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Archive for January, 2010

Student absenteeism is a serious issue in public education.  Concerted efforts have been expended aimed at engaging students and promoting active learning, but schools are still full of  “clock-watchers”  Many high schoolers regularly skip classes and, according to some inside reports, “the hallways are virtually empty some Friday afternoons.”

A recent report, commissioned by the Nova Scotia Education Department, bravely tackles the chronic issue.  The advisory committee, chaired by Howard Windsor, Halifax’s former “one-man school board,” recommends extending compulsory school attendance to age 18/Grade 12 and a series of “staged interventions” for chronic “skippers” and truants.  Along with those measures, the committee proposes a range of inducements to keep students in school.  In extending schooling to 18, Nova Scotia would be following the lead of Ontario, New Brunswick, and Nunavut.

What’s my initial response? When confronted with a growing problem of absenteeism, Nova Scotia Education seems to be considering “compulsory engagement” until age 18. With 7.4% of students missing 20% or more of classes and 45% absent for 10% of their classes, it’s a deeply entrenched problem. First came the carrot ( the elementary level behaviour modification (PEBS) program  and high school exam exemptions), now we seem to be resorting to the stick ( compulsory schooling to 18).

What does the education research say? Student engagement is clearly more important than attending and simply occupying classroom seats. Canada’s largest national school survey, Tell Them from Me, provided a clearer sense of the problem and identified the factors contributing to “a sense of belonging at school.”  “Improving school and classroom climate” are key to “increasing engagement,” says CRISP Director Douglas Willms (MASS Journal,Fall 2008).  Leading American expert, Deborah Meier (2002), sees school size as a critical factor — the smaller the school, the more likely students are to feel a sense of  attachment; the larger the school, the greater the potential for standardization, alienation and absenteeism.

A few critical questions need to be asked: Why are so many kids tuning out, skipping or dropping out in Nova Scotia and elsewhere? In legislating compulsory high school attendance, will we be giving up on making school more engaging for kids? And more importantly, will everyone be graduating?

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Nova Scotia, like most Canadian provinces, is grappling with a looming financial crisis and public education is facing a serious crunch.  And when the NDP government of Darrell Dexter recently announced its upcoming round of Budget Consultations, the leaders of the province’s main education lobby groups were first off the mark. On January 21,2010, the voices of education officialdom issued a “pre-emptive strike” with a fancy website and a catchy slogan “Save Grade 2.”  Sifting through the rhetoric and posturing, the educators were really asking for the province to increase edu-spending by 3.6 % or some $36 million.

What’s the crisis all about?  The Nova Scotia government has identified the essential problem – the province is “spending far more than it is taking in” when it comes to revenues.   The provincial debt is astronomical and annual deficits are projected to rise from $525 million in 2009 to $1.4 billion in 2012-13.  If nothing is done, Health expenditures will continue to consume half the provincial budget and education spending will rise from $1.4 billion to $2 billion dollars per year.  More alarming, debt servicing  now consumes more than Nova Scotia spends on Community Services.  With the province’s population aging, it is also forecast that the school-age population will decline (by 11.5 %) from some 130,000 students to 114,500 by 2014-15.

What’s the threat?  The education lobby groups now claim that the public system will soon be presented with “impossible choices.”  If funding for education decreases, they fear that cruel “cuts” will have to be made, such as releasing 800 teachers, cutting literacy improvement, reducing education assistants/bus drivers, trimming the textbook budget, closing additional schools, chopping special programs, or increasing class sizes.  How “Saving Grade 2” relates to all this is unclear, but presumably the total projected reductions total the cost of operating that program. ( See http://www.savegrade2.com)

The initial questions were: What are the real choices facing the Nova Scotia government in the field of education?  What’s your response to the “Save Grade 2” initiative?  Is Grade 2 really at risk or is it an example of political gamesmanship?  Does anyone in Nova Scotia really believe that the NDP government poses a threat to public education?

Flash forward nine moths to October 2010.  Darryl Dexter’s NDP government seizes the initiative, claiming that reductions are imperative because the provincial school system was losing 3,000 students a year. Without warning, school boards in Nova Scotia are told to prepare for budget cuts that could total $196 million over three years. In full panic mode, the Nova Scotia School Boards Association claims that the province’s cuts amount to 22% and threaten to “devastate” the whole system.

Going into the second round, new and more fundamental questions arise cutting to the root of the problem.  What is really accomplished by simply adjusting grant levels and postponing structural changes?  Has the time come to depart from the grant-driven cycle?  Without downsizing, can Nova Scotia deliver education at an affordable cost to taxpayers?  And should the province be looking at innovative options, such as e-learning and distance education?

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The initial post-mortems on the “Oh-Ohs” have now appeared. Celebrity couples, rogues, fraudsters, technology, pop culture, and even the new lexicon dominated those conventional end-of-decade features. Yet curiously absent from such rather cheeky appraisals was any direct mention of the world of education, one inhabited by millions of Canadian families.

Although the state of education consistently ranks high in opinion polls on Canadians’ list of public concerns, especially among the young adult (19 to 35) age group, it still flies largely below the radar screen.  Personal and family concerns, it seems, do not always find their way onto the public agenda.

A major reason for this scant national attention is, as pollster Nik Nanos recently pointed out, the fact that education in Canada remains the preserve of the provinces. And it’s not easy to take the pulse of a system spread over 10 provinces with some 5 million students, 375 different school boards and about 15,000 schools.

Throwing caution to the wind, here are my choices for the top ten “tipping-point” events over the past ten years, in no particular order:

  • Advent of Google and Wikipedia

Google provided finger-tip access to all types of information and online “Open Source” resources like Wikipedia replaced library encyclopedias and revolutionized the whole concept of student research.

  • 9/11 and School Security

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 brought the “War on Terrorism” home and the schools responded with stricter security policies, entrance door buzzers, and cameras – and parents armed their children with cellphones, citing personal security concerns.

  • Public Acceptance of School Rankings

Public education authorities gave ground in the ongoing struggle over standardized student testing and the ranking of schools, responding to the Provincial Report Cards, initiated by the Vancouver-based Fraser Institute and extended, in 2003, by the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS) ranking all public high schools in Atlantic Canada.

  • The Harry Potter Phenomenon

Schoolchildren were captivated by J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter seven-book series, culminating with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (2007) and the series may not only have created a new generation of readers, but given the printed word a second chance with our children.

  • The SMART Board Craze

Schools and school districts experimented with “one-to-one” laptop systems, pioneered in New England , Ontario’s Peel Region Board, and ritzy private schools, but, with the introduction of SMART Boards in the early 2000s, many more jumped on the latest bandwagon, attracted by the snazzy “interactive whiteboard” technology and the much more affordable one-per-classroom model.

  • Addiction to Social Networking

The 2000s saw the emergence of “digital teens” armed with smartphones and living a so-called “online adolescence,” best exemplified by a virtual addiction to sites like Facebook, which enjoyed  its highest penetration rates in Canadian cities like Toronto.

  • The Opening of Toronto’s Africentric School

Less than two years after a fierce public debate, the Toronto District School Board opened Canada’s first Africentric Alternative School in September 2009, aimed at reducing the alarming 40 per cent dropout rate among black students and modelled after earlier projects in the United States and North Preston, NS.

  • The Revival of All-Boys Schools

Single sex boys’ education was long considered quite unusual (and limited to a group of traditional Canadian private schools supported by a small worldwide Boys’ Schools Coalition), but in late October 2009, Toronto District School Board director Chris Spence unveiled a proposal for the first all-boy school in Canada’s elementary public school system.

  • The Homework Backlash

Piling on the homework became more popular in the 1990s and educational progressives, sparked by Alfie Kohn’s The Schools Our Children Deserve (1999) and an influential 2008 OISE/Toronto research report, convinced many school boards to back off on homework demands, particularly in the early grades.

  • The Spectre of School Closures

The most recent wave of school closures was the hottest local education issue, spawning major province-wide “Save our Schools” resistance movements in Ontario, British Columbia, and English Quebec and provoking intense local skirmishes in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Vancouver, Halifax, and Bass River, NS.

Education remains too often an afterthought in the mainstream media. Even though a 2007 Canadian Education Association survey reported that Canadian’s level of confidence in education had fallen dramatically since 1994, that alarm bell has gone largely unheeded. The Globe and Mail’s decade review provided yet another classic example of this blindspot. Although revered by a whole generation of Canadian kids and their parents, the September 2001 passing of CBC-TV’s Mr. Dressup, Ernie Coombs, received no mention whatsoever.

Reprinted from The Globe and Mail, January 6, 2010. (Web Exclusive Commentary)

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