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Archive for September, 2010

The new documentary film Waiting for Superman packs quite a wallop.  Directed by Davis Guggenheim of An Inconvenient Truth, it promotes school choice, champions charter schools, and blames teacher unions for much of what ails American public education. It has also taken the educational world by storm since its debut at the Toronto International Film Festival.  On September 20th, The Oprah Winfrey Show focused on the film and featured a discussion including Bill Gates, an enthusiastic supporter of the project.  The cover of New York Magazine asked “Can One Little Movie Save America’s Schools?” and Tom Friedman heaped praise on the film in The New York Times. American TV networks are rolling out programs based upon the film and Time Magazine  is planning a full-scale conference on the theme.

Public and media reaction to Waiting for Superman in the United States has been, in a word, “rapturous.”  Not so in Canada, where the film first exploded upon the scene.  Indeed, the first public response by Dr. Jane Gaskell, former Education Dean at OISE/Toronto, threw cold water on the entire production.  In The Toronto Star (September 16), Gaskell blew a gasket, denouncing the movie, the Gates Foundation, and all those who might think its lessons apply here in Canada.

The world premiere of Waiting for Superman sparked a  mini-explosion within the Ontario education establishment.  It also proved Doretta Wilson and the Society for Quality Education right, once again.    http://www.societyforqualityeducation.org/index.php/blog/read/if-they-could-just-get-some-kryptonite/

The call for Charter Schools in Canada always hits a raw nerve at OISE and among the usual apologists for the current system.  Since the  emergence of Charter Schools in the early 1990s, the official reaction has been apoplectic. The Canadian educational establishment, under stress, becomes an impenetrable public fortress beholden to its core interests, bureaucratic solidarity and union rights.  Instead of fairly evaluating proposals to broaden School Choice, we are treated, time after time, to a defensive response casting aspersions on the motives of its proponents. Even though up to 33% of student learning is determined by teacher effectiveness, addressing the critical issue of teacher quality is never on the agenda.

Charter schools have been with us in Canada for over 15 years.  They are publicly-funded, autonomous schools which are formed to “provide innovative or enhanced education programs that improve the acquisition of student skills, attitudes, and knowledge in some measurable way.” (Alberta Education, 2010). The first Canadian charter schools in Alberta were the result of the tireless campaigning of Dr. Joe Freedman, a fiercely determined radiologist from Red Deer, Alberta. Since  March 1994, Alberta has been the only province to authorize charters.  Today, Alberta continues to embrace “School Choice” in public education and to support 13 different charter schools. (www.education.alberta.ca)

Following the breakthrough in Alberta, education reform groups favouring “School Choice” mounted a campaign in Ontario and in Atlantic Canada. The Ontario Coalition for Education Reform, the Society for Quality Education, and the Atlantic Institute of Market Studies (AIMS) all embraced the cause. Inspired by Dr. Freedman and American advocates of charters, the groups held conferences and published pamphlets proclaiming Charter Schools “an idea whose time has come.”  The frenzied activity peaked in 1997 and then stalled when educational authorities closed ranks and attempted to out-flank the proponents by embracing a domesticated version of student testing and accountability. The Vancouver-based Fraser Institute, normally an ally, undermined the whole effort by publishing a “Freedom Index” suggesting (erroneously) that Canada’s public system already had more educational choice than the United States.

Parental choice remains very popular in Canada, in spite of the current constraints in the system. Today’s parents are very much aware of the success of Charter Schools in New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and in parts of the United States.  Many Canadian parents with high expectations for their children are aware of the KIPP schools thriving in the U.S.

In Alberta, the existing Charter Schools have survived, but still face surprisingly strong institutional resistance, fueled by the teacher unions. A recent January 2010 Canada West Foundation report, “Innovation in Action: An Examination of Charter Schools in Alberta,” put it best: Alberta’s chartering legislation is a straight-jacket which amounts to “the equivalent of clipping a bird’s wings and then asking it to fly.” (www.cwf.ca)  Still, there is hope and a few signs of progress.  Forward-looking school systems, like the Edmonton Board, the Toronto Public Board, and the Langley BC Board, have embraced school-based management and allowed more choice within their schools.

Now for the Big Question: Living as we do in a North American cultural universe, will Waiting for Superman awaken Canadians to the possibilities of school choice and the advantages of charter schools?  Can a “little Hollywood movie” put Charter Schools back on the education reform agenda? And if  Charter Schools are sanctioned in other Canadian provinces, how do we ensure that their wings are not clipped at birth by those ingenious educrats and their system “partners”?

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Education reformers in the United States are prone to inflating expectations and promising the world.  Safely perched on the  North American sidelines, the American “School Wars” are a spectacle to behold.  Since the launch of the Soviet Sputnik, the education system has been another front in the high stakes competition for world dominance. Under President Barak Obama, the nation-wide Education Reform agenda is popularly billed as “Race to the Top.” Yet  a recent Common Core study of international education standards lauded both Finland and Alberta for their test results, while painting a grim picture of U.S. achievement levels.

Surveying Canadian education reform is next to impossible.  The Canadian Council on Learning, founded in 2004, has done its best to produce comparative data.  Without any real federal presence in education, taking the pulse  involves assessing all 10 provinces and three territories and trying to make some sense of a system with some 5 million students, 375 different school boards and about 15,000 schools.  Since Charles Ungerleider’s Failing Our Kids (2003), no one in Canada has even attempted to take stock of the state of public education.

Canada’s provinces are simply all over the map when it comes to school reform. Provincial and board testing programs are finally in place, providing parents, for the first time, with current student test results.  The Early Learning Agenda, promoted by Dr. Fraser Mustard,  is driving education reform initiatives in Ontario, British Columbia, and Prince Edward Island. The Toronto Board of Education is experimenting with broadening school choice within public education, without any reference to Alberta’s earlier reforms.  A few big city boards, most notably the Halifax Board, are hunkered down essentially replicating largely discredited American-style testing regimes.

Ungerleider’s 2003 book captured well the puzzling Canadian “edu-babble” on the subject of comparative educational standards. “Public schooling,” he insisted, ” has never been healthier nor at greater risk.” (p. 9)  He gauged the health of the system by citing the rising “attainment levels” and recent PISA results in reading, science, and mathematics. All of the threats he traced back to the incursion of “market forces” into the Canadian system.  We were, according to Ungerleider’s peculiar logic,  “ruining our public schools” by expecting too much of teachers and students.

Americans, on the other hand, may lead the world in overblown rhetoric about “school reform.”  That is why Robert J. Samuelson’s recent Washington Post column (September 6, 2010) really hit home and attracted widespread attention in the United States.  For once, an American education critic took a step back and took a hard, dispassionate look at what wave after wave of school reform has actually achieved for students. With 56 million children returning to the nation’s 133,000 schools, he claimed that ” few subjects inspire more intellectual dishonesty and political puffery” than “school reform.”     (See  http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/09/05/AR2010090502817.html)

Cutting to the chase, why had American school reform produced such meagre results?  Here’s Samuelson’s incisive analysis of the U.S. reform scene:

Reforms have disappointed for two reasons. First, no one has yet discovered transformative changes in curriculum or pedagogy, especially for inner-city schools, that are (in business lingo) “scalable” — easily transferable to other schools, where they would predictably produce achievement gains. Efforts in New York and the District to raise educational standards involve contentious and precarious school-by-school campaigns to purge “ineffective” teachers and principals. Charter schools might break this pattern, though there are grounds for skepticism. In 2009, the 4,700 charter schools enrolled about 3 percent of students and did not uniformly show achievement gains.

The larger cause of failure is almost unmentionable: shrunken student motivation. Students, after all, have to do the work. If they aren’t motivated, even capable teachers may fail.

Motivation comes from many sources: curiosity and ambition; parental expectations; the desire to get into a “good” college; inspiring or intimidating teachers; peer pressure. The unstated assumption of much school “reform” is that if students aren’t motivated, it’s mainly the fault of schools and teachers. The reality is that, as high schools have become more inclusive (in 1950, 40 percent of 17-year-olds had dropped out, compared with about 25 percent today) and adolescent culture has strengthened, the authority of teachers and schools has eroded. That applies more to high schools than to elementary schools, helping explain why early achievement gains evaporate.

Motivation is weak because more students (of all races and economic classes, let it be added) don’t like school, don’t work hard and don’t do well. In a 2008 survey of public high school teachers, 21 percent judged student absenteeism a serious problem; 29 percent cited “student apathy.” The goal of expanding “access” — giving more students more years of schooling — tends to lower educational standards… ( according to prominent U.S. college and university officials )

Against these realities, school “reform” rhetoric is blissfully evasive. It is often an exercise in extravagant expectations. Even if George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind program had been phenomenally successful (it wasn’t), many thousands of children would have been left behind. Now Duncan routinely urges “a great teacher” in every classroom. That would be about 3.7 million “great” teachers — a feat akin to having every college football team composed of all-Americans. With this sort of intellectual rigor, what school “reform” promises is more disillusion.”

Samuelson’s persuasive critique packs some powerful lessons for Canadian education reformers of all stripes.  His two key points are particularly telling.  Surveying Canadian reform projects, how many can we identify that are “scalable” or transferable on a larger scale?  And where are the gains we expected and sought in “student motivation”?  What good are all these advances, if students simply won’t do the work and get rewarded anyway?

What are the lessons for Canadian school reformers? Replicating American education reform initiatives may not lead us to nirvana. How much of Samuelson’s analysis applies to Canadian education reform? If we are so different, where are the results?

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School is resuming for another year and the hottest issue is “Facebook in Schools.” On September 1, CBC-TV’s The National ran a story focusing on a Grade 7 teacher Colin Kristoff and his successful campaign to bring Facebook into Catholic public schools in Regina, Saskatchewan.  While it’s popular with most students, teachers remain deeply divided on whether popular social network sites have any place in today’s classrooms.  Even his own school principal, Jamie Neigum, is dubious about its merits.

Facebook, for better or worse,  is coming to a classroom near you.   After years of blocking the popular social networking site from schools, Canada’s largest public school boards have decided to embrace it instead. Public boards in Toronto, Vancouver, and Waterloo Region have relented and are permitting classroom access.  Atlantic Canada’s biggest board, the Halifax Regional School Board, remains an outlier, blocking student and teacher access in its 137 schools.  Every school in that system, and many others, is “locked down” even though students use social media virtually everywhere else these days.

Ontario’s  Waterloo Region District Board was one of the first to “crack”  on the issue of access to Facebook. Back in April 2010, the Board went on record as encouraging the use of Social Media in the schools, with proper guidance.  Assistant Superintendent of Learning Services, Peter Rubenschuh, fronted the initiative. “We are looking at social media tools to support the learning agenda,” he told the Kitchener Waterloo Record. Starting this September, the board allows Facebook to be used in its schools for students aged 13 and older. It will be moderated, and it will be used for such things as discussing issues that come up in the curriculum, or offering extra help.

Facebook is omnipresent in early 21st century life.  The site now has 500 million users around the globe, many of them young people, who are living out their lives in an online world.  Teens and children, some as young as nine years old, are fixated with the social network site.  They now acquire most of their information from the social media, in addition to socializing almost incessantly with friends. Most teens use it to tell what they’re up to, post pictures, take quizzes and play games, and comment on their friends’ pictures and activities. Some spend several hours a day on Facebook and other social network sites.

The Waterloo Board’s Rubenschuh is a real convert to its value.  “This is their world,”he says. “This is how they connect.” And he thinks some students might connect better to school if they can use the method of communication they prefer.  For example, some students don’t like speaking up in classroom discussion. But they might feel differently about giving their opinion if the discussion is online instead. It’s even democratic!  “To some degree, you empower them with a voice”

The idea for the change came about, oddly enough, as Rubenschuh was considering  promoting character development.  After bringing 200 people together last school year, including teachers, administrators and students, they discovered that everyone had a “ digital footprint” and it strongly reflected their values and attitudes. It became clear that Facebook had to be addressed by such a character education program.  Simply put, promoting “respect, kindness, and integrity” means engaging students where they live, in “the digital world.”

Few school issues today spark as much passionate debate as the role of Facebook and social networking sites in our publicly-supported schools. Does Facebook have any place in our schools?  Should school boards maintain their current “lockdown” policies concerning Internet access to Facebook and the social media?  And should school systems or individual schools decide?  Let’s hear from you.

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