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The educational world is a strange place with its own tribal conventions, familiar rituals, ingrained behaviours, and unique lexicon. Within the K-12 school system, educational innovations come in waves where “quick fixes” and “fads” are fashionable and yesterday’s failed innovations can return, often recycled in new guises.

Education research is rarely applied where it is needed in challenging the assumptions of current orthodoxy and teaching practice. Only one out of every ten curriculum or pedagogical initiatives is ever properly evaluated, according to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) ‘s Education Office, managers of the Program of International Student Assessment (PISA).

Growing numbers of classroom teachers, as well as serious education researchers, are looking for evidence of “what works” before jumping on the latest educational bandwagon. That’s the spark that ignited the British teachers’ movement known as researchED challenging prevailing myths, questioning entrenched theories, and demanding evidence-based teaching practice.

                            researchED founder Tom Bennett’s 2013 book, Teacher Proofwas a direct hit on educational orthodoxy supported by flimsy explanations resting only on questionable social science theories. After a decade of teaching in East London, he knew something was amiss because a succession of pedagogical panaceas such as learning styles, Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), Brain Gym, and ‘soft persuasion techniques’ simply did not work in the classroom.  His work and that of leading researchED apostles like David Didau and Daisy Christoudoulou has now spawned an international movement to demand research-informed teaching practice.

“We believe that the teaching profession is poised and ripe for change,” says Tom Bennett. “It should be a change where teachers and schools are guided by the best evidence available, not just the latest theories. That’s what propels our new, teacher-led organization.”

Surveying the state of Canadian K-12 education and the current alignment of research priorities, Bennett’s prediction may well bear fruit. North American and Canadian education research, mostly the preserve of faculties of education, once described as a “black hole” still gets little or no respect among policy-makers. High-quality research on the effectiveness of reforms is either weak, inconclusive or missing altogether. Is the mindfulness and self-regulation strategy the latest example of that phenomenon?

Much of the field is driven by political or ideological agendas where action research is used to mount a case for province-wide funding of ‘pet projects’ or unproven technology-in-the classroom innovations. Where education projects are supported by sound scholarship and evidence-based research, it too often has little influence on what is mandated for implementation in the classroom.

elearningred2016coverSchool system leaders and their provincial ministers tend to embrace broad, philosophical concepts like “21st century learning” and to mimic initiatives promoted by Pearson Learning, Microsoft and other international learning corporations. Top-down education policy and curriculum mandates like this tend to run aground when they are introduced to teachers as the latest innovation in teaching and learning. Without the active support of committed and engaged teachers they simply die on the vine and wither away, soon to be replaced by the next panacea.

Out of the testing and accountability movement of the 1990s and early 2000s emerged a ‘new managerialism’ – a whole generation of education management that mastered the rhetoric and language of “outcomes” and “accountability” with, sad to say, little to show for the massive investment of time and talent.  With standardized testing under fire, education lobby groups such as Ontario-based People for Education, are mounting a determined effort to implement ‘school change theory’ and broaden student assessment to include uncharted domains in social and emotional learning.

researchED is now in the forefront in blowing the whistle on innovations floating on untested theories. Popular notions that “schools are preparing kids for jobs that won’t exist” have been found wanting when held up to closer scrutiny. Current fashionable teaching practices such as “Discovery Math,” and “Personalized Learning” ,at least so far, simply do not pass the research-litmus test. It is, by no means certain, that introducing coding in elementary schools will work when so few teachers in the early grades have any background or training in mathematics or computer science.

Since September 2013 researchED has attracted droves of teachers to conferences in the U.K., Australia, Scandinavia, and the European Union. Next stop on this truly unique “British education revolution” is Canada.  The movement’s founder, Tom Bennett, will be the headliner of the first researchED conference to be held in Canada on November 10 and 11, 2017, at the University of Toronto Schools, the original Lab School for Ontario’s College of Education, now part of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.   

ResearchED Toronto aims to attract a brand-new audience of teachers, policy researchers, and reform-minded parents  Tickets for the full conference are available at https://researched.org.uk/event/researched-toronto/  Batten down the hatches, the British are coming, and, once teachers get a taste of the experience, there will be no turning back.

Part Two of a Series on the researchED Movement.

Will the researchED movement find fertile ground in Canada?  Are there signs of a willingness to come together to “work out what works” for teachers and students? How entrenched are the ‘core interests’ upholding the current orthodoxy and inclined to inhabit their own echo chamber?  Will our “urban myths about education” continue to obscure our understanding of what really works in the classroom? 

researchED, the grass-roots, U.K.-based organization propelled by teachers, may be the first launched by a single Tweet on social media.  Since its creation in 2013 by two British teachers, Tom Bennett, and Helene Galdin-O’Shea, it has attracted droves of teachers to its Saturday conferences and spread to Australia, the European Union, Scandinavia, and the United States. On November 10-11, 2017, the “British education invasion” arrives here in Canada.

From its inception, researchED has been like a spontaneous combustion.  A chance discussion with Sam Freedman (Director of Research and Impact at Teach First) and Ben Goldacre (author of Bad Science and Bad Pharma, columnist for The Guardian) provided the initial spark.  It also prompted Tom to post a late night Tweet suggesting that he was putting together a conference to explore and assess the notoriously dry subject of educational research. That post floated the idea and asked if anyone wanted to help with the venture.

Four hours later, by 2 am, Tom Bennett was inundated with two hundred offers of help, moral support, venues and volunteer speakers. ‘I didn’t build researchED,’ Tom says, ‘it wanted to be built. It built itself. I just ran with it.’ After puzzling over the venue offers, Tom settled on Dulwich College, and on the first Saturday after the beginning of the new school year in September 2013, over 500 people came to talk, listen and learn. What started as a one day event just exploded and is now a full-fledged international education research reform movement.

Teacher leadership was more critical than Tom Bennett acknowledges.  Fired up by his own passion for education research reform and armed with his own provocative book, Teacher Proof (2013), he is every inch a teacher and his co-conspirator, English teacher Galdin-O’Shea is the kind of organizer that makes things happen.

The most amazing aspect of researchED is that the movement is driven entirely by teachers, thinkers and educational experts who volunteer and give freely of their time and talent.  It’s been that way right from the beginning. Reflecting on what actually transpired at the first researchED conference, Tom put it this way: ‘It was genuinely moving, people offered their time and skills for nothing, without hesitation. From the logo design, to the name, to the people making up the name badges on the day, we were propelled by an army of the willing and able. I have never witnessed such organised, coherent, yet spontaneous kindness in my life.’

reasearchED came across my radar three years ago when I discovered Tom and a few of his compatriots, including  Andrew OldDavid Didau, Daisy Christodoulou, and Martin Robinson on my Twitter feed.  Their independence of spirit, critical awareness, and commitment to applying the best research to teaching practice caught my attention. I was completely captivated by their courage in questioning the established orthodoxy and commitment to improving teaching life and practice.

When I got wind that researchED was coming to New York in May of 2015, I literally moved heaven and earth to get there. Flying from a Canadian Business College conference in St. John’s Newfoundland to Toronto, then on to New York, I was one of the first to arrive at the Riverside Country Day School, site of the first U.S. conference. The first person I met there was New York education blogger Tom Whitby, founder of #edchat, and  then Dominic A.A. Randolph, the Head of Riverdale School featured in Paul Tough’s best-seller, How Children Succeed.  Next, I bumped into Tom Bennett in conversation with none other than the renowned University of Virginia cognitive psychologist Daniel T. Willingham, the keynote speaker.  I left researchED New York 2015 completely captivated by the excitement of competing ideas and hooked on the whole philosophy behind the venture.

Out of that initial New York conference emerged a group of Canadian educators, including JUMP Math founder John Mighton, Winnipeg mathematics professor Robert Craigen, and Okanagan College instructor Brian Penfound,  determined to bring researchED to Canada. Gradually, others joined us as word spread about the growth and expansion of researchED.  Dalhousie teen mental health expert Stan Kutcher joined me at the September 2016 researchED National Conference in London and came away a believer.  Many of us gathered again at researchED Washington in late October 2016, where we decided to produce a proposal to bring researchED to Toronto.

We are all drawn to researchED because of our undying and undiminished commitment to learn what the latest research tells us about the best ways to teach, lead schools, and help children learn. Having attended researchED conferences in the U.K. and the U.S., I came away completely energized by the excitement generated by teachers and researchers passionate about dispelling enduring myths, challenging unproven theories, and putting the best research into practice in our schools.

The growth and expansion of researchED has astounded not only its pioneers but even the most hardened education reformers. Regular teachers gave rise to the movement and it is, at heart, a movement built from the classroom up.  One of the greatest challenges is in reaching teachers and conveying the message that they are free to innovate outside the confines of curriculum and pedagogical mandates. Whether it catches fire among Canadian teachers is yet to be seen. If they get a taste of researchED, it will change their teaching lives and there will be no turning back.

The first Canadian researchED Conference is scheduled for November 10-11, 2017, at the University of Toronto Schools and you can register today at the link to researchED Toronto

Part One of three in a Series on the researchED Movement.

What really sparked the British teacher insurgency known as researchED?  How critical was fiercely independent teacher leadership in getting the U.K. teacher research movement off the ground? Are British schools more open to, or conducive to, free and open discussion about established practices floating more on theory than on serious research? What stands in the way of Canadian teachers learning about — and embracing—researchED? 

 

Seeing some 400 teachers and school service providers flooding into the Halifax West High School auditorium on July 20, 2017 was an eye-opening experience. In the middle of the summer, they committed time to a two-day conference focusing on child and teen mental health. Led by Dr. Stan Kutcher, the Mental Health Academy was filling a real need in the school system.

With the news full of stories warning of a “mental health crisis,” teachers in the K-12 system are feeling anxious and more conscious than ever of their role in the front lines of education.  What Dr. Kutcher’s Academy offered was something of a tranquilizer because he not only rejects the “crisis” narrative, but urges classroom practitioners to develop “mental health literacy” so they can “talk smart” with students and their parents.

The fifth edition of the Mental Health Academy, initiated in 2006 by Dr. Kutcher, studiously avoided adding further to the noise and sought to advance teacher education in mental health using evidence-based research and programs.  Stress can be good and bad, Kutcher reminded us, and we need to be able to distinguish among the three types of stress responses identified by the Harvard Center for the Developing Child: positive (daily), tolerable (regularly) and toxic (extremely rare).  Instead of pathologizing “stress” as “anxiety,” what children and youth need most is “inoculation” to help build a more robust stress immune system.

While the incidence of teen mental health problems is not appreciably different than it was fifty years ago, we are far better equipped to respond to the challenges in and around schools. The MH Academy amply demonstrated how much more we know today about adolescent brain development, school staff self-care, anxiety, depression, eating disorders, substance addictions, and teen suicide.  Educating teachers about that research is the real purpose of the Academy.

Mental health disorders are serious and teachers are well-positioned to assist in early identification. About 1 in 5 people may experience a mental disorder during adolescence. If left unrecognized and untreated, they can lead to substantial negative outcomes in physical and mental health, academic and vocational achievement, interpersonal relationships, and other important life experiences. Despite this tremendous burden of mental health disability, youth requiring proper care still do not receive it from childhood through to adulthood.  Lack of knowledge, presence of stigma, and limited access to care all serve as barriers to addressing mental disorders and alleviating the daily challenges.

Promoting Mental Health Literacy (MHL) is Dr. Kutcher’s mission because it is an essential component of improving individual and population health and mental health outcomes. As most mental disorders can be identified by age 25, schools provide the ideal location in which to implement interventions that can be demonstrated to improve mental health and life outcomes.  Good MHL programs tend to exhibit four components: : understanding how to obtain and maintain good mental health; understanding mental disorders and their treatments; decreasing stigma; and enhancing help seeking efficacy (knowing when, where, and how to obtain proper care.

A recent Canadian study of some 10,000 educators, cited by  IWK Health researcher Dr. Yifeng Wei at the Academy, found that over 90 per cent of teachers lacked adequate preparation for responding to mental health issues.  That is startling when one considers the fact that the survey uncovered some 200 different mental health programs being implemented in over 1,000 Canadian schools.

Systematic evidence-based reviews of the most popular mental health programs are not that encouraging.  Four such programs, including two based upon “mindfulness, “Learning to Breathe,” and “Mind Up,” analyzed using the GRADE System, were found to be mostly ineffective and judged not ready for widespread implementation in schools. “Good intentions,” Dr. Wei stated,” do not translate into beneficial outcomes for children and teens.”

One curriculum resource, the Mental Health and High School Curriculum Guide, researched and developed by Kutcher and his research team at Dalhousie’s Medical School, shows more promising results. It’s not a “packaged program,” but rather a full curriculum taught by the usual classroom teachers in Canadian secondary schools. Survey data collected before, immediately after, and 2 months after implementation of The Guide showed that students’ knowledge improved significantly when the program was delivered by their regular teachers.  Embedding a classroom resource, delivered by usual classroom teachers in usual school settings is proving to be far better than utilizing any number of the commercially-marketed mental health programs.

What’s contributing to the widespread public perception that we are experiencing a “mental health crisis” in and around our schools?  Why are classroom teachers so motivated and committed to responding to mental health issues?  Why are education authorities and school districts so quick to snap up the latest program in mental health, student behaviour modification, and suicide prevention?  What’s the secret of the recent success of the the Canadian Teen Mental Health Curriculum Guide? 

“Mini-crises” in Canadian K-12 education come and go, but some leave a lasting aroma and continue, quite unfairly, to shape public perceptions of teachers and the entire school system.  Across Canada, the mere mention of “Drake University” and “bird courses” evokes vivid memories of Nova Scotia’s 2014-15 raging controversy over five hundred experienced teachers finding a loophole and securing certification and salary upgrades by taking DVD video courses (including many in coaching) through the Extension Department of Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa.

The Nova Scotia Teachers Union (NSTU) leadership rallied to the defense of the Drake University course registrants and that made matters far worse, in the eyes of close education observers and the informed public. How and why the NSTU leadership felt compelled to come forward to defend such inappropriate actions was the fundamental question addressed in my March 2014 AIMS research report, Maintaining Spotless Records, co-authored with Karen Mitchell, a Nova Scotian who served as a member of the Ontario College of Teachers Governing Board from 1997 to 2005. In that report, we showed that the Drake University controversy was a symptom of a bigger problem – the fact that “teacher oversight bodies were for the birds” in Nova Scotia and a few other Canadian provinces.

The infamous Drake University “bird course” fiasco simply will not go away. A June 2017 teacher arbitration case only demonstrates, once again, that the province’s teacher’s union still does not get it – cutting corners and taking ‘quickie’ courses is no way to ether enhance teacher professionalism or improve graduate teacher education in Nova Scotia or elsewhere.

Labour arbitrator Eric K. Slone’s recent arbitration ruling on the Drake University DVD courses upheld the NSTU’s claim that former Education Minister Karen Casey erred in rescinding prior approvals of the aptly labelled “bird courses.” All it really proves is that such bodies exist to enforce the terms of the contract. Carefully reviewing the 59-page report, we clearly see how the union utilizes the process to achieve its ends. It’s made easier when the Education Department mounts such a feeble defense of the Minister’s actions.

The essential facts are clear: From January 2008 until February 2014, a surge of 546 teachers secured approval from the then Registrar of Teacher Certification, Paul Cantelo, to complete Integrated Programs based upon Drake University video correspondence courses. On April 15, 2014, following a CBC-News investigation report, Minister Casey advised former NSTU President Shelley Morse that the Department would no longer recognize such courses as “approved studies for an increase in teacher certification’ (i.e., teacher salary upgrades). Upon further investigation, the Minister announced on March 3, 2015 that the Department would no longer recognize such programs to be completed after that date and would require the candidates to complete their studies through a recognized university, pre-approved by the Department.

That sparked a “policy grievance” filed by the NSTU objecting to rescinding prior approvals and led, eventually to hearing from April 4 to 12, and the arbitration award released on June 19, 2017. The testimony makes it clear that the deck was stacked in favour of the union.  Six hand-picked teachers who took Drake University DVD upgrade courses testified that they found them of value, including two who already held Masters of Education degrees.

Former Executive Director of the Centre for Learning Excellence, Monica Williams (PhD, St. Francis-Xavier, 2014), attempted to defend the Minister’s actions and provided fresh evidence supporting claims that the courses “lacked rigour,” but was deemed, by the arbitrator, to not be an expert.  She left her position in July 2016 and is now a member of the provincial Inclusion Commission. None of the leading faculty of education experts, including MSVU professor Robert Berard and SFX Physical Education professor Daniel Robinson, were even called to give evidence.

Part of the problem for the Department is the revolving door of departmental responsibility. The Registrar who actually approved most of the courses is no longer with the province and now working at MSVU and the architect of the provincial Teaching Excellence agenda has also moved on to other responsibilities.

The arbitrator claims that he is not evaluating the quality of the courses, but then accepts anecdotal evidence from Drake U course teachers and uses it as the basis of his ruling. Why he did not insist upon expert testimony on the validity of the courses is hard to fathom.

The whole Drake University “bird course” episode is a truly sad spectacle.  Some five hundred Nova Scotia teachers found a certification loophole and utilized it to secure certification to upgrade their salaries by between $6,000 and $8,000 annually. The Minister and her Department investigated and found those courses deficient in four critical areas, as reported to a Ministerial Advisory Council.  Williams, the former Director in charge of Teacher Excellence, was appalled at the quality of the applications, the “lack of rigour” of those courses, and the fact that most, if not all candidates, secured perfect scores.

Claiming that the labour arbitration was a victory for anyone is just as preposterous as the claim that video correspondence courses offered by the Drake University extension department are in any way equivalent to legitimate graduate courses in our region’s universities.  What a sad day it is for the profession when this decision is celebrated as a win for anyone.

What does the Drake University “bird course” fiasco demonstrate when it comes to the state of teacher professionalism? Why would a provincial teachers’ union stake its credibility on defending the actions of such teachers?  Is the Nova Scotia labour arbitration ruling representative of decisions emanating from such proceedings?  What’s standing in the way of teachers standing up for higher standards in defense of the profession? 

“Restructuring education” was a popular reform nostrum that dominated North American K-12 school reform in the early to mid 1990s. Emerging as a stepchild of the “Reinventing Government” movement, it was driven by a reform impulse to introduce school-based management as a means of busting the bureaucracy that dominated public education systems.  Centralization, consolidation, and bureaucracy eventually triumphed, aided and abetted by corporate managerialism, testing, and accountability. Twenty years on, it’s time to take a closer look at why decentralization  capsized and what lessons can be learned from the whole venture.

Today centralization is far advanced in all ten Canadian provincial education systems. A study for the Canadian School Boards Association, conducted from December 2010 to November 2011, raised red flags about the impact of centralization on the state of local democratic control in Canada’s provincially regulated school boards. Surveying national trends over the past two decades, the authors conclude that “the significance of the school district apparatus in Canada has diminished as provincial governments have enacted an aggressive centralization agenda” (Sheppard et al. 2013, 42).

School board trustees, once the bulwark of local school accountability, have been rendered almost powerless through a succession of “corporate model” governance reforms.  Two research studies in 2013 and 2016 produced by Gerald Galway and Bruce Sheppard demonstrated conclusively that democratic school board governance is in serious jeopardy because trustees and superintendents now operate in a politicized policy environment that is “antagonistic to local governance” (Galway et al. 2013, 27–28). Elected school boards subscribing to a corporate policy-making model have also tended to stifle trustee autonomy and to narrow the scope of local, community decision-making (Bennett 2012).

Community-school-based management was first implemented in Canada some 40 years ago in the Edmonton public schools by newly appointed superintendent Mike Strembitsky. In the words of former teachers’ union president Karen Beaton, Strembitsky’s innovation “turned the entire concept of the district upside down” (Neal 1991, 4; see also Ouchi 2008, 24). Adopting a completely new approach, he embarked on an initiative to give self-governance to principals and schools through the decentralization of decisions from the district office to the school. The central idea was deceptively simple: “Every decision which contributes to the instructional effectiveness of the school and which can be made at school level, should be made at school level” (Coleman 1984, 25). Most of the transfers have involved school-based budgeting and resource-allocation decisions, but the basic principle is also applied to all educational decisions.

Decentralized education governance was also implemented in Australia and New Zealand as well as in American cities, including Seattle, Washington and Houston, Texas.  From the 1990s until 2001 the decentralized model was fully established in both US cities and piloted in a few Canadian provinces, including Quebec and Nova Scotia. 

Since the publication of William G. Ouchi’s Making Schools Work (2008), school reformers have been more attuned to the centralizing tendencies of education systems and the advantages of school-based management. Those lessons have been absorbed and implemented in innovative systems around the globe; in particular, they have been adopted by the World Bank in its international educational decentralization development projects. One 2005 World Bank study perhaps put it best: “a service education is too complex to be efficiently produced and distributed in a centralized fashion.”

Introducing education restructuring in Nova Scotia in the mid-1990s proved to be impossible, given the intransigence and passive resistance of school administrators, including anxious school principals.

Three decentralized Governance Models were proposed in a 1994 NSDE Discussion paper and all embraced “school-based management” with school councils at each school site, ranging along the continuum from purely advisory councils to school council-school board shared leadership to totally decentralized school-based local governance. Much more educational authority and responsibility was to be transferred from school districts to the school-level and vested in school councils.  Those local councils were to have authority to make decisions in ten specified areas, including setting school priorities, developing a school budget and improvement plans, making recommendations on the hiring and dismissing of principals, appointing principals and staff, and producing community accountability reports.

A 1995 Nova Scotia Education Horizons report spelled out actual plans for school council governance and the reduction of school district structures from 22 regional boards to either five or seven, complete with illustrative maps and district-to-district student enrolment data. The Dr. John Savage government followed through on school district reduction, but gave ground on entrusting so much authority to school-level councils.  School Advisory Councils (SACs), established in 1995, provided periodic advice and improved school-community communications, but did little to shift the locus of education decision-making.

School boards consolidated and retrenched, and superintendents expanded their authority over not only elected boards, but the whole K-12 school system. Closing schools has led to bigger elementary and secondary school plants and administrators now routinely refer to their schools as “buildings.” Since 1995, School Advisory Councils (SACs) have struggled and floundered, most functioning under the thumb of principals and some competing with holdover home and school groups for legitimacy and recognition. Today, scanning school websites, you will look in vain for the names and contact information for anyone on the school advisory councils. If you inquire about the SAC, you are immediately referred to the school principal.

Provincial and regional school boards, as presently constituted, have completely lost their democratic legitimacy. and it’s time to replace them with a far more responsible, grounded and accountable system of school community-based governance. Like most informed parents, engaged citizens, and awakened communities, small school advocates find themselves on the outside looking in and puzzled by why our provincial school systems are so top down, bureaucratic, distant and seemingly impervious to change.

Abolishing school boards altogether or conducting provincial reviews of school closure regulations do not really change the situation – our P-12 school system operates more to serve those in charge than those it purportedly serves – children, parents, and local communities.  The time for restructuring education is now.

Why does education restructuring to decentralize school decision-making authority remain a vision beyond reach?  Whatever happened to the School-Based Management model successfully implemented in Edmonton Public Schools? What’s the connection between school-based management and effective local school governance?  How can we clear away the obstructions and obstacles and win the support of the educators who inhabit our schools? 

Today’s business leaders have a clear sense of where a better future lies for Canadians, especially those in Atlantic Canada. The Canadian Chamber of Commerce initiative Ten Ways to Build a Canada That Wins has identified a list of key opportunities Canada, and the Atlantic Region, can seize right now to “regain its competitiveness, improve its productivity and grow its economy.” Competitiveness, productivity and growth are the three cornerstones of that vision for Canada at 150 and this much is also clear – it cannot be done without a K-12 and Post-Secondary education system capable of nurturing and sustaining that vision.

Yet the educational world is a strange place with its own tribal conventions, familiar rituals, ingrained behaviours, and unique lexicon. Within the K-12 school system, educational reform evolves in waves where “quick fixes” and “fads” are fashionable and yesterday’s failed innovations can return, often recycled in new guises.

Today’s business leaders –like most citizens–also find themselves on the outside looking in and puzzled by why our provincial school systems are so top down, bureaucratic, distant and seemingly impervious to change.  Since Jennifer Lewington and Graham Orpwood described the School System as a “Fortress” maintaining clear  boundaries between “insiders and outsiders” back in 1993 not much has changed.  Being on an “advisory committee” gives you some access, but can easily become a vehicle for including you in a consultation process with pre-determined conclusions determined by the system’s insiders and serving the interests of the educational status quo.

Provincial education authorities, pressed by concerned parents, business councils and independent think tanks like the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS) have embraced standardized testing in the drive to improve literacy and numeracy, fundamentals deemed essential for success in the so-called “21st century knowledge-based economy.” Student testing and accountability may be widely accepted by the informed public, but they are far from secure. Provincial teachers’ unions remain unconvinced and continue to resist standardized testing and to propose all kinds of “softer” alternatives, including “assessment for learning,” “school accreditation,” and broadening testing to include “social and emotional learning.”

Two decades ago, the Metropolitan Toronto Learning Partnership was created and, to a large extent, that education-business alliance has tended to set the pattern for business involvement in public education. Today The Learning Partnership has expanded to become a national charitable organization dedicated to support, promote and advance publicly funded education in Canada.  With the support of major corporate donors, the LP brings together business, government, school boards, teachers, parents, labour and community organizations across Canada in “a spirit of long term committed partnerships.”  It’s time to ask whether that organization has done much to improve student achievement levels and to address concerns about the quality of high school graduates.

A change in focus and strategy is in order if the business voice for education reform is to be heard and heeded in the education sector. Our public school system is simply not good enough. Penetrating the honey-coated sheen of edu-babble and getting at the real underlying issues requires some clear-headed independent analysis. We might begin by addressing five significant issues that should be elevated to the top of the education policy agenda:

  • declining enrollment and school closures – and the potential for community-hub social enterprise schools,
  • the sunk cost trap — and the need to demonstrate that education dollars are being invested wisely,
  • the future of elected school boards — and alternatives building upon school-based governance and management,
  • the inclusive education morass — and the need to improve intensive support services;
  • the widening attainment-achievement gap — improving the quality of high school graduates.

In each case, in-depth analysis brings into sharper relief the critical need for a business voice committed to major surgery –educational restructuring and curriculum reform from the schools up rather than the top down.

The education system in Atlantic Canada, for example, has come a long way since the 1990s when the whole domain was essentially an “accountability-free zone.” Back in 2002, AIMS began to produce and publish a system of high school rankings that initially provoked howls of outrage among school board officials.  Today in Atlantic Canada, education departments and school boards have all accepted the need for provincial testing regimes to assess Primary to Grade 12 student performance, certainly in English literacy and mathematics.

Prodded and cajoled by the annual appearance of AIMS’s High School Report Cards, school boards became far more attuned to the need for improvement in student achievement results. While we have gained ground on standardized assessment of student achievement, final high school examinations have withered and, one -by-one been eliminated and graduation rates have gone through the roof, especially in the Maritime provinces. Without an active and engaged business presence, provincial tests assessing student competence in mathematics and literacy may be imperiled.  Student assessment reform aimed at broadening the focus to  “social and emotional learning” poses another threat. Most recently, a Nova Scotia School Transitions report issued in June 2016 proposed further “investment” in school-college-workplace bridging programs without ever assessing or addressing the decline in the preparedness of those very high school graduates.

Today, new and profoundly important questions are being raised:  What has the Learning Partnership actually achieved over two decades? What have we gained through the provincial testing regimes — and what have we lost?  Where is the dramatic improvement in student learning that we have been expecting?  If students and schools continue to under-perform, what comes next?  Should Canadian education reformers and our business allies begin looking at more radical reform measures such as “turnaround school” strategies, school-based management, or charter schools? 

Where might the business voice have the biggest impact? You would be best advised to either engage in these wider public policy questions or simply lobby and advocate for a respect for the fundamentals: good curriculum, quality teaching, clear student expectations, and more public accountability.  Standing on the sidelines has only served to perpetuate the status quo in a system that, first and foremost, serves the needs of educators rather than students and local school communities.

Revised and condensed from an Address the the Atlantic Chamber of Commerce, June 6, 2017, in Summerside, PEI. 

Principal Daniel Villeneuve of Saints-Anges Catholic Elementary School in North Bay, Ontario, is among the first wave of Canadian school leaders to take a stand against fidget spinners, the latest craze among children and teens world-wide. On May 23, 2017, he visited class after class to advise his students that the hand-held gadgets were being banned from school grounds. Marketed as a “stress reliever” for anxious or hyperactive kids, the spinners had become a “major distraction” interfering with teaching and learning affecting everyone in the classroom.

FidgetSpinnerCloseUpThe North Bay principal’s letter to parents, issued May 24, 2017, directly challenged the claim of the commercial product’s marketers that a fidget spinner “helps people focus and concentrate.”  He was crystal-clear about the real “issues with this toy”: 1) it makes noise; 2) it attracts attention; 3) most kids require two hands to make it spin; and 4) it distracts the user and others. For this reason, it was “banned from the school and the day care” and “must remain in the student’s school bag at school.”  What he didn’t say was perhaps obvious – it was driving teachers crazy and making teaching almost intolerable.

Most Canadian school authorities and far too many principals were simply asleep at the switch, compared to their counterparts in the United Kingdom, New York State, Southern California, and New Zealand.  By May 10, 2017, 32 per cent of America’s 200 top rated high schools had banned the spinners from their premises. With the exception of a few Western Canadian school boards, provincial educational leaders seemed to be taken-in by the latest student pacifier and the pseudoscience offered in support of such panaceas. How and why did it get so advanced, and take so long, before a few courageous school principals saw fit to weigh in to put a stop to the classroom disruption?

Fidget spinners, since their invention in the 1990s, have been used with some success to assist in teaching students severely challenged with autism. “We call them fidget tools because they really are tools,” Edmonton autism specialist Terri Duncan told CBC News. “Sometimes it helps to tune out other sensory information. Sometimes it helps them calm and focus. Sometimes it helps them with their breathing and relaxing. It’s a little bit different for every child.” They are one of a series of such tools, including fidget cubes, squishy balls, fuzzy rings, tangle puzzles, putty and even chews — colourful, tactile objects to meet the special needs of ASD children.  Fidget spinners, she adds, “can prevent kids from chewing on their fingers, from picking at their hands, picking at their clothes” and actually help them to concentrate more in class.

Serious problems arise when the fidget spinners are employed to simply relieve everyday stress and anxiety. One leading clinical psychologist, Dr. Jennifer Crosbie of Toronto’s Sick Children’s Hospital, sees value in the gadgets for treating autistic children, but is not a fan of their widespread use in classrooms.  In her words, “it’s too distracting” and “draws attention” to the user, disrupting the class. She and many other clinicians now recommend that schools limit their use to special education classes or interventions.

School authorities in Maritime Canada appear to have initially accepted the claims of the marketers and been swayed by their special education program consultants.  Self-regulation, championed by Dr. Shanker, has made inroads in elementary schools, many of which embrace “mindfulness” and employ “stress-reduction” strategies.  In the region’s largest school district, Halifax Regional School Board, the policy decision was left up to individual schools and frustrated teachers took to social media to complain about the constant distraction and ordeal of confiscating spinners to restore order. New Brunswick’s Anglophone school districts seeking to accommodate learning challenged students in inclusive classrooms accepted spinners as just another pacifying tool to complement their wiggle stools. In rural school communities such as Nova Scotia’s Shelburne and Pictou counties and towns such as Summerside, PEI, the craze popped up in schools totally unprepared with policies to deal with students fixated with the gadgets.

Prominent education critics and teacher researchers are now having a field day exposing the pseudoscience supporting the introduction of fidget spinners into today’s regular classrooms.  A Winnipeg psychologist, Kristen Wirth, finds little evidence testifying to their positive results and claims that it is a “placebo effect” where “we feel something is helping, but it may or may not be helping.”  Canada’s leading teen mental health expert, Dr. Stan Kutcher, sees “no substantive evidence on spinners” and warns parents and teachers to be wary of the out-sized claims made by marketers of the toys.

British teacher Tom Bennett, founder of researchED, is more adamant about the “latest menace” to effective teaching and learning in our schools.  The latest fad – fidget spinners – he sees as symptomatic of “education’s crypto-pathologies.”  Teachers today have to contend with students purportedly exhibiting “every trouble and symptom” of anxiety and stress.  Misdiagnoses, he claims, can lead to children feeling they have some insurmountable difficulty in reading, when what it requires is tutorial help and ongoing support.

“Many children do suffer from very real and very grave difficulties,” Bennett points out, and they need intensive support. When it comes to “fidget spinners,” he adds, “we need to develop a finer, collective nose for the bullshit, for the deliberately mysterious, for the (purely invented) halitosis of the classroom.”  In spite of the inflated claims of the marketers, “magic bullets and magic beans” won’t provide the solutions.

Why are today’s schools so susceptible to the inflated claims of marketers promoting the latest educational gadget?  Do popular inventions like the fidget spinner answer some inner need in today’s fast-paced, high anxiety, unsettled popular culture?  To what extent have Dr. Stuart Shanker and his student behaviour theorists made us more receptive to tools which are said to relieve stress and promote “self-regulation” in children?  Why do so many education leaders and school principals go along with the latest trend without looking deeper at its research-basis and broader impact?