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Archive for August, 2011

American investigative journalist Steven Brill, author of the latest book entitled Class Warfare, has stirred up another hornet’s nest in the world of education. The main title of the book is exactly the same as that of an earlier Canadian title, Maude Barlow and Heather-jane Robertson’s Class Warfare: The Assault on Canada’s Schools, but the two books inhabit parallel universes in education. Each book casts teacher unionism in a radically different light and offers a completely different prescription for what ails public education.

Brill, the founder of American Lawyer magazine and Court TV, is certainly a quick study. Just two years ago, he stumbled into the School Wars while writing a feature for The New Yorker about the New York City public system’s “rubber rooms” where teachers accused of misconduct were hived-off, putting in time for full pay, sometimes for years on end. His brand new book, Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America’s Schools, probes deeply into the state of the school reform movement in the United States. http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2011/08/26/steven-brill-on-school-reform-in-new-book-class-warfare.print.html

The American Education Debate sparked by Brill’s Class Warfare is reminiscent of the furor generated by the 2010 feature film Waiting for Superman. His book explores the origins of President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top program, the success of American public charter schools, and the plight of idealistic teachers chewed up by the system. What emerges is another stinging critique of American teacher unionism and its new defenders, Diane Ravitch, Deborah Meier and the so-called “school reform deniers.” http://blogs.reuters.com/great-debate/2011/08/21/the-school-reform-deniers/

Barlow and Robertson’s 1996 book Class Warfare responded to Canadian education critics by raising alarm bells about the so-called “privatization” of the Canadian educational system. The Canadian duo, unlike Brill, completely rejected any and all evidence that the public schools were failing our kids. “Our literacy rates are among the highest in the world, ” they declared. “We are turning out scientists faster than the economy can absorb them. And our curriculum reflects the kind of society Canadians want.” Big corporations, the Christian right, and Albertan charter schoolers were painted black and the Canadian teacher unions were the “progressives” virtually at one with godliness. http://www.chapters.indigo.ca/books/Class-Warfare-Assault-Canadas-Schools-Maude-Barlow-Heather-Jane-Robertson/9781550135596-item.html

Barlow and Robertson quickly became the darlings of the Canadian teachers federations and were, in hindsight, the first generation of Canadian “school reform deniers.” Presidents of Ontario’s local teacher union branches, like Fred Mayor and Lynn Johnston (York Region), provided elected school trustees with free copies to immunize them against “the attack on public education as it continues on many fronts.” At a time before the return of standardized testing when charter schools were merely a concept, the Ontario teacher unions saw Barlow and Robertson as the first line of defense against “business interests” seeking “control over public education.”

American political and civic leaders, unlike their Canadian counterparts, have undergone quite an awakening. Liberal Democrats like former San Diego schools head Alan Bersin led the way and came to the same realization as Joel Klein, Superintendent of New York’s schools. “It didn’t even take me ninety days,” Bersin reports in Class Warfare, “before I went from being a Democrat who always thought the unions were the good guys to realizing that unions were not the good guys—that the Democratic Party and the school reform movement had run into a rock because of the transformation of the teachers’ union movement from the ’60s to the ’90s from a progressive force to the most conservative force in the mix.”

Canadian educational leaders, with a few notable exceptions, remain oblivious to such discoveries. Among the national press British Columbia columnist Gary Mason is one of those who has, at least, begun to ask the right questions. In The Globe and Mail (August 25, 2011, he drew attention to the inherent lessons of Steven Brill’s new book. While Mason clearly sees that the American education system is in far worse shape than ours, he continues to be critical of unions like the BC Teachers Federation for their blind adherence to the status quo. For him, the BCTF’s rigidity and defense of teacher tenure is indicative of a broader problem. The rhetoric is “progressive”; the real priority is now “union protection” not the kids. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/opinions/opinion/teachers-who-dont-deserve-union-protection/article2140640/

American education is in the throes of a crisis where there is no room for complacency. Yet the standard line of defense in Canadian education still follows the same “talking points” served up in Barlow and Robertson’s 1996 book. School reforms like charter schools and teacher quality initiatives are too often simply dismissed as “privatization” initiatives. Stripping away the progressive “talking points,” the union’s progressive talk amounts to a defense of special entitlements, iron-clad contracts, and empty slogans that stand in the way of genuine school reform and public accountability for results.

The American Education Debate sparked by Brill’s Class Struggle is the latest round in what has become a noisy “dialogue of the deaf.” Any hopes for an American adult conversation on classroom reform were quickly dashed when shouting matches broke out in the media among those on various sides of the education debate.

In Canada, the fundamental debate remains sublimated or muffled by the relative power and influence of the “core interests” who dominate provincial education systems – the superintendents, education faculties, and the teacher unions, staunchly supported by the Canadian Education Association and its surrogates. Even the most prominent parent advocacy group, People for Education, simply parrots the “fund more of the same” philosophy of the American school reform deniers. http://www.peopleforeducation.com/

What lies at the root of the problem identified in Steven Brill’s Class Warfare? Should Canadians be asking similar questions about their provincial education systems? How long will the Barlow-Robertson line of defense survive in the face of growing concerns and the undeniable success of Alberta Education reforms, such as school choice, charter schools, and the public engagement initiative? When will the worm turn in Canadian public education?

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Back to School ads signal the start of an annual family shopping spree. Shopping expeditions begin in early August, as parents with kids in tow hit the stores to attack long lists of school supply ‘must haves,’ fall clothes, the latest sports gear and mobile electronic devices. It is the second biggest consumer spending season of the year, putting a strain on family budgets and causing hardship for parents struggling to make ends meet. Across North America, the cost of heading back to school is escalating, and parents are finding out the hard way.

The average Canadian family with school age children, according to a recent poll conducted by VISA, will spend $403.89 on back to school items ($240 of which spent online), between August 1 and Labour Day. Some 34 per cent of shoppers start in the first two weeks of August, but most families find themselves rushing around when back to school shopping amounts to a frenzy. http://blogs.todaysparent.com/saving/what-does-back-to-school-cost-you/

Many Canadian families in tight economic times are struggling with back to school costs. A recent post in Today’s Parent (August 3, 2011) entitled “What does back to school cost you?” touches rather lightly on the critical issue. The author “Sandra” describes shopping for her two school age daughters at Mountain Equipment Co-op only to discover that last year’s backpacks have gone out of style! For families like Sandra’s the rising costs are an irritant, but for thousands of Canadian parents finding the money for such expenses means running up credit cards or doing without.

Why are more and more families dreading the Back to School merry-go-round of shopping? The cost of going back to school is rising each year, and so are all costs for “school supplies” and “incidentals” being borne by families in public schools as well as independent and alternative schools. A Back to School CBC Radio News program (Information Morning, August 16, 2011) identified the issue squarely and demonstrated how it adds to the stresses of family life.

It’s a problem that originated in the 1980s, as school boards sought to download costs for school supplies on parents and compelled many teachers to supplement their classroom supply budgets. Successive waves of edu-cuts have imposed more costs on families. One of the major drivers is charging kids to compete in sports or play in the school band, now known as the “pay-to-participate” or “pay-to-play” model of funding a whole range of extra-curricular activities. http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/43856978/

Hard pressed families from Toronto to Calgary, from Youngstown, Ohio, to Denver, Colorado, and all over Ireland, are raising alarm bells about the soaring cost of school basics. In Youngstown, WKBN TV, ran a news story ( August 12, 2011) using Huntington Bank statistics claiming that from 2010 to 2011 costs went up $56 for elementary kids, $136 for middle school, and $91 for high school. (www.wkbn.com) The Calgary Board of Education was concerned enough to post a Survival Guide of Tips entitled “Worried about the Cost of Back-to-School?” In some cities, the neighbourhood Walmart store actually has school supplies lists posted that came from local Boards of Education.

Most of the Back to School costs media stories offer practical family budgeting tips, but studiously avoid addressing the larger education policy issue.
Why are Back to School costs rising so rapidly? Should public schools and boards of education be off-loading the costs for back-to-school basics? How can school systems professing to provide “education for all” be justified in imposing unreasonable costs on families in disadvantaged communities? To what extent are school systems forcing Food Banks into the school supplies business?

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With the “Back to School” ads appearing, many parents of school age children are secretly counting down the days and so are a surprising number of studious and totally bored kids. In the midst of that nine-week gap in K-12 schooling, politicians and the public could be forgiven for raising a few serious questions: Could students do with fewer holidays? Do they really need all that time off? And what’s the impact of lengthy gaps and the relatively short school year on student learning and achievement?

The dog days of mid-summer can be a challenge for house-bound families without ready access to cottages, camps, and recreational programs. Time hangs heavy for most kids when the heat rises, friends are away, and even those X-Box video games become monotonous. For the in-betweens, young teens ages 12 to 16, hanging out at the mall, around the empty schoolyard, or behind the railway tracks can be tiresome. Summer jobs today are hard to come-by and, late in the summer, American cities and towns report increased rates of juvenile crime as well as more risk-taking behaviours. http://www.thestar.com/comment/article/459031

Expanding learning time is now a high profile public issue in the United States, where President Barack Obama has challenged educators to “rethink the school calendar” and called for a longer school year. On the NBC Today Show in September 2010, he based his case on the fact that in high performing school systems like Korea kids go to school a month longer each year. Indeed, eight of 31 countries in the OECD now have school years of 195 days or more. http://www.eduinreview.com/blog/2010/09/obama-continues-to-support-year-round-school-for-americans-video/

A Toronto Globe and Mail “Time to Lead” series on the School Calendar in June 2011 put the issue squarely on the Canadian public agenda, but with a different twist. While recognizing that lengthening the school year might have an impact, lead reporter Tralee Pearce focused almost exclusively on the case –for and against—a lengthy summer break. Tampering with the conventional calendar of 185 six-and-a-half hour days was considered verboten. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/time-to-lead/does-year-round-schooling-make-the-grade/article2057863/

Time matters in public education, it seems, except when it comes to the length of school holidays and the duration of the instructional day. Studies by the OECD have established a clear link between the amount of learning time and student performance on international tests. OECD’s Cassandra Davis of “Education Today” made this prediction: “With policymakers focusing on staying internationally competitive through improving education, school may be out for a shorter summer in the future.” https://community.oecd.org/community/educationtoday/blog/2010/08/03/school-s-still-out-for-summer

Why is the Canadian debate so narrowly circumscribed? It comes down to this: In the Canadian system, teachers’ union contracts, strictly limit both the school year and the duration of the teaching day. That tends to short circuit the discussion and to doom all proposals for so-called “year round schools” to failure and to suffocate any discussion of a longer school day.

The phenomenon of “summer learning loss” is now a vitally-important issue for American education authorities, especially in the wake of the U.S. dismal results on the 2009 PISA tests. In April of 2011, a TIME Act was introduced in the U.S. Congress aimed at providing grants to states adding at least 300 hours to the school year in low performing schools. A Summer 2011 study by the National Center on Time and Learning demonstrates that many states are already heeding the President’s call for a longer school year by cutting back on holiday time. http://www.timeandlearning.org/

Previous initiatives since the early 1990s to introduce “Modified School Year” (MSY) plans in Canada have met with limited success. Most such initiatives hold fast to the conventional 180 day minimum model and simply break the year up in a more symmetrical fashion. After two decades, the Calgary School Board has had some success, but fewer than 100 Canadian schools have adopted the unfairly labelled “year-round-school” model. http://www.cbe.ab.ca/calendars/default.asp
Research supporting the move to a MSY is rather inconclusive. One oft cited study by Eileen C. Winter (2005) focused solely on a small sample of Ontario early years teachers and reaffirmed previous assumptions about “learning loss,” particularly among at-risk students. Some modest gains were reported in student attendance and attitudes, but not enough to justify a wholesale change in most communities. http://www.mpsd.ca/pdfs/A_Modified_School_Year.pdf
Expanding learning time by adding school days or hours to the instructional day would have much more benefit. The PISA test results support the OECD’s contention that lengthening the school year can produce measurable results in student achievement.

American public charter schools, like those sponsored by the KIPP Foundation and the Citizen Schools, provide further evidence. Extending the school year and offering required extended day activities are, according to the NCTL, “fundamentally changing the trajectory of students’ lives in high poverty communities.” http://www.timeandlearning.org/learningtimeinamerica/learningtimeinamerica.html

Tinkering with the summer holiday schedule may provide some solace for families without the means to keep kids fully occupied during the summer. Reducing the summer break from nine to six weeks would be a start, but only by significantly expanding learning time will we be able to keep pace with the leading countries in the educational world. It’s time to revamp teacher contracts and remove what the 1994 NTL Commission described as “the shackles of time” from our schools.

What’s stopping us from rethinking the School Calendar in most of Canada’s provinces? Why have ambitious moves to Modified School Year plans mostly fizzled since the early 1990s? Would simply reapportioning the holiday periods have much of an impact on student learning? Can we remain competitive with the world’s educational leaders without expanding our actual classroom learning time?

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