Archive for January, 2012

Ontario’s flagship program, e-Learning Ontario, proclaims  that “The sky is the limit!” in its marketing message , but the reality is markedly different in most Canadian schools.  Online learning is very much in vogue, as are futuristic calls for public schools everywhere to embrace “21st Century Learning Skills.”  A small band of Information  Communication Technologies (ICT) innovators , inspired by futurists like Toronto author Don Tapscott, New Brunswick IT guru William Keirstead, and Vancouver teacher David Wees are certainly out there championing the cause.

My brand new Canadian study covering all provinces and territories , commissioned by the Toronto-based Society for Quality Education,  demonstrates that, with the exception of British Columbia, the spread of online learning and virtual schools has stalled and, for the vast majority of Canada’s 5 million K to 12 public school students, “the sky has limits.”   http://societyforqualityeducation.org/parents/theskyhaslimits

 Whether it’s Ontario or anywhere except for B.C., ministry of education authorities  still remain wedded to modes of teaching and learning circumscribed  by the ‘brick and mortar’ model of public schooling.  New online learning initiatives are viewed as potential threats to the prevailing status quo, buttressed by a resistant organizational culture, public sector contract entitlements, and regulations designed to contain the spread of e-learning.

After enjoying an initial advantage, Canada has been overtaken by the United States  in the rate of growth of online learning over the past two years.  In 2010-11, Canadian distance education plateaued at 207,096 students or 4.2% of all students.  While online learning continues to grow in British Columbia, the provincial leader with 88,000 enrolled students,  those gains are offset by static numbers and losses in other provinces such as New Brunswick and Quebec.    http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/canadian-schools-falling-behind-in-online-learning-report-says/article2312713/

America’s leading private enterprise promoting online public schools,  K12 Inc., founded in 2000, has expanded into 28 different states, boasts of having delivered over one million online courses to students, and foresees skyrocketing  growth . A newly acquired Division of Pearson Education, Connections Education , now operates in 21 states and forecasts unlimited growth potential.  In late 2011, The New York Times also flagged the tremendous proliferation of full-day virtual charter schools.

Online learning is now accepted in Canada as a critical component of the future in K-12 education.  So why the hesitancy to move forward?

The first instinct of educational policy-makers, senior administrators, and teacher unionists is to monitor, regulate and control the educational domain.  While other factors come into play, that reflex reaction is particularly pronounced when it comes to the dynamically changing field of e-learning and the frontier of mobile social media.

Educational officialdom is inclined to speak glowingly about the potential of unlocking “21st Century Skills” in our classrooms.  Yet the same key system stakeholders are consumed with promoting educational equity and few recognize the fact that federal infrastructure investments have already ensured that Canada’s poorest communities, such as Labrador, actually enjoy the best access to ICT.

Whether it is Ontario, Nova Scotia, or even Nunavut, educational researchers tend to focus on the so-called “digital divide, promoting quality of access to ITC and seeking to close the “competency gap” faced by students in lower socio-economic or remote communities.  Research ventures such as that of Dianne Looker at Mount Saint Vincent University tend to support policy initiatives directed more at bridging the divide  than on generating prosperity and unleashing the creative potential of learning technologies.    http://www.sshrc-crsh.gc.ca/society-societe/stories-histoires/story-histoire-eng.aspx?story_id=139

Most provincial teacher unions show tepid support for online learning, holding fast to labour contract agreements which effectively limit online learning to a supplemental role in the K-12 public system. Even in B.C., where “distributed learning” is well-advanced, the provincial teachers’ federation remains torn on the question.

The Nova Scotia Teachers Union collective agreement, running to 191-pages, limits innovation with its 11 different clauses specifying the number of days of instruction, program hours, group sizes, and working conditions.  Union activists, such as those in the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation (OSSTF),  pass resolutions to block virtual school initiatives and to hold the line until “equality of service “ can be guaranteed  for all students.

Free from public sector constraints, private educational ventures like Virtual High School (Ontario) and Christian Heritage Online School (BC) have jumped-in to fill the need for innovative, online learning school options and are growing by leaps and bounds.

The recent successes of VHS (O) and more than 14 such schools in B.C. directly challenge the ‘one-size-fits-all’ public system in districts where school options were once strictly limited for students and parents.  Such “lighthouse school” ventures  offer a glimmer of hope that school choice, innovation, and quality, first seeded in Alberta, may yet spread to other Canadian provinces. (Reprinted from SQE Quick Study, January 2012)

Why are Canadian public school systems, with the exception of B.C.,  lagging in implementing online learning and distance education?  What is British Columbia doing that is worthy of emulation?  Why are leading IT experts in Canada  inclined to accept the status quo in terms of “bricks and mortar” school organization, teachers agreements, and learning boundaries? What can be done to promote more openness and flexibility east of the Rockies?   

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Elected school trustees are perhaps the lowest rung on the ladder of Canadian local democratic governance.  Yet, for a civic-minded community of ‘do-gooders’,  they seem to get into a an awful lot of hot water and often make headlines across Canada for all the wrong reasons.  Some local trustees have been suspended for conflicts of interest or openly criticizing senior staff members in public; others have been found to be utterly incapable of overseeing gigantic financial operations. A few crackpots have sued their own school board over various matters.  In some provinces, such as Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, the Minister of Education has labelled the entire elected board “dysfunctional” and dismissed them from public office.

One leading school school board advocacy group, the Alberta School Boards Association, was so embarrassed by such matters that they went so far as to  produce a giant apologia, entitled “Trustees Behaving Badly,” published in in its December 2010 newsletter.   http://www.asba.ab.ca/natlegalnews/dec10/files/main_promo.html  The ASBA article not only reviewed the sordid litany of school trustee misbehaviour, but also felt compelled to provide professional advice to help school boards rein in “inappropriate school trustee behaviour” and reassure “their communities and electors that someone is minding the store.”

A wayward Calgary Catholic Board trustee, Michael O’Malley, was removed from office in 2007  for various offenses, including  breaches of confidentiality, costing taxpayers $750,000 in legal fees. In 2009-10, B.C.’s Langley School Board was investigated for poor financial controls, leaving taxpayers $13.5 million in the hole.   More recent school board woes in Ontario have centred on a succession of conflict of interest cases, virtually engulfing the Toronto District Catholic School Board. Three long-serving Toronto public school trustees were sued for conflict of interest on the  very eve of the October 2010 municipal elections.

Three times in the past five years Nova Scotia Ministers of Education have intervened — in Halifax, the Strait Region, and the South Shore — to dismiss the entire cast of elected school trustees. In each case, the Minister and Department claimed that the elected trustees had become “dysfunctional” and deserved to be dismissed from public office. Among those disposable trustees were a fair number of honest, public-spirited, and respected local citizens. Firing the trustees once, maybe, twice, possibly, but a third time —has not only rendered school boards a laughing stock, but made it patently obvious that the entire system of local education governance needs to be completely reformed if it is to survive much longer.

The real source of the “dysfunction” lies not so much with the personal deficiencies of  trustees, but with the straightjacket rules constraining their actions and rendering them politically impotent. Instead of trashing publicly elected trustees, it’s high time we looked at the Education Act and the strictly limited powers and responsibilities assigned to our elected representatives.

The Nova Scotia Education Act, unlike the Municipal Government Act, entrusts real authority to the Superintendents and strictly limits the powers and duties of our elected representatives.  Newly-elected school board members, flush with initial enthusiasm, quickly find themselves bound by a very restrictive code of conduct and behaviour, much like that of children in school. Individual trustees do not officially exist as policy initiators  and no role whatsoever is even assigned them in representing the interests and views of their constituents.  Most local municipal councillors would find such ‘class behaviour’ regulations laughable.     http://gov.ns.ca/JUST/regulations/regs/edmin.htm

The Good Governance Guidelines, produced by Howard Windsor for the reconstituted Halifax School Board in August 2008, are a major source of the dysfunction. The corporate governance model adopted is rather outdated, imposing  a very strict clinical, management-driven governance apparatus, separating  “policy” and “operations.” The role of the elected board is limited to hiring and evaluating the Superintendent, setting annual goals and priorities, developing written policies, overseeing board finances, and fulfilling other ‘clean-up’ duties.. http://www.hrsb.ns.ca/files/Downloads/pdf/board/Governance_Discussion_Paper.pdf    It is not a true model of “shared leadership” nor does it encourage any of what Harvard governance expert Richard Chait would term “generative thinking” and shared decision-making.

Two years later, Nova Scotia further tightened the reins and became the first province in Canada to introduce legislation to discipline individual trustees.  Since 2010, an Oath of Office (Schedule C) and Code of Ethics (Schedule D) has been added to the provincial regulations. Stricter governance guidelines have been a total bust, leaving elected trustees with far less to do and much more to complain about in the performance of their critical democratic role

Elected municipal councils, under the Nova Scotia Municipal Act, are granted “broad authority” and the province “respects their right to govern municipalities in whatever ways the councils consider appropriate” within their area of jurisdiction.  During the Municipal training sessions after the 2008 elections, newly –elected councillors were properly introduced to their representative roles and further assured that their powers were broadly defined and “not narrowly and with undue strictness.”

Devaluing the elected boards, labelling trustees dysfunctional, and subjecting them to a public flogging is no way to strengthen the democratic basis of our public education system.  Appointing another retired provincial bureaucrat to represent the concerns of local communities is a further slap in the face.

Without elected school boards, there is no real public accountability or transparency in the Primary to Grade 12 education system. Reforming local education governance should start with the Education Act and regulations – and focus on clarifying and strengthening the democratic powers of our local, elected representatives. In December 2009, Ontario at least recognized the problem and made an effort to improve school board effectiveness.  http://news.ontario.ca/edu/en/2009/12/school-board-governance-in-ontario-1.html  Only when this issue is fully addressed in all provinces can we insist that elected trustees hold the administration accountable for improving quality and standards.

Give elected trustees the right to speak up on behalf of their school communities at the Board instead of simply being the Board’s salesperson in the community. Unless and until elected trustees are simply given a more meaningful role and recognized as legitimate democratic representatives, you can expect recurrent governance crises in the future and more calls for abolishing all school boards.

Why do curious, independently-minded elected school trustees so often find themselves in hot water with senior administration and the provincial ministries?  What explains their tendency to go “rogue” or “dysfunctional”?  Would reforming the Education Act sections defining and limiting their roles make any real difference? 

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Holding up a mirror to the Canadian K to 12 education system produces a dozen or so jarring images. Over the past year, surveying the 10 provinces and three territories, a chequered pattern emerges with quality standards and student performance all over the map.

For every hopeful sign, troubling concerns represent trends which may, borrowing Dr. Paul Cappon’s apt turn-of-phrase, “leave us internationally-challenged” in the years ahead.

What stands out in the national educational landscape? My own Our Kids Report Card  of the best and worst of 2011 in education offers a few surprises.

The Year 2011 in Education


Hitting a Plateau With the Help of Alberta and Ontario
Canadian 15-year-olds achieved respectable results on the latest Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests released Dec. 7, 2010. Driven by Alberta and Ontario’s improved results, Canada finished eighth among 65 OECD countries in mathematics, seventh in science and fifth in reading. When the PISA results sunk in in early 2011, it became clear that Canada had plateaued and five of the top 10 countries were Asian, led by Shanghai (China), Singapore and Korea.

Driving Higher IB Standards
Only 141 of the 1,926 high schools offering the full International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Programme are located in Canada, but they definitely punch above their weight. A handful of the 14 full diploma “IB World Schools” belonging to the Canadian Accredited Independent Schools (CAIS) ranked among the world’s finest. A brand new cohort of 11 Nova Scotia public high schools also achieved respectable results in May 2011, when 84.7 per cent secured a pass, compared to only 70.3 per cent across North America.

B.C.’s Online Learning Renaissance
A November 2011 report on K-12 Online Learning, authored by Wayne State University’s Dr. Michael K. Barbour, lauded British Columbia for its innovative leadership in promoting and expanding online learning. Working in collaboration with the B.C. Teachers Federation, that province leads the way with some 88,000 of Canada’s 206,000 registered students, spread over 68 different distance education programs.

Setting the Early Learning Pace
An Early Childhood Education report, released in November and inspired by the late Dr. Fraser Mustard’s research, called for greatly expanded universal programs to give kids the best possible start in life. Quebec’s $7-a-day program earned that province top spot on a new Childhood Education Index, followed closely by P.E.I. on the strength of its new full-day kindergarten and fresh start initiatives.

Toronto’s Multiple Choice School Initiative
On Nov. 17, the Toronto District School Board trustees decided to move forward with the final stage in its Africentric school pathway, pledging to establish the first secondary school within the next two years. In addition, the TDSB also approved opening nine elementary alternative learning options, including two academies specializing in boys’ and girls’ leadership, three in sports, two in health and fitness, and two in vocal music.


Cyberbullying in Schools
The suicide of Mitchell Wilson of Pickering, Ont., an 11-year-old bullying victim suffering from muscular dystrophy, shone new light on the growing incidence of horrendous new forms of bullying. In Nova Scotia, Wayne MacKay, chair of a Cyberbullying Task Force, declared that he was “overwhelmed by the extent of the problem,” after receiving more than 5,000 online responses and meeting with 35 focus groups totalling 1,000 students from across the province.

Muslim Prayer in School Controversy
On July 8, 2011, the Toronto District School Board touched off a firestorm of controversy when it issued an official statement that the Muslim students attending Valley Park Middle School in North York had a “constitutional right” to pray during school hours. Although the school was 80 to 90 per cent Muslim and had been quietly allowing it on Friday afternoons for a year, it became the latest test case reopening a deeply divisive public issue.

Withering of Canada’s Education Monitoring Council
On Oct. 10, 2011, Dr. Paul Cappon released the final report of the Canadian Council on Learning (CCL) and raised serious questions about Canada’s drifting K to 12 education system. When CCL disappears in March 2012, an “enormous vacuum” will be left at the very centre of our national education leadership as we soldier on without any effective means for setting Canada-wide performance goals.

Firing of Elected School Boards
Nova Scotia Education Minister Ramona Jennex shocked everyone in late November 2011 by dismissing the entire elected South Shore school board, the third such action in five years. This time the minister faced a stiff public backlash when local parents rallied to protest the mass firing and to stop pending school closures. Earlier in the year, P.E.I.’s Doug Currie also wielded the axe, firing the entire Eastern P.E.I. School Board, again in the wake of prolonged school closure skirmishes.

Gazing into 2012, spotting the sun amid the gathering clouds requires concentration. Teachers will go into schools each day, as always, performing yeoman service without hearing enough in the way of appreciation. Without the CCL around, provincial education ministers will likely feed off their own glowing media releases, leaving us to muddle through in a more competitive international world. It would likely take an “Occupy the Schools” movement in rural and small town Canada to arrest the relentless process of “big box” consolidation gobbling up small community schools. Let’s hope that the tiresome “War Games” waged by the paid mouthpieces of the “key stakeholders” will subside, so we can focus first, last and always on what’s really best for students.

Why is the overall pattern so chequered? Without the Canadian Council on Learning, where can we look for independent, reasonably balanced assessments of public policy issues?  Will 2012 be the year that we rise to the global challenge, open the provincial windows, and start putting students first in education? 

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