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Every weekday morning, students across the nation arrive at school and file into their classrooms. Most students are ready and prepared to learn, but increasing numbers are reportedly anxious, “stressed-out” and hyperkinetic. Teachers everywhere find today’s students distracted by mobile devices and texting, wrestling with family issues, bothered by bullying, easily excitable, or simply anxious about academic expectations.  Child psychologists and parenting experts provide plenty of advice on how to help “stressed-out” kids cope in our schools and homes.

YogainClassBCMore children and teens claim to be “stressed” than ever before, but — strangely enough– the research evidence to support such assumptions is spotty at best. One of Canada’s leading authorities on teen mental health, Dr. Stanley Kutcher, observes that they are under “different kinds of stress” and perhaps less resilient than in the past. Why some kids can “handle the pressure” of competition while others “fall apart” is now attracting more serious study. Close observers of classroom culture are also noting the recent trend toward promoting the philosophy of “mindfulness,” including “Breathe In, Breathe Out” daily yoga exercises.

Stress is a normal part of everyday life and resilience is what allows students to not only survive, but to thrive.  The idea that “all stress is bad,” Dr. Kutcher insists, is a popular myth and “completely untrue.” In a March 2011 interview with CBC-TV health reporter Kelly Crowe, he clearly explained why without resorting to inaccessible medical terminology:

“Stress is useful for us, it helps the body tune itself, it is a method by which we learn how to adapt to our environment either by changing ourselves or by changing our environment.  There is good stress, which is positive, it helps kids learn how to pick themselves up and dust themselves off, and start all over again. That’s part of resilience.  That’s part of learning how to deal with life, but sometimes there’s also stress that is bad for you and part of the deal is understanding which is which.”

When does stress become harmful to children and youth? Here’s Dr. Kutcher’s answer, based upon the best research:

“Stress which is very prolonged or very intense can be harmful to people and the times in life when that stress comes on can also be more harmful than other times.  For example early in life; severe and prolonged stress early in life such as maltreatment or abuse can have impact not only at that point in life but also well into adulthood because of its impact on brain development. Severe and prolonged stress is not good for you.”

Reading recent news articles endorsing “Mindfulness in Class” and “Self-Regulation” made me wonder if advocates of such approaches made any distinction between types of stress, and whether “competition” was, once again, a bad word in elementary classrooms.  One Grade 5 class in Abbotsford, BC, taught by Julie Loland, addressed the problem with a “Mindfulness” initiative. In her “high needs” school, Ms. Loland utilized Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Buddhism-inspired strategies to calm the children down and get them to focus on learning. “I felt kids came to school and were not ready to learn; they were battling stressful life situations,” she said. “Many students didn’t care about learning” and simply came to school to escape “their poverty.”  Regular yoga exercises were introduced to ensure “kids were open to the learning of the day.”

A Toronto region school, Massey Street Public School in Brampton, is implementing Dr. Stuart Shanker’s prescription from Calm, Alert, and Learning, a variation of “Mindfulness” known as “self-regulation.” In teacher Shivonne Lewis-Young’s Grade 3 and 4 classes, children sit on a blue carpet and padded balls rather than at desks and the day begins with passing a “talking stick” and asking each child “how do you feel today?”  Calming the kids down and teaching them how to control their behaviour with “self-regulation zones” is seen as the panacea. “It appears to be working” anecdotally, according to The Globe and Mail’s Education reporter, Caroline Alphonso.  It definitely makes the kids feel better, but where’s the evidence that it’s building confidence, strengthening resilience, or improving their grades?

More discerning education analysts and researchers, particularly in Britain, consider such “feel-good” strategies as mostly  harmless as school-based elementary-level experiments but possibly detrimental if scaled-up to a system-wide initiative.  Utilizing them in socially-disadvantaged schools might be doing more harm than good by further “degrading” the curriculum and lowering student performance expectations.  On this score, Dr. Kutcher has some further advice:  “We’re not here as a species and still surviving those millennia because we couldn’t adapt to stress. On the contrary, our brains are wired to adapt.  I don’t think we actually do anybody a service and we may actually do young people a disservice by trying to protect them from stress and trying to make everything nice and everything rosy and having a Pollyannish approach to life.  I don’ t think that does anyone any good.”

Respecting the pupil and challenging them to do their best remains the soundest, proven, and research-based approach, especially for kids who come to school with few social advantages.  School classrooms are populated by “Warriors” and “Worriers” and some of that outlook and attitude, whether high motivation or paralytic anxiety, is definitely parent-driven. American psychiatrist Douglas C. Johnson of UCLA, San Diego, a leader in the OptiBrain Center Consortium, specializes in training pilots and favours “stress inoculation” as a strategy: “You tax them without overwhelming them. And then you allow for sufficient recovery.”  That, Johnson claims, ‘helps diffuse the Worrier’s curse.’

If that sounds a little harsh and perhaps overly competitive, then Dr. Kutcher’s approach might be more palatable. “We have to learn how to deal with stress,” he says. “That doesn’t mean that giving kids techniques… or showing them how to deal with it is a bad thing. I think it’s probably a good thing but doing it over and over again and providing cocoons for kids I don’t think works.”

Are kids more stressed today or are we just more sensitive to it in our schools and homes? Do educational prescriptions such as “Mindfulness” and “Self-Regulation” help or hurt today’s students? Where’s the evidence that calming them down sharpens their intellect and produces improved performance? Is there any danger that mainstream elementary classrooms are becoming “therapeutic” rather than educative in their focus? 

British educator Katie Ashford, the spunky curator of Tabula Rasa Blog, is stirring-up much needed education reform thinking.  “Education in the UK isn’t always good enough,” she says in her first “Why I Blog” post. “Far too many children pass through the doors of our schools into the real world knowing little, unable to read, and incapable of expressing themselves. To me, this is a tragedy. Our education system is flawed and we need to do something about it urgently.”

StrugglingTeenReaderThat commitment to raising educational standards and sense of urgency certainly shines through in her most recent commentary, “Please teach my daughter to read,” posted January 17, 2016, and now generating quite an online reaction. In it, Katie utilizes the case of a British teen’s amazing turnaround in reading fluency over 18 months to demonstrate that “correct methods” can work apparent wonders in making Special Education Needs (SEN) all but disappear.

She certainly spins a compelling story. As Assistant Head at Michaela Community School, in the Wembley District of London, Ashford reports that the student’s father enrolled “Georgia” in her school convinced that her academic struggles, entering secondary level, stemmed from not being able to read. Without promising miracles, she took on the project based upon her “hunch” that Georgia was “yet another victim of our profession’s ignorant mistakes” and, rather than having a “cognitive disability,” simply needed to be taught to read through proven, research-based methods.

Her “hunch” was borne out by Georgia’s experience. Eighteen months later, Ashford reported that “Georgia has received rigorous reading instruction and reads thousnds of words per day, including the classics. She is no longer on the SEN register and her reading age (level) has improved by 4 years. She still has lots of catching up to do, but she is making rapid progress.”

Ashford and her Tabla Rasa Education blog are, as expected, drawing flack from ‘diehard’ progressive educators either wedded to “whole word” approaches or simply hostile to academy schools such as Michaela with its explicit KIPP educational philosophy.  Resorting to such criticisms is revealing because it attacks the institution without really confronting the evidence of success.

Hunches about the impact of early reading failure on the rising incidence of SEN coded or designated students are well-founded and supported by mounds of research findings. Since the mid-1990s reading research has tended to show that children who get off to a poor start in reading rarely catch up. The poor first-grade reader almost invariably continues to be a poor reader (Francis, Shaywitz, Stuebing, Shaywitz, & Fletcher, 1996; Torgesen & Burgess, 1998). And the consequences of a slow start in reading become monumental as they accumulate exponentially over time.

The recognized pioneer in the field is Canadian researcher, Dr. Keith Stanovich, Professor Emeritas at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. Thirty years ago, Stanovich pointed out in his well-known paper (1986) on the “Matthew effects” (the rich get richer and the poor get poorer) that failure to acquire early word reading skills has lasting consequences ranging from negative attitudes toward reading (Oka & Paris, 1986), to reduced opportunities for vocabulary growth (Nagy, Herman, & Anderson, 1985), to missed opportunities for development of reading comprehension strategies (Brown, Palinscar, & Purcell, 1986), to less actual practice in reading than other children receive (Allington, 1984).

“Catch Them Before They Fall” is the key message conveyed by Joseph K. Torgesen, Jamie Metsala and other leading reading research specialists.  “It is a tragedy of the first order,” according to Torgeson,” that while we know clearly the costs of waiting too long, few school districts have in place a mechanism to identify and help children before failure takes hold. Indeed, in the majority of cases, there is no systematic identification until third grade, by which time successful remediation is more difficult and more costly.”

Early reading failure is now recognized as a critical factor contributing to the burgeoning numbers of Special Needs students not only in Britain but elsewhere. The Reading Reform Foundation has led the charge in the U.K. and one of the best articles making the connection is Dr. John Marks piece “Special Need or Can’t Read?” published in the May 2001 RRF Newsletter.  In it, he expressed alarm that the U.K. had ten times as many pupils with ‘Special Educational Needs’ than in 1980 and over a million and a half pupils in total.

Across Britain, Marks reported in 2001 that more than one in five of all pupils were on ‘Special Needs’ registers – and in some schools the figure was as high as a staggering 55% or more.  The numbers of SEN children with “statements” of severe disabilities stood at 2 to 3 per cent, meaning that the vast majority of SEN students were what was described as “soft” with, at best, moderate or undiagnosed learning disabilities. He then posed the fundamental question: “Is the explosion in ‘Special Needs’ real? Or has it happened because schools have failed over many years to teach properly – and to teach reading in particular.”

A recent shift in British SEN policy is beginning to address the problem identified a decade ago.  In September 2014, Special Needs and Disability (SEND) reforms to the Children and Families Act were introduced to better track and properly designate students by their SEN provision.  Since then, the total number of SEN students has dropped from 1.49 to 1.3 million, while the number with a clear SEN “statement” stands at 2.8%, a slight increase over the past year.  This was consistent with a 2010 Ofsted Study that found about one-quarter of all children labelled with SEN and as many as half of those on “School Action” lists, did not actually have SEN.

Literacy levels are now considered to be a major contributing factor perpetuating economic inequality.  A 2014 report of the National Literacy Trust and commissioned by Save the Children has now sparked the publication ‘How reading can help children escape poverty’ produced by the Read On. Get On. coalition. That U.K. campaign brings together teachers and other professionals, charities, businesses, publishers and local communities pursuing the lofty goal of all children reading well by the age of 11 by 2025. Much like Katie Ashfield, they see the potential for all children learning to read if taught by more effective methods and fully embraced by the school system.

How many of our Special Education Needs (SEN) population are actually casualties of ineffective early reading instruction? Why are education reformers questioning the incidence of SEN student numbers often labelled as hard-nosed or unsympathetic to students? Which early reading interventions work best in producing fluent readers?  If we were to “catch them early,” what would SEN programs look like and would we actually be serving those who need intensive support much better? 

School bus fleets remain an underutilized public resource and thousands of yellow buses sit idle for not only much of the school week, but for long periods of the calendar year. Most school districts consider those buses to be ‘school board property’ and continue to see transporting students and providing community transit as completely separate functions.  That remains the case even though rural and small town communities with aging populations are very under-served when it comes to alternatives to gas-guzzling private automobiles, vans and trucks.

SchoolBusMETJ16While school age populations are static or declining in most districts. communities are now responding to a growing aging population about to exert profound economic and social impacts, particularly in rural areas of Canada. Senior citizens use public transit more than any other age group, and the numbers of Canadians 65 or older will grow by 25 per cent from 2011 to 2031.

Developing improved rural transit services is emerging as a critical part of planning for the future.  Two of the greatest challenges in rural mobility, whether in Northern or Eastern Ontario, or most of the Prairie West and the Maritimes, are residents’ access to healthcare, shopping and seniors’ services, since many elderly citizens are unable to drive or cannot afford a car.

One new Ontario pilot project attracting a lot of attention is the Muskoka Extended Transit (MET) initiative. While major cities look to pour millions into subway and rapid rail systems, this rural district in Central Ontario is turning to school buses to help its citizens get around. Starting on January 12, 2016, three companies will be operating school buses weekly along seven routes connecting small villages to the larger communities of Gravenhurst, Bracebridge and Huntsville in Muskoka. The initiative is being funded in part by a grant from the provincial ministry of transportation.

Muskoka’s year-round residents, numbering about 60,000, are a population much like that of rural Canada as a whole. The district also has a high proportion of seniors, with more people over 75 than under 19 years of age. Average incomes in Muskoka have slid from 91 per cent to 83 per cent of the provincial average over the past 10 years.  Two of the seven Muskoka bus routes, for example, transport seniors to Huntsville on Tuesdays, so seniors’ centres and health providers can schedule services to match demand. Other Ontario districts, such as Deseronto and Huron County, utilizing transit buses or rideshare systems, report high public demand for employment, education, and seniors’ services.

The idea of deploying school buses is one that could potentially be applied more widely in rural Canada: taking advantage of school buses sitting idle between picking up kids in the morning and dropping them back home in the afternoon. It was proposed in our AIMS research report, Education on Wheels, back in January 2015, but there was little take-up on the policy option.

Financial barriers do exist for rural transit models, since it can be difficult to justify providing a self-standing service carrying a relatively small number of passengers over sometimes long distances. The 2003 Durham Region Transportation Plan study, for that reason, recommended using demand-responsive services, including school buses, public para transit, van pools and group-chartered taxis. Of those options, school buses are emerging as the most viable for mid-day and late-afternoon route services.

Not much has happened in Maritime Canada since our Education on Wheels report. Today, one or two of Nova Scotia’s municipalities are experimenting on a small scale with using school buses, as strictly local initiatives, acting without much visible provincial support.

The Town and County of Antigonish launched their own Antigonish Community Transit service on September 15, 2014, and secured support from the Union of Nova Scotia Municipalities at the November 2014 UNSM Fall conference.  Community Wheels, a public/community transit service operating in and around Chester, Nova Scotia, has used a wheelchair accessible mini-bus to provide students with after-school service to access community and extra-curricular activities. The pioneering Kings Transit Service, connecting Wolfville and Brooklyn, NS, was suspended in September 2015 after the Town of Windsor and the municipality of West Hants pulled out, resulting in a 76 per cent reduction in funding for the route.

Many communities, aside from those in rural Ontario, consider maintaining separate public transit and student transportation systems as duplicative and wasteful. Community transit can also be a safe, affordable, and convenient supplement to traditional school buses, especially for middle and high-school students.

Instead of tethering yellow buses to limited school routes, it’s time to meet the pent-up demand for services in rural and small town Canada. Muskoka’s Extended Transit service (MET) shows that it can be done on a larger, more coordinated, region-wide scale. Sharing bus services between municipalities and school boards is an idea whose time has come. It should be part of any province-wide, integrated urban and rural development plan going forward.

Why are school buses sitting idle for much of the week and calendar year when there is a crying need to provide improved rural transit? Should school districts be looking at serving the aging population as student enrollments level off or decline in rural areas? What are the added advantages of incorporating school bus services into community transit ? What’s standing in the way of sharing services, partnering with local transit firms, and collaborating across silos in the public sector? 

Public education trends in K-12 schools across Canada can be difficult to track. Without an eagle eye and a swivel-head, the next epic “education crisis” can come and go without much public notice. Nor do Canadians have any real federal presence in education to either establish national standards or provide independent assessments of provincial or territorial school programs.

Gauging the upticks and downticks is still possible, in between the beats and before the self-repairing school system quickly returns to its normal rhythms. What follows is a look back at 2015 in Canadian education with an eye to the coming year.

Notable Upticks

Educational Reconciliation

TRCReconcilePosterThe release of Justice Murray Sinclair’s massive December 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, together with the appointment of Dr. Carolyn Bennett as Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister, bode well for educational reconciliation and a satisfactory resumption of First Nations education reform. Establishing a stronger basis of trust, more stable federal funding, and more holistic, Indigenous-informed curricula, will go a long way to repairing the damage.

International Teaching Summit

The fifth annual International Summit on the Teaching Profession (ISTP 2015), at the Banff Springs Hotel, March 29-30, 2015, was sponsored by the OECD Education Office, but it shied away from discussing PISA testing and instead focused on supporting teachers and building their confidence to prepare students for a rather nebulous “rapidly changing world.” Chaired by short-lived Alberta Education Minister Gordon Dirks, ISTP 2015 was clearly the work of OECD education director Andreas Schleicher, OISE eminence gris Michael Fullan, and Stanford University education professor Linda Darling-Hammond. Out of the 400 delegates, most were actually Canadian officials or educators sponsored by provincial authorities and teaching unions.

Nova Scotia’s Three Rs Reform Plan

Public school students in Nova Scotia will focus more on mastering the fundamentals in mathematics and literacy, less on writing standardized tests under a N.S. January 2015 reform plan with the catchy title, The Three Rs: Renew, Refocus, Rebuild.  Delivered by Education Minister Karen Casey, the initiative responded to a blunt October 2014 provincial review that found half of Nova Scotians “not satisfied” with the quality of education.  It also called for a stronger teacher certification and evaluation system and a provincial audit of the efficiency of school boards.

Math Matters Protests

Hundreds of Alberta parents rallied in July 2015 to protest a new Math curriculum, dubbed “Discovery Math” by a growing number of parents, math professors, and local business advocates. Spearheaded by Dr. Nhung Tran-Davies and bearing a Math Petition with 18,074 signatures, the protestors continued to pressure a succession of Education ministers for changes to restore basics-first math instruction. The popular protests came on the heels of a May 2015 C.D. Howe Institute report claiming that Canada’s math teachers need to shift their focus away from discovery-based learning and move back towards traditional methods.

Indigenous Leadership Renewal

A new harvest of Indigenous leaders began to emerge in 2015 aroused by the Stephen Harper Conservative government’s intransigence and emboldened by the public support engendered by the nation-wide TRC hearings.  Two of the better known of the newly empowered generation were National Assembly of First Nations chief Perry Bellegarde, who succeeded the deposed Shawn Atleo, and the multi-talented Wab Kinew, author, host of CBC’s Canada Reads competition, and Associate Vice-President at the University of Winnipeg.

Memorable Downticks

TDSB Leadership Upheaval

Canada’s largest public school district, Toronto District School Board, endured one of its worst years on record.  When Board Director Donna Quan resigned in mid-November 2015, it brought a tumultuous end to her short tenure, 18 months before the expiration of her contract. Torn by a deep rift between Quan, her staff and the elected Board, the beleaguered Director stepped aside. In doing so, she also bowed to the findings of an earlier TDSB investigation, ordered by Education Minister Liz Sandals, that described in detail the board’s “culture of fear” and dysfunctional leadership.

School Closure Express Train

Armed with the dreaded New Brunswick Policy 409, and aided by that province’s District Education Councils (DECs), Education Minister Serge Rousselle  and his Department imposed a top-down, speeded-up “school sustainability process” upon supporters of a dozen threatened rural schools. Described by critics as a runaway “Express Train 409” bearing down on their communities, it sparked the formation in April 2015 of the first Rural Schools Coalition in the province.

Protracted Ontario Teachers’ Strikes

TeachersProtestON15A year of teacher strike disputes continued in Ontario, with a few interruptions, until November 2015.  Public elementary school teachers (EFTO) reached a tentative salary deal in early November, ending a lengthy period of work-to-rule. Support staff represented by a separate union (CUPE) also struck a deal then, ending negotiations that lasted over a year. One major difference between the November deals reached with ETFO and CUPE and the agreements with other unions is that these did not come with payments from the government to cover the unions’ negotiating expenses. A return to normalcy was promised with the issuing of full December 2015 student report cards.

Missing B.C. Student Records

British Columbia’s Minister of Technology Amrik Virk shocked British Columbians in late September 2015 when he publicly disclosed the loss of an unencrypted backup hard drive containing about 3.4 million student records.  The missing hard drive contained student data from 1986 to 2009, including information on children in care with serious health and behaviour issues. While the minister called the breach “low risk,” the B.C. information and privacy commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, claimed it raised “very serious privacy issues,” and launched an investigation.

Threat to Local Education Democracy

Elected school boards continued to flounder across Canada in 2015 because they are being eclipsed by expanding centralized administration far removed from students and parents. Since the stiff warning issued in a 2013 Canadian School Boards Association study, conducted by Gerald Galway and a Memorial University research team, elected trustees have been unable to recover their “voice of the people” role and face probable extinction.  In the fall of 2015, Quebec and P.E.I. joined New Brunswick in ending elected boards.  Disbanding school trustees without a viable replacement is not what’s best for students, parents, or local schools.

So much for the most visible trends and newsworthy events:  Where is Canadian K-12 education drifting? Will the next round of OECD Education international tests show any real change in student performance levels?   Is the era of centralized administration and standardization showing signs of fracturing in our provincial school systems? Has the education sector borne the full brunt of government austerity or is more to come? Will elected school boards survive as presently constituted across Canada? 

A lively national conversation is underway in the United States over stalled upward mobility and stark income inequality and it has a more genteel echo in Canada.  Many North American educators point to poverty as the explanation for American students’ mediocre test scores and it also serves as a favoured rationale for explaining away the wide variations in achievement levels among and within Canadian provinces. Only recently have policy analysts, boring down into the PISA 2012 Mathematics data, begun to look at the alarming achievement gap between states and provinces, the relationship between education expenditures and performance levels, and the bunching of students in the mid-range of achievement.

PISA2012CanadaGraphicThe socio-economic determinists offer a simple-minded, mono-causal explanation for chronic student under-performance. American education policy analyst Michael Petrilli and Brandon Wright of The Thomas B. Fordham Institute recently recapped the standard lines: If teachers in struggling U.S. schools taught in Finland, says Finnish educator Pasi Sahlberg, they would flourish—in part because of “support from homes unchallenged by poverty.” Michael Rebell and Jessica Wolff at Columbia University’s Teachers College argue that middling test scores reflect a “poverty crisis” in the United States, not an “education crisis.” Adding union muscle to the argument, American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten calls poverty “the elephant in the room” that accounts for poor student performance.

The best data we have to tackle the critical questions comes from the OECD Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which just released its annual Education at a Glance 2015 report.  For its own analyses, PISA uses an index of economic, social, and cultural status (ESCS) that considers parental occupation and education, family wealth, home educational resources, and family possessions related to “classical” culture. PISA analysts use the index to stratify each country’s student population into quartiles. That broadens the focus so it’s not just about addressing the under-performance of disadvantaged children.

MathScoresSES2012The PISA socio-economic analysis identifies the key variations among international educational jurisdictions. Countries like Belgium and France are relatively better at teaching their higher-status students, while other countries like Canada and Finland do relatively better at instructing students from lower-status families. Contrary to past assumptions, the United States falls almost exactly on the regression line. It does equally well (or equally poorly, if you prefer) at teaching the least well-off as those coming from families in the top quartile of the ESCS index.

A Fall 2014 Education Next report by Eric Hanushek, Paul Peterson and Ludger Woessmann pointed out the wide variations, country-to-country, in overall Mathematics proficiency.   Some 35 percent of the members of the U.S. class of 2015 (NAEP) reach or exceed the proficiency level in math. Based on their calculations, this percentage places the United States at the 27th rank among the 34 OECD countries. That ranking is somewhat lower for students from advantaged backgrounds (28th) than for those from disadvantaged ones (20th).

Overall assessments of Mathematics proficiency on PISA offer no real surprises. Compared to the U.S., the percentage of students who are math proficient is nearly twice as large in Korea (65%), Japan (59%), and Switzerland (57%). The United States also lags behind Finland (52%), Canada (51%), Germany (50%), Australia (45%), France (42%), and the United Kingdom (41%). Within the U.S., the range is phenomenal – from a high of 51% in Massachusetts to a low of 19 % in Mississippi.

Cross-national comparisons are misleading, because Canadian students have plateaued on the PISA tests over the past decade.  While Canada was still among the high-level achievers, performance of the country’s 15-year-olds in mathematics has declined, with a 14-point dip in the past nine years. While performance in reading has remained relatively stable, the decline in science performance was “statistically significant,” dipping from an average of 534 in 2006 and 529 in 2009.

MathPISA2012RangesMuch like the United States, Canada exhibits significant variations from one provincial school system to another.  A 2013 Canadian Council of Ministers of Education Canada (CMEC) review of the OECD PISA 2012 Mathematics performance levels revealed the stark achievement inequalities. Four Canadian provinces set the pace – Quebec, British Columbia, and Ontario – and the remaining six are a drag on our average scores. Fully 25% of Prince Edward Island students score Below Level 2, below the OECD average (23%), in Mathematics proficiency. The other provinces with the next highest levels of under-performers were: Manitoba (21%), Newfoundland/Labrador(21%), Nova Scotia (18%), and New Brunswick (16%).

There is no case for complacency in Canada, as pointed out, repeatedly, by Dr. Paul Cappon, former CEO of the Canadian Council on Learning (2005-2011) and our leading expert on comparative international standards. For a “high-achieving” country, Canada has a lower proportion of students who perform at the highest levels of Mathematics on recent PISA tests (CMEC 2013, Figure 1.3, p. 25).  Canada’s 15-year-olds are  increasingly bunched in the mid-range and, when it comes to scoring Level 4 and above on Mathematics,  most score at or below the OECD average of 31 %.  The proportion of high-achievers (Level 4 and above in 2012) was, as follows: PEI (22%); Newfoundland/Labrador (27%); Nova Scotia (28%); Manitoba (28%); Saskatchewan (33%); and Ontario (36%). Mathematics students from Quebec continue to be an exception because 48% of students continue to score Level 4 and above, 17 points above the OECD average score.

Students coming from families with high education levels also tend to do well on the PISA Mathematics tests. The top five OECD countries in this category are Korea (73%), Poland (71%), Japan (68%)Germany (64%) and Switzerland (65%), marginally ahead of the state of Massachusetts at 62%. Five other American states have high-achievement level proficiency rates of 58% or 59%, comparable to Czech Republic (58%) and higher than Canada (57%) and Finland (56%). Canada ranked 12th on this measure, well behind Korea, Poland, Japan, Switzerland and Germany.

Educators professing to be “progressive” in outlook tend to insist that we must cure poverty before we can raise the standards of student performance. More pragmatic educators tend to claim that Canadian schools are doing fine, except for the schools serving our disadvantaged populations, particularly Indigenous and Black children.  Taking a broad, international perspective, it appears that both assumptions are questionable. There are really two achievement gaps to be bridged – one between the affluent/advantaged and the poor/disadvantaged and the other one between Canadian high achievers and their counterparts in the top PISA performing countries.

Does low Socio-Economic Status (SES) marked by child and family poverty set the pattern for student achievement in a deterministic fashion?  To what extent can and do students break out of that mold? How critical are other factors such as better teacher quality, higher curriculum standards, and ingrained ethno-cultural attitudes? Do school systems like Canada and Finland tend to focus on reducing educational inequalities at the expense of challenging their high achievers?  Is this the real reason that many leading western G21 countries continue to lag behind those in Asia? 

The World Wide Web is an amazing human creation with unlimited potential to advance the education of children and youth. In its first phase, it was exciting and wide open, stimulating innovative thinking, sparking incredible creativity, and fomenting a little anarchy.  Out of this creative chaos emerged a master integrator known as Google. 

GAFEBoysWith its global mission—“To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible”—and its much-quoted mantra, “Don’t be evil,” Google won converts worldwide. More recently, Google Apps for Education (GAFE) has taken K-12 education by storm. School systems have adopted and embraced GAFE with remarkable zeal and surprisingly little critical analysis of its impact upon the way we think,  the personal privacy of students, or the implications for professional development. Google now competes with Microsoft and a few smaller players for a large share of the $8-9 billion market for software for elementary and secondary schools.

Google Apps for Education, first introduced in 2006, attracted some 30 million users (students, teachers and administrators) by 2013-14 before it hit a bump in the road. While Google kept GAFE advertisement-free, they did scan the contents of students g-mail accounts, gathering information that could be used to target ads to those students elsewhere online.

In 2013, students and g-mail users in California banded together to sue Google, claiming that e-mail scanning violated wiretap laws. During the litigation, Google conceded that they were scanning emails sent and received by students using GAFE.  Faced with a wave of popular opposition and media criticism, Google announced, in April 2014, that it would no longer mine student email accounts for ad-targeting purposes. That followed a decision made two weeks earlier that a competitor, InBloom, partly financed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, was shutting down its operations.

The Nova Scotia Department of Education and Early Childhood Development (DoEECD) is one of hundreds of school systems that have jumped on the latest 21st Century digital learning bandwagon. Three years ago, without much fanfare, provincial school authorities announced that they would be signing an agreement with Google to implement GAFE in the public schools.  After piloting the program in a number of schools in 2014-15, the DoEECD  decided to make GAFE available to every single child and teacher in the 400 schools across the province.

The Nova Scotia GAFE service, according to high school teacher Grant Frost, provides every student and teacher user with their own g-mail account, as well as several useful applications, including Google Docs, a leading edge word processing program, Google Sheets, which outperforms Excel, and Google Slides, which is a more integrated multi-platform version of PowerPoint. Users also have access to Google Classroom, where, with a click of mouse and a one time code entry, they can sign up for a class and receive notifications about upcoming events, class assignments and ask about homework questions with their teacher via his/her cell phone at all times of the week.

Twenty thousand out of Nova Scotia’s 118,000 students are now using free computer software from Google as part of their classroom activities. Provincial education officials expect Google Apps for Education to be nearly universal by the end of 2016-17.  The cloud-based suite of programs can be accessed on any electronic device with an internet connection and a web browser. It includes email, word processing and assignment management software. Some school boards have chosen to issue students $200 devices called Chromebooks to let them access Google products at school and at home.

Google Apps for Education is spreading quickly and teacher training summits have been held or are scheduled to be held in Ontario, Alberta, Quebec and BC as well as Nova Scotia.  In schools across the country, it is becoming increasingly essential for students to have access to the Internet in order to be successful. Homework, projects, even information and advice from teachers is now transmitted on-line, and more readily accessible if you have the electronic tools to access the information.

Google provides access to Apps for Education to schools for free, along with unlimited electronic storage on Google’s servers, with the expectation that students will be ‘inducted’ through education into the World of GoogleDr. Mike Smit, a computer scientist and associate professor at Dalhousie’s School of Information Management, told CBC News Nova Scotia  that the cost per student, per year of the free access is negligible for a company as large as Google. Besides, he said, Google has all the training modules and infrastructure in place to minimize its costs of implementation.

Many educators like Grant Frost express grave concern about the “digital divide” and the inequities in terms of student access to computers and digital devices. In schools across the country, it is becoming increasingly essential for students to have access to the Internet in order to be successful. Homework, projects, even information and advice from teachers is available on-line, if one only has the means to access it. Its hard to expect full student participation when,  according to a 2014 Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives report, 1 out of every 5 children living in Nova Scotia in 2012 was living below the poverty line.

Canadian universities, like K-12 school systems, have embraced “cloud technologies,” turning either to Google or Microsoft as the favoured vendors for outsourcing of  their eCommunications services. Ontario’s Lakehead University was early out of the gate late in 2006 and became the legal test case for the legality of storing sensitive personal data outside the country.  After it was settled in a 2009 arbitration decision ruling in favour of outsourcing, most universities went that route. More recently, academics Heidi Bohaker and John M. Dirks, have raised serious questions about the impact of outsourcing on “digital archives” containing personal user accounts, organizational memory, external and internal online conversations.

Student privacy concerns have not gone away in the United States. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) filed a complaint on December 1, 2015 with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) against Google for collecting and data mining school children’s personal information, including their Internet searches. It also launched a “Spying on Students” campaign, which launched today. to raise awareness about the privacy risks of school-supplied electronic devices and software.

EFFSpyingonStudentsThe EFF examined Google’s Chromebook and Google Apps for Education (GAFE), and found holes in the protection of student privacy and evidence of unfair trade practices.  While Google does not use student data for targeted advertising within a subset of Google sites, EFF found that Google’s “Sync” feature for the Chrome browser is enabled by default on the inexpensive brand of Chromebooks sold to schools.

The California-based advocacy group claims that the “Sync” feature allows Google to track, store on its servers, and data mine for non-advertising purposes, records of every Internet site students visit, every search term they use, the results they click on, videos they look for and watch on YouTube, and their saved passwords.  Since some schools require students to use Chromebooks, many parents are left unaware of the scanning of student data and unable to prevent Google’s data collection.

Does the spread of Google Apps for Education raise unresolved student privacy issues and the spectre of major corporations mining metadata to shape their messaging? Is student and teacher data stored with “cloud technologies” safe, secure and free from domestic spying operations? What’s the impact on education when whole school systems outsource to one supplier whether it be Google or a competitor? Is it possible for Google to virtually subsume professional development through system-wide online training and the enlisting of Google certified teacher-trainers?

 

Twenty five years ago New Zealand faced a crisis of school system accountability. Then Prime Minister David Lange responded by introducing a “self-managed schools” system that turned the whole education world upside down. With that sweeping education reform, New Zealand became the test case for employing school-based governing boards to re-engineer the public school system.

SchoolCouncilBrainImageThe Tomorrow’s Schools reform plan of 1989 implemented nation-wide “self-governing schools,” eliminated school district bureaucracy, and delegated much of the responsibility to elected school council governing boards. Most decisions affecting students and teachers would be made at the school-level and closer to the point of implementation. It was particularly aimed at providing more flexibility to accommodate Maori schools and improve the educational opportunities for Aboriginal children.

Lange’s government went even farther than the Edmonton Public Schools in utilizing the model to reduce education bureaucracy and to create greater cost efficiencies. Seeking to improve system responsiveness, organizational flexibility, and public accountability, New Zealand’s model also held out the promise of more immediate delivery of services and resources, more parental and community involvement, and greater teacher responsibility for managing local schools.

Today New Zealand has a well-established “self-governing schools” system. Successive educational reviews, mostly conducted by Cathy Wylie of the NZ Council for Educational Research, have sustained the experiment and addressed a few early phase shortcomings, including the high turn over of the initial cohort of school-appointed principals.  Current Education Minister Hekia Parata is again reviewing the education system, assessing its effectiveness, and looking at making a few reforms.

Many Canadian provinces are saddled with a school board governing system that is floundering with expanding centralized administration far removed from students and parents. Back in 2013, a Canadian School Boards Association study, conducted by Memorial University’s Gerald Galway and a respected research team, issued a stiff warning that elected boards were in serious jeopardy. Elected school boards were no longer perceived to be the “voice of the people,” feeding the growing public concern that boards had lost their “raison d’être.”

The only real policy options presented in a subsequent Journal of Canadian Education Administration and Policy article (September 2013) were crystal clear: “quiet acquiescence to centralization” or “take action to save the sinking ship.” Rather sadly, the warning and the call to action went largely ignored, particularly in the Maritime provinces.

SchoolCouncilsPeelLogoThe CSBA research report identified the crux of the problem facing elected school trustees. For elected school board members to be credible, they must be perceived to be “accountable and committed to their mandate and their electorate; ensure a level of openness and transparency…; demonstrate a responsiveness (ensuring) that decisions are made within reasonable timeframes…; make the best use of their resources; (and) work to mediate different interests for the best outcome.” By adopting the corporate designation “board member” and adhering strictly to a “policy making role,” they had become distant from parents and communities and, in far too many boards, were suffering from a loss of democratic legitimacy.

School councils, proposed in Nova Scotia Premier Dr. John Savage’s 1995-96 Education Horizons reform plan, may well have filled the void in strengthening school-community relations. In their initial form, they were “school governing councils” designed as the centrepiece of a New Zealand-like “school-based management model.”

The original conception of school governing councils was rejected by the Nova Scotia Teachers Union and many of its NSTU-member principals, one of the principal victims of the 1995-96 NSTU campaign against Savage’s Education Restructuring plan. While school councils were sanctioned in the Education Act reform, they were reduced to “advisory bodies” with no power to appoint principals, manage the school budget, or pass binding resolutions contrary to school or board policy.

Today the SACs still limp along in Nova Scotia with mostly a handful of ‘hand-picked’ members functioning as little more than a sounding board for local principals. Elected board members are not only barred from membership in their local SAC, but actively discouraged from attending unless invited by the principal. A survey of the October 2011 School Advisory Council Handbook reveals that SACs “exist in most schools” but not all. With only six members, the principal and staff representatives hold half the SAC seats, and motions require 2/3 majorities, so none ever pass without teacher support. Any such school reform activity is strictly limited because the Handbook recommends “all decisions be made by consensus or be deferred until the next meeting.”

New Zealand’s system of self-managing schools may not have lived-up to its initial aims, but we know why and can address the identified shortcomings. School councils populated by elected trustees have succeeded in “bringing together school and community” and, at their best, allow local interests, including those of Indigenous peoples, to be reflected in education-policy making. The ideal size for a SGC of elected trustees is 10 to 12, double the N.S. SAC number, and a clear majority must be parents or community members, including representatives of local business employers.

Even with school-based governance, there is still a critical need for district education administration, albeit a much scaled-down version. There is also a continuing need for Regional Boards of School Trustees, possibly the elected SGC Chairs, to ensure proper linkage among and between local schools. All Regional School Trustees should be elected from, and remain ex-officio members, of the SGCs in their district.

District school administration would have to be re-purposed for their “support circle” role.  All school councils, we know now, still need professional support in the appointment and appraisal of principals, the development of provincially-aligned school plans, the provision of school-by-school student performance data, and in resolving periodic school-level disputes.

School Governing Councils, like those in New Zealand, Edmonton and Quebec, have never been given a fair chance in most Canadian provincial school systems.  It’s high time to seriously consider turning the whole system right-side up by focusing on building school-based education governance, redefining the role of elected school trustees, and providing improved democratic representation in all provincial public schools.

Would a school governance system based upon elected school-level trustees improve educational accountability and help to expand the number of “good schools”? What can be learned– 25 years on– from the New Zealand Tomorrow’s Schools educational reform? If educational research suggests elected board members have little impact upon student learning, how and why did it become their narrowly-defined mandate? Would community-school based governance help to spark innovation and strengthen community partnerships?

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