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Biting, kicking, spitting, scratching, punching, throwing objects, and threatening harm are on the rise in Canadian elementary classrooms from coast to coast. More and more educators are not only reporting the violent incidents, but being hurt on the job in our classrooms, hallways, and playgrounds. Whole classrooms are being evacuated to allow disruptive children to calm down. That escalating crisis was recently highlighted in a fine September 7, 2019 piece of investigative journalism by The Globe and Mail’s national education reporter Caroline Alphonso.

Her investigation of how school districts are actually managing children with behavioural challenges and complex needs is eye-opening for those unfamiliar with teaching on today’s frontlines. Periodic surveys of teachers and education assistants have identified an escalating crisis, but — until now–provincial school authorities and local school districts have been slow to collect the data and most reluctant to share violent incident report information with parents or the public. Indeed, Alphonso and her Globe team found it impossible to secure the data from some provinces and major metropolitan school districts.

The facts are gradually emerging and harassment and violence against educators is becoming commonplace.  One September 2019 study, conducted by University of Ottawa researchers Darcy A. Santor, Chris Bruckert, and Kyle McBride, showed a sharp spike in the level of violence teachers face in Ontario elementary schools. In a December 2018 online survey of 1,600 educators, they found a seven-fold increase in reported incidents over the past 12 years. While only 7 per cent of Ontario elementary teachers reported experiencing bullying in 2005, some 54 per cent now report encountering violence perpetrated mostly by students, but also by parents, and administrators. Furthermore, some 72 per cent reported experiencing explicit verbal insults, putdowns, or obscene gestures from a student during 2017-18.

Out of ten provincial ministries of education, only Nova Scotia provided Alphonso and the Globe and Mail with comprehensive data.  In the 2014-15, school year, there were 631 recorded incidents of violence against an educator by a student, and the following year, 2015-16, there were 683, the vast majority of which occurred in the elementary schools. The Ontario government turned down the Globe and Mail Freedom of Information request and other provinces either claimed not to have data or unable to access it without going through school boards or other government agencies.

Nova Scotia Teachers’ Union (NSTU) president Paul Wozney expressed concern over the problem and provided what amounted to a worst case scenario. In Nova Scotia, one classroom was evacuated 12 times in a month — and students were forced to find sanctuary in another room until the disruptive child calmed down. He also reported that Nova Scotia educators, like their New Brunswick counterparts, were now wearing bite-resistant sleeves and Kevlar vests in certain high risk classrooms.

What can be done to address the problem? Most teacher union surveys and research reports, including the University of Ottawa study, are stronger on diagnosis than on prescription. The most common policy solutions, investing in more classroom resources, more teaching assistants, or more specialized professional development, are predictably in every set of recommendations and strongly favoured by school districts, teachers’ unions, and parent education funding lobby groups.

Two of the detailed University of Ottawa study findings got short shrift and deserve closer scrutiny.  Workplace violence is likely being under-reported because of fears of blame (from administration) and reprisal ( from students) in “an organizational culture” which is “ill-equipped to deal with the issue.” More importantly, in school boards which espouse “progressive discipline” under provincial mandates, there are “few consequences for students’ harassing or violent behaviour” (p. 34).

Digging deeper, it’s clear that two fundamental components of prevailing student behaviour philosophy and practice need to be seriously re-examined and likely replaced with more effective strategies: the cure-all of Positive Behaviour Supports Programs (PEBIS) and the misapplication of school restorative justice. From province-to-province, right across Canada, few educators seem to be either aware of, or attuned to, growing evidence that positive, progressive discipline has unanticipated negative long-term consequences for school principals and frontline teachers in classrooms.

Clamouring for more resources, increased staff levels, or better training has not worked, to date, so it’s surely not the ultimate answer. It’s time to adopt a completely new strategy, more in tune with the latest research on student behaviour and effective school management.  School leaders and principals need significant training in creating a culture of respect and responsibility and it’s time to look at alternatives to progressive, positive discipline and its step-child, restorative justice. It’s captured nicely in one of the University of Ottawa study recommendations calling for the “consistent application” and “implementation of student consequences that are appropriate and effective”(p. 35).

Why are teachers and education assistants facing increased violence in elementary schools?  How much of the increased student violence is the result of the rising incidence of students with severe learning challenges and complex needs? Will investing more in the prevailing student behavour programs make any real difference?  Is it time to rethink school leadership and to properly equip principals and teachers with strategies and programs that are research-proven and far more effective in ensuring safe, secure and purposeful learning for everyone? 

 

 

 

 

 

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Students and parents in the Pontus school in Lappeenranta, one of the first  Finnish schools to implement the “phenomenon-based” digital curriculum, are now disputing the broad claim made by the World Economic Forum in its 2018 Worldwide Educating for the Future Index. Concerned about the new direction, parents of the children have lodged a number of complaints over the “failure” of the new school and cited student concerns that they didn’t “learn anything” under the new curriculum and pedagogy. For some, the only recourse was to move their children to schools continuing to offer a more explicit teaching of content knowledge and skills.

The Finnish parent resistance is more than a small blip on the global education landscape. It strikes at the heart of the Finnish Ministry of Education’s 2016 plan to introduce “phenomenon’ problem-solving — replacing more traditional subject-based curriculum in mathematics, science, and history with an interdisciplinary model focusing on developing holistic skills for the future workplace. Perhaps more significantly, it blows a hole in the carefully-crafted image of Finland as the world leader in “building tomorrow’s global citizens.”

The basis for Finland’s claim to be a global future education leader now rests almost entirely upon that 2018 global ranking produced by the World Economic Forum, based upon advice gleaned from an ‘expert panel’ engaged by The Economist Intelligence Unit Limited.  While Finland has slipped from 2000 to 2015 on the more widely-recognized Program of International Student Assessment (PISA) rankings, that educational jurisdiction remains a favourite of global learning corporations and high technology business interests. A close-up look at who provides the “educational intelligence” to the World Economic Forum demonstrates the fusion of interests that sustains the global reputation of Finland and other Western nations heavily invested in digital technology and learning.

The 2018 World Economic Forum future education index was a rather polished attempt to overturn the prevailing research consensus.  The PISA Worldwide Ranking – based upon average student scores in math, reading and science — place Asian countries, Estonia and Canada all ahead of Finland in student achievement.  The top five performers are Singapore (551.7), Hong Kong (532.7), Japan (528.7), Macau (527.3), and Estonia (524.3). A panel of seventeen experts, selected by The Economist Intelligence Unit, sets out to dispute the concrete student results of an OECD study of 70 countries ranking 15-year-olds on their scholastic performance.

The Economist Intelligence Unit index runs completely counter to the PISA rankings and attempts to counter the well-founded claim that student mastery of content-knowledge and fundamental skills is the best predictor of future student success in university, college and the workplace. Upon close examination, the World Economic Forum index seeks to supplant the established competencies and to substitute a mostly subjective assessment of “the effectiveness of education systems in preparing students for the demands of work and life in a rapidly changing landscape”( p. 1). It focuses on the 15 to 24 year-old-age band in some 50 countries around the world. Setting aside how students are actually performing, we are provided with a ranking based almost exclusively on compliance with so-called “21st century learning” competencies – leadership, creativity, entrepreneurship, communication, global awareness, and civic education skills.

The poster child nation for the World Economic Forum rankings is Finland, now ranked 8th on its PISA scores, because it has now embraced, full-on, the “21st century learning” ideology and invests heavily in technology-driven digital education. The balance of the Top 5 World Economic Forum nations, Switzerland, New Zealand, Sweden, and Canada, rank 15th, 16th, 26th, and 5th on the basis of their students’ PISA scores. Most problematic of all, the future education ranking downgrades the current global education leaders, Singapore (7th), Japan (12th), and Hong Kong (15th).  Mastery of academic competencies is, based upon the assessment criteria, not relevant when you are ranking countries on the basis of their support for technology-driven, digital education.

Who produced the World Economic Forum rankings?  The actual report was written by Economist Intelligence Unit contract writer Denis McCauley, a veteran London-based global technology consultant, known for co-authoring, a Ricoh-sponsored white paper, Agent of Change, alerting business leaders to the urgent necessity of embracing Artificial Intelligence and technological change.  Scanning the seventeen-member expert panel, it’s dominated by the usual suspects, global technology researchers and digital education proponents. One of the more notable advisors was Chief Education Evangelist for Google, Jaime Casap, the American technology promoter who spearheaded Google’s Apps for Education growth strategy aimed at teachers and powered by online communities known as Google Educator Groups, and “leadership symposiums” sponsored by the global tech giant.

Most of The Economist Intelligence Unit advisors see Finland as the ‘lighthouse nation’ for the coming technological change in K-12 education. Heavily influenced by former Finnish education ambassador, Pasi Sahlberg, they are enamoured with the Finnish model of phenomenon-based learning and its promise to implant “21st century skills” through structural changes in curriculum organization and delivery in schools.  It’s not surprising that it was actually Sahlberg who first tweeted about the Pontus school uprising, likely to alert Finnish education officials to the potential for broader resistance.

Launched in 2016 with a flurry of favourable ed-tech friendly research, the Finnish curriculum reform tapped into the rather obscure academic field of phenomenology.  The new curriculum adopted a phenomenon-based approach embracing curriculum integration with a theoretical grounding in constructivism. All of this was purportedly designed to develop student skills for the changing 21st century workplace. The ultimate goal was also spelled out by Canadian education professor Louis Volante and his associates in a World Economic Forum-sponsored April 2019 commentary extolling “broader measures” of assessing success in education. Peeling away the sugary coating, “phenomenon learning” was just another formulation of student-centred, project-based, 21st century skills education.

The daily reality for students like grade 6 student Aino Pilronen of Pontus School was quite different. “The beginning of the day was chaotic,” she reported, as students milled around developing study plans or hung-out in the so-called “market square.” “It was hard for me that the teacher did not teach at first, but instead we should have been able to learn things by ourselves.” Her brutally honest assessment: ” I didn’t learn anything.”

The Economist Intelligence Unit not only ignored such concerns voiced by students and parents, but brushed aside evidence that it would not work for the full range of students. A Helsinki University researcher, Aino Saarinen, attributed the decline in Finland’s PISA education standing to the increasing use of digital learning materials. Investing 50 million Euros since 2016 in training teachers to use digital devices and laptops, she claimed was not paying-off because “the more that digital tools were used in lessons, the worse learning outcomes were” in math, science, and reading. The most adversely affected were struggling and learning-challenged students, the very ones supposedly better served under the new curriculum.

What can we learn from taking a more critical, independent look at the actual state of Finnish education?  If Finnish education is in decline and 21st century learning reform encountering parental dissent, how can it be the top ranked “future education” system?  Who is providing the educational intelligence to the World Economic Forum?  Is it wise to accept a global ranking that discounts or dismisses quantitative evidence on trends in comparative student academic achievement? 

Every school year seems to herald the arrival of a new crop of education books seeking to “fix the education system.”  Some champion the latest educational panacea, others target the supposed causes of decline, and a select few identify a possible pathway for improving teaching and learning or making schools better. Despite significant investments in remedial programs and ‘learning supports,’ a yawning “achievement gap” persists between students from marginalized or low-income families and their more affluent counterparts and, with few exceptions, it has not closed much over the past fifty years.

Two new education reform books, Natalie Wexler’s The Knowledge Gap, and Michael Zwaagstra’s A Sage on the Stage, raise hope that the sources of the problem can be identified and actually addressed in the years ahead. Each of the two books, one American, the other Canadian, offer markedly similar diagnoses and urge policy-makers and educators alike to shore-up the rather emaciated content knowledge-based curriculum. 

Prominent American journalist Wexler demonstrates that elementary school teaching and learning, once considered a bright spot, is so undernourished that most teachers now teach as though it doesn’t matter what students are reading or learning, as long as they are acquiring skills of one kind or another.  Manitoba high school teacher Zwaagstra, in one commentary after another, shows how teaching content knowledge has been downgraded at all levels and overtaken by constructivist experiments embedded in the latest “foolish fads infecting public education.”

Forays into American elementary schools, during Wexler’s field research, produce some alarming lessons.  First graders in a Washington, DC, inner city school are observed, virtually lost, drawing clowns or struggling to fill-in worksheets in a class supposedly based upon a rather dense article about Brazil. Teachers jump wily-nily from topic to topic asking students to read about clouds one day, then zebras the next, completely out of context.  Few elementary teachers seem aware of the science of learning or the vital importance of prior knowledge in reading comprehension. Equally disturbing is the general finding that so many elementary teachers simply assume that children can acquire content knowledge later, after they have a modicum of skills. Such ‘progressive education’ assumptions prevail in most elementary schools, public, private and independent, almost without variation.

Zwaagstra’s book, composed of his best Canadian newspaper commentaries over the past decade, takes dead aim at the prevailing ideology fostered in faculties of education and perpetuated by provincial and school district armies of curriculum consultants and pedagogical coaches. Beginning teachers are trained to resist the temptation to be “a sage on the stage” and instead strive to be “a guide on the side.”  Zwaagstra completely rejects that approach on the grounds that it undermines teacher content knowledge and devalues the expertise of professionals in the classroom. He is, in this respect, speaking the same language as most secondary school teachers who have never really given up the notion that prior knowledge matters and that knowing your subject is critical to higher achievement in colleges and universities.

Zwaagstra speaks up for regular classroom teachers who focus on what works in the classroom and have learned, over the years, to be skeptical of the latest fads. Most regular teachers reading his stinging critiques of ‘discovery math,” whole-language-founded “balanced literacy,” and  incomprehensible “no zero” student evaluation policies will likely be nodding in approval. Not content simply to pick holes in existing theories and practices, he makes a common sense case for strategies that do work, especially in high schools —explicit instruction, knowledge-rich curriculum, and plenty of practice to achieve mastery.

Both Wexler and Zwaagstra go to considerable lengths to spare teachers from the blame for what has gone wrong in the school system. Prevailing pedagogical theories and education professors are identified as the purveyors of teaching approaches and practices floating on uncontested progressive education beliefs. When it comes to teaching reading comprehension, Wexler carefully explains why teachers continue to teach reading comprehension as a set of discrete skills instead of being founded on prior knowledge and expanded vocabulary. It is, in her analysis, “simply the water they’ve been swimming in, so universal and taken for granted they don’t question or even mention it.”  In Zwaagstra’s case, he’s very sympathetic to hard-working teachers in the trenches who cope by carrying-on with what works and developing ‘work-arounds’ when confronted by staunch ideologues or impossible mandates.

What’s really significant about these two education reformers is that both are strong advocates for, and supporters of, the international researchED movement out to challenge and dispel popular myths that have little or no basis in evidence-based research or cognitive science. Zwaagstra is a very popular presenter at researchED Canada conferences and Wexler is one of the headliners at the upcoming American researchED conference, November 16, 2019, in Philadelphia, PA. 

The two authors are very much part of the great awakening made possible by the flourishing of social media conversations, especially on EduTwitter, where independently-minded educators from around the world now go to debate education reform, share the latest research in cognitive science, and discuss ways of grappling with common problems in everyday teaching.

Slowly, but surely, the global edu-gurus are losing their single channel, uncontested platforms and facing more and more teachers equipped to call into question prevailing teaching approaches and fashionable education fads. Moving forward is now less about finding and embracing education evangelists or grabbing hold of,  and riding, the latest fad, and far more about interrogating accepted truths and trusting your teacher colleagues to work out what works in the classroom.

What’s significant about the two books — Natalie Wexler’s The Knowledge Gap and Michael Zwaagstra’s A Sage on the Stage?  Now that the call for content-knowledge curriculum is back in vogue in the United States, will Canadian policy-makers and educators  begin looking more critically at their policies and practices?  With more educators embracing a knowledge-rich curriculum, what would it take to successfully challenge the the sugary progressive education consensus in elementary schools?  

 

The rise of the Internet has created a new generation of edu-gurus initially showcased in TED Talks and now powered by their personal blogs and popular e-books. One of the most influential of the crop is Seth Godin, the creative force and animator famous for his rapid-fire commentaries on Seth’s Blog. Hailed by Business Week as “the ultimate entrepreneur for the Information Age,” the marketing whiz also has, since 2012, acquired a following in the education world. His TED Talks, published in an e-book as Stop Stealing Dreams, have been wildly popular with educators and shared millions of times on the Internet.

SethGodinBlogPixWatching Seth Godin in action is very alluring and entertaining, but, when you break down his performances and closely examine his bold assertions, you wonder if there is less here than meets the eye. Marketing is all about mass persuasion and pleasing your customers and some practitioners are essentially mesmerizers or worse, con-artists. In his own field, he is regarded as a star performer and has been likened to “the JFK of the blogosphere: revered, quoted, beloved.” Many in his field were likely aghast in June 2007 when one of their tribe posted a critical commentary that dared to ask What if Seth Godin was full of crap?” 

Godin is a rather unlikely guru for educators. After working as a software brand manager in the mid-1980s, he started Yoyodyne, one of the first dot.com direct marketing enterprises. His firm was acquired by Yahoo in 1998 for $30-million and the global Internet giant hired Godin as vice-president of permission marketing. He’s authored 18 books, mostly in marketing, including such attention-grabbing best-sellers as Permission Marketing (1999), Purple Cow (2003), All Marketers Are Liars (2005), and The Icarus Deception (2012).  It’s rare for a global marketing expert like Godin to find a friendly audience in the education sector.

Today’s educators know Godin through Seth’s Blog, his personal platform generating a steady stream of posts and tweets, some of which venture into education. He made his name in the field with an October 2012 TEDxYouth Talk entitled Stop Stealing Dreams – The School System and a subsequent YouTube Interview on Education Reform. “When we put kids in the factory we call school, the thing we built to indoctrinate them into compliance,” he stated, “why are we surprised when they ask ‘what’s on the test’?” Comparing work with art, he used his rhetorical skills to make the case that schools were monolithic in their structure — not only factory-like but trained kids for “compliance” and “obedience” rather than meaningful, engaged lives.

Godin poses a Big Question – “What are Schools For?” and that raises expectations that he will be providing a fresh perspective. Much of his system analysis lacks depth and is derivative. He encourages us to freely “steal ideas from others” and, in this case, he offers up simplified versions of John Taylor Gatto (factory system and weapons of mass instruction), Sir Ken Robinson ( find your ‘creative’ element), and Alfie Kohn ( gradeless schools, learn at your own pace).  He’s either oblivious to, or dismissive of, more firmly grounded answers to that question, including the highly original formulations of Mortimer Adler ( The Paideia Proposal), Kieran Egan (Getting it wrong from the beginning), Martin Robinson ( Trivium 21c), and Paul A. Kirschner (future-proof education)

As a former dot.com executive, Godin put tremendous faith in technology to transform schools and learning.  “For the first time in history,” he proclaimed, ” we do not need humans standing in front of us teaching us square root.” His technology-driven agenda set out eight proposed education reforms, many now parroted by his followers. His key tenets were:

  • Flip the classroom by exposing students through homework to world-class speakers on video at night and devoting class time to face-to-face interactions and discussion of concepts and issues;
  • Open book, open notes all the time, based upon the belief that memorization is pointless in the Internet age;
  • Abandon grade-level and subject knowledge progression in favour of access to any course anywhere in the world, anytime;
  • Measure experience instead of standardized test scores and focus on cooperation rather than isolation;
  • Precise, focused education instead of mass, batch-driven education;
  • Transform teachers into coaches;
  • Life-long learning with work happening earlier in life;
  • Depth of study in college rather than attending famous ‘brand name’ universities.

Stepping back and zeroing-in on Seth’s education reform agenda, it becomes clear that most if not all of these reforms embrace what is known as “21st century learning” and are prime examples of “romantic progressivism.” Furthermore, it is mostly technology-driven and bound to undermine the remaining autonomy and disciplinary expertise of teachers.

SethGodinPictogramA more recent July 2019 Seth Godin post, “Pivoting the education matrix,” reaffirms his  well-known ‘meta-model” and reform agenda. Schools and classes, Godin continues to insist, “do not teach what they say they teach” and still focus on inculcating “obedience through comportment and regurgitation.” That would seem to imply that most student-centred methodologies featured in PD sessions and model constructivist practices posted on Edutopia are either just for show or figments of the imagination.

His proposed menu of skills is rather odd, like a grab-bag of ill-defined options. Most surprising of all, Godin utterly fails to draw a distinction between the proposed curricular skills (cooperation, problem-solving, mindfulness, creativity and analysis) and the implicit or hidden curriculum (management and obedience). Buried in the curious mix is one nuanced, evidence-based idea: “teaching domain knowledge in conjunction with the skill, not the other way around.” 

TED Talkers like Seth Godin are quickly becoming passe and facing increasing challenges from educators far better versed in school settings, evidence-based research, and what actually works in the classroom. His view of the contemporary school system, in my view, is a rather crude caricature and his reform proposals come off as amazingly facile. His regular Blog posts likely do provide fodder for career-building administrators and needed sustenance to those pursuing the latest educational fads.

What explains the success of Seth Godin and Seth’s Blog in the educational space? Does his simple caricature of the school system appeal to those looking for a neat, clean and uncomplicated picture? Where exactly do teachers as professionals with disciplinary knowledge fit in Seth’s ideal school? Where’s the research in cognitive science to support any of his claims about the process of student learning?  

 

A sixteen-year-old Nova Scotia high school student, Emma Stevens, has taken flight with her Mi’kmaw language version of the Beatles classic, Blackbird. It’s beginning to look like a real-life recreation of A Star is Born. Since the first performance was posted on You Tube on April 25, the beautiful and haunting cover of Paul McCartney’s song has been seen or heard more than one million times. She has performed at a UN Indigenous Peoples conference in Nairobi, Kenya, and McCartney has sung her praises.  An editorial in The Chronicle Herald urged all Nova Scotians to log in and catch her performing the song.

Surveying the initial world-wide media coverage, there was little or no acknowledgement or recognition that Emma’s talent was nurtured and developed in a Mi’kmaw school in Nova Scotia’s Eskasoni First Nation. Only now are we beginning to see that a student performing in her native language with full musical accompaniment did not happen overnight. Her band music teacher, Carter Chiasson, was an inspiration and supported her at every stage and the video was shot by Grade 12 Multimedia course students.

Without diminishing Emma’s amazing achievement, it was also made possible by the teaching, mentoring and support she found at Allison Bernard Memorial High School, the jewel in the autonomous, Indigenous-run, Mi`kmaw Kina`matnewey (MK) network of schools. She is, after all, the product of a Mi’kmaw language music program in a school outside the public school system in Nova Scotia.

Her breakout success is, in many ways, another example of recent achievements that have catapulted Nova Scotia’s First Nations to the forefront in the national movement for Indigenous control over education. It’s been forty years since the first Mi’kmaw- English bilingual education program was established at Potolek, known then as Chapel Island, and twenty-three years since the formation of the MK, a First Nation education authority managed by the Mi`kmaq and funded by the federal Department of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs.

Emma’s high school is one of the better-known MK schools, operating in twelve of the province`s 13 Mi`kmaw communities, and enrolling some 3,000 students province-wide. Mi’kmaw schools like Allison Bernard Memorial High School have significantly raised graduation rates for First Nations students. While the proportion of Canadian on-reserve adults under 25 with a high school diploma barely rose (from 25 to 30 per cent) from 1996 to 2006, Atlantic Canada bucked that trend, rising from 55 per cent to 65 per cent. By 2016-17, some 89.6 per cent of Grade 12 students in MK schools completed their graduation year.

Mi’kmaw band schools reported graduation rates tend to be inflated because they are based upon Grade 12 completion rates rather than the proportion of students entering grade 9 or 10 who secure a high school diploma. Even so, the rise in academic attainment levels is real and a clear sign of the enormous potential of First Nations-run community schools to change students’ educational outcomes and life chances.

The recent success of Mi’kmaw schools has not gone unnoticed. Former Toronto Globe and Mail Education reporter Jennifer Lewington looked closely at the Mi’kmaw model and observed in a 2012 Education Canada article that Mi’kmaw student success was “winning national attention as a possible model for First Nation self-governance in education.”

Schools like Emma’s take a more holistic view of learning and achievement and this is reflected in Mi’kmaw arts and music programs. First Nation Elders and scholars espouse a different and broader conception of learning, drawing upon insights from the First Nations Holistic Lifelong Learning Model, advocated by First Nations scholar Marie Battiste.

Teachers, principals, parents, families, and communities are all mentors and nurturing guides responsible for their children’s achievement in all aspects of lifelong learning. One example is the use of the ‘Talking Circle’ to discuss and resolve issues, respecting that tradition in Mi’kmaw culture and spirituality.

Emma’s school lies at the heart of Eskasoni First Nation and its annual high school graduation ceremonies are community-wide celebrations. School leaders like Principal Newell Johnson and Language and Culture consultant Katani Julian take great pride in their remarkable recent progress in delivering language immersion and other culturally-based programs and activities.

The success rate of schools like Allison Bernard Memorial High School impressed Scott Haldane, chair of a 2012 federal First Nations governance review panel, and he trumpeted the benefits of this First Nations-run model for students in his final report. It was also a key factor in the March 2019 renewal of the MK funding agreement for 10 years, representing an investment of $600 million going forward.

Students at Allison Bernard High School are far are more engaged because of pedagogy and curriculum more attuned to Mi’kmaw traditions. Emma’s breakout hit could well be a further breakthrough for Nova Scotia’s Mi’kmaw schools.

(An earlier version of this post appeared in The Chronicle Herald, 13 July 2019).

What can we learn from the overnight success of a young Mi’kmaw songbird?  What was the role of the Mi’kmaw language and music program? Are Indigenous students educated and immersed in their own language and culture more motivated to learn? Is there potential for other Canadian provinces and American states to find similar success? 

A new Quebec secularism law, known as Bill 21 (2019), is now international news as far away as Europe and the Middle East. The prime proponent of the law, Quebec’s Education Minister Jean-François Roberge, achieved infamy in early July 2019 when he tweeted a picture of himself at a summit in France with Malala Yousafzai, the Afghan Nobel Peace Prize winner who was nearly killed by the Taliban for her activism championing education for girls. Asked on Twitter whether Yousafzai could teach in Quebec while wearing her head scarf, M. Roberge said ‘no’ — she’d have to take it off – an assessment later backed-up by Premier Francois Legault.  Anyone who aspires to teach in Quebec, including the world-renowned author and teacher Malala, is forbidden from wearing religious symbols or religious attire in the state schools.

Quebec’s Bill 21 is a prime exhibit which illustrates how Quebec is distinct from the rest of Canada. because it deals with the matter of secularism, laicite  (laicity), or the separation of religion from government.  Over the past two decades, it has emerged and dominated political discourse and produced convulsions affecting recently arrived immigrant families and Anglo-Quebeckers accustomed to periodic surges of Quebec nationalist feeling. The fierce debate has also inflamed passions and aroused Islamophobia, intensely felt by Muslim women and girls in the school system.

The Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) plan to affirm the secular character of the Quebec state is not really new, but a continuation of a project first initiated by a previous Parti Quebecois government. It originated as an off-shoot of the “Charter of Values” unveiled in 2013 by Premier Pauline Marois and the PQ.  On March 27, 2019, in the most recent attempt to legislate a vision of secularism in the province, the CAQ government tabled Bill 21 (2019), “An Act Respecting the Laicity of the State.” The legislation, passed on June 16, 2019, bans public servants in a list of jobs from wearing religious symbols at work. Such restrictions not only apply to schoolteachers and principals, but directly affect students in universities, colleges, and schools planning on seeking future employment in the public sector.

Origins of Quebec Secularism Policy

The recent debate over secularism in Quebec has its roots in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and the War on Terror. An earlier controversy involving a Montreal school board decision to ban a 12-year-old Sikh boy, Gurbaj Singh from wearing his kirpan (ceremonial dagger) to school demonstrated the potential for social disruption. Early in 2007, a small hamlet in the heart of French Quebec, Herouxville, introduced a “code of conduct” for immigrants and brought a simmering “cultural accommodation crisis” to a boil. Talk radio shows, op-ed pages, and kitchen conversations were ignited by very public debates about whether a YMCA on in Montreal’s Mile End should frost its gym windows at the request of a next-door Hasidic synagogue or whether publicly-funded daycares should serve halal meats.

Confronting a raging culture war in January 2007, Quebec’s Liberal government appointed a Consultative Commission on Accommodation Practices Related to Cultural Differences, co-chaired by prominent intellectuals Gérard Bouchard and Charles Taylor. Their May 2008 report waded into the sensitive questions about how immigrants can or should integrate with Quebec society, and how to uphold the ideal of secularism, while accommodating non-conforming religious practices. The Bouchard-Taylor report recommended removing a large crucifix from the Quebec National Assembly, abandoning prayers before municipal council meetings, and barring civil servants in positions of authority — like judges, police officers and prosecutors — from wearing religious symbols at work. It also attempted to draw the line at the school system. Students and teachers, as well as nurses, should be allowed to wear religious attire like the hijab and turban to school.

The CAQ’s Bill 21 goes one step further in reaffirming and enforcing secularism in the public sector. Unlike previous legislation, it stipulates exactly which professions would be restricted from wearing religious symbols, including teachers and principals. It is also more court-proof – because it invokes the notwithstanding clause to protect it from being struck down by courts for violating the Canadian and Quebec charters of rights. While Bill 21 does not target any one religion specifically, Charles Taylor has expressed grave reservations about its potential impact on visible religious minorities. In his April 2019 testimony during QNA hearings on the bill, he reversed his previous position. Since the horrific late January 2017 Quebec Islamic Cultural Centre mass shooting, he claims any change must be considered in the context of a society “full of Islamophobia.” 

Impact of Quebec’s Bill 21 on Society and Education

Noisy public debates over Bill 21 and mass protests by teachers, students and affected public officials have failed to alter Quebec public opinion. , According to a May 2019 public opinion poll, a majority of Quebeckers, (63 per cent) favoured the measure restricting religious symbols, and of that cohort, 88 per cent showed signs of anti- Islamic sentiment. The only age group that broke with the trend was youth, aged 18 to 25, consisting mostly of university/college students and recent graduates.

Passage of Bill 21 made Quebec the first jurisdiction in North America to enact legislation enforcing a religion-free dress code. Quebec’s largest school board, the Commission scolaire de Montreal, lined up with the Quebec English school boards in refusing to implement Bill 21 without consultation or modification. Most of the urban metropolitan boards serve diverse populations, including Muslim, Jewish, and Hindu students.

The Quebec government of Premier Legault sees this law as the next stage in the evolution of the modern Quebec state, exemplified in the state school system. It is also a clear demonstration of the profound influence of the French intellectual culture, privileging collective rights over individual rights and liberties.   Severing religion from the state is, in many ways, like defending the republic. Any sign or kind of encroachment on larcity/secularism, including the presence of religious symbols or the wearing of religious attire, is seen as a threat to the state. Democratic public institutions, from the CAQ and PQ perspective, exist to represent the will of the majority, which, at times, means overriding the interests of minorities.

What is driving the Quebec government’s determined push for secularism in government services, including the schools? Is the Quebec nationalist conception of the neutral state rooted in the French intellectual tradition? Should the protections guaranteed for individual freedom and minority rights enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms ever be overridden?  Where should governments draw the line in imposing state policy on citizens? 

 

 

 

 

 

Talk about the inordinate number of ‘School Storm Days’ in the Maritimes never seems to go away. The current school year, it turned out, reflected the ‘new normal’ in Nova Scotia with between 5 and 14 days lost to storm closures. Yet a fierce public debate continues to flare up, almost like clockwork, every time the Maritime region experiences a run of school day closures disrupting the lives of families, interrupting student learning, and affecting the workplace.

Over the past decade, in spite of all that talk, little has really changed and, in some cases, the problem has actually worsened. That’s the conclusion of my latest research report, “Missing in Action: School Storm Days, Student Absenteeism and the Workplace.”

Almost ten years ago, two policy research papers, James Gunn’s December 2009 Discussion Paper, Storm Days in Nova Scotia, and my April 2010 AIMS research commentary, Schools Out, Again, documented the problem and demonstrated that Nova Scotia and the Maritimes were ‘out-of-line’ are when it comes to cancelling school for all sorts of reasons, mainly but not exclusively related to adverse weather conditions

Instructional time lost through storm day cancellations is a serious problem adversely affecting student learning when over two weeks of school are lost through school day cancellations.  Since the previous record setting year, 2008-09, Nova Scotia schools outside of Halifax regularly exceed that threshold, averaging over 10 days lost per year, almost double that recorded during the previous decade.

Storm day closures and student absenteeism are intertwined and need to be considered pieces of the puzzle. Leading researcher Dave E. Marcotte and his University of Maryland research collaborators documented the detrimental effect of weather-related school closures on math and reading results in Maryland elementary schools. Follow-up studies reached the same conclusion in Colorado and Minnesota.

Based upon research from 2003 to 2010 in Massachusetts, where school storm days average three to five a year, Joshua Goodman of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government found that planned disruptions like school day cancellations have less impact than the disruptive effects of student absences during periods of heavy snowfall. It is the only study to have reached that conclusion.

Organizing students to ensure effective instruction is difficult when large numbers of students are missing because of inclement weather. Forecasted rates of student absenteeism do need to be taken into consideration. Having said that, repeated and multiple school day cancellations such as those in Nova Scotia have a cumulative impact, especially on weaker students who can least afford missing whole days of school.

Student absenteeism also contributes to the achievement gap affecting students from disadvantaged households. One 2015 study of the impact of student absences in North Carolina primary schools provides ample evidence of the impact. “While absenteeism was not found to be a large factor overall, it did have a serious adverse impact upon struggling students lowering test scores by between 5 and 10 per cent.” Missing school days, whatever the reason, only contributes to those inequities.

In the case of Nova Scotia, cancelling school days only compounds the existing problem of chronic student absenteeism, affecting one out of four Grade 1  to 12 students. Some 37 per cent of Middle School and 32 per cent of High School students in 2014-15 missed more than 16 days school because of absenteeism. Losing an average of ten more days to storm days makes matters worse. It is difficult enough for many students to get to school even without the regular interruption of school storm days.

Unplanned school closures announced in the early morning can and do have unintended consequences. Families are left scrambling to rearrange their lives and, where both parents work outside the home, to find safe and reliable day care for younger children. Working parents employed on contract or in the hourly wage service sector can suffer lost pay by missing work and cannot stay home repeatedly, particularly in small enterprises or non-union workplaces.

School closure policies, the report points out, has a ripple effect on the workplace and largely unexamined impacts upon labour productivity.

It’s time to move from talk to corrective action. Our research paper calls upon the province, the teachers’ union, and district administrators to embrace a new province-wide policy with five key elements:

  • a provincial guarantee to students and parents of a minimum number of instructional days (i.e., 180 days of actual instruction) each school year;
  • the establishment of a flexible school year calendar with provision for make-up instructional days, including the substitution for PD Days and the option of adding days at the end of the year;
  • complete the Rural Broadband expansion and introduce e-learning days during periods of severe weather and dangerous roads;
  • a clear policy requiring the provision of student ‘homework bags’ when storms are forecast to bridge the gaps and ensure continuity in learning; and
  • a more comprehensive, detailed study of the disruptive effects of school day interruptions, planned and unplanned, on productivity in the workplace.

An earlier version of this commentary appeared in The Chronicle Herald, June 15, 2019. 

Why are school authorities in Nova Scotia and the Maritimes so inclined to close school at the first sign of snow, freezing rain or blustery wind?  Are those who claim that cancelling school for some two weeks a year doesn’t matter communicating something about the value of current instructional time?  What is the connection between mounting school cancellations and chronic student absenteeism? Who is looking out for local employers and working parents when school is cancelled with that regularity each year?