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Archive for June, 2013

High school graduation season has come and gone and it seems an opportune time to step back and try to assess the whole matter of rapidly rising graduation rates.  Now that high school graduation rates have topped 80 % in most Canadian provinces and some American states, it seems reasonable to ask whether rising levels of student “attainment” are actually the best way of measuring actual “achievement” levels.  American education commentator John Merrow of PBS News Hour  raised the same issue in April 2013 by posing the question this way – “Can an increase in National High School Graduation rates be trusted?”

SmilingHSGradsEducation authorities in Canada and the United States have recently been crowing a great deal about rising high school graduation rates.  On June 25, 2013, the Council of Ministers of Education in Canada (CMEC), chaired by Nova Scotia’s Ramona Jennex, claimed that the OECD report Education at a Glance 2013 showed that Canada was “one of the most well-educated countries in the world” on the basis of its high school and post-secondary education completion rates.  A recent U.S. education report, “Building a Grad Nation,” released in February 2013, claimed that American graduation rates had risen to 80%, a gain of 6% since 2001, and were on target to reach 90% by 2020.

The 2013 OECD  report delivered good news on “educational attainment” levels for many countries, including the United States. The Graduation Rates for upper secondary level (A 2.1) in 2011 among first time graduates were extraordinarily high, while the gender differences and ages at graduation varied considerably.   Canada registered an 85% graduation rate ( 82% for Men, 88% for Women) and the average age at graduation was 19 years. For the United States, the national figures reported were 77% (74% for Men, 81% for Women), but the avg. age at graduation was only 17 years.

Rising graduation rates are being reported throughout the OECD countries. Japan and Finland led the pack of top nations tied with 96% graduation rates, but the avg Finn at graduation was 22 years of age. Canada’s rate of graduation, 84%, is just above the OECD average of 83% at 20 years of age.  The United Kingdom and Australia, both with national student testing systems and so-called “league tables,” report graduation rates of 77% and 74% respectively.  Young women are graduating at higher rates than men  in virtually every country to the point where it is becoming a ‘sleeping’ public policy issue.

High school graduation rates are soaring and, in many countries, national dropout rates are declining. In Canada, the Canadian Council on Learning was one of the few agencies not simply content to report trends and inclined to look deeper.  Back in December 2005, a CCL report on School Dropout Rates documented the dramatic decline of 7% in high school dropout rates from 1990-91 to 2oo4- 05, noting that Atlantic Canadian provinces like Nova Scotia led the way.  The demands of the labour market for high school graduates was identified as the key factor, outweighing school retention initiatives.

Rising graduation rates and declining dropout rates are worth applauding, to a point. Over the 20 year period from 1990-91 to 2019-10, the number of Canadian young people ages 20 to 24 without a high school diploma dropped from 340,000 (16.6%) to 191,000 (8.5%), again most dramatically evident in Atlantic Canada. THat is a positive development because, as John Richards of the CD Howe Institute pointed out in January 2011, Canadians without a diploma have an average employment rate of under 40%, whereas graduates average about  25% higher. In short, dropping out of high school leads to a life marked by bouts of unemployment and, in many cases, by poverty.

Provincial student attainment levels, however, only tell part of the story.  Canada’s  top performing province on international tests, Alberta, has among the lowest graduation rates and surprisingly high dropout rates.  Alberta’s  Education Department has long contended that the low graduation rate can be explained by Alberta’s more carefully audited reporting system and the number of young Albertans moving in and out of the oil rich province over the course of a school year.

The Maritime provinces have extraordinarily high graduation rates and low dropout counts , but their students perform mediocre at best on PISA and other standardized student assessments.  In the case of Quebec, the country’s top performing province in Mathematics, a more rigorous curriculum, provincial examinations, and the high rural francophone dropout rate are factors. Anglo-Quebeckers have much higher completion rates, but those who leave the province to complete high school or switch to private schools are also identified as “dropouts” from the state system. One of the country’s best resourced school systems, Ontario, lagged behind in graduation rates until the late 1990s when Premier Dalton McGuinty finally adopted his “everyone will graduate” policy. 

Boring down into the reasons for the rising Canadian graduation rates will likely lead to more plausible explanations. When we do, it will likely start by examining the factors identified by John Merrow in his recent PBS investigative report.  To probe into the numbers will likely lead us to seriously examine the impact of slackening academic standards and the proliferation of “no fail” assessment policies. High school credit recovery courses have grown enormously as a way of moving students along and helping them to secure diplomas, but the phenomenon has not really been studied in Canada or the United States.

A major factor in the United States has been the closure of so-called failing high schools, known as “dropout factories.”  That is not a factor here in Canada, where faltering schools remain open and essentially resort to “social promotion” policies. In Canada, we also need to assess the numbers of students leaving in Grades 10 and 11 to enter alternative schools or to be home-schooled and whether they are counted the same way in each province. Some lighthouse small school programs to support Aboriginal students, like St. Joe’s in Edmonton, may yet yield more positive answers.

It’s time to probe into rising graduation levels and to see whether they reflect real improvements in student achievement. What have we gained — and lost – by adopting “everyone graduates” policies in our high schools?  Given the lack of national graduation standards, can the reported provincial graduation rates be validated and trusted?  What has been the impact of credit recovery courses in schools across Canada?  Are rising graduation levels accurately reflecting improvements in student learning and achievement or is the public being sold another bill of goods?

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Speaking at the Ontario People for Education Conference in November 2010, Tara Moore, the Provincial Coordinator of Nova Scotia’s SchoolsPlus, described the new initiative as a “collaborative inter-agency approach to supporting the whole child and family” where “schools become centers of service delivery enabling enhanced collaboration by bringing professionals and programs together to help children, youth and families in a welcoming place.”

The larger vision of SchoolsPlus was to become, in Moore’s words, “the hub of the community and (a place where) services are co-located.” (Moore, P4E, 2010) That proved to be a very tall order for a Nova Scotia program still in its infancy running, at that time, in four school boards with 24 different school sites.

ChildandYouthStrategylogoThe Nova Scotia SchoolsPlus model was initiated in October 2008 with a lofty but rather nebulous vision. Judging from Moore’s choice of words, it was abundantly clear that SchoolsPlus had been adopted and adapted from an earlier venture in Saskatchewan known as SchoolPLUS TM (Saskatchewan, DOE, 2001; Working Together Handbook, 2002). Furthermore, earlier that year, in May 2010, the champion of the Saskatchewan project, Dr. Michael Tymchak, an Education professor at the University of Regina, had lent his support in a May 2010 speech to the Association of Nova Scotia Educational Administrators (ANSEA).

Although the Nova Scotia model was patterned after Saskatchewan’s, it was also remarkably similar to the Ontario version termed “Integrated Service Delivery”(ISD) (Ontario, MOET, 2010).  It actually fell somewhere in-between as a peculiar, chameleon-like hybrid of the two approaches.

The Nova Scotia initiative was primarily sparked by a key recommendation of  Nova Scotia Justice Merlin Nunn’s landmark 2006 report, Spiralling Out of Control, focusing on a troubled 16-year old youth, Archie Billard, which then found its way into Our Kid’s Are Worth It, the much heralded 2007 strategy to close the gaps in front-line support services.

                Social service providers tend to focus their energies on rescuing and supporting children and youth described as “falling through the cracks.” Justice Nunn surprised many by reaching the opposite conclusion:  “From a young age,” Nunn wrote,” AB and his family had substantial involvement with government social service agencies and personnel, education supports, and health facilities. Whether that was enough is another question.”

My latest AIMS research report, Reclaiming At-Risk Children and Youth (June 2013)  demonstrates that, while SchoolsPlus (SP) is a worthwhile provincial integrated services delivery (ISD) initiative, it is in need of a ‘mid-term correction’ to ensure its ultimate success and reach its target population, the 5 to 10 per cent of children and youth at risk of going off-the rails.

Champions of SP are hard to find in the school system, outside of the Chignecto-Central and South Shore school boards, and provincial education authorities are very protective of  information about the whole venture. Much of the focus is clearly on better coordinating existing public social services rather than the expected core mission–building “communities of care,” fostering resilience from an early age, and reclaiming “at risk” children, youth and families.

Over the past three years, inter-departmental service cooperation has increased, particularly in established SchoolsPlus hub sites.  Mental health services are now being introduced, largely as a result of the herculean and inspired efforts of Dalhousie psychiatrist Dr. Stan Kutcher.

Making a wider range of services and supports available is a laudable achievement, but limiting public access to regular school hours, and enforcing restrictive Community Use of Schools regulations, (i.e.,$2 million in liability insurance), only serves to maintain the entrenched “boundaries” that stand in the way of genuine two-way community interaction in the schools.

Engaging with new, less familiar community development partners, like Pathways to Education, would produce far better results, as evidenced by the amazing success of Pathways Spryfield. With a more flexible, adaptable approach, SchoolsPlus could well become a far more effective presence in Dartmouth North and other inner city high dropout zones.

The true vision of “wraparound” services and supports will not be realized until SchoolsPlus is re-engineered and begins to draw far more on the strengths and talents of local communities, working with parents and families, and tapping into services closest to where people live and work.

The SchoolsPlus initiative has achieved the goal of provincial coverage – with eight boards and 95 current sites.  Yet expanding the number of sites and supports is only half the battle. It’s far more important to keep your sights on the core mission — improving the quality and intensity of frontline services to struggling children and youth  — and their families.  Without a “mid-term correction,” this promising initiative may run aground much like its predecessor in Saskatchewan.

What is the real purpose of Integrated Service Delivery (ISD) models being introduced into the school system? Why do ISD  initiatives like SchoolsPlus and SchoolPLUS face such systemic resistance?  What does it take to successfully transform schools into “communities of care” for struggling children and youth?  And how do we get there?

               

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Leah Parsons, mother of teen suicide victim Rehteah, was withering in her initial response to the latest report on her daughter’s tragic odyssey. ” I read it over quickly and I had to walk away from it because it was just so fluffy,” she told The Chronicle Herald. ” A lot of talk about nothing.”  That comment, more than anything else, laid bare one of the  biggest challenges facing Canadian education reformers: external reports generated by ‘in-house’ consultants operating under narrow mandates. In this case, the initiators of the Nova Scotia Government review badly misjudged the public mood and demand for concrete action instead of more soothing words.

RehteahParsonsReportThe two authors of the report, Debra Pepler and Penny Milton, are seasoned educators and nice enough people.  The scope of the mandate they were assigned, likely by former Halifax School Board chief Carole Olsen, now Deputy Minister of Education, was so narrowly circumscribed that little should have been expected. When the two consultants were appointed, they signaled as much by saying that the mandate was not to probe into the causes nor to assign responsibility for Rehteah spiralling downward while she was enrolled as a student in the Halifax Regional School Board system.  It’s also relevant to note that Milton is the ultimate “insider” and was CEO of the Canadian Education Association when Olsen served as its President a few years ago.

The Milton-Pepler report got a rough ride at the Media Conference announcement on June 14, 2013, at One Government Place in Halifax.  The incredibly thin, 31-page report, entitled “External Review of the Halifax Regional School Board’s Support of Rehteah Parsons,” may signal a new low in public accountability for educational decision-making.  With the eyes of the world on them, the two authors served up an incredible menu of mush. ” The educators responsible did the right things,” Milton said, somewhat hesitantly. Then Dr. Pepler added: “This was a problem with systems.”

Close observers of the Nova Scotia scene were quick to trash the entire report.  The highly respected Chair of Nova Scotia’s 2011-12 Bullying and Cyberbullying Task Force, Dr. Wayne MacKay, described it as “disappointing’ when the public has been demanding “concrete actions” not more studies.  News columnist Marilla Stephenson of The Chronicle Herald summed up the response, dismissing it as “a lightweight, highly frustrating reinforcement of how a high-functioning public school board might work best under idea circumstances.” Surveying the report and its skimpy 6-page list of mostly generalized recommendations, she wondered why the government paid as much ass $70,000 to secure such a fluffy report.

The Milton-Pepler report documents, in clinical fashion, just how Rehteah fell apart after the “rape” and posting of the horrible picture of her in an intoxicated state.  It’s clear that her tragic story involves far more than wild partying and cyberbullying and cuts to the root of today’s teen culture and life withing that “tribe” ouside the scrutiny of responsible adults.

Where the report completely fails, however, is in explaining how a Cole Harbour teen with such problems could be missed by school officials while transferring from one high school to another for almost two years. From the fateful house party in the November 2011 until June 2012, she attended four different HRSB high schools, a period of 7 months. She was then refused re-admission to her home school, Cole Harbour District High School, and ended up back at Prince Arthur HS for a second time, shortly before taking her own life.  Her downward spiral was marked by heavy drug and alcohol use, frequent school absenteeism, and encounters with the Halifax IWK teen mental health clinic and the Avalon Sexual Assault Centre.

The Milton-Pepler review proposed 13 rather vague recommendationsi that satisfied few. News media unfamiliar with edu-babble were dumfounded by the airy tone and weak kneed approach to such an urgent matter.  After Wayne Mackay’s authoritative bullying report, it was hard to stomach the recommendations including addressing the school system’s bullying issues, better sharing of student information among schools, more social issues-based curriculum, and reducing the “silos” preventing branches of government from working together. While averse to casting blame in the education system, the two educators pointed the finger at the IWK for its role in providing teen mental health services.

The report’s authors, based in Toronto, completely missed the significance of a previous Nova Scotia teen tragedy, namely that of Archie Billard, a delinquent teen who underwent a similar downward spiral nine years earlier. It was shocking that external experts seemed unaware of the 2006 Justice Merlin Nunn report and the provincial Child and Youth Strategy establish ed to prevent such cases from happening again.  One of the Child and Youth Strategy programs, SchoolsPlus, was ripped out-of-context and presented as a “potential solution.” No one could explain why Rehteah was allowed to spin “out of control” like Archie with 16 SchoolsPlus sites in operation in the local school system.

What are the lessons to be learned from this sad example of educational policy research and advocacy?  How could the Nova Scotia Government completely misread the public mood and sense of urgency, especially after Wayne MacKay’s repeated appeals for less talk for more action?  Should senior educational administrators and their cronies be entrusted to investigate the system that sustains them?  When, in heaven’s name, will we begin to see real action to minimize the chances of this happening over and over again?  Is it time to clean house and get to the bottom of what’s really going on inside the system?

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Educators are well known for recycling.   The so-called “21st Century Learning Skills” are a classic example of the phenomenon. Anyone familiar with North American education over the past few decades like Bob McGahey of the Canadian Teachers’ Federation  is immediately taken aback seeing such old panaceas  being repackaged around technology as the solution to education’s current problems. 

RetroSpace21CA group of six ‘Young Turks’, funded by the Action Canada Foundation, has produced yet another report on the state and future of Canada’s provincial education systems. The latest offering, a rather thin 16-page paper, published in February 2013, carries an auspicious title, Future Tense: Adapting Canadian Education Systems for the 21st Century. Upon its release, the paper relatively little attention for good reason – it simply offers nothing much that’s new. After identifying the yawning gap between official policy rhetoric and school-level reality for teachers, the Action Canada report parrots the standard 21st Century Learning platitudes and puts its faith in the anemic Council of Ministers of Education (CMEC) to lead us to the promised land.

The Action Canada Fellows accept, rather uncritically, the familiar late 20th century knowledge-based economy tenets and skills now recast as 21st century competencies:

Creativity, entrepreneurship and innovation;

Critical thinking;

Computer and digital literacy;

Character.

The “Young Turks’ operate based upon the rather broad assumption that the ‘critical core competencies’ are absent in the current educational system.It is also abundantly clear that they think such skills are newly discovered concepts emerging fully formed from the fresh air generated by 21st century winds. It is difficult to discern, however, whether this is a reflection of youthful idealism or simply naivete.

The Action Canada report focuses on five Canadian provinces, Alberta, British Columbia, New Brunswick, Ontario, and Quebec.  Its  analysis, based upon a survey of 920 teachers, conducted in December 2012 and January 2013, and attempts to assess the “salience” of each of the core competencies in provincial education policies and practices. The Policy Review revealed “little consistency between provinces” as to the substance of 21st century learning or the goals (p. 7).  The five provinces, simply put, were all over the map in their policies and implementation.

Among the Canadian provinces British Columbia and Alberta fared best, demonstrating more integration of 21st century skills and more evidence of policy implementation, including a focus on “innovation.” Ontario specializes in promoting critical thinking and character development, but shows “lack of attention to computer and digital technologies.”  New Brunswick was found to be in limbo, following the abortive 21st Century Learning initiative, halted by the David Alward government.  Quebec policy proved to be the most archaic, with no policy initiatives on “computer or digital technologies in the last decade.”(pp. 7-9).

The Teacher Survey was quite revealing, identifying a significant gap between the promise and delivery of educational policies. Descriptive thinking and writing still ranges between 38% and 46% of the curriculum, and teachers with graduate degrees are more likely to set higher analysis/evaluation expectations.    Classroom IT use remains surprisingly low in all provinces, and even in New Brunswick where all teachers have personal laptops.  Character development is strongest in Alberta and weakest in Ontario, where it is a stated provincial curriculum priority. Overall, Canadian teachers aspire to demonstrate creativity, but “conventional modes of teaching” remain prevalent. (pp. 10-12).

One of the report’s real revelations is how much the the New Brunswick 21st Century Learning initiative, launched with tremendous fanfare by Shawn Graham’s Liberal government, has fizzled. After 3 school years, classroom computers are still used very rarely in the province’s schools. It’s anyone’s guess why the initiative’s champion,  former Deputy Minister John Kershaw, was chosen as a mentor for the group (p. 7) that produced this report.  Only in education are architects of programs asked to evaluate the success of their creations.

The report’s Recommendations are incredibly disappointing, particularly given the teacher survey findings. Since Dr. Paul Cappon, the Canadian Council on Learning, and most educational policy analysts  consider CMEC to be a weak sister, and a poor substitute for a national education agency, putting such faith in that body to deliver is likely doomed to failure. Sinking more financial resources into promoting teacher professional development has to be questioned given the lukewarm response from regular teachers skeptical of technology-driven solutions.

The sad state of commuter integration in the classroom and online learning, documented in the report, warrants more action and the authors completely ignore the specific policy proposals set out in the SQE research report, The Sky Has Limits, released a year ago. Top down solutions proposed in Future Tense rarely work, especially when so many structural barriers to online learning and virtual schools remain in place in our provincial school systems.

Why is the Action Canada team’s prescription for 21st Century Learning such an anemic and conventional policy reform document?  What’s become of the ‘Young Turks” that we look to to shake up the educational system? Where did the Action Canada team develop its abiding faith in the Council of Ministers of Education (CMEC) to actually step up to the challenge of national leadership? Whatever happened to the more robust agenda advanced in the October 2011 Final Report of the Canadian Council on Learning?

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