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An alarming new documentary, Web Junkie, recently aired on  the PBS television network, and alerted North Americans to radical measures being taken to curb screen addiction among children and youth in China. It is a powerful little film exposing the alarming effects on teenagers who become hooked on video games, playing dozens of hours at a time without taking breaks to eat, sleep or even go to the bathroom. Doctors in China have responded by designating “screen addiction” as a clinical disorder and established boot camp-style rehabilitation centres to treat its victims.

ScreenAddictedTeens

Internet addiction among teens may not be a diagnosed clinical disorder here, but it is now quite prevalent nearly everywhere you look—in homes, public spaces, and schools. Most North American physicians and psychologists are concerned about the screen fixation when youths are plugged in and tuned out of “live” interaction for so many hours a day that it imperils their normal, healthy development. More shockingly, it starts in early childhood with toddlers being handed cellphones or tablets to entertain themselves. By the time kids enter school, they are already hooked on the latest devices.

The PBS documentary spurred Jane Brody, Personal Health columnist for The New York Times, to take a closer look at this subterranean issue. She unearthed a 2013 policy statement on Children, Adolescents, and the Media” approved by the the American Academy of Pediatrics. In it, the American pediatricians cited these shocking statistics from a Kaiser Family Foundation study in 2010: “The average 8- to 10-year-old spends nearly eight hours a day with a variety of different media, and older children and teenagers spend more than 11 hours per day.” Television, long a popular “babysitter,” remains the dominant medium, but the study showed that computers, tablets and cellphones were gradually taking over.

Limiting and controlling children’s screen time was identified as a new and unfamiliar responsibility for today’s parents.  “Many parents seem to have few rules about use of media by their children and adolescents,” the academy stated, and two-thirds of those questioned in the Kaiser study said their parents had no rules about how much time the youngsters spent with media. Busy and stressed out parents, it appears, see the devices as handy ‘electronic passifiers’ to calm perpetually active kids and to free up young adults themselves for screen activities, including ongoing social media interactions.

Recognized experts like Catherine Steiner-Adair, a Harvard affiliated psychologist and author of The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age, are full of advice for parents, but less so when it comes to schools. Before age 2, children should not be exposed to any electronic media, the pediatrics academy maintains, because “a child’s brain develops rapidly during these first years, and young children learn best by interacting with people, not screens.” Older children and teenagers, according to the experts, should spend no more than one or two hours a day with entertainment media, preferably with high-quality content, and spend more free time playing outdoors, reading, doing hobbies and “using their imaginations in free play.”

Heavy use of electronic media can have significant negative effects on children’s behavior, health and school performance. Recent studies have linked “simulated violence” in video games to tendencies to act violently or to become desensitized to violence around them. Habitual users may become more adept at multitasking, but, over time, lose the capacity to focus or concentrate on what is important, affecting their problem-solving abilities.

Texting is the real electronic epidemic confronting most middle schools and high schools. About one-half of American teens send and receive 60 or more text messages a day  — before, in between, during and after school classes. Teenagers from 12 to 17, according to a 2012 Pew Research Center study averaged 3,364 texts a month. An earlier JFK Medical Center study found that teens sent an average of 34 text messages a night after they went to bed, contributing to the problem of sleep deprivation. One University of Rhode Island researcher, Kristina Hatch, sees a direct connection between heavy use of electronic media and social withdrawal and isolation, leaving kids “lonely and depressed.”

This is not just an American social phenomenon. A 2014 report conducted by WeAreSocial revealed that every day Canadians spend 4.9 hours online on laptop or desktop computers and, in addition, 1.9 hours on mobile devices. Just over two hours a day are now spent on social media, with some 91 % on Facebook and 46% on Twitter. It would be much higher for children and teens being raised in an electronic media saturated culture.

Canadian psychologists and psychiatrists are beginning to take action to address the incidence of Internet addiction. The Canada Life Chair of Teen Mental Health at Dalhousie University, Dr. Stanley Kutcher, is keenly aware of the problem and attempting to promote preventative programs. In a few cities, such as Windsor, Ontario hospitals are responding by establishing services to offer clinical treatment to children, teens and adults struggling with video game and Internet dependency.

How widespread is the problem of Internet and screen addiction among today’s children and teens?  What can parents do to limit and control children’s screen time? Where do the responsibilities of parents end and the interests of schools begin?  Is there a place for Internet addiction education the emerging mental health curriculum? Should we be looking at a public education program involving students, parents and schools?

Thirty-five years ago Peter McLaren’s memoir Cries from the Corridor not only exposed the gritty underside of Canada’s inner ring suburbs, but disrupted much of the complacency afflicting education authorities everywhere. The young Toronto-born, 32-year-old teacher published his personal diaries describing, in considerable detail, his real life school experiences in “The Jungle,” as North York’s Jane-Finch corridor was labeled in those days.  It was a totally authentic, brutally honest little book that attracted rave popular press reviews and was recognized as a surprise 1980 Canadian bestseller by The Toronto Star and Maclean’s magazine.

PeterMclarenMcLaren was breaking the established rules and telling tales out-of-school. Today, reading the original version, a heavily used 1981 PaperJacks edition, is to marvel at the young teacher’s graphic descriptions, searing insights and honest portrayal of life in the middle school trenches. Sensationalist magazine writers ate it up and, rather predictably, seasoned education faculty members like Gordon West pronounced the book of “limited academic utility” because it portrayed “individualized and isolated students” and stopped short of analyzing the total context of “working class life.”

McLaren’s little diary account did more to raise public consciousness about the plight of inner city schools than any Canadian education book ever written. Yet, as an aspiring academic, McLaren was troubled by the sensational media treatment labeling kids and communities as “losers” and stung by the theoreticians and what amounted to academic carping. Within five years, he had acquired a University of Toronto PhD in Education, been released from a Brock University lecturing position, and disappeared from the Canadian scene.

Writing Cries from the Corridor and pursuing graduate studies radicalized Peter McLaren and he gradually shed his reputation as a ‘hands on’ veteran inner city teacher insufficiently schooled in critical theory, Marxist literature, cultural studies, and feminist research.  He was essentially rescued in 1985 by an American-born radical scholar Dr. Henry Giroux who invited him to Miami University of Ohio to help start a Cultural Studies Center dedicated to advancing “critical pedagogy”and exposing the dangers of global capitalism dressed up in the guise of “neo-liberalism.”

Gradually, McLaren was transformed from a disciple of critical postmodernism into a secular prophet of Marxist-infused revolutionary pedagogy. He renounced his original venture, Cries from the Corridor, saying that he “grew to dislike the book” and went so far as to sate that it now “disgusted” him because it totally lacked “a coherent philosophy of praxis.” For the next thirty years, through six rewrites, as a key component of a larger book, Life in Schools, he managed to expunge the bad parts and generate a radical textbook to prepare teachers for resistance against global capitalism and its attendant problems.

If Giroux was has mentor, then the Brazilian radical scholar Paulo Freire became his North Star.  While at Miami University, Freire invited him to a conference in Cuba and he came into contact with Brazilians and Mexicans that shared his vision and ideas. After several sojourns to Latin America, McLaren grew disenchanted with postmodern theory and was drawn to Marxism. “I was haunted by the realization, ” he recalled in 2003, “that I had not sufficiently engaged the work of Marx and Marxist thinkers.”

Increasingly influenced by Freire and “Marxist anti-colonial projects” in the Americas, McLaren’s Marxism deepened and he saw “the Marxist critique” as the key to confronting “the differentiated totalities of contemporary society and their historical imbrications in the world system of global capitalism.” After eight years at Miami of Ohio, he taught as a Professor of Education at the University of California, Los Angeles from 1993 to 2013 and is now Distinguished Professor and Co-Director of the Paulo Freire Democratic Project at Chapman University, Orange, CA.

LifeinSchoolsCoverProfessor McLaren has lost none of his zeal and is the author of nearly 50 books and his writings have been translated into over 25 languages.  Five of his books have won the Critics Choice Award of the American Educational Studies Association.  His most influential text, Life in Schools: An Approach to Critical Pedagogy in the Foundations of Education, is now in its sixth edition, and contains his revised version of Cries from the Corridor. Among global radical scholars, he is now mentioned and considered alongside Freire, Ivan Illich, Pierre Bourdieu and E.P. Thompson. Much like Freire, he embraces “revolutionary critical pedagogy” and seeks to “create pedagogical spaces and contexts for the oppressed to fashion their own understandings of their shared history of struggle.”

McLaren is what university students would describe as a strange bird with the unmistakable style of an ‘aging sixties radical.’  An April 2006 UCLA News story described him as “a cross between a rock star and a motorbike enthusiast.” When a foolhardy conservative UCLA grad posted a Hit List of the “Dirty Thirty” left-wing faculty, he topped the list and achieved even greater notoriety across the United States.

McLaren is an engaged scholar who devotes his teaching life to awakening students to the potential for radical social change. His faculty office at UCLA was crammed with revolutionary memorabilia and objects of art, including busts of Lenin, Marx and Mao.  His right shoulder bears a tattoo of Cuba revolutionary Che Guevera and Mexico’s Emiliano Zapata is tatooed on his left shoulder. “Both struggled for peasants,” he told a wide-eyed UCLA reporter, and “I will die with them someday.”

What if — Peter McLaren had stayed in Canada and capitalized on the public awakening unleashed by his ground-breaking 1980 book?  No doubt his intellectual journey might have been different and perhaps less consumed by the internal doctrinal battles on the intellectual Left. In the company of critical education theorists Freire and Giroux his focus has shifted from the “real life experiences” of working class youth to more rarified debates over “revolutionary praxis, ” the “Achimedian fulcrum,” and enlisting educators in the “war of position.”   No wonder renowned American education researcher Michael Apple finds the language of McLaren and the “critical theorists” so “abstract and confusing.”

Reading and attempting to fathom Peter McLaren’s recent writings reminded me of a critical issue raised by the late British social historian E.P. Thompson in his famous 1978 essay, The Poverty of Theory. While Thompson was responding, at the time, to Stalinism and the preponderant influence of Louis Althusser on European Marxism, he also exposed the excesses of “mechanical Marxism” and “ideological totalitarianism” that tends to obscure rather than shine light on the real lives lived in working class communities.

Working people and youth, Thompson, claimed “made their own lives” and were not simply the victims of “a series of interlocking events” that amounted to “a post-facto determinism.” Getting absorbed with dialectical materialism, according to Thompson, can become “an excuse for not studying history.” He also reminded us of one of Leon Trotsky’s philosophical gems: “an ignoramous, armed with the materialist dialectic….inevitably makes a fool of himself.”

Try to imagine what the inner city children and youth in McLaren’s Cries from the Corridor would make of some of his recent writings on “critical revolutionary pedagogy” and the “totality” of “neoliberal hegemony.” Speaking the same language might be a good starting point if we are ever to really confront the very real, deeply rooted problems facing youth in today’s inner city and rougher suburban schools.

What really happened to the Peter McLaren who wrote Cries from the Corridor?  Why did he later renounce his role in  producing a brutally honest, unvarnished record of a young teacher’s struggles to reach students in a tough suburban school? What if — McLaren had encountered E.P. Thompson and focused more on exposing and documenting the real lives of struggling students?  Thirty years on, would McLaren have been less inclined toward guarding “proletarian science” and less absorbed the rather esoteric world of “academicism”?

Two retired Ontario educators, Dr. Denis Mildon and Gilles Fournier, have now surfaced in an attempt to preserve and protect the educational investment legacy of the Dalton McGuinty Liberal reform agenda (2003-13). In a Toronto Star opinion column (July 6, 2015), they repeat the familiar claim that Ontario’s system is “considered one of the finest in the world.”

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Ontario’s educational supremacy is presented, as usual, as a statement of incontestable fact. “Though sound research, innovation and policy development Ontario’s system, ” Mildon and Fournier contend, “has become a model of equity and inclusiveness in education and, as a result, in student achievement.”

Ontario education under McGuinty was certainly among the best resourced systems in the world. With OISE school change theorists Michael Fullan and Ben Levin championing increased system-wide investment, spending skyrocketed by over 57% from 2003 to 2011 to $22 billion while school enrollment fell by some 6 per cent. Public funding poured in to support a series of Poverty Reduction initiatives, enhanced special program supports, universal full day Kindergarten, and even Parents Reaching Out (PRO) Grants for parent education.

The origin, of course, of the now infamous “Best System” claim is the two McKinsey and Company reports (2007 and 2010) purporting to identify and then analyze the success of twenty of the world’s leading education systems. It also echoes the very wording used by the Ontario education reform architect Michael Fullan in a high profile  2012 Atlantic article assessing the success of his own initiatives. Aside from Fullan’s 2010 report forward, there is surprisingly little about Ontario initiatives in the actual report, except for one passing reference to PRO grants.

Repeating such claims,referencing the reform advocates themselves,is wearing mighty thin as fresh evidence accumulates that closing the education equality gap does not necessarily translate into improved student achievement. Even more telling, much of the McGuinty era funding-driven “progress” was fueled by increases in spending that are simply unsustainable.

Outsized claims of educational excellence based upon the McKinsey & Company reports are now highly problematic. British researcher Frank Coffield’s 2012 critique of the reports, published in the Journal of Education Policy, has shredded the research and raised serious questions about the reports’ credibility.  Alarmed that the report’s analysis and prescriptions have “hardened into articles of faith” among politicians and policy makers, he argues that the McKinsey-Fullan system-wide reform agenda will “not improve school systems.”

MichaelFullanMuch of Coffield’s critique of McKinsey-style reform applies to Ontario, the Canadian province where Fullan field-tested his school change theories from 2003 to 2013. Centralized reform initiatives, like Fullan’s, he shows, reflect “an impovershed view” of the state of teaching and learning, favouring professionalization over school-level initiatives.

Coffield is particularly skeptical about the legitimacy of the whole assessment. Claims of student success by McKinsey and Fullan are problematic because of the “weak evidence base” and suspect claims about “educational leadership” that “outrun the evidence” in the reports. He’s also troubled by the McKinsey-Fullan language which sounds “technocratic and authoritarian.”  Cultural and socio-ethnic differences are also “underplayed” in such systems-thinking and there is little or no recognition of the role democratic forces play in the public education domain.

One of the few Canadian educators to raise flags about the McKinsey-Fullan ideology was former Peel Catholic Board teacher Stephen Hurley. Writing in March 2011 on the CEA Blog, he expressed concern over the report’s basic assumptions – that teachers come with “low skills” and that centralized approaches are best at fostering professional growth.

Hurley pinpointed two critical weaknesses of the McKinsey-Fullan reform agenda. “As we move forward, how do we give back to our teachers that professional space to develop a strong sense of purpose and efficacy?  How do we as teachers work to reclaim our identities as highly trained and highly competent professionals?”

Two years after McGuinty’s fall from grace, serious questions are being asked about whether the lavish education spending actually produced better results. Staking the claim on rising graduation rates is suspect because, while the graduation rate rose from 68 to 83 per cent, we know that “attainment levels” do not usually reflect higher achievement levels, especially when more objective performance measures, such as student Math scores,stagnated during those years.

Upon closer scrutiny, the Mildon and Fournier commentary is not about protecting student achievement gains at all. Defending current time-consuming evaluation practices, smaller class sizes, preparation time, banking of sick days, ready access to sub teachers, and current curriculum approaches sounds far more like a teacher-driven agenda for Ontario schools. Wrapping Ontario education in that “world leading school system” banner, does not have the appeal or resonance it once had now that parents and the public have a better read on the actual results of that rather high-cost reform agenda.

What did the Dalton McGuinty Education Reform agenda actually achieve in terms of improving student progress and achievement? Where are the independent assessments of McGuinty education reforms supported by serious professionally validated research? Will the Education Reform global “success” story turn out to be essentially a carefully constructed, nicely-packaged mirage?

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?

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