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Archive for March, 2012

On March 22, 2012, Nova Scotia declared provincial war on cyberbullying and bullying in and around the schools. Education Minister Ramona Jennex released a meticulously detailed 100-page report, written by Halifax law professor Wayne MacKay and based upon a full year of study and public consultation.  With great fanfare, she used the opportunity to launch an initiative to curb “an insidious and serious problem facing not only schools but today’s society.” 

MacKay, a renowned constitutional law specialist, delivered a far-reaching report with 85 different recommendations, http://cyberbullying.novascotia.ca/covering the challenges of fostering community dialogue, defining the problem, closing the data collection gap, reforming human rights law, initiating preventive programs, the limits of deterrent discipline, and educating a diverse public in “digital literacy.”

The Cyberbulling Task Force report is entitled There’s No App for That, but, for all the public input, it reflects the outlook and perspectives of its principal author.  Professor MacKay is a strong proponent of “restorative justice” and one of Canada’s staunchest defenders of “inclusion policy” in schools. That explains why he flatly rejects “zero tolerance” approaches to curbing bullying and cyberbullying. It also explains why “anti-bullying” strategies  will now be grafted onto “inclusive education” programming and to be included in Faculty of Education teacher training degree programs.

“Cyberbullying adds a new dimension to bullying,” MacKay contends. ” Zero-tolerance policies, such as those attempted in the Toronto school boards in the 1990s, do not work.”

Even though over 85% of Canadians, in a recent opinion poll, favoured making cyberbullying a criminal offense, MacKay begs to differ. He recommends beefing-up provincial human rights codes and school board policies rather than going the criminal law route.  “In the courts, “ he said, it’s difficult to ‘prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.’”

MacKay was heavily influenced by Toronto lawyer Eric Roher’s research and a recent British Columbia test case where a school board was found negligent for failing “to exercise the duty to provide preventive education.”  http://www.ctf-fce.ca/Documents/Priorities/EN/cyberbullying/CyberFacebook.pdf  “School boards, “ he told Open File Halifax, “get excited when I talk about this.”  That’s what is behind his proposed amendments to the Education Act and regulations.

While MacKay’s report was greeted with celebratory responses, it will spark much debate over some of its more contentious recommendations. Banning cell phones and digital devices in classrooms, even on a short-term basis, proved to be “dead on arrival” with high school students.  Seventeen-year-old Allison Taylor of Sir John A. Macdonald High School, featured on the cover of the report, reacted swiftly, saying that banning them “simply won’t work.”  http://halifax.openfile.ca/halifax/text/cyberbullying-report-calls-p-12-pilot-ban-cell-phones-and-digital-divices

MacKay’s report does provide some shocking evidence of how widespread teen bullying is, in all its forms.  He cites Alberta teacher Bill Belsey’s figures from data gathered at http://www.bullying.org.  In December 2011, Bill testified before a Senate Committee that there are 252,000 cases of bullying per month in Canadian high schools. Doing some quick calculations, that would amount to some 6,000 incidents each month in a rather thinly populated province like Nova Scotia.

The report unmasks how unprepared Nova Scotia was to respond to cyberbullying in schools or anywhere else. His first six recommendations all speak to the urgent need to take –off the blinkers by identifying, documenting and addressing bullying as well as cyberbullying. For an Education Department looking to reduce paperwork, this will not necessarily be welcomed by teachers.

Hiring an Anti-Bullying Co-ordinator (ABC) and setting-up a new ABC Office is pro-active, but – whatever its intentions — adds another layer to the education bureaucracy.  If the focus is on prevention, it’s hard to see why so much of the report deals with identifying, documenting, reporting, and assessing complaints – and overseeing the new and extensive school board compliance requirements.

Nova Scotia’s Cyberbullying commissioner has identified “the insidious problem” and succeeds in clarifying that “cyberbullying is simply a new dimension of bullying.”  His report also makes a valiant effort, using the public education platform, to promote a “whole of government” approach to a serious societal problem.

What can be done in Canadian provincial education systems to curb the spread of cyberbullying?  Should a ban on cellphones and digital devices in the classroom be part of that strategy?  What are the limits of preventative education in schools?  In attempting to deter cyberbullying, are we creating another layer of legislation, regulations, and bureaucracy?  Most importantly, should the chronic perpetrators be subject to criminal action or treated to another round of restorative justice?

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Public education in all of Canada’s provinces, with the exception of Alberta, seems to be entering a new “Age of Austerity.” Education is front page news with headlines screaming some familiar lines: Budget Cuts! Teacher layoffs! Bigger classes!  With Education Cuts on the agenda and shrinking enrollments in many provinces, it’s not surprising that parents are worried about the impact on their children’s schools.  The current “Austerity Drive,” exemplified by Don Drummond’s Ontario report on Public Services (February 15, 2012), has also put the critical question of class size back on the public agenda and sparked intense debate, particularly  in Ontario, British Columbia, and Manitoba.

Former bank economist Don Drummond addressed the matter of Class Size and contended that class size reductions are costly and do not significantly improve student learning.  http://www.fin.gov.on.ca/en/reformcommission/chapters/ch6.html#ch6-f  As a key component of his Education Restructuring Plan, he urged Ontario to revisit the 2003 Class Size Reduction Initiative and to  increase class size without compromising student learning:

The critical passage from the report explains the reasons for that recommendation:

The [Ontario] government has emphasized the importance of smaller classes in promoting improved education outcomes. Since 2003, the government has maintained that smaller classes yield better results through greater teacher-student interaction. In its “2011 Progress Report,” the government said that “[s]tudents in smaller classes get more individual attention from teachers and other educators, helping improve literacy and numeracy and are more likely to succeed.” Indeed, Ontario’s recent improvements on provincial assessments and quality indicators have coincided with the government’s efforts to reduce class sizes.

“Empirical evidence of the benefit of smaller class sizes on education outcomes presents a more complicated picture. A review of Ontario’s primary class-size policy by the Canadian Education Association notes that class-size reductions typically yield at least modest quality improvements, but questions of “what size class is ‘small enough,’ how and why reducing class size works, and under what conditions it works, are all under-explained.” Research by the C.D. Howe Institute suggests that “no solid evidence exists to show that smaller classes improve student achievement in the later primary and secondary grades in Canada.”

“International evidence of the educational benefit of smaller class sizes offers similar conclusions. Studies have suggested that positive and negative impacts of class sizes were observed in the same proportion of classes (14 per cent each), while nearly 72 per cent of results showed no statistically significant impacts. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) has shown that “[a]mong systems with comparatively high levels of spending on education that prioritize small class size, performance patterns are mixed.” This evidence suggests that small class sizes are not a key determinant of educational outcomes, and certainly small class sizes alone are an insufficient measure to achieve these outcomes

“The debate over the impact of smaller class sizes continues to this day, with conflicting conclusions and no definite outcome. However, evidence suggests that, in terms of value for money, investments in lower class sizes do not provide the greatest possible benefit. The PISA finds that “raising teacher quality is a more effective route to improved student outcomes than creating smaller classes.” Similarly, the C.D. Howe Institute notes that resources devoted to class-size reduction could have a greater impact if reallocated elsewhere in the education system.

“While it is true that Ontario’s recent improvements on provincial assessments and quality indicators have coincided with the government’s efforts to reduce class sizes, there is no evidence of causality. Even if the reduction of class sizes had some impact on outcomes, the evidence suggests that investments in smaller classes do not offer the most efficient means of improving results in the education system.

“Given the lack of convincing empirical evidence to support a policy of reduced class sizes, the Commission believes that scarce resources should not be applied to this goal.”

The Drummond report’s call for larger school classes flatly rejected the Ontario Ministry of Education-financed research of Dr. Nina Bascia (Ontario Institute for Studies in Education) widely disseminated by the Canadian Education Association. http://www.cea-ace.ca/publication/reducing-class-size-what-do-we-know   Little wonder, because those studies all start with the assumption that “smaller class sizes are an intuitively good idea” and are primary based upon opinion research, drawn mainly from teacher surveys and samplings of parental perceptions. You will also find the OISE “Small is Good” research dutifully posted on the People for Education website.

Teacher unions are in the forefront in the defense of class size reductions. The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO), representing 78,000 teachers, continues to staunchly defend the OISE research, while recommending significant cuts to Ontario’s testing and accountability programs. http://www.etfo.ca/Publications/BriefstoGovernmentAgencies/Documents/SubmissionJan%202012.pdf   Manitoba Teachers’ Society president Paul Olson reacted strongly to Drummond’s report targetting his proposal to increase class sizes. “What does an Ontario economist know about class size?” he asked in a March 5, 2012  Opinion piece for the Winnipeg Free Presshttp://www.winnipegfreepress.com/opinion/westview/what-does-an-ontario-economist-know-about-class-size-141397833.html

Most of the education research in support of Small Class Size is decidedly mixed and Drummond’s analysis is reasonably sound.  Yvon Guillemette’s research report for the C.D. Howe Institute, released in August 2005, remains the most authoritative Canadian study. http://www.cdhowe.org/pdf/commentary_215.pdf   That report does tend to support the claim that reducing class sizes below 20 in Kindergarten and Grade 1 does make a difference for student achievement, but noting — that’s where it stops. “Many provinces are spending millions on class size reduction initiatives,” he concluded, “with no solid evidence that they raise student achievement. The money could better be spent elsewhere.”

Class size research in the United States simply confirms these findings. Education columnist Andrew J. Rotherham, the widely-respected c0-founder of Bellwether Education, claims ( Mar. 3, 2011, TIME.com) that “smaller isn’t always better when it comes to class size.”  Two Harvard NBER researchers, Will Dobbie and Roland Fryer,  have now analyzed 35 New York charter schools, allowing greater flexibility in terms of school structure and strategy., and confirmed that class size made little difference, compared with new performance criteria. “Frequent teacher feedback, the use of data to guide instruction, high-dosage tutoring, increased instructional time, and high expectations — explain approximately 50 percent of the variation in school effectiveness.”  http://nber.org/papers/w17632

Reducing school class sizes was once touted in most Canadian provinces as a kind of panacea, urged on by teacher unions.  After a decade or more of implementation, targeting the elementary grades, the independent research is now coming forward.  What is the real advantage of smaller class sizes — and who really benefits?  Where’s the sound research to support lower class sizes above Grade 1 or Grade 3 in Canadian schools? When it comes to class sizes and student performance, why is it that smaller is not always better?

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“It’s a hidden shame for far too many people,” says Paul MacNeil, Executive Director of the Bedford-Sackville Literacy Network (BSLN). http://www.chebucto.ns.ca/education/bsln/  “Adults with literacy challenges… tend to struggle on alone… and need a helping hand to get the educational upgrading they desperately need to make it in the world.”

MacNeil is a living example of those struggles. Born in Sydney, Cape Breton, he quit school, went to work at the SYSCO steel plant, and raised four children on short pay checks while being laid off by the company some 21 times.  In his late 30s, he used his EI to help finance an education, earning two university degrees.  Even then, he struggled to find regular work, that is, until discovering the crying needs in the adult education field.

Adult illiteracy remains largely a hidden problem, even in our larger cities. Since the 2003 International Adult and Life Skills Survey (IALSS), the brutal facts are well known. A shocking proportion of Canada’s adult population simply lack the essential skills required to cope in our 21st century “knowledge-based” economy. Two out of five adults operate at Level 1 (Poor) or Level 2 (Weak) levels in literacy and the numbers are higher for numeracy.  Whether observing factory workers struggling with instruction manuals or watching cashiers attempting to make change, the outward signs are everywhere.

Most of those afflicted with illiteracy are powerless to change their current circumstances without “essential skills” training. Many rural Canadians hide their shame and in Canada’s cities the casualt ies of our education system drift along, moving from job-to-job, marginalized in one of the world’s most advanced and affluent societies. It’s so serious that the biggest Canadian businesses, most notably, the TD Bank, have started to take notice.

“One of the biggest challenges we have in business,” TD Banks’s Chief Economist Craig Alexander recently declared in Halifax, “is awareness of the problem.” A few short years ago, he counted himself among those still in the dark.  “I was absolutely shocked,” he admitted, “when I looked at the actual figures for a supposedly advanced country like Canada. It stunned me that 4 in 10 young Canadians and 5 in 10 adults are lacking in literacy, and it’s higher  (6 out of 10) when it comes to numeracy.” http://www.td.com/document/PDF/economics/special/td-economics-special-literacy0907.pdf

What’s the root cause of our adult literacy challenges?  Provincial Euucation Departments and even publicly-funded literacy associations tend to dance around that issue. “The regular system is failing them, ” says Paul MacNeil, ” They are shunted along in school and they’re still coming out at the end unable to properly read or write. They’re self-esteem is shot… It’s a shame what we are doing to them.”  http://halifax.openfile.ca/halifax/text/hidden-shame-adult-illiteracy

“Our number one economic problem,” Alexander claimed, “is abysmal productivity – and a lack of innovation.”  A Statistics Canada survey, cited by Alexander, reported that lifting literacy scores by 1% could raise labour productivity by 2.5% and output per capita by 1.5%, boosting national income by $32 billion.

Literacy advocates in Nova Scotia are quick to pinpoint why the problem persists, even in cities like Halifax with five accredited universities and an illiteracy rate of 34 percent. The fight against adult illiteracy in Nova Scotia is largely entrusted to thirty poorly-funded Community Learning centres in the Literacy Nova Scotia Network. While the NS NDP government has tripled funding for short-term Workplace Training from $300,000 to $ 1 million over the past 2 years, the local volunteer-driven Literacy Network agencies are struggling to stay afloat.

Cathy Hammond, Secretary of the Bedford-Sackville Literacy Network, speaks with some authority on the subject. As the parent of four children, including one with severe learning challenges, she is gravely concerned about the current trend.  “Adult literacy funding,” she insists, “has changed… providing more of an employability focus than educational upgrading and it threatens to leave some adult learners without options.”

Over at the Dartmouth Learning Network, Sunday Miller put it more bluntly.  Government funding for adult learning, she told Chronicle Herald columnist Brenda MacDonald, is “a joke.”  http://thechronicleherald.ca/dcw/54795-adult-literacy-can-be-shortest-path-educated-society

“There’s not enough money being put toward adult learning,” Miller insists. “I don’t believe in a free ride…but when people want to start to change their lives, and they hit roadblock after roadblock after roadblock and get doors slammed in their faces, then there’s something wrong with the system.”  In short, providing short-term workplace training does not really get to the root of the chronic problem.

Adult illiteracy is still a sleeper as a major Canadian education policy issue, perhaps because it focuses on the products of the K-12 public school system. Why is adult literacy considered to be an afterthought?  Who will step-up and tackle the problem head-on in Canada, now that the TD Bank has put it back on the public agenda?  What are the political obstacles and structural barriers to addressing Canada’s “hidden shame”?

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