Digital learning is on the rise in Canadian K-12 schools and is now emerging as a critical education policy issue in most of the nation’s ten provinces and three territories. Annual reports on K-12 Online Learning from 2008 to 2015, mostly researched and written by Canadian information technology expert Michael K. Barbour, demonstrate steady and incremental growth in the implementation and practice of distance, online and blended learning.

CaneLearnNov14TitlePageWithout a national education authority and public education governed by the provinces and territories, accurately assessing that growth in a country with 5.3 million K-12 students and 15,000 schools remains challenging for researchers. Based upon increasingly reliable annual surveys, the numbers of tracked “distance education students” have risen from some 140,000 (0.5%) in 2008-09 to 332,077 (6.2%) in 2013-14 (Barbour and LaBonte 2014).

The use of blended learning is also spreading, even if the reported data is rather patchy. With the 2012 formation of the CAN eLearning Network, a national pan-Canadian consortium focused on K-12 online and blended learning, better data may be generated, making tracking much more accurate and reliable for policy analysis and decision-making (Barbour 2013, CAN eLearning Network 2015 ).

Compared with the recent explosion of digital learning schools in the United States, online and blended learning in Canada’s K-12 public schools has followed a decidedly different pattern of evolution (Finn and Fairchild 2012; Barbour 2012). Much of the online learning in parts of Canada remains an outgrowth of correspondence school education, involving e-format programmed units, audio distance learning and video conferencing. The radical variations, free market experimentation, and ‘disruptive’ innovation found in the United States (Chubb 2012; Christensen et al. 2013) have not been replicated in Canadian public education.

The primary drivers in Canadian provincial and territorial systems are government authorities, while learning corporations serve as contractors providing content, learning technologies, and support services to the government-run operations. In spite of the tremendous potential for expansion in online learning programs, the free market remains regulated and private providers are largely absent. Provincial or school district authorities promote a ‘growth-management ‘strategy where online and blended learning are considered the next evolution of effective technology integration (Barbour PTDEA 2015).

Significant gaps still exist in service levels and barriers stand in the way of expansion into un-serviced frontiers, particularly in the Far North and First Nations communities. Only British Columbia, Ontario, and Alberta have, so far, proven to be fertile ground for private school ventures in the form of virtual or online schools.(Barbour 2010, 41; Kuehn, 2013).

Virtually all Canadian educational systems remain designed around seat time, defined as providing in-school classes of regulated size with a minimum number of instructional hours (Jenson et al. 2010; Powell et al. 2015). Some private sector virtual schools have recently arrived and thrive outside the mainstream system.

No full-time online public charter schools exist, even in Alberta, the only province in Canada with Charter School legislation (Bennett 2012). The rise of virtual schooling delivered by ‘cyber charter schools’ has surfaced as a public policy issue in Alberta, where a University of Alberta research unit, Parkland Institute, released an October 2013 report warning of the dangers of “pedagogical innovation” in the form of privatization presented as a way of easing “budgetary constraints” (Cummins and Gibson 2013).

CANeLearnOnlineEnrolments2014The growth of online learning in Canada may be more significant than reported by provincial and territorial authorities. While Quebec and New Brunswick both reported modest distance education enrolments in 2013-14, estimates for teachers using the curriculum in blended format are much higher. From 2011 to 2014, to cite another example, the Ontario Ministry of Education coordinated an initiative to expand access to blended learning for all K-13 students, which generated almost 240,000 blended learning enrolments in the provincial learning management system during the 2013-14 school year (Barbour and LaBonte 2014).

The national advocacy group 21C Canada holds some sway over provincial ministers of education (C21 Canada 2015), but, so far, the implementation of 21st century learning and the explicit teaching of ‘digital literacies’ is very uneven, particularly outside of the recognized lead provinces, Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta (People for Education 2014).

The natural evolution of online and face-to-face education from 2008 until 2015 is exemplified by the spread of blended learning.  Newer blended learning models, promoted by the Christensen Institute (Powell et al. 2015), are beginning to emerge in the so-called “hybrid zone” in what might be termed ‘lighthouse’ schools.

While provinces such as BC, Alberta and Ontario actively promote eLearning, innovation is limited by the current structural boundaries and education authorities are only beginning to track blended learning enrolment. In 2012-13, British Columbia enacted legislation enabling “flexible learning choices” and, with the support of the BC Distributed Learning Administrators’ Association (BCDLAA), blended learning and “flipped classroom” practices are becoming more mainstream (Barbour 2013, 61-62).

National online education survey reports, produced by the CAN eLearning Network (Barbour and LaBonte BIT 2015), testify to the steady growth of distance education and online programs, but identify the need for “better data” and more evidence of the transition to blended ‘competency-based learning’ in Canada. Evolution rather than revolution appears to be the Canadian way.

What’s really driving the growth in Canadian K-12 online and blended learning?  Where is the initiative coming from – from the top-down or the schools-up? What advantages does the “managed-growth” approach over the “destructive innovation” doctrine prevalent in some American states? Would Canadian students and families benefit from more “flexible learning” choices in K-12 public education?

Teacher contract negotiations normally rarely hit the news unless the talks go off the rails.  With the school year approaching in August, deals emerge in an atmosphere of urgency where both the provincial government and the unions seek to avert  back-to-school disruptions.  Except for the protracted, bitter 2013-14 British Columbia teachers’ strike and lock-out, government-union negotiating teams much prefer to settle critical contract matters behind closed doors. Until the current round, the Nova Scotia government and the provincial teacher union, the NSTU, kept everything under wraps and the public completely in the dark.

OntarioTeacherProtestsA recent flurry of teacher union settlements in Canada’s largest province may have changed all that. Premier Kathleen Wynne set out to secure “net-zero” salary contracts, then reached an 11th hour deal with the Ontario Secondary Schools Teachers Federation (OSSTF) in late August 2015 for 2.5% over the next two years, including an additional paid holiday and improved sick leave. That OSSTF deal set the benchmark and appeared to provide the framework for deals with Ontario’s other teachers’ unions.

Pulling deals out of the fire on the eve of the school year raised suspicions about the avowedly teacher-friendly Wynne Government.  A couple of weeks ago, the province was rocked by a series of explosive Toronto Globe and Mail revelations. The OSSTF settlement included a confidential $1 million pay-out to compensate that teachers’ union for its negotiating costs, and the payouts to all unions totalled $2.5 million. In addition to the $1 million paid out to the OSSTF, the Government paid $1 million to the catholic teachers’ union, plus $500,000  to the francophone teachers’ union in the current bargaining round. Going back to 2008, over three bargaining rounds, the total confidential payouts reached $3.47 million.

Digging deeper, Adrian Morrow of The Globe and Mail then unearthed new information: Ontario’s high school teachers’ union was sitting on more than $65-million in financial reserves while negotiating the secret $1-million payment from the Liberal government to cover is bargaining costs. Furthermore, that same union spent $1.8-million from that reserve fund on political activities and allocated hundreds of thousands more for bargaining expenses in the year before it negotiated the government payout.

While Ontario bargaining deals are dominating the education news cycle, teacher talks are proceeding very quietly in Nova Scotia.  Taking a page from the Ontario Wynne Government playbook, Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil and Finance Minister Randy Delorey broke with the normal protocol.  Starting in August 2015, they prepared the ground for a five year period of public sector salary restraint.  In late September, the Premier went public with an initial offer to the province’s 9,400 teachers: a five-year contract (0-0-0-1-1)  totaling 2 per cent (2015-2019).

The Nova Scotia Government staked out its ground with the public, putting the province’s “ability to pay” on the table.  After noting that 40 per cent of all newer teachers (years 1 to 10) would still get their step increases, the Premier also signaled that, in return, nothing else would be taken away.  That suggested that the province’s costly extra qualification teacher salary upgrade system (exploited by teachers taking Drake University online education courses), ending winter storm season PD days, and removing principals from the union would remain ‘untouchables.’

Teachers unions wield tremendous power in most, if not all, Canadian provincial education systems. In British Columbia, the Liberal Government of Christy Clark has survived intense labour battles, work-to-rule protests and lengthy disruptions, most fought over upholding a 2003 settlement removing class size and class composition from the provincial contracts. Successive BC governments have succeeded in containing education costs and maintaining student performance standards, in spite of recurrent education sector conflict.

Three provinces, Ontario, BC and Nova Scotia, each confront formidable teachers’ unions and seem to be taking differing approaches. Canada’s Pacific province is renowned for its periodic “class struggles.”  Ontario is more typical: taking tough at the outset, then caving-in at the bargaining table. Some independent education observers, most notably Margaret Wente of The Globe and Mail, see the Ontario bargaining payouts and contract climb-downs as confirmation that “teachers’ unions rule” the roost.  Whether Nova Scotia holds the line or abandons the field is now anyone’s guess.

Why do Canadian teachers’ unions hold such a sway over the provincial school systems?  Is the British Columbia approach to controlling costs and restoring management rights to the assignment of teaching staff the way to go? How common is the practice of paying the unions to negotiate their own provincial agreements? Who really gains from hard ball teacher negotiations?

Introducing computer coding in the early grades is now emerging as the favoured strategy for ‘seeding’ entrepreneurial skills in the schools. Since former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg vowed in his famous 2012 New Year’s resolution to learn code, digital industry leaders like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg have rallied around Code.org, a movement to get school children to learn about programming. Every year since, in early December, millions of students world-wide have participated in Code.org’s Hour of Code, a week-long event designed to promote the renewal of computer science education.

CodingKidsInitiativeThe so-called CodeKids movement, inspired largely by Microsoft-funded Code.org, is spreading like wildfire in and around North American school systems. Acadia University president Ray Ivany’s 2014 Now or Never report, effectively declared the Maritime province of Nova Scotia an economic ‘basket case” and called for urgent action to stoke-up “entrepreneurship” and implant it in the rising generation. It then emerged as one of six major “action points” branded as “our ICT Momentum” hoisted up by the subsequent One Nova Scotia Coalition as key strategies to revitalize the province’s struggling economy.

Computer coding for students is seen by One Nova Scotia zealots as a critical part of the teaching entrepreneurship agenda. With the support of New Brunswick CodeKids champion David Alston, younger Nova Scotians such as Jevon MacDonald of Volta Labs, succeeded in September 2015 in bringing “Brilliant Labs” promoting STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics) to a first cohort of pilot schools. In late October 2015, Nova Scotia Education minister Karen Casey went one step further, announcing that “mandatory coding” would be taught in every grade from Primary to Grade 12 in the province’s 400 public schools.

The Nova Scotia curriculum initiative, purportedly the first in Canada, presented “coding” as the primary means of implanting entrepeneurial skills. “We know that coding promotes problem solving, teamwork, critical thinking, innovation and creativity,” Casey claimed. “And we know that these skills are directly related to industries like computer programming, manufacturing, communications and more.”

Education Minister Casey’s implementation plan proved less convincing.  Mandatory coding courses would start in a few months, September 2016, and be implemented by existing teachers retooled to teach introductory computer science. That professional development training, she added, would be provided by staff from IBM and Google brought in to instruct the prospective teachers.

However laudable the initiative, the Nova Scotia implementation strategy left a lot to be desired. No specific reference was made to the existing Brilliant Labs pilot project, to the current competencies of teachers, the state of the school-level technology infrastructure, or the potential for ongoing business partnerships. While the plan was lauded by Nova Scotia’s relatively small private business class, including Jordi Morgan and the CFIB Atlantic, it was presented as yet another ‘inside the system’ project.

Many national and local businesses actively promote technology education and specifically programming in the schools.  Most promoters of teaching code are convinced that ICT (Information Communications Technology) is not only the wave of the future but the gateway to most jobs for today’s students. Mesmerized by the Internet revolution, they see an urgent need for teachers and their schools to finally get on board.

Nova Scotia is in economic decline and ripe for urgent action. In the province, ICT accounts for 8.2 per cent of the business sector and is considered a potential future growth sector. To retain young Nova Scotians, the province is scrambling to support its fledgling, mostly grant-funded “start-up” community, seeing them as sources of future employment. The strategy is one of necessity, given the slow decline of traditional private sector employment industries like pulp and paper, fishing, and resource development.

Computer coding may be a rather narrow base upon which to launch the needed entrepreneurial transformation. Computer Science died out as a credit subject in Nova Scotia schools over the past two decades, as it did in most other provincial school systems. It was approached as a branch of Mathematics where students were barred from entering without first acquiring higher level Math competencies. Faculties of education stopped training Computer Science teachers because demand dried up while industry and commerce was becoming more and more driven by the latest technology. Students resorted to learning programming on their own or later in the changing workplace.

Technology is here to stay but as a tool to unlock new knowledge not an end in itself.  Current teachers “assigned” to teach computer coding may not be the best ones to actually deliver the new program. Judging from the Ontario SNOW program, focusing on providing Special Education teachers with the latest assistive learning technology, employing technology tends to introduce new challenges in class management. Planning for successful implementation will involve supporting teachers in new and unfamiliar pedagogical terrain outside their normal teaching comfort zones.

The private business sector has been crying, in recent decades, for more graduates with computer science knowledge or higher level technological competencies.  Former teachers like Halifax technology expert Ari Najarian have been sounding alarm bells and even presenting new curriculum for junior and senior high schools. It was next-to-impossible to get those inside the system to pay much attention until Gates, Zuckerberg and Alston forced their way onto the public agenda.

The American promoters at Code.org and the annual Hour of Code attracted millions of students and thousands of teacher converts. In Nova Scotia, it took the “shock treatment” administered by Ray Ivany’s dire economic forecast.

Will introducing mandatory computer coding at all grade levels drive the change? Are school systems awakening to the need to fully embrace a more entrepreneurial spirit, particularly in slow growth regions? Where will the capable, qualified teachers of computer science come from? Will the focus on developing fundamental reading and numeracy skills be helped or hurt by the ICT initiative? How long will it take to produce a new generation of computer savvy, technologically proficient graduates?

A recent news segment on CTV National News, aired October 7, 2015, focused on the outrage expressed by parents of a British Columbia boy with Down Syndrome upon discovering that their son, Deacon, age 7, had been repeatedly been confined to a so-called “quiet room” – a small, windowless space designed for disruptive students. “I think it’s awful,” said father Kirk Graham. “It breaks my heart for my son.” He and his wife Jackie were so upset that they pulled their son out of school in protest. “This needs to stop,” Mr. Graham added. “Nobody should be put in a lockdown room.”

TimeOutBoyBC2015QuietRoomBCSchoolThe Salmon Arm, BC, case is not an isolated instance. A British Columbia report, Stop Hurting Kids, commissioned by Inclusion BC and the Family Support Institute in November 2013, identified 200 examples of children being left alone in everything from windowless offices to padded rooms to a gym equipment closet. Roughly half of the examples involved “seclusion” for periods as long as 3 hours; about one-in-three of the examples involved imposing physical restraints. An estimated 72 per cent of parents reported that their child suffered “emotional trauma.” Most concerning of all, somewhere between half and three-quarters of the parents only learned about the “isolation” through someone outside of the school.

Many Canadian schools now have “time-out” rooms to accommodate students engaging in repeated inappropriate or disruptive classroom or playground behaviour. Those segregated school spaces go by a variety of names ranging from “time-out” to “quiet corner” to “isolation” depending upon the province and particular school district.  Most, if not all, education authorities now have “guidelines” for the use of “designated time-out” rooms.  In the Atlantic provinces, for example, a set of formal guidelines, developed first in 2002 in New Brunswick, have essentially sanctioned such “behaviour-modification” actions.

Intervening in the classroom to curb misbehaviour or ‘acting-out’ by calling a “time-out” is commonly accepted professional teaching practice.  In most instances, it is the appropriate strategy, and Special Education research (ABA) tends to show that it can be effective in reducing problem behaviours, including those exhibited by students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and behavioural disorders. Faced with students demonstrating aggressive or potentially dangerous behaviours, teachers need to have a range of means to assist in settling students down in school.

Having recognized that practical classroom reality, the “time-out” strategy can lead to more intrusive and potentially damaging measures involving “restraint” and “seclusion.” The Canadian Council for Exceptional Children recognizes restraint and seclusion as “an emergency response, not a treatment.” The Ontario Association for Behaviour Analysis (ONTABA) recommends carefully planned, monitored and limited time-out sanctions and restraint and seclusion as “a last resort” in an “emergency situation.”

American professional organizations such as the APBA, faced with far more lawsuits, are far more explicit in setting limits. “The misuse and abuse of restraint and seclusion procedures with vulnerable people is intolerable,” according to the APBA (2009), ” an represents a clear violation of ethical principles and accepted professional practice.”

Over the past decade, “isolation rooms” have come to light as a direct result of some well-publicized and disturbing cases. In March of 2009, the parent of 8-year-old Dylan Gale went public over the confinement of her son in a the “storage closet” of a Windsor, NS, public school. A Nova Scotia Education Department survey found that 42 such unregulated rooms existed in provincial schools and that revelation led to the implementation of an August 2009 set of guidelines.

Even with policies in place, alleged abuses continue to happen across Canada. Last school year, a 9-year-old autistic boy attending Ottawa’s St. Jerome Catholic School was handcuffed by police officers on school premises and Toronto-area parent Karen Thorndyke launched a $16 million law suit against the Peel District School Board for confining her autistic son to an “isolation room.”

Schools are not intended to be prisons or young offender’s centres, so time-outs, restraints and seclusion tend to arouse very strong feelings. In Britain, vocal critics of “isolation rooms” campaign for their abolition because they tend to be applied against Special Education students who find themselves “frightened and alone” in such enclosed spaces. Since the 2006 report, “The Costs of Inclusion,” the issue has been hotly-debated. That report’s findings demonstrated that the real purpose of seclusion was to “remove the disruption” so that “teachers can get on with teaching.”

Seclusions have only short-term impact and only solve an immediate problem for a teacher attempting to cope with a class of 27 to 30 other students. A 2010 U.K. Bernardo’s report, “Not present and not correct, concluded that isolating a student “usually neither addressed the issues leading to discipline problems, nor provided any guidance that would help the young person learn to control themselves.”

Isolation of students does not really address the root causes and merely hides it away from sight. It also raises fundamental policy questions: What is the impact of restraint and seclusion on our most challenged and vulnerable children and youth? How can we support teachers confronting significant behavioural problems without entrenching such potentially damaging practices? Is it right to remove one child from the room so that others can learn? Is this chronic issue one of the unintended consequences of imposing “fully inclusive classrooms” on everyone?

Every September a fresh crop of hundreds of mostly novice teachers head North to teach in remote, mostly First Nations populated communities. Hired by northern public school districts or aboriginal education authorities, the recruits arrive flush with excitement and prepared to ‘sink or swim’ on a mostly unfamiliar educational terrain. This year is different for one reason: Teach for Canada (TFC) is a new ‘wild card’ on the educational scene and it’s an independent NGO committed to addressing the teacher shortage, filling vacant teaching posts, and ‘closing the education gap’ affecting Ontario’s northern First Nations communities.

RoxanneMartinTFC“By working with First Nations elders and educators and better preparing teachers, the program is filling a void,” says Cynthia Wesley-Esquimault, Lakehead University’s Director of Aboriginal Initiatives. “That’s why we hosted the four-week long Teach for Canada summer enrichment training session here at Lakehead.”

All eyes are on that one specially trained group of thirty-one teachers who have just taken up their posts in seven different communities in the Ontario North. They are, after all, the first cohort of emissaries recruited, selected and supported by Teach for Canada, co-founded by three energetic former Action Canada fellows, Kyle Hill, Mark Podlasly, and Adam Goldenberg

Although welcomed by most First Nations chiefs and lead educators, TFC has received an icy reception from the Canadian Teachers Federation (CTF) and vocal teacher union activists. When teacher unionists see the Teach for Canada logo with its quintessentially Canadian flying geese, they see its big bad American counterpart, Teach for America, and the thin edge of the wedge of creeping “privatization.” They are also leery of TFC recruits signing on with First Nations schools for salaries off the public school grid.

Since its inception, TFC has not only sparked a series of openly hostile teacher union blog posts, but prompted the CTF to issue a “Briefing Document” and greet the new TFC graduates in August 2015 with a condemnatory media release.

Close observers of First Nations communities are downright puzzled by the reaction of teacher unionists to the Teach for Canada pilot project in northern Ontario. “We currently do nothing to train and acclimatize new recruits entering First Nations communities,” notes Wesley-Esquimault, “and so it’s definitely an improvement.”

“Teach for Canada is filling a hole,” says Wawatay News reporter Rick Garrick, “so how can you complain?” In addition, he adds, “they are building a network of teaching colleagues to help with the feelings of isolation and provide ongoing support in the transition.” The highly acclaimed principal of Thunder Bay’s First Nations high school, Jonathan Kakegamic, winner of a 2013 Learning Partnership Outstanding Principal’s Award, is also supportive of the initiative. “I just found out about it this August,” he says, “but it looks like a step in the right direction. It’s hard to find qualified teachers, especially in high school, so it fills an immediate need.”

Northern Ontario public school boards have been slow to react to the TFC initiative. This is perhaps understandable because, right from the beginning, they too have been reluctant to embrace Teach for Canada. True to form, they have been disinclined to acknowledge, let alone respond to, this initiative from outside the system.

The initial Teach for Canada project only got off the ground in the Ontario North when the Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) based in Thunder Bay, Ontario, jumped at the opportunity to secure motivated, committed and eager new teachers for their remote, far-flung elementary schools.

One of TRC’s most impressive recruits, Roxanne Martin, an Anishinaabe raised in Toronto, is effusive in her praise for the project. Growing up in Ontario’s teeming metropolis, she longed to know more about her cultural identity and is delighted to be a pioneer for Teach for Canada teaching this fall at the Lac Seul First Nation school. “Knowing that we have a great support system and being able to incorporating First Nations culture into our teaching is great,” she told CBC News. “I don’t think you could find it anywhere else.”

Fresh from a four-week training session, including a five-day stay at Lac Seul First Nation, Martin and the first cohort of Teach for Canada recruits are better prepared than any previous group of teachers destined for teaching in First Nations communities.

Sweeping condemnations of educational innovations originating outside the system are all too common. From the ground level, it looks like a positive development, if only as a transitional program.  The ultimate goal is, of course, to provide First Nations education by fully qualified indigenous teachers. It will not happen if we keep shooting down promising teacher recruitment and training projects.

Why have First Nations communities in the Ontario North embraced Teach for Canada?  What’s really driving the resistance mounted by the Canadian Teachers Federation and outspoken teacher union activists? Who can complain when previous teacher preparation for teaching on First Nations reserves was so limited?  Is it possible that Teach for Canada is what is needed to spark the transition to First Nations education delivered by indigenous teachers?

An 87-year-old education reformer from the Land of Thomas Jefferson and the University of Virginia is now taking education in the United Kingdom by storm.  Since being rediscovered by former British Education Secretary Michael Gove, E.D. Hirsch, founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation, is enjoying a renaissance. He’s not only captured the attention of Britain’s brightest education scholar, Daisy Christodoulou, but is now finding a new and more receptive audience in Britain. His recent Policy Exchange Public Lecture on September 17, 2015, has made him the darling of education’s chattering class.

EDHirschLecturePosterHirsch is being rediscovered by a whole new generation of thoughtful, better-read educators completely fed-up with the “content-lite” curriculum predominant in state schools the U.K. and still blithely accepted across North America. He burst on the American national education scene in 1987 with the publication of Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs To Know, which – in a rare act of intellectual courage– proposed 5,000 subjects and concepts that every American ought to know to be considered a ‘fully educated person.’ He followed it up with his true educational classic, The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them (1999). That book spawned the Core Knowledge Foundation which works across the United States to publish “core content” materials and specifies the knowledge and skills which ought to be taught in every school year.

The educational pendulum tends to swing and today E.D. Hirsch is literally born again as both a wise prophet and a resilient education reformer. Once dismissed as an American “conservative” educator and purveyor of “hard facts,” he’s now being cherished in Britain as a stalwart defender of “knowledge” in state school systems seemingly mesmerized by teaching “competencies and skills” for the 21st century world. Educators everywhere are awakening to the fallacies entrenched in so-called “progressive education” dogma. If everything can now be “Googled,” why do we have schools?

Even though Hirsch is a liberal Democrat, he has been labelled in the United States as an arch-conservative for daring to question the basic premises of John Dewey’s “learn by doing” brand of education.  In his September 2015 Policy Exchange lecture series, he demonstrates that teaching knowledge to young children is egalitarian because it provides the foundation for becoming better early readers and more informed young citizens. Developing a sound vocabulary and knowledge about the world, not only aid in reading but make for more successful students. Developing that knowledge base is a “plant of slow growth,” so the early years are important to establishing the foundations.

Hirsch is no fan of the fashionable 21st century “students can teach themselves” school of thought. Search engines, he told his British audience at Pimlico Academy, cannot be relied upon to teach vital knowledge. “Google is not an equal opportunity fact-finder”: it requires some knowledge to know where to look in the first place and then to determine whether the information is completely bogus. It’s like fumbling around in a dark room looking for the light switch or trying to find that needle in that massive electronic haystack.

MassachussettsMiracleGraph2011Hirsch’s  teachings actually flow from a very logical, common sense educational premise: knowledge matters because knowing something remains important — and knowledge builds on knowledge; the more you know, the more you are able to learn. Twenty years ago, in 1993,  the State of Massachusetts adopted his “core knowledge curriculum” model and, since then, has surged ahead of the pack among American states. While American education schools, including Columbia, Harvard, and Boston College flirt with Finnish education, the United Kingdom has latched onto the “Massachusetts Miracle” and its initial inspiration, Hirsch’s Core Knowledge curriculum.

What we know about reading comprehension owes much to Hirsch.  As a professor of English Literature in his mid-fifties, he made a discovery about how reading is taught that, in his words, “changed his life.”  The prevalence of poor reading and writing skills among incoming university students troubled him and he set out to address the “literacy gap.”  It was most evident in classes where teachers embraced “reader-response” strategies in the study of literature.

Hirsch is best known as a scholar for his impeccable, in-depth research into reading comprehension.  He observed that “knowledgeable students” had an easier time comprehending the texts, and then discovered that reading comprehension was greatly enhanced by the early acquisition of “background knowledge.” His ground-breaking studies, summarized in a Spring 2003 American Educator article, demonstrated that the so-called “fourth grade slump” and stagnating reading scores could be traced back to a fundamental lack of background knowledge as well as weak foundational skills.

His research discoveries were transformed into what became the Core Knowledge curriculum framework. It rests on two key principles: 1) Coherent, cumulative factual knowledge is vital for reading comprehension, literacy, and critical higher-order thinking skills; and 2) Children from poor, illiterate homes remain disadvantaged and illiterate because of a lack of cultural literacy and core background knowledge.  Not addressing that problem constituted  “an unacceptable failure of our schools.”

The “Massachusetts Miracle, “ initiated with the 1993 Education Reform Act, is closely connected with the adoption of  knowledge-based standards for all grades and a rigorous testing system linked to those new standards. Between 2003 and 2011, Massachusetts students have soared to higher levels on the NAEP tests in grade 4 and grade 8 reading and mathematics. It is also commonly acknowledged that the state standards are Hirsch’s legacy. That is, more than anything else, what attracted the British Education authorities to Hirsch and the advantages of a core knowledge-based curriculum.

Hirsch’s curriculum reform agenda implemented in the Bay state spread to about 1,000 U.S. schools, driven by charter school adoptions. While his Core Knowledge framework faced fierce opposition from the Columbia School of Education and entrenched “educational progressives,” the architect of the project remained a determined, almost incurable optimist. The American Common Core reform initiative attempted to mimmic his curriculum with mixed success. The British version, promoted by former Education Secretary Gove, is more closely aligned with his model and will likely be a fairer test of its effectiveness.

Why have American education reformer E.D. Hirsch and his Core Knowledge Curriculum come once again to the fore? How much of the “Massachusetts Miracle” is attributable to the adoption of the core-knowledge curriculum, standards and accountability program ?  What went wrong when the United States attempted to implement the Common Core Curriculum with the sanction of the Barack Obama administration? How important is the mastery of content and the acquisition of knowledge in the most successful schools worldwide?

School has resumed for another year and most parents, teachers and students are discussing the thorny issue of homework.  Common sense would suggest that it is desirable for students to come to class each day prepared and capable of contributing to activities and discussion. A body of educational research had accumulated by the late 1990s documenting its “positive benefits”for reinforcing classroom lessons, teaching responsibility and self-discipline. Assigning a steady diet of programmed-learning worksheets, mind-numbing repetitive exercises, and “busy work” –to be sure– gave conventional homework a bad name. It also opened the door to a short-lived North American backlash against homework in the mid- 2000s.

HomeworkHeadacheBCAfter the appearance of American education writer Alfie Kohn’s 2006 book, The Homework Myth, a vocal minority of parents and educators sparked a movement to curtail homework and eliminate it in the early grades. Kohn succeeded in challenging the purported benefits of homework in improving student academic performance and attracted friendly researchers like Dr. Linda Cameron at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. In February 2008, Cameron and OISE colleague Dr. Lee Bartel produced a study of parent opinions and attitudes that supported Kohn’s claims that homework was excessive, especially in lower grades, and that it reduced “family time” and affected “family relationships.”  That opinion research, buttressed by teacher union workload studies, led credence to moves underway  in Ontario to “ban homework” in lower elementary grades.

Limiting or eliminating homework gained favour in Canada’s major urban school boards, most notably in the Toronto District School Board, the Greater Vancouver region,  and the Halifax Regional School Board. By 2012, the impact of the changes was beginning to show in the reported weekly hours of homework and student preparation in mathematics. New studies also pointed to possible negative effects of cutting down homework on student work ethic, grit and resilience.

Fifteen-year-olds around the globe, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development reported in 2013,  spent an average of 5.9 hours a week in 2012 doing homework, one hour a week less than in 2003.  While Shanghai-China and Singapore students were assigned 13.8 hours and 9.7 hours respectively; United States and Canadian students were only expected to complete 6.1 hours and 5.5 hours of homework.  South Korean and Finnish students averaged 2.9 and 2.8 hours, considerably less than their North American peers. The OECD Education Office attributed it to adolescents spending more time on the Internet and to changes in homework policy.

The direct benefits of homework for student academic achievement are not clear before Grade 3, but researchers have identified and confirmed other important merits of the practice. The benefits tend to vary according to the subject and grade level, as well as the amount and type of homework.  Spending a lot of time on homework in the early grades does not translate into better reading performance (PIRL 2011), but it does contribute to developing self-discipline reflected in more focus, better time management, and improved self-confidence (CMEC, 2014).

The latest research confirms that doing homework is essential to performing reasonably well in junior and senior high school.  Since Canadian high schoolers now report doing less than one hour per day (CMEC, 2014), most education authorities reject Kohn’s claims and see a positive “return on the time invested” in subject-specific homework, balancing the multiple demands of competing subject areas.  All recent studies concur that older students continue to benefit more than younger students because of the edge it gives them in academic achievement.

The Homework Backlash is fizzling-out as parents and teachers recognize that too little rather than too much is now expected of most public school students. In the Canadian province of Nova Scotia, homework has made a real comeback.  A provincial Education Review, conducted by Myra Freeman in 2014, surveyed 19,000 Nova Scotians and discovered that half of those surveyed were “not satisfied” with P-12 education and a majority of parents and teachers felt students were “not prepared” for the next grade.

The Nova Scotia Education Review findings led to the proclamation of a Provincial Homework Policy (Grades P-12), effective September 2015, setting an “expectation for educators” to assign homework in graduated amounts, to evaluate it promptly, and to provide regular feedback to students. It was introduced, top-down on all students, ages 5 to 18, over the objections of the teacher union president Shelley Morse who saw it as another “source of work” for teachers.  This measure, it would seem, violated the cardinal principle that students and teachers are more inclined to carry out actions that they find palatable than to swallow bitter tasting curatives.

Schools without clear homework expectations are certainly ill-prepared for some of the most exciting innovations emerging across the continent.  The best example is the so-called “Flipped Classroom” model where students are expected to utilize the Internet to watch videos as 21st century-style “homework” and teachers are encouraged to utilize class time for interactive, follow-up learning activities.  What’s really odd about the Nova Scotia provincial policy, however, is that “homework” cannot introduce new material and thus the “flipped classroom” is actually rendered more difficult to implement.  Perhaps that’s a comment on the receptivity of Nova Scotia to online learning inside and outside the classroom.

What good does homework do at each stage of schooling? Should schools and school authorities be firmer in expecting more homework?  Why has recent research tended to blow holes in Alfie Kohn’s 2006 book, The Myth of Homework?  Do system-wide homework policies work when they are imposed from the top? How can new policies help to enable some innovative approaches such as the flipped classroom?


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