Archive for July, 2013

In September 2010. Atlantic Canada’s largest school board, the Halifax Regional School Board moved its Central Administrative Office from downtown Dartmouth to a Corporate Industrial Park in Burnside, on the city’s outskirts.   The decision to expand the central office to 73,000 square feet for some $1 million more in annual leasing costs was justified on the grounds that the board had, it was only then revealed, accumulated a $4.3 million surplus for this purpose. Few, at the time, questioned the move or what it signified as a concrete example of the so-called “controlling politics” of the “new managerialism” in public education.

MakingSchoolsWorkCentralizing the administration was assumed to be necessary to advance  what OISE’s Dr. Ben Levin champions as “macro-directions” and presumably to minimize the dissonance and local resistance emanating from “micropolitics” in the schools.  The then Chair of the Board Irvine Carvery  defended the move as sound financially and claimed that the then Chief Superintendent Carole Olsen saw the need for a much bigger central headquarters to facilitate large scale professional developmemt activities.   Some 30 years after the advent of School-Based Management (SBM), this school board, like many across North America, remained wedded to system-wide management of virtually every aspect of educational service.

School-Based Management arrived in Canada in the early 1970s when an American educator, Dr. Rolland Jones, began experimenting with the concept as Superintendent of the Edmonton Public School Board.  Described as “a visionary 20 years ahead of his times,” he favoured local decision-making and espoused “site-based budgeting.”  From 1976 until 1995, his successor Michael Strembitsky  and school planner Alan Parry  effectively dismantled a centrally-managed school system  and operationalized school-based decision-masking.

A determined team of administrators led by Strembitsky  implemented a robust plan shifting more responsibility to local schools, increasing local budget allocations to schools from 2% to 82% of provincial education dollars.  While not entirely perfected,  the decentralized approach, in the words of Board Chair Joan Cowling, was “a dramatic improvement in the way schools were administered” and more attuned to school-level needs. 

The Edmonton Model was further developed by Strembitsky’s successor, Superintendent Angus McBeath.  School choice was introduced and implemented along with site-based budgeting.  Students and parents were offered their choice of schools within the city and, by 2003, 62% of high schoolers and 54% of junior high students attended schools outside their attendance zones.  A depopulating decaying high school was transformed into an arts academy and its enrolment rebounded, largely at the expense of competing private schools.  An energy conservation initiative, entrusted to local schools, netted $2 million at year in savings.  Publishing school-by-school student achievement results improved overall test scores.  While it was a top-down reform initiative, the key to its success, according to McBeath, lay in the strong support it engendered among “allies outside the educational system.”

After a flurry of school-based management initiatives in the mid-1990s, including some school districts in Ontario and Nova Scotia, school administrators pulled back from the whole approach.   Centralization and administrative build-up proved to be powerful forces, strengthened by the consolidation of  school boards, the introduction of system-wide testing, the proliferation of special programs, and the spread of program consultants.  Student loads per teacher, known as Total Student Loads (TSLs), according to William G. Ouchi, actually rose in junior and senior high schools.  Superintendents acquired more power by increasing the size of their headquarters staffs, created more non-teaching positions, and this, in turn, led teachers to abandon the classroom.  A 1997 American research study revealed that only 43% of district employees were regularly engaged in classroom teaching.

The Edmonton Education Model attracted many public accolades but few followers in the ranks of North American educational administration.  In his 2008 book Making Schools Work , Ouchi, a leading UCLA management professor,  reported that Edmonton had “the best-run schools” compared to those of many other North American cities. He credited Edmonton’s educational leadership in school-based management with engineering a “revolution” and charting the way for other school systems to escape educational mediocrity and under-performance.

While North American educational leaders still shy away from School-Based Management, it is now undergoing a renaissance  in the developing world where school systems are seeking immediate “turnaround” educational reforms.   Since 2003, The World Bank has been particularly active in supporting and funding SBM initiatives in  countries like Kenya, Indonesia, Nepal, and Senegal. A recent international study, commissioned by the World Bank (2011) , claimed that “education is too complex to be efficiently produced and distributed in a centralized fashion.” (p. 87). In spite of some successes, the study found “ambiguous results” in countries where “elite capture” was a problem and “teachers and unions” resisted ceding more control to “parents and community members.”

Senior administrators who promote the latest educational panacea known as ”distributed leadership” remain surprisingly resistant to a more democratic, school-level, decision-making model.  Yet more open minded educators like New Yorker Thomas Whitby, initiator of #Edchat, and Australian researcher Bruce Johnson continue to muse about the unsettling impact of centralizing administration on the quality and tone of teaching and learning in schools.

Sympathetic observers like Whitby express concern over teacher -administrators who get swept up in the “Education Center world” and managerial matters and lose touch with the classroom,  In Australia, Johnson contends that ”bureaucratic managerialism” has been used to “construct a seemingly irresistible top-down juggernaut of reform that largely excludes the possibility or desirability of local agency.”  School-based management has considerable appeal because it fosters a ”positive politics” of negotiation, collaboration, and conflict resolution to address issues of local concern in schools.”  He longs for the day when teachers, as well as parents, could enjoy a more “positive framework” with ongoing opportunities to participate in the “school improvement journey.” (p. 23)

What’s feeding the continued growth of central administration in K-12 public education?  Why has the Edmonton Model of school-based management won so few converts among senior educational administrators?  Can “distributed leadership” ever be achieved without ceding some control and responsibilities to school-level principals and parent-community councils?  What stands in the way of achieving a more locally-accountable, school-based system?

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Bright red pencils and bold X’s used to be the preferred tools of correction in the North American classroom. Those methods came  naturally to educators with a bred-in-the-bone urge to correct others.  Today the red pencils and self-esteem destroying X’s are gone, but the underlying instincts to correct others remain. That may explain why a Toronto-based group known as Facts in Education (FiE), spearheaded by Dr. Ben Levin, has arisen to defend the education system by identifying and “outing” errors of fact and unsubstantiated opinion in the popular media.  Upset with the media, the group, claiming to be “a non-partisan panel of experts,” has set out to combat and correct the “excessively negative, sensationalistic, or just plain wrong coverage of education” in Canada.

The Facts in Education initiative is the creation of Ben Levin and actually run by two of his graduate students at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.  His panel of experts, now numbering 21 educators, reads like a Who’s Who of the Toronto-based Canadian education establishment. Most of the members are education administrators, faculty of education professors, and former school superintendents rather than academics and, with the exception of Dr. Charles Ungerleider of UBC, all are in the Toronto-OISE orbit.  Recognized scholars with a more independent bent like Kieran Egan,  Paul Axelrod, David R. Johnson, Dennis Mulcahy, and Jamie Metsala are conspicuous by their absence from that list of ‘gatekeepers.’

The Levin Group claims to be guarding the “facts” of Canadian education and functions much like a “truth squad” pouncing upon offending news reports and even objectionable opinion columns. A recent paper delivered to the American Educational Research Association (April 26-May 1, 2013) in San Francisco is almost laughable. In it Levin and two of his proteges describe how they interrogate troublesome columns by The Globe and Mail’s Margaret Wente and even feature articles in the Walrus Magazine.  What upsets them most is “poor framing, sensationalized or misguided opinion” known in the outside world as freedom of opinion and expression.

ReformBenLevinLRCBen Levin’s feature essay, entitled “Getting to Better Schools” Literary Review of Canada (June 2013), provides deeper insights into their outlook and peculiar “reformist” mindset.  The Canadian education system, according to Levin, is definitely not in crisis and that is presented an incontestable fact.  Indeed, “proper framing” demonstrates that Canadian education should be viewed through an Ontario lens and educational reform is the Ontario Dalton McGuinty reform program writ large.

Dr. Levin makes a heroic effort to dispel any public perception that the education system is in crisis.  A recent Ipsos Reid poll, released 6 September 2012, would tend to suggest otherwise.  An overwhelming majority of Canadians (86%) now express concern about public elementary school children’s performance in reading, writing, and mathematics. Furthermore, contrary to Levin and his allies, three-quarters of those surveyed (75%) agreed that “standardized testing” was “a good way” to measure and compare students’ performance against other provinces and countries.

To be fair, Levin accepts the fact that the system is not perfect, but then proceeds to identify supposed weaknesses like program supports for the poor, minorities, aboriginal people, and students with disabilities, which are actually our current strengths, compared to most other developed OECD nations. What he is really proposing is tinkering with the status quo rather than any reform agenda addressing broader public concerns.

Leading Canadian educators like Levin find it difficult to confront the system that they themselves have helped to shape and tend to have a few blind spots. More objective analysts seeking to assess the state of Canadian K-12 education would draw upon the independent research of the Canadian Council of Learning and, more importantly, from the findings of its Final Report. It might have been helpful, for example, to reference Dr. Paul Cappon’s October 2010 assessment that “Canada is slipping down the international learning curve” and that “we are not going to compete in the future unless we get our act together.”  While Levin lauds the Canadian system for “the consistent quality of our schools,” he seems to brush aside Cappon’s key finding that “we have very little information nationally about how we are doing.”

Scraping below the surface, what education reforms does Levin actually support?  More spending on public education, raising graduation rates, poverty reduction measures, investing in arts education, expanded co-op and workplace education, and presumably less emphasis on public accountability testing programs. And, of course, “mobilizing knowledge” to advance that cause.  In other words, maintenance of the Canadian education status quo.  That’s also a reasonable facsimile of the aspirational McGuinty Education Agenda from 2003 until 2011.

While purportedly addressing the perils and pitfalls of education reform, Levin seems remarkably resistant to the more popular panaceas — parental choice, standardized testing, teacher quality-evaluation reform, and alternative charter school programs. In a nutshell, he seems to be gently and diplomatically rejecting the main tenets of the current North American education reform movement. It all sounded so reasonable that his hidden message almost escaped my notice.

What is the real purpose of the Toronto-based group known as Facts in Education?  Why are the “facts” in Canadian K-12 education so closely guarded? Do we really need an educational “truth squad” to police the popular media and disseminate the conventional wisdom of the current educational establishment?  Most importantly, what are up and coming policy researchers being taught at OISE and possibly other faculties of education?

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The arrival of Nova Scotia Student Report Cards in June 2013 provoked quite a reaction from parents, particularly those with students in Atlantic Canada’s largest school board.   “Ridiculous.” “Meaningless.” “Mumbo-jumbo.”  Those were just a few of the words used by Halifax region parents to describe the computer-generated InSchool reports utilizing PowerSchool, the province’s  new $6 million student information system.   After an initial attempt by Deputy Education Minister Carole Olsen to deflect the stinging criticism, the Minister Ramona Jennex, Chair of CMEC, was compelled to intervene, promising to look into the concerns.

InSchoolBannerEducation officials in Nova Scotia were clearly taken aback by the reaction and acted like it was news to them that the canned reports were incomprehensible to most parents and virtually every student, certainly in the elementary grades.  Education Reporter Frances Willick deserves credit for unearthing the latest parental outcry, but the concerns are not new, nor will they be fixed by a few cosmetic changes on student reports.

Some twenty years ago, educators were confronted with a wave of educational reform focused on introducing Outcome Based Education (OBE) and increasing demand for standardized testing to provide more assurance of student achievement levels. Most educational administrators and consultants reacted instinctively against such intrusions and adapted by developing some rather ingenious counter measures.  Unable to stop the advance of standardized assessments, they resorted to retaining control of student reporting and turning it to different purposes.

Student reports cards have been filled with gibberish since at least  the early 1990s. Much of it can be traced back to a February 1993 Ontario Ministry of Education document known as The Common Curriculum, Grades 1 -9.  That document introduced teachers to the term “learning outcomes” and attempted to destream Grade 9 and replace a subject-based curriculum with more holistic cross-curricular understandings.  In the case of Language Learning Outcomes, reading was downgraded and the word “spelling” dropped from the elementary lexicon.  After parents rose up calling for “a set curriculum with specific goals,” the so-called “dumbed-down curriculum” was shelved, but a new student evaluation system based upon “meeting provincial outcomes” survived.

CouldDoBetterOCERIntended as a means of providing parents with regular communication reflecting measurable standards, OBE student report cards become quite the reverse.  School curriculum was re-written around “learning outcomes” and professional development was geared to teaching teachers the new “educratic” language.  Communicating with parents gradually morphed from providing personal, often candid comments about students, to tiny snippets reflecting the “expected outcomes.”  When Student Reports became standardized and machine-generated, the “student outcomes” jargon became entrenched and accepted, rather sadly, as a demonstration of teaching competence.

Standardizing report cards became a vehicle for implementing the new orthodoxy.  In Canada’s provincial systems, OBE was captured by educators who opposed testing and sought to undercut its influence with “assessment for learning.”  Grading and ranking students, once the staple of teaching,  became dirty words and the initial standardized reports sought to replace marks with measures of formative assessment.  Ontario’s first Standardized Report Card, eventually rejected, attempted to introduce a new set of incredibly vague measures such as “developing,” developed, and “fully developed” understandings.

Today’s standardized report cards, as bad as they are, could well have been worse. Many professional teachers, particularly in high schools, resisted the “dumbing down” of curriculum and the invasion of ‘politically-correct’ report writing.  The leading teachers’ unions, the OSSTF, BCTF, and NSTU, opposed student reporting that chipped away at teacher autonomy and consumed more and more of a teacher’s time to complete.  In Nova Scotia, for example, the Grade 9 to 12 reports may be littered with edu-babble comments, but they still provide percentage grades.  In Grades 1 to 8, the reports still retain a watered down letter grade system.

A closer look at the Nova Scotia Power School report card reveals that the grading system has also been impacted. In Grades 1 to 8, for example, the range of grades has been narrowed to reflect the goal of equality of outcomes. The highest grade possible is now “A” and it signifies “meeting learning outcomes,” and “F” has been eliminated entirely. No one, it seems, can be outstanding or “exceed expected outcomes.”

The current flap over Nova Scotia report cards is simply the latest manifestation of a much deeper problem.  Education authorities favour standardized student information systems and Nova Scotia’s 2010 full adoption of Power School was mostly driven by the need to track student attendance.  The reporting module, adapted from the template with few adaptations, was essentially an afterthought. It is quite clear now that Power School was a Trojan Horse for the advance of standardized reports and the latest wave of “canned reporting” and “robo comments.”

What can we finally secure personalized, common sense Student Report Cards?  Is it just a matter of linguistic cosmetics or part of a much deeper problem entrenched in the current educational system?   What needs to be undone, before we restore sanity to student reporting?

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