Archive for December, 2010

The best to worst lists for 2010 have all appeared, but you will look in vain for any relating to breakthroughs, disasters, or trends in Canadian education. South of the border, the public schools were aflame with controversy, the hard-hitting feature film Waiting for Superman stirred up a frenzy,  and The New York Times heralded the abysmal 2010 Program of International Student Assessment (PISA) results as a “Sputnik moment” or game-changing crisis.

Yet here in Canada critical issues in education continue to elicit something approaching a collective shrug. While education zealots bombard the blogs, most of the “live talk” about the state of education is confined to animated conversations in the school parking lot or chit-chat around the staff coffee machine.

Why does Canadian education get a free pass, drifting into the future without much of a national debate? Out of 70 participating countries in the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), we are the only one without a federal presence in education. More regrettably, the recent gutting of the Canadian Council on Learning promises to render cross-national as well as international comparisons a problematic venture.

Undaunted by the challenges, here’s my personal list of the Best and Worst in education news, just to  to incite a little discussion:

The Best of 2010

The most promising and potentially important events and developments were:

1. Pathways to Education

The dramatically successful Canadian stay-in-school initiative, launched in 2001 by Carolyn Acker in Toronto’s Regent Park, has now spread to 12 high dropout areas in three other provinces, Quebec, Nova Scotia, and Manitoba. Students-at-risk are rewarded with $1,000 a year for four years towards PSE tuition for successfully completing the program.

2. The PISA Results Plateau

Alberta and Quebec 15-year olds set the pace ensuring that Canada held its own on the 2009 PISA international tests in mathematics, science and reading. Young Canadians finished 10th in math, 8th in science, and 6th in reading, while their American counterparts slid to 31st, 23rd, and 17th, respectively, in math, science, and reading.

3. Rising Graduation Rates

Provincial departments of education began to see some return on their concerted efforts to raise the high school “attainment rate.” In Ontario, the graduation rate rose from 68%  in 2003 to 79% in 2009. Oddly enough, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and P.E.I.  boast rates from 80 to 83% (10% above the national average)

4. High School Rankings Go Westward

Eight years after introducing the High School Report Card, the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies teamed up with the Winnipeg-based Frontier Institute in early 2010 to produce the first comprehensive school-by-school rankings in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and B.C.  The major breakthrough in public disclosure was only marred by the hostile reaction in the most resistant “dark ages” province, Manitoba.

5. Toronto’s School Choice Initiative

Toronto Education Director Dr. Chris Spence challenged the status quo in 2009-10 with his “Vision for Hope” to shore up the system against private school student losses. He proposed four new alternative schools, an all-boys school, an all-girls school, and a choir school for the musically talented, before encountering resistance from nervous trustees and a vocal minority of parents.

The Worst of 2010

The most widely discussed  public disasters or major setbacks were:

1. The Ken Fells Fiasco

Principal Ken Fells’ forcible takedown of a 15-year old boy in a March 2010 disciplinary action was captured on security video for the world to see. The infamous “Dartmouth Handshake” split the Halifax School Board, prompted the Chief Superintendent’s husband to leak the tape, and finally forced a belated RCMP investigation. When Fells was restored, the HRSB boss suffered lost credibility and principals everywhere were left wondering what was now permissible.

2. Gutting of the Council on Learning

Federal funding for the respected national educational research institute, the Canadian Council on Learning founded in 2004 at $85 million for 5 years, was eliminated in January 2010 by Stephen Harper’s government. CCL head Dr. Paul Cappon, the architect of Canada’s strategy for raising international standards, cried foul, but the plea was dismissed by a cost-conscious cabinet looking to vacate provincial jurisdiction.

3. Ontario’s Early Learning Program Reversal

Ontario’s “Education Premier” Dalton McGuinty announced a December 15, 2010 “flip-flop” by abandoning plans to fully implement a seamless, wrap-around, year-long Early Learning Program, integrating full-day kindergarten with child care services. After creating inflated expectations, he backed-down amid intense local opposition and mounting concerns about run-away ELP costs.

4. Blackout on Waiting for Superman

The American feature film, Waiting for Superman, produced by An Inconvenient Truth’s Davis Guggenheim and praised by Barak Obama, was trashed in September 2010 by former OISE Dean Jane Gaskell as a “teacher-bashing” movie and then virtually blacked-out across Canada, with the exception of a few Toronto cinemas. Never underestimate the influence of our educational establishment.

5. School Closure Debacle

Community school advocates lost ground, often in small town and rural areas suffering severe declining enrolments. Small victories in Nova Scotia’s Antigonish and Colchester counties were offset by the relentless march of school closures elsewhere. The Ontario scene was marked by the forced closure of Niagara-on-the-Lake’s only high school and the fizzling of two Ontario citizen’s action groups, Save Our Schools, and the Middlesex-based Community Schools Alliance.

Over to You

Why are Canadians so averse to “telling it like it is” in our education system?  What’s your reaction to my highly subjective list?  Looking back over 2010, what has Educhatter missed? What do you think of his rankings?  What value, if any, do you see in compiling such year-end-lists?

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Canadian 15-year-olds achieved respectable results while their American counterparts plummeted on the latest international rankings of mathematics, science and reading skills. On the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests released December 7, 2010, Canada finished 8th among 65 OECD countries in mathematics, 7th in science, and 5th in reading. Americans were stunned by the latest results, placing their students 31st in math, 23rd in science, and 17th in reading. Of greatest concern to North Americans was the fact that five of the top ten countries were Asian, led by Shanghai-China, Singapore, and Korea.

The Canadian PISA results were mildly disappointing because our scores have slipped since 2006 in relation to those of China and the other Asian countries. On the benchmark mathematics test, students in Shanghai scored 600, in Singapore 562, in Canada 527,  in Germany 513, and in the United States only 487, ten points below the average. Canadian observers like Dr. Paul Cappon of the Canadian Council on Learning were sanguine about the latest results, but took some comfort in the finding that the Canadian system compares favourably in terms of lessening the differences of social class and closing gaps between immigrant and native-born students.

The abysmal American PISA rankings sparked sheer panic, prominently featured in the New York Times.  Harking back to the Soviet Sputnik scare of the mid-1950s, Chester Finn of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, described it as “a Sputnik moment” for Americans.  “Wow, I’m kind of stunned, I’m thinking Sputnik,” he said. “I’ve seen how relentless the Chinese are at accomplishing goals, and if they can do this in Shanghai in 2009, they can do it in 50 cities in 2019, and in 50 cities by 2029.”

Comparing  PISA Reading Scores, 2000 to 2009


Measured at three-year intervals, the slips in Canada’s scores are small, barely statistically significant. But the competition is getting stiff. Between 2000 and 2009, when the most recent PISA was conducted, Canada posted a 10-point decline in reading scores while Korea managed a 15-point gain. Overall, Canada’s scores were 2 per cent lower. Just 40 per cent of the Canadian students who wrote the test last year achieved top scores in reading, compared with 45 per cent in 2000.

An analysis of Canada’s performance reveals that Prince Edward Island has become the first Canadian province to fall below the average of other OECD nations in students’ reading proficiency. Manitoba scraped by with a score nearly identical to the OECD average. New Brunswick was not much better. Most shocking of all, some 21% of PEI students cannot read properly, compared to 13% in 2000.  Nova Scotia performed better in reading than in math and science, finishing in the middle of the Canadian pack.

The decline in performance of Canada’s  high fliers is also  worrisome. “ It’s not that the majority is doing worse, it’s that the elite is doing worse and we don’t have as many at that level,” Dr. Cappon told Globe and Mail Education reporter Kate Hammer.  “That’s a source of concern.”  Elite performers are an important economic driver in improving the system, he said.

Who leads the among Canadian provinces? No real surprises: Quebec emerged as a Canadian leader in math scores, while Albertans topped the science and reading tests.

Girls outperformed boys in reading tests in every country and in every Canadian province. That gap was greatest, close to 10 per cent of total scores, in PEI and Newfoundland and Labrador. “It’s time to take a leap and look at what strengths in reading we can bring in particular to our boys,” said Denis Mildon, a literacy expert and education consultant.

Looking on the bright side: Though Canada may be slipping in the overall ranks, our education system remains one of the most equitable in the world, as students perform well regardless of their background or where their school is located. Canada’s system also remains one of the most cost-effective, as we spend less per student than countries such as the United States and Britain but attain better academic outcomes.

The OECD’s tests are administered once every three years with an alternating focus on reading, math and science. For PISA 2009, close to 500,000 15-year-olds were tested, including 23,000 Canadian students from 1,000 schools from all the provinces.

International tests provide one of the few reliable yardsticks in trying to assess the quality of education and levels of student performance. The 2009 PISA results and rankings will be debated for years, dominated by a few key questions:  Where does Canada really rank in terms of student performance levels? Why have China, Singapore and Korea surged ahead, leaving the United States behind in the “Race to the Top”?  What explains the tremendous variations in PISA scores among the Canadian provinces?  And will the PISA results produce a seismic shift in North America comparable to the Sputnik scare of fifty years ago?

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“Bigger is better” remains almost unchallenged as the governing principle in most public education systems. Since the origins of state schooling in the mid-19th century, public education has been championed by a class of “educrats” firmly committed to the ideal of “progress and efficiency” and relentless in pursuit of school consolidation. In spite of periodic warnings by prominent education scholars such as Michael Katz (OISE/University of Pennsylvania)) and Bruce Curtis (Carleton University), the evolving system thrived on centralization, consolidation, and bureaucracy. Right from the beginning until today, the schoolhouse has been a contested terrain in an ongoing struggle over local education democracy as well as the goals and purposes of public schooling.

Bureaucratization has been a relentless force transforming school communities into “systems” of schools.  Education’s current rock star, Sir Ken Robinson, claims that we have essentially sold ourselves out to the “fast food” model in public education by embracing  organizational efficiency, mass production, and uniformity.

Everywhere you look,  the march of urbanized, bureaucratic, centralized education is nearly complete, marking the highest stage of the modern bureaucratic education state. Today’s central administrative offices, layers of administration, “super-sized” elementary schools and “big box” high schools all testify to the dominance of the trend.  Elected school boards, a last vestige of education democracy, are often considered nuisances and becoming a threatened species. Critics of educational bureaucracy and even quiet doubters are either ignored or dismissed as “turn-back-the-clockers” in our 21st century universe.

Yet all is not lost. Local communities threatened with losing their rural community schools and urban neighbourhood schools have begun fighting back in a much more effective, coordinated fashion.

American school preservationists continue to fight the good fight.  In 2008, the National Trust for Historical Preservation launched a new initiative, Helping Johnny Walk to School, aimed at reversing the trend. Alarmed to discover that only 35 per cent of America’s K-8 students now live within two miles of their school, NTHP President Richard Moe has been actively promoting “community-centred schools.” A March 2010 report, written by Renee Kuhlman, identifies the state level policy changes urgently needed to “ensure that educational, environmental, health, community, and fiscal considerations” are weighed by school districts when making “school closing, consolidation, and site selection decisions

Right across Atlantic Canada, in the American Mid-West, and in places as disparate as Albany, New York, southwestern Ontario and mainland British Columbia, defenders of  community schools are waging determined local battles because they steadfastly believe that older schools are worth fighting for. For a few “Save our School” groups, the fight is all about restoration and bringing older neighbourhoods or dying communities back to life.  Some citizens’ groups simply want to save a piece of history, but most resist school closures because they also threaten the vitality of the local community.

The Small Schools movement championed in Nova Scotia by Dr. Michael Corbett and Save Community Schools (www.communityschoolsalliance.ca) has instilled hope in, and opened up new possibilities for, threatened rural communities. “For many decades of the 20th century,” Corbett and Dennis Mulcahy wrote in Education on a Human Scale, “school consolidation was considered synonymous with school improvement, despite the fact that there was virtually no evidence to support that assumption.”

The fundamental concerns of “School Savers” in the Maritimes as elsewhere run deep and point us in a different direction.  Since the pioneer era of  education, schools have always been a vital social anchor for communities and neighbourhoods. “Civic engagement and social connectedness,” renowned American political scientist Robert D. Putnam has reminded us, “are practical preconditions for better schools, safer streets, and healthier, longer lives.” Yet  the “bonds of community” have withered over the past century or so. ( http://www.hks.harvard.edu/saguaro/background.htm )

How did it happen and what are its lessons?  Modernizing and supposedly progressive changes in schooling undoubtedly played a central role.  Bigger schools and increasing bureaucratization have served to undermine both civic engagement and social connectedness. “Smaller schools, like smaller towns,” as Putnam pointed out in his best seller Bowling Alone (2001), “generate higher expectations for mutual reciprocity and collective action.  So deconcentrating  megaschools or creating smaller ‘schools within schools’ will almost certainly produce civic dividends.”

Bigness and bureaucracy are not always good for students, teachers, or schools. It is not a matter of turning back the clock, but rather one of regaining control over our schools, rebuilding “social capital”, and revitalizing local communities.

Why do “bigness and bureaucracy” exert such a preponderant influence over educational planning and policy-making? What has been the real impact upon students, families, and teachers?  Can we find salvation through a return to smaller schools?  What are the chances that local communities can right the balance?

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