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Surveying the education public as well as ‘stakeholders’ for their opinion is the latest trend in Canadian K-12 education policy. Two recent Canadian education surveys conducted in Nova Scotia and Alberta provide some recent examples worthy of further discussion.  The recent release of Alberta Education Minister David Eggen’s curriculum survey results (April 13, 2017) also demonstrates that unsuspecting citizens may need help in penetrating through the official spin to get at the actual results.

Facing deep divisions in P-12 education over future directions, and not inclined to follow the research evidence, provincial authorities are going, more and more, to soliciting public opinion utilizing surveys with pre-determined outcomes.  Upon closed scrutiny, the Alberta survey seems wholly designed to confirm intended curriculum directions.

Conducting public surveys is not without its risks. In the case of the 2014 Nova Scotia Education Review survey, a largely unvarnished, no-holds-barred instrument actually backfired on the Education Department. When the N.S. Review Committee headed by Myra Freeman polled 18,500 residents, the results published in October 2014 proved a real jolt and sent the provincial teachers’ union into a tizzy, mostly focused on being excluded from shaping the survey and serving on the commission.

One half of Nova Scotians, the survey found, were “not satisfied with the public school system” and teachers as well as parents identified plenty of reasons why. The report, Disrupting the Status Quo, generated very high expectations — never honoured — that major reform was on the way.  A three-month NSTU teacher work-to-rule in 2016-17 effectively sunk the quality education reform plan and generated a completely new set of teacher-driven demands for improvement in “working conditions.”

Alberta Education had no desire to see that pattern repeated.  Minister Eggen’s curriculum survey looked, and sounded, skewed in the Education Department’s preferred direction – toward more of what is loosely termed “21st learning.” In Alberta Education futuristic doubletalk, the overarching goal is to produce students who “are agents of change to create the globe that they want to be part of.”

The survey, conducted in October and November 2016 succeeded in attracting some 32,390 respondents, of whom only slightly over half (57%) might be classed as ‘outside the system.’The proposed directions were presented as amorphous curriculum “themes” where respondents are clearly led to certain conclusions. You are, for example, asked whether you agree or disagree with this statement: “Through learning outcomes curriculum should support the development of literacy, numeracy and 21st century competencies.”  It is impossible to answer if you think basic numeracy and literacy should take precedence over the ill-defined futuristic skills.

Conducting the survey was also further confirmation of the provincial strategy to thwart mathematics education reform. With the Alberta “Back to Basics” petition, initiated by parent Dr. Nhung Tran-Davies of Calmar, AB, piling up 18,332 signatures, the survey attempts, in clumsy fashion, to override that hardened opinion.

The Department’s summary of responses does its best to conceal the extent of resistance to current K-12 Mathematics teaching and curricula.  Sifting through the Mathematics responses, teaching math facts, restoring step-by-step algorithmic thinking, limiting the use of computers, and mastering mental math far outweighed any preference for “21st century competencies” or its step-child, discovery math.

Instead of addressing these findings, Minister Eggen  ‘cherry-picked’ one example of the desire for ‘relevance’ – support for including financial literacy in grade 4 to 9 classes. That too is a clear sign that parents want their kids to be able to balance a set of sums.

Albertans’ written responses to the open-ended questions are the clearest indication of their true inclinations.  Out of the 15,724 respondents committed enough to do more than tick boxes, the largest segment, again (10 %), favoured refocusing on “math basics” and singled out “discovery math” as a problem. Combined with “learning the basics” (6%) and teaching practical skills (7%), one in four who made comments targeted the lack of rigour in the curriculum.

Judging from the wording of questions, the entire survey also skewed in the direction of student-centred teaching methods. That’s strange because the recent PISA 2015 global results report demonstrated conclusively that “explicit instruction” produced much better student results than “minimally-guided instruction.”

The inherent bias pops up elsewhere. “This survey,” it reported, “was intended to focus on the ‘what’ of current provincial curriculum not ‘how’ teachers teach it.”   Serious curriculum analysts know it’s now virtually impossible to separate the two in assessing program effectiveness.

Provincial education authorities were, at one time, given explicit mandates based upon either firm political policy positions or best practice research. When governments are lost and searching for direction, they may turn to the public to find their bearings. In the case of Alberta, it looks more like surveying for confirmation of the ‘educrats’ own pre-determined direction.

*A condensed version of this Commentary appeared in the Edmonton Journal, April 18, 2017.

Why do school systems survey the public?  Are Canadian provincial governments totally lost on K-12 education and simply looking for direction? Do our Education Department’s  harbour a secret agenda?  Or are they looking for public confirmation of pre-conceived plans for curriculum changes? 

Alberta teacher Mike Tachynski, a high school science teacher at Edmonton’s Ross Sheppard High School, is a brave soul.  In late January 2017, he had the courage to speak up publicly about the critical, but largely buried, issue of grade inflation in Canadian high schools.  It was just one more indication that the province of Alberta, once the bastion of higher graduation expectations, was falling more into line with other ‘soft on standards’ provinces.

In the three minutes Tachynski was allotted to address the Edmonton Public Schools elected board, on January 31, 2017, he demonstrated that Alberta was not immune to the disease of grade inflation. Moving away from weighing final exams at 50 per cent of the final Grade 12 subject mark was already contributing to  ‘grade inflation’ leading to irregularities in grades that unfairly favoured some students over others. “Inflated grades create a lose-lose situation,” Tachynski told the board. Students whose teachers are presenting more rigorous challenges may understand the material better, but have a lower grade on their transcript. On the other hand, he said students with ‘artificially high grades’ may flounder when admitted to college and university programs.

The provincial data for June 2016, published in the Edmonton Journal,  supported Tachynski’s claim. Some 96 per cent of students were awarded a passing grade in Math 30-1 by their teachers, but only 71 per cent of those who took the diploma exam passed the test — a gap of 25 percentage points. For Chemistry 30, it was 15 percentage points.  Going back to 2008, the gaps in pass rates between teacher-marks and diploma exam results had grown in five of 12 subjects over the span of nine years.

What’s shocking about Alberta’s slide in standards is that, as recently as November 2011, Maclean’s Magazine had hailed that province as having Canada’s best education system based upon the standards of its graduating students. Based upon a 2011 University of Saskatchewan admission study of 12,000 first-year university student grades, Alberta high school graduates dropped only 6.4 points, compared to as much as 19.6 points for students from other provinces. It was attributed, at the time, to Alberta’s policy of basing 50 per cent of the final grades on diploma exam marks.

Grade inflation has been identified as a major concern since the early 1980s in most school systems in the English-speaking world. In 2009, Durham University in the U.K. studied the phenomenon and concluded that an ‘A’ grade was now roughly equivalent to a ‘C’ grade in 1980. Ten years ago, forty per cent of Ontario high school graduates were leaving with an ‘A’ average, eight times as many as in the more conventional British system. In Alberta at that time, it was only 20 per cent, in large part because of compulsory exams in the core subjects.

Former Alberta school administrator Jim Dueck has recently written about the internal struggle during the early 2000s to maintain the province’s more rigorous standards. “Superintendents were loathe to undertake any action to ameliorate the problem,” he wrote in his 2014 book, Education’s Flashpoints.  “Large-scale testing was contentious and acknowledging the significantly different results was thought to be inflamatory and likely lead to a backlash among union members, which at the time included principals.”

Co-author of the much discussed 2008 book Ivory Tower Blues, James Côté, a Western University sociology professor, insists that grade inflation ultimately hurts students. “It starts in high school. Giving higher grades is one way to reward kids fairly easily, boost their self-esteem and stop them from dropping out,” Côté said. “That’s the mandate our high schools are facing: lowering the dropout rate.” That’s why, he added, 60 per cent of students applying to university had an A average by 2008 and the mark ranges were compressed so much that it had “reached a point of crisis.”

High school grade inflation is now rampant in school systems right across Canada. Out east, the problem was first flagged in a May 2007 AIMS study focusing on the enormous gaps in New Brunswick and Newfoundland/Labrador between assigned class marks and diploma exam marks. In November of 2011, the University of Calgary’s Dean of Arts blew the whistle on the alarming extent of Ontario grade inflation. “There’s an arm’s race of A’s going on, ” he told the Calgary Herald.  Since Nova Scotia moved its provincial exams from Grade 12 to Grade 10 in June 2012, that province’s graduation rates have skyrocketed from 88.6 per cent to 92.5 per cent in 2014-15.

Students are well aware of the impact of high school grade inflation, especially when they take a real hit in their first set of university grades. It is, according to a former President of the Ontario Student Trustees’ Association, Zane Schwartz, a balloon that’s ready to pop.  “Until there is standardization, ” he wrote in a March 2013 Toronto Globe and Mail opinion column,” high-achieving students will keep being told they’re brilliant, low achieving students will keep getting pushed from grade to grade, and students grades will drop when they reach university.”  We can, he added, do more to “reign in rampant grade inflation and better prepare students for university environment.”  To date, it is my understanding, little has been done to act upon that level-headed student advice.

Why has grade inflation become so rampant in most Canadian high schools?  How much of the pressure for higher marks comes from university-bound students and their parents?  Why have provincial authorities, one after another, either abandoned Grade 12 provincial exams or devalued them in the determination of graduation marks? Is there a graceful way out of the current predicament? 

School systems tend to be leery of trailbrazers, especially when it comes to instilling rigour and improved student behaviour.

One U.K. school head, Katharine Birbalsingh, stands out in this regard. Over the past three years, as headteacher at Michaela School in Brent, North London, she has earned a formidable reputation for her “no excuses” approach that has turned an inner city school serving largely ‘deprived children’ into a model of striving for excellence and ‘optimizing student behaviour.’  That reputation will only be enhanced by March 2017 U.K. Government report, Creating a Culture, authored by researchED founder Tom Bennett issuing a clarion call for school leadership to address the deplorable state of student behaviour in far too many state schools.

As the U.K.’s  leading behaviour expert, Bennett (much Younger and unrelated to me ) puts great stock in school leadership to set the course and  spearhead needed changes in tackling student behaviour and discipline, including setting high standards, being crystal clear about expectations, and having the courage to create effective “inclusion units” in higher level schools. Among his key recommendations are:

  • revise the certification for all headteachers, so that it includes a requirement to demonstrate knowledge of how to create a good behaviour culture;
  • introduce the use of a national standardised method that captures data on student behaviour which can then be used to compare schools;
  • fund schools to create internal inclusion units for direct intervention with a goal of returning special needs students to mainstream classes;
  • provide greater guidance for schools on how to manage and support the most challenging pupils.

Running through Bennett’s report is one consistent message: the importance of a strong culture of behaviour  initiated by the headteacher and running through the school.  It is also a message that needs to be heard on the other side of the Atlantic, in Canada and the United States.

All of this leads us back to Birbalsingh and her Michaela School. “Are school leaders born or made?” is a question difficult to answer.  Yet, some educators with a courage of conviction like Birbalsingh do seem destined to lead.

Decried by some as Britain’s “strictest head teacher,” she is definitely breaking the mold and winning converts to the so-called “Michaela Way” of educating children. Born in 1973 in New Zealand, while her father York University professor Frank Birbalsingh was teaching there as a visiting professor, she was raised in Toronto, moved to Warwick, England at age 15, and went on to graduate from New College, Oxford in French and philosophy studies. Education was certainly a high priority in her Guyanese-Jamaican family, going back to her grandfather, Ezrom S. Birbalsingh, former head of the Canadian Mission School in Better Hope, Guyana.

Birbalsingh was imbued with that same passion for education. Upon graduating,  she chose to teach and write (as ‘Miss Snuffy‘) about life in inner-city schools, producing a lively blog, To Miss With Love After reading E.D. Hirsch‘s classic, The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them (1999),  she was absolutely convinced about what was wrong with today’s schools and that public education should be about teaching children to pursue knowledge, not ‘learning skills.’  In October 2010, as head of a south London school, she spoke out at a British Conservative Party Conference, lambasting the education system exhibiting a “culture of excuses, of low standards” marooned in “a sea of bureaucracy” and contributing to “the chaos in our classrooms.” Forced to step down in the wake of the controversy, she bounced back in 2014 as the founding head of Michaela, one of London’s newest’free schools’ with alternative programs.

The Michaela Way, pioneered by Birbalsingh at the state-funded school, exemplifies, in many ways, the kind of model envisioned in Bennett’s student behaviour report. The school’s head is, to be sure, larger than life, in that school community.  Her book on the school, subtitled “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers,” is definitely radical by today’s mushy liberal education standards. “This book should be banned,” says New Schools Network Director Toby Young, because if the parent of any teenager gets hold of it, they would demand the same for their son or daughter.

In her book’s Introduction, “Free at Last,” Birbalsingh outlines her school’s mission this way: “‘Where’s the rigour?’ was what my friend and inspiration Michaela used to shout. Michaela loved to teach from the front. She liberated herself in her classroom by closing her door so that she could get on with what worked. She dis things differently, and so do we.” 

The Michaela School rises to most of the challenges cited in Tom Bennett’s report by essentially clearing away most of the obstacles that “impede improvement.” The vision articulated by Birbalsingh and her carefully recruited staff of youngish teachers is not only clearly articulated but put into action in class, the lunchroom, and in the halls.  Since the school head is skeptical about current teacher certification programs, most of the teaching staff have advanced subject specialist degrees (without official teaching papers) and are taught proper teaching and classroom management skills through a mentorship training program. High expectations pop out at you in school assemblies, on wall posters, and in classroom routines. The school, under Birbalsingh, exhibits consistency from top -to-bottom in a fashion that is inspiring to visiting educators and parents.

Michaela is different from the vast majority of public high schools in three significant ways: the laser focus on student discipline, the traditional style of teaching, and the explicit character education. “We teach kindness and gratitude,” Birbalsingh says,” because we think that children should be kind to each other and and to their teachers and be grateful for everything we do for them.”  That’s her way of describing the consistent focus on educating for respect and responsibility instead of pandering, far too often, to student whims and desires.

Michaela School is only three years old, so it has yet to face the biggest test of all — it’s first full U’K. school inspection and, in two years time, its first GCSE examination results.  With 30 per cent of students in the Michael school district of Bent on free school meals, all eyes will be on how Michaela fares on those national school and student assessments.  If Tom Bennett’s report is any indication, it will pass the ‘student behaviour’  test with flying colours.

How important is school leadership in setting the tone and improving student behaviour in schools?  Does Tom Bennett’s prescription for U.K. schools have significance as a possible guide for Canadian and American public high schools? What can be learned from the success of Michaela School in inner city London?  Would the Canadian system benefit from having a model school like Michaela to help break the cycle of eroding student discipline? 

Developing a Growth Mindset in students and their teachers is perhaps the hottest trend in the education world outside of Canada. Originating in psychological science research conducted by Carol S. Dweck, starting in the late 1980s , and continuing at Stanford University, it burst upon the education scene in 2006 with the publication of Dweck’s influential book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.  The next great thing, growth mindset, became an instant buzzword phrase in many education faculties and professional development sessions.

The so-called Mindset Revolution, like most education fads, has also generated its share of imitations and mutations. Two of the best known are  the Mathematical Mindset, promulgated by Mathematics educator Jo Boaler, and a more recent Canadian spin-off, The Innovator’s Mindset, the brain-child of George Couros, a division principal of  Teaching and Learning with Parkland School District, in Stony Plain, Alberta, Canada. While Growth Mindset 1.0, got little traction in Canada, the second generation iteration dreamed up by Couros is increasingly popular among technology-savvy Canadian and American educators.

CarolDweckBannerLegions of professional educators and teachers in the United States, Britain, and Australia, have latched onto GM theory and practice with a real vengeance. One reliable barometer of ‘trendiness,” the George Lucas Educational Foundation website, Edutopia, provides a steady stream of short vignettes and on-line videos extolling the virtues of GM in the classroom. The growing list of Growth Mindset pieces @Edutopia purport to “support students in believing that they can develop their talents and abilities through hard work, good strategies, and help from others.”

What is the original conception of the Growth Mindset?  Here is how Carol Dweck explained it succinctly in the September 22, 2015 issue of Education Week: “We found that students’ mindsets—how they perceive their abilities—played a key role in their motivation and achievement, and we found that if we changed students’ mindsets, we could boost their achievement. More precisely, students who believed their intelligence could be developed (a growth mindset) outperformed those who believed their intelligence was fixed (a fixed mindset). And when students learned through a structured program that they could “grow their brains” and increase their intellectual abilities, they did better. Finally, we found that having children focus on the process that leads to learning (like hard work or trying new strategies) could foster a growth mindset and its benefits.”

GrowthMindsetModelDweck’s theory of Growth Mindsets gained credibility because, unlike most educational ‘fads,’ it did emerge out of some sound initial research into brain plasticity and was tested in case studies with students in the schools. Leading education researcher Dylan Wiliam, a renowned student assessment expert, lent his support to the Growth Mindset movement when he embraced Dweck’s findings and applied them to building ‘feedback’ into student assessment.  He adopted this equation: Talent = Hard Work + Persistence (A Growth Mindset) and offered this endorsement: “The harder you work, the smarter you get. Once students begin to understand this “growth mindset” as Carol Dweck calls it, students are much more likely to embrace feedback from their teachers.”

Ten years on, cracks appeared in the Growth Mindset movement when some of the liveliest minds in education research began to probe more deeply into the theory, follow-up studies, and the supposed evidence of student success. An early skeptic, Disappoined Idealist, hit a nerve with a brave little commentary, December 5, 2014, wondering whether the Growth Mindset described a world as we wanted it to be, rather than one as it is, and likened it to “telling penguins to flap harder( and they would be able to fly like other birds).  Self-styled ‘education progressives’ have taken their cue from American writer Alfie Kohn who weighed in with a widely-read Salon commentary in which he argued that Dweck’s research had been appropriated by “conservative” educators trying to “fix our kids” when we should be “fixing the system.”

The Growth Mindset ‘magic dust’ is wearing thin in the United Kingdom. British education gadfly David Didau,The Learning Spy, initially “pretty psyched” by Dweck’s theory, has grown increasingly skeptical over the past year or so. In a succession of pointed commentaries, he has punched holes in the assumption that all students possess unlimited “growth potential,” examined why more recent GM interventions have not replicated Dweck’s initial results, questioned whether GM is founded on pseudoscience, and even suggested that the whole theory might be “bollocks.”

Intrepid Belgian education researcher, Pedro De Bruyckere, co-author of Urban Myths About Learning and Education,  has registered his concerns about the validity of research support, citing University of Edinburgh psychologist Timothy Bates’ findings. Based upon case studies with 12-year-olds in China, Bates found no evidence of the dramatic changes in Dweck’s earlier studies: “People with a growth mindset don’t cope any better with failure. If we give them the mindset intervention, it doesn’t make them behave better. Kids with the growth mindset aren’t getting better grades, either before or after our intervention study.”

For much of the past two years, Dweck and her research associate Susan Mackie have been alerting researchers and education policy-makers to the spread of what is termed a false growth mindset” in schools and classrooms in Australia as well as Britain and the United States. Too many teachers and parents, they point out, have either misinterpreted or debased the whole concept, reducing it to simple axioms like “Praise the effort, not the child (or the outcome).” In most cases, it’s educational progressives, or parents, looking for alternatives to “drilling with standardized tests.”

GrowthMindsetFalsityDweck’s greatest fear nowadays is that Growth Mindset has been appropriated by education professionals to reinforce existing student-centred practices and to suit their own purposes. That serious concern is worth repeating: ” It’s the fear that the mindset concepts, which grew up to counter the failed self-esteem movement, will be used to perpetuate that movement.” In a December 2016  interview story in The Altantic, she conceded that it was being used in precisely that way, in too many classrooms, and it amounted to “blanketing everyone with praise, whether deserved or not.”

A “false growth mindset” arises, according to Dweck, when educators use the term too liberally and simply do not really understand that it’s intended to motivate students to work harder and demonstrate more resilience in overcoming setbacks. She puts it this way:  “The growth mindset was intended to help close achievement gaps, not hide them. It is about telling the truth about a student’s current achievement and then, together, doing something about it, helping him or her become smarter.” Far too many growth mindset disciples, Dweck now recognizes, reverted to praising students rather than taking “the long and difficult journey” in the learning process and showing “how hard work, good strategies, and good use of resources lead to better learning.”

One of Dweck’s most prominent champions, Jo Boaler, may be contributing to the misappropriation of Growth Mindset theory in her field.  As an influential Stanford university mathematics education professor, Boaler is best known as an apostle of constructivist approaches to teaching Mathematics in schools. She saw in Dweck’s Growth Mindset theory confirmation that a “fixed mindset” was harmful to kids convinced that they “can’t do Math.” It all fit nicely into her own conception of how children learn Math best – by exploration and discovery in classrooms unleashing childrens’ potential. It became, for Boaler, a means of addressing “inequalities” perpetuated by “ability groupings” in schools. It also served to advance her efforts to “significantly reposition mistakes in mathematics” and replace “crosses” with “gold stars” and whole-class “opportunities for learning.”

The Canadian mutation, George Couros’ The Innovator’s Mindset, seeks to extend Carol Dweck’s original theory into  the realm of technology and creativity. Troubled by the limitations of Dweck’s model and  its emphasis on mastery of knowledge and skills, he made an “awesome” (his word) discovery –that GM could be a powerful leadership tool for advancing “continuous creation.” In his mutation of the theory, the binary “fixed” vs. “growth” model morphs into a more advanced stage, termed the “innovator’s mindset.” In his fertile and creative mind, it is transmogrified into a completely new theory of teaching and learning.

GrowthMinsetCourosModelTaking poetic licence with Dweck’s research-based thesis, Couros spins a completely different interpretation in his fascinating professional blog, The Principal of Change:

As we look at how we see and “do” school, it is important to continuously shift to moving from consumption to creation, engagement to empowerment, and observation to application. It is not that the first replaces the latter, but that we are not settling for the former. A mindset that is simply open to “growth”, will not be enough in a world that is asking for continuous creation of not only products, but ideas. “

Promising educational theories, even those founded on some robust initial research, can fall prey to prominent educators pushing their own ‘pet ideas’ and pedagogical theories. While a 2016 Education Week report demonstrates the GM initiatives produce mixed results and British education researchers are having a field day picking apart Carol Dweck’s research findings, another version of her creation is emerging to make it even harder to assess her serious case studies being replicated around the world.

Which version of Carol Dweck’s Growth Mindset theory and practice are we assessing – the original conception or the “false” conception?  How and why did an educational theory intended to motivate students, instill a work ethic, and help kids overcome obstacles get so debased in translation into classroom practice?  Is the fate of the Growth Mindset indicative of something more troubling in the world of education research? 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ontario elementary school teachers are now being totally immersed in the new pedagogy of Social Justice Education. The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario’s newish resource, Social Justice Begins with Me, is being rolled out as a teaching resource for the Early Years to Grade 8.  It’s a prime example of the deep inroads being made by “social justice educators” in transforming “character education” into a vehicle for addressing social injustices through the schools.

The EFTO promotes Social Justice Begins with Me  as an “anti-bias, literature-based curriculum resource kit” that is designed for year-round use and is aligned with the Ontario Ministry of Education’s Equity and Inclusive Education Strategy.  The ten monthly themes are explicitly aimed at inculcating nine core “social justice principles”: acceptance, respect, hope, empathy, inclusion, diversity, human rights, and equity. It also targets some identifiable 21st century ‘evils’: anti-Semitism, ageism, heternormality, sexism, racism, classism, ableism, prejudice and faith.

EFTOSocialJustice

The EFTO teaching resource, like the SJE movement, thrives in a culture dominated by ‘political correctness’ and has found a comfortable home in Canada’s largest education graduate school, the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, in Toronto.  That movement now has its own exclusive research unit, replacing what was left of the Department of History and Philosophy of Education. Full disclosure – I’m an unrepentant graduate of that now defunct research department.

Social Justice Education has now taken on a life of its own in many Canadian urban elementary school divisions. Serious concerns raised by the infamous June 2012  Maclean’s Magazine cover story, “Why are schools brainwashing our Children?” have done little to derail the movement. Nor has North American education research lending support to an alternative version of “character education,” founded on a different set of core principles aimed at developing student resilience.  Curriculum-informed parents will also spot the complete absence of critical success attributes, labelled ‘old school,’ such as grit, perseverance, resilience, and accountability for actions.

True believers in social justice education see elementary teaching through an engaged sociopolitical lens. Working for social justice in the schools requires “a deliberate intervention” that challenges society’s “fundamental inequalities” and seeks to advance the cause of “better educational and economic outcomes” for “marginalized children.” Social justice pedagogy aims to develop in teachers and students an understanding of “critical literacy” and its key dimensions: 1) disrupting the commonplace; 2)interrogating multiple viewpoints; 3) focusing on sociopolitical issues; and 4) taking action and promoting social justice.

Pursuing social justice in the early grades stirs up considerable controversy, especially among parents more focused on raising standards and improving student performance. Maclean’s writer Cynthia Reynolds certainly unearthed some outlandish, and undoubtedly extreme examples, of actual “social justice education ” activities:

During the 2011-12 school year, first graders in Toronto brought home student planners marked with the international days of zero tolerance on female genital mutilation and ending violence against sex workers, a means to spark conversation on the issues. In Laval, Que., a six-year-old boy was disqualified from a teddy-bear contest because a Ziploc was found in his lunch instead of a reusable container. The  Durham Board of Education in Ontario came under fire for discouraging the terms “wife” and “husband” in class in favour of the gender-neutral “spouse,” and the words “boyfriend” and “girlfriend” in favour of “partner.” And in the name of inclusiveness, some school boards include Wiccan holidays in their school calendars.

Such examples of how Social Justice Education can go awry cut little ice with surprising numbers of Education School faculty entrusted with training elementary school teachers. Deeply committed to social justice reform, they believe that the classroom is the front line in the battle to address social ills and establish “safe spaces” for the children of marginalized families. It’s really just the latest battle over the age-old question: who gets to decide on the best way to educate the very young?

OISESocialJusiceEd.jpgMiddle-school teacher David Stocker, author of the textbook  Math That Matters: A Teacher Resource for Linking Math and Social Justice, for Grades 6 to 9,is in the vanguard of the movement. His math problems include items focusing on issues like  workers’ rights, racial profiling and homophobia.  “All material carries bias of some sort,” he writes in the introduction. “Really the question is whether or not we want to spend time educating for peace and social justice. If we do, let’s admit that bias and get to work.”

Psychologist Robin Grille, the author of Parenting for a Peaceful World,takes a far more balanced approach, recognizing the inherent risks in imposing a social justice perspective in the early grades. Getting too political in elementary school, where the power differential between teacher and student is vast, verges on manipulation. “You can’t use children as fodder for your cause,” says Grille.

Nor is Grille afraid to pose the right questions: “How do you know these young kids aren’t just parroting what their teacher is telling them? How easy would it be to get them to protest, say, abortion? How much are the young truly able to make up their own minds?”It’s particularly true in classrooms where kids are being graded. So what does she recommend? Children, she points out,  need to develop emotionally before they can develop politically.

The controversial 2012 Maclean’s feature story provided a few of what be termed teacher survival tips. Elementary school teacher and Simon Fraser University education professor Rhonda Philpott identified one of the biggest risks: You can’t walk into a classroom and just start a social-justice activity. It takes trust.” Not all parents appreciate the politically-driven pedagogy either. Professor Ng-A-Fook of the University of Ottawa urges practitioners to “know your students” and “prepare your parents” so you do not “offend families or traumatize kids.”

Social justice education is fraught with difficulties and tends to narrow the focus of classroom activities around issues drawn solely from a rather narrow, albeit well-intended sociopolitical perspective. More recent education research tends to focus on addressing student underperformance and ways of instilling resilience in children.

Character is now seen as the “X-factor” in explaining why some children succeed and others get left behind in and out of schools. Toronto-born writer Paul Tough,author of How Children Succeed, influenced by Angela Duckworth’s research, called the character-based X-factor “grit,” but parenting expert Dr. Michele Borba favours the term moral intelligence. 

Character education also tends to be broader and more inclusive in its reach than social justice education, particularly as exemplified in the EFTO Social Justice curriculum. The Peel District School Board, west of Toronto, embraces a “character education” model that embraces six different character attributes and seeks to educate children who are caring, cooperative, honest,inclusive, respectful and responsible. That approach is not only broader, but includes two factors related to “grit” – respect and responsibility. It’s no accident that the PDSB credo ends on this note: “Demonstrate initiative and perseverance in overcoming difficulties.” 

What is driving the movement to introduce Social Justice Education into elementary schools in Ontario and elsewhere? What are the risks of implementing a Primary School curriculum with such an overt sociopolitical agenda?  Are the fears that kids are being “brainwashed” all that exaggerated?  What’s wrong with pursuing a more balanced approach in the pursuit of character education? 

A hard lesson in public education is being learned in one of the most unlikely places, the Canadian East Coast province of Nova Scotia, better known by license plates emblazoned with the motto “Canada’s Ocean Playground.”  The earth has shaken. That province has just survived its first protracted teacher dispute and the first teachers’ strike in the 122-year history of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union.

Here’s the backstory and a few questions raised by the bitter, divisive teacher dispute — where there are no clear winners and the provincial school system with 400 schools, 118,000 students, and 9,300 teachers shows few signs of recovery.

nsteachersstrike2017After 16 months of negotiations, three rejected teacher contracts, a 6-week work-to-rule, and a one day province-wide strike, Nova Scotia’s Stephen McNeil Liberal government finally brought the teachers’ dispute to an end. Under Bill 75, the province’s 9,300 unionized teachers were legislated back to work on February 22, almost a week ago.

With Nova Scotia Teachers Union supporters in the streets, the province’s reputed ‘Education Premier’ made a rare and startling admission: “decades” of education policy errors – including his own – had contributed to a full-blown education crisis.  Limiting teacher salary increases to 3% over 4 years was a key factor, but somehow did not factor in his thinking.

Reversing the former NDP Government’s education cuts helped catapult the Liberals into office in October 2013, and it was not supposed to work out this way.

Since 2013, McNeil’s government had invested almost $59-million in P-12 education to restore the depleted “learning supports” model. Reducing Grade 4 to 6 class sizes, hiring 59 math mentors, reactivating 114 Reading Recovery teachers, and adding more math and literacy supports simply band-aided the system’s endemic, festering problems.

Now the Premier was conceding that his own rather scattered “classroom investments” had “missed the mark.” Yet, amidst the education chaos, it appeared to be happening again.

Frustrated and angry teachers, emboldened by a few thousand placard-carrying NSTU protesters, came before the N.S. Law Amendments Committee not only seeking to block the back-to-work legislation.

They were also demanding immediate cures for a whole raft of legitimate complaints: a broken inclusion model, ‘no fail’ social promotion, chronic absenteeism, ‘do-over’ student assessment, increasing violence in the classroom, bulging high school class sizes, time-consuming data collection, and managerial excesses eroding teacher autonomy.

Concerned Nova Scotia parents and teachers are both demanding immediate correctives without really addressing the structural sources of what American social planner Horst Rittel  once termed a ‘wicked problem.’

A wicked problem is one that defies quick fixes and proves difficult or impossible to solve for a variety of reasons: incomplete or contradictory knowledge, the range of people and opinions involved, the prohibitive costs of resolution, or the complications presented by its interconnected nature.

Today’s school system is the product of a steady, repetitive stream of ‘progressive’ curriculum initiatives, overlaid since the mid-1990s with managerial reforms such as student achievement testing and school quality accreditation.

The P-12 public school system, like most in Canada, is now completely riddled with contradictions.  Curriculum innovations are almost constantly at odds with new system demands for managerial efficiency, student testing, and public accountability.

Curriculum and pedagogy or favoured teaching practices tend to support student-centred learning and incredibly labour-intensive practices, such as differentiated learning, authentic assessment, and ‘coding’ special needs students with ‘adaptations’ and individual program plans.

School authorities, ensconced in the Education Department and regional boards, now impose many external mandates, almost always delivered “top-down” on principals as well as classroom teachers. Vociferous complaints about “data collection” are code for the groundswell of school-level resistance to the system-wide imposition of technological initiatives (Power School and TIENET) or time-consuming provincial tests.

Inclusion is a ‘wicked problem’ of the highest order.  While the vast majority of parents and teachers claim that “the current model is not working,” they persist in believing that investing more in the regular classroom will make things better for special needs students, including those with severe learning challenges and complex needs.

Class composition not necessarily class size was the biggest concern of Canadian teachers in the Canadian Teachers Federation 2012 national survey, but it took a teacher contract upheaval to get Nova Scotia teachers finally talking out of school. Most are clamouring for more “learning supports” rather than holding out for a more permanent fix – a total re-engineering of Nova Scotia special education services.

After sixteen months of negotiations and three recommended agreements, the Bill 75 settlement will likely survive a court challenge. That was NSTU lawyer Ron Pink’s preliminary assessment. Unlike the Nova Scotia context, much of the British Columbia Teachers Federation decision turned on the B.C. government’s aversion to bargaining and arbitrary removal of class size and composition limits.

Establishing provincial commissions or committees to address inclusion and classroom conditions cuts little ice with frontline teachers, accustomed as they are to conflicted mandates and pointless paper exercises. Hashing out “working conditions” with or without an arbitrator is met with understandable skepticism.

Switching premiers every four years has not worked, so far. Education ministers come and go, but the so-called “iron cage” of education, protected by layers of bureaucracy and regulation remains essentially unchanged.

Looking for a better path forward?  Be bold enough to: Go to the root of the “wicked problem” and do not settle, once again, for watering the tree and rearranging the branches. Get on with undoing the failing program initiatives and rebuilding the system from the schools-up for the sake of today’s students.

What are the hard lessons to be learned from the Nova Scotia teacher dispute? How well are students served when Work-to-Rule ends, only to be replaced by Work-to-Contact?  Will other education authorities study the conflict in order to avert similar consequences?  Who will be the first to stand up and tackle the “wicked problem” of internal contradiction and self-defeating policy initiatives? 

 

The annual February and March ‘School Closure Madness’ is upon us generating considerable heat amid the winter deep freeze.  School closures are dominating the local educational world in many rural and inner city school communities beset by declining student enrollments.  Whether it’s rural southern and central Ontario, the suburban GTA Region, or the villages of Prince Edward Island, parents, families and community members are fully engaged in popular movements resisting further centralization and consolidation or standing up for threatened towns, villages and neighbourhoods.

ontarioschoolclosuresrallyoct16A group representing concerned citizens from across Ontario, the Ontario Alliance Against School Closures (OAASC), is  now calling on the Ministry of Education to immediately halt school closures and scrap the current wave of school consolidation. .In its October 2016 open letter to Education Minister Mitzie Hunter, the OAASC claimed that a recently revised PARG (Pupil Accommodation Review Guideline) is flawed and must be rewritten and proposed that 1) ARC reviews be immediately suspended until a democratic guideline is in place; 2) the Government of Ontario immediately put a moratorium on school closures; and 3) the Government commission a study to determine the effects of extensive school closures on the health of affected children and their communities.

One of OAASC’s leaders, Susan MacKenzie, expressed alarm at the scope of the latest school consolidation wave threatening to shutter some 600 schools, 1 in every eight schools across Ontario, seeking to save up to $1-billion spent to maintain reportedly ‘half-full’ school buildings. Back in March 2016, with the rewriting of the PARG,  MacKenzie claimed “communities lost a significant voice at the table giving school boards the freedom to ram these closures through without resistance.” “Community schools are under siege, carried by this tidal wave of closures across the province,” she added.” The revised guideline has pitted the province and school boards against our communities.”

Five schools on Prince Edward Island are now under review for closure. Since the adoption of the revised P.E.I. School Change policy in September 2016, school boards are gone and school closures have continued under a new set of legalistic rules that formalize a process pitting the Public Schools Branch against the communities they attempt to serve.

georgetownsossignAll 56 schools on the Island have been reviewed and the consolidation plan proposes to rezone or close the schools affecting 2,500 students, 700 of whom are rural children and teens. A coalition to Save Island Schools has emerged and prominent Islanders like former Liberal Cabinet member Alan Buchanan are now calling for a complete review of the grueling, divisive process and proposing constructive alternatives. Two schools on Eastern PEI, Belfast Consolidated School and Georgetown Elementary School, have responded by calling for a pause in the closure process so they can embark on a school-centred community revitalization initiative.

Two of Ontario’s leading authorities, Bill Irwin of Huron University College and Mark Seasons at the Waterloo University School of Planning, are challenging the basic financial efficiency assumptions behind school closures and essentially overlooking the social and educational costs.  Since 2012, Irwin and Seasons have been aggregating research in support of small schools and urging school authorities to embrace best practices in community planning and public engagement.  Much like my own book, Vanishing Schools, Threatened Communities (2011), their work demonstrates the serious and lasting impacts of closures, including the depletion of local financial, social and human capital.

Provincial education ministers have the authority to declare a Moratorium on the School Review process, an option exercised in April 2013 by then N.S. Education Minister Ramona Jennex. The pretext then was to secure sufficient time to assess the fairness of the former process and to consider the merits of a new alternative – community hub schools.  

A Schools at the Centre community development strategy  would be far superior to the “old school” model of school consolidation. . It’s time for Education Ministers and their Departments to take the lead in shifting the terms of engagement from “threatened closures” to community-based, school-centred, rural economic and social development.

saveislandschoolsgeorgetownchainThe Georgetown Conferences on Rural Renewal (October 2013 and June 2016) generated high expectations.  Hundreds of delegates  embraced the idea that you can have viable small rural schools run on an economically efficient basis and tapping into the potential of local social innovation and digitally networked local schools. Stopping the consolidation express train in PEI and elsewhere in rural Canada would allow the time to develop a comprehensive Rural Economic Development Strategy instead of simply closing schools and abandoning more rural communities.

Transforming small schools into viable, lively community hubs and incubators for social enterprise is the way of the near future.  Some small, under-enrolled schools will continue to close, but let’s hope it’s the right ones. Time will tell whether the “Old School” model of school consolidation is superceded by a new approach focusing on school-centred community revitalization.

What’s driving the relentless movement to consolidate small schools and regionalize K-12 education services? Do claims of economic efficiency or economies of scale hold any water, when all costs are considered over a five year time horizon? What’s standing in the way of community-wide planning and the re-purposing of community hub schools?  Who will be the first community to succeed in creating a fully evolved, viable and sustainable community hub school?