical thinking, so, one is left to assume, the fundamentals of reading, writing and mental computation are just as passe as teaching content knowledge in the classroom.

The New Pedagogues, much like John Dewey and the old-school Progressives, tend to see factual knowledge in opposition to the kinds of abilities and thinking they seek to develop in students. While teaching isolated facts is clearly unhelpful, they go far beyond that in assuming that teaching facts is somehow opposed to teaching meaning and essential context. Indeed, as Daisy Christodoulou shows in Seven Myths about Education (2014), mastery of bodies of factual knowledge actually allow creativity, problem-solving and analysis to happen.

Exciting discoveries can happen spontaneously, but thinking well requires knowing facts.  That’s the considered view of one of America’s leading cognitive scientists, Daniel T. Willingham. Based upon cognitive science research over the past 30 years, knowing things actually facilitates deeper thinking and learning.  In Why Don’t Students Like School? (2009), Willingham put it succinctly: “The very processes that teachers care most about –critical thinking processes such as reasoning and problem solving –are intimately intertwined with factual knowledge that is stored in long-term memory (not just found in the environment).” So intertwined are they that one London English teacher, Joe Kirby, likens the development of knowledge and skills to a “double helix.”

Distinguishing between “deep” and “”surface” approaches to study is certainly not new and can be traced back to original empirical research in the 1970s.  A 2013 literature review of “deep and surface learning” by J.S. Atherton clarified the differences and provided a useful comparison chart.  Although learners may be classified as “deep” or “surface,” they are not necessarily attributes of individuals and are often found in combination with one another. They do correlate fairly closely with motivation, since “deep” tends to be associated with intrinsic motivation and “surface” with extrinsic. What is abundantly clear, however, is that knowing something is absolutely critical to “deep learning” and reflected in its first three characteristics: finding significance, relating previous knowledge to new knowledge, and relating knowledge from different courses. 

Michael Fullan’s The New Pedgaogies of Deep Learning may well turn out to be yet another 21st century learning illusion. He’s now riding high on global rocket fuel provided by Sir Michael Barber and Pearson International. It is well advanced in Fullan’s educational ‘sandbox’, the Ontario school system, where he commands seemly unlimited research dollars and seems to appear on every “educational leadership” conference program. After four decades of “new initiatives” now long-forgotten, it’s incredible to read his rousing January 2014 call for “new pedagogies” capable of unleashing “rich futures” where “students and teachers” are “always learning” and it makes the whole “system” go round.

What’s really driving Michael Fullan’s latest project funded by Pearson Learning? Is it possible to truly learn deeply without a sound foundation in factual knowledge and subject content?  How much of the New Pedagogies rests upon “21st century learning” conceptual thinking and false assumptions about the place of knowledge in student learning? 

Surveying the education public as well as ‘stakeholders’ for their opinion is the latest trend in Canadian K-12 education policy. Two recent Canadian education surveys conducted in Nova Scotia and Alberta provide some recent examples worthy of further discussion.  The recent release of Alberta Education Minister David Eggen’s curriculum survey results (April 13, 2017) also demonstrates that unsuspecting citizens may need help in penetrating through the official spin to get at the actual results.

Facing deep divisions in P-12 education over future directions, and not inclined to follow the research evidence, provincial authorities are going, more and more, to soliciting public opinion utilizing surveys with pre-determined outcomes.  Upon closed scrutiny, the Alberta survey seems wholly designed to confirm intended curriculum directions.

Conducting public surveys is not without its risks. In the case of the 2014 Nova Scotia Education Review survey, a largely unvarnished, no-holds-barred instrument actually backfired on the Education Department. When the N.S. Review Committee headed by Myra Freeman polled 18,500 residents, the results published in October 2014 proved a real jolt and sent the provincial teachers’ union into a tizzy, mostly focused on being excluded from shaping the survey and serving on the commission.

One half of Nova Scotians, the survey found, were “not satisfied with the public school system” and teachers as well as parents identified plenty of reasons why. The report, Disrupting the Status Quo, generated very high expectations — never honoured — that major reform was on the way.  A three-month NSTU teacher work-to-rule in 2016-17 effectively sunk the quality education reform plan and generated a completely new set of teacher-driven demands for improvement in “working conditions.”

Alberta Education had no desire to see that pattern repeated.  Minister Eggen’s curriculum survey looked, and sounded, skewed in the Education Department’s preferred direction – toward more of what is loosely termed “21st learning.” In Alberta Education futuristic doubletalk, the overarching goal is to produce students who “are agents of change to create the globe that they want to be part of.”

The survey, conducted in October and November 2016 succeeded in attracting some 32,390 respondents, of whom only slightly over half (57%) might be classed as ‘outside the system.’The proposed directions were presented as amorphous curriculum “themes” where respondents are clearly led to certain conclusions. You are, for example, asked whether you agree or disagree with this statement: “Through learning outcomes curriculum should support the development of literacy, numeracy and 21st century competencies.”  It is impossible to answer if you think basic numeracy and literacy should take precedence over the ill-defined futuristic skills.

Conducting the survey was also further confirmation of the provincial strategy to thwart mathematics education reform. With the Alberta “Back to Basics” petition, initiated by parent Dr. Nhung Tran-Davies of Calmar, AB, piling up 18,332 signatures, the survey attempts, in clumsy fashion, to override that hardened opinion.

The Department’s summary of responses does its best to conceal the extent of resistance to current K-12 Mathematics teaching and curricula.  Sifting through the Mathematics responses, teaching math facts, restoring step-by-step algorithmic thinking, limiting the use of computers, and mastering mental math far outweighed any preference for “21st century competencies” or its step-child, discovery math.

Instead of addressing these findings, Minister Eggen  ‘cherry-picked’ one example of the desire for ‘relevance’ – support for including financial literacy in grade 4 to 9 classes. That too is a clear sign that parents want their kids to be able to balance a set of sums.

Albertans’ written responses to the open-ended questions are the clearest indication of their true inclinations.  Out of the 15,724 respondents committed enough to do more than tick boxes, the largest segment, again (10 %), favoured refocusing on “math basics” and singled out “discovery math” as a problem. Combined with “learning the basics” (6%) and teaching practical skills (7%), one in four who made comments targeted the lack of rigour in the curriculum.

Judging from the wording of questions, the entire survey also skewed in the direction of student-centred teaching methods. That’s strange because the recent PISA 2015 global results report demonstrated conclusively that “explicit instruction” produced much better student results than “minimally-guided instruction.”

The inherent bias pops up elsewhere. “This survey,” it reported, “was intended to focus on the ‘what’ of current provincial curriculum not ‘how’ teachers teach it.”   Serious curriculum analysts know it’s now virtually impossible to separate the two in assessing program effectiveness.

Provincial education authorities were, at one time, given explicit mandates based upon either firm political policy positions or best practice research. When governments are lost and searching for direction, they may turn to the public to find their bearings. In the case of Alberta, it looks more like surveying for confirmation of the ‘educrats’ own pre-determined direction.

*A condensed version of this Commentary appeared in the Edmonton Journal, April 18, 2017.

Why do school systems survey the public?  Are Canadian provincial governments totally lost on K-12 education and simply looking for direction? Do our Education Department’s  harbour a secret agenda?  Or are they looking for public confirmation of pre-conceived plans for curriculum changes? 

Alberta teacher Mike Tachynski, a high school science teacher at Edmonton’s Ross Sheppard High School, is a brave soul.  In late January 2017, he had the courage to speak up publicly about the critical, but largely buried, issue of grade inflation in Canadian high schools.  It was just one more indication that the province of Alberta, once the bastion of higher graduation expectations, was falling more into line with other ‘soft on standards’ provinces.

In the three minutes Tachynski was allotted to address the Edmonton Public Schools elected board, on January 31, 2017, he demonstrated that Alberta was not immune to the disease of grade inflation. Moving away from weighing final exams at 50 per cent of the final Grade 12 subject mark was already contributing to  ‘grade inflation’ leading to irregularities in grades that unfairly favoured some students over others. “Inflated grades create a lose-lose situation,” Tachynski told the board. Students whose teachers are presenting more rigorous challenges may understand the material better, but have a lower grade on their transcript. On the other hand, he said students with ‘artificially high grades’ may flounder when admitted to college and university programs.

The provincial data for June 2016, published in the Edmonton Journal,  supported Tachynski’s claim. Some 96 per cent of students were awarded a passing grade in Math 30-1 by their teachers, but only 71 per cent of those who took the diploma exam passed the test — a gap of 25 percentage points. For Chemistry 30, it was 15 percentage points.  Going back to 2008, the gaps in pass rates between teacher-marks and diploma exam results had grown in five of 12 subjects over the span of nine years.

What’s shocking about Alberta’s slide in standards is that, as recently as November 2011, Maclean’s Magazine had hailed that province as having Canada’s best education system based upon the standards of its graduating students. Based upon a 2011 University of Saskatchewan admission study of 12,000 first-year university student grades, Alberta high school graduates dropped only 6.4 points, compared to as much as 19.6 points for students from other provinces. It was attributed, at the time, to Alberta’s policy of basing 50 per cent of the final grades on diploma exam marks.

Grade inflation has been identified as a major concern since the early 1980s in most school systems in the English-speaking world. In 2009, Durham University in the U.K. studied the phenomenon and concluded that an ‘A’ grade was now roughly equivalent to a ‘C’ grade in 1980. Ten years ago, forty per cent of Ontario high school graduates were leaving with an ‘A’ average, eight times as many as in the more conventional British system. In Alberta at that time, it was only 20 per cent, in large part because of compulsory exams in the core subjects.

Former Alberta school administrator Jim Dueck has recently written about the internal struggle during the early 2000s to maintain the province’s more rigorous standards. “Superintendents were loathe to undertake any action to ameliorate the problem,” he wrote in his 2014 book, Education’s Flashpoints.  “Large-scale testing was contentious and acknowledging the significantly different results was thought to be inflamatory and likely lead to a backlash among union members, which at the time included principals.”

Co-author of the much discussed 2008 book Ivory Tower Blues, James Côté, a Western University sociology professor, insists that grade inflation ultimately hurts students. “It starts in high school. Giving higher grades is one way to reward kids fairly easily, boost their self-esteem and stop them from dropping out,” Côté said. “That’s the mandate our high schools are facing: lowering the dropout rate.” That’s why, he added, 60 per cent of students applying to university had an A average by 2008 and the mark ranges were compressed so much that it had “reached a point of crisis.”

High school grade inflation is now rampant in school systems right across Canada. Out east, the problem was first flagged in a May 2007 AIMS study focusing on the enormous gaps in New Brunswick and Newfoundland/Labrador between assigned class marks and diploma exam marks. In November of 2011, the University of Calgary’s Dean of Arts blew the whistle on the alarming extent of Ontario grade inflation. “There’s an arm’s race of A’s going on, ” he told the Calgary Herald.  Since Nova Scotia moved its provincial exams from Grade 12 to Grade 10 in June 2012, that province’s graduation rates have skyrocketed from 88.6 per cent to 92.5 per cent in 2014-15.

Students are well aware of the impact of high school grade inflation, especially when they take a real hit in their first set of university grades. It is, according to a former President of the Ontario Student Trustees’ Association, Zane Schwartz, a balloon that’s ready to pop.  “Until there is standardization, ” he wrote in a March 2013 Toronto Globe and Mail opinion column,” high-achieving students will keep being told they’re brilliant, low achieving students will keep getting pushed from grade to grade, and students grades will drop when they reach university.”  We can, he added, do more to “reign in rampant grade inflation and better prepare students for university environment.”  To date, it is my understanding, little has been done to act upon that level-headed student advice.

Why has grade inflation become so rampant in most Canadian high schools?  How much of the pressure for higher marks comes from university-bound students and their parents?  Why have provincial authorities, one after another, either abandoned Grade 12 provincial exams or devalued them in the determination of graduation marks? Is there a graceful way out of the current predicament?