Archive for October, 2011

Joel Bakan, author of the 2004 best seller The Corporation, has returned with a controversial sequel entitled Childhood Under Siege: How Big Business Targets Children . His earlier book was also turned into an award winning documentary film that exposed the insidious evils of corporate influence in our everyday lives. If the modern corporation was human, Bakan claimed, it would be a certifiable psychopath. In Childhood Under Siege, he attempts to extend his now familiar thesis into the realm of childhood. http://www.5min.com/Video/Joel-Bakan-Talks-About-Childhood-Under-Siege-517127244

    As a committed social progressive, Bakan claims to have been called into action to protect our kids from the faceless, soul-less, rapacious corporation.      Since its publication, the book has attracted mostly favourable attention, particularly on CBC Radio and TV, where the Michigan-born UBC law professor is often treated as a popular media personality.

Today’s Canadian parents and families may not be so quick to swallow Bakan’s sweeping interpretation of their situation. When looking for guidance, they are more likely to find the answers in Carl Honore’s more compelling 2008 book Under Pressure: How the Epidemic of Hyper-Parenting is Endangering Childhood.  It covers the same territory, offering a far more complex, multi-layered analysis and reaching radically different conclusions. http://www.carlhonore.com/?page_id=5

In Childhood Under Siege, parents and children are depicted as innocents who represent easy prey for the corporation. From the outset, Bakan comes-off as a rather naive and protective parent who is startled to discover that his 11-year-old son’s “really cool” Internet games site is a gateway to such appalling “kiddie” fare as “Whack Your Soul Mate” and “Boneless Girl.” That horrible revelation, according to the author, is really what prompted him to resume his war against corporate influence in North American life.

Bakan goes on to chronicle how “big business” targets and exploits children in a multitude of subtle and under-handed ways. It has happened, he claims, because of government’s failure to intervene, allowing child protection laws to erode and giving free reign to corporations and their heartless, money-driven “marketers.”

For today’s kids, Balkan shows that it’s a dangerous world out there. Spending hours and hours online exposes them to cyberworlds and social media which feed teenage narcissism and promote deranged, highly competitive and unhealthy values. Relentlessly targeted by red haired clowns (McDonalds) and hipster icons (Starbucks), they come to pester their parents for fast food, junk snacks, and sugary, high voltage drinks.

Sections of the book do deliver a profoundly important message. Bakan is at his best when exposing what is termed “Big Pharma.” Here his overarching thesis hits closer to the mark. In many cases, big pharmaceutical companies have not only smothered negative scientific studies, but also co-opted medical professionals to create a popular culture where drugs solve everything –and where kids actually label themselves “ADHD” before being seen by a doctor.

Balkan’s litany of sins perpetuated by big businesses knows few limits. It’s the corporations that pollute the child’s playroom environment with toxins, turn a blind eye to noxious gases, exploit child labour, and promote “market-driven” reforms in public education.

In taking a big scope, Bakan covers much territory and his sweeping analysis tends to reflect a clear presentist bias. Paying more attention to the history of childhood would have yielded deeper insights into the cyclical pattern of exaggerated parental worries, including the supposed corrupting influence of such blights as 19th century “dime novels,” The Simpsons, and South Park.

Though the book tends to focus on the United States, Balkan tries to demonstrate that Canadian children are also being victimized in similar fashion. He knows the law and effectively documents the holes in child protection laws in Canada as in the U.S. Raising red flags about creeping corporate influence in Canadian public education through privately-managed charter schools, standardized testing, and rampant commercialization simply does not wash.

Thoughtful critics have already begun to dismiss Childhood Under Siege as a sincere, well-intended book which falls short of expectations. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/arts/books/childhood-under-siege-how-big-business-targets-children-by-joel-bakan/article2143228/  While The Corporation was very convincing in exposing the extent of corporate influence, the sequel runs aground in the complex, multi-faceted realm of childhood, parenting, and family life.

Parents play a much bigger role than Bakan ever acknowledges and, truth be told, “hyper-parenting” is threatening to produce a generation of “coddled kids.” Today’s kids teenagers are also mighty savvy when it comes to “The Pester Factor,” bugging their harried parents into buying the latest version of every consumer item.

The author shows a surprisingly naive faith in the capacity of government to safeguard our children. Looking to government to solve most matters, as Bakan does, will find little resonance with those who are already sceptical of the friendly state. After all, as German sociologist Max Weber once warned us, “parcelling out-of-the soul” is common to all bureaucracies, public as well as private.

Why is Bakan’s Childhood Under Siege being hailed as “an important book” for parents and policy-makers? How well founded are the scare stories aimed at exposing the supposed evils of corporate influence in Canadian public education? Who is really under siege — kids, parents, or the family? What’s the primary source of the problem – rampant materialism, big business influences, the decline of family values, or the stressful pace of life?

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Canada has an “enormous vacuum” at the centre of its national education leadership and needs to set national goals for the system, Dr. Paul Cappon declared on October 10, 2011, while releasing his Final Report on behalf of the Canadian Council on Learning (CCL). That was also the key recommendation in the report entitled What is the Future of Learning in Canada? and delivered as parting advice before the CCL wraps up its operations when federal funding disappears at the end of March 2012. http://www.ccl-cca.ca/CCL/Home/index.html

“One of our problems in Canada, of course, is that we have very little information nationally about how we’re doing,” said Cappon, Canada’s leading authority on international educational standards. “For example, we don’t even know how many graduates we have in any particular year in any particular area, whether it’s fisheries or forestry or carpentry, so we can’t match labour market demand to labour market supply. Those kinds of national reporting systems of data are very important for a country to be able to decide where to put its resources and to be able to move forward.” http://www.winnipegfreepress.com/canada/breakingnews/create-new-body-to-ensure-canada-meets-learning-goals-report-urges-131495398.html

Cappon makes a compelling case that Canada needs a new federal, intergovernmental agency to oversee the Canadian educational system. He told the Canadian Press that the current Council of Ministers of Education, Canada, of which he was CEO for eight years, is ineffective as a co-ordinating body because everything is done on a consensus basis and it refuses to co-operate with the federal government on education matters.

The final report of CCL recommends that there be something else as well, namely a national Council of Ministers on Learning. The federal-provincial body could provide national leadership in learning, similar to what is done by a ministerial council in Australia, or the Directorate-General for Education and Culture of the European Union. Cappon said a Canadian version would see the provinces, territories and federal government work together to set and meet goals, and report transparently to the Canadian public. In the European model, he said member states have an open method of co-ordination to try to converge their policies and priorities in education, even though they’re all sovereign in education, like Canadian provinces.

What stands in the way of establishing a stronger national presence? “Territoriality” was the word Cappon used to describe the greatest inhibiting factor. It would, he told Canadian Press, take “tremendous public pressure to move in this direction,” although he saw some political will for such a model among small provinces and French language minorities.

Cappon and the Canadian Council on Learning also announced a final cross-Canada speaking tour to promote the report’s recommendations. “What I’m hoping,” he said in Ottawa, “is that when people realize that Canada is slipping down the international learning curve we’re not going to be able to compete in the future unless we get our act together.”

The final CCL National Report Card makes reference to the 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). Scores reveal that Canadian 15-year-olds have relatively strong sets of skills in reading, math and science, but they’ve been slipping relative to other countries and in some cases in absolute terms.

The bright spots for Canadian education, recognized in the CCL report, are in early elementary education, where preschoolers enjoy free play, and are introduced early to reading. The Canadian K-12 system is also still recognized as among the most inclusive and democratic in the world.At the post-secondary level, Canadians can rest assured that there is high participation, a high rate of graduation and a high proportion of immigrants are being university educated.

Having recognized the Canadian system’s strengths, the CCL report doesn’t mince any words when it comes to identifying problem areas. A number of other troubling trends are highlighted in the council’s report, which noted that about one-quarter of kids enter school without being ready, either because of behavioural or learning problems. In addition, Cappon told Canadian Press that boys are now lagging in education and slipping markedly compared with girls from kindergarten to Grade 12. He also re-stated his long-standing concerns about adult illiteracy, as well as the paltry state of private sector funding for post-secondary level research in Canada.

The impending closing of the Canadian Council on Learning will be a sad day for all who believe in raising educational standards and ensuring that the current generation is properly prepared for future success. Dr. Cappon’s final Report Card does offer a rather gloomy prognosis. And, reading between the lines, The Globe and Mail’s Education Reporter Kate Hammer shares my concerns over the CCL’s demise.

It’s time to step back and look at the big picture: What is the actual state of learning in Canada? How accurate is Dr. Cappon’s final report in diagnosing the situation, particularly in K-12 education? If the CCL is correct, what hard lessons lie ahead for Canada and Canadians?

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A recent Toronto Star series,produced by investigative reporters Robert Cribb and Jennifer Yang, created a sensation by conveying the strong impression that private schools inflate student marks and some privately-owned Toronto high schools operate as virtual “credit mills.” http://www.thestar.com/printarticle/1054778 The second expose was a gripping undercover story, once again highlighting the perennial problem of so-called VISA schools operating beyond the irreproachable scrutiny of Ontario’s Ministry of Education inspectorate. Since 2009, the Toronto Star also reported that the Ontario MOE had received dozens of complaints about “private schools,” including many about the greatest ‘credit mill’ of them all, Scarborough’s notorious “Toronto Collegiate Institute.” http://www.parentcentral.ca/parent/article/1055379–star-investigation-slacking-off-gets-high-marks-at-this-high-school

Slacking-off can earn students high marks at the TCI Summer School, but so what? Most struggling high school students have known for years that the easiest route to re-gaining a Mathematics or Science high school credit is by attending Summer School anywhere. The Toronto Collegiate Institute is, by most accounts, only the most blatant example of the practice, common in both public and private education. For the most part, simply “putting in the hours” guarantees you a credit and a touched-up mark.

News stories like the Toronto Star series attempt to blacken the reputation of not only ‘fly-by-night’ private schools, but also to sully the reputation of Canadian private schools, including some of Canada’s outstanding independent schools. http://www.cais.ca/ Indeed, someone with only a passing acquaintance with Canadian private school world or an ideological axe to grind, might easily be taken-in by such clap-trap.

Students who attend private schools tend to perform “significantly better “ on international achievement tests, so stories about the so-called soft standards in such schools should be taken with a grain of salt. A new August 2011 report, commissioned by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), confirms this while painting a more complicated picture, factoring in a socio-economic analysis of the results. Given the OECD’s mandate, the detailed analysis focused as much on the perceived educational value of private schools as on reporting the actual student performance results. http://www.pisa.oecd.org/dataoecd/6/43/48482894.pdf

In the August 2011 study reported in PISA in Focus, private school students at 14-years-of-age were compared with the much larger public school cohort using results from the 2009 Program of International Standards and Assessment (PISA). Based upon straight results, private school students in 36 OECD countries, including Canada, scored 30 points higher in PISA reading scores, essentially equivalent to three-quarters of a year’s worth of formal schooling. The private school performance edge, according to the OECD researchers, was attributable to three key factors: the competitive school environment, greater teacher autonomy in deciding curriculum and allocating resources, and the ability to attract higher performing socially-advantaged students.

The OECD study bore deeper into the results for reading performance. Comparing socially-advantaged students from public schools with their private school counterparts, the OECD study claimed, effectively narrowed the advantage or removed it entirely in 13 of the 16 countries showing significant differences in raw results. Some three-quarters of the 30 point advantage disappeared when OECD compared the two socio-economically advantaged groups of students. The study of PISA reading results compared public and private schools, across the range of countries, in relation to four key criteria: higher (positive) socio-cultural-economic status; disciplinary climate; material resources for instruction; and shortage in supply of teachers.

The PISA in Focus report provided a valuable picture of the state of private education across the 36 OECD countries. The percentage of students attending private schools was reported, showing a great variation among the countries. Those with the highest percentages were Macao-China ((95%), Hong Kong-China (92%) and Dubai-UAE (69%) and the lowest were the former Eastern Bloc countries. The United States (7%) and Canada (6%) were well below the OECD average of 15% private school enrolment. It also demonstrated that all private schools are not alike, making a clear distinction between private independent schools (like those in Dubai and Canada) and private government-dependent schools ( such as most in Macao, Hong Kong, Ireland, and Chile).

The OECD study, like many applying SES factors, is inclined to explain away the sharp variations in actual results. The report’s contention that public schools with comparable student populations offer the same advantages is problematic because it’s difficult for parents to determine which public schools are better than others. While private schools and socially advantaged public schools do benefit the students attending them, the OECD study claims that private schools, perhaps because of their smaller numbers, do not “raise the level of the school system as a whole.”

The sweeping conclusions reached by the OECD report authors will certainly be challenged by great numbers of students, parents, and staff. Why? Because their appraisal will be based upon more than SES benchmarked comparative test results, and they are likely far more familiar with the true advantages– for better or worse — of a private school education.

What was behind the sensationalist Toronto Star story painting all private schools with the same tarred brush? Why do private school students, worldwide, tend to perform better on student achievement assessments? If some socially-advantaged “public schools” do produce better student results, why do public school promoters continue to insist that all schools provide a good education? What is it about private schools that explains why their students tend to perform “significantly better” when assessed on a level playing field?

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