Archive for January, 2011

Today’s public school teachers are on the firing line and find themselves caught on the horns of a dilemma. Since the advent of public schooling, teachers have aspired to be treated with the respect accorded professionals. From 1960 onwards, they have accepted teacher unionism and begun to act like educational workers as well as lower-order professionals. Most Canadians today consider teachers to be reasonably well-paid, favoured with generous pension benefits, and guaranteed tenure for life. Teacher professionals still aspire to excellence, but often do so at their peril.

Teachers in the United States are now being summoned to raise their game. Teacher quality initiatives spearheaded by U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have focused attention and resources on the vital importance of improving teaching practice. ( http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/02/18/AR2010021802919.html ) Meanwhile, all across the United States, school districts from New York City to Los Angeles are either laying-off teachers or introducing public disclosure of teacher performance rankings based upon “value-added” measures of student test results. (See Andrew Rotherham’s pithy analysis at http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,2020867,00.html)

The dam of teacher resistance has now been breached. Since March 2010, a courageous group of New York City teachers known as Educators4Excellence has arisen to challenge the status quo This courageous group has issued an unprecedented call for professionalism, produced a petition opposed to “Last in, First Out” regulations, and come out in favour of tying teacher evaluation to student data. http://www.educators4excellence.org/forms/declaration/

The American movement for teacher excellence sends a chill through the Canadian educational establishment. Teachers in Canada are highly unionized and teacher unions wield tremendous influence over our provincial education systems. Teachers unions in 7 of Canada’s 10 provinces conduct province-wide negotiations to arrive at iron-clad contracts guaranteeing tenure after an initial probationary period (2-3 years) and detailing every aspect of the teacher’s job in schools. Salary scales provide graduated increases for seniority and extra degrees and added certification. Job performance only becomes an issue in rare cases of gross incompetence or misbehaviour.

What’s the root of the problem of sheer complacency? The core interests in Canadian education (i.e. “the blob” of senior superintendents, teacher unions, and trustee organizations) function much like a rather blase “educational “fortress” that remains largely impervious to outside influences. Periodic calls for the introduction teacher merit pay, such as that of B.C. Liberal Kevin Falcon, are met with quiet giggles and dismissed as the insidious inventions of corporate business interests. The Canadian Education Association, based in Toronto, dares not to take a position, contenting itself with “cheerleading” for exemplary school board programs.

American president Barak Obama sends shock waves through Canadian educational circles, and especially those self-styled “liberals” strongly supportive of his presidency. His radical Education Reform agenda came as quite a jolt, all but reducing them to silence. In his January 25 State of the Union Address, he reaffirmed his stance: “This is our generation’s Sputnik moment,” he declared, and then called upon Americans to “win the race to educate our kids.” Improving teaching is critical to his vision and in South Korea, he noted, teachers are known as “nation builders.”

President Obama’s Education Reform agenda goes far beyond such platitudes. It’s a “Race to the Top” where teacher performance actually counts. “We want to reward good teachers and stop making excuses for the bad ones. And over the next 10 years, with so many boomers retiring from our classrooms, we want top prepare 100,000 new teachers in the fields of science and technology and engineering and math.”

The winds of education reform are now sweeping through the United States, freshly fueled by their abysmal PISA test results. Some 40 American states have now endorsed the “Common Core Standards” and taken an initial step in the direction of restoring academic rigour to the system. A few cities and states are moving quickly to introduce “Performance Counts” legislation aimed at ensuring teacher effectiveness. In the case of Illinois, the reform will tackle teacher tenure guarantees, evaluation standards and practices, and provisions for laying-off teachers. Replacing seniority rules with competence measures and removing ineffective teachers are at the core of these reforms.

Some public voices calling for teacher quality assurance are beginning to be heard here in Canada. In early February 2010, the Toronto Globe and Mail entered the fray with a front page feature assessing the merits of merit pay for teachers. Erin Anderssen’s thought-provoking piece, “Merit Pay: An Upgrade on the Apple,” made a compelling case for more teacher accountability for student performance. For the full story, see http://www.globecampus.ca/in-the-news/article/should-canada-offer-merit-pay-to-teachers/

One Canadian journalist, Gary Mason of The Globe and Mail , has taken up the call to repatriate the Canadian system from teacher unions and has been leading the charge for merit pay. In late January 2011, he claimed that British Columbians were always debating the question of who actually “runs the education system.” He claimed that the BC Teachers’ Federation was on the verge of gutting the province’s Foundation Skills Assessment Grade 4 and 7 student testing program and thereby thwarting the annual Fraser Institute school rankings. Three weeks earlier, he blamed the B.C. teachers’ union for publicly slagging Kevin Falcon’s proposal to explore merit pay. “Serious examination of the issues,” Mason stated, ” got lost amid the overheated, meaningless and ultimately self-serving rhetoric.” Given a fair chance, he contended that ” teacher merit pay could work” in B.C. and in other provinces. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/opinions/opinion/handled-carefully-merit-pay-for-teachers-might-work/article1859218/

The Canadian public debate over teacher merit pay has, so far, completely missed the point. Teachers as professionals have always claimed to be striving for teaching excellence when it comes to educating kids. In today’s era of public accountability, this is no longer good enough. How can we build better teachers for education in the 21st century? What can be done to ensure that “teacher excellence” actually matters in evaluating and rewarding teachers? And in staffing schools, when it comes to deciding who says and who goes, how can we best guarantee that students come before “job protection” in the schoolhouse?

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“The future,” H.G. Wells once said, “is a race between education and catastrophe.” In his future world, change was the only constant and our educational system is always in danger of falling behind or becoming irrelevant. That is a truly frightening prospect, but it seems to have generated a rather ominous world-wide 21st century education movement. It is driven by educational futurists, media personalities, and technology providers, all promoting so-called “21st Century Schools.”

Today’s students have grown up in a digital world. Futurists like Don Tapscott play a vital role in alerting us to the coming wave of technological innovation and encouraging educators to integrate IT and social media into the classroom. Indeed, Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams’s new book, Macroeconomics: Rebooting Business and the World (2010) provides valuable lessons about how “mass collaboration” can enliven teaching as well as learning for students. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/commentary/don-tapscott/logged-on-to-learn/article1853529/

Yet worshipping at the altar of technology poses its own dangers. In the hands of education’s 21st century zealots, educational change might even threaten the fundamental principles and foundations of our educational tradition. Most ironic of all, making way for the “knowledge-based economy” now seems to thrive on collective amnesia and a complete disregard for the wisdom bequeathed to us by past generations.

New Brunswick’s “21st Century Education” initiative is the most grotesque example of this alarming trend. In late March 2010, the Department of Education officially endorsed the scary concept by posting a much talked-about YouTube video graphically illustrating “The Shift” and exploring its earth-shaking implications. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EjJg9NfTXos

The animated NB Education 5 minute-long short is relentless in its pace, technologically obsessed, and openly hostile to educational tradition. Most of what is being taught in schools is dismissed as obsolete. “We must keep pace and stay relevant,” the narrator declares, “to keep kids engaged.”

New Brunswick is not alone in flirting with the educational futurists. Since 2007, British author Sir Ken Robinson has been dazzling educators with his YouTube Talks. He is the undisputed education rock star and his polished video lectures drive home two key messages: modern education is outmoded and schools kill creativity. He pops up everywhere, but most notably in films like We Are the People We’ve Been Waiting For and on TED Talks (See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDZFcDGpL4U )

Future schools thinking is widespread in Ontario and now seeping into Nova Scotia. A year ago, the Nova Scotia School Boards Association stated its own 21st Century Schools project. A series of closed door meetings were held with “system partners” to study resources reflecting a distinctly “progressivist” vision for the future. http://www.nssba.ca/new/index.php?cid=23&pid=122

Nova Scotia’s education futurists relied upon imported resource materials. In addition to the New Brunswick video, participants discussed Sir Ken’s videos and films, Scott McLeod’s version of Shift Happens, the American film Race to Nowhere, the CBC Doc Zone show “Hyper Parents & Coddled Kids,” and a New York Times Opinion piece trashing Advanced Placement courses and high-stakes testing.

Who is really driving the future schools agenda? All signs point to a rather fascinating Miramichi school superintendent, William Kierstead. This greying, bespectacled former elementary teacher has emerged as the province’s leading Information Technology in Teaching (ITC) guru. To him, promoting the 21st Century learning agenda is crucial to integrating ICT into classrooms everywhere.

Kierstead is no dreamer. He is an ITC promoter who fashions himself to be on the cutting edge. Computers amaze him and Don Tapscott’s Growing Up Digital (1997) is the source of most of his visionary ideas. Upon closer scrutiny, Kierstead is actually a disciple of American educational progressive John Dewey. In early December, he came out of the closet and posted a hymn of praise to the Dewey as “the father of 21st Century learning.” (See http://instructiveinterference.wordpress.com/2010/12/05/is-everything-old-really-new-again/ )

Dewey (1859-1952) is still recognized as the “Godfather” of North American progressive education. Student-centred learning, focusing on process not content, and resistance to student testing were his mantras. Like most progressives, he rejected teaching subject knowledge and believed that schools should “teach the student, not the subject.”

On the surface, it would seem to be odd that Kierstead and the latter day Deweyites would have latched onto 21st century learning as the new ideology. Given the state of education, one might think that aspiring to higher achievement standards, good literature, student testing and accountability, and closing the education gap were the wave of the future. Some even hope that sound curriculum, good teaching and critical thought might make a comeback.
Not so, according to the educational futurists.

Globalists and IT promoters have a shiny new appeal. Yet such an uncritical acceptance of a technologically-driven school system can be mind numbing. Scratching below the surface, you also tend to find that the futurists are really “romantic progressivists” in disguise.

Beware of the 21st learning zealots. Frightened of a more globalized, competitive, fast-paced future, they want to retreat back into the womb of soft student-centred pedagogy, classroom info-tainment, and nurturing the self-esteem of students. The Internet and social media are the latest gizmos and innovations to be used to “stay relevant” and keep the kids happy in schools.

What’s the “21st Century Schools” movement really all about? Does blind worship of the Internet and the social media threaten our valued educational tradition based upon knowledge from past generations? In what way does swallowing futurism whole contribute to the “divergent thinking” so prized and celebrated by Sir Ken Robinson and his disciples?

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Government support for child care and early learning programs has now become a “hot button” issue right across Canada. Much of the momentum for greatly expanded early childhood education has been generated by Dr. Fraser Mustard, Canada’s leading child care advocate. Early brain development has been linked to improved physical health, behaviour, and learning in later stages of life.  Countries that provide universal early child development programs, Mustard contends, “out-perform’ those in which such programs are more “chaotic.” Fresh impetus was provided in January 2007 by the renowned University of Chicago economist James Heckman. “Redirecting funds toward the early years, ” he declared, “is a sound investment in the productivity and safety of American society and also removes a powerful source of inequality.”

Since the national child care plan proposed by Liberal cabinet minister Ken Dryden was abandoned in early 2006, the federal government has stepped back from providing universal, publicly-funded programs. With that policy shift, the initiative for reform has passed to the provinces. Among the provinces, Quebec stands out as a notable exception. Since 1997, that province has offered a full $5-per-day,now $7-a-say public day care program designed to support two-parent working families. In Ontario, Premier Dalton McGuinty has embarked upon an ambitious all-day kindergarten program for four- and five-year olds, based upon certified teachers and costing $1.5 billion over six years. Even Canada’s smallest province, P.E.I., has jumped on the bandwagon, moving kindergarten, for the first time, into elementary schools and offering a full-day, year round play-based program.

For reliable backgrounders, see http://www.ccl-cca.ca/CCL/Reports/StateofLearning/EarlyChildhood.html; and http://www.aims.ca/site/media/aims/ChildCare.pdf

Public policy is now being approached from two radically different perspectives. Child care advocates like Ontario’s Dr. Charles Pascal focus almost exclusively on giving children “the best educational start in life” to promote the long-term well-being of children, families and, ultimately, the economy. That approach draws upon Dr. Mustard’s research and upon that of J. D. Willms and the 2002 National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth. “At least one in four young children is vulnerable,” according to Willms and the Canadian Council on Learning. In the absence of quality early learning programs, their chances of leading healthy and productive lives are limited, often because of social disadvantage.

Economic analysts and demographers come at the issue quite differently. Taking a more global perspective, Ian Munro  of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS) sees child care and early learning programs as possible solutions to Canada’s looming labour shortage, a problem particularly acute in Atlantic Canada. With our aging population and growing pension crisis, they are more worried about the potential for a sharp drop in our standard of living. If we cannot either increase the birth rate or attract more immigrants, the  preferred alternatives are 1)increase the labour participation rate; and 2) improve the productivity of the workforce.

Better and cheaper access to child care and early learning programs can produce untold economic benefits. Reliable, quality programs will allow more parents ( chiefly mothers) to re-enter the workforce more quickly and more fully. It will also enable more couples to have families and others to have  more children.  Enhanced programs can improve the school-readiness of some youngsters and, if sustained by later educational programs, can help to reduce the incidence of youth crime, teenage pregnancy, alcohol/drug abuse, and welfare dependency.  For the supporting evidence, see  http://www.ontario.ca/en/initiatives/early_learning/ONT06_018869.html

Child care and early education spending  can produce real socio-economic  benefits, but Canadian economist Susan Prentice (2008) found the forecasted returns  “giddily unrealistic.”  One study of the Quebec public plan (NBER, 2005) reported that some 40% of the cost of the expensive program were recovered through increased income and payroll taxes generated by the increased numbers of working parents. An oft-cited University of Toronto study (1998) claimed that universal publicly-funded child care and ECE for all children (2 to 5 years) would have a significant payback. If the state paid 80% of the cost totalling $5.2 billion, the study saw double that value in economic returns.  Most studies rely almost exclusively on American data, so their reliability can be questioned.

The emerging consensus is that investing in quality, reliable early childhood care and education makes good sense.  Much of the public policy debate turns on which approach is best – universal, taxpayer-funded services or government support for “vulnerable children,” mostly drawn from poor and disadvantaged families. That leads to our Big Question: Should Child Care and Early Learning Programs be universal or targeted the those who need it most?

It may not be a simple either or question.  Investing in young children could become, according to  James Heckman, “a fundamentally important national strategy for building human capital, enhancing workforce productivity, and reducing welfare-type outlays.”  Yet he also points out that children from favoured backgrounds are already “receiving substantial early investment” from their families, so there is little societal benefit for providing universal programs to them at zero or significantly reduced cost. In a 2006 Wall Street Journal column, Heckman went further: Paying for universal programs would be “inefficient, costly, wasteful of public dollars, and probably not effective in helping poor kids.” 

Education remains the best road out of poverty, but what form should that early support take here in Canada?

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