Archive for April, 2013

The Rehteah Parsons Case has drawn global attention to the twin horrors of teen sexual assault and re-victimization in cyberspace.  Since the 17-year-old Dartmouth teen’s death by suicide on Sunday April 7, 2013, a torrent of outrage and widespread public anger has dominated the media and left Nova Scotian and federal policy-makers scrambling for explanations and policy fixes  It is indeed a cruel irony that Rehteah was a Nova Scotian, born and raised in the Canadian province that has blazed the trail in the recent  counter-offensive against cyberbullying.

RehteahParsonsProtestThe depth of public outrage left Nova Scotia Premier Darrell Dexter and his Education Minister Ramona Jennex  completely reeling.  It was bad enough that the Cole Harbour High School teen had been sexually-assaulted by four boys , 17 months before , at age 15, without charges being laid.  The fact that photos of her alleged rape were posted online and widely circulated were shocking.  Hearing that the Cole Harbour HS administration knew of the rape allegation and left it all to the police compounded the problem. To make matters even worse, no one representing the school claimed to have seen or heard anything about the photo posted all over the Internet.

Over the first few days, the Nova Scotia Government expressed its heart-felt sorrow, but then attempted to contain the issue using its standard methods. The Justice Minister Ross Landry, at first, hesitated before calling for a fuller investigation of the whole matter.  Education Minister Jennex was caught so much off-guard that she had to summon the Halifax Regional School Board Chair Gin Yee and Superintendent Judy White in for a briefing on what had actually happened.  None of the lame explanations offered would survive the maelstrom of intense public scrutiny exerted by glare of the North American media and the pesky Halifax Chronicle Herald newspaper.

The Canadian public demanded action and Nova Scotian authorities reacted with uncharacteristic haste.  Spurred by Prime Minister Stephen Harper ‘s public reaction, the threats of Anonymous to go public with the names of the boys, and signs of vigilanteism, the RCMP re-opened the case, investigations were launched, and new laws materialized almost over the weekend.

The provincial response, when it came, was head-spinning.  The Education Minister appointed two Ontario consultants, Penny Milton, and Debra Pepler, to conduct an independent review of the HRSB and its response to the case. Premier Dexter accompanied Rehteah Parson’s parents on a pilgrimage to Ottawa seeking changes to the Criminal Code to better combat cyberbullying.  After dragging its feet for a year, the N.S. Government introduced a proposed Cyber-Safety Act creating a new police investigation unit and toughening rules, including seizing devices and holding parents responsible for the online conduct of their children.

What does all of this reactive decision-making amount to?  A Halifax Chronicle Herald Editorial put it this way: The demand for change is overwhelming. “Whether that change comes from tweaking laws, procedures, responsibilities or other areas — or some combination of the above — what’s important to the public is that whatever measures are taken, they must be effective in helping to prevent such tragedies from occurring again.”

Winning over a skeptical public will not be an easy task.   After a spate of  recent teen suicides, including the Californian 15-year old Audrie Pott, precipitated by persistent, horrific cyberbullying, the public will wait to judge those efforts by what actually gets accomplished.  Closing loopholes in the  laws may help, but what about enforcing the laws and discipline codes?

The independent reviews will be judged by what actually gets fixed as a result of them.  If Rehtaeh’s case was mishandled  by the Halifax police, that needs to be identified and fixed.  School officials do have to be held to account for their actions — or rather, lack of action — while one of their own students was allegedly being ceaselessly tormented by her peers. Parents in Nova Scotia and elsewhere affected by such incidents are simply tired of excuses for why cyberbullying is so difficult to stop and do expect tangible results.

One concrete action would be to implement all 85 recommendations of the Nova Scotia Bullying and Cyberbullying task force that reported a year ago.  Chair Wayne MacKay has made no secret of his disappointment with the lack of action, until now, on a number of effective, immediate measures, including tougher enforcement, more guidance counsellors, and teaching digital citizenship in schools.  Mental health services must also have the resources they need to effectively help teens cope with personal crises and the stresses of life.

Combating the posting of sexually explicit photos and cyberbullying will require the schools to step up to the challenge and get involved rather than shying away from anything with a hint of controversy. Parents also have a responsibility to teach their children right from wrong.  Everyone has a personal responsibility to call out bullying and to take a moral stand when the situation warrants a response.

Will the flurry of new Cyber-Safety laws and school regulations succeed where previous measures have failed?   With teen culture saturated with sex, can civility and propriety be restored by laws, rules, and curriculum alone?  Why do school officials, in particular, come up so short in stamping out outrageous student conduct and insidious cyberbullying in, around, and after school?  Are we simply expecting too much when it’s an ingrained societal problem?  

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School closure processes, thinly disguised as School Reviews or School Accommodation Reviews, are definitely in bad odour.  In Canadian school districts as diverse as Downtown Kingston, the inner core of Regina, and the villages and towns of rural Nova Scotia, local parents and taxpayers erupt during “March School Closure Madness” in fierce opposition to regional school boards pursuing school consolidation and looking to cut operations costs by closing ‘disposable’ school properties.

SOSKingstonLogoA recent research paper, released in July 2012 and written by two Ontario professors confirmed what small school advocates everywhere learn through bitter personal experience – that community members and municipalities have no real say in closure decisions.  Bill Irwin of the University of Western Ontario and Mark Seasons of University of Waterloo identified significant shortcomings in school board accommodation review processes.  Although the Ontario process, established in 2005, purport to be “consultative,” they were found to be “not fully participatory and were “rarely collaborative in nature” and leaving school boards “solely responsible for final decisions.””

The School Review Process, according to Irwin, “created an adversarial atmosphere”  and “pitted community against community and neighborhood against neighborhood, where there will be winners and a loser.”  Halting the process, they contend, would recognize that schools are “key to building a community’s social capital ” and seek instead “alternative decision-making models” drawn from community planning and development.

After a full cycle of “School Closure Madness,’ Nova Scotia’s  Education Minister Ramona Jennex reached the same conclusion. Over the vocal objections of a few school boards, she announced on April 3, 2013 a province-waide  moratorium on School Reviews pending the development of a fairer, more community-based process. What comes next in Nova Scotia is now the critical public policy question.

Holding “public hearings” on hard proposals to close schools is not conducive to healthy public consultation and is usually the kiss of death to parental engagement. It’s time for a completely new approach, supplanting school consolidation planning exercises with an open, transparent and inclusive process that fosters community-building and gives proper weight to a new set of priorities – the quality of education, student engagement, the health and safety of children, and a better tone in school-community relations.

The model of Public Engagement, developed by the Ottawa-based Public Policy Forum (PPF), might well serve as that vehicle to generate better, community-based solutions, rendering quasi-judicial school accommodation reviews essentially obsolete. Future planning for schooling would then be focused on rural and urban revitalization instead of on lopping-off small schools and abandoning school communities. The PPF Public Engagement model, favoured by the Nova Scotia Small Schools Initiative, starts by taking a broader lens and breaking out of the old mould that previously constrained public policy making within the educational system.  

The PPF model passes the public sniff test. First, are we asking the right question – and are we allowing participants to re-frame the fundamental question?  And secondly, what are the participants prepared to do, working in partnership with government authorities, to demonstrate ownership of the community-based solutions?

Readily available options like the Annapolis Valley Regional School Board’s Successful Schools for Successful Students planning process, implemented from September 2008 until 2012, will be found significantly wanting.While it provides a longer period of initial consultation, the AVRSB model still adheres to the “hidden agenda” of the school facilities planners, including the plan to advance “grade re-configuration” (P to 8, 9 to 12), moving kids from smaller to bigger schools. Buried in the rather woolly rationale was a telling line that the whole scheme was explicitly designed to “ rationalize the way the educational program would be delivered into the future. “  

Significant changes are afoot in many Canadian public bodies, private businesses, and community organizations seeking to build public support for major initiatives by involving the public in more meaningful ways in the making of a wider range of decisions. 

The Halifax Public Libraries, for example, has taken the lead in demonstrating a much better approach to promoting genuine public engagement. The 2011-12 public engagement sessions on the Central Library, run by Tim Merry, co-founder of the Art of Hosting movement, utilized the ‘World Cafe’ discussion group format, fully evolved with live streaming, targeted focus groups, public surveys, and a ‘Mind Map’ graffiti wall.  That same model was adopted in the second round of public meetings over the controversial Nova Convention Centre, and now by other consultation-wise groups in Pictou County, Alberta, and Washington, DC.

Conducting public hearings, as well as school board meetings, in very traditional ‘Teacher Knows Best’ mode is alienating parents and taxpayers. Yet, there is little evidence, so far, of a willingness, at the board level, to make the necessary changes.

True public engagement cannot, and will not, result from such to-down approaches, especially with today’s skeptical public.  Past experiences, information overload, social uncertainty, and the nature of technology are all changing the way responsible public bodies interact with their constituencies.  Tim Merry calls it “a paradigm shift from command and control to participatory leadership.”  Dominance by school facilities planners is coming to an end, and we need a process to generate community-based solutions “none of us could create alone.”  

Whether it’s the City of Kingston,  the historic Connaught School of Regina, or Nova Scotia’s rural schools, the adversarial School Review Process needs to be permanently put on ice and supplanted with a fairer, more community-based process designed to generate more viable long-term solutions.

With the School Review Process under fire and on the rocks, what comes next? How can education authorities restore public trust and still manage to effectively plan for the future?  What would work better for schools and communities in the best interests of our children?

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The highly publicized American “Save Our Schools” March of 2011 has now morphed into Occupy DOE 2.0, a four-day protest from April 4-7, 2013 in Washington.  While ostensibly billed as a protest against the policy direction of the U.S. Department of Education., it commenced with a sad spectacle of fiery rhetoric and sloganeering aimed at the so-called “Corporate Reform Agenda” and the “neo-liberal” plan to “dismantle public education.”  Much to the chagrin of  American “progressives,”  two of the key organizers lost their cool and resorted to inflammatory and racially-insulting rhetoric.

SaveOurSchools2013Standing in front of the Education Department Office in downtown Washington, Miami-Dade County teacher Ceresta Smith referred to former District of Columbia Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee—founder and CEO of the advocacy group StudentsFirst—as an “Asian bitch.” Another organizer,   former teacher Shaun Johnson called teachers “meek” and urged them to start speaking up, “cracking skulls,” and losing their jobs in protest of policies they say are destroying public schools.

The Occupy DOE Rally, organized by United Opt Out National, was called to mount opposition against high-stakes testing, “corporate” education reform, and charter schools. After hearing about the racial slurs leveled at Michelle Rhee, the Rally’s star attraction, Diane Ravitch, was forced to issue an Apology and to distance herself from fiery language that was “unacceptable and intolerable.”  “No one should resort to racial, ethnic, gender, or cultural slurs to express their views,” she posted on her Blog.  “It is just plain wrong.”

The American Education Reform Culture War continues to rage and become an ideological conflict generating more noise than reform.  Listening to Diane Ravitch or Michelle Rhee whipping up crowds, it is difficult to determine what the recent education reform initiatives have actually accomplished for students and teachers in the classroom.

A new book, entitled Inside the Black Box of Classroom Practice and written by Larry Cuban, goes a long way toward providing a plausible answer.  The North American classroom, he contends, is like “a black box” because it remains out of public sight and, in the idiom of the teacher, “What happens in the classroom, stays in the classroom.”  Unlike a flight recorder, the classroom box produces little data on interactions but is assessed on the basis of so-called “outputs” (i.e., test scores, high school graduates) without ever knowing how the learning actually occurred.  It’s almost impossible to find out once that teacher closes the classroom door, especially at the high school level.

Most of the public speeches at Education Reform Rallies and DOE Media Conferences is what Cuban would describe as little more than “Policy Talk.”  Such blather amounts to “a form of rhetorical hyperventilating that repeatedly overstates problems and understates the difficulties of solving them.”  It may be important in framing problems and mobilizing school reformers and early adopters, but  the jaw-boning “seldom lays out a specific agenda or blueprint for action.”  In short, “fiery words do not reform make.”(p. 14).

Larry Cuban’s book carries important lessons for school reformers of every stripe.  He makes a clear distinction between the “Policy Talk” and purported “changes” that produce little if any “reform” at the school and classroom level.  He’s at his best explaining the critical difference between “Policy Adoption” and “Policy Implementation” pointing out how little that is initiated ever reaches students in the classroom.  Likening school reform initiatives to a “hurricane” whipping up “twenty-two foot high waves, agitating the surface of the ocean,” he observes how, on the ocean floor (the classroom) “fish and plant life go on, uninterrupted by the uproar on the wind-ravaged surface.” (pp. 15 and 187).

Cuban’s book focuses on American education reform since the 1890s and builds upon his earlier research, including insights from his brilliant 1997 offering, Tinkering Toward Utopia, co-authored with historian David Tyack. He argues that small scale reform can make an impact, such as Deborah Meier’s “project-based learning” in Harlem elementary and secondary schools, and Richard Wallace’s “teacher-centred lessons” at Schenley High School Teacher Center in Pittsburgh, PA.  Cuban remains skeptical, however, about the impact of various structural reforms, in cluding new curricular standards, grade reconfigurations into K-8 or 7-12 organizational models, and even downsizing big schools.  Such reforms may change teacher “routines” but they rarely change performance levels (p. 186).

Fierce rhetoric may whip up a school reform crowd, but the championed student testing systems, structural reforms, innovative teaching strategies, and technology panaceas, have — over the past four decades, met with mixed and often disappointing results. Improvement in teaching and learning continues to bedevil us.  Fiery and windy rhetoric is particularly pronounced in the American public education world, and present, albeit in  more muted form, in Canadian provincial education systems.  Self-styled Canadian progressives like Doug Little of The Little Education Report still do their best to stoke the fires of resistance to the “Corporate School Reform Agenda”  seeping into Canada.

The key questions posed by Larry Cuban in Inside the Black Box of Classroom Practice apply to both the United States and Canada — and still beg for answers:  With so many successive waves of structural changes and teaching innovations, why have classroom practices remained so stable over time?  In spite of a modest blending of new and old teaching practices, how is it that today’s classroom lessons remain to familiar to earlier generations of school-goers?

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