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Archive for September, 2012

Seeing Maggie Gyllenhaal as a fiery young mother standing up for the kids in Won’t Back Down will be a shocker for many parents active in their local schools across Canada.  Joining up with a passionate teacher, played by Viola Davis, to ‘Take Back the Schools’ would be a stretch of the imagination. While “parent power” is bubbling up in California and six other American states, active parents and school advisory groups in Canada’s provincial systems are either glorified “PTAs” or Parent Councils suffering from a “power outage.”

The feature film Won’t Back Down is being dismissed by prominent movie critics as a Hollywood melodrama with a strident, patently obvious message. The Globe and Mail’s fine critic, Liam Lacey, to his credit, recognized that it was far more than another Hollywood confection.  One of America’s leading education policy wonks, Andrew J. Rotherham, writing in TIME Magazine, weighed in with a column entitled “Why the Education Movie Matters.”   Bring out the popcorn — and take out a Kleenex –Parent Power has now gone mainstream.

With Don’t Back Down hitting the movie theatres, the time is ripe for a look at the state of parent activism and involvement in Canada’s provincial school systems.  And, by sheer coincidence, the film’s release coincided with the appearance of the latest report on the health of School Advisory Councils, the 2012 People for Education review of Ontario’s School Councils. Each year, for the past 15 years, P4E has been issuing such reports, all pointing at the same deficiency — local Parent Councils revert back to fundraising when they are afforded little opportunity to do much of anything else.

Active parents supportive of their local public school are prime candidates for School Advisory Councils, especially in school districts where the Home and School Association is either weak or non-existent. Concerned parents with “agendas” are considered dangerous and discouraged from applying for such positions on School Councils normally guided or dominated by the principal or a trusted senior teacher.  Such parent councils, created originally to promote parent involvement in policy matters, normally end up doing nothing of the sort and back organizing fundraising bake sales or, in Nova Scotia, hosting ice cream socials.

Parent Advisory Councils have proven very effective in keeping a core of parents in the inner circle, shielding principals from “parent power” types, and generating extra funds for school supplies.  Where Home and School Association groups exist, principals generally favour the group that is the most inclined toward fundraising and the most politically intert of the two groups.

What’s really going on inside the schools?  The Ontario case is the best documented example. Some 80 to 84% of  over 720 school councils surveyed from 68 different Ontario school boards now do fundraising and spend over 70% of their time either raising money or organizing school events.  They spend, on average, about 10% of their time working on School Improvement Plans, discussing educational standards, and ensuring local public accountability.  Fewer than a dozen parents are actually involved on the Parent Council in the vast majority of public schools.

Since the abolition of the Ontario School Council in 2003-4, local school councils have fallen under the influence of the publicly-funded lobby group, People for Education.  A Parent Voice in Education report in March 2005 completed the evisceration of any semblance of Parent Power in Ontario schools.  Today “student learning” is the stated priority, but P4E under Annie Kidder is best known for promoting education spending and gutting Ontario’s testing and accountability programs. Most principals, for their part, resist parent involvement in curriculum and teaching, so discussion of “student learning” is very limited and constrained.

Parent Advisory Councils have, for the most part, served to muffle parent dissent and to channel active parents into school support activities. In the case of Ontario,   “partnering” is definitely in and rocking the boat is decidedly out in the teacher-friendly world of People for Education. Looking across the country, school advisory groups are all over the map and remain, for some reason, under the de-facto umbrella of provincial Home and School Associations. Provincial school council organizations only exist in Manitoba, British Columbia , and Alberta.

Some provincial Education Departments go to great lengths to ensure that School Councils remain strictly “advisory” in law and in practice. Nova Scotia’s School Advisory Councils, under the Education Act (Section 22), play a very limited role described as “advises the principal on behalf of the school community, especially parents.”  Two decades after their creation, some of the province’s 420 public schools still do not have functioning “school advisory councils.”

Parent involvement in Nova Scotia is a carefully managed domain.  The “ground rules” established in March 2010 by the Nova Scotia Teachers Union make it clear that parents are expected to “contribute to the academic success of their children.” In many Halifax Regional School Board schools, SAC’s may exist, but so do Home and School groups, and the members of the SAC’s are not posted on public websites and accessible only through the school principals.

Parent in-service programs run by the Nova Scotia Federation of Home and School Associations accept and reinforce the “School Code of Conduct” setting out “duties” for parents that sound like those intended for a primary class. Raising your voice or being unpleasant on school grounds is “specifically forbidden” in that Code.  All legitimate school reform groups with “political agendas” like Students First Nova Scotia , Save Community Schools, and Choice Words operate outside the lines and continue to be effectively marginalized by the core interests that control the system.

Will the feature film Won’t Back Down get a fair hearing and perhaps ring a few alarm bells here in Canada?  Will concerned parents begin asking why School Advisory Councils are so weak and are inclined to attract parents best described as ” teachers pets”?  How can public education lobby groups like People for Education get away with the duplicity of neutering parent councils, then fretting about why they still busy themselves with “bake sales’?  Most importantly, how long will the Parent Power outage continue in K-12 Canadian education?

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School design architect Prakesh Nair is a crusader for 21st century schools who believes that “the classroom has been obsolete for several decades.” In a July 2011 Education Week commentary, the visionary leader of Fielding Nair International  claimed that the classroom was “the most visible symbol of a failed system” — an archaic system of  “classroom-based schools.”  “The classroom is obsolete, ” he added, and that’s a problem because it was now “established science.”

Nair’s visionary speeches, writings, and designs provoke an immediate reaction in the real educational world. Concerned parents and teachers invariably raise their hand or take to an education blog exclaiming : “But the open classroom experiment of the ’70s was a dismal failure.”  It does raise a fundamental question, one recently posed by The Globe and Mail’s Kate Hammer – ” If open concept was a flop, why are we going back?”

Futurists like Nair are resurrecting the Open Concept School and presenting that model of school design as the key to re-engineering schools for 21st century learning, preparing students for the Digital Workplace. His firm, based in Minneapolis, MN, has designed 400 schools in 36 different countries, and is now establishing a beachhead in Western Canada.  Nair and his partner Randy Fielding have completely sold the Regina Public Schools on the idea and are building one in Vancouver, Lord Kitchener Elementary School.

The new Open Concept Schools touted by Fielding Nair International are based explicitly upon “education design principles for tomorrow’s schools.”  Classroom-based schools are considered a “relic” of the Industrial Revolution, and they are seeking to re-invent schools to promote critical thinking, collaboration, and flexibility among students. The first six of the dozen underlying principles reaffirm the return of “progressive education” ideas in a new guise: “1) personalized; 2) safe and secure, 3) inquiry-based, 4) student-centered, 5) collaborative, and 6) interdisciplinary. ”  Grafted onto the list are: “7) rigorous and hands-on, 8) embodying a culture of excellence and high expectations, 9) environmentally conscious, 10) connected to the community, 11) globally networked, and 12) setting the stage for lifelong learning.”

The Fielding Nair schools, and others of similar design, are visually impressive, but largely based upon contemporary design theory rather than school-based research. One of Canada’s few school design academics, Dr. Neil Gislason, author of Building Innovation, is skeptical about the firm’s claims and the likelihood of ready teacher acceptance.  He finds the new design environments, like the old Open Concept model, to be too susceptible to exterior noise, distractions, and disciplinary interruptions.  Today, with the higher proportion of “special needs” children, he sees great potential for distractions.

School design architects like Nair are inclined to base their designs upon the “form follows function” principle. Perhaps that is why, whatever the intention, the new designs tend to conform with so-called “progressive” learning theories and to undervalue the need for more contained learning spaces better suited to direct instruction and knowledge-based pedagogy.  They also completely ignore or are oblivious to the many studies documenting the decline and fall of “open concept” schools and classrooms from 1968 until 1979.

Open area school design is making a comeback, in spite of the evidence that it failed miserably three decades ago. Most of the initial research on open area learning was driven by its proponents and it virtually evaporated in the late 1970s when teachers and parents intervened to undo the damage inflicted by such “experiments” with open, largely unsupervised or regulated  “learning spaces.”

What happened to  restore order to those chaotic and “learn at your own pace” classroom environments?  Regular classroom teachers, supported by parents, asserted their autonomy and showed remarkable ingenuity in fashioning “purposeful learning environments” out of the seeming chaos.

One British Columbia teacher, M. Costa, has described the response in the trenches of teaching.  Writing in Educational Insights (March 2004), Costa artfully described the “teacher adaptations” rendering open area schools suitable for teaching students much more effectively. “The lack of walls and the absence of barriers,” he wrote,  proved unbearable in many schools as “noise” was “amplified through sheer aggregation.”  Voices, moving desks, cabinet doors opening, footsteps, pencil sharpening, PA announcements, cries, shouts, and laughter made it next-to-impossible for students or teachers to concentrate on their lessons.  Teachers responded instinctively, creating partitions, hiving-off quiet areas, and successfully lobbying for the return of self-contained classrooms.

Curricular programs that demand effective teaching, quiet reflection, and analysis will never go out of fashion, especially with today’s parents. Special needs children also thrive in quiet, safe, and secure learning environments free from student traffic, noise, and distractions. Taken together, academically able students and “special needs” kids represent a significant proportion of today’s students and they will continue to thrive better in smaller, contained classrooms where the focus is on learning not fraternizing with your peers.

Why are Classroom-Based Schools under attack, again, in public education? Will the “Learning Suite” design models ever supplant the traditional classroom, especially in Canadian high schools? Why in the world are regular classroom teachers rarely consulted in the initial design of today’s schools?  Why do school design architects like Fielding and Nair simply ignore the lessons of the past?

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“Taking back the schools” is a growing battle cry in America and it has now attracted the attention of Hollywood. In late September 2012, the feature film Won’t Back Down will hit North American movie theatres and stir further school reform activity. The much anticipated movie, featuring frustrated parents seeking to transform a “failing school” in Pittsburgh, PA, is a Norma Rae for the 21st century.  Produced by Walden Media, as a powerful sequel to Waiting for Superman (2010), the new drama film stars Maggie Gyllenhaal as a concerned  parent and Academy Award nominee Viola Davis as a teacher working together to marshall community support for a petition to restructure and turn around a low performing school.

   The film is already attracting widespread public attention and considerable critical fire from inside the school system. A Hollywood epic issuing a call to “Stand Up. Speak Out. Fight for Something Better” is sure to spark more “take back the schools” eruptions and might even fire-up parent activists with the film’s promotional cry of “Let’s Make our Schools Better!”  That’s heady stuff for passionate American school reformers, but will it resonate with Canadian parents harbouring similar concerns about their own local schools and wondering who actually drives and controls the publicly-funded school system?

Educational happiness is difficult to gauge and rarely measured in an objective fashion. Annual parent satisfaction surveys conducted by Dr. David Livingston at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education have become something of a joke inside and outside the Ontario public education world.  That is why the recent Ipsos Reid poll, released September 6, 2012, was so stunning for parents and educators. An overwhelming majority of Canadians (86%) now express concern about public elementary school children’s performance in Reading, Writing and Mathematics. Furthermore, three-quarters of those surveyed (75%) agree that “standardized testing” is “a good way” to measure and compare students’ performance against other provinces and countries.

Public concern about the state of K-12 public education, judging from the Epsos Reid survey, have rarely been higher.  Since the mid-1990s, provincial testing and accountability programs have dampened down parental concerns and sent out signals that Education Ministries and school boards were capable of listening and appropriating the language of “improving student learning.”  In major school boards like the Halifax Regional School Board, the public mantra has been “Every Child can Learn and Every School Can Improve.”  It has, however, mostly been top-down, system-wide accountability meant to raise “the water levels” for all schools within a provincial or regional system.

School choice and charter schools are demonstrating to American parents and families that schooling can be better and far more responsive to the needs of students and the real concerns of today’s parents.  While the American education system is in an absolute mess, public charters and independent “start-ups” are meeting a growing demand for quality education, particularly in poorer communities.   Over the past few years, parent trigger laws have popped-up in states and school districts and opened the door to some radical strategies for fixing struggling schools. Parent-trigger laws—now in California and  three other states—are even getting their “red carpet moment” at recent film showings of Won’t Back Down at both the Republican and Democratic conventions.

The CEO of Anschutz Film Group, David Weil, finds the irrational responses of Randi Weingarten to be completely over-the-top. He told Education Week that the film  story is not tied to “any one law or event,” and that the film depicts a number of parents and teacherscollaborating in making changes to a school, not doing battle. Several key characters, he said, “are teachers and are central heroes to the story.”

“We believe that teachers are the unsung heroes of our society and they represent our hope for the future as a nation,” Weil said. “When audiences screen the film in its entirety, they’ll find that the film tells the story of a school where the majority of the teachers are engaged and working to find solutions to the challenges they face in the system.” Weil cautioned against judging “Won’t Back Down” by its trailer. “Would you judge a book by its cover?” he said. While the preview “depicts some of the storylines and issues that are featured in the film,” he said, it is not meant to “summarize the plot.”

How happy are Canadian parents with their provincial school systems and local public schools?  Was the recent Ipsos Reid poll an accurate reflection of deep concerns over the teaching of Reading, Writing, and Math in public elementary schools?  Will the American film Won’t Back Down get a fair hearing in Canada or be dismissed in a fashion similar to that of  the powerful documentary film Waiting for Superman?

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