Archive for February, 2012

School Choice and Equity was recently recognized by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) as a critical public policy issue throughout the educational world.  An OECD study with that title published by Pauline Musset on 24 January 2012 surveyed and assessed the range and variety of school choice in 34 different countries. While Canada was among the countries included, much of the Canadian data was incomplete, rendering any definitive evaluation of where we stand virtually impossible. Not only that, but the detailed bibliography contained no academic research whatsoever emanating from Canada.   http://www.oecd.org/officialdocuments/publicdisplaydocumentpdf/?cote=EDU/WKP%282012%293&docLanguage=En

The Toronto Globe and Mail’s Erin Anderssen followed up on February 17, 2012 with a feature story, “Inequitable Schooling,” purporting to be responding to the OECD study, School Choice and Equity. Departing from Musset’s OECD paper, Anderssen focused almost entirely on one particular aspect — the potential impact of parental choice on “equality” within the educational system. http://m.theglobeandmail.com/life/parenting/education/school/why-inequality-is-growing-in-public-schools/article2341085/?service=mobile

Faced with incomplete data, the Globe writer, left to her own devices, cobbled together interviews from educators, parents and education school professors. In many ways, the piece missed the entire point of the OECD study and simply reinforced conventional educational thinking here in Canada. In what amounted to a Freudian slip, the OECD study was even misidentified as a report on “School Choice and Equality.”

Why take issue with The Globe and Mail ‘s Family and Relationships section story? For one simple reason: It completely ignores the OECD study’s most significant findings and the compelling case it presents for extending school choice to improve both student performance and social equity.  Nor does the piece ask the most fundamental question of all – why Canada stands out as one of the few countries not actively introducing school choice within the publicly-funded system.

The facts presented in the OECD report would be startling to most Canadians with children in the school system.  Over the past 25 years, over two-thirds of the OECD countries have increased “school choice opportunities for parents.”  Choice programs, Musset notes, “can be perceived as leading to a general improvement in the quality of education, and fostering efficiency and innovation.”  She also recognizes that school choice can “exacerbate inequities” if it is not introduced in a careful fashion seeking to balance “parental right to choose with the social imperative of equity.”

The OECD report, unlike Anderssen’s article, reaffirms the right and desire of most parents to choose a school.  It assesses the availablity of choice across the range of OECD countries, albeit with fragmentary evidence from Canada.  Countries offering the greatest school choice, according an OECD principals survey, are Australia, Japan, the Slovak Republic, and Belgium, and not the United States.

On average across OECD countries, 85% of students are enrolled in public education. Sixteen of the 33 countries (48.5%) have 10% or more of their students enrolled in either government-dependent or government-independent private schools. Five countries have adopted fee zones for attendance, eliminating districting by school planners: The Netherlands, New Zealand, Chile, Italy, and Belgium.  Most significantly, the OECD reports that private schools clearly outperform public schools in only three countries: Slovenia, Canada, and Ireland.

School choice, according to the report, “has become prevalent across OECD countries, and is increasing.”   While  United States school choice policy initiatives garner much public debate, the OECD study highlights different models, most notably Sweden’s voucher system.  Since 1992, Sweden — unlike Finland — has had a universal voucher system where grants follow the child and a voucher can be used to pay tuition in a private, independent, non-denominational school.  In this social democracy, all places are open to sudents on a “first come, first served” basis and private schools cannot charge more than the per pupil grant for tuition. Both The Netherlands and Chile also have universal progressive voucher systems.

Targeted school choice programs are more common in the United States. In states like Wisconsin and Ohio, school choice initiatives were tailored specifically for students from disadvantaged families. The initial Milwaukee voucher program, started in 1990, was strictly limited to serving lower income families, whereas Ohio’s state-wide educational choice scholarship program, introduced in 2006 and limited to students in “failing schools” , expanded to serve 34 school districts and 213 schools by 2008. Outside of Alberta, few Canadian school boards, except for Ontario’s largest, the Toronto District School Board and one or two others, have dared to hint at moving in this direction.

The OECD study did not, as The Globe story implies, obsess over the potential inequalities resulting from giving parents freedom of choice in education. It was identified as a possible consequence, but the report also recognized the “imperfections” associated with “a single provider system.”  The OECD actually reached the opposite conclusion. “A careful design of school choice schemes,” Musset asserted,  “can allow (education authorities/ districts) to combine parental freedom, enhanced opportunities for disadvantaged children and equity.”(p. 43)

Public discussion of school choice in Canada remains at a very primitive level. Since the mid-1990s, the Society for Quality Education has performed yeoman service championing the caise of parental choice in the face of a rather intransigent public education system.  A recent move by the York Region District School Board to eliminate the Arts@Baythorn program has backfired badly on defenders of the one-size-fits-all public education system.  It has succeeded in arousing parents seeking arts enrichment English programs in an otherwise “choice-less” school district.  http://www.yrdsb.edu.on.ca/pdfs/a/agenda/ms/sc120124/yrdsb-sc120124-p1-20.pdf

Defenders of the single provider education system are marshalling their forces with the support of the usual band of OISE education professors. A recent TVO  program The Agenda, hosted by Steve Paikin, gave Annie Kidder of People for Education so much airtime that everyone was left confused  about the real issues at stake. Her posts on P4E’s Blog reveal a particular fondness for social solidarity based upon a vague notion of “common school” experience.  http://schools-at-the-centre.ning.com/forum/topics/choice-specialty-schools-and

All is not lost. Most encouraging has been the rise of a School Choice movement centred in York Region, north of Toronto.  http://yorkregionwantschoice.org/ ” School doesn’t have to be boring,” York Region advocates say. ” If it’s the right school for the right kid, it can be a wonderful, stimulating experience. Many kids can find this social and educational success at their home school. But not all…. If you feel that the children, the rate-payers, and the communities of York Region are no less deserving of educational choice and opportunity than people in the Catholic board, the Toronto board, the Peel board, or the many others, it’s time to raise your voice. Because after April 4, these opportunities for our children could be lost forever.”

School choice is on the horizon and Canadian educational authorities, except possibly for those in Alberta and Metropolitan Toronto, are still in denial.  Why is Canada now an outlier among the leading OECD countries?  Why is school choice essentially absent from the research agenda at OISE and other faculties of education?  What is standing in the way of a wide-open public debate over the current “single provider” system and the policy option of allowing parents the freedom to choose their children’s schools?

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The line  is so familiar that it practically rings in my ears: “I’m a teacher and we are not allowed to have opinions.”  Over the past couple of years, bumping into regular teachers while walking down the street,  signing books at Chapters Bookstore, or standing in a check-out line, I hear that same refrain.  Our K-12 provincial school systems all purport to encourage students to ask higher-order questions, to act creatively (out of the box), and, at times, to think critically.  Why – I wonder — does that not extend to their teachers ?

CBC Radio’s Maritime Magazine series, “Mind the Gap,” hosted by Pauline Dakin, was one recent attempt to discover what teachers really think about the state of the Canadian public education system. A January 29, 2012 segment entitled “Teachers Edition”  provided a rare glimpse into the real, unvarnished opinions of two rather brave Nova Scotia teachers.  The show followed two previous segments, including one featuring top education bureaucrats Carole Olsen (Halifax Regional School Board) and Karen Branscombe (Moncton School District).    http://www.cbc.ca/maritimemagazine/mind-the-gap/2012/01/27/mind-the-gap—teachers-edition/

One of the two teachers, Margaret Coady, a 31-year veteran teaching at Bayview Education Centre, Port Hood, NS,  broke with convention.  When asked to respond to the Chief Superintendents’ session on “Closing the Gap” in student learning, Marg did not mince any words: “Real teachers do not have time for such verbiage.”

Over the next half-hour, Marg Coady and another forthright teacher from the Halifax Regional Board opened-up and began “talking out of school.”   Both teachers confirmed that a serious gap exists between the policy-makers and classroom teachers. New teachers, they reported, feel tremendous pressure to “push them all through and to meet the outcomes.”  Their sage advice: close the door, forget the mandates and “trust yourself as an educator.”

Cutting through the usual “EduSpeak,” Marg Coady offered a few priceless gems: “There’s so much to cover that it’s become watered down.”  “We see a lot of social advancement.” “There is not an inclination to see that children complete their homework.”  “The one-size-fits-all approach won’t work because all kids are different.”  “What I’d like to see is more autonomy(for teachers) in the classroom.”  “We need honest assessments (of how we are performing).”

What can be done to fix the situation?  Believe it or not, Marg was courageous enough to actually answer the question. “We have to erase the degrees of separation between parents, boards, unions, and students.” “Teachers live in hermetically-sealed (environments). Sometimes I feel that they do not even know who is minding the store.”

Such honesty, openness, and candour are all-too-rare in the surprisingly closed world of Canadian public education. Our provincial and territorial K-12 school systems have an estimated 360,000 teachers (2005), certified by faculties of education and entrusted with the education of our nation’s children. Among this class of professionals, it might be reasonable to expect hearing a multitude of different voices on the most critical issues in education.

Stepping outside the box is not without its risks. Most school boards remain very hierarchical and climbing up the ladder, from probationary teacher to principal to superintendent too often means mastering the “edubabble,” looking the other way, and giving up your opinions.  Careerists know that the surest way of plateauing is by speaking your mind outside of the staff room.  Voicing views counter to the teachers’ union is career-ending for most teachers. Over three decades, I can cite dozens of personal examples, many of whom ended-up being outstanding teachers in independent schools.

Sincere, well-intentioned public school educators like Toronto’s Stephen Hurley are to be commended for trying to open a few doors and cross the Hadrian’s Wall of education. His Blog, Teaching Out Loud, is a bright spot on the horizon and Stephen actually talks to education reformers of a different stripe. After 27 years in education, he’s becoming more conscious of the “degrees of separation” and is venturing outside the “echo chamber.”   http://teachingoutloud.org/

Today, while preparing this post, Stephen Hurley’s latest offering appeared and I experienced a kind of epiphany – We were both addressing the same issue, each safely ensconced in our own educational silos. Each of us was reaching across the divide, attempting to incite a little cross-boundary discussion of educational matters.  On his Blog, Teaching Out Loud, he not only acknowledged the existence of the Society for Quality Education, he conceded that jumping into the”shark infested waters” of the SQE Blog might have had some beneficial effects. That’s a start!  Perhaps more voyeuristic, risk-taking educators will follow.

Talking across the divide is absolutely critical to finding solutions to the challenges facing 21st century public education. Looking southward, we can see a tragic example of an “Education War” where the combatants have a take-no-prisoners philosophy to the detriment of students, families, and schools.  Having said that, the policy divide here is significant and we have a tendency to simply paper over the cracks and to pretend that a broad public consensus favours the golden mean or the status quo.

The terms of engagement are critical to pursuing a rapproachement Peter Brimelow’s 2003 book, The Worm in the Apple, might be a good place to start because he actually addresses this issue, pointing out that the core interests of teachers and unions can be radically different than those of parents and students. http://www.harpercollins.com/browseinside/index.aspx?isbn13=9780060096625

When the ice is broken, that discussion will have to tackle the major conundrum that tends to derail such diplomatic initiatives. Simply pouring more money into the system without any checks-and-balances is a non-starter.  Getting down to brass tacks will lead us inevitably to a serious discussion of five fundamental matters: the role of achievement testing in assuring quality; giving parents more freedom in choosing schools; reforming salary scales to recognize meritorious teaching; removing principals (and superintendents) from the teachers’ union; and recognizing teaching as an essential service with free collective bargaining leading to arbitration or “final offer selection”  Getting to Yes will involve a little positional bargaining and actually confronting the familiar stumbling blocks. http://www.aims.ca/site/media/aims/TakeBack.pdf

Why are the vast  majority of Canadian teachers so reluctant to speak out of school ? What explains the “group think” afflicting the official voices of public education?  What has happened to muffle or silence dissenting voices?  Most importantly, how can we seize the opportunity afforded by recent overtures?

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