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The famous German sociologist Max Weber’s conception of the “iron cage” of rationality and bureaucracy has proven not only durable, but applicable to the changing nature of modern bureaucratic education systems. In its original form, it was applied broadly by Weber to explain the tyranny of rationalization in the modern transformation of social life, particularly in Western capitalist societies. The “iron cage,” in his view, trapped individuals in systems purely driven by teleological efficiency, rational calculation, and control. Weber’s most brilliant insight was seeing, into the future, the potential “bureaucratization” of the social order into “the polar night of icy darkness.”

BureaucracyCageThe original German term was stahlhartes Gehäuse and  it morphed into”iron cage,” in 1930 with the appearance of Talcott Parson’s translation of Weber’s classic, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. More recently, sociologists have interpreted the term a little differently as meaning “shell as hard as steel.”  Whatever the precise meaning, its utility in assessing school systems will be readily apparent to anyone attempting to affect change or to promote community-driven initiatives in the modern and post-modern bureaucratic education state.

Weber’s “iron cage” concept is so broad that it almost invites education reformers to pour whatever they want into the theoretical framework. Prominent Canadian education thinkers, most notably George Martell, have appropriated Weber’s concept and applied it in their analysis of schooling in our global capitalist world.  Moving beyond such ideologically-laden conceptions, Martell and his colleague David Clandfield have provided a very thoughtful critique of the school system’s stubborn and persistent resistance since the 1980s to true “community schools.”

In their Summer 2010 Special issue of Our Schools/Our Selves, they see the demand for Community Schools as a manifestation of popular, progressive impulses provided that they “stay true” to their essential democratic principles.  True community schools, operating as genuine two-way community hubs, they argue, can advance “really useful” learning and community development.

That vision has taken root in Nova Scotia over the past three years, incited by Dr. David Clandfield’s advocacy and nurtured by a determined  provincial parent advocacy group, the Nova Scotia Small Schools Initiative. Every step of the way, the Nova Scotia community school advocates have confronted and tangled with the provincial and school board mutations of the “iron cage.”

Three Nova Scotia school communities spent the past two years developing Hub School proposals and recently suffered a calamitous fate.  All three innovative community school development projects were crushed like a bug on June 10 at the Chignecto-Central Regional School Board meeting in Truro, effectively abandoning three more small villages, Maitland, River John and Wentworth. Confronted with a senior staff report recommending “rejection,” the sixteen elected school board members made their fateful choice – management priorities driven by strict bureaucratic rules trumped community interests, once again.

Properly serving children, families and communities does not figure in such calculations. While the new School Review process, adopted in June 2014, is designed to be broader and more community-based, the provincial Hub regulations, written entirely by educrats, conspire against such local innovations. It is, regrettably, just the latest example of the workings and inner dynamics of what is known as the “iron cage” of education.

EdBureaucracyGraphicOf all the public bureaucratic systems, education is perhaps the most puzzling. Provincial authorities and school boards all purport to put “children first,” but do not really operate that way. Advocating actively for your children, fighting for your child’s school or questioning board student services policies is considered being ‘disruptive’ or, even worse, ‘overly emotional.’ Big stakes negotiations with teachers over salaries, class composition, and instructional days are, we are told, also none of our business.

The logic of the iron cage even leads elected board members to accept the bureaucratic mentality. “We only responsible for running schools,” as one Chignecto-Central RSB member stated, “we are not in the business of saving communities.”

Eighteen months ago, Robert Fowler’s February 2014 Nova Scotia School Review report exposed the”iron cage” and attempted to change the whole dynamic by recommending a community-based school planning and development process. If Fowler’s strategic approach had been followed in Truro, one or two of the Hub School proposals would have secured a green light and gone some distance towards winning back damaged public trust in those communities.

Myopic educational thinking is next-to-impossible to stamp out. Closing schools, the Chignecto-Central administration now claims, saves money and preserves teaching jobs. School librarians, we are assured, will survive because schools and villages are abandoned in Maitland, River John and Wentworth. That’s a complete fabrication designed only to counter the political fallout. North American research shows that consolidations rarely save any taxpayer’s money in the long run. The three Hub School groups, in their submissions, not only pointed out the limited immediate savings achieved through those closures, but provided sound and viable plans with some modest revenue generating potential.

Studying how educational bureaucracies function provides a window on what happens and why in the world of state education. Disrupting the status quo would mean confronting these deeply concealed educational realities and busting down the bureaucratic silos – for the sake of children, families and communities.

Does Max Weber’s conception of the “iron cage” still have utility in explaining the impulses and dynamics of educational bureaucracies? Why do true community school initiatives encounter such resistance at all levels of many school systems? What can be learned from the fate of local Community Hub School projects championed by the Nova Scotia Small Schools Initiative? What might work in breaking down the silos and opening the door to more local projects of genuine social enterprise and educational innovation?

Two years ago, Korey Breen’s son, was struggling in elementary school and suffering from three debilitating conditions —fear, anxiety and loss of confidence. The clouds lifted when the Moncton mother of three found an educational lifeline in a tiny, home-like school established to serve kids with severe learning challenges. There he finally felt safe, accepted and at  home. RiverbendAwardDay Finding a place like Riverbend Community School was a godsend, but only the beginning of that struggle to turn her son’s life around. “Raising a child with special needs and severe learning disabilities and no financial support,” she confesses, “has been extremely difficult and takes everything we have.”

Struggling students in Moncton, New Brunswick, have very few options outside the regular mainstream public school system. For elementary students with severe learning challenges and their families, Riverbend Community School is really the only option, and, even then, only viable when you can scrape together the money to pay its hefty $11,500 tuition fees. For hundreds of families this is simply beyond reach.

My latest research report, published by the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS), demonstrates that a gaping hole exists in New Brunswick’s Special Education safety net. Since 2004, that gap has been closed in Nova Scotia with the adopting and expansion of that province’s unique Tuition Support Program, designed to meet the needs of Korey’s son and hundreds of others struggling on the margins of the regular school system.

New Brunswick now has a school providing a beacon of hope that could easily serve as a pilot school for a completely new approach embracing the full continuum of special education support services. Since its inception as a Day School in September 2013, a small but growing number of families are discovering Riverbend, attracted by the passion of its youthful Co-Director, Rebecca Bulmer, and often desperate for a special program specifically designed to respond to their children with such complex needs. “If you have a struggling and confused child in your life,” Bulmer says, “we can help. We can replace fear and anxiety with pride and success” That is also the key message of her recent CBC Moncton Information Morning series called “Learning Outside the Box,” explaining the world of learning disabilities to a new audience.

The Moncton school for high risk students is filling a gaping hole in the system. Struggling students and their parents are finding the Riverbend Community School completely on their own because it flies below the radar and is funded entirely by fee-paying parents. Like most such independent ventures, it exists because of the sheer dedication and commitment of its founders, Rebecca and Jordan Halliday, and Rebecca’s mother, Priscilla Wilson, the retired school teacher who first saw the need and, back in 2008, opened her own Moncton tutoring centre.

Out of that little project emerged today’s Riverbend School, a growing presence with 10 day students and some 40 students enrolled in its after-school tutoring programs in reading and mathematics. All are attracted by the simple commitment to “discover the potential” in each child and to provide “the proper intervention” needed to strengthen their “resilience” and give them back the feeling of success. For many families, it’s a financial struggle to keep the children there.

The Nova Scotia Tuition Support Program (TSP), initiated in September 2004, is providing the bridge for many families without the financial means to pay much in the way of tuition fees. The TSP exists to be that lifeline for severely learning challenged kids who cannot be served at their local public school. It was explicitly intended for short-term purposes and works on the assumption that students can eventually be successfully “transitioned” back into the regular system.

The TSP funding covers most of the tuition costs to attend designated special education private schools (DSEPS) in Nova Scotia. At a cost of $2.5 million a year, it currently serves some 225 students attending three designated schools, in six locations across Nova Scotia.

Since my initial AIMS report, A Provincial Lifeline, three years ago, the TSP has been sustained and further improved in Nova Scotia, but has yet to appear in either New Brunswick or Prince Edward Island. Consistent and reliable support from the Nova Scotia Department of Education and Early Childhood Development has been of great help to families that are in –or near — crisis. Since February 2012, it’s easier to qualify and parents now have more secure support, a blessing for those desperately in need of financial assistance to pay the tuition fees.

Specialized learning disabilities schools like Moncton’s Riverbend deserve that opportunity to be recognized and extending similar tuition support would certainly help broaden accessibility in N.B., a province where an estimated 1,000 children suffer from these challenges. Providing a lifeline for our most vulnerable children and youth simply makes common sense all around for students, families, and the province. It not only helps to reduce potential long-term social and economic costs, but in Nova Scotia is already helping to producing happier families and more productive young citizens.

Why are Special Needs Kids falling between the cracks in New Brunswick’s school system?  What impact has the Nova Scotia Tuition Support Program had on access to specialized support services? What can New Brunswick and PEI learn from Nova Scotia’s TSP experience?  Will the AIMS report provide the nudge needed to close the gaping hole in the NB system?

Schools, parents and students are now clashing more frequently over the issue of regulating student attire. In November of 2014, some 25 young women attending Fredericton High School in New Brunswick walked out of class to protest the school’s dress code, labeling it “sexist,” discriminatory and indicative of a hidden “rape culture.” Since then similar student protests have spread, across Canada and the United States. When warm spring weather encouraged teens to rush the seasons, teachers and principals, bound by school dress codes, began clamping down on students, particularly teen girls, ‘showing off too much skin.’

SchoolUniformsCentralPeelPhoto

Protests against “sexist” school dress codes are raising new issues for North American schools. Teachers and principals disciplining students for wearing “revealing attire” find themselves in the eye of a very public storm. Tech-savvy teens turn to social media with hashtag protests like #MyBodyMyBusiness and #CropTopDay aimed at so-called “sexist rules” that seem to fixate more on girls than boys.

All the publicity has rekindled the old debate over appropriate school attire. It has also prompted some North American public schools to introduce uniforms as a way to address the increasingly controversial matter of making subjective judgements about student dress.  In a few schools such as Central Peel Secondary School in Brampton, Ontario, it led school authorities to institute a one-year pilot project now deemed successful by most students and their parents.

The then principal of Central Peel, Lawrence DeMaeyer, took the plunge with the support of parents and teachers looking to help kids focus more on their schoolwork. After introducing a regular uniform with white or green collared and crested polo shirts, he found “a lot less students dressing inappropriately,” “It raised the bar,” he said, and 9 out of 10 students complied immediately, while only a small percentage spent their time “trying to resist in every way.”  Dealing with uniform infractions was “much more palatable” than the “very difficult” conversations regularly pitting teachers and administrators against mostly female students.

One of the relatively few experts on school dress, Dr. Barbara Cruz, a University of South Florida professor of secondary education, tends to favour uniforms, but provides a reasonably sound assessment of the educational research.  In her book  School Dress Codes: A Pro/Con Issue (2001 and 2004), she notes that most of the case for uniforms is based upon anecdotal evidence. When surveyed, teachers and administrators in uniformed schools are fairly consistent in reporting that students are more focused, better behaved and have higher attendance records and academic achievement. It’s also much easier to spot a stranger at school when everyone is wearing similar clothes.

The empirical evidence to support such claims is harder to find because of the state of the research and the difficulty in isolating “dress” as a factor when many factors can contribute to better student progress and behaviour.

DressCodeLaurenWiggins

Recent protests over “sexist” dress codes may well open the door for more experiments in introducing school uniforms. Supporters of student uniforms, normally the informal crested polo shirt version, say that the issue of sex discrimination is significantly alieviated and, after some initial adjustment, students find ways to express their identities and personalities with jewelry, accessories, and various types of long and short pants and skirts.

One Grade 12 Moncton high school student, Lauren Wiggins, famous for being suspended in her halter-top dress, is now a surprising convert to more consistent student dress codes. After achieving international fame when George Takei, “King of Facebook,” took up her cause, Lauren now advocates clear, consistent, gender-neutral dress guidelines, including — where the community supports the concept– school uniforms. Ending the “sexist” and discriminatory aspects of current policies are the first priority for her and presumably others who fashion themselves young feminists.

Will student dress code controversies remain predictable contests between conformity and individuality? To what extent are existing dress codes being applied more on teen girls than boys?  Are disciplinary actions aimed at curtailing “revealing” attire and reducing “distractions” for boys indicative of a hidden “rape culture”? Would introducing simple, comfortable, gender-neutral uniforms help to address concerns raised by today’s politically-engaged young women?

Few books on the state of Education have created as much of a stir as Daisy Christodoulou’s 2014 treatise, Seven Myths About Education. When It first appeared in July of 2013 as a short, persuasive e-book, British and American educators hailed it as a potential “game-changer” from a British schoolteacher willing to present the accumulating research evidence that challenges the prevailing “progressive education” orthodoxy.

SevenMythsBookCoverDaisyChristodoulou

Since its re-publication in March of 2014, the book has dominated educational discourse everywhere but here in Canada and much of the United States. In the wake of the May 2, 2015 ResearchED New York conference, that’s likely to change. Daisy Christopoulou’s workshop presentation found a new North American audience, including a few Canadians like John Mighton, Robert Craigen, and me.

When Daisy Christodoulou started teaching in September 2007 in a South East London secondary school she was immediately struck by how little her students actually knew.. In one class of 15 and 16-year-olds, she discovered children who “were barely literate and numerate” grappling with books written for eight and nine-year-olds. “Many of the pupils I taught could not place London, their home city, on a map of Britain. Plenty thought Africa was a country,” she says.

Widely regarded as “Britain’s brightest student” before entering teaching, Daisy set out to find out why students’ content knowledge had slipped so dramatically in state schools. Her research only confirmed that her experiences weren’t atypical. She stumbled upon Susan Jacoby’s 2008 book, The Age of American Unreason, which reached similar conclusions about the appalling level of students’ understanding about the core principles and foundations of the American democratic system.

Little in her British teacher’s college training prepared her for this discovery and, only when she began to look wider afield, did she discover the research and writings of two American authorities, E.D. Hirsch Jr. and Daniel T. Willingham. “It was a great relief to read Hirsch and Willingham,” she now recalls, “and to realize that the intuitions I’d had about the importance of knowledge were backed up by solid evidence. But it was also extremely frustrating, because I just couldn’t believe that all this vitally important evidence about how pupils learn hadn’t been taught to me when I was training to be a teacher.”

Then Daisy Christodoulou began to connect all the dots. “Much of what teachers are taught about education is wrong… I was not just shocked, I was angry. I felt as though I had been misled.”  She then added: “I had been working furiously for 3 years, teaching hundreds of lessons, and much information that would have made my life a whole lot easier and would have helped my pupils immeasurably had just never been introduced to me. Worse, ideas that had absolutely no evidence backing them up had been presented to me as unquestionable axioms.”

Awakened to that realization, Christodoulou proceeded to identify what she terms “Seven Myths About Education”:

1. Facts prevent understanding
2. Teacher-led instruction is passive
3. The 21st century fundamentally changes everything
4. You can always just look it up
5. We should teach transferable skills
6. Projects and activities are the best way to learn
7. Teaching knowledge is indoctrination

Her book not only identifies, but documents, why these beliefs fly in the face of social-science research and the latest discoveries in cognitive psychology.

Much of the book exposes the ideological bias that informs far too much of what passes for educational discourse. “Too often, people think that teaching knowledge is somehow right wing and elitist,” Christodoulou wrote in the AFT magazine, American Educator.  “But this isn’t the case. The kind of powerful knowledge that’s in the Core Knowledge curriculum in the United States doesn’t “belong” to any class or culture. The great breakthroughs of civilization were made by a whole range of people from different classes and cultures, and if they belong to anyone, they belong to humanity. Teaching these insights to children isn’t elitist—not teaching them is!”

Christodoulou is particularly critical of British and American school systems for educating students who “lack knowledge of important fundamentals.”  The education establishment, according to her, downplays the importance of knowledge. “There is general academic underachievement despite a multiplicity of reform efforts and relatively generous funding. Attention is paid to school structures over classroom practice.”

The British teacher-turned-author is difficult to label and discredit because of the soundness of her thinking and her impeccable research. Nor is she inclined to defend standardized student testing. ” The high-stakes, test-based accountability systems in both countries,” she says,” have, by and large, failed….when I advocate teaching knowledge, people assume I’m advocating high-stakes tests. That isn’t at all the case. In fact, I’d argue that a lot of the damaging test preparation we see in both systems is the result of the misconception that skills can be developed in the abstract.”

Christodoulou’s Seven Myths about Education is already one of the most talked-about books in British education over the past 20 years. A London Sunday Times book reviewer got it right in August 2013 when he commented that she had unleashed “a heat-seeking missile” at “the heart of the educational establishment” and her recent researchED Conference presentations have only enhanced her credibility among regular classroom teachers.

The book demonstrates the persuasive power of sound ideas and research-based approaches to education. “More and more teachers are realising the gap between the theory they are taught and their practical experience,” Christodoulou commented in The Spectator. “More and more books are being published which explain the insights of cognitive science and the implications they have for classroom teachers. Instead of the warmed-through fads of the past century, I think the next few years will see evidence-based reforms that lead to genuine educational improvements.”

That realization is what fuels the latest rising phoenix – the British teacher-led ResearchED movement.

What explains the dominance of certain persistent “mythologies” in the world of contemporary education?  How accurate was Daisy Christodoulou’s “heat-seeking missile”? Is there a danger in restoring “content knowledge,” that pedagocial approaches other than teacher-guided instruction will be similarly discarded or devalued? What can be done to transform teaching into the art and science of combining style with substance in today’s classrooms?

The Inverness Community Leadership Centre in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, is edging closer to realization. A former coal mine office is about to be transformed through a $2 million renovation into Nova Scotia’s first “children’s zone” development initially housing two innovative local ventures, the Early Years Co-op and the Inverness Cottage Workshop for intellectually disabled adults, with plans to add an entrepreneurship centre. In it’s conception, the little venture is actually inspired more by American than Canadian precedents.

InvernessCentreVision

Campaigning to eradicate child poverty and promoting universal social support programs remain the well-worn Canadian policy approaches to “closing the income gap.” Community reconstruction in Inverness is markedly different because it begins and ends with children, youth and families. Much like glittery American ventures such as Harlem Children’s Zone and Promise Neighborhoods, it taps into the enormous, largely underutilized potential of community-based, child-centred alternatives.

The ambitious project in Inverness, a struggling Cape Breton town of 2,000 souls, is anything but an overnight success. It’s clearly the brainchild of a true visionary, Jim Mustard, a messianic Town Councillor with Early Child Development in his DNA. He is, after all, the son of the late Dr. Fraser Mustard, the world renowned McMaster University pediatrician famous for promoting maternal health and early childhood education.

Mustard was at his passionate best at the March 2015 Dalhousie Shift Rural Symposium. “We need to embrace children from birth,” he said, “and if we don’t provide Early Years programs now, there will be problems down the road. If we make our children the North Star, then we’ll stay on track.”

An Early Years Co- Op was only the first step for Mustard. He’s out to rebuild an entire community. “The idea is to generate a sense of community. It needs to feel like a kitchen table gathering with people just hanging out,” he remarked in December 2013. ”When you think of the expertise that will appear in an informal setting it will trump all the rest of it.”

Early learning is gradually advancing in Nova Scotia, by baby steps, and it is vital to the longer-term social regeneration agenda. Since the 2012 Canadian Pediatrics Society (CPS) report, the province has come onside. For every dollar spent on the early childhood years, governments now see a $4 to $6 return to society in terms of more productive youth and reduced expenditures for juvenile justice, jails and social assistance.

Child and family poverty remains a stark reality in Nova Scotia, especially outside of Halifax. Since 2000, the target year for the eradication of child poverty, Dr. Lesley Frank of Acadia University reports that the child poverty rate (22.2%) has barely budged, in spite of modest increases in the minimum wage and child support programs.

Children, youth and families in lower income homes bore the brunt of the brutal 2008-10 economic recession. One in 3 children (32.6%) in Cape Breton are living in poverty, compared to 24.4% in Kentville, 24.3% in New Glasgow, 21.8% in Truro, and 18.6% in Halifax. While child poverty statistics are hard to find in Yarmouth,  there’s a steady demand for shelter at SHYFT Youth Services, responding to the needs of homeless youth.

Most of the remedial measures bandied about — legislating a living wage, introducing the Guaranteed Basic Income, or province-wade subsidized child care — are well known. Most often they are proposed by Canadian child welfare activists committed to restoring the diminished and porous social safety net.

Establishing children’s zones and embarking upon social reconstruction street-by-street are still new and mysterious here in Nova Scotia and in other regions of Canada. One notable exception is the Toronto District School Board, where, since 2009, the TDSB’s Inner City Advisory Committee has assessed and ranked its neediest or “priority” school communities. That Learning Opportunities Index (LOI) identified some 77 school neighbourhoods where “children from lower income families” face “significant barriers” to ” achieving high educational outcomes.”

The Toronto LOI project is a promising first step, openly acknowledging that not all public school communities are equal. It can also be an extremely valuable indicator of where a school system needs to target its educational resources. The Toronto board, however, is less clear in how the LOI is actually being used. Beyond reporting in 2014 that LOI is utilized to “help allocate staff and other resources” it’s hard to identify visible, targeted programmatic initiatives.

Looking south to the United States, the initial glow surrounding Geoffrey Canada’s signature project, the Harlem Children’s Zone, has faded as time and student results tone down the somewhat unrealistic transformative expectations. While Canada’s project falls short of being “The Harlem Miracle,” it has produced measurable gains for kids living in one of North America’s most disadvantaged urban districts.

Now that Geoffrey Canada has stepped down as CEO of Harlem Chidren’s Zone (HCZ), more objective assessments of its success are appearing. Although they focus on HCZ, the appraisals may well apply to the replica projects supported by President Barack Obama in 20 different cities across the United States. Already, it is clear that allocating $60 million to the Promise Neighborhood projects in cities like Los Angeles, Boston, and Washington, will be insufficient to duplicate HCZ that required over $200 million to make a dent in schools serving 8,000 children and 6,000 adults across 97 blocks of Harlem.

HCZGeoffreyCanada

Critics of Geoffrey Canada and his HCZ tend to miss the whole point of his massive social reconstruction project. Through his work with HCZ’s precursor, Rheedlen Centres for Children and Families, Canada learned that child and family poverty was not amenable to eradication when projects focused on only one dimension of the problem. Establishing charter schools alone would not work without addressing the underlying social determinants of chronic student underperformance: early childhood development, housing, and health care.  His ambitious initiative, as MIT neuroscientist John Gabrieli recently noted, demonstrated how “ambitious community programs…. paired with aggressive school reform efforts” offer the best hope to “close the achievement gap” and revitalize whole communities.

American Children’s Zones, it turns out, have rather surprisingly much in common with Jim Mustard’s Inverness Community project. It too is a community-based social reconstruction venture that has the potential to change that dynamic. What Geoffrey Canada undertook in Harlem, is just the Inverness project on a gigantic scale. One look at that little Cape Breton project is enough to awaken anyone ready to think “outside the box” about the potential for child-centred models of community re-development.

What’s the real purpose of Children’s Zones in both inner city neighbourhoods and small communities? Does child-centred community redevelopment still have the potential to break the cycle of child and family poverty? If so, what’s standing in the way of its realization?

Guided parent engagement has become, like apple pie and motherhood, almost sacrosanct in publicly-funded education. School systems across North America now have an established apparatus to sanction ‘approved’ parent organizations and many employ senior staff to guide and mentor school-level parent advisory councils. Promoting “parent involvement” to overcome administrative roadblocks and systemic problems has become a business in and of itself, especially in more affluent provinces like Ontario and British Columbia.

EdWeekLogo2015Surveying Canadian provincial systems, you will discover that official parent organizations promoting increased “investment” in public education are themselves beneficiaries of provincial education funding. A few groups, like Ontario-based People for Education enjoy exalted status, called upon to provide “parent opinion” on every issue from student testing to child poverty and sex education to First Nations schooling. Groups seeking significant reform or challenging the status quo like the Society for Quality Education or WISE Math get nothing but crumbs as a reward for their independence. In public education, it’s all too often about rewarding the “friendlies” and marginalizing groups that are seeking deeper and more systemic changes.

Leading parent voices like Annie Kidder and a host of provincial Parent Teacher Federation presidents claim to have moved “Beyond the Bake Sale,” but their organizations spend most of their time lobbying for funding and promoting the latest provincial education panacea for what ails the system. In Ontario since 2006, the Ministry of Education has awarded more that $24 million to fund 15,000 Parents Reaching Out (PRO) grants to local school councils and 568 regional grants — all aimed at increasing “parent involvement” in schools. What’s been the impact? At the school level, the vast majority of parent councils still busy themselves raising money for class supplies, sponsoring multicultural festivals, and even running “cupcake” parties for the kids.

Ontario’s PRO grants were initially tied to the Dalton McGuinty Liberal Government’s “Poverty Reduction Initiative” and presented as a way of addressing social inequalities facing identified “priority” school neighbourhoods. By the Fall of 2014, the Ministry’s Ottawa Field Services Branch  was putting a positive spin on the increased participation of school councils in socially-disadvantaged communities. Since 2006, after awarding thousands of grants across the province, the Ministry reported that applications from priority schools were up 300 % and approvals up 450%. That bears further investigation.

Poverty reduction has all but disappeared from the public announcements about PRO grants.  In early March 2015, Education Minister Liz Sandals was singing a different tune: “When parents are active in their children’s education, student well-being and achievement are improved — especially in challenging areas like math. This helps students reach their full potential and better prepares them for a bright future.”

A Ministry media release (March 3, 2015), announcing the Parents Reaching Out grants for 2015-16 claimed that they were now designed to fund  “a wide range of initiatives that help parents become more involved in their child’s education.” The posted “success stories” reported on grants to reduce language barriers, celebrate diversity, conduct parenting sessions, alert parents to cyberbullying, foster community connections, and assist parents with homework. None of the cited examples related directly to reducing educational inequalities or child and family poverty.

From its inception, the Ontario PRO grant program was also presented as a provincial initiative lauded in a 2010 McKinsey & Company report analyzing high achieving school systems around the world. The Ministry spin on that report is far more positive than the actual report.  That global school system review,  introduced, incidently, with a Forward by Ontario’s own Dr. Michael Fullan, makes only a fleeting reference (p. 101) to Ontario’s PRO-grant driven “parent involvement” program. The American Aspire charter school model earns far more praise.

The McKinsey global school system reports issued in 2007 and 2010 considered holy grail in Ontario are now mostly repudiated elsewhere.  Most of that “independent report” anoints Ontario schools as “among the best in the world”and actually attributes it to the “tenure of strategic leaders,” specifically Fullan and his former OISE colleague Ben Levin  as well as Premier McGuinty and then Education Minister Kathleen Wynne. Most of the authoritative critiques, summarized in January 2012 by University of London professor Frank Coffield, dispute such success claims based upon “implausible” declaratory statements with a “thin evidence base.”

Spending $24 million spread out over thousands of school councils is unlikely to make much of a difference in closing the social inequality gap between school communities. In a TV Ontario program, aired in September 22, 2014 and hosted by Steve Paikin of The Agenda, four leading Ontario anti-poverty activists reviewed the progress made in eradicating poverty since 2000. Coordinator of Freedom 90, Yvonne Kelly, showed her impatience with the “broad-based prevention framework” which “doesn’t help those already marginalized.” That’s a neat summary of what went wrong with the PRO grants as an “anti-poverty” initiative.

Promoting parent engagement, it turns out, is not really about addressing inequality in Ontario’s schools. The Toronto District School Board’s Learning Opportunities Index (LOI) for 2014 reveals that the “gap” is as wide as ever.  Funding parent groups is simply not properly aligned with the overall strategy.  Giving parent councils PRO grants to expand their diversity of membership and activities has clearly taken precedence over reducing educational inequality. Indeed, the one program that might have made a difference, the Learning Opportunities Grant (LOG) was substantially cut in 2006 when PRO grants were introduced by the McGuinty Government.

Who’s promoting Parent Engagement — and for what purpose?  What does Ontario have to show for spending $24 million since 2006 on shoring-up friendly parent advisory councils? Whatever happened to that initial rationale for the PRO grants — closing the gap for schools in the 133 “priority neighbourhoods”?

Two Canadian provinces, New Brunswick and Ontario, are on the front lines in the ongoing battle over school closures, mostly concentrated in small rural communities. With school consolidation on pause in Nova Scotia the wake of the 2013 School Closure Moratorium, it has returned with a vengeance in both N.B. and Ontario. The renewed threat in New Brunswick has now sparked a feisty province-wide Rural Schools Coalition.

RiversideConsolidatedNB1905DCIM110GOPRO

A dozen small New Brunswick communities are currently in a state of upheaval with local schools facing possible closure, sparking growing popular resistance from Dorchester to Pennfield and north to Dalhousie, affecting Anglophone and Acadian communities alike. In Ontario, Education Minister Liz Sandals has not only identified some 600 schools as “half full” and ripe for review, but now introduced legislative changes to “speed-up” that province’s “School Accommodation Review” process.

Armed with the dreaded New Brunswick Policy 409, and aided by that province’s District Education Councils (DECs), the Education Department is imposing an arbitrary, cost-driven “school sustainability” process upon supporters of the threatened schools. It looks, sounds, and feels distinctly like a runaway “Express Train 409” bearing down on their rural communities. After blowing through the first dozen, forty-two more schools, 27 anglophone and 15 francophone, are next in line.

Ontario’s new School Review process, unveiled in late March 2015, reflects the so-called “speed-up” agenda. Faced with a deficit reduction challenge, Minister Sandals has enacted changes shortening the timelines from seven months to five, cutting the number of public consultation meeting from 4 to 2, and limiting the criteria to “impact on student achievement.” Eliminating the criterion “value to the community” has upset municipal mayors and re-ignited the Community School Alliance, led by London-Middlesex small school advocate, Doug Reycraft. 

Hundreds of Save Our School Signs have appeared all over rural N.B. and the whole exercise threatens to kill the “community spirit” that still animates much of rural New Brunswick. In the case of two Anglophone East School District communities, Dorchester and Riverside-Albert, local public school supporters were given less than two months to a react to weighty facilities cost reports and documents stacking the deck in favour of closure.

The New Brunswick School Closure process is not only top-down and draconian, but also completely at odds with best policy and practice elsewhere. Compared with School Review for closure rules in Ontario and Nova Scotia, for example, the current practice violates every principle of fairness, legitimacy, and civic engagement.

“Procedural fairness” is so narrowly circumscribed under N.B. Policy 409 that it amounts to little more than a commitment to carry out prescribed, pre-scheduled public hearings designed simply to validate the closure recommendation. It’s top-down decision making in the extreme, driven entirely by the provincial government’s cost reduction targets and based upon the unproven assumption that moving students to bigger schools is more cost-effective.

Estimated cost savings accruing from closure, in the case of both the Dorchester and Riverside schools, running to $1.8 million, are grossly inflated, based upon projected staff reductions and compounded costs accumulated after years of deferred maintenance. Additional busing costs, at $50,000 per vehicle annually, are not acknowledged and community school cost reduction plans are simply not being considered.

Schools listed for closure are excluded completely from the information gathering process and presented with “infrastructure planning” reports that put facilities ahead of students, parents and communities. Under the policy, closure proceedings can be sprung on schools at any time, with insufficient time to formulate a response let alone generate viable, community-based alternatives.

The standard model of School Accommodation Reviews, utilized in Ontario gives school communities ample time (5 to 7 months), builds-in more school-level engagement, and provides for a provincial mediator. It’s far from perfect, but respects the right of aggrieved communities to proper representation and legitimate opportunities to be heard before school boards make their final decision. No school would ever be closed on the tight timeline currently being implemented in N.B.

Just across the border, in Nova Scotia, the whole School Review process is radically different and aimed at achieving cost efficiencies through a brand new school-centred community planning model, supporting the gradual re-purposing of school buildings. Schools are viewed as community assets and not simply liabilities to be abandoned and off-loaded to local towns and villages.

Under the newly established October 2014 N.S. model, school boards are required to engage municipalities, school communities, local groups and business organizations in a Long Range Planning process. Schools with declining enrollments are encouraged to develop Community Hub plans aimed at re-purposing surplus school space and generating revenue to assist in ongoing operational and maintenance costs. Once the initial spadework has been done, the School Review process goes forward guided by a “School Options Committee” mandated to find local solutions. Only when such efforts flounder, do the schools close.

New Brunswick’s School Closure policy was already grossly unfair, and Education Minister Serge Rousselle has just made it even worse. His latest revisions, announced in mid-stream, adding two “triggers” for closure – under 100 students or 30 per cent or less occupancy — merely confirm the suspicions of rural New Brunswickers. Appropriating the concept of a “trigger” mechanism, borrowed from the world of firearms, may have been a Freudian slip. If Express Train 409 does not run you over, then the DECs can pull the trigger to kill the vitality and resilience of rural communities, leaving them school-less and eventually childless.

New Brunswick can do much better — and Ontario should know better than to deny the critical role schools play in smaller communities. It’s time to re-think the current move to “Hurry Up” school closure process, to take stock of what happened in Nova Scotia, and to build local communities into a more school-centred rural revitalization process.

What’s “fair” about imposing School Consolidation and springing closures on struggling rural communities? What’s driving the “speed-up” in provincial School Review process time-frames for closure?  Where’s the hard evidence to support the purported cost savings and operational efficiencies? An how can such bitter, divisive and arbitrary public processes be transformed into community-building, cost-efficiency-generating  exercises?

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