Archive for November, 2010

Being smart has never been easy, especially in the modern world of public education. Since the Soviet Sputnik ratcheted- up the Cold War in the 1950s, school systems have attempted to respond with school programs for “gifted children” supposedly aimed at re-asserting North American brain power. After 1958, bright kids were suddenly identified as “gifted” and hothoused in special segregated classes. Yet, since that time, bright kids, by whatever  name – “egghead,” “browner,” or “nerd”” – have not been very well served by public education.

The recent Toronto Globe and Mail series on “The Gifted Child”(November 11-18) may have been a laudable effort, but it will, regrettably, do little to change that reality. In one article after another, the ably written and well researched stories do little more than reinforce existing stereotypes about gifted and academically-able children. The whole series approached the critical public issue from inside the system –from the inside out – when what we needed was a broader, more comprehensive look at how academically-motivated students are actually served in public education.

The standard, “one-size-fits-all” philosophy of public education has always troubled me. Even though I am one of the system’s products, I always harboured suspicions. Students with ideas of their own, an independent streak, or serious personal needs never seemed to fare well.

While researching my recent book, The Grammar School (2009)), I made a rather startling discovery.  Public schools were really designed for – and serve reasonably well – society’s comfortable middle class and serve to mask what historian Michael B. Katz  long ago identified as the class realities underlying the rise of the modern bureaucratic education state.

Founders of the Halifax Grammar School like Dalhousie University professor Dr. Gordin Kaplan were incredibly perceptive. A long- forgotten and often dismissed education critic, Hilda Neatby, author of So Little for the Mind (1953), was right all along.  Above average and academically able students posed a challenge to “mediocrity” in public education.

In an emerging system dedicated to equality of outcomes, ‘outliers’ could not be easily digested. That, in a real sense, is why Canada’s leading independent schools continue to not only exist, but to flourish under the radar of public education.

What have we learned about “gifted education” after more than fifty years?  Ambitious, upwardly-mobile hyper-parents strive to prove that their children are “gifted.”  Being identified as a “gifted child” is a curse as well as a blessing. Gifted education is considered “elitist” and fraught with controversy.  And challenging gifted kids in school is actually hard work.

The Globe Life polls on Gifted Education ( Nov. 11 and Nov. 15, 2010) were totally contradictory.  After a story on the social costs to kids of “Gifted” programs, some 56% of the 2,284 respondents opposed “segregation” of gifted kids.  Yet, if given the option, most parents would put their kids in such programs anyway. When asked “Would you put your child in a gifted program?,” some 73% of the 765 respondents replied in the affirmative.

Where do these revelations leave us? No further ahead because they merely confirm popular notions that “gifted children” are “exceptionalities” who inhabit their own world in public education.

Stepping back with a wider lens, highly motivated, academically inclined students look a lot different. Seeking more from your local public school and demanding better can be difficult –and can be easily dismissed as reflecting the “elitist” attitude of the privileged classes. If you live in Toronto’s Forest Hill or the Allenby School district, Montreal’s Westmount, Vancouver’s Kerrisdale, or Halifax’s South End, school options do exist. For ordinary families with academically able children in the inner city or small town Canada, the everyday reality is bored kids seeking outside outlets for their creative or higher intellectual pursuits.

America’s radical education critics such as John Taylor Gatto are over-the-top in their indictments of public education.  Gatto’s  bestselling book  Dumbing Us Down (1992) and his more incendiary Weapons of Mass Instruction (2009) are designed more to shake up the system than to produce implementable reform. But the underlying message is crystal clear: public schools have become agents of compulsory schooling strangely akin to sausage “factories” for both students and teachers.

With over 70 per cent of today’s students in English-speaking Canada virtually guaranteed a high school diploma, secondary school education now performs a radically different function. Producing critically aware, fully educated citizens takes secondary place to inculcating employability skills leavened with social justice values.

Today’s ambitious, university-educated parents can hardly be faulted for seeking gifted or French immersion programs for their children. Unless parents can afford the exorbitant fees for private, independent schools, that’s their only real choice. It’s hardly surprising that the ‘everyday garden variety’ neighbourhood public school has less appeal for many of today’s parents, raised as they were after 1982 as Canada’s first generation of “Charter children.”

All of this begs a few critical questions:  How did naturally smart and academically motivated students come to be clinically labelled “gifted” and treated as “exceptionalities”?  If high fliers tend to motivate others, why did our public schools all-but-abandon challenging all students in regular classrooms?  And is it now time for a complete rethink of “gifted education?”

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Student reports have emerged, once again, as a battleground in the contested terrain of Canadian public education. Ontario  initiated the latest round of “report card reform” by announcing that the Ministry of Education would  issuing fall report cards without real marks  to elementary school pupils starting in the fall term 2010. In Nova Scotia, the Education Department has also begun to implement PowerSchool, a flashy new $4.5 million centralized Student Information System with province-wide attendance tracking and its own brand of standardized student reports.  The Nova Scotia pilot project has been a “schmozzle” with new mid-term reports delayed in many of the 78 pilot schools.
Although Ontario is no longer considered Canada’s leading education province, public education reforms there have a way of popping-up elsewhere, and particularly in the Atlantic provinces.  So far, Ontario is the only province moving to only  two elementary report cards with letter grades per year.  In 2010-11, one will be issued in late January or early February, the other at the end of the school year in June.  For veterans of earlier battles in the early 1990s against “dumbed-down” standardized student reports the early signs are ominous.

The fall progress report card went home with Ottawa elementary school students this week.

A Sample Ontario Mid-Term Progress Report (CBC)

Where did the concept of “Grade-less” mid-term  progress reports originate?  While the Dalton McGuinty Liberal government is now championing the cause, the whole idea came from the teachers, and not parents.   The Ontario elementary  teachers’ federation first approached the Education Ministry about dropping the report cards in August 2006, after its delegates voted overwhelmingly to support the changes.  “Teachers have about six to eight weeks to make a formal assessment evaluation in reporting to parents, and it’s a very short period of time to do that,” said ETFO president Sam Hammond, speaking in December 2009 on behalf of the province’s 70,000 teachers and education workers.     http://www.cbc.ca/canada/toronto/story/2009/12/22/ontario-report-cards743.html#ixzz15TmOmtnl
Nova Scotia’s latest education reform is driven by Pearson Education software technology imported from California.  It was also launched in early November and purports to be a step in the direction of providing students and parents with more timely information on achievement, homework, attendance, and grades.
Does the Nova Scotia  student evaluation system stand up under closer scrutiny?  The new Student Report Cards will be standardized, but still retain traditional marks. So far, so good.  Student reports for Primary will be purely anecdotal, but Grades 1 to 8 will be based upon Letter Grades and comments, while Grades 9 to 12 will retain percentage grades and subject comments.  One strange variation for Grades 1 to 8 is the absence of the whole “excellent or outstanding” from the appalling “expected learning outcomes” scheme.  No Nova Scotian elementary pupils will ever be found to be either “excellent” or “outstanding.”  What a pity!  When it comes to the comments, the now familiar  “learning outcomes” lingo will almost certainly render them incomprehensible to most parents.

The first skirmish  is underway now in Ontario.  “Education Premier” McGuinty has promised “clear, understandable reports” written ” in plain English.”  Close educational observers remain skeptical. In introducing the new Progress Report on CBC-TV’s The National, a Toronto Board consultant offered a bizarre comment straight from the Hall-Dennis school of “romantic progressivism.”  When asked why grades had been eliminated, she contended that “bad marks’ lowered a pupil’s “self-esteem.” Yes, woolly-headed OISE thinking still lives in some boards.

The public debate in Ontario  is now focusing on the relationship between report cards and public accountability for better student results. MCguinty and his EDucation Minister are defending the new Progress Report and insisting that the new system provides more emphasis on learning skills and work habits, assessing students on their organization, independent work, collaboration and initiative.

Opposition Leader Tim Hudak (PC) has staked out his ground. Last week, Hudak went on record claiming that an Ontario Conservative government would put the grades back in fall report cards. “These are really no longer report cards. They’re simply vague progress reports that are not giving parents the information they need about their children’s success,” Hudak said Wednesday. “Basically, Dalton McGuinty is now experimenting with report cards and taking away the grades and the comments that help parents make important choices about their children.” He also said  parents shouldn’t have to wait until late January or February to know precisely how their children are scoring in individual subjects.

Standardized Student Report Cards invariably become a battleground in the ongoing debate over the real purposes of teaching and learning in our public schools. Just when education reformers think that the “romantic progressives” are in retreat, they come up with new ways of ‘socializing” today’s students in pursuit of what Kathleen Gow aptly termed the “God of self-esteem” Most teachers, and certainly parents, want an earlier assessment to ward off potential problems.  It’s all about whether those assessments actually provide a measure of student achievement or simply serve as convenient tools of social promotion.

Where do you stand on the contentious question of  Student Report Cards?  Should Ontario put grades back into its fall mid-term reports?  How can parents secure Report Cards that actually provide meaningful, individualized student appraisals? Is there something about Standardized Report Cards that smacks of bureaucratic convenience rather than meaningful authentic assessment? It’s high time for a national conversation about this fundamental  educational issue.

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Much in today’s educational world defies common sense. Cutting through the public rhetoric of “romantic progressivism” and “edu-babble” to get at what is really happening can be frustrating for parents and supporters of our publicly-funded school system. It can also leave you in what might be called a “school daze.”

A few startling examples come immediately to mind.

We claim to be teaching children to think, but often give them little of substance to think about. School systems professing higher standards now allow virtually everyone to pass their grades. School taxes and teacher salaries rise at the same time as student enrolments shrink and schools close.

Good teaching is critical to student learning, but teachers are rarely, if ever, evaluated on the quality of their instruction. Special needs children are mainstreamed, even when they might benefit from more intensive, individualized learning. High school graduation rates rise, yet universities regularly claim that graduates are ill-prepared for post-secondary studies.

Whatever happened to common sense in education?  That’s the fundamental question asked and answered in a stimulating new book with the alluring title What’s Wrong with Our Schools.. and  How We Can Fix Them. Co-authored by Michael C. Zwaagstra, Rodney A. Clifton, and John C. Long, policy analysts linked with Manitoba’s Frontier Centre for Public Policy, the book’s a real rarity. Although written by Canadians, it’s actually aimed at a much wider North American audience.

One of the authors, Michael Zwaagstra will be speaking on Saturday December 4, 2010 at Toronto’s Metro Hall, at 12:30 pm, at the Annual Meeting of the Society for Quality Education. That promises to be a great event for education reformers in Toronto and southern Ontario.   http://societyforqualityeducation.org

What’s Wrong with Our Schools promises straight talk and it certainly delivers on that commitment. Zwaagstra, Clifton, and Long have the courage to state, in plain, understandable language, what really matters to them in education:

  • Learning subject matter comes first.
  • Testing is good for students and so is a little homework.
  • Students do need some periodic discipline.
  • Special needs children cannot always swim in the mainstream.
  • Public schools are still falling short in teaching literacy and preparing students for the academic rigours of university.

It’s a bracing and most refreshing education book. Concerned parents and students of education will find it far more satisfying that Charles Ungerleider’s vastly overrated  2003 book, Failing Our Kids. Where Ungerleider defends mediocrity, serves up rationalizations, and pays careful homage to teachers, this book cuts right to the chase. No Canadian education book since the mid-1990s has packed such a punch.

Zwaagstra, Clifton, and Long are all well-known educational researchers fiercely committed to raising public school standards. The mere appearance of their book has been hailed as a triumph by leading American educational conservatives such as E.D. Hirsch, Jr. of the Core Knowledge Foundation, Chester E. Finn of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, and Jay Mathews of the Washington Post.

The book’s release in Canada will likely provoke a dramatically different reaction. Manitoba social studies teacher Zwaagstra has worked on the AIMS High School Report Card project and is a staunch supporter of standardized testing and the ranking of schools.  Hearing the names of  Zwaagstra, Clifton, and Long will be enough to send a chill through the upper echelons of education.  Their earlier AIMS study, “Getting the Fox out of the Schoolhouse”(2007), still causes mass indigestion among members and allies of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union.

What’s Wrong with Our Schools will stir controversy because it challenges the “romantic progressivism” deeply ingrained in the Canadian educational establishment. It is written by three acknowledged experts, but provides some clear, unambiguous answers to the most perplexing issues confronted by parents and students in our P to 12 education system.

The Big Question is a hardy perennial: What’s really ailing our Public Schools? Whatever happened to common sense in education? To what extent have the authors of What’s Wrong with Our Schools pointed us in the right direction?

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