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Archive for July, 2010

School boards were established for a purpose.  Since the advent of the public school system, school boards have existed to provide a measure of local control over our tax-supported schools. Today the School Board system of governance founded upon elected school trustees is either in fragile condition or threatened with extinction. A recent feature article in The Globe and Mail, written by Kate Hammer (July 17, 2010), posed the whole question bluntly: “should governments close our school boards?” ( http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/should-governments-close-our-school-boards/article1643119/) Most Canadians probably favour the idea, and especially those with no children in the system. Few bother to examine the real impact of such a move on public accountability in education.

Cutting the size of government is popular these days.  School board reduction or total elimination is on the public agenda as citizens see it as an obvious cost-saving measure. Regional or district school boards have become remote to most citizens and taxpayers. In the 1990s, Ontario school boards lost their budgetary authority and elected Trustees were rendered toothless.  New Brunswick abolished school boards entirely, only to backtrack by establishing District Education Councils populated by well-meaning volunteers.

Local education democracy has faded over time. Robert Harris’ famous 1885 painting, “Meeting of School Trustees,” harkens back to a period when Trustees were at the very centre of the whole enterprise.  School consolidation and county school boards produced a dramatic shift in the locus of decision-making power away from local communities.  Today the bureaucratic education state is omnipresent.  When parent concerns are rebuffed by local principals, they have virtually nowhere to turn. Local democratic control has eroded to the point where many now call for the complete abolition of the current system based upon School Boards and elected bodies of Trustees.

Elected Trustees are now in a fight for political survival. With declining enrolments and aging populations, most provinces are looking for ways to reduce education expenditures. Governments have been slowly chipping away at school board authority, taking advantage of weakly-led boards known for political posturing and nonsensical debates.  Salaries and office budgets are now subject to more controls and provincial grants come with more strings attached.

School boards get little respect in Nova Scotia. In December 2006, Education Minister Karen Casey “fired” the entire 13-member Halifax Regional School Board for its petty squabbling ways and then replaced the Board with a retired civil servant, Howard Windsor, acting as a “one-man School Board.  The Strait Regional School Board in eastern Nova Scotia suffered the same fate.  When the two Nova Scotia boards were restored in October 2008, the Superintendents exercised greater control and elected Trustees operated under guidelines befitting system “cheerleaders.”

Stripped of tax raising powers, today’s elected School Board trustees are basically limited to advocacy and “rubber-stamping” monthly staff reports.  A new Ontario education law  blocks trustees from criticizing their board’s decisions.  In Ontario’s Bluewater Board, the elected trustees have proven so ineffective that a public advocacy group, Mended, has all but replaced them as the credible voice of the people.

Why not replace Trustees with district or school parent councils?  Prominent conservative think tanks such as the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS) now favour replacing School Boards with School Advisory Councils (SACs) vested with expanded powers.  AIMS president Charles Cirtwill contends that New Zealand and the Edmonton Public School Board prove that its time to “SAC” our school boards.  New Brunswick’s District Education Council (DEC) system, on the other hand, has been plagued with problems. In July 2009, three members of NB’s District 2 District Education Council (Mary Laltoo, David Matthews,and Pat Crawford) resigned decrying the DEC governance model as a sham, with few real decision-making powers. In a joint declaration, the three dissenters claimed that they refused to remain as “part of a farse that is sold to the public as local governance.”

The central questions cannot be skirted any longer:  Who speaks for the public in education? With School Boards housed in central offices far removed from most school communities, how can we preserve the vital principle of democratic control over decision-making?  Are School Governing Councils the ultimate answer?  If so, who provides the coordination across school regions? Most importantly, without School Boards, where’s the public accountability in education?

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Leading schools and school systems has become a perilous business in Canada as well as the United States.  School superintendents, college presidents, and principals are appointed with much fanfare, only to find themselves soon  immersed in bureaucratic challenges, beset by seemingly intractable problems, and ground down by the realities of managing the system.  Looking for inspiration, today’s school leaders discover that motivational books about transformational change are now in short supply. The latest educational mantra is “sustainable leadership.”  Success has come to be almost synonymous with survival in today’s educational world.

Educational leadership is a peculiar field, not normally characterized by critical thinking or reflection.  Yet the Canadian educational system remains under stress and the need for leadership greater than ever before.  Jennifer Lewington and Graham Orpwood’s Overdue Assignment (1993) accurately identified the source of that stress. “Those used to running the system, be they ministry bureaucrats or school board administrators, trumpet the arrival of change and reform even as they cling to the traditional power structure.”  Since the mid-1990s, principals have found themselves on the front lines feeling pressured to guide and, at times, manipulate  the agenda for schools.  Students, parents, taxpayers, and employers now challenge those running the system seeking improved test results, higher literacy standards, special education services, and a dizzying array of changes.

School leadership is increasingly unsustainable and improvement efforts are flagging in most educational spheres.  A 2004 Spencer Foundation-funded study of educational change in North American high schools produced sobering results.  Over three decades and based upon a study of 200 educators in 8 different high schools, Andy Hargreaves and I. Goodson found that leadership sustainability was critical to any successful reform. “Most processes and practices of school leadership,” they concluded, “create temporary, localized flurries of change but little lasting or widespread improvement.”

Educational leadership and change gurus like Michael Fullan and Andy Hargreaves seem to be changing their tune.  Upbeat inspirational books like their 1991 What’s Worth Fighting For? series ( Ontario Teachers’ Federation) have given way to a new generation of “How to” school leadership books with more prosaic titles like Sustainable Leadership (September 2005) and Turnaround Leadership (September 2006).  Old prescriptions such as “continuous improvement,”  “interactive professionalism,” and “building learning communities,” have given way to “Seven Principles” or strategies for institutional resilience and survival.

The “Lone Ranger” leader who rides into town and saves a single school is still frowned upon by the influential educational change theorists.  After successive waves of  change initiatives,  recycling old ideas in new guises, the leader of the future is now the  “consensus-builder” attuned to school culture and skilled in the art of leading from behind. Spearheading change is passe in a field which now extols the virtues of  “sustainable leadership” based upon depth of learning, length of impact, breadth of influence, justice for all, diversity of approach, resourcefulness in personal renewal, and conservation of the best for a better future.

Sustainable leadership consultants like John Varney ( CEO, Centre for Management Creativity) provide renewal workshops to fortify beleaguered school administrators.  “New age” leadership,  according to Varney, “is the capacity to perceive or create a field of meaning on which the game of life is played.”  Success amounts to creating a ‘meaning field’ where “shared values” inform every action without the need for “overt communication.”  Mass meditation certainly sounds like the recipe for survival!

Gone are the days when educational leaders sought to inspire others in the dynamic style promoted by Sir Ken Robinson. Chief education bureaucrats are shadowy figures who have long since given up the crusading ways of Massachusetts’ Horace Mann and Ontario’s Egerton Ryerson.  Powerful women educators like Stanford’s Linda Darling-Hammond and the Toronto Learning Partnership’s Veronica Lacey stand out as notable exceptions. The most successful university presidents such as Tom Traves (Dalhousie), Paul Davenport ( UWO), and Colin Dodds ( Saint Mary’s) are “iron-men” who outlive mere “flashes in the pan.”   The Toronto-based Canadian Education Association, led by Carole Olsen, is little more than a cheerleading chorus for public education.  Ground-breaking initiatives such as Pathways to Education originate outside the system and are driven by the likes of Carolyn Acker and a new breed of social enterprise entrepreneurs.

The situation is most critical at the local school level.  School principals are mostly careerists, on an upwardly mobile administrative track.  Moving principals from school to school every three years has unintended results, mainly associated with  “revolving-door” school leadership.  Innovative, dynamic  principals learn to “walk on eggshells,” especially when it comes to dealing with teacher union issues. Simply replicating system-wide initiatives is much safer than trying something original and certainly better rewarded in the system.

All of this rambling discourse, begs a few key questions: What has happened to the educational visionaries and inspiring leaders?  Why has sustainable leadership become the popular mantra of leading educrats, superintendents, and principals?  Where have all the real educational leaders gone — and where will we find the next generation of school leaders?

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High school Mathematics exam results still make the headlines.  On June 30, 2010, The Halifax Chronicle Herald featured a front page news story headed “55% failed Grade 12 Math Exam.” The electronic version of the story (http://thechronicleherald.ca/Search/1189774.html) attracted over 90 comments, the vast majority of which were  critical of Mathematics teaching and learning in Nova Scotia.

Mathematics standards had taken another hit.  The stark facts:  Only 45% of all Grade 12 students writing the Grade 12 Regular 2009 provincial Mathematics Examination managed to pass, down from 51% in 2008. Most of the failing students still passed, because the exam only counted for 30% of the final grade.  Even more remarkably, with or without passing the Math Exam, some 83% of Nova Scotia’s Grade 12’s secured a graduation diploma.

Struggling to pass Mathematics is certainly nothing new, especially in Nova Scotia.  While researching The Grammar School book, I  discovered that fifty years ago, in July of 1959, the province was in an uproar over the abysmal Provincial Examination results, particularly in Mathematics.  Halifax’s two dailies, The Mail Star and The Chronicle Herald were full of stories and letters expressing outrage and dismay over the latest results.  Reading last week’s paper, was like deja vu.

Student performance in Mathematics has long been fraught with controversy.  In July 1992, the Mattel Company’s statuesque doll, Teen Talk Barbie, was caught saying that “Math class is tough!.”  When the story broke, the American Association of University Women went ballistic over the aspersion cast on all young women.  The beleaguered company scrambled to change the voice recording and managed to escape a public relations disaster.  It was the age of Reviving Ophelia and the story then was the plight of girls and their poor performance in Mathematics.

What has really changed?  Today, girls tend to outperform boys in Mathematics and in most other subjects.  Indeed, high school boys now lag significantly behind girls on provincial examination results in Quebec and Nova Scotia.  Standardized assessments of math and literacy skills in Ontario and elsewhere testify to this new “gender gap” in education.

Whatever the gender differences, both girls and boys still find mastering Mathematics a challenge.  The June 2009 Mathematics Examination results in Nova Scotia are only the most recent demonstration of the chronic problem. It is also abundantly clear that education officials and mathematics consultants have tried a variety of remedies and now appear to be completely stymied by student under-performance in Mathematics.

The official Nova Scotia response to the Grade 12 Math exam debacle was typical. Education Minister Marilyn More admitted to being troubled by the math exam scores, but offered little in the way of remediation. Yet another “new elementary math curriculum” was promised, beginning in 2011, that would be “more focused” and aim for “deeper understanding.”  One brave Department official, Dan Harrison, conceded that “too many math concepts” were presented to Grade 12 students in “the time available during the school year.”

The Mathematics results created a real furor. Halifax Herald columnist Marilla Stephenson blamed the results on the lack of academic rigour, the absence of homework, and the laissez  faire attitude of both parents and students. (http://thechronicleherald.ca/Opinion/1190181.html)  Rather surprisingly, no one mentioned that the 2008-09 school year was the worst ever in terms of school days lost through cancellations. My AIMS Research Study, “School’s Out , Again,” released in May 2010 (www.aims.ca) was completely ignored, even though it offered the first detailed analysis of the impact of lost days on actual student performance. In a year when Nova Scotia students lost between 8 and 15 teaching days because of cancellations, it was definitely a contributing factor.

Today’s students still can’t do Math! What’s the root of the problem — the academic demands of Mathematics curricula, the quality of Math teaching, the decline in student work ethic, the laissez faire attitude of many parents, or some combination of these factors?  Why, after wave after wave of curriculum reform, do students still struggle to master Mathematics?

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