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Smaller communities in Ontario are accustomed to receiving the Queen’s Park ‘shock treatment.’ It happened again on January 28, 2015 when Ontario Education Minister Liz Sandals stated that $1 billion out of the $22.5 billion education budget could be saved by “closing about 600 half-empty schools.” A day later the Minister backtracked, saying that her primary concern was underutilized Toronto schools, not those in rural or remote communities.

SavingSchoolsParrySound The whole Accommodation Review Committee (ARC) process, as school closure exercises are now called, has been under fire in central Ontario ever since Toronto consultant Margaret Wilson released her September 2013 independent report rapping the knuckles of the Near North District School Board (NNDSB) for its “lack of public transparency” in the forced consolidation of three North Bay elementary schools.

A more recent provincial proposal to shorten the ARC process also aroused concerns for local school board trustees in North Bay and elsewhere. It proposed to give municipal governments a bigger role, suggesting “a shift away from consideration (of the) impact of school closures” on “community well-being and the local economy” toward “a more exclusive focus on student achievement.”

Veteran NNDSB trustee, Al Bottomley, sees the ARC reform proposal as a “dangerous” initiative. “It seems that the government wants to close schools at all cost,” he said. “Kids do better in small schools,” Bottomley added. “Putting them in one school is not going to benefit the kids. They’ll be so tired, they won’t be able to do anything. The buses might be going 15 to 20 or 30 kilometres more. That’s ridiculous. Student achievement is something they won’t get.”

The bigger question is whether closing small schools and moving students to regional education centres saves any education dollars at all. School planners continue to base closure recommendations on predicted “economies of scale.” Such claims are highly suspect, according to American researcher Barbara Kent Lawrence, if and when you factor-in the operating costs per square foot, the actual cost per graduate, the added cost of busing students, and the often inflated costs of new school construction.

School capital funding decisions can also leave smaller towns and villages out in the cold. In the case of Mattawa, a town of 2,100 near North Bay, North Bay Nipissing News Editor Rob Learn recently laid bare what can happen. In mid-December, he made public the contents of a Ministry of Education – NNDSB communications trail showing how between 2010 and 2013 that small town lost out on its promised school funding, not just now but into the future.

Without any public disclosure, and ignoring public pleas from Mattawa Mayor Dean Backer, a 2010 $1 million grant commitment earmarked for F.J. McElligott Secondary School was quietly diverted from the town and shifted to fund a North Bay school re-build to turn it from an intermediate school to a K to 6 facility.

The Mattawa school controversy brought into sharp relief what NNDSB Chair David Thompson recently conceded was a “shell game.” Capital grants for Mattawa were diverted to North Bay, then topped-up with unspent money from Full Day Kindergarten capital grants, allocating a total of $1.5 million to Silver Birches Elementary School which opened in September of 2014.

The nub of the whole matter is the spectre of school closures shifting even more students out of their home communities, down the highway to larger regional population centres. Proposed changes to the ARC school closure process will only worsen that problem.

SaveRuralSchoolSignSmall school advocates have countered Sandals and the education officials at Queen’s Park with a “community building” solution. Instead of closing the remaining rural and remote schools, the proposed plan is to transform underutilized schools into what Dr. David Clandfield terms “community hub schools.”

The Hub School model, now authorized in Nova Scotia regulations, opens the door to the potential for school and community revitalization. Under such a model, the adversarial, divisive closure processes become community planning exercises designed forge community partnerships and re-purpose the underutilized space without displacing the students and teachers.

Closing schools is a losing proposition for much of small town and rural Ontario. It’s time to explore a third option with better prospects. Stop the closures and consider more innovative solutions, starting with “hubification” and the sharing of school space.

Provincial and district education authorities must commit in a big way to school renovation rather than current ‘tear down’ and relocate approaches. Then let’s empower school boards to hire local business development officers to initiate community partnerships, tap into alternative funding sources, and rent out school space to local organizations from child care and seniors groups to social enterprises and performing arts organizations.

Rebuilding struggling communities with emptying schools sure beats tearing them down and “community hub schools” could well give them a new lease on life.  The fundamental question is: What’s standing in the way of proceeding with such community-based, “dollars & sense” alternatives to closing schools and abandoning smaller communities?

An earlier version of this Commentary produced for the Northern Policy Institute appeared in the Parry Sound North Star.

The Fraser Institute’s Centre for Improvement in Education is stirring it up again in the normally tranquil world of Canadian K-12 education. The latest report, Education Spending in Canada: What’s Actually Happening? , released in mid-February 2015, returns to one of the Vancouver think tank’s familiar themes. While the popular news media outlets in Canada’s provinces are quick to report on every “education cut” or proposed “cutback,” public spending in the sector continues to rise as predictably as sun in the morning.

EdSpendingGraphicThe newest report, produced by Deani Neven Van Pelt and Joel Emes, was delivered with a rather provocative media release and an eye-popping infographic. Seizing upon the most glaringly sensational statistic, the Fraser Institute graphic artists depict the rise in “nominal spending” from 2001-2 to 2011-12. Seeing that “public school spending” rose from $39.9 to $59.6 billion or 53.1% while enrollment dropped across all provinces by 6.2% is hardly news. Learning that per pupil spending over that decade also rose from $7,250 to $11,835 or 63.5 % is enough to raise your temperature.

The Fraser Institute, for the uninitiated, is to Canadian education what Greenpeace is to the environmental movement. Setting-off emergency flares is the West Coast think tank’s stock-and-trade.  Like most of their reports, it’s important to cut through the sheen of pure free market analysis to get at the real meat of the matter.  In this case, it’s the valuable work done in reconstructing the growth in spending per pupil, province-by-province, adjusted for inflation and enrollment. Those figures are less “sexy” but far more relevant for education observers and policy-makers. It is also what that national education ‘paper tiger’ CMEC, the Council of Ministers of Education, should be producing for public accountability purposes.

The overall growth in education spending in “nominal dollars” is hardly earth-shaking and it pales in comparison with rising costs in health care, not really properly acknowledged in the report. When compared with enrollment declines in every province except Alberta (up 5.4%), the provincial spending levels are worth noting. The reported Ontario spending level of $24.7 billion is staggering, especially when compared with 2001-2, when it was $15.2 billion, or about $9 billion less. It’s hard, however, to get worked up over PEI spending 51.3% more, bringing the total spending to a mere $236 million.

EdSpendingPerPupil2011Comparing provincial student enrollments with per-pupil spending, adjusted for inflation, produces some significant insights. Alberta’s student enrollment rose by 5.4%, and so did its K-12 education spending (up $1.5 billion or 37.0%). Declining enrollments from 2001-2011, hit a few provinces particularly hard without impacting much on their overall spending levels. Newfoundland and Labrador absorbed a 22% enrollment drop, and spending per pupil after inflation/enrollment adjustment declined by 3.1 %. Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, like two peas in a Maritime pod, spent 3.4% and 3.6% more to educate 18.2% and 16.5% fewer students. Without the absorption of Kindergarten into the public system, PEI would likely have demonstrated a similar pattern.

The Fraser Institute’s most potentially valuable findings are the estimates for provincial overspending on K-12 education in so-called “government schools.” Overall, Canada’s provincial enrollments declined from 5.36 million to 5.o3 million students, but spending still rose 15% after adjusting for inflation and enrollment.  All together, they also spent some $15 billion more than if they had contained costs to the adjusted levels, allowing for inflation and enrollment. In the case of Ontario, enrollment dropped by 5.5%, but the Ministry of Education spent 15.8% ($2.4 billion) more ( in real terms) to educate 120,000 fewer students.  The Ontario overspending figure is double the total cost of educating Nova Scotia’s 125,500 students.

British Columbia teachers will be intrigued by the Fraser Institute study’s findings.  Comparing the new figures with the BCTF’s “Fair Deal” graphs shows how data can be manipulated to prove almost anything in education.  The new Statistics Canada figures for 2011-12 tend to show that the BC government has taken a “tougher line” and made gains in closing the gap between declining enrollment and spending levels. While BC student numbers plummeted 11% from 622,800 to 550,700, spending was contained to a 19.3% increase (or a 5.4% increase after inflation and enrollment adjustment). Salary and wage restraints affecting teachers explain how BC was able to break the cycle of escalating education costs so evident in Alberta and Ontario.

What the Fraser Institute study does not do is answer the big question – why do education expenditures (nominal, per pupil, and adjusted) continue to rise while enrollments decline? It is possible, however, based upon provincial research studies, to isolate three of the leading cost increase components.

First and foremost, salary and wage settlements for teachers and support staff, representing at least 75% of all recurrent education expenses and guaranteeing step increments to teachers in their first 10-12 years of service.  Second, provincial class size policies, particularly class enrollment caps, which — if poorly administered — result in overall much lower PTRs and smaller classes over time.  And finally, the growth of Special Education expenditures (once 15% of the budget, now as much as 20%) driven by the “student supports” philosophy and the trend to providing EAs in many more regular classes.

The key K-12 education cost inflators are much easier to identify than to analyze and assess, especially in the absence of a national education accountability office charged with such a public responsibility. Nor is there much definitive evidence that any of these relatively costly policy measures correlate positively with improvements in student engagement and achievement or preparedness for a productive, fulfilling life.

Why do Education Spending levels continue to rise in the face of overall declines in student enrollment? How credible are the Fraser Institute findings that compare “nominal spending”, province by province, over a ten year period? What is the real utility of the comparative figures for spending per pupil adjusted for inflation and enrollment?  To what extent are the main spending escalators “fixed costs” and, if so, is it possible to develop a spending model more closely aligned with improvements in student engagement and performance?

“Don’t Stand By, Stand Up!,” is the popular rallying cry. “Don’t be part of the problem. Be part of the solution!”  Taken together, these two popular exhortations are also the main slogans of StopCyberbullying, the first prevention program in North America. Founded in the 1990s by Parry Aftab, an American lawyer from suburban Wyckoff, NJ, it spread from New Jersey throughout the United States and, since a recent rash of cyberbullying-related teen suicides in Nova Scotia, has popped up in the Maritimes, Alberta, and the Northwest Territories.

BullyParryAftabThe feisty New Jersey crusader, married to Canadian child advocate, Allan McCullough, is widely known as the “kids Internet lawyer,” especially after TV appearances on Dr. Phil and being honoured as the 2010 New Jersey recipient of the FBI Director’s Community Leadership Award. Her charitable organization

StopCyberbullying aims to mobilize a so-called “cyber-army” of students and teachers to rid the schools of what Aftab calls the “pandemic” of cyberbullying. The program also promotes the adoption of prevention toolkits and resources developed by her online child safety operation, WiredSafety.com

While Parry Aftab’s campaign is gaining traction in the Maritimes, it has stalled in the United States like most of the anti-bullying initiatives south of the border. “I’ve been doing this for over the past 16 years and I’m losing this battle,” she confessed in April 2014. Ineffective or poorly worded laws, misunderstandings over the law’s intent, fear of legal reprisals from parents, and avoidance of negative publicity for the school or town are all key reasons why cyberbullying laws and regulations don’t seem to be working to deter perpetrators.

BullySchoolSignAn entire industry, known as the “Bully Business,” has emerged to combat both bullying and cyberbullying.  Filmmakers, politicians, lobbyists, and corporations that sell in-school programs have joined pioneers like Aftab and Alberta teacher Bill Belsey in the ‘War on Bullying’ in schools and to hawk their latest anti-bullying classroom resources.

In Aftab’s home state, New Jersey, some $2 million was invested in 2012 in state-wide anti-bullying initiatives, including some $1 million to put an anti-bullying coordinator and teacher in every school.  School surveillance was increased and the numbers of reported incidents rose accordingly, but the results proved disappointing.

The New Jersey initiative may well have backfired on anti-bullying activists. As Richard Bozza, Ed.D., executive director of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators, observed in November 2011: “The anti-bullying law also may not be appropriate for our youngest students, such as kindergartners who are just learning how to socialize with their peers. Previously, name-calling or shoving on the playground could be handled on the spot as a teachable moment, with the teacher reinforcing the appropriate behavior. That’s no longer the case. Now it has to be documented, reviewed and resolved by everyone from the teacher to the anti-bullying specialist, principal, superintendent and local board of education.”

Whatever happened in New Jersey is passe for Aftab and her anti-cyberbullying supporters because Canada is now the new northern frontier. After the Nova Scotia Bullying and Cyberbullying report and the tragic death of Rehteah Parsons, Aftab focused her energies on “little Nova Scotia,” the world’s most important cyberbullying battleground with “more suicides per capita connected to cyber issues.” Flush from headlining the Nova Scotia Bullying and Cyberbullying Conference in May 3013, she took the campaign to Prince Edward Island, of all places, where she maintained a seasonal residence.

The International Stop Cyberbullying Youth Summit held in Charlottetown on Nov. 9, 2013 was quite an extravaganza.  A handpicked delegation of Prince Edward Island students formed the core of the 400 students in total from grades 4 to 12 and the 200 adults at the youth summit.  While the focus was on mobilizing students, Aftab rolled out the high profile heavy hitters. Industry leaders, including high-level representatives from Facebook, Microsoft and Google, attended the summit as well as the world renowned champion of anti-bullying, Barbara Coloroso, and the creator of Victims of Violence, Sharon Rosenfeld.

Anti-bullying activists like Aftab now have to contend with vocal critics, questioning the deterrent strategies and the effectiveness of school policies and laws. Former editor of Parenting magazine, Deborah Skolnik, raised hackles in March 2013 by speaking out about the “Bully Backlash” and arguing that “teasing, name-calling or taunting” were not necessarily acts of bullying but rather a natural, if unpleasant, part of growing up from childhood to adolescence.

More recently, New York writer Cevin Soling took to the pages of The Atlantic to address what he deemed the “elephant in the room” – the root cause of bullying. ” Children are confined in schools, often against their will, and deprived of the capacity to make choices that affect their lives, yet policymakers ignore these conditions,” he claimed. The most widespread catalyst for bullying, according to the author, was a school environment much like captivity “rendering children powerless” and from which there seemed to be “no escape.”

The somewhat  contradictory disciplinary philosophies underlying popular anti-bullying campaign are also coming under closer scrutiny. State and provincial legislators, including Nova Scotia, typically favor creating a no tolerance for bullying climate, pushing for formal incident reports and clamping down on any sign of  “hurt feelings” and even incidents resulting from “playful derogatory banter among friends.”  School administrators may revert to  a “snitch culture” in which everyone is encouraged to report incidents they witness.  Educational progressives gravitate to The Bully Project approach seeking to engage students in finding “peaceful solutions” and promoting a rather unnatural, warm-and-fuzzy climate where “nobody should be mean to others.”

School-based anti-bullying programs have not fared well when assessed for their effectiveness. One of the best known research reports, published in the Criminal Justice Review (December 2007) and based upon a meta-analysis, showed that anti-bullying programs produce “little discernible effect on youth participants.” A University of Texas researcher Seokjin Jeong analyzed data from 7,000 students in 50 states and found that such programs “plant” bullying ideas in young children that likely increase the incidence of schoolyard or online bullying.  Much of the research showing short-term positive impact may well be measuring the extent to which the visible symptoms are suppressed as opposed to remedying the underlying problems.

Passing cyberbullying laws may not be the answer. In the United States, all but one state, Montana, has a cyberbullying law in place. Despite that remarkably extensive thicket of cyber-harrassment laws, an investigative report by Associated Press concluded that the laws in place are simply not effective.

In Nova Scotia, the first Canadian province to pass a Cyber Safety Act, the legislation remains contentious.  Halifax’s leading internet and privacy lawyer David Fraser has judged the provincial law to be “half-baked” because of its “broad definition” cyberbullying which infringes on the right to free expression and holds parents responsible for their children’s actions.  He also predicts that that the law will be ruled unconstitutional.   That explains, Fraser says, why other Canadian provinces have taken different approaches.  In a 2013 research report, “Cyberbullying and the Law,” Fraser and his research team asked “Are We Doing Enough?” and proposed taking a closer look at treating internet bullying as a form of “harassment.”

Whatever happened to the flurry of Anti-Bullying initiatives launched in the wake of the 2010 to 2013 spate of teen suicides? Who are the leaders in the “Bully Business” and to what extent are they addressing the symptoms as opposed to the real underlying problems? Why have American cyberbullying laws failed to make much of a difference in the lives of students?  What will come of the Canadian Cyberbullying Youth Summits in the next few years?

School leaders responding to crises are subject to incredible scrutiny, not to mention second guessing.  The most recent example is the full-blown crisis that exploded at Dalhousie University in mid-December 2014 over the misogynistic Facebook posts of the infamous “DDS 2015 Gentlemen.”  That group of 13 fourth-year dentistry students, on a Facebook page established in 2011, degraded women, in post after disgusting post, including the male students’ female peers.

DalDentalCartoonWhat began as a Dalhousie Student Discipline case grew into a monster threatening the university’s cherished reputation.  Since a fateful Media Conference on December 18, 2014, the school’s handling of the scandal became the radioactive issue. Dalhousie University’s president, Richard Florizone, first proposed “Restorative Justice” as the answer, then backtracked in the face of a petition calling for expulsion signed by over 50,000 concerned citizens.

The Dental School Crisis dragged on for weeks and attracted widespread public concern. Three weeks after the initial announcement, the President announced that the 13 students would have their clinical privileges suspended. When the Restorative Justice process began to unravel, the President began to sound tougher, insisting that there would be “consequences” for the alleged miscreants. How it will end is anyone’s guess, but the issue still festers and the damage has been done.

Veteran school leaders all have “war stories” like this to tell and yet they remain silent in observing crises like this spinning out-of-control.  For most  battle tested leaders, the inner voice says, “There but for the grace of God.”  For others, it’s just a reminder that being “tested by fire” is the rite of passage for all school leaders, at some point in their career.  One of Canada’s wisest law professors, former university president Wayne MacKay, did venture some gentle early advice, tempered by his trademark sensitivity. Surviving a few crises of my own has rendered me more cerebral, less definitive, and more conflicted than usual.

At times like this, where might a school leader turn? My personal experiences, in two decades of senior education leadership roles, taught me three things — take charge, seek professional advice, and keep the lawyers at bay. Crises are extraordinary events and they call for some decisiveness as well as roll-up-the sleeves, informed, effective decision-making. What you say and do matters –and mistakes are rarely forgiven. You are also foolhardy if you simply take matters into your own hands and do not seek the advice of so-called “crisis management” professionals.

My “crisis management” confidante was Dr. Allan Bonner and he saved me from disaster more than once. After being trained by Allan in Toronto in the Spring of 1997, my eyes were opened and I was much more attuned to the potential for “incidents” to become “crises.”

“A crisis is a turning point for better or worse,” says Bonner.  “A crisis is a rapidly moving and changing event that taxes your response capabilities to their limits. You will need all the assets, people and skills you have and will need to procure new assets and skills very quickly.”

“Crisis management” is critical to solving school problems, and also to protecting your most valuable asset – the institution’s reputation.  If you fumble the ball, the media, board members, faculty, students and all stakeholders start to “question whether the underpinnings of ‘the system’ work. In a crisis, the system includes your approaches, policies and procedures, laws, ethics, codes of conduct and more.”

“Take the panic out of a crisis!” is one of Bonner’s favourite statements. Sexual harrassment, criminal charges, wrongful dismissal and media investigations are issues that can generate crises in schools.  If you do not know what a SOCKO is, be prepared to answer the same questions over and over again.  You also learn to re-gain control of the situation, buy some time, get to the bottom of the matter, and anticipate the unexpected.  Most importantly, take effective action in hours to nip a crisis in the bud before it expands.

Crises are, by their very nature, challenging to resolve, but they can be made worse by leadership lapses and mis-steps. While crises do not repeat themselves, you can learn from others tested by fire and those who make a profession of extricating school leaders out of periodic hot water. Just when you think you have it mastered, another crocodile in the education lagoon takes a snap at you.

Why do School Incidents become full-blown crises?  What can be learned from the handling of the Dalhousie Dental School crisis, the Saint Mary’s University ‘Rape Chant’ scandal, and the fumbling of the Rehteah Parsons case? What’s the best place to turn for guidance — your personal conscience, past experience, or the wisdom of others?

 

Public schools in many Canadian regional school boards simply do not operate anymore without a ready fleet of yellow buses. A growing share of the school tax dollar in Maritime Canada is consumed by daily student transportation, even as student enrollment declines and opportunities are being missed to achieve better cost and energy efficiencies. That was the key finding of our  January 2015 AIMS research report, Education on Wheels, and it raised what has been, for many years, a largely “hidden” public policy issue in the education sector.

AIMSEDonWheelsTransporting students to school is consuming more and more of the costs of public education not only in the Maritimes, but in Ontario and most provincial school systems (Monteiro and Atkinson, 2012). In Nova Scotia, over the past five years, student transportation costs (actual operating/per F/S) have risen from $64.2 million to $71.2 million, an increase of 10.9 per cent (Nova Scotia, DoEECD, 2014) at a time when overall P-12 enrollment continues to decline. The same pattern is also exhibited in neighbouring New Brunswick.

While it is fast becoming a major challenge for provincial education authorities and school boards, the critical issues remain shrouded in mystery and largely hidden from the public. School transportation policy is essentially driven by provincial grants and the official 3.6km/2.4 km/1.6 km ‘Walk Limit Standard’ entrenched in the long-standing regulations. School board initiatives aimed at containing costs by fiddling with local busing regulations and enforcing walking distances have little effect when “Education on Wheels” is taking a bigger and bigger bite out of provincial education spending (Table 1: Nova Scotia, DoEECD, 2014).

School closures and consolidation are routinely implemented as cost reduction measures without any real disclosure of the impact on school board or provincial school busing costs. Small school advocates and community activists who ask questions about the added costs to taxpayers are assured that it is either of no concern or that more students can simply be added to existing bus routes (Bennett, 2013, 29-32).

Behind the scenes, school boards claim that costs are “at the breaking point” and lobby fiercely for increased grant support to maintain or augment their bus fleets. It is, as a 2008 Alberta School Boards Association report quipped, “the stone in everybody’s shoe” (ASBA, 2008, 3). Yet, in the case of Nova Scotia, closing schools and putting more students on buses has only compounded the problem. Five years ago three in five P-12 students (62.8%) were bused to school each day; by 2013-14, two-thirds (68.1%) of the province’s students rode the buses and travelling longer average daily distances (Table 2: Nova Scotia, DEECD, 2014).

Student transportation trends in the Maritimes tend to be at odds with the recent pattern across North America. Looking at the entire U.S. Kindergarten to Grade 12 student population, slightly over half (55.3 per cent) of the 25.3 million students in 2004 were transported on school buses at public expense. A 2009 American study of how that nation’s elementary school students get to school demonstrated that, while the proportion of U.S. K-12 students bused over the past forty years has remained about 39 per cent overall, the percentage being driven by parents had jumped from 12 per cent to 45 per cent. Most significantly, the proportion of American students walking or bicycling to school dropped from 48 per cent to only 13 per cent.

Such a pattern is not as evident in Maritime cities like Halifax, Saint John, Moncton, and Fredericton. In the Halifax Regional School Board (2013-14), for example, 24,509 of the 48,596 students (or 50.4 %) were bused, about 7.6 % more than five years earlier. For small town and rural Maritime children, student transportation by those distinctive yellow buses still predominates with most school districts busing between 80 and 95.9 per cent of their students to and from school each day from September to June (Table 2: Nova Scotia, DoEECD, 2014).

Over the past thirty years, since the mid-1980s, provincial authorities and school boards outside of the Maritime region have become much more attuned to student transportation costs and the potential for cost efficiencies. Sharing of bus services between school boards and with other educational institutions surfaced in the mid-1980s, mainly in Ontario and rural Alberta.

SchoolBusUrban The Ontario Student Transportation Reform initiatives provide many lessons for other provinces. A 2002 Ontario Education Equality Task Force recommended that the province create 8 to 10 joint transportation “service boards.” In 2006-07, the Ontario Ministry of Education took action, requiring school boards across the province to develop partnerships and combine school board transportation departments into separate fully integrated transportation organizations. The Student Transportation Reform initiative compelled all of the province’s 72 boards to embrace the co-operative student transportation model and to combine in common, coterminous geographical areas (Ontario, STR, 2014).

In the initial phases of coterminous sharing, millions of tax dollars were saved, but the entry of dominant bus industry players like Laidlaw/Student First and Stock and preferred supplier arrangements tended to reduce price competition over time. While the initial cost efficiencies were dramatic, they did not apparently last.

An Ontario Student Transportation Task Force report, in June 2011, identified the problem of competitive procurement and revealed that school bus costs, serving 800,000 students, had reached $845 million, representing 4 per cent of the education budget. Based upon such findings, Ontario economist Don Drummond included reducing student transportation costs by 25 % in his February 2012 report recommending province-wide austerity measures (Drummond, 2012, R 6-17). That recommendation was likely based upon the documented findings of Ministry of Education Effectiveness & Efficiency Reviews, conducted since 2008, and pointing out further potential cost savings.

The most recent research study, produced for the June 2012 Canadian Transportation Research Forum, provided a valuable critical economic market analysis of Canadian school bus transportation. Researchers Joseph Monteiro and Benjamin Atkinson offered an overview of student transportation, province-by-province, and then examined, in some detail, the school bus industry. The researchers identified the need to further examine the impact of subsidization of pupil transportation, the privatization of school bus services, and the costs relative to the primary mission of public education systems. Serious attention was drawn to the potential for collusion between bus operators and “bid rigging” in the awarding of contracts (Monteiro and Atkinson, 2012).

Better managing the bus fleet and achieving cost reductions are only one side of the public policy issue. Nova Scotia’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Robert Strang, has urged policy-makers to look at the impact of school consolidation and busing on the health of children and youth (Strang, CT-NS AGM, 2014). Community advocacy groups such as Community Transit-Nova Scotia and the Ecology Action Centre share this concern and support public policy initiatives promoting active, healthy transportation alternatives. A comprehensive audit of student transportation might open the door to community planning more focused on establishing walkable schools in healthier local communities.

A few critical questions need to be asked: What are the Real Costs – financial and social– of busing so many kids to school?  Why is Student Transportation rarely factored into public discussion about containing education costs and creating liveable, walkable communities? Simply posing those questions will spark a needed policy debate over school consolidation, the rising costs of student busing, and the disappearance of walkable community schools. 

North American educational technology futurists see great things ahead in 2015.  After marveling at the amazing technological advances of 2014, the Ed Tech promoters at Getting Smart.com are even more bullish about the year ahead. What excites them? The new problems to be solved, the innovative power of technology, the promise of edu-resolutions, and the infinite possibilities ahead for students and teachers.

NewYear2015Optimism is fine, but heralding the coming of Ed Tech “Heaven” is indicative of what might be termed a 21st century “New Light” technological futurism.  How individuals, institutions, and school culture respond to technological change is fast emerging as the critical issue in today’s education world.  What now passes for educational forecasting, pitting the “Heaven” of the optimists versus the “Hell” of the pessimists,  is actually more akin to what Joel Garreau (2005) aptly labelled the “Prevail” or “Muddling Through” scenario.  With technology advancing, the idealism of the movement has given way to the “Prevail” option testifying to “the power of humans to muddle through extraordinary circumstances.”

Getting Smart sounds positively overflowing with optimism .  “What’s a new year without optimism?,” the lead blogger asks in rhetorical fashion. “Without a positive outlook on all things capable? What’s a new year without gathering to peer at the horizon of where we could be headed if we’re all in this together?” In its first post of 2015, Getting Smart, buoyed by fellow Ed Tech enthusiasts at Digital Promise, not only took time to celebrate the launch of Smart ParentsGenDIY, and the new year by examining how 2015 will be different for parents and students.

The Getting Smart 2015 predictions are lofty and perhaps typical of the rather pollyannish thinking of ed tech futurists:

1. With increased access to anytime, anywhere learning, students will have more options than ever to personalize their education in 2015.

2. Lots of schools and districts will move from planning mode to implementation mode on efforts related to personalized and blended learning.

3.  Parents will become more knowledgeable about the opportunities available to their students thanks to personalized, blended learning, ultimately resulting in more smart parents.

4. 2015 will provide even better student experiences for quality online and blended higher education through the personalization of virtual learning, including more cohorts and webinars, allowing them to tailor their degree program.

5.  The millennial generation will show us the way as Generation Do-It-Yourself (GenDIY), educators and EdLeaders will now shape instruction, strategies, and practices to best fit the jobs of today and tomorrow.

6. Solutions to a handful of EdTech issues will emerge in 2015 making it easier to combine formative data, compare student growth rates, and acknowledge progress, and hopefully improving guidance and counseling systems.

Taking a closer look at the Getting Smart prognostications, the initial over-the-top optimism seems to be rooted in a firm belief in a technology-driven society.  They also reflect the pragmatic optimism of the so-called “Prevail” camp.  As American education technology researcher Adam Therier puts it in The Technology Liberation Front,  today’s ed tech promoters focus not so much on its transformative powers as on how we can adapt and learn to cope with technological disruption and prosper in the process.

Modern thinking on the impact of technological change on societies continues to be largely dominated by skeptics and critics. From the French philosopher Jacques Ellul (The Technological Society) to Neil Postman (Technopoly) and Nicholas Carr (The Shallows), social critics have alerted us to the potential for the subjugation of humans to “technique” or “technics” and feared that technology and technological processes would come to control us before we learned how to control them.

Postman, perhaps best known as co-author of the 1968 classic, Teaching as a Subversive Activity, had a way of capturing your attention. The rise of a “technopoly”, he wrote, would mean “the submission of all forms of cultural life to the sovereignty of technique and technology” — that would destroy “the vital sources of our humanity” and lead to “a culture without a moral foundation” by undermining “certain mental processes and social relations that make human life worth living.”

National education technology lobby groups like C21 Canada simply brush aside any such concerns in their overall pursuit of the so-called “Mind Shift” to “21st century learning.” Most of the C21 Canada initiative is focused on mobilizing education CEOs and tapping into corporate funding from the leading technology providers, most notably Pearson Canada. This top-down educational leadership strategy was exemplified in the C21 Canada partnership with the Council of Ministers of Education (CMEC) under past Chair Jeff Johnson and most recently in the announcement of a C21 CEO Academy composed of West Vancouver ed tech champion Chris Kennedy and 21 other school superintendents.

School-level examples of the “Mind Shift” ushered in by prophets of the new technology are still hard to find here in Canadian provincial school systems. Well- funded ICT projects initiated by Mind Share Learning produce rather uninspiring “Let’s Play with IT” student activity videos like Foggs Science Classes and How to Integrate ICT.  So far, it’s doubtful if such small-scale, teacher-led activities are making much of a difference in the classroom.

We can move forward with education technology without ignoring the more sobering prophecies and succumbing to the allure of “technics.”  What Adam Therier calls “permissionless innovation” is definitely needed in the education sector. Creating the spaces to experiment with new technologies and pedagodgies is critical if we are to take fuller advantage of the success of the Internet and the digital economy.  In doing so, however, let’s not lose our heads and succumb to the technopoly in all its insidious forms.  It’s also fair to ask whether the current C21 Canada approach led by the CEOs will ever lead to true bottom-up ‘disruptive innovation’ in the schools.

MerryGoRoundHangTightSurveying Canadian K-12 education in 2014 conjures up, for some peculiar reason, the image of a carnival Merry-Go-Round. The multi-coloured wooden horses representing Canada’s 10 provincial and three territorial education authorities continue to spin around in predictable circles, but periodic breakdowns not only cause a change in riders, but also unsettle the clientele.

Spinning wheels and running without a steady, consistent ride conductor (Chair, Council of Ministers of Education) does not improve either public enjoyment or satisfaction levels. It does produce a ride with a few notable highs and lows.

High Points – Hopeful Signs

High School Attainment Levels
More Canadians than ever before, Statistics Canada reported, are successfully completing high school. While rising secondary school graduation rates signify improved attainment but not necessarily higher achievement, they are a positive educational indicator. Three out of four students (73%) complete high school in three years, with Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Ontario leading the pack (at 80%+) and Quebec and the Territories still lagging behind, from 66% to only 12%. The rank order raised eyebrows because it runs counter to most student achievement test-based assessments.

Crowd-Sourcing Education Reform
Nova Scotia’s long anticipated October 2014 Education Review report, entitled “Disrupting the Status Quo,” finally gave voice to public concerns. Since half of the population was “dissatisfied with the public school system,” the report claimed changes were in order, stunning most of the system’s ‘insiders.’ Many of the recommended changes, based upon 19,000 survey responses, point to the critical need for a shake-up in teaching the basic skills, special education, teacher evaluation/certification and public accountability.

Big Jump for a Small Province
The Pan-Canadian Assessment 2013 report contained a little surprise. On the Grade 8 level national tests, Quebec students still lead in Math (Mean 527), Alberta students are tops in Science (Mean 521), and Ontario students perform best in Reading (524). Yet among the middle range provincial performers, little PEI was the big gainer. Students from PEI showed the biggest gains, finishing ahead of Nova Scotia in Reading (494 vs. 488), in Math (492 vs. 488), and close in Science (491 vs. 492). Island students also outperformed British Columbia students in Math for the first time.

Resurgence of Math Fundamentals
The teaching of elementary Math continued to be a zone of conflict in most provinces, with the possible exception of Quebec. Concerned parents, supported by Winnipeg Math professors Robert Craigen and Anna Stokke, have challenged “Discovery Math”, urging ministries of education to focus on Math fundamentals before free exploration. After securing Manitoba Math curriculum changes, the WISE Math movement spread to Alberta, Ontario and BC. When tens of thousands of Albertans petitioned Alberta Education, Education Minister Jeff Johnson relented, requiring students to learn their math facts and master standard operations.

Innovation in Joint Use of Schools
Community school planning and partnerships are bubbling up in Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia. Nine new Saskatchewan schools will be designed to be used jointly by Catholic and public boards and built using public-private partnership funding, serving the Regina, Saskatoon, Martensville and Warman communities. In Nova Scotia, the Provincial School Review Committee headed by Bob Fowler succeeded in securing changes in school closure legislation and a new set of regulations enabling the creation of Community Hub Schools. Innovation talk may eventually lead to action at the school level.

Low Points– Troubling Signs

British Columbia Teacher Strike Disruption
A full-blown, year-long “Class War” erupted pitting the militant leadership of the provincial Teachers Federation (BCTF) against the hard line Christy Clark BC Liberal Government. The dispute over salary scales and class size dragged out for months, ending the 2013-14 school year two weeks early and delaying the start of the current one by three weeks, costing teachers up to $10,000 in lost salaries. The BCTF membership eventually accepted a six-year deal including a 7.25 per cent salary increase, added extended health benefits, better teaching-on-call rates, and more specialist teachers.

Toronto School Board Meltdown
Canada’s largest school board, the TDSB, was engulfed in one crisis after another. Chief superintendent Donna Quan, who succeeded the disgraced Dr. Chris Spence, ran into hot water of her own. Controversy erupted over the TDSB’s ‘secret’ deal with the Confucius Institute, forcing Chair Chris Bolton to abruptly resign. Then a sizable faction of the board’s 22 elected trustees, including Howard Goodman, came into direct conflict with Quan, demanding access to personnel files. Trustee Goodman was charged with forcible confinement and criminal harassment of Quan, and Education Minister Liz Sandals finally stepped-in, putting the whole board under review.

Rejection of Chevron Schools Program
A raging controversy arose when the Vancouver School Board, led by Superintendent Steve Cardwell, elected to block the Chevron Fuel Your Schools program, turning down the potential for $400,000 in extra support for student activities. When mayoralty challenger Kirk Lapointe publicly criticized the decision, VSB Chair Patti Bacchus held firm, denouncing Big Oil and its insidious influences on children. Public opinion shifted enough to deny Bacchus’ Vision Team candidates a majority, bringing an end to her colourful 6-year tenure as Chair.

Drake University ‘Bird Course’ Salary Upgrades
Dozens of Nova Scotia teachers were revealed in February 2014 to have been boosting their salaries by thousands of dollars a year, acquiring additional credentials by taking ‘bird courses’ offered through Drake University’s online distance learning program. NSTU president Shelley Morse immediately spoke up defending the teachers who took the easy route to secure hefty salary increases. Even after the Education Minister stopped the practice, the union remained undeterred, calling it an “unprovoked attack” on teachers. .

School Board Video-cam Bans
Closed door school board meetings continue to persist, as demonstrated in two different school jurisdictions. Sudbury parents Dylan and Anita Gibson, banned in 2012 from the Rainbow District School Board office for videotaping meetings, then served with a no trespass order, campaigned unsuccessfully in October 2014 for elected trustee positions. Undaunted, Anita fights on for public transparency with her Facebook group, Parents Paying Attention. On November 18, the North Vancouver board banned school reformers Shane Nelson and Kerry Morris from videotaping a public meeting, eventually pressuring the newly elected board to reverse its stance a month later at its inaugural meeting.

MerryGoRoundOnOffThe Education Carousel went ‘round and round’ in 2014 as the principal riders jumped on and off the carnival ride. Chairmanship of the Council of Education Ministers passed from Alberta’s beleaguered Jeff Johnson to his successor Gordon Dirks, two powerful Board Chairs, Chris Bolton and Patti Bacchus, were toppled in Toronto and Vancouver, and Hamilton Wentworth chief superintendent John Malloy was promoted upward in the wake of school closure protests and a significant election turnover of trustees.

Changes at the top may have altered the faces, but the system continued its familiar spin, albeit at different speeds on at least ten different carousels.

What’s your reaction to my Canadian national Report Card for 2014?  Have the true “highs” and “lows” been identified — and what’s been missed in this year end review? Now that the Report Card is out, it’s over to you.

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