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Archive for July, 2011

“She’s had a ball collecting tiaras and applying fake eyelashes. But six-year old Eden Wood is ready to embrace new challenges—like promoting her own showgirl action figure.” So wrote William Lee Adams in a recent TIME NewsFeed story read around the world. http://newsfeed.time.com/2011/07/14/eden-wood-six-year-old-beauty-queen-retires-from-pageant-circuit/

The winner of more than 300 beauty pageant titles, Eden Wood shot to national prominence on the hit TLC television series Toddlers & Tiaras, which follows the nation’s tiniest pageant contestants through a haze of spray tans and rhinestones. Speaking to Good Morning America on July 13, 2011, Eden’s mother-manager Mickie Wood said that putting down the crown and scepter will give Eden time to explore other ventures. As she says: “I think she’s following in the footsteps of some pretty big people who have done pageants, like Oprah Winfrey.”

But unlike Oprah—who won Miss Black Tennessee at the age of 18—Eden is building an empire without knowing how to write or do math calculations. Her range of merchandise already includes a rather mature-looking Eden showgirl action figure, the “Eden Wood Princess Canopy Bed Collection” and a memoir entitled “From Cradle to Crown” (available for just $15 plus shipping and handling on Eden’s official web site).

Watching the TV series “Toddlers & Tiaras” is enough to make your stomach churn. http://tlc.discovery.com/videos/toddlers-tiaras-i-want-the-crown.html Today, as North American parents age themselves down with lotions and potions and childish fashion, according to Hannah Sung in The Globe and Mail, ” we also age our children up.” Witness those children’s beauty pageants, the likes of which are the topic of many provocative documentaries and the basis for reality television show Toddlers & Tiaras. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/fashion-and-beauty/hannah-sung/all-mixed-up-why-are-we-dressing-like-kids/article1930289/

In journalist Peggy Orenstein’s book Cinderella Ate My Daughter, an examination of “girlie-girl” culture, Orenstein states that, “the identical midriff-baring crop top is sold to 8-year-olds, 18-year-olds and 48-year-olds.” She cites the rise in appearance-altering surgery for American children under the age of 18 (in 2008, it was almost twice as many as a decade earlier) and the 12,000 Botox injections administered in 2009 to children ages 13 to 19 and concludes that in the end, “[it] means girls are now simultaneously getting older younger and staying younger older.”

Critics of Toddlers & Tiaras find the TLC cable program to be “the most disgusting show on television.” http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/blogs/sfmoms/detail?entry_id=43981 It has spawned “Cancel Toddlers & Tiaras” Facebook pages and sparked protests over the past three years, all to no avail. Some 5,000 Australians signed petitions in a failed attempt to bar Eden Wood from entering their country in late July 2011. Child psychologist Collett Smart went head-to-head with Mickie Wood on a current affairs show, Today Tonightt, but the six-year-old’s mother was undeterred.

The TV show continues to air despite the concerted efforts of parent groups to raise public awareness about the sexualization of girls. According to some reports, over 100,00 American children partiipate in these girls beauty pageants each year. Yet concerned parents are beginning to understand the emotional, psychological, and physical harm a young girl is exposed to when she is sexualized. As the 2007 American Psychological Association’s task force report showed us, early sexualization can lead to self-esteem issues, depression, eating disorders, and early promiscuity.

Women’s Rights advocacy groups are outraged by the show. “Toddlers & Tiaras is a petri dish of sexualization,” Care 2 declared. “Little girls are taught, often times forced by their domineering mothers, to act coquettishly, learn suggestive dance routines, wear sexualized costumes and bathing suits, endure hours of hair and make-up, and are even put on restrictive diets in order to lose weight for competition. This is perverse. While TLC continues to air “Toddlers & Tiaras,” the network becomes an agent of this sexualization.” http://www.care2.com/causes/profiting-from-sexualized-children-an-open-letter-to-toddlers-tiaras.html#ixzz1TR7HJtBi

The TLC cable TV show “Toddlers & Tiaras” has stirred up quite a controversy and that raging debate begs a few critical questions. Should we be taking shows like “Toddlers & Tiaras” seriously? Who in their right mind would be influenced by such trashy television, except the foolish and impressionable? Will the show set back the cause of advancing womanhood or encourage more hyperparenting? And why do networks like TLC keep renewing such shows?

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One of the most startling recent shifts in U.S. education was the adoption by the National Education Association (NEA) of a resolution supporting the use of student standardized test scores, along with other measures, in the teacher evaluation process. Meeting in Chicago on July 3, 2011 the nation’s largest teachers’ union with 3.2 million members reversed its previous position to head-off what the New York Times described as “a growing national movement to hold teachers accountable for what students learn.” http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/05/us/05teachers.html?pagewanted=all

The momentous decision by the NEA not only brought the union more into line with the rival American Federation of Teachers, but responded to the changing reform dynamic now affecting some 15 American states. That policy shift stood out in sharp contrast to the strong resistance expressed by both the Canadian Teachers Federation (CTF) and its de-facto lobby organization, the Canadian Education Association (CEA)

The Canadian teacher unions now find themselves as outliers, fighting a rearguard action against teacher quality reform. While NEA president Dennis Van Roekel sought to respond to the inevitability of change, the Canadian teacher unions continue to demonstrate a “head in the sand” approach.

Canadian teacher unionists continue to inhabit another planet when it comes to education reform. Instead of reacting to the NEA decision, the CTF continued to hide behind its own opinion surveys and to present “smaller class sizes” as the panacea. Indeed they continue to base that opposition on teacher-sponsored surveys purporting to show that 67% of Canadians favour “teacher evaluations of students” over “standardized tests.” http://www.ctf-fce.ca/Newsroom/news.aspx?NewsID=1983984692&year=2010

Teacher unions in Canada, from coast to coast, continue to resist teacher quality reform and to maintain a hard-line stance. Since the rapid unionization of the teaching ranks in the 1960s and ’70s, teaching has been a white-collar profession central to the rise of public sector unionism. While teachers aspire to be professionals, they toil in what Education Sector aptly termed “locally controlled civil service regimes which were, in turn, grafted upon industrial unionism.” The inherent contradictions of this situation periodically reveal themselves, most recently in the about-face by the NEA on the critical issue of student-test based teacher evaluation. http://www.educationsector.org/publications/admirable-move-countrys-biggest-teachers-union-yes-you-read-correctly

Teacher unionism improved teacher salaries, but teachers were incorporated into a standardized “one-size-fits-all” system. Everyone had to get a bachelor’s degree from a recognized university, then obtain a standard provincial teaching license before entering the classroom. Once they entered the system, everyone was paid according to the same union salary schedule, which doled out raises based on years of experience and credentials such as master’s degrees. There were few differences in rank or status, meaningful performance evaluations were non-existent, and it remains nearly impossible to be fired for cause.

On the inside, however, teachers inhabited a different world. Until the 1990s, standards and curricula were largely left in the hands of local districts and schools. Principals, in turn, gave individual teachers broad discretion over what happened every morning after students settled into their desks and the classroom door closed behind them. That meant huge variance in what students were taught, even among students with different teachers in the same school and grade. It also meant tremendous variances in how well students were taught. As with all legitimate professions, some people are much better at it than others, but the official line was that raising the issue was tantamount to “teacher-bashing.”

Teachers’ unions found solidarity, and thus power, in promoting uniformity in the modern bureaucratic education world. Then, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the educational standards-and-accountability movement took root and brought the return of new forms of standardized student testing. At the time, nobody seriously proposed using the tests to evaluate individual teachers—the Canadian and American teacher unions made sure of that. http://www.aims.ca/en/home/library/details.aspx/1862

Over the past decade, accountability for student learning has become widely accepted and independent think tanks like the Fraser Institute and the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS) have begun to rank schools and to raise new questions about the limits of education reform. With the financial support of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the U.S. National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) and Education Sector have succeeded in putting improved teacher evaluation on the public policy agenda. Initial research demonstrated that up to 33% of student learning was determined by the quality of teaching in the classroom. More recent research has shown that some teachers were much better than others in raising student performance levels.

Canadian teacher unions tremble at the prospect of performance-based evaluation and tenure. After two years, most teachers secure a permanent contract and never again face any kind of real scrutiny unless they commit some chargeable office. Unions always tend to rally to the defense of their weakest links. Confronted with teacher quality reform proposals, they simply go to ground hoping the agitation will blow over. Opening the door to more effective teacher evaluation they fear will put “the whole system of unity through uniformity” at risk.

Leading Canadian policy researchers like Dr. Ben Levin continue to turn a blind eye to the latest research on teacher quality measures. In May of 2011, Levin told the Nova Scotia media that he was opposed to student-test based teacher evaluation because “no reliable measures existed” to assess teacher performance.

New American research suggests otherwise. A June 2011 Education Sector report by Susan Headden explores the initiatives underway in more than a dozen American states. She was particularly impressed with IMPACT, the Washington D.C. model combining five classroom observations with student test scores in rating teachers on a four-point scale of effectiveness. As her report made clear, “multiple measures teacher evaluation is the future of K-12 education. And in Washington, D.C., the future is happening now.” http://www.educationsector.org/publications/inside-impact-dcs-model-teacher-evaluation-system

Why is the Canadian education establishment so resistant to teacher quality reform initiatives? Who is really calling the tune – provincial education authorities or the Canadian Teachers Federation backed by the CEA? Should we put much stock in the assessment of teacher unionists who defend the status quo and still oppose the current student testing programs? If teacher unionists remain cool to testing, then why would we ever expect them to embrace student test based teacher evaluation?

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Kids are praying in Toronto’s public schools. It’s not a school board concern, however, because the students are not Christians. And on July 8,2011, the Toronto District School Board issued an official statement that the Muslim students attending Valley Park Middle School in North York have a “constitutional right” to pray during school hours.

Toronto’s Valley Park school has become the latest lightening rod in the long simmering public debate over the place of religion in publicly-funded state schools. The school is 80% to 90% Muslim and some 400 Islamic students have been praying on Friday afternoons for 40 minutes for the past year. It started three years ago when large numbers of Valley Park students began missing Friday afternoon classes to attend a nearby mosque. The school principal Nick Stefanoff, with the best of intentions, devised a solution: an in-school service, offered for free by a local imam and supervised by parents.

All was quiet until Hindu parents raised an objection, complaining that such services carried the potential for “inflammatory preaching.” Even though there is no evidence of such activity, the issue hit The Toronto Sun and News Talk Radio — and sparked a firestorm of controversy. http://www.torontosun.com/2011/07/04/prayers-in-school-whats-the-problem

The Canadian Hindu Advocacy group, led by Ron Bannerjee, feared the worst and charged that it opened the door to other groups demanding the same “privilege” as the Muslims. “Pretty soon,” Bannerjee stated, “we’re going to have 50 different ethnicities and religions asking for different accommodations.” National Post columnist Kelly McParland countered with an op ed defending the “entirely reasonable and workable solution” to “satisfy a few people who can’t stand the idea of Muslim kids praying in the cafeteria.” http://www.ottawacitizen.com/story_print.html?id=5062024&sponsor=

The raging public issue goes far beyond a dispute between religious faiths. A Christian god has now been essentially banned from all public schools, except for Catholic separate schools in a few provinces. Most public schools have become increasingly godless places since the late 1960s and high school officials show more tolerance for “sex, drugs, and rap music” than any form of religious faith.

A recent National Post editorial (July 7, 2011) connected the dots for us. “Enforced secularization -and the uproar caused when religion rears its controversial head -are a direct result of another problem with the public education system: absence of choice.” http://www.nationalpost.com/news/Have+faith+choice/5062048/story.html

How did public education become the modern temple of secular humanism? The Canadian courts played a critical role, supporting a “non-sectarian” interpretation of provincial public school law and regulations. With the tacit support of most politicians, the courts decided that the only “fair” option was to remove all religion from the taxpayer-funded, ‘one-size-fits-all school’ system.

Twenty years ago, Canadian courts ruled that the Lord’s Prayer could not be said in public schools because it constituted religious indoctrination, and children who refused to say it would be stigmatized. Since then, there have been continuous efforts, in the National Post’s words, ” to scrub every vestige of religion -Christmas trees, Nativity scenes, Easter celebrations -from public schools.” In once Catholic Quebec, the government has even outlawed the use of religious symbolism or stories in state-funded day cares.

For schools such as Valley Park Middle School, the banning of prayers seriously compromises the school’s ability to adapt to the circumstances and needs of the vast majority of their students. Parents there who would want their children to pray in school would have no choice but to send them to private school to regain their religious freedom. This excludes a large number of families who simply cannot afford the fees for such institutions.

The real solution to the current Prayer in School conflict is to introduce school choice, allowing parents and families to choose schools that “fit the children” rather than the other way around. Broadening the range of school choices, especially in Toronto’s multicultural communities, would ensure that schools were putting the needs of children and families first. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/toronto/school-prayer-debate-creates-unlikely-allies/article2092121/

Fears of religion in the schools are grossly exaggerated by those who have a stake in resisting school reform. Defenders of the educational status quo will eventually come to accept that the will of the public for more choice can no longer be thwarted by furious public appeals for “one system for all.” Public education based upon parental choice principles, whether through funded alternatives or tuition fee-subsidies, would allow parents to send their children to any school that meets basic educational credentials.

Letting Muslims pray in school makes good sense in Toronto’s Thorncliffe Park. Today’s school systems claim to be open, liberal, and tolerant of individual rights and cultural differences. We currently offer social justice courses in Native/Mi’Kmaq Studies and Afri-Canadian Studies, so the system can flex when the option is considered politically acceptable. So what’s the problem? Above and beyond basic curricula, schools should also be free to include other elements of their community’s choosing, including faith-based lessons and discussions that were once the hallmark of a true liberal education.

What’s the real problem with prayers in public school? How did Canada’s public schools become temples of secular humanism and purveyors of ” good enough for all”? Why did it take Canada’s newcomers to awaken us to the “godless” nature of many state-funded school institutions? Is broadening school choice in public education the ultimate answer?

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