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Archive for October, 2012

Personalized, student-centred learning is the centerpiece of the B.C. Ministry of Education’s new plan to enrich student learning through “individualization” aimed at providing high quality teaching and learning, more flexibility and choice, and fuller utilization of the power of technology.  Enriched high school programs like The Challenge Program at  Vancouver’s  Eric Hamber Secondary School seek to build upon previous gifted education programs in innovative ways.  A recent school visit on October 25, as part of an International Dialogue study group, revealed that this program is “giving a home” to students labelled as “gifted” but remains very much a work -in-progress.

The Eric Hamber “Challenge Program,” while well-intentioned, is now somewhat unique because most Canadian school systems have tended to utilize accelerated academic programs, such as International Baccalaureate (IB) and Advanced Placement (AP), to achieve those purposes.  Indeed, the steady growth of these two competing programs has supplanted many “gifted student” programs in high schools across Canada as in the United States. It also begs the fundamental question – which of the two programs provides a better challenge for academically-able high school students?

Surveying academic public high schools in the United States, the dominance of the IB and AP is abundantly clear.  Choosing sides in the AP vs. IB debate sparks fierce debate in influential newspapers and magazines, like The Washington Post and US News and World Report and in the family homes of university-bound high school students in virtually every city and most towns of any size.

Advanced Placement Canada, based in Victoria, BC, holds sway in B.C. and Ontario and is now offered in 587 schools in every province and territory, except Nunavut.  The International Baccalaureate now claims to have enlisted 320 IB World Schools, but only 147 offer the senior IB Diploma Program.  University bound students and their parents are plied with the allure of gaining an advantage in seeking university admission and securing advanced standing in a few subjects.  In a province like Nova Scotia, the IB has, since 2007, been sanctioned as the “official” high school enrichment program.  Today, some 16 high schools are IB Diploma Program Schools, representing over 10 per cent of the Canadian total and the jurisdiction with the highest concentration of such programs in North America.

A highly influential 2007 study by the U.S. Thomas B. Fordham Institute has served as an important touchstone for savvy and academically-inclined students and parents.  That study took a very favourable view of such academic courses offering “rigorous pre-college curriculum” in high school. It posed the critical question on the minds of students and parents –“Do the AP and the IB Deserve Gold Star Status?”  Both of these programs, according to Chester Finn, “offer something very much needed in today’s secondary education system: high academic standards combined with rigorous exams aligned to those standards.”

Both the AP and the IB were proliferating because were meeting the demand for programs of “academic excellence” and filling a void in state school systems.  “Students,” in Finn’s words,” are also expected to make sense of complex, and sometimes contradictory, materials; to write and defend their opinions about these materials intelligently; and to apply their knowledge in creative and productive ways. These are the skills that will serve them well in later years….” In that comparative analysis, the IB program came out slightly ahead, based upon a critical review of AP and IB courses in four subjects, English, mathematics, biology, and history.  There was considerable dispute over the Fordham report’s assessment of Mathematics courses too heavily dependent upon technological tools like graphing calculators.

Advanced Placement courses once were totally dominant in the United States, a nation with some 22,000 high schools.  First introduced in 1955, by 2006, over one million U.S. students took over 2 million AP examinations, including over  346,000(2008) in the most popular course, United States History.  In Canada, by 2007, 491 high schools were offering 19,274 examinations in every province except P.E.I.  AS of 2010, some 28.3 per cent of American high school students took an AP exam and 32.6 per cent of public high schools offered AP  courses in the four core subject areas – English, mathematics, science and social studies.  More recently, the IB is gaining ground, to the point where more than 778 American schools offer the IB Diploma Program.

Which is better at engaging students in academic challenges and at promoting critical thinking?

Most objective observers tend to give the edge to the IB because it is a fully-developed program encompassing academic athletic, cultural, and social development components.   Seasoned education observer Jay Mathews of The Washington Post contends that “both programs are top notch.” When pressed to choose one over the other, he gave a slight edge to the IB.  Why?  In his words, “because the exams demand more writing, having no multiple choice exams as the AP exams do, and because the IB program includes a 4,000 word essay requirement that the AP lacks.”  He noted, however, that in the United States, it was still easier to get college credits for AP exam scores because universities have been slower to accord recognition to the IB exam-based course results.

After helping to introduce the IB at Upper Canada College in 1997 and heading both a leading Canadian AP school and a leading IB school, I would also rate the IB as superior in terms of promoting deeper learning and student engagement.   The IB focus on providing a full, well-rounded program gives it the decided edge and makes t5he AP look like just a mix and match menu of accelerated courses. The additional IB components, namely the Extended Essay, the Theory-of-Knowledge course, and Creativity-Action-Service (CAS), set it apart as a pretty thorough challenge for high school students. The IB requirement to conduct a 4,000 word Extended Essay (based upon original research)  means, in many cases, students have to range far beyond high schools to find the latest research.

If the IB Diploma Program has a weakness, it is in the Fine Arts (Music, Drama, and Visual Art), where students tend to substitute out to take more science or mathematics these days with all the emphasis on STEM, preparation for Science, Engineering, Mathematics and Technology fields. Changes in the course selection framework giving more scope for taking Creative Arts would significantly strengthen the IB Diploma Program and make it much more attractive to students seeking to find what Sir Ken Robinson aptly describes as “the  element” that opens lifelong doors to leading “a happy, meaningful, and productive life.”

Creating Challenge programs for “gifted students” and diverting increasingly rationed resources might well be questioned when one of the two best known academic enrichment programs offers such scope for pursuing academic excellence and exploring passionate interests outside the classroom.

Which of the two academic enrichment programs is best – AP or the IB?  Do either of them provide enough scope for “personalized learning,” or for fostering curiosity and promoting creativity in students?  That remains an open question.

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Bumping Grade 9 students up into High School from Junior High is an educational initiative fraught with potential risks. Over 20 years ago, Andy Hargreaves and Lorna Earl produced Rites of Passage (1990), an Ontario study of the Transition Years, Grades 6 to 9, flagging “the tragedy” and “anxiety” felt by adolescents “on transfer to high school.”   Since W.J. Jordan’s 2001 AERA research paper on the “risk factors” for struggling students, educational policy-makers have also been much more alert to the “treacherous waters” posed by making a “fresh start” in high school.

A recent Halifax Regional School Board staff report, entitled “High School Grade Configuration” (September 18, 2012), attempted to take the plunge into those very waters. The skimpy two-page report, written by Danielle McNeil-Hessian  recommended that all Grade 9 students in 12 different junior high schools be transferred to high school as soon as space becomes available, potentially affecting about 11,000 students entering the school system’s 15 high schools.

The proposed “grade reconfiguration” initiative caught most students and families in Atlantic Canada’s biggest school system almost completely off-guard — and sparked a swift public backlash.  Most parents heard about it through a Halifax Chronicle Herald news report and elected public school trustees were flooded with e-mails and telephone calls.  After the flurry of adverse reaction, the elected school board moved in record haste on September 26, 2012 to shelve the report, pending further research and a round of public consultations.

What prompted such a clumsy, poorly thought-out initiative?  Senior administration initially claimed that it was a move in compliance with the 2012 Nova Scotia Kids & Learning First policy agenda, then backtracked at the public meeting. The rationale provided in the staff report offered only four terse reasons: The direction of the province, declining enrolments, the ability to consolidate space, and the opportunity to “maximize the expertise of teachers.”

The policy initiative was not a new idea but one favoured by the province’s educational facilities planners. It was actually the product of a 2007 policy paper prepared by by Dr. Jim Gunn for the NS Education Department that proposed Grade 9 to 12 “grade reconfiguration” as the silver bullet allowing the province to utilize “excess space capacity” and pave the way for the closure of some 40 under-enrolled public schools across the province.

Moving Grade 9s to High School in Halifax has been stalled, for the time being, but what lessons can be learned from this tactical retreat?  “Putting students first” is the Kids & Learning First public mantra, but somehow it got lost in the rush to “reconfigure grades” and “fill holes” in high schools with “excess space capacity.”

Moving Grade 9s to High School without a broader, student-centred plan is doomed to failure. A mountain of North American educational research suggests that the “Transition Years” from Grades 6 to 9 or 10 are perhaps the “most critical juncture” in the students’ whole educational journey from Kindergarten to Grade 12.

Ontario policy experts, Dr. Kate Tilleczek and Dr. Bruce Ferguson, produced a 2007 Literature Review that pointed in a completely different direction. Students in transition to high school face what they termed the potential for “both fresh starts and false starts.”  It was a “potential tipping point” when young adolescents face life-altering questions of personal identity, torn by conflicting feelings, seemingly “both excited and anxious, both doubtful and hopeful….”  Such tensions, they pointed out, are major factors cited in explaining why students “drop-out” before completing secondary school. The main stumbling block was that students find ” the shift from elementary to secondary school” difficult because, for most adolescents,  it is “a journey from a relatively less demanding institution (socially and academically) to a relatively more demanding one.”

What can be learned from best practice in ensuring smooth, successful  “student transitions” into high school?  More recent Ontario research conducted by Tilleczek, Ferguson and a larger investigative team, yielded a comprehensive 353 page report ( September 2010), proposing a “nested transition” strategy covering a “span of grades” and covering two or three years of the students’ school experience.

The key research findings were captured in these short passages : “We can enact more enduring practices which facilitate the transition…… Grade 8 to 9 transitions should be considered “as long-term, temporal, and developmental processes.”… “nested transitions” work best for students ages 12 to 14, consistent with their stage of “adolescent development … Exemplary programs  pay close attention to the “adolescent development school-fit”… “Risk factors” are  high for dropping-out and steps need to be taken to cushion students and to alleviate the underlying problems –  high school alienation, discouragement, and coping with the increasing academic pressures of high school.

Moving Grade 9 or any other grade alone to the next level, without a “Student Transitions” plan, flies in the face of the research and plain common sense.  Studies of the “Transition Years” demonstrate that ‘what’s best for adolescents’ should be the priority. North American “Middle School” research, while mostly laudatory and not definitive, should not be simply cast aside in moving to K to 8 and 9 to 12 grade configuration models.

Transitioning is not “a one-time event” but a longer-term process.  Moving all Grade 9s to High School is possible, but only if it’s properly planned and resourced to avert unneccessary student and family disruption. Schools need to minimize the “risk factors” and to build up “protective factors” such as multi-year bridging programs, providing peer and community supports, holding open dialogue discussions, offering student leadership skills development, and community-building  induction activities.

What can be learned from the recent Halifax School Board “Bumping -Up the Grade 9s” fiasco?  Why do facilities planning criteria come to hold sway over “putting students first” considerations when it comes to “Grade Configuration” in junior and senior high school? If school systems are unprepared to properly support grade reconfiguration initiatives, then why are they being undertaken in school districts across Canada and elsewhere?

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