Archive for May, 2010

An eye-opening video showing a March 3rd altercation in a Dartmouth Junior High between a Grade 9 student and his principal that has now been posted on YouTube has gone viral.  Within 24 hours, the student-principal clash caught on the school’s surveillance system had been viewed 33,000 times and the number of hits has soared into the stratosphere.

The YouTube Video at Graham Creighton JHS provides an revealing look at the incident. Click on  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ae-6Ec_5G1g

The serious altercation has emerged as a raging issue within the Halifax Region District School Board and now throughout Atlantic Canada. It has all the makings of a full-blown crisis.  The scene of the incident is Graham Creighton JHS in Cherry Brook ( a ‘rough and tumble’ neighborhood) and the principal in question is Ken Fells, a prominent member of the Nova Scotian black community.  The student accused of videoing bullying activities is a 14-year old white student known to have clashed with the principal on a weekly basis in the past.

When the HRSB staff filed a confidential report on the incident and recommended to the elected Boar of Trustees that Fells be terminated, a raging controversy erupted, dividing the educational community.  The Black Educators Association, led by Brad Barton, lined up behind Principal Fells and launched a very public campaign to have him spared.  Local parents came forward supporting Fells and his ‘hard-line’ approach to disciple, claiming that he was “turning around” a school where student bullying was commonplace and teachers regularly given a rough ride.  Little was heard from the victim or his parents until after the hearing, although the public was advised that the boy had transferred to another school.

The incident came to a head at an HRSB Board of Trustees Meeting on May 19, 2010, held amidst picketing by the Black Educators Association and supporters of Fells.  After the marathon 8-hour hearing, Ken Fells was retained by the Board, but recommended for re-assignment to another school.  Only then did the boys’ parents speak out and Atlantic Frank magazine go public with a story providing a blow-by-blow account of the serious altercation.

The Halifax Chronicle Herald came out in defense of Fells and hard-pressed educators.  In a lead editorial, “Educators on Eggshells” (May 21), the paper asked ” Why is the deck stacked against school principals and in favour of unruly pupils?  Will more educators now learn to walk on eggshells if they value their jobs?” A “School Row” feature story in Atlantic Frank (June 8, 2010) takes a decidedly different view of the incident.

The actions of the principal were  likened by Herald columnist Laurent Lepierres to those of Jean Chretien’s infamous “Shawinigan Handshake.” After weighing the evidence, Lepierres backed the educators: “What’s wrong is treating the school system as a dumping ground for all our social problems while giving it little leeway to take action against kids who act out.”

The Ken Fells case does raise a series of  fundamental questions: What’s causing the escalation of tension and periodic eruptions of aggression in today’s junior and senior high schools? Is the Fells case essentially a black and white issue? Can a “Shawinigan Handshake” and a “Half-Nelson” take-down be excused as an acceptable form of discipline?  Should we define the limits of school authority in responding to student misbehaviour in our schools?

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The bestselling Canadian author, social critic, and English professor, Laura Penny, has returned with an explosive little book entitled MORE MONEY THAN BRAINS.  Just in case you miss the intent of her latest salvo, it’s subtitled ” Why School Sucks, College is Crap, and Idiots Think They’re Right.” It offers a ferocious defence of Humanities and the Arts against the contemporary onslaught of Business and Economics in higher education, popular culture, and everyday life. The Almighty Dollar and its many associated evils in our high-tech world, according to Penny, not only threaten liberal education, but are slowly “dumbing us down” in the early 21st century.

A fine book review by Douglas Bell in The Globe and Mail (April 23,2010) bore the title “Is we being educated right?” and captured well the gist of Laura Penny’s deadly funny message. See http://tgam.ca/MZl (via @globeandmail)

Today’s citizens and even university students show little respect for the very civilization from whence they are descended, Penny contends.  “We often point to our magnificent technological achievements as evidence of our triumph over those benighted primitives who preceded us. I definitely get this vibe from my students. ‘Why do we need to read this old stuff?’ they grouse. It’s, like, old, from the back-in-the-day times when people shat in buckets and were too stupid to invent cool stuff like cell phones. The past is just one long smelly error …”

While Penny is a Canadian, she ventures freely into American politics and culture. In doing so, she sees the American Right as the source of much of the evil for worshipping markets/materialism and fanning the flames of  “anti-intellectualism.”  George Bush, Sr. and George W., the Younger, are easy targets and she has no trouble trotting out examples of famous “Bushisms” such as “Rarely is the question asked: Is our children learning?”  She is particularly scathing when it comes to the rise of Sarah Palin (“a gun-totin’, SUV-swervin’  ignoramus”) and the spread of the TEA (Taxed Enough Already) Party Movement, the voice of the contemporary philistines. Only Barak Obama offers her any glimmer of hope.

Penny is at her best when she turns to assessing the state of our universities and colleges. “The conversion of our universities into job-training centres,” and “the increase in college enrolment”, she claims, is compounding  “our ignorance and anti-intellectualism.” In a recent interview with Stephen Patrick Clare, Penny went even more sensational to make her point. If she were queen of the college for a day, she would “burn down all the business schools and salt all the ashes so no more MBA-lings could spring from the ruins.”  With that done, she would “torch public relations, leisure studies, hotel management, and every other career training program”, until all that remained were “the truly academic disciplines.”

Many defenders of Liberal Education ( especially at Halifax’s University of Kings College) will secretly applaud this line: “If the university wants to survive as an intellectual institution it must slash and burn the professional suburbs to save the theoretical town.”

What’s wrong with today’s society? “Our society celebrates outrageous ignoramuses,” Penny says, “and it devalues intellectuals.”

Today’s educational system, according to Penny, is dominated too much by the “learn to earn” mentality and this is corrosive in its effect on genuine intellectual curiosity. “The more-money-than-brains mindset confuses two things. It treats money as an end in itself and knowledge as a mere means to an end.”

Laura Penny’s book is a great read and is already sparking controversy.  It raises a Big Question for all of us:  Is the whole concept of an “educated society” now threatened?  What has caused the rise of “anti-intellectualism” in contemporary North America?  Does money now matter more than brains?  Is it “dumbing us all down”? That should incite some reaction!

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Public education reform, in Canada as in the U.S., is focused on improving student learning through systematic testing, data analysis, and system-wide initiatives. How do we zero in on individual school improvement and fundamentals such as curriculum quality and teaching? Time is running out to close the gaps between the educated and undereducated in our society. As our population ages, global competition escalates, and society cries out for imaginative ideas, we ignore public education at our peril.
The educational world is a strange place with its own tribal conventions, familiar rituals, ingrained behaviours, and unique lexicon. Within the 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. Since the early 1990s, Canadian education has rediscovered “student learning,” and leading educators have reluctantly embraced standardized testing in the drive to improve literacy and numeracy, fundamentals deemed essential for success in the knowledge economy.
Student testing and accountability for results are here to stay, and for good reason.  School rankings were initiated in the 1990s by the Vancouver-based Fraser Institute and they are now grudgingly accepted by most education authorities.  Only eight years ago, the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS) began producing and publishing its own system of rankings that initially provoked howls of outrage among school board officials. Today in Atlantic Canada, education departments and school boards have 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 Report Cards, the Halifax Region School Board and the New Brunswick education department have even begun to release and post their own student test results in individual school-accountability reports.
As 2010 rolls on, new and profoundly important questions are being raised: What have we gained through reform initiatives? Where is the dramatic improvement in student learning? And observing the painful lessons of U.S. education reform—if, via test results, schools are repeatedly identified as “lowest performing” and they fail to respond, what next? Should we in Canada begin looking at more radical measures such as “turnaround school” strategies or “fresh start” initiatives? Or is it time to return to fundamentals: good curriculum, quality teaching, clear student expectations, and more public accountability?
When it comes to turning around public education, there are no easy answers. Yet the raging “school wars” in the U.S. do provide a few vital lessons. One of America’s best-known education experts, Diane Ravitch, has recently pointed a way forward in her newly released bestseller, The Death and Life of the Great American School System. Breaking from her past position, she now says that quick fixes such as testing and charter schools won’t necessarily lead to higher standards, more engaged young people, or even better schools.
Amid the public clamour over the latest wave of U.S. reform initiatives, Diane Ravitch warns us not to lose sight of what is truly fundamental.  The essential core, she maintains, consists of  a good knowledge-rich curriculum; motivated quality teachers; informed and engaged students; and school conditions that make learning possible.
Have we  lost our way?  If so, how can we get back on track?  Now, it’s your turn.

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