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Progressive education and its principal banner-bearer John Dewey remain popular in Canadian and American faculties of education and within the teaching profession, particularly among elementary school teachers. Educational theories based upon Dewey’s voluminous writings still hold great appeal among a wide swath of professors within education schools, encompassing educational psychologists and teacher educators. Citing Dewey in your work is common; less common is delving into the intellectual underpinnings and tenets of Deweyism.  While the Philosophy of Education is withering as a field, Dewey scholarship remains a bright spot and a gathering place for the so-called “romantics.”

A recent analysis of John Dewey and the state of educational philosophy dared to suggest that the father of modern progressivism may be “doomed to fade” in the galaxy. The short 2019 essay, authored by Dewey scholar David I Waddington, Professor of Educational Philosophy at Concordia University, posited that the “romance” showed signs of coming to an end.  That decline and ultimate fall, he forecast with a twinge of sadness, was foreshadowed by the decomposition of “modernity” and the “accelerating failure of the progressive movement’s social project.” The progressive movement’s current difficulties, he concluded, did not bode well for the future of Dewey scholarship in education schools and, by extension, research-informed practice in the schools.

Education schools carry the burden of a reputation for occupying a “low academic status” in the university. In the course of explaining that lowly status David Larabee (The Trouble with Ed Schools, 2006), attributed it in large part to the tendency of American schools of education to embrace Dewey’s progressivism with something approaching a religious fervour. He claimed that education schools exemplified a “romance with progressivism” forged in the early 20th century as teacher education moved decisively towards a strong professional training orientation. On the teaching side, this tied-in with preparing teachers for the classroom; on the research side, it was exemplified in the focus on developing new testing systems and building the bureaucratic administrative structure of the modern school system. Faculties of education became, in Waddington’s words, “handmaidens to the public school system” absorbed in training teachers and administrators, and later, higher-level consultants.

John Dewey’s progressivism filled a vacuum by providing a serviceable educational philosophy.  Few teacher educators gravitated to educational philosophy and most were satisfied with a general understanding of Dewey’s theories. A significant number of education professors, then as now, were deeply committed to “social justice education” and found in Dewey an aspirational philosophy that accorded with their own commitment to the “liberal reform project” of schooling.

Most education professors were pragmatic educators with surprisingly little interest or passion for matters of theory, cognitive science or discipline-based curriculum. Teacher educators had some control over classroom practice, so this became their primary focus, and curriculum was ceded to the policy branches of education departments. Dewey’s writings fit the orientation because they focused on how to teach rather than what to teach. Studies conducted from 1993 to 2006 revealed that alarming numbers of education professors were poorly read and, in some cases, unable to cite a single book or author in their field.

Schools of education needed all the credibility they could muster and they found that salvation in Dewey, widely regarded as one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century.  Many with a narrow focus on teacher preparation, psychology, or technical education latched onto Dewey and claimed him for what Waddington aptly describes as the “sad-sack home team.”

While the ghost of John Dewey still haunts teacher training schools, his influence is definitely on the wane.  The American education philosopher still has a hard core of camp followers, but his ideas embodied “the modern project” of reconstructing society through the reform of public institutions is in disrepute in the academy. “We are living amidst the wreckage of the modern project,” according to Waddington, and the “grand modern Deweyan metanarrative of education as the liberator of humanity now rings increasingly false.” Supporting modernity and the renewal of the liberal state is, after all, incompatible with “critical social justice scholarship” leaving Deweyites on a lonely academic perch.

Prominent critics of education schools are now piling-on with fresh evidence that those institutions are disconnected in other ways. Manitoba teacher and education policy analyst Michael Zwaagstra claims that most education faculties remain wedded to Deweyism and resistant to change.  “Education schools continue to downplay subject-specific knowledge and promote many of the same fads, albeit under new names,” he points out. “Today’s education students are fed useless platitudes such as the need to be a ‘guide on the side rather than a sage on the stage.'” 

Zwaagstra’s critique has a familiar ring:  “Instead of empowering future teachers with the confidence they need to effectively manage their classrooms, education professors promote theories that have little practical use in actual classrooms with real students.” Teacher candidates give high marks to classroom teachers in their practicum sessions, but  ‘one of the most common sentiments expressed by classroom teachers is that their education classes taught them little about how to teach.”

Hopeful signs are appearing as some practicing teachers have begun to take matters into their own hands. Zwaagstra and a growing band of researchED supporters draw hope and strength from the British teacher research movement founded in 2013 by Tom Bennett and slowly spreading (teacher-to-teacher) throughout Canada and the United States. In sharp contrast to education school approaches and education guru-led school change, researchED is “entirely teacher-directed and gives teachers an opportunity to directly engage with the research literature.” Freed-up from the ideological conformity expected by modern day Deweyites, teacher presenters come from a variety of perspectives and disciplines and teachers are left to make up their own minds regarding what they hear.

Why does John Dewey and his brand of progressivism still pervade so many faculties of education?  Will Deweyism survive the decline and fall of modernity and be exhumed from ‘the wreckage of the modern project’?  Where do today’s teacher training programs fall short?  Does the emergence of researchED in North America provide a glimmer of hope?  

 

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An April 2019 study, Academic Skill Deficiencies in four Ontario universities, has sent shock waves through the Canadian K-12 school system.  That study, spearheaded by two leading sociologists, York University’s J. Paul Grayson and Western University’s James Cote, has shone fresh light on a previously identified problem — growing evidence that secondary schools feeding universities are falling well short in addressing students’ skills deficiencies. What’s most surprising is that, over the past 15-years, dramatically rising graduation rates have not translated into improvements in students’ academic skills.

First year university and college professors have long complained about the quality of students entering their institutions.  This study, conducted at four Ontario universitiesYork, Western, Waterloo and Toronto, which together enrol 41 per cent of Ontario undergraduates — confirms much of the accumulated evidence. The researchers found that “only about 44 per cent of students felt they had the generic skills needed to do well in their academic studies, 41 per cent could be classified as at risk in academic settings because of limited levels of basic skills, and 16 per cent lacked almost all the skills needed for higher learning.”

This study was borne out of the sheer frustration experienced by Grayson and his York University colleague Robert Kenedy in trying to teach undergraduate Social Science students at York University. Their bias was clear – far too many appeared mostly unprepared for the demands of higher education, particularly in critical thinking, academic research and competent writing.  In late 2017 they surveyed 22,000 students from all disciplines and levels of study enrolled in the faculty of Liberal Arts and Professional Studies at York. Their questionnaire posed 50 questions to students of all demographic backgrounds. The key skill questions focused on writing ability, test-taking, analysis, time and group management, research, giving presentations and elemental numeracy. A year later, the same survey was performed at the three other universities cited. The results were remarkably consistent in all four universities.

University student reading in classroom

Such research findings shock Ontario educational leadership because they run completely counter to the prevailing assumption that Ontario’s K-12 school system ranks among the best in the world. Academic skill deficiencies of secondary school graduates, all too evident to first year university instructors and employers, too often escape the attention of those overseeing the system and PSE admissions offices looking to fill seats. It’s aptly named – the “big disconnect” –– referring to the growing gap between high school attainment and actual, demonstrable student achievement.

Critics of today’s “graduate everyone” school systems find confirmation in this study of their oft-repeated claim that the secondary-school system is “failing to meet basic pedagogical objectives” and “failing to cull incompetent students.” That is not really new because it was all flagged a decade ago in two academic critiques, co-authored by James Cote,  Ivory Tower Blues (2007) and Lowering Higher Education (2011). Back then, professors expressed grave concerns about students unable to accept criticism or remain engaged and conceded that they had dumbed down their courses and reduced the frequency of tests and assignments. What the most recent study shows is that not much has changed.

Far too many of today’s secondary school graduates are not only unprepared for university studies, but panic-stricken by the academic expectations.  One of Grayson and Kenedy’s students provided a sad example of this latest iteration of the problem: “IM IN FIRST YEAR AND IM DOING SO BAD AND IM SO SCARED BC IM FINDING IT REALLY HARD TO MANAGE MY TIME AND MY ANXIETY HAS GOTTEN SO BAD AND IDK WHAT TO DO AND IM SCARED OF GETTING KICKED OUT AND IM JUST SCARED.”

Two new dimensions have emerged that deserve more serious research and analysis: the radical differences in the quality of among secondary schools and the impact of academic acceleration programs, most notably the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Program. From what we know, university admissions offices now “rate high schools” on a top secret quality index and much prefer graduates applying with transcripts requiring far more rigorous academic courses. Both trends are indicative of a further ‘devaluation’ of the standard provincial graduation diploma.

Today’s students applying to university tend to have significantly inflated grades. That is why some universities do attempt to assess the relative quality of students graduating from various high schools, comparing incoming grades with those at the end of first year. In October 2018, a confidential report prepared for the University of Waterloo Engineering Program was uncovered that documented the existence of an “adjustment factor” used to determine which students were admitted into their top ranked, highly competitive program.

The downward adjustment factors applied to final marks from Ontario high schools averaged 16 percent, ranging from a low of 9.9 per cent (L’Amoreaux Collegiate, Agincourt) to a high of 27.5 per cent (Grimsby SS).  Students graduating from some other provinces fared worse;   New Brunswick applicants saw their marks downgraded by 24.5 per cent, meaning students applying with a 90 per cent average would be credited with only a 65.5 per cent by the University of Waterloo.

The academic skills deficits identified by the April 2019 study do not seem to apply to students applying with IB mark transcripts. Students graduating with the full International Baccalaureate Diploma (IBDP) are the most sought-after by Canadian universities, particularly in highly selective university programs leading to professional studies. In the case of Nova Scotia, IB university applicants now have their grades raised so as not to penalize them in competition with students from regular, non-IB high schools.

Four top Canadian universities, University of Toronto, University of British Columbia, McGill University, and the University of Alberta actively seek students applying with IB graduation transcripts. Students admitted with the IB Diploma do perform better in first year of university. Entry level grades are maintained because IB grades based upon IB external examinations are far more reliable as better predictors of four-year college outcomes.

One authoritative 2014 study, conducted by Andrew Arida for the University of British Columbia, demonstrated that IB admissions candidates possess more highly developed academic skills than those from regular non-IB high schools. They are particularly strong in reading comprehension (+25%), mastering research skills (+ 26%), making presentations ( +25%), clarity and effectiveness in writing ( +20%), and appreciation of racial and ethnic diversity (+13 %). This advantage is sustained to the end of first year university.  Those IB graduates were also more likely to participate in volunteering, join university clubs, and assist by tutoring other students.

Why are such a high proportion of today’s university-bound students in Ontario and elsewhere across Canada showing academic skills deficits?  What’s happened to the value of a secondary school graduation diploma in university, college and presumably the workplace? Why do provincial ministries, university leaders and school administrators greet reports on academic skills deficits with a deafening silence? Who is monitoring and addressing the identified inequities in levels of secondary school preparedness for higher education? Without academic acceleration programs like the IB, would matters be worse? 

The new world of Artificial Intelligence is upon us and teaching may never be the same.  That’s the upshot of a new report by Sam Sellar and Anna Hogan for Education International focusing on Pearson’s Plan for 2025 and its implications for teachers everywhere.  The two researchers see dangers ahead with the introduction of AI into the teaching domain and warn of the further expansion of private interests, while embracing the need for technology-enhanced learning and implicitly accepting 21st century student-centred teaching pedagogies. 

The world’s largest learning corporation, Pearson International, is pursuing a visionary plan to advance the “next generation ” of teaching and learning by developing cutting-edge digital learning platforms, including Artificial Intelligence in Education (AIEd).  It is now piloting new AI technologies that will, in time, enable “virtual tutors’ to provide “personalized learning” to students, much like Siri or Alexa. The Pearson Plan for 2025 calls for this technology to be integrated into a single platform — Pearson Realize — that has been integrated into Google Classroom. The ultimate goal is to forge direct and lifelong relationships with Pearson product educational users to whom it will provide virtual schooling, professional certifications, assessments, and other services.

Pearson’s Plan for 2025 does raise alarm bells for teachers. The corporate strategy is premised upon causing “educational disruptions” with respect to 1) the teaching profession, 2) the delivery of curriculum and assessment, and 3) the function of schools, particularly those in the public sector.  Such changes are unsettling for Sellar and Hogan, but they still laud the potential benefits of technology enhancements and their “combination with new kinds of teacher professionalism’

The underlying philosophy was expressed in a December 2014 Pearson policy paper prepared by Peter Hill and Michael Barber with a grandiose title, “Preparing for a Renaissance in Assessment.”  While Pearson marketing is decidedly teacher-friendly, the Hill and Barber paper belies that image, making a strong case for improving “teacher quality” as a pre-condition for “transforming teaching”  and achieving better student outcomes.  Here is how they described the desired transformation:

from a largely under-qualified and trained, heavily unionised, bureaucratically controlled semi-profession into a true profession with a distinctive knowledge base, a framework for teaching, well defined common terms for describing and analysing teaching at a level of specificity and strict control by the profession itself, on entry into the profession (Hill and Barber, 2014, 20). 

Teaching, according to Hill and Barber, is also bedeviled by classroom practitioners who guard their autonomy.  The problem was that teaching was an “imprecise and idiosyncratic process  that is too dependent on the personal intuition and competence of individual teachers” (Hill and Barber, 38). That implied that most teachers cannot be trusted, despite their university education, professional registration, teaching certification, continuous professional learning, and professional standards of practice.

Teachers, it seems, were “the problem” in the eyes of Pearson education experts Hill and Barber.   Transforming teaching for 21st century learning, it followed, required the “overthrowing” and “repudiating” of the “classroom teacher as the imparter of knowledge” and replacing them with “increasing reliance on sophisticated tutor/online instruction.’ ( Hill and Barber, 23). Computerized “personalized learning,” in their view, was the answer and the way of the future.

The Pearson Plan for 2025 does not, as the Education International researchers repeatedly point out, call for “replacing teachers.” They do recognize that the introduction of new technologies does carry certain risks such as the “routinisation of teaching tasks,” but also seem to accept the benefits of the new technologies for developing complementary skills. What is flagged is the dangers posed by the routinisation of teaching by Pearson and its subsidiaries in “low fee” private schools in sub-Saharan Africa, India, and parts of South-East Asia.

The Education International critique, oddly enough, gives the philosophy, program and assessment dimension of 21st century learning a free pass.  “Many have called for the reform of schooling,” they note, ” to modernize this nineteenth century institution, particularly in regards to the provision of homogeneous curriculum, age-based learning, and traditional models of teacher-led instruction.” Such changes are fine with them unless they lead to the automation of teaching and the replacement of teachers with robots or virtual tutors.

Much of the rest of the Sellar and Hogan critique of Pearson 2025 is predictable and essentially well-founded.  Technology-enhanced teaching and learning is part of the emerging “infrastructure of modernity” and, as such, needs to be confronted and tamed.  While there is a place for Global Education Industry(GEI) giants like Pearson and Google, we do need to guard against potential problems and encroachments that further erode teaching as a profession. Their critique would have been considerably strengthened by citing the critical research of Ben Williamson, author of Big Data in Education, and a leading expert on the OECD’s plan to introduce “stealth assessment.”

Technology-driven education can lead to greater social inequalities, creeping privatization, displacement of teachers, spread of routinized teaching models, the illicit corporate collection of data, and the  degradation of teaching into a personalized experience focused almost entirely on individual knowledge and skills.

International education researchers such as Sellar and Hogan still seem mesmerized by the allure of the “21st century learning” panacea, the new pedagogy of deep learning, and technological enhancements in the class room. There is still no real recognition that the purveyors of learning technology actually stand in the way of “future-proofing” the next generation.

What’s the real agenda of Pearson International’s global education plan for 2025?  Where do classroom teachers fit in the “next generation” of teaching and learning?  To what extent will teachers be displaced by robots in the friendly guise of “virtual tutors”?  Should teachers put their faith in Pearson Education experts who are out to reduce the influence of “idiosyncratic” classroom practitioners and particularly those who favour explicit instruction and a “knowledge-rich curriculum”? 

 

The Homework Debate never seems to go away.  Popular books and articles inspired initially by American education writer Alfie Kohn and his Canadian disciples continue to beat the drum for easing the homework burden on students or eliminating homework altogether before the secondary school level. That “No Homework” movement made significant inroads in the United States and Canada during the 2000’s. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), responsible for the Program of International Assessment (PISA) test, confirmed that the amount of time students in North America spend on doing homework had declined, as of the 2014 assessment year.

HomeworkHackItHomeworkCaseAgainst2006

 

A critical question needs to be asked: Has the “No Homework” movement and the apparent push-back against homework had an adverse effect on student achievement? That’s difficult to answer because, despite the critical importance of the issue and the long history of homework research, few North American researchers have been inclined to study the role that homework plays in enhancing student achievement, even in mathematics.

One little-known researcher, Lake B. Yeworiew, an Ethiopian scholar, based at the University of Calgary, but recently-arrived in Canada, saw the hole in the research and recently tackled the whole question. His focus was on assessing the relationship between homework and Grade 8 Mathematics student achievement, comparing Canadian students with the top performing students in the world. While attending the AERA 2019 Congress (April 5-9) in Toronto, I got a sneak peak at his findings.  While his research study attracted little attention, it will be of considerable interest to all of those committed to maintaining and improving student performance standards.

LakeYoworiew

His University of Calgary study, co-authored with Man-Wai Chu and Yue Xu, laid out the essential facts: The average performance of Canadian students in Mathematics (PISA) has declined since 2006 (OECD, 2007, 2010, 2014, 2016)  Students from three top performing Asian countries, Singapore, Macau-China and Japan, continue to outperform our 15-year-old students by a significant margin.  Furthermore, OECD reports that students in Asian countries (Singapore, Japan, Macao- China and Hong Kong-China) spend more time doing homework and score much higher. It is estimated that they score 17 points or more per extra hour of homework.

Recent North American research seems more alert to the need to study the relationship between homework and academic achievement, particularly in mathematics. A literature review, conducted by Yeworiew, Chu and Xu, demonstrates that, while the findings cut in both directions, the weight of research favours homework. In fact, the Canadian Council of Ministers’ of Education (CMEC 2014) has come down in favour of homework. Based upon Canadian national test surveys (PCAP), CMEC confirms that math achievement of students who do not do homework is significantly lower than those doing regular homework.

Yeworiew and his research team provide further confirmation of this 2014 CMEC assessment. Utilizing the 2015 TIMSS study in Canada, involving 8,757 students and 276 schools in four provinces (Ontario, Quebec, Manitoba and Newfoundland/Labrador), the authors demonstrate the clear value of regular homework in modest amounts.

The research findings are effectively presented in a series of graphs mapping the study results, reprinted here directly from their AERA 2019 Toronto presentation:

 

 

The relationship between homework and achievement is becoming less of a mystery. Based upon the performance of Grade 8 students in the 2015 TIMSS study, short but frequent homework assignments contribute to improved student learning and achievement in mathematics. Frequent homework assignments, up to four times a week, have a positive effect on math achievement, but less sop when it is of longer duration. No discernable differences were detected for girls in relation to boys at the Grade 8 level in Canada.

Why do Canadian researchers produce so few studies like the University of Calgary project attempting to assess the impact of homework on achievement?  To what extent is it because Canadian homework studies tend to focus on psycho-social aspects such as the impact of homework on student attitudes and the opinions of parents?

Are we asking the right questions? “How much is enough?” is surely a sounder line of inquiry than “How do you feel when overburdened with homework? ” What is really accomplished by asking ‘Does homework ad to your anxieties?” Should we be more conscious of the inherent biases in such research questions? 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Ontario government’s multi-headed education announcement, released on March 15, 2019, gave new meaning to William Shakespeare’s infamous dictum, “Beware the Ides of March,”  judging from the chilling effect it had on educators and close observers of the school system.  Rooting out ‘Discovery Math,’ restoring the basics, and realigning an ‘age-appropriate’ sex education curriculum were entirely expected, but not the declaration that all secondary school students would be required to take four online courses. Mandating online courses appeared to come out of nowhere.

Secondary students will be required to take a minimum of four e-learning credits out of the 30 credits needed to earn a Grade 12 Ontario Secondary School Diploma, equivalent to one credit per year of high school. All we really know about implementation is that the changes will be phased-in starting in 2020-21 and that the delivery of the e-learning courses will be centralized.

Where the online learning initiative originated and what it actually meant for students and teachers generated plenty of speculation. That was largely because Ontario Education Minister Lisa Thompson announced it as a fait accompli with nothing approaching a detailed rationale.

Now that the furor over mandating online courses has subsided the question of where it came from can be pieced-together. It is looking, more and more, like a foray into ‘disruptive innovation’ rather than another sleight-of-hand scheme to reduce the $26.6 billion education budget.

Online learning and virtual schooling show great potential for transforming student learning, but Ontario like other provinces has pursued a ‘growth-management’ strategy quite different than most American states. Unlike the U.S., the free market remains regulated and private providers are largely absent.  South of the border, “virtual schooling” outside of bricks-and-mortar schools has grown by leaps and bounds in a largely unregulated education environment.

Online learning in Ontario evolved out of what were known as provincial correspondence courses. Since 1994-95, many of the province’s school boards have established their own district programs and then in 2006 twenty of the boards formed the Ontario e-Learning Consortium (OeLC).  That joint venture has helped increase course offerings and the sharing of resources with positive results.

eLearningOntarioLogo

From 2008-09 to 2009-10, online student enrolments in OeLC boards jumped from 6,276 to 9,695. The consortia model has also been replicated by Ontario’s French language boards and by the province’s constitutionally guaranteed separate Catholic school boards. In 2010, a Northern e-Learning Consortium (NeLC) was established to allow remote northern Ontario school districts to address shared challenges (Ontario Education 2011).

Ontario’s regulatory regime, outlined in the 2006 E-Learning Strategy and codified in school regulations initially imposed limits on the delivery of online learning.   “In some instances,” North American online learning expert Michael K. Barbour reported, “the Ministry requirements were once quite restrictive.”

Originally, the Ontario provincial Learning Management System (LMS) could not be used for either blended learning or the professional development of teachers. That led school districts to run parallel systems, the provincial LMS as well as their own separate LMS for those other purposes.

Ontario has gradually loosened its regulations and, in September 2011, finally embraced blended learning as part of the system. By 2013-14, it was estimated that 52,095 students were taking e-learning courses, including summer school, from school boards through the Ontario Ministry’s virtual learning environment. In addition, 20,000 Ontario students were enrolled in correspondence courses and about 6,000 in private online schools.

The leading Ontario parent lobby group, Toronto-based People for Education, emerged after 2013-14 as a champion of “digital literacies” (information, media and ICT) and the promotion of ICT to enhance student learning.

Expanding e-Learning became a contentious issue at the bargaining table. Back in 2010, the big issue, for the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation (OSSTF) was not quality programming but rather closing the so-called “digital divide” separating students fully equipped with the latest e-tools and those without such access.  Closing the “ICT competency divide” between urban and rural Ontario proved to be a stumbling block to progress.

Online learning has grown, but at a carefully managed rate. Today, the Canadian e-Learning Network estimates that only 65,000 Ontario students (2017-18) take at least one online course and that represents approximately 10 per cent of all high school students. If the PC plan goes forward, the numbers enrolled will balloon to as many as 630,000 students a year.

Such a dramatic change is a classic example of what Clayton Christensen and his Harvard University Institute team of researchers mean by ‘disruptive innovation.’  The goal of such a change is to open the door to a whole new population of consumers (students) at the bottom of a market access to a product or service (online learning) that was previously denied to them and accessible only to the few with the access, resources, or expertise.

Lifting technology use regulations and removing barriers may be messy and fraught with risk, but students, according to Christensen, thrive in such a dynamic, competitive learning environment. Free to embrace e-learning in all its forms, they gain access to the full range of teaching modalities, ranging from strictly online, self-paced learning to blended learning combining online and face-to-face classroom instruction.

The Ontario Progressive Conservative education ‘brains trust’ has definitely latched onto technology-driven educational change. Mandating online high school courses is a clear sign that the Department has embraced the kind of market experimentation and disruptive innovation common in the United States.

Education reforms implemented in Florida from the late 1990s to the 2000s, spearhead by Republican Governor Jeb Bush and known as the “Florida Formula,’ now hold sway among PC education policy-makers at Queen’s Park.  Ford’s “Back to Basics” education reform echoes most of the five key Bush policies – high expectations, school accountability, student performance targeted funding, teacher quality standards, and school choice.

Florida, under Jeb Bush, was among the first to mandate online learning as a secondary school graduation requirement.  Today, five states – Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Michigan and Virginiarequire one compulsory online course.  Some other states, including Georgia, New Mexico, Massachusetts and West Virginia, have passed legislation or approved regulations supporting the inclusion of online courses. No state goes as far as requiring the four courses stipulated in the Ontario plan.

Ontario’s shotgun online learning initiative deserves to be challenged. Classroom teachers and informed researchers have much to contribute as school systems wrestle with how effectively integrate technology into classroom practice. Front-line practitioners bring real life experience and a healthy skepticism to bear on ephemeral fads and what might be termed ‘hair-brained’ transformation schemes.

Top-down educational initiatives, especially in ICT and technology integration, die a quick death or simply languish without the active support and engagement of regular classroom educators.  That is why innovative and disruptive ideas like the ‘flipped classroom’ and a Virtual Enriched learning environment dreamed up by corporate change management  experts and delivered from on high have, so far, not succeeded in changing the trajectory or improving the quality and variety of student learning in K-12 education.

What sparked the Ontario Doug Ford government’s move to introduce compulsory high school online courses? Was the policy announcement driven by change-management theory, sound e-learning research, or a commitment to reducing education costs?  Is it feasible to expand online courses so significantly over such a relatively short timeline? Will it now be possible for Ontario educators to come to terms with the change? Is “disruptive innovation” destabilizing, by definition, or potentially beneficial when it sparks new ways of thinking and deepens learning for students?  

A year ago, a Nova Scotia Inclusive Education Commission headed by Dr. Sarah Shea of the IWK Children’s Hospital broke new ground in proposing a robust $70-million, 5-year plan to re-engineer inclusive education. The new model known as Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS) attracted immediate and widespread support from classroom teachers, parents of learning-challenged students, and advocacy groups, including Autism Nova Scotia.

Today there are clear signs that the implementation of Nova Scotia Inclusive Education reform is going off-the-rails and the whole venture in danger of being turned to different purposes. Three critical implementation pieces have been dropped and the whole project is now under completely new management.

Education Minister Zach Churchill and his recently appointed Deputy Minister Catherine Montreuil have already abandoned three first stage recommendations: establishing an independent Institute for Inclusive Education (NSEII), appointing an Executive Director to spearhead the initiative; and commencing independent Canadian research into evidence-based MTSS practices.

Much of what is going inside Nova Scotia’s Education Department is now carried out behind closed doors and completely outside public view. Piecing together the puzzle requires the investigative skills of a Detective William Murdoch. Sleuthing in and around the Department does provide a few clues.

A January 2019 Provincial Advisory Council on Education (PACE) agenda featured a peculiar item under the heading “Inclusive Education Policy.” Assembled members of the appointed body, chaired by former HRSB chair, Gin Yee, were assembled to engage in an ‘interactive exercise’ focusing on “Dr. Gordon Porter’s work.” The published meeting minutes made no reference whatsoever to that discussion.

Seven months after Nova Scotia embraced the plan to build a Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS), the surfacing of Dr. Porter was downright strange on two counts. Canada’s leading champion of all-inclusive classrooms, New Brunswicker Porter, is well-known for advocating an approach at odds with the government’s stated policy. Not only that, but in October 2018, Education Minister Churchill had named Porter as the lead consultant responsible for overseeing implementation.

If there was any doubt as to where Dr. Porter stands on inclusion, that vanished on February 15, 2018 when he published a very revealing commentary in his house organ publication, the Inclusive Education Canada newsletter.

When a Toronto Globe and Mail feature story on an autistic Ontario boy, Grayson Kahn,  pointed out that his ‘inclusive classroom’ had failed him, Porter took great exception to the piece because it called into question the appropriateness of the all-inclusive model for everyone. “Classrooms, inclusive or not, do not fail students,” he wrote. “The responsibility for success or failure lies with officials of the Education Ministries and the leaders of the school districts who set the policies, allocate resources and are responsible to ensure accountability to both parents and taxpayers.”

After thirty years of fighting to rid the system of alternative settings and specialized support programs, he was not about to change, even when confronted with the current challenges of class composition posed by the dramatically rising numbers of students with complex needs and sometimes unmanageable behavioural disorders in today’s classrooms.

Porter and his Inclusive Education Canada allies, well entrenched in New Brunswick, continue put all their faith in the all-inclusive classroom. Most, if not all, of their public advocacy seeks to demonstrate how every child can thrive in a regular classroom. The whole idea of providing alternative placements, ranging from one-on-one intensive support to specialized programs is an anathema to Porter and his allies.  Instead of addressing the need for viable, properly-resourced multi-tiered levels of support, they promote provincial policy aligned with the international Zero Project, aimed at enforcing inclusion for all, including those, like Grayson, with complex needs and severe learning difficulties.

Defenders of the New Brunswick model, shaped and built by Porter, remain blind to the realities of today’s complex classrooms. Sending children regularly to “time-out rooms” or home as “exclusions” for days-on-end come to be accepted as expedients to keep, intact, the semblance of inclusive classrooms.

Further detective work reveals that Porter is not without an ally on the PACE.  The sole education faculty appointee on that essentially faceless appointed body is Professor Chris Gilham of St. Francis-Xavier University, trained at the University of Alberta and closely aligned with Porter’s thinking.

Gilham’s research and teaching are steeped in the Inclusive Education Canada philosophy. He’s a public advocate of Universal Design for Learning (UDL), an educational framework designed initially for Special Needs children that aims to increase “access to learning for all students” by removing all school-level barriers, physical, cognitive, intellectual and organizational.

Classifying and coding Special Education students, Gilham and co-author John Williamson claimed in a 2017 academic article, is part of the “bounty system” which provides funding on the basis of designated, documented exceptionalities. It is clear, from his writings, that he’s opposed to the “bifurcation of students” into a “value-laden, deficit-oriented, gross categories” aligned with their particular learning needs.

Inclusion of all students is now virtually universally accepted, but the Nova Scotia Inclusion Commission, to its credit, recognized that it does not necessarily mean inclusion in one particular setting, but rather in the one best suited to the child along a continuum of services from regular classroom to specialized support programs. The Students First report pointed Nova Scotia in that direction and challenged us to build an entirely new model significantly different than that to be found in New Brunswick.

Reaching every student and building a pyramid of tiered supports were the Nova Scotia plan’s overarching goals, not endlessly seeking ways to integrate students into one universal, one-size-fits-all classroom and concealing the actual numbers of students on alternative or part-time schedules. It’s time to urge Minister Churchill and his Department find their bearings and return to the True North of MTSS as charted by Dr. Shea and the Inclusive Education Commission.

What is happening to the implementation of the new Nova Scotia model for inclusive education? Do the decisions to drop three first-stage implementation recommendations signal a change in direction? Why did Nova Scotia’s government hire Dr. Gordon Porter to review implementation?  Will Dr. Porter’s upcoming review report confirm the change in direction? 

 

 

Student report cards are a critical point of contact with parents and that’s why they attract more critical scrutiny than other aspects of K-12 education.  Most parents seek clear, intelligible, individualized, regular student progress reports with understandable grades, while student assessment consultants come up with wave-after-wave of changes modeling the latest proposed innovation in assessment practice.  That explains, in many ways, why the subterranean issue never seems to disappear.

Every five years or so, school authorities from Canadian province to province attempt to revamp their student report cards, usually aimed at challenging the prevailing orthodoxy. Introducing outcomes-based student assessment in the 1990s produced a new impenetrable language accompanied by “competencies” and hundreds of “micro-outcomes.”  Repeated attempts were made to replace letter grades in elementary schools and percentage marks in high schools with outcomes-based reporting and newly-constructed scales of development in learning. That initial wave produced what have become standardized, digitally-generated provincial or school district report templates.

Most top-down report card modernization plans end up imposing heavier reporting loads on teachers and leaving most parents baffled. Six years ago, Nova Scotia parent Marshall Hamilton spoke for perhaps hundreds of thousands of parents: “I don’t see my child in the comments.”  “The language doesn’t really give the parent or the child any idea of critical feedback,” he explained to CBC News. ” I can probably figure out more about what the curriculum is meant to do than to understand my daughter’s performance in that current curriculum.”

Student report cards in Canadian school systems are, in theory, intended to provide ‘meaningful information” to parents and guardians on “how their child is progressing in school.” Since that wave of parent criticism six years ago, Nova Scotia’s student reports have become far clearer and more intelligible with actual marks from Grade 7 to 12 , but there are still a few missing pieces.

Legitimate concerns about teachers’ classroom conditions and workloads sometimes prompt initiatives to “streamline” reporting that have unintended consequences.  Surveying his daughter’s November 2018 Grade 6 Nova Scotia report, former teacher Kristopher Snarby was surprised to see that it provided no feedback on subject courses representing over half her weekly schedule. Report cards from Grades P to 6, Snarby discovered, only contained marks and comments on Language Arts and Mathematics, providing no marks, comments or attendance for any of her other subjects. The standard provincial report template simply did not fit his daughter’s school, where multiple teachers taught a variety of subjects.

Those report card changes originated back in March 2018 as one of the recommendations to “streamline” November reports from a provincial teacher advisory body, the Council to Improve Classroom Conditions. The problem, as framed by the Council, was “time-consuming” reporting processes and reports that were “confusing to parents.” The solution: reduce “data entry for teachers” and provide “integrated comments” for only two subjects, Language Arts and Math.

Making reports less comprehensive with fewer subject specific comments would never fly with parents who, after all, are the main consumers of those reports. If they were ever asked, they would also likely favour reports with more definitive feedback, including individual student assessment test results in Grades 3, 6 and 8.  Elementary student progress reports that provide feedback on integrated subjects also tend to obscure how students are actually performing in two critical areas, reading and numeracy.

Providing parents with reports including their own child’s provincial assessment scores would remedy that omission. That is not such an outlandish idea when one considers the latest teacher-friendly innovations (Christodoulou 2017) in student assessment reporting. Most North American school authorities are actually providing more and more information not less on both school standards and individual student performance.

Take Ontario, for example. Students in Ontario are all tested in grades 3 and 6 and, while they do not appear on school progress reports, the independent Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) provides parents with a detailed individual report on their child’s progress, benchmarked against provincial student performance standards.

The EQAO individual student report card for Primary Division (Grades 1-3) provides incredibly detailed feedback on reading, writing, and mathematics, reflecting four distinct levels of achievement. It’s also relatively easy to identify how students actually measure up in their performance.

The Grade 9 EQAO math test is a component of the regular school report, accounting for up to 10 per cent of a student’s math mark. Ontario students are also required to pass a Grade 10 Literacy Test or remedial Literacy course to secure a secondary school diploma.

Parents in Ontario are encouraged to work together in partnership with their teachers to improve student learning. “Talk to your child’s teacher,” the EQAO report advises, “about how these results compare to your child’s daily classroom work and assessment information.”

Providing parents with individual student reports on provincial assessment results would be a step forward, but integrating them into Grade 3, 6, and 8 school district reports would be even better. Then parents would be able to see, on one report, how students were performing not only in local schools, but in relation to provincial standards.

What Canadian education needs is more parents like Kristopher Snarby keeping an eye on changes in the system. As a former teacher, he is particularly alert to “teacher-speak” on reports that are “not really intelligible for parents.” “Feedback is critical for parents,” Snarby says, and “that’s why what’s on student reports  really matters.”

Do Student Report Card reforms make matters better – or worse — for parents and students?  Can we find the right balance between providing meaningful, individualized reports while easing teachers’ workloads? What can possibly be wrong with giving teachers more autonomy to make more personal, pointed comments about actual student performance?  Would it be helpful to see both teacher assessments and provincial test results on those reports?