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Archive for October, 2013

The Toronto Globe and Mail’s six part series, The Daycare Project, has put Early Years Education back where it belongs on the public policy agenda.  From October 19 to 26, Erin Anderssen and her team did a masterful job presenting the challenge facing the Canadian and provincial governments attempting to provide safe, secure, high quality daycare and early years education.

Since the federal child education initiative, developed by the Hon. Ken Dryden (costed at $5 billion over 4 years), was abandoned in 2006 by the incoming Stephen Harper government, provinces have been scrambling to come up with plans of their own.  Access to high quality, affordable child care presents serious problems for ordinary working families.  Even today, the shortage of government-regulated space remains among Canada’s most pressing child-care problems. Across the country, families are forced to rely on the “grey market” – and, Anderssen discovered, “leaving their children with caregivers who may not even have first-aid training, paying whatever is asked, and hoping for the best.”

ChildCareCostsProponents of universal state funded early learning, championed by Margaret McCain and the Canadian Council for Early Child Development, are doggedly determined in making their case.  While The Globe and Mail series had a universal publicly-funded early learning tilt, it also demonstrated quite conclusively that the Quebec model of $7.00 per day early learning costing $2.3 billion annually is cost prohibitive in other provinces. Indeed, Quebec’s current plan accounts for two-thirds of the $3.7 billion now being spent by all governments.

The Daycare Project series went beyond simply analyzing, once again, the public policy conundrum, and attempted to look for successful models that might be applicable in other countries or provinces.  A survey of daycare regimes in seven different countries seemed to give the nod to that of Sweden, a universal, affordable, education-based system developed over a 20 year period from 1970 until the early 1990s.  The Swedish model is highlighted, but no mention whatsoever is made of Finland where early education begins at age 7.  Most educational comparisons of Sweden and Finland  tend to highlight the superior performance results achieved by Finnish students.

When it came to Canada, The Globe and Mail, for once, looked to a province other than Ontario for its exemplar.  “For a top-notch child care system close to home,” Anderssen stated, “Canadians should look to the nation’s smallest province.”  In choosing PEI as the best Canadian model, the series ruled out Quebec as being too expensive and instead endorsed a model combining public and private services, but largely architected by Kathleen Flanagan, an OISE student of Dr. Charles Pascal. In short, the PEI model is Ontario, modified and improved.

The Ten Lessons presented by Anderssen to guide the national policy discussion pay lip-service to the $7 a day Quebec model, and are drawn overwhelmingly from the PEI experience over the past two or three years. “Good education and a modern family policy can start long before kids arrive at kindergarten,” she concludes, before presenting this laundry list of lessons:

1. Make the economic case clear

2. Call it education

3. Create enough regulated care spaces

4. Make fees affordable, consistent – and capped

5. Train the teachers – and pay them for it

6. Location, location, location

7. Infant care is complicated

8. After-school care shouldn’t be an afterthought

9. Parents are part of the system

10. Set a target, track your progress

Most of the identified “lessons” are sound, but it’s difficult to accept the idea that the PEI model is scalable.  It’s a tiny province with a population of 140,000, one-tenth the size of Montreal, with fewer than 6,000 children under five years of age. The total cost of its early childhood education initiative is only $7 million, compared to the more than $2.3 billion Quebec child care system.  Declining school enrollments also mean that PEI schools have plenty of surplus space, unlike most of Canada’s fast growing suburban school districts.

Omitting Ontario from the cross-national comparison was quite instructive.  While the Ontario Liberal Government has been quick to proclaim the success of its $1.5 billion full-day kindergarten program, the jury is still out on its effectiveness. By imposing full-day kindergarten, that province has incited much opposition, mainly centred on its full steam ahead bulldozing strategy.

Why did Ontario become such an early learning battleground? Private and coop day care operators facing dislocation have found common cause with the Institute of Marriage and Family in Canada. The universalists, spearheaded by Dr. Pascal, hit a brick wall in the form of Don Drummond whose 2012 Austerity Report dismissed full-day kindergarten as an unaffordable social program.  In addition, family values advocates have found the weak spot in the Ontario plan – the by-passing of the family in the continuum of early child care. In many ways, there is much more to be learned from Ontario than from Quebec and PEI on the matter of achieving better early childhood education.

Where might Canadian education policy makers look for models of how to improve early childhood education in Canada?  Why are the Quebec and Ontario models no longer seen as viable, affordable policy options?  Do provinces like Nova Scotia have more to learn from Ontario and Finland than from PEI?  Where do parents and families fit in the proposed childcare models? In simplest terms, who is framing the national early learning debate, and for what real purpose?

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A well-timed Editorial in the Halifax Chronicle Herald, entitled “Rural Renaissance: Unlocking Potential(October 19, 2013) called upon Maritimers to embrace the “re-imagining of public services” and identified the Nova Scotia Small Schools Initiative proposal to create “a new model of community school” that delivers “education efficiently on a human scale” and serves as “a focus for community development.” This Nova Scotia grassroots proposal, the paper noted, was just one of many innovative ideas given new life by a remarkable gathering known simply as “The Georgetown Conference.”

Faye'sGeneralStoreFrom October 3 to 5, some 275 community leaders and activists (including me) gathered in rural Prince Edward Island for the much-anticipated Georgetown Conference 2013 with stimulating speeches and workshops organized around the theme “Rural Redefined.”  Co-chaired by former UPEI President Wade MacLauchlan, Oxford businessman John Bragg, Caisse Populaire Acadien boss Gilles Lepage, and Newfoundland Rising Tide Theatre founder  Donna Butt,  it was aimed at “harnessing the spirit that exists in rural communities” and at recognizing and further stimulating “innovative efforts.”  

Bringing together community leaders like Acadia University President Ray Ivany, Yarmouth Mayor Pamela Mood,  and  prominent CRA pollster Don Mills with passionate rural activists such as Leif Helmer of Petite Riviere, NS, Dr. Michael Fox of Sackville, NB, and Dayle Eschelby of Lockport, NS was long overdue and worthwhile in, and of,  itself. New bridges have already been built in defense of the vanishing settlements in the countryside.   

Sharing our views provided 275 more “points of light,” but will it – can it—accomplish any more than that?  Some of us have more robust aspirations – to initiate the significant change required to arrest the rural decline and set the Maritimes on the road to rural regeneration.

The Georgetown Conference 2013 initiative may help to dispel popular myths that rural Maritime life is bucolic, backward and a ‘deadweight’ in the modern global economy. Claims that Nova Scotia’s economic stagnation is caused by a “failure to urbanize” have likely been put to rest.  The Nova Scotia Commission on Our New Economy, headed by Ivany and now on election hiatus, has probably acquired some fresh momentum.

Whether the Conference can bridge the great divide apparent in Atlantic Canada’s emerging economic vision for the future is far more problematic.  Judging from the recent 4Front Atlantic Conference, held May 30, 2013 in Halifax, the 250 top business leaders and rising urban entrepreneurs may be proceeding with a different regional economic development agenda.

The 4Front Atlantic movement has proposed an Economic Positioning Strategy (GPS) for the region’s immediate as well as the long-term future.  Coming up with that plan was an impressive show of business solidarity, but where does the three-year odyssey leave rural communities? The five “stretch goals” of 4Front Atlantic for the next five years tended to focus , much like that of the former Darrell Dexter Government, on expanding trade, promoting wealth creation and providing better jobs. Securing young, talented workers and pushing-up immigration levels were also touted as a kind of miracle cure for what ails our provincial economies.

4Front Atlantic’s keynote speaker, Dominic Barton, Managing Director of McKinsey & Company, is actually a well-known promoter of global trade and economic growth driven by urbanization. Cities, not rural and small town communities, according to Barton, are the vital cogs in a world where 440 cities produce 60% of the world’s GDP.  He also predicts urbanizing trends will swell urban, middle class markets by more than 1 billion people by 2030.  Two of our leading sectors, health care and education, continue to lag, in Barton’s words,  as “the most techonologically-retarded” industries. Rising commodity prices will also pose challenges for the 1.2 million new urban dwellers a week seeking “a reasonable quality of life.” 

Promoting Maritime ‘hub cities’ and ‘townsizing’ rural communities only advances urbanization.  It also runs counter to the fundamental goals and aspirations of the rural community leaders and activists who gathered in Georgetown, PEI. Some 45 per cent of Nova Scotians are rural dwellers living in places of 5,000 people or less and the pattern is similar in the other provinces. Promoting rural sustainability is what drives them and they are not about to be swayed by visions of jobs ‘trickling down’ from mega projects.  Innovation in today’s world is, more and more, being driven by small idea incubators and start-ups located outside cities and increasingly scattered throughout the countryside. This is evidenced by regular reports of the remarkable success of a host of Nova Scotia tech start-up companies.

What lessons are we gradually learning? Traditional business operations are proving to be surprisingly slow footed in the fast changing, globally-networked economy. Yet, without sustainable, thriving rural communities, the long–term well-being and food security of cities and towns is imperiled in the decades ahead.  

Now is not the time to give up on rural regeneration. Moving schools to the centre of community renewal and development could well be the starting point. It is a critical piece of the agenda embracing support for innovative local enterprises, saving our farms, building, modelling sustainable living practices, and establishing networked communities. Building and preserving smaller schools is gradually being recognized as an essential building block for a revitalization in this corner of rural and small town Canada.

What’s driving the Georgetown Movement of rural revitalization?  Does Rural Regeneration actually figure in the Economic Growth and Global Trade visions of today’s business leaders? Will schools and children find a place on the go forward economic development agenda?

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The earth moved in Canadian Mathematics education in late June of 2013.  On June 17, 2013, Manitoba Education Minister Nancy Allen introduced a significant change in Elementary Mathematics education and stated: “Let’s face it: Doing Math in your head is important.”  Just eight days later, Nova Scotia Education announced a joint public-private partnership project aimed at motivating Grade 7 Math students at Halifax’s Oxford Elementary School by providing them with tablet computers and access to online mathematics resources, including lessons from Khan Academy.  In heralding the pilot project, private donor Jim Spatz of Southwest Properties claimed that it was “a huge opportunity to bootstrap our whole public education system.”

TeachingMathWhat did the two different Mathematics teaching initiatives in Manitoba and Nova Scotia have in common?  Each new project, in its own way, acknowledged that so-called “discovery-based learning” was falling short and helping kids to make sense of Math.  The unmistakable signal sent out by the two initiatives was that providing the fundamentals is making a definite comeback in Canada’s elementary mathematics classrooms.

Discovery-based learning in elementary Math classes is now under considerable attack. A feature article written by The Globe and Mail Education Reporter Caroline Alphonso (September 20, 2013) clearly explained why.  Parent concerns voiced by KItchener, Ontario parent Angus Gale were now being heard in many Canadian schools. ” The schools have such a broad concept of what they want to teach without nailing down the fundamentals of arithmetic., ” Gale says. ” They’re trying to create mathematicians, but you can’t teach that without teaching arithmetic.”

Student confusion and parent frustration with elementary Math curriculum and pedagogy have reached what Alphonso aptly described as “a tipping point.”  Ontario’s Minister of Education Liz Sandals has expressed concern about lagging student Math performance levels. Kumon Math reports a 23 per cent increase in enrolment over the past three years.  Spending untold hours teaching children the Math basics at home or paying rising fees for Kumon after school tutorial classes has got to stop.

A growing body of cognitive research, as well as a determined group of Mathematics professors, are now challenging the current status quo in elementary Mathematics education.  Without teaching foundational skills and basic algorithms for addition, subtraction and division, discovery-based learning is simply not benefiting most young learners. National math student scores are lagging.   On the 2009 OECD report of results, math performance decreased in Manitoba, New Brunswick, PEI, Newfoundland, Alberta and British Columbia.  Nova Scotia math performance has stagnated and Ontario’s most recent Grade 3 and 6 provincial test scores dipped for the fifth year in a row.

The Math teaching reform movement was initiated by two Manitoba mathematics professors, Anna Stokke and Robert Craigen. Since September 2011, the two professors have mounted a determined campaign to restore the basics and formed WISE Math – the Western Initiative for Strengthening Math Education.  They are strongly supported by John Mighton, a mathematician and founder of the JUMP Math program based upon similar methods.  “Kids need to know basic number facts,” Mighton says, “so they can work conceptually.”

Nova Scotia’s new Grade 7 Math Boosters pilot project is motivated by similar concerns.  After attending a Harvard Management Seminar, Jim Spatz became a passionate supporter of Khan Academy. and its founder’s methods of teaching mathematics and sciences.  Created in 2006 by business entrepreneur Salman Khan, the website provides more than 3,000 free instructional videos, including some very popular ones for teaching early mathematics.  The Math instructional lessons, as Manitoba teacher Michael Zwaagstra recently pointed out, demonstrate time-tested methods and all of the standard algorithms, the exact opposite of the approach favoured by curriculum consultants and taught to beginning teachers in today’s faculties of education.

So far, Manitoba is the only province that has fully restored teaching of the math basics. Starting this September, the revised Math curriculum specifies that, before the end of Grade 4 all students will be expected to know the conventional ways of doing math, to be skilled at mental computation, and to master basic equations without a calculator.

Why have Canadian Mathematics educators been so slow to respond to the mounting evidence that discovery-based methods simply do not work in the early grades?  What’s the real cause of lagging student performance in elementary level Mathematics — dumbed-down curriculum, flawed teaching methods, the shortage of subject specialists, or some combination of all of these factors?  To what extent is the Manitoba curriculum and pedogogical reform the harbinger of changes in other provinces?

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