Archive for January, 2013

The Early Reading Wars have essentially gone underground in many Canadian provinces and school districts. Since the appearance of Keith Stanovich’s acclaimed 2000  book, Progress in Understanding Reading, teaching reading by developing ” phonological awareness” and utilizing effective, synthetic phonics has been gaining significant ground among leading literacy researchers and education policy-makers.  The term “Whole Language” was now been banished from the vocabulary of most faculty of education Language Arts instructors and curriculum consultants.  Yet, more recently, just when it appeared that the Whole Language movement was in full retreat, the warmed-over  strategy– retooled as the “balanced approach” —has reared its head, once again, in two provinces, British Columbia and Nova Scotia.

LiteraciesPosterMSVUTwo respected Canadian literacy researchers, Linda Siegel of the University of British Columbia and Jamie Metsala of Mount Saint Vincent University, have risen to the latest challenge.  Both scholars are highly respected Special Education authorities, specializing in addressing student learning disabilities.  Given the mounting evidence in support of  effective, systematic instruction in phonological awareness and synthetic phonics, they are also troubled by why so many children still struggle in the area of reading.

The latest research report written by Jamie Metsala for the Encyclopedia of Language and Literacy Development (2012-07-25) provides an uncharacteristically blunt assessment.

“Unfortunately, in some school districts and provinces, the reading wars are still alive and well.  In documents outlining provincial strategies for providing interventions to young children at risk for reading difficulties, explicit and direct instruction may not be mentioned or supported (e.g., B.C. Ministry of Education, 2010; N.S. Department of Education, 2011), and in practice may be strongly discouraged. This impedes teachers learning about, receiving professional development ion, and having access to research-based intervention programs and strategies.” (pp. 5-6)

Most reading difficulties can, and should, be prevented using research-proven effective classroom instruction and early intervention. Recent research has only buttressed claims that systematic, synthetic phonics strategies produce far better results for more students than the “balanced approach” back-stopped by the short-term Grade 1 intervention known as  Reading Recovery.

So you can only imagine Dr. Siegel’s shock, back in June 2010, when  the B.C. Department of Education posted, without warning, a draft policy document, Primary Program: A Guide for Teaching 2010, endorsing the “balanced approach” to literacy totally at odds with the research on best practice.  She responded with a scorching letter to Education Minister Margaret MacDiarmid, and, since then, has been campaigning to correct the damage to special needs kids and especially those diagnosed with dyslexia.

The next jolt came from Nova Scotia.  In 2010, Education Minister Ramona Jennex raised hopes by cancelling the $7 million province-wide Grade 1 Reading Recovery program and announcing that it would be replaced by a more affordable, comprehensive “home-grown” program covering Grades 1 to 3. Provincial advocates for effective, research-based literacy methods and interventions were skeptical in April 2011 when the Department unveiled the policy framework for Succeeding in Reading.

The Succeeding in Reading policy framework (April 26, 2011) confirmed the fears of Metsala, Halifax Region private tutoring providers, and many Special Education teachers.  While Nova Scotia had abandoned Reading Recovery, the “balanced approach” found a new lease on life.  The mandated Approach, as stated in the document, was to provide: “focused, developmentally appropriate instruction”; and “immersion in rich oral and text language and literacy experiences.”  The only real changes were to identify struggling readers earlier, in Primary Class, to spread literacy instruction over three years, and to provide support in groups of up to 3 students.

A March 6, 2012 session on Succeeding in Reading held at Mount Saint Vincent University, featuring N.S. Provincial Curriculum Consultant Janet Porter, left many in stunned silence.  It went over like a lead balloon. Most of the questioners poked holes in the generalized, fuzzy program description and a Frontier College official and two Halifax psychologists, seeing no reference whatsoever to “phonics,”  demanded to know why it was missing from the document. Assurances that it was one of a number of possible approaches failed to mollify them or really satisfy anyone in the audience.

The initial results for the first cohort of Grade 1 students in 2011-12 did little to inspire confidence in Nova Scotia’s new program.  Of the 806 Grade 1 students in the Halifax Regional School Board participating in the assessment, 44 per cent failed to meet the expected standard for achievement. Of those lagging students, 70 per cent were boys.  The board’s French Immersion students did only marginally better, with 39% failing to make the standard, 61% of whom were boys.  Under the new program, two out of five students entered grade 2 already struggling with reading deficits in the Atlantic region’s largest school system.

Those abysmal results not only made front page news in The Chronicle Herald (22 January 2013), but confirmed Dr. Jamie Metsala’s research findings.  “Word recognition is the leading obstacle for young children learning to read and for disabled readers, “she reported, and “phonemic awareness deficits are one of the most frequent causes of these difficulties.”  The root cause, Metsala pointed out, citing a 2008 JLD study, was “instruction that is either insufficient in its design or intensity for students at risk for reading disabilities.”

Why have the 2010 B.C. Ministry of Education and the 2011 N.S. Department of Education literacy programs been identified as fundamentally flawed in their approach?  How have Ministry of Education consultants managed to implement “balanced” WL-based programs in defiance of the proven scientific research?  When will research-based best practice be enshrined in policy documents, begin to reach classroom teachers and actually come to the rescue of children struggling with learning to read?

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Salman Khan, founder of Khan Academy, is a genuine big thinker.  Since tutoring a young cousin in Mathematics in 2004, communicating by phone and an interactive notepad, he has gone on to establish Khan Academy.com in 2006  and has now produced an earth-shaking book, The One World Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined (October 2012).  His mission is, and has been, deceptively simple:  to “provide a free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere.” (p. 5)

OneWorldSchoolhouseCoverThe Khan Academy is an amazing 21st century success story.   It began in a single room in his home in 2006 with a PC, $20 of screen capture software, and an $80 pen tablet all employed to write equations and draw graphs, usually shakily, using a free program called Microsoft Paint.  Besides the videos, Sal only had “quizzing software ” running on his $50-a-month web host. The faculty, engineering team, support staff, and administration was shockingly small — consisting of only him. He spent his early days simply talking into a computer monitor and dreaming up plans for expansion.

Today Khan Academy, like a 21st century McDonald’s, claims to have provided 227,776,564 lessons to students of any and all ages.  His individual, self-paced online tutorials number more than 3,000 little instructional videos on the You Tube channel covering a dizzying array of lessons from basic arithmetic to advanced science, economics, and United States history. It’s far and away the most used library of educational videos on the web attracting over 4.2 million unique students per month.  He freely admits that You Tube has made him a celebrity star all over the United States and far beyond.  He has been profiled in Time Magazine and his TED Talk has been hailed as one of the most influential, rivaling that of Sir Ken Robinson.

Most established North American educators find Sal Khan and the Khan Academy absolutely frightening. After Sal Khan was embraced by Bill Gates as America’s master teacher, critics emerged in an attempt to discredit Khan and his whole methodology. Most of the academic snipers were quick to point out that Khan was “a former hedge fund analyst”  with passing reference to his degrees from MIT and Harvard University.  The Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss joined in, providing a platform on The Answer Sheet for critics determined to separate “the hype from the reality.”

When asked why millions of students use his instructional videos but  so many traditional teachers shun Khan Academy, Sal was brutally frank: “It’d piss me off ,too, if I had been teaching for 30 years and suddenly this ex-hedge-fund guy is hailed as the world’s teacher.”  But that’s only half the reason. After viewing a few of his You Tube tutorials, it becomes abundantly clear that Sal Khan is a master at didactic instruction and a real threat to the status quo as represented by student-centred, soft-on content pedagogues.  He sets out in each video to actually “teach” something rather than to “facilitate” interaction with others. In that sense, he is a huge threat to the apostles of John Dewey and Jean Piaget still ensconced in most North American education schools and provincial school bureaucracies.

Sal Khan’s first book is full of little surprises.  He is definitely out to fix what ails North American public education systems. Like his little videos, the book also attempts to explain what needs to change to instill the joy of learning, the thrill of discovery, and the beauty of math and science in today’s students. “What I didn’t want, ” he writes, “was the dreary process that sometimes went on in classrooms — rote memorization and plug-in formulas — aimed at nothing more lasting than a good grade on the next exam.” That is precisely why he recommends using his videos as preparation for more in-depth classroom inquiry, discussion, and problem-solving activities.

Khan’s proposal for the “Flipped Classroom” will always be his greatest contribution to North American education reform.  Once high school students discover the Khan Academy, Sal Khan becomes their virtual teacher and simply cannot be dismissed or ignored by sensible regular classroom teachers.  It would be foolish to turn a blind eye to his teaching, so it becomes common sense to integrate his lessons into the program. Letting Sal Khan deliver the subject content as homework simply opens the door to more meaningful, deeper learning in class.

His other proposals for reform are more problematic.  He’s an advocate of Mastery Learning which is fine for individual students but creates problems when applied across-the-board in classrooms in a deadening “lock-step” fashion.  Allowing mixed age classes would be revolutionary because it would spell the end of the Jean Piaget-driven “age-appropriate curriculum” philosophy and ideology. It can and does work when it involves moving students forward to challenge them more academically, so that’s worth pursuing further.

His class size reform assigning three teachers to every 75 to 100 students would be exciting because it would open the door to new kinds of teaching and grouping combinations.  Eliminating letter grades in elementary school strikes this commentator as a non-starter without a suitable alternative system of measuring student progress.  He also advocates Year Round schooling.  School should not “recess” for the whole Summer because of the “unlearning” that takes place over that two month period each year. Recognizing this reality and changing the system are two completely different things.

Will Salman Khan’s The One World Schoolhouse be the force that blasts the North American school system out of its comfort zone?  How successful is the book in attempting to prove that The Khan Academy model is scalable?  How long can schools of education and established educators hold out in resisting Sal Khan and online initiatives like Khan Academy? What’s stopping today’s schools from implementing the innovative “Flipped Classroom” model? And, what’s so threatening about challenging today’s high school students to prepare for class by viewing online instructional videos and to up-their-game in the classroom?

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If it bleeds, it leads, or so it is said in North American television newsrooms.  And that maxim certainly applied to the popular coverage of school-related matters in 2012.  Two horrible school tragedies, the suicide of cyberbullying victim Amanda Todd and shooting rampage at Newtown’s Sandy Hook School deeply affected students, parents, teachers, and schools right across Canada.  Driven by those shocking events, cyberbullying and school security dominated much of the public policy agenda nearly everywhere in Canadian K-12 education.

SchoolZoneSignMedia saturated events like the British Columbia teen’s suicide and the Newtown massacre also tended to obscure more significant, longer-term tectonic plate shifts like a truly landmark  Supreme Court Special Education decision and Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty’s meltdown aggravated by Bill 115 and mass teacher walkouts.  It was, looking back, a year marked by more by scares, misadventures, and reversals of fortune than giant steps forward.

The Best – Hopeful Signs

  • Early Learning Advances

Out of the blue in late May, 2012, Nova Scotia  Premier Darrell Dexter visited a Halifax family resource centre, unveiled a discussion paper Giving Students the Best Start,  and announced that Nova Scotia was finally joining the national parade for universal early learning programs.  It was a direct response to the Canadian Council of Child Development’s recent 2011 Early Years Study praising Quebec and P.E.I. and giving Nova Scotia low marks ( 5 out of 15) for its current patchwork of services. With Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty under fire for his costly Kindergarten program, the Nova Scotia move bolstered the case for universal, publicly-funded ECE starting at age 3.

  • Cyberbullying Initiatives 

Nova Scotia was first out of the gate when Wayne MacKay released his March 2012 report, There’s No App for That, setting the public agenda for a strategic, long-term strategy to curb bullying and cyberbullying in schools.  After the teen suicide of Amanda Todd in September 2012, the nation-wide public outcry was for firmer, clearer punitive responses, including the criminalization of serious repeated online offenses.  McKay’s community-based, preventative approach survived the initial sniping and is gradually winning over those preferring direct deterrent action.

  • Championing of Curiosity in Schools

A first-time author, Zander Sherman, burst on the scene in August 2012 with The Curiosity of School, a searing indictment of every aspect of schooling, from kindergarten to university. Since its inception, the home schooled author contended that the North American school system has remained “Prussian” in philosophy and orderliness, killing natural curiosity in children  and thwarting their desire to know the world around us. Coming from a lone wolf outside the education system, yet reinforcing Sir Ken Robinson’s powerful TED Talk message, it was nothing short of earth-shaking.

  • Right to Special Education Decision

A landmark Supreme Court of Canada decision on the Jeffrey Moore case in November 2012 has dealt a surprise blow to all-inclusive, one-size-fits-all public education. Waving aside the financial concerns of a North Vancouver school board, the court found that the board had discriminated against a dyslexic child who was not given adequate help to attain literacy. “Adequate special education is not a dispensable luxury,” Judge Rosalie Abella ruled.  “For those with severe learning disabilities, it is the ramp that provides access to the statutory commitment to education made to all children in British Columbia.”

  • Junior High Goes Prime Time

 The CBC-TV sitcom, Mr. D, starring comedian Gerry Dee and focusing on a bumbling Middle School teacher at fictional Xavier Academy (Citadel High School), achieved respectable ratings and returns for a second season.  From the antics of Mr. D faking it through lessons to the paranoid VP and the small battles over copy machine access, it’s an exaggerated version of daily life in schools.  The Globe and Mail’s John Doyle listed the show as one of the top 5 “shows that mattered” over the past year.

The Worst – Troubling Signs

  • The Ontario Public Education Meltdown

Facing a $14.4 billion deficit, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty acted on economist Don Drummond’s report on Ontario public service costs by authorizing a two-year freeze on teacher salaries and an end to banking of sick days.  Education Minister Laurel Broten introduced Bill 115, the Putting Students First Act, to implement the new contractual arrangements.  Secondary school teachers withdrew from all voluntary extra-curricular activities and, in December 2012, the Elementary School Teachers Federation of Ontario (EFTO) staged a series of massive one-day teacher walkouts shutting the schools.  Amidst the turmoil, Premier McGuinty abruptly resigned, seemingly perplexed by wreckage of his 2003-2011 educational legacy, including massive Early Years program spending and a 24% increase in teacher salaries.

  • Plight of the Severely Learning Disabled and Autistic Children

Somewhere between 2 and 4 per cent of all school children and teens, numbering from 2,100 to 4,200 in New Brunswick, are reportedly struggling with serious learning challenges, while served mostly in inclusive regular classrooms.  During a 2012 five-year provincial review of Inclusive Education, Harold L. Doherty of Facing Autism in New Brunswick lambasted the radical inclusionist review co-chair  Gordon Porter for abandoning autistic and serverely learning disabled kids by denying them access to intensive, research-based intervention strategies and programs.  His legitimate concerns and those of the New Brunswick Learning Disabilities Association (LDANB) fell mostly on deaf ears.

  • Alberta Education’s Finnish Dalliance

Canada’s recognized provincial leader in education, Alberta, strayed a little during 2012 from its recognized Model of Education based upon pursuing higher standards,  parental choice, charter schools, and local school accountability.  With the tacit approval of a former Education Minister, the Alberta Teachers’ Association hired Dr. Andy Hargreaves to produce a new directions policy paper.  That September 2012 study, entitled A Great School for All..Transforming Education in Alberta drew heavily on the Finnish Education Reform agenda and proposed a Fourth Way for K-12 education investing in teacher development and phasing out provincial testing and student results-based teacher evaluation.  When the plan got a chilly reception in Alberta conservative circles, a new Education Minister Jeff Johnson distanced himself from the Finland-inspired reform plan.

  • Closure of Urban Inner City and Rural Schools

Save community schools groups fought school closures in critical battlegrounds, opposing school consolidation and the spread of “Big Box” suburban schools and rural K-12 regional Education Centres.   In downtown Regina, SK, Real Renewal led by Trish Elliott  and Carla Beck succeeded in slowing the pace of inner city school closures, only to be confronted by pricey Minneapolis-based Fielding Nair Open Concept Design schools. A Small School Summit held in Bridgewater, NS. in January 2012 set the stage for a province-wide Small Schools Initiative, spearheaded by Kate Oland, Michelle Wamboldt, and Randy Delorey.  Inner city high schools in Kingston, Ontario, and Moncton, New Brunswick, were threatened with closure and students joined with urban activists like KCVI’s Lindsay Davidson to temporarily stave-off the shuttering of older schools.    With no resources, social media became an effective tool to mobilize their supporters.

  • Cold War on School Choice

Massive teacher labour disruptions in Ontario and earlier in British Columbia adversely affected tens of thousands of students and their families.  Aside from The Globe and Mail’s Gary Mason and the Ontario-based Society for Quality of Education (SQE), few spoke out in favour of real alternatives or to challenge the prevailing ‘One System for All’ ideology.   A January 2012 report on the sad state of Online Learning created a minor kerfuffle, but the SQE’s polished three-part video series, Our Children, Our Choice, was treated like a radioactive substance.  Real alternatives to the standard, ‘one-size-fits-all’ school system remained few and far between, particularly in Ontario outside of the GTA and throughout Atlantic Canada.

* Originally published in The Mark News, 3 January 2013.

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