Archive for April, 2010

Ontario’s aborted sex education curriculum reform created quite a public uproar and re-ignited an ongoing debate across Canada.  Many Ontarians expressed utter shock over the more detailed, explicit sex-ed curriculum. While intended to promote tolerance and to address sensitive issues, it would have, for the first time, taught Grade 3 pupils about sexual identity and orientation and introduced Grade 6 and 7 children to terms like “anal intercourse” and “vaginal lubrication.” It’s little wonder that the proposed curriculum aroused intense opposition in Ontario among Muslims and Christians as well as conservative family values groups.

The raging debate, featured in The Globe and Mail (April 22), raised a few profoundly important questions. With explicit sex-ed in schools, what are we really teaching kids?  How early should young children be introduced to such sensitive issues? In pushing the boundaries, are Ministries of Education now promoting liberal humanist values at odds with growing numbers of parents with more traditional, spiritually-based values?

The ill-fated Ontario curriculum, quietly posted in January 2010 on the Ministry of Education website, prompted an unprecedented reaction. An Ontario Christian coalition, led by evangelist Charles McVety, raised the first alarm bells and members of that group have threatened to pull their children from the public schools. The President of the Somali Parents for Education, Suad Aimad, spoke of “a big reaction in the Muslim community” and stated that such matters were not only private, but best left to parents. Then, out of the blue, Premier Dalton McGuinty shelved the whole initiative.

A pan-Canadian survey of provincial sex education curricula is quite revealing. The British Columbia curriculum is the most liberal in orientation and touches on sexuality in every grade, starting in kindergarten.  Talk about sex in Alberta classrooms begins in Grade 4, but there is no mention of homosexuality or sexual orientation from K through to Grade 9.  Back in 2005, New Brunswick attempted to introduce a more explicit sex-ed curriculum and ended up back-tracking. Sex first comes up in Grade 5, not Grade 3, and plans to introduce topics like masturbation and anal sex in Grade 6 were subsequently dropped from the NB plan.

The Toronto Globe and Mail’s own commentaries seem to reflect the fragmented public consensus. In its Lead Editorial “Teaching Tolerance, not Mechanics” (April 22), the Editors come out in favour of a sex education curriculum that promotes tolerance and removes the stigma associated with homosexuality. The new Ontario program, in their view, is not just “how-to instruction on sex,” but rather teaching in a sensitive manner “what is appropriate at different ages.”

Columnist Margaret Wente broke with The Globe editorial position and lamented the proliferation of “sex-ed in a sex-filled culture.”  While sympathetic to the critics, she points out that “nearly every kid” is now “exposed to Internet porn by the age of 10.” What she objects to is the way sex-ed is actually taught – in a “scrupulously gender-neutral” fashion ignoring “the fundamental differences between teenage boys and girls.”

This week, Educhatter asks: What is the real purpose of Explicit Sex-Ed in the Early Grades?   Can we resolve the essential conflict in values?  Is it possible to teach  healthy living and sound values  as well as tolerance and social justice?

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Are we shortchanging our students by not insisting upon a minimum number of teaching days in our school year? In Atlantic Canada, why have school officials become so  relaxed about declaring so-called ‘storm days’ and cancelling school at the first sign of inclement weather?  Should we be more vigilant about preserving and protecting the teaching time our children receive in our schools?

My newest research report, School’s Out, Again: Why “throw away” schools days hurt students, (AIMS, April 13, 2010) takes a look at the chronic problem of lost schools days in Atlantic Canada and draws stark comparisons with provinces outside the region.  It also provides some preliminary evidence of the collateral damage inflicted upon students as well as the public education system.  (See http://www.aims.ca/library/SchoolsOut.pdf  to read the full report)

Last year was the worst ever in Atlantic Canada for interrupted education.  By April 2009, Nova Scotia’s regional school boards had cancelled classes for 11 to 14 out of 185 teaching days, and even the Halifax Regional Board had lost about 8 school days.  School boards in Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick and Newfoundland also lost record numbers of school days. Many high school classes across Nova Scotia also reportedly fell short of the minimum requirement of 110 hours of instruction. That lost teaching time was never recovered, and simply written-off by school officials.

A front page story in the Halifax Chronicle Herald raised the issue of recouping the teaching time lost.  The public debate eventually prompted the Nova Scotia Department of Education to commission retired superintendent Dr. James Gunn to produce a report on “School Storm Days” intended strictly as a Discussion Paper for the local boards.

With the mild winter of 2009-2010 behind us, little has been said or decided about those ‘lost school days.’   Schools in Nova Scotia continued to close at the slightest sign of snow and on March 3rd Parker Donham, The Contrarian, caused a minor furor by labelling  Maritimers as “fraidy cats” and speculating that the teachers’ union exerted some influence over such decisions.

What can and should be done to address this important educational policy issue?  Here are my key recommendations aimed at limiting “throw-away” school days and restoring a focus on student learning and achievement:

  1. Reaffirm the Department of Education’s primary responsibility for maintaining the integrity of the provincial school schedule, including the provision of a minimum number of teaching days and that schools actually be open for all of them;
  2. To facilitate recommendation one, amend the Education Act and regulations so as to reaffirm the authority of the Minister of Education to reclaim school days lost because of access problems or other adverse facilities conditions, including storm closings, leaking roofs, or furnace problems;
  3. Amend the Collective Agreement with the teacher’s union to guarantee a minimum number of teaching days and stipulate that when the schools remain open teachers (as well as support staff) are expected to report for duty;
  4. Mandate the Department of Transportation (DOTIR in NS) to develop (in collaboration with the provincial Pupil Transportation Advisory Committee) a coordinated province-wide strategy for snow clearance and highway plowing assigning higher priority to heavy daily student transportation zones, particularly along secondary roadways and working more closely with municipalities to improve services on dirt roads;
  5. Mandate every School Board/District to produce a contingency plan to reclaim days that are lost, including using holiday periods and giving absolute priority to restoring lost teaching time;
  6. Initiate an independent Provincial Review of the Impact of Lost Class Time on student engagement, classroom learning, and student performance, particularly on provincial, national and international assessments:
  7. Assess the impact of reducing the numbers of school storm days on student learning and performance once every five years, commencing in 2014-15.

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The Toronto District School Board’s recently announced plan, called Elementary Programs of Choice, has resurrected the issue of school choice here in Canada.  It has emerged out of an initial vision for an all-boys’ school, first advanced by education director Dr. Chris Spence and now presented as a broader strategy aimed at rejuvenating a stagnating public school system. Whatever the intention, the Toronto initiative has raised the key question of whether it represents a significant departure from the “one-size-fits-all” philosophy that has long dominated Canadian public education.

The Toronto Board administration is proposing to allow four specialized elementary schools to open in September of 2011 — a school for boys, a school for girls, a choir school, and a sports academy.  They will be publicly-funded and have an open enrolment policy. No tuition fees will be charged at these schools. Board Director Chris Spence has publicly stated that one of the prime objectives is to stem the flow of students from the public to the private system.

Like many other urban school systems, the Toronto board is struggling to cope with declining enrollment, driven by the middle class flight to the suburbs and the mushrooming of private schools.  One look at the annual Our Kids magazine directory of Private Schools tells the story. Many Toronto families with young children are turning to private venture or independent schools for programs better suited to their child’s individual needs.

What’s happening in Toronto is not unique. On April 5, Michael Zwaagstra of the Frontier Centre for Public Policy correctly pointed out that Toronto is only following Edmonton’s lead. Indeed, more than two decades ago, the Edmonton Public School Board blazed the trail by adopting “school choice” as a cardinal principle and by opening the door to a wider range of alternative school programs, including aboriginal education, Christian studies, science, and the performing arts.

The educational battle lines are now forming over the Toronto Board initiative. Defenders of “as is” public schooling like Annie Kidder of Ontario’s People for Education see this as the thin edge of the wedge leading to the erosion of social cohesion and the possible death knell for traditional neighbourhood schools. Fired up by a recent National Post commentary, Doretta Wilson of SQE has applauded the move as a positive sign.  The SQE blog, School for Thought, hoped for a breakthrough, but wondered if the initial plan amounted to “tossing a bone to a famished dog.”

The Toronto School Choice plan begs a few key questions:  Is the plan the first crack in the standardized, “equal experience for all” public school system? Or does the plan offer what Kate Tennier termed a “calculated choice” aimed at satisfying current parent demands while staving-off potential structural change?  Will the plan actually make a difference for children in disadvantaged, lower income communities?  Are we now on the road to broadening school choice or simply conducting new school experiments on children?  Now, over to you.

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