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Archive for April, 2012

“Mr. D “ (aka Mr. Gerry Duncan) may look like just another zany caricature of a real life teacher. http://www.facebook.com/CBCMrD  Watching the popular CBC-TV sitcom, it’s hilarious to see him struggling to keep one page ahead of the students in the textbook and relying on tricks to bluff his way through another day.  Yet that under-qualified and , at times bumbling, teacher depicted in the show is more common than publicly acknowledged in Canada’s junior and senior high schools.

The CBC-TV sitcom, Mr. D, starring actor Gerry Dee and filmed last summer at Halifax’s Citadel High School, is marketed as a comedic take on a rather dopey, totally ‘uncool’  junior high school Social Studies teacher. http://thechronicleherald.ca/artslife/49955-gerry-dee-turns-teaching-antics-sitcom   It’s loosely based upon the actor’s ten years of teaching, mostly gym class, at Toronto’s De La Salle College, and that gives the show an unmistakable ring of authenticity.  After attracting 1.23 million viewers in its first week, it drew audiences of 630,000 or so on a regular basis in its first season.

Interviewed in January 2012 on the Late Night with George Stromboulopoulis, Gerry Dee let the cat out-of-the bag.  http://www.cbc.ca/strombo/videos.html?id=2184159076  He was, in fact, quite a bluffer as a teacher, and very much like the character he plays.  When asked how common that was in today’s schools, he replied “There’s a lot of truth to it, unfortunately.”

There are far more “Mr. Ds” inhabiting  junior and senior high than is ever publicly in Canadian and American schools. Virtually everyone knows a “Mr. D” and many have experienced an excruciatingly long year as a captive audience for such teachers.

Far too many teachers are out of their depth teaching in the higher grades.  The problem of “out-of-field” teaching is a long-standing and seemingly chronic one.  Back in September 2003, an American research study, produced by the University of Pennsylvania’s Richard M. Ingersoll identified “the failure” to staff classrooms with “qualified teachers” as “one of the most important problems in American education.” That study accurately forecast that the problem of underqualified teachers in Grades 7-17 core subjects would constitute a major obstacle to achieving No Child Left Behind student performance goals. http://depts.washington.edu/ctpmail/PDFs/LimitsPolicy-RI-09-2003.pdf

Teachers in Canada are, for the most part, far better educated and prepared than is the case in the United States.  In Canada’s provincial school systems, the whole issue takes on a different dimension and likely stems from different sources. In the case of Nova Scotia, where Mr. D is actually filmed the problem was flagged over a decade ago.  Before 2004-05, an alarmingly high number of Nova Scotia teachers were “teaching out of field.” Since then, the misalignment between subject specialty and teaching assignments generated much angst in the Teacher Certification Branch, but little in the way of sustained corrective action. http://www.ednet.ns.ca/pdfdocs/reports/AuditofTeachingAssignments_en.pdf

Mr. Gerry Duncan is not unusual at all when it comes to his subject background and teaching credentials.  In the Halifax Regional School Board, some 57% of the Junior High Math courses in October 2007 ( i.e., the most recent data) were taught by teachers without a related background, and the comparable figures were 42% for English, and 39% for Science.  It’s far worse in a few other Nova Scotia school boards and most acute in rural school districts.

In Mr. D’s fictional “Xavier Academy,” art does imitate real life. http://www.cbc.ca/mrd/#visit-the=xavier-gazette&to-read=issue-101   Only 6% of junior high Social Studies courses in Nova Scotia are actually taught by “Mr. Ds” with little or no background in their teaching subject, but many secondary school History courses are assigned to non-specialists.  As in the sitcom, Physical Education was and still is one of the few subjects actually taught by subject specialists.

The problem is not one that extends down into the early grades, except perhaps in the case of Mathematics and French where it is widespread. It is caused, in large part, by local hiring policies and practices which favour teacher pedagogy over subject mastery – and tend to devalue educators committed to teaching sound subject matter.   http://www.societyforqualityeducation.org/index.php/blog/read/out-of-field-teaching-assignments/

The CBC-TV show “Mr D” somewhat accidentally rips the lid off a long concealed issue – the quality of teaching in junior and senior high schools. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eJ_T6J_ZcQw&feature=related    That may explain why the Nova Scotia government’s Kids & Learning First reform agenda contains a commitment to “improve the match between what teachers are asked to teach and their training, background, or experience” and “ ensure that training leading to teacher certification upgrades is based on the needs of the classroom.” . http://novascotia.ca/kidsandlearning/pub/KL-en.pdf

A rather off-beat CBC-TV sitcom may be guilty of exaggerating the extent of the problem, but it may also shine a little public light on a well-kept secret and help nudge education authorities further in the direction of corrective action.

Do you know any “Mr. D’s” faking their mastery of subject content in our schools?  Do School Systems vary in the extent of out-of-field teaching? Why is it such a widespread and chronic problem?  And what can be done to turn the situation around in our junior and senior high classrooms?   

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Building inclusive schools has been a high priority for Canada’s provincial school systems for the past two decades.  It is now generally agreed that public schools should embrace an overall philosophy of inclusion which supports the right of all children to the best possible education.  “Full inclusion” — the idea that all children, including those with severe disabilities, can and should learn in a regular classroom has also taken root in many school systems, and most notably in the province of New Brunswick.  Since the 2006 adoption of  Halifax law professor Wayne MacKay’s report on Inclusive Education, New Brunswick has aggressively pursued the “everyone must be educated in the mainstream classroom” model of inclusive education.  http://www.gnb.ca/0000/publications/mackay/mackay-e.asp

A full Provincial Review of Inclusive Education is now underway in New Brunswick, co-headed by Dr. Gordon L. Porter, a leading Canadian advocate and consultant on inclusive education.  Five years after its official adoption, the review is definitely being undertaken by a commission stocked with  “friendlies.”  While awaiting its release, a few critical questions need to be asked:  Will the Provincial Review actually examine whether “mainstreaming” is “the most enabling environment” for all special needs children?   Will the Review yield longitudinal, validated research demonstrating the superiority of “full inclusion” for students with with all types of learning disabilities?  And how are students with “complex and severe needs” actually faring under the current system?

Dr. Porter’s recent commentary, featured on the Canadian Education Association Blog, suggest that none of those questions will be squarely addressed in the forthcoming review.  http://www.cea-ace.ca/blog/gordon-porter/2011/12/3/are-we-star-gazing-can-canadian-schools-really-be-equitable-and-inclusi   For an education consultant with such a mandate, he sounds more than a little biased in favour of “full inclusion” for everyone.  His main preoccupation, in his own words, is advancing his 30-year struggle for “”equity and quality” in “an inclusive education system.”  He expresses deep disappointment over the ‘back-sliding’ over “the last ten years.”  Some of our largest Canadian school districts, Porter notes, “are not only maintaining the number of students in self-contained special education, they are actually increasing it.”

The New Brunswick review is firmly in the hands of the so-called extreme inclusionists.  Professor MacKay and Gordon Porter are not only the leading proponents, but they have friends in high places.  As head of the NB Human Rights Commission, Porter successfully enshrined inclusion in the provincial code.  He was a key member of the Transition Team when David Alward and the Conservatives came to power, and Krista Carr, Executive Director of the NB Association for Community Living, is the the spouse of Jody Carr, currently the Minister of Education.  The NBACL is, without a doubt, the most zealous organization promoting full inclusion for all kids.

Full inclusionists tend to be deeply committed to defending “human rights” but rather inclined to dismiss  research and evidence contradicting their perceptions.  The Learning Disabilities Association of Canada (LDAC) and one of its founders Yude M. Henteleff continue to claim that the “fully inclusive classroom” is “only one of the right ways to meet the best interest of the special needs child.”

A November 2005 LDAC policy on Educational Inclusion confirmed their support for “the availability of a continuum of education services” from regular mainstreamed classes to “a small class setting” and  ” an even more intensive program such as those offered by a special school.”  http://www.ldanl.org/ldanl/pdf/LDACPolicyStatement-Inclusion.pdf    More recently, an independent review of best practices research  in Learning Disabilities Education, conducted by Dr. Anne Price of the Calgary Learning Centre in 2009 for Nova Scotia Education , confirmed the wisdom of a more flexible approach offering a variety of service options suited to the needs of the child. http://www.studentservices.ednet.ns.ca/sites/default/files/Tuition_Support_Program_Review_2009.pdf

Full inclusion continues to be controversial as a “one-size-fits-all” special education policy, even in New Brunswick.  For the past decade, Fredericton lawyer Harold L. Doherty, has fought a determined fight for his son, Conor, and hundreds of other parents of kids and teens with Autism Spectrum Disorder.  His Blog, Facing Autism in New Brunswick, < http://autisminnb.blogspot.ca/&gt; gives voice to the voiceless and serves as an incredible source of information on the limits of New Brunswick policy and makes a compelling case for a change in policy direction. After years of advocacy, Harold secured a “self-contained class” in Leo Hayes High School for his own son, but he’s continuing the struggle on behalf of  autistic children,  youth and young adults.  http://www.theaq.net/2011/what-resources-are-available-when-youre-growing-up-with-autism/-5325

The New Brunswick government, like a few other provincial authorities, is now wrestling with the challenges of educating students with “complex special needs” and “youth-at-risk.”  A visionary 2008 report, Connecting the Dots, by former Youth Advocate Bernard Richard, pointed that province in a better direction. His recommendation for a Centre for Excellence garnered most of the attention, but his report also made a strong plea for “children with complex needs who are no longer in the mainstream” and called for the creation of a new education authority to support children  “marginalized” in the New Brunswick system.   http://www.gnb.ca/0073/PDF/ConnectingtheDots-e.pdf

Why do Canadian education ministries have so much trouble “connecting the dots” in the field of special education services?  In the case of New Brunswick, has “full inclusion” become such a powerful ideology that students with “complex needs” who do not fit-in get left by the wayside?  Why are the advocates so reluctant to survey teachers and parents with a simple, clear set of questions — is it working for everyone?  If not, what would work better for the kids who need learning support the most?

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