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Archive for December, 2011

Getting children and teens to offer information about school can often be more difficult than pulling teeth.  “What did you do in school today?” usually elicits the all-too-familiar response: “Nothing.” Did anything interesting happen?  “Nope.”  Did you like it? “It was O.K.”  What began is a routine question, ends up becoming a rather futile daily inquisition.

Renowned American child psychologist Michael Thompson once described this daily after-school ritual as “interviewing for pain.”  Parenting experts in Canada are so concerned about the matter that they actually offer “do’s and don’ts to increase your child’s willingness to share useful and important information about his school experience.” http://www.canadianparents.com/article/what-did-you-learn-in-school-today

The question “What did you do in school today?” even became the theme for a national study, conducted by J. Douglas Willms, Sharon Friesen and Penny Milton for the Canadian Education Association, in collaboration with the Canadian Council on Learning and school districts across Canada.  The CEA initiative’s first report, in May 2009, attempted to tackle the question of student engagement in the classroom, including the possible connections among adolescent learning, student achievement and effective teaching.

A Canadian Student Survey in 2007-2008, involving 32,000 students in 93 schools covering 10 different school districts turned up some troubling results.  Too many students are disengaged from learning in school; gaps in student achievement levels persist; and there is growing concern about whether the current models of schooling prepare all young people for future success in life and the workplace.    http://www.ccl-cca.ca/pdfs/otherreports/WDYDIST_National_Report_EN.pdf

The key findings were startling: Overall levels of social and academic engagement were quite low, but intellectual engagement was even lower in the schools. Levels of intellectual engagement declined significantly from  grades 6 to 12, dropping from 60% to less than 40% of all students. While students continued to feel a “sense of belonging,” they also reported a major drop in regular attendance.

School and class climate were surveyed extensively, but students were not asked an obvious question: What lay at the root of the lack of intellectual engagement?  Simply put, were they BORED by the academic expectations in class?

The original Tell Them From Me survey, designed by Willms and Patrick Flanagan, is not really intended to get at the root of the problem.  It’s an an assessment system that measures a wide variety of indicators of student engagement, wellness, classroom atmosphere, and school climate, focusing heavily on outside influences affecting learning outcomes. Among the areas covered are: perceptions of testing, involvement in sports teams and clubs, attendance, hours spent watching TV, a sense of belonging, post-graduation goals, bullying, self esteem, student anxiety and depression.   http://www.changelearning.ca/~cl/programs/tell-them-me-canadian-students-speak-about-their-schools

The CEA-funded survey, in fact, asks everything except whether students are challenged enough academically or to high enough behavioural standards.   Indeed, the CEA’s initiative is now looking to students themselves to help solve the myriad social problems that have, for generations, bedeviled the system. “CEA believes, ” we are told in a remarkably naive proclamation,  that ” students have an important part to play in shaping how we tackle these issues, think about learning environments, and consider the purposes of schooling.”   http://www.cea-ace.ca/programs-initiatives/wdydist

Why do leading Canadian educators continue to focus on the branches rather than the roots of the problem of student disengagement?  With over 60% of high schoolers reporting a lack of “intellectual engagement,” why look outside the system for the answer?  Was John Taylor Gatto completely wrong 20 years ago when he warned in Dumbing Us Down (1992) that the “hidden curriculum” of compulsory state schooling had a “deadening effect” on learning? Could it be that sound, challenging curriculum provides the best guarantor of student engagement?

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For the third time in the past five years, a Nova Scotia School Board has been fired by a provincial Minister of Education, a remarkable record for a province with only nine elected education boards.  Last year, Prince Edward Island Education Minister Doug Currie also wielded the axe, firing the entire Eastern PEI School Board in the wake of prolonged school closure skirmishes.

On Tuesday November 29, 2011, Nova Scotia’s Education Minister Ramona Jennex shocked everyone in Atlantic Canada by announcing that the elected South Shore Regional School Board (SSRSB) had been “fired” for breaching its code of ethics and proper governance practices.  Acting on a School Board Review report produced by Deloitte management consultants, she told the twelve member Board of Trustees in Bridgewater, NS, that they had been dismissed from office.  She also announced that the Board had not only been been sacked, but replaced with a senior educrat, Judith Sullivan-Corney, formerly a Deputy Minister with the Nova Scotia Government. (Media Advisory -“Minister Moves to Take Control of SSRSB” –  NSDoE, 29 Nov. 2011)

The Minister’s unilateral decision stunned the Chair of the SSRSB veteran Trustee Elliott Payzant, and his 12-member elected who had asked the Minister in June 2011 to audit their governance practices to clear the air.  The small Board, established in 2004 with only 32 schools and 7,400 students, had certainly captured the Minister’s attention. It all started in late February 2011 when the elected Trustees voted 10 to 2 to suspend the school closure review process affecting 12 of the 32 schools, overturning a staff recommendation. Superintendent Nancy Pynch-Worthylake was completely miffed, since the only two supporting the process were her Board Chair and Vice-Chair Gary Mailman, the Trustee supposedly overseeing governance matters.

The real catalyst for the public controversy was the South Shore weekly, The Progress Bulletin,which had used a Freedom of Information (FOIPOP) request to unearth hundreds of private e-mails suggesting improper governance practices.  Those revelations, covered extensively in the South Shore News and The Chronicle Herald, suggested that a group of 4 to 8 trustees were meeting and strategizing to save their community schools, in the wake of their controversial  earlier decision to close the historic Lunenburg Academy. When the e-mails were made public, it was also clear that  Trustee Karen Reinhardt and Board Chair Payzant  were both deeply involved in the behind-the-scenes politicking.       http://www.southshorenow.ca/archives/2011/072611/letters/index006.php

The initial Halifax Chronicle Herald editorial (Nov. 30, 2011), accepted the Minister’s decision and reasoning at face value.  Closer scrutiny of the Deloitte report (22 November 2011) led governance experts to draw different conclusions.  http://www.ednet.ns.ca/pdfdocs/school_boards/PerformanceReviewReportSSRSB.pdf   The Management Consultants hired by the DoE brought a corporate governance philosophy to their task, assessing the elected Board according to a clinical model seemingly unaware of the complexities and intricacies of local politics and the trustee’s representational role in the system.

The governance template used to assess the South Shore Board reflected the same managerial orientation.  By assuming that the Superintendent was the “gatekeeper” and source of  all agenda information, the political actions of trustees taking autonomous policy positions and giving voice to public concerns were seen as destabilizing for the system.  Some elected trustees acted inappropriately, particularly in the realm of  conflict of interest, and deserved sanctions. On three of six criteria, the elected Board was found in contravention of the governance regulations, but they were judged to be following provincial budget and policy directives.  None of the actual recommendations specifically referenced dismissing the entire board.  That move was clearly the Minister’s decision.

The “One-Woman-Board,” Ms. Sullivan-Corney, received a slap happy reception from the Superintendent and senior staff in the Bridgewater Board Office. That response stood in stark contrast to the growing media criticism and the chill felt by South Shore parents left without trustees in the local communities.  Four or five of the “fired” Trustees were highly respected local citizens, most notably Marg Forbes of Bridgewater and Lunenburg physician Dr. John Jenkins.  Some Trustees like Reinhardt were mavericks who stood up strongly for local communities.

Denied their public voice, South Shore parents were not about to be silenced by the Minister or the Superintendent. Within three days, groups of parents in Hebbville, Petite Riviere, Chester, and Lunenburg began to complain loudly about the decision, expressing fear that many of the 12 threatened schools would now be closed.  Parent Sherry Doucet of Hebbville spoke out in The Chronicle Herald  and Michelle Wamboldt of Petite Riviere was galvanized into action, pushing forward with plans to hold a Small School Summit on January 21, 2012 at the NSCC in Bridgewater.    http://thechronicleherald.mobi/novascotia/38279-south-shore-parents-fear-schools-will-be-closed-after-all

Previous decisions to fire Nova Scotia school boards, taken in 2006 ( HalifaxRSB and StraitRSB) by former Education Minister Karen Casey, went far more smoothly. Defenders of small schools now carry much more influence, the “dismissed” Trustees won far more sympathy among the public — and the usual public backlash against all School Boards fizzled when the real underlying issues surfaced.

Public statements by Vic Fleury, Chair of the NSSBA, that the School Board Association was never consulted before the axe fell simply added fuel to the fire. Faced with mounting public concern, the Nova Scotia Department of Education was compelled, a week later, to send out 24,000 leaflets by mail in an attempt to reassure worried parents and families.  A one-woman-board was now presented as the answer for those seeking to be heard. http://thechronicleherald.ca/novascotia/40544-education-department-reassures-parents-after-school-board%E2%80%99s-firing

How common in North America is the practice of dismissing elected School Boards?  Why have Nova Scotia Education Ministers come to use that power with such frequency?  What is wrong with the School Board governance model as presently conceived in Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island?  What can be done to reform school board governance and, at the same time, to restore public confidence in local education democracy?

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