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Archive for November, 2012

Elected school boards in Canada’s provincial school systems are gradually becoming “corporate boards.”  Today many elected Canadian boards are almost indistinguishable from senior administration and increasingly coming to think, act, and react like corporate entities inclined toward protecting their interests and defending their ‘little empires’.  Slowly, over the past three decades, elected school boards have been transformed, adopting strict “policy governance” models, succumbing to provincial centralization, and, in some cases, shrinking away from responsible, democratic trusteeship.

Nova Scotia Education Minister Ramona Jennex, Chair of the Council of Ministers of Education (CMEC) is now leading the movement chipping away at what’s left of local democratic decision-making in public education.  Her innocuous looking little Education Act amendment , NS Bill 131, the “School Board Members Duties Clarification Act,” introduced  November 15, 2012, directs elected members to “respect” the superintendent, legislates that they represent “the school board,”  and  promises to deepen the democratic deficit in public education.

School board members were once known as “school trustees” and expected to represent us, meaning local parents and taxpayers.  Today, the Education Department and province’s eight school boards are gradually implementing  a new corporate governance model turning elected boards into “rubber stamp” operations,  rendering individual school trustees  little more than ‘cheerleaders’ for the status quo, and promoting, in the words of Bill 131, “the achievement of all students.”

Nova Scotia may well be an extreme case.  Firing three elected boards in six years, placing them under one-person receivership, treating elected representatives like unruly class members, introducing sanctions for periodic misbehaviour, and now legislating a further reduction in duties, has done incalculable damage to the political legitimacy of elected boards.  It also reflects a complete misreading of the dire threat to local education democracy.

Elected school boards are now suffering from an advanced stage of “acclamation disease.”  In the October 2012 Nova Scotia municipal elections, only three of the province’s eight school boards remained democratically healthy, and two of them were cleansed through previous firings.  In the Annapolis Valley Board, school board candidates were acclaimed in 12 of the 14 districts and one seat remains unfilled.  Across the province, two-thirds of the seats were uncontested and only 155 candidates surfaced to contest 94 school board positions.

Strict policy governance rules, introduced in stages since 2010, are eating away at responsible, accountable school trusteeship.  They also stand in sharp contrast to the Nova Scotia Municipal Act giving “broad authority” to Councils and granting Councillors much broader powers defined “not narrowly and with undue strictness.”

The Canadian School Board Association and its president, Sandi Urban-Hall, are both aware of the imminent dangers, having commissioned a Memorial University research team to conduct a study of the impact of recent school board firings on school board governance and the effectiveness of such elected bodies.

The new Corporate Governance Model, popping-up in Canadian school boards, is completely out-of-step with current thinking in effective board governance.  “Shared decision-making” and “generative policy-making” advocated by Harvard University’s Richard Chait are now best governance practice in the public and non-profit sector. They not only produce better decisions, but serve to attract higher calibre board members with something significant to contribute to the organization.

Seven years ago, Ontario Education Minister Gerard Kennedy faced a similar set of school board governance issues.  Instead of clamping down on elected school board members, he issued a remarkable  March 2006 policy paper entitled “Respect for Ontario School Trustees.”

Alarmed by record numbers of school board acclamations (54% in the 2003 election) and responding to legitimate Ontario Public School Boards Association concerns, the Education Partnership Roundtable recommended a completely different approach than the one chosen by Minister Jennex and her Deputy Minister Carole Olsen.

“The trustee role is widely under-appreciated and misunderstood,” the Ontario policy paper stated, before it “affirmed the standing” of school board trustees as “key decision-makers” exercising “five elements of educational oversight: effectiveness, efficiency, community engagement, ethics, and representation.”   The resulting 2009 Ontario reforms spelled out the roles of individual trustees, board chairs and directors of education and boards were mandated to produce multi-year plans for improving student outcomes.

Individual school trustees were fully recognized, in Ontario law, as distinct from administration. Instead of limiting the role, the Ministry of Education reaffirmed the mission-critical role of elected trustees in securing and sustaining “an essential trust agreement with parents and communities around the education and care of children.”

Today Ontario’s elected school board members are recognized for playing a key role in community engagement. Rather than being discouraged or obstructed in trying to work with School Advisory Councils, elected board members are supported in their efforts to work with, and through, school-based parent groups.

Instead of being channeled through the superintendents, the 2006 Ontario Roundtable expressed confidence in elected trustees, urging that they be guaranteed “openness and transparency,”  wide access to all “readily accessible information,”  and far more more autonomy to “ask questions” and actively engage in local policy-making.

Ontario’s Bill 177, passed into law as the Student Achievement and School Board Governance Act 2009, is certainly not perfect, but at least it defines the roles of individual board members ( 218.1) , board chair (218.4), and directors or superintendents of education (283.1). With a shared leadership model in place and mutual respect re-established, then it is good governance practice to mandate board members “to entrust the day-to-day management of the board to its staff through the superintendent of education.”

Public confidence is already badly shaken, but it is not too late to change direction.   It’s time to remove the muzzle and to learn from best governance practice.  Putting the “trust” back into the “school trustee” role and giving them back the right to speak up for parents and school communities is a far better way to restore vitality to the whole system.

Why do Elected School Boards actually exist, if not to represent parents, students and the public? What has happened to erode the hard-won tradition of local education democracy?  Is it already too late to restore responsible, accountable school trusteeship?  If not, where do we begin?

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Toronto-born journalist Paul Tough has produced a very thought-provoking new book, How Children Succeed, and one that attempts to break the ideological gridlock currently paralyzing North American education reform.  Grit, curiosity, and character, he contends, are as critical as academic “smarts“ in explaining why children succeed in achieving “a happy, meaningful, and productive life.”  It’s already been hailed by The New York Times as the breakthrough book of the fall season, but will it produce the “shock treatment” needed to resuscitate reformers committed to raising educational standards?

With the American presidential election behind us, Tough’s book is not only timely but germane to the larger public dialogue about improving teaching and learning in all schools, public, private and independent.  If public schools are in crisis, it may well be because school reform lurches from cause to cause, from standardized testing to differentiated classrooms, from all-inclusive public schools to charter schools, and everything in between.

Tough’s How Children Succeed is being hailed as a revelation because it effectively challenges how schools now teach and how they measure student learning. Building upon recent research discoveries, he claims that traditional measures of academic ability and achievement, including standardized tests, miss an ingredient crucial to future success –the “non-cognitive skills” of perseverance, curiosity, conscientiousness, self-control and optimism.

Students who master the academics in decent schools tend to do well in high school, even if they are from lower socio-economic communities.  But, as University of Chicago professor James Heckman discovered in 2001 going over Perry Pre-School Project (Ypsilani,Michigan) student success rates, certain character traits and social behaviours were a much better predictor of improved life outcomes.

Tough’s book, like his 2008 offering Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America, focuses on raising success rates, particularly in low income urban neighbourhoods. He recognizes the formidable odds stacked against kids with “ACEs – adverse childhood experiences.” Such stresses and disadvantages, the book reports, alter brain chemistry and can lead to self-destructive adult behaviour, marked by anxieties, and depression.

Tough was heavily influenced by the famous rat experiments of McGill University neuroscientist Michael Meaney, demonstrating that high grooming (HG) rat mothers, who rush to lick and groom pups after they are handled by researchers, tend to raise offspring that are bolder, more alert, more curious, and longer-living.

While IQ remains reasonably set by age eight, Tough points out that children enrolled in “a high quality, two year pre-kindergarten program” performed better in the long-run. It was particularly true when pre-school teachers acted like the mother rats, grooming kids in “personal behaviour” and tending to their “social development” needs.

Public education reformers have latched upon Tough’s book and used it in the campaign against overdone standardized testing.  His book, however, is actually based upon personal journeys and in-depth research in two radically different schools, neither of which is from the public school system.

He closely examines the innovations of David Levin at the KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program), a charter school founded in 1999 in the South Bronx. Here, through a focused program of “high intensity teaching” and “character education,” the first graduates graduated from high school in record numbers, only to flounder a little in college.

After studying the life pathways of KIPP graduates, Levin found that the ones with grit and resilience fared better than the more academically gifted. That led to changes specifically designed to boost “performance character” using a “grit index,” a “C.P.A.” (character point average) report grades, and related resilience-building activities.

Further important insights were gleaned from Dominic Randolph’s Riverdale Country School, a prestigious Bronx private school at the other end of the spectrum. Leery about the KIPP model of “charter metrics,” Randolph adopted a more nuanced approach, better suited to rather privileged kids and totally engaged “helicopter” parents. Based upon Martin Seligman’s philosophy of “learned optimism,” he adjusted  the progressive “CARE 2.0” formula (Be Good, Avoid Gossip, Respect Others) into a more “performance character” model, striking more of a balance than at the KIPP academy.  That way, Randolph embraced “performance character” development with traditional “moral character education “ espoused in such schools.

American educational “progressives” are attracted to Paul Tough`s How to Succeed because of its critical perspective on standardized testing and its advocacy of early learning, beginning in the pre-school years. Once again, we see how important American charter schools and even forward-looking private schools are in initiating an “incubating` the most stimulating ideas in North American school reform.

Bold and innovative schools like KIPP South Bronx Academy and brave private school leaders are venturing into areas rarely ever explored in regular public schools. Vocal Canadian public school defenders should think again before rejecting truly innovative ideas and manning the barricades to resist genuine alternative schools and programs in Nova Scotia and other inwardly-focused Canadian provincial systems. That is why this book is well worth reading.

Tough`s How Children Succeed is really a book for innovative educators and parents interested in `big ideas` and real change. It`s also the flavour of the season in public education, so it will likely also be mined by `systematizers` for insights and examples that support preconceived notions about what`s best for today`s students.

Will Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed be the wake-up call we need, alerting us to the blind spots in current North American education reform?  Should schools be focusing on raising the bar instead of addressing the glaring learning deficits in students?  Would a reform initiative aimed at developing “performance character” serve all students better?  Have we been missing the significance of “grit” in improving our students’ life chances?   

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Higher standards, challenging curriculum, school choice, and superior teaching made Alberta Canada’s highest performing province and, for the past decade, the highest performing English-speaking or French-speaking school system in the world.  While Alberta ranked first on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests and topped the Pan-Canadian Assessment Programme (PCAP) tests in literacy and science, prominent Ontario educators captured the ear of the OECD, sponsors of the benchmark international testing programme.  Then, following Finland’s highly-publicized PISA success in 2006, a new infatuation bloomed — one which has now morphed into the “Global Fourth Way.”

Jumping on the latest educational bandwagon is not really new, but it is assuming a different form.  A recent thought-provoking post on The Conversation, by Australian Dr. Stephen Dinham, aptly called it “the problem of PISA envy.” 

Ironically, just as Australians have “gone cold” on Finland and become infatuated with Asian city school systems like Shanghai, North American school change theorists have adopted “the Finnish solution” and been swept up with Pasi Sahlberg’s alluring “Fourth Way.” It’s prime objective, in Sahlberg’s own words, is to vanquish the dreaded GERM, that Global Education Reform Movement, supposedly carrying the policy virus of “neo-liberalism” and its principal strains — higher standards, school choice, and competition in public education.

Leading the Canadian charge is school change theorist, Dr. Andy Hargreaves, former OISE professor and former policy advisor to Tony Blair’s Labour Government, now perched at Boston College’s Lynch School of Education. After producing the Ontario Public School Teachers’ Federation booklets, What’s Worth Fighting For? (c0-authored with Michael Fullan 1991-92), Andy has embraced a number of “Success for All”  teacher empowerment projects, the latest of which is The Global Fourth Way (Corwin, 2012), launched in Toronto on November 3, 2012 in cooperation with the Ontario Principals’ Council.

Andy Hargreaves’ latest venture, “The Canadian Fourth Way,” is featured in the Current Issue of the Canadian Education Association’s organ, Education Canada (Fall 2012), which reads like a virtual advertisement for the book.  Canada’s high performance on PISA, driven largely by Alberta and resource-rich Ontario, is now trumpted as the harbinger of a new “Great Schools for All” movement bringing a Finnish-Ontario hybrid solution to a school system near you.

Hargreaves’  The Global Fourth Way is based upon studies of six high performing school systems and attempts to cast the Alberta Model as the outlier.  Raising educational standards, rigorous testing, school choice, and teacher accountability for student performance are an anathema in Hargreaves’ educational world.  Since developing the Alberta Initiative for School Improvement (AISI) in 2009 with the Alberta Teachers’ Association, he has been chipping away at the real strengths of the Alberta school system. School assessment models, as he well knows, are very expensive and usually spell the death knell for provincial testing and any linked teacher quality initiatives.

Striving for “Great schools for All” sounds attractive until you begin examining the contradictions inherent in the new “Fourth Way” prescription for public education.  Who would quibble with any of  those glittery “seven principles”?  “An inspiring dream… Local authority…Innovation with improvement…Platforms for change… Building professional capital… Collective responsibility… and Intensive communication” have a familiar ring.  The new formula: Combine “Success for All” with the “Finnish Solution” (nix Standardized Testing and School Choice), “invest” millions more in education and presto — you have “the Fourth Wave.”

Whatever happened to learning from Alberta’s high performing school system?  No need to ask because it runs counter to the “Fourth Way”  which Hargreaves now terms “the imbedded and inclusive Canadian Way.”  Just in case you need help connecting the dots, Hargreaves’  The Fourth Way comes with a handy Alberta Teachers’ Association booklet, “a great school for all..”(ATA, August 2012). It’s actually a well packaged, thinly disguised attack on the highly successful Alberta Model of education.  Hargreaves and his former OISE colleague Michael Fullan, the ATA booklet reports, both oppose “the ‘business capital’ approach to school reform, one that focusees on standardization, compliance, school choice, market-based competition and technology.” (p. 5)

Andy Hargreaves and the Alberta Teachers Association talk of “transforming Alberta education” with the “Fourth Way.”  Stripping away the high sounding edu-babble, it is clear that they are out to dismantle the Alberta Model and essentially “Finlandize” that oil-resource rich, conservative Canadian province.  The ATA booklet targets provincial testing, expanded learning time, and teacher assessment tied to student performance. Alberta’s thriving “charter schools” and the truly innovative Edmonton Model of school-based management are nowhere mentioned in that skewed vision for the future. Those innovations are, presumably, not “the Canadian Way.”

What explains Canada’s Alberta Education innovation blindness and the Finnish infatuation?  What’s the real intention behind Andy Hargreaves’ latest educational “Big Idea” — The Global Fourth Way’?  How successful will Hargreaves and the Alberta Teachers’ Association be in convincing Alison Redford’s Conservative Government to renounce its impressive educational legacy?  The bigger question: Will knowledgable Canadians and savvy educators swallow the “Fourth Way” panacea?

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