Archive for June, 2011

You cannot get more American than George Washington, the President who adorns the One Dollar bill emblazoned with “In God We Trust.” Yet in 1992 he came under attack when the parents and staff at a New Orleans school succeeded in replacing his name with that of Dr. Charles Drew, a noted black physician. The decision stemmed from a controversial Board policy calling for the renaming of all schools named after former slave owners or others who did not respect “equal opportunity for all.” http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/race_relations/july-dec97/schools_11-25.html

The renaming schools controversy spread quickly to other cities and towns. Across the United States there were then 450 schools named for George Washington, including George Washington University in D.C. Hundreds of other schools were identified because they were named after American presidents who owned slaves, such as Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, and George Mason.

Renaming schools to defrock former historical notables opens up a ‘Pandora’s Box’ and has sparked controversies in many school districts. Social justice advocates and special interest groups are usually the instigators and the “sanitizers” all claim to be “correcting past wrongs.” Charges of racism, genocide, and inhuman cruelty are heaped upon the dead and are too often simply accepted without much scrutiny. Few citizens dare to object, fearing vilification at the hands of the liberal media or retaliation from what remains of the politically correct (PC) vigilantes.

The infamous American school renaming controversy came to a head in a memorable PBS Newshour Special, November 25, 1997, focusing on “Re-assessing Civic Symbols.” It all died down when leading American historians entered the fray and cooler heads finally prevailed.

On PBS Newshour, Doris Kearns Goodwin spoke out strongly against the move to eradicate Washington’s name because it threatened to arouse once buried “tribalism” and failed to recognize that “history is a combination of forces.” Author Haynes Johnson declared that “to equate George Washington to Adolf Hitler is absurd…it’s political correctness run wild.” Even Cornel West, author of Restoring Hope, was uncomfortable with actions than might “demonize Washington” and warned against engaging in “a fetish of symbols.”

Since the late 1990s, school renaming controversies have erupted periodically in the United States more than in Canada. The meteoric rise of Barak Obama in 2008-09 prompted a spate of U.S. schools to appropriate his name. Student Noah Horowitz created a furor in Houston, Texas, in August and September 2009, when he when he lead a spirited campaign to remove the names of six Confederate leaders from HISD schools. http://wn.com/Noah_Horwitz A valiant attempt in January 2011 to rename Rochester High School after U.S. Army 1st Lt. Adam Malson, an Iraq War hero, was blocked because it violated school district policy.

The old controversy is back in the education news. Removing the name of Halifax’s founder, Edward Cornwallis, from the masthead of a South End junior high school is perhaps the most recent and blatant example. http://thechronicleherald.ca/Front/1249921.html The case against Cornwallis hangs on the fact that he issued a 1749 proclamation putting a bounty on the scalps of Mi’kmaq men, women, and children.

On that basis, the appointed Mi’kmaq Trustee, Kirk Arsenault, succeeded in convincing the elected Halifax School Board to remove Cornwallis’ name. No one spoke against the move and a jubilant Arsenault now claims that “anything that’s named after Edward Cornwallis needs to be changed.”

The HRSB’s unanimous decision has not only opened the door to renaming other public monuments and streets, but implicitly endorsed Mi’kmaq author Daniel N. Paul’s 25-year crusade to vilify Cornwallis and the so-called “European ruling classes” for “their efforts to destroy the Amerindians.” http://www.danielnpaul.com/WeWereNotTheSavages-Mi%27kmaqHistory.html

Renaming the school is not a trifling matter. Cornwallis was the British military officer credited with founding Halifax in 1749 with some 2,576 white settlers. He commanded the British forces in the midst of a period of frontier warfare where the British, French and Mi’kmaq repeatedly killed combatants, including women, children and babies. A downtown street, local park, and famous statue also bear his name.

Cornwallis did proclaim a bounty on the scalps of Mi’kmaq men, women, and children. What is problematic, however, is whether such an action, undertaken in a state of brutal frontier warfare, was that unusual and, indeed, whether 18th century military commanders should be judged by modern standards.

Much of the Mi’kmaq claim is presented in Paul’s 1993 book We Were Not the Savages. Paul’s book contends that the British and specifically Cornwallis were guilty of waging “genocide” and then compares Cornwallis’s actions with Adolf Hitler’s “ extermination of most of Europe’s Jews.”

Such charges certainly arouse the passions and draw much-needed attention to the larger historical context. Settling and defending Halifax was part of a European 18th century “conquest” of the Americas, but Cornwallis’s actions were not appreciably different those of other governors who offered “scalp bounties” and committed atrocities in times of colonial frontier warfare.

Paul’s analysis of Cornwallis is incredibly one-sided and enjoys little support among North American historians. Halifax’s founder has been lauded for his choice of the Citadel Hill site, organizing the first government, and setting up a courts system modelled after Virginia. http://www.biographi.ca/009004-119.01-e.php?BioId=35941 Such achievements mean little to Arsenault, Paul and the sanitizers.

The Mi’kmaq claim is not supported in John E. Grenier’s 2008 book The Far Reaches of Empire: War in Nova Scotia, 1710-1760. In it, Cornwallis is depicted as a British colonial official who used “brutal but effective measures” to “ wrest control of Nova Scotia from French and Indian enemies who were no less ruthless.”

Basing public policy on re-writing history can only lead to further social injustices. The distinguished Canadian historian J. L. Granatstein put it best: “You can’t apply today’s standards to people in the past. That just gets silly.” http://www.macleans.ca/article.jsp?content=n7231269

What motivates the sanitizers in their campaigns to change school names? Why are parents and the public so inclined to accept the “demonization” of historical figures at face value? If we continue to judge past military or civic figures by present-day standards, where will it end?

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Education research, so we are told, leads to good public policy — and every new policy initiative is still introduced with the simple claim that it is based upon “the best and latest research.” That may be so, but only if that research is sound, scientifically-based, and not ideologically-driven. And now even the leading international experts concede that most of what passes as “education research” falls short of those standards.

One of the leading critics, Jeffrey R. Henig, author of Spin Cycle (2008), has addressed the issue squarely with specific reference to the American “data war” over the effectiveness of Charter Schools. Studying the No Left Child Left Behind (NCLB) public debate, he called into question the “hype” about conclusive evidence based upon supposedly “randomized field trials.” On such politically-charged questions, he found “opposing cliques” ready and able to “muster their own stable of researchers and findings” to buttress their case and challenge the legitimacy of the other side. In the United States, it is so bad that the policy researchers now jump into the fray challenging the motives and competence of their adversaries. It not only breeds public cynicism, it undermines the credibility of education research itself. http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/dec08/vol66/num04/The-Spectrum-of-Education-Research.aspx

Research tends to be dismissed in Canadian provincial systems for different reasons. First and foremost, most of the research is small-scale, personal, and lacking in support from large scale data sets. At Canadian faculties of education, some 300 to 400 academics claim to be conducting “university-based research.” Yet at the recent Canadian Society for the Study of Education (CSSE) Congress at UNB Fredericton most of the papers were only given orally, focused mostly on “pet projects”, and were not subjected to proper peer review. The quality of the work is as much of a concern as the obvious biases inherent in most of the narrow, practical papers.

One former Deputy Minister of Education, Dr. Bernard Shapiro, put is best. Speaking in 1991 in Calgary, AB, he quipped: ” All policy decisions are made by leaping over the data.” Educators are well know for paying little attention to “OISE”classroom-based research, and policy-makers simply prefer to consult the political opinion polls.

The new International Alliance of Leading Education Institutes is determined to to change the situation. Since its founding in 2007, the IALEI has mobilized 10 different national education faculties and much of its agenda is driven by the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE). http://www.intlalliance.org/ When the IALEI met on June 14-15, 2011 in Toronto, Dr Ben Levin and the OISE researchers dominated the proceedings. The latest craze is “research knowledge mobilization” and it’s not only Dr. Levin’s favourite topic but a 21st century mantra found in recent World Bank and Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) publications.

Mobilizing edu-research and transferring it into policy and practice is a project that faces formidable obstacles. OECD’s Dirk Van Damme stunned the IALEI audience of 150 educrats and researchers with the declaration that most of the current research was simply shoddy. “It’s mostly of low quality,” he said,” and “we need to be more hygenic when using the word research.”

The 2011 IALEI Research Synthesis report by Jie Qi and Ben Levin itemized the familiar list of criticisms of university-based education research: Lack of rigour; failure to produce cumulative findings; theoretical incoherence; ideological bias; irrelevance to schools; lack of involvement of teachers; inaccessibility and poor dissemination; and poor cost-effectiveness. (pp. 5-6)

Given the glaring weaknesses, is it any wonder that education research has such a bad name? If the criticisms are sound, we may have an answer as to why it is safely ignored in policy councils as well as in the classroom.

Judging from the 2011 IALEI conference, Dr. Ben Levin is not easily deterred, nor should his influence be underestimated. As the sole Canadian representative among the 10 institutes, OISE is presumed to be speaking for Canada on every policy matter, including the state of research. While other national reports express concern about the narrowness of the research focus or bemoan the lack of “blue sky research”, the OISE researchers decry the “public skepicism” about “public spending on research.” and the “pressure ” to demonstrate “value for money.” It was left to the U.S. ( U of Wisconsin at Madison)and England (University of London) to reference criticisms that too much research is “vacuous and obvious” in the eyes of the public.

Education research is improving but most of it is hard to take seriously. OECD’s Van Damme was deadly accurate in describing most education “research” as lacking in credibility because most researchers “begin from fixed ideological positions” and limit themselves to “small scale” projects with limited broader applicability. He sees a “great urgency” for improvement because it’s stalling reform and means we are “simply not preparing students for 21st century challenges.” What’s needed, Van Damme says, is serious research capable of “destabilizing” school systems.

Why does education research continue to have “a bad name” among policy-makers as well as teachers and engaged parents? In Canada’s provinces, why are so many of the studies conducted by “embedded researchers” dependent upon the existing system for their livelihood? How are independent think-tanks and researchers known as “boundary crossers” effectively marginalized in the public arena? What would it take to have education research taken more seriously?

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Alternative schools and programs are growing by leaps and bounds across North America, inside as well as outside of the public system. One 2003 Education Evolving study described such programs as the “quiet giant” in the public sector and since September 2009 the Toronto Board of Education has opened more alternative schools than ever before, bringing its total to over 40 different elementary and secondary schools.

Nova Scotia provides a stark contrast. Alternative-education programs here are few and far between and yet the Halifax Regional School Board is on the verge of cutting Youth Pathways and Transitions (YPT), the only Board-wide program serving harder to reach secondary school students.
Treating the YPT as a strictly “temporary transitional program” is bad enough. Presenting the issue as a simple cost-cutting measure further emphasizes how ‘out-of-sync’ the region’s largest public school system has become under the current administration.

Cancelling the YPT program has outraged the students and parents directly impacted, but they have been left twisting in the wind. The Board administration sequestered in Burnside says it will save $652,000 and remains resolute. “Kids not Cuts” may be the Nova Scotia Teacher Union’s latest media message, but where were they when YPT was slated for cancellation? Actions speak louder than those pricey ads.

Cutting alternative programs may save educational dollars short-term, but effectively excludes sizeable numbers of “at risk” students with longer-term social costs, reflected in higher crime rates, increased health care costs, and longer welfare rolls.

The three brave YPT students, Sophie McConnell, Shannon Simpson, and Emma Latta, who have spoken out are typical of thousands of students “saved” each year by alternative high school programs. It’s shameful that it was left to these Halifax students and their parents to stand-up for the hundreds of Nova Scotian students not being well-served in traditional ‘one-size-fits-all’ schools.

“Alternative education programs,” according to Education Evolving, have been “highly successful in serving a population of students not served well in traditional settings.” And that essential research finding has been echoed in many recent studies.

Since the founding of the SEED School in Toronto in the mid-1960s, alternative schools in Canada’s larger cities have proven to be hardy plants. In the United States, Minnesota serves as a prime example of their runaway success. By 2003, some 77,000 of the state’s 411,840 Grade 7-12 students attended such programs, fully one-fifth of all students.

Since the mid-1970s, American and Canadian school districts have turned to such schools and programs to close the ‘achievement gap’ and to raise graduation levels. Outside of the Maritimes, it has been part of a concerted two-pronged strategy to create new and different schools as well as to improve existing mainstream schools.

Alternative programs have also proven effective in promoting innovative teaching methods and learning activities. “Alternative program leaders,” one U.S. study noted, “ have much to teach leaders” in regular schools and counterbalance the smothering homogeneity promoted by the overzealous pursuit of standardized testing and accountability.

Since Youth Pathways and Transitions opened in 2004, it has served as a vital safe haven for junior or senior high schoolers who either skipped classes or were suspended for extended periods. To say that YPT has “saved” hundreds of students from the educational scrap heap is no exaggeration.

The Halifax Regional Board has limited the scope of YPT and refuses to accept the need for even one self-standing alternative school. Little or no effort is made to advise parents or students of its existence, unless it becomes a school of last resort. In that sense, the HRSB treats it like a first generation “drop-in” program rather than a fully-evolved innovative, cutting-edge alternative school.

Public education in Nova Scotia, even in HRM, offers a strictly limited range of school options, unlike Toronto, Montreal, Calgary, or Vancouver. In the Toronto District Board, the city’s 37 alternative programs in 2007-08 enrolled 3,583 students or less than 97 students per school. Each had its own unique character, but was specially designed to “fit the student.”

In a school system putting students first, YPT would not be on the chopping block. It would be seen as a potential model for creating uniquely different schools geared to the specialized needs of students and satisfying growing parental expectations for human scale alternatives to “big box” elementary and “airport terminal” high.

Given the proven sucess of alternative schools and programs in serving hard to reach students, why are they still vulnerable to educational cuts? Why do Canadian school districts continue to thwart their growth and expansion? Is it because alternative programs tend to foster an organizational culture more conducive to the development of self-standing alternative schools? What will it take to overcome the barriers to change, particularly in the Maritimes and much of rural Canada?

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