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Archive for November, 2013

The ‘Achievement Gap’ is, by most accounts, growing in most major urban public school systems.  One of the feature stories in The Globe and Mail’s Wealth Paradox series, written by Caroline Alphonso and Tavia Grant, demonstrated how income and educational achievement are correlated within Canada’s largest school system, the Toronto District School Board (TDSB).  While the important article was only a snapshot in time, it did raise serious concern about the dominant trend. As Canadian neighbourhoods become increasingly polarized along income lines, the promise of education giving every child an equal shot at a better life is getting harder to fulfill.

TDSMMathL2The Globe and Mail analysis confirmed the conventional wisdom about the so-called ‘iron law’ of income and achievement in public schools. Using standardized test scores and Statistics Canada income data for the TDSB, Alphonso and Grant painted quite a clear picture of inequality in Toronto’s public elementary schools: High-income areas are primarily home to high-achieving schools while lower-income areas have a higher number of lower-scoring schools.

The TDSB student results, school-by-school, mapped against income levels  confirmed the initial assumptions: Schools in lower-income neighbourhoods have a higher proportion of students failing the provincial standardized tests, achieving at Level 1 or 2, the data reveal (Level 3 is a pass). And a 2010 TDSB study showed that the majority of students identified as gifted were from the most affluent neighbourhoods of the city, while those kids identified with a language impairment or a developmental disability were more likely to come from lower-income neighbourhoods.

Two markedly different schools, Courcelette Public School in the affluent Beaches district, and Edgewood Public School in the heart of working class Scarborough, were identified as representative types signifying the most highly successful and the struggling schools. A third school, John A. Leslie Public School, again in a lower income Scarborough area, but with a predominantly immigrant student population, was chosen as a school where kids outperformed the expectations based upon socio-economic status (SES) factors.

Two different approaches to allieviating the achievement gap were briefly introduced – the open attendance zone model and the targeted resource support option, but the article tilted heavily in the direction of explaining the later approach, currently favoured by the TDSB.  Passing reference was made to the Vancouver and Edmonton school choice models before noting Ontario Education Minister Liz Sandals’ fears that “introducing school choice could exacerbate educational inequality” because “low-income families don’t necessarily have the means to drive their kid across town to a higher-ranking school.”

When it came to fairly examining the policy options, the otherwise fine article came up decidedly short.  Closing the educational gap by pouring more resources into under-performing schools, essentially the TDSB Special Student Supports model, was the only option really presented in any detail.  In that respect, John A. Leslie Public School, one of the 150 schools in that program, provided a convenient exemplar of the preferred approach.  This was also problematic because that school’s strong and effective principal, Greg McLeod, may well have been a bigger factor than the enhanced funding and resources.

Toronto elementary kids are required to attend their local neighbourhood school., unlike those in Edmonton and Vancouver, where parents and kids have a choice in the matter.  Opening up boundaries, according to TDSB operations director Carla Kisko, would be “a nightmare when it comes to planning.”  Really?  Then how have they managed to successfully implement it in Edmonton Public Schools since the 1970s?  Why has the Vancouver School Board (VSB) also moved in that direction?

School choice is protected by law in B.C., so, provided there’s space, parents are free to send their children to any school within the Vancouver School Board.  Competition to secure a place in the higher preforming schools is helping to fill once emptying schools and driving school improvement plans. According to statistics recently compiled by the VSB, including French immersion, nearly 50 % of all students currently attend school outside their local catchment area, and the vast majority are heading to the western parts of the city. While it poses a challenge for administrators, it does meet the growing parental appetite for choice.

In Alberta, where Alberta Education  supports parent choice, Edmonton Public Schools offers more choice programs than probably any other school board in North America. It has also been a school system with students who for decades have performed extraordinarily well on national and international assessments of student performance, particularly in mathematics and science.

Why does Ontario and its lead board, the TDSB, still have an aversion to open boundaries and parent choice in the elementary grades?  What’s the real purpose of maintaining strict school attendance boundaries?  What impact would introducing “open boundaries” have on student engagement and performance?  How and why has it worked in Edmonton Public Schools?  Is it possible to introduce more parental choice, while at the same time limiting its impact on social and educational inequalities?

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A Calgary Catholic District school, St. Basil Elementary and Junior High, made headlines in late October when principal Craig Kittelson sent a letter to Grade 7 to 9 parents announcing the elimination of the academic honour roll and end-of-year awards ceremonies.  The controversial Letter to Parents cited the work of American popular writer Alfie Kohn, including the contention that “dangling rewards in front of children are at best ineffective, and at worst counterproductive.”  A Postmedia news story by Trevor Howell in the Calgary Herald and the National Post gave extensive coverage to the eruption of “parent outrage” over both the decision and the way it was summarily announced to the community.

Alfie-KohnAxing the Academic Honour Roll reignited a public debate over the common practice of giving awards as an incentive to encourage academic achievement. The Calgary Catholic District School Board was caught flat-footed by the outrage. Scrambling for a plausible explanation, the National Post turned to Alfie Kohn’s leading Canadian disciple, Red Deer elementary teacher Joe Bower who operates the blog for the love of learning.  While news reports referenced Joe Bower’s 2007 move to end awards ceremonies at Red Deer’s Westpark Middle School, they made no mention of his related initiatives abandoning homework and refusing to give grades. Nor did the media report that he did so after experiencing an epiphany while reading Kohn’s article “The Costs of Overemphasizing Achievement.”

After “discovering” Kohn, Bower has been on a mission.  He’s become a serial @AlfieKohn retweeter,  while bouncing from school to school and ending up teaching special needs kids in ungraded classes at the Red Deer Regional Hospital.  In September 2013, Bower published a co-edited collection of so-called “progressive education” articles entitled de-testing and de-grading schools, complete with a glowing foreword by none other than his mentor,  Alfie Kohn.  Almost simultaneously, the Canadian Education Association published a feature article by Bower in Education Canada (Fall 2013) on “Telling Time with a Broken Clock,” the trouble with standardized testing. Kohn’s fingerprints are all over Bower’s articles and posts, hammering away at the evils of academic rewards, homework, and student testing of any kind. It makes you wonder whether this once repudiated, retooled agenda is actually the hidden curriculum of the CEA and its acolytes.

Whatever got into the Calgary Catholic District Board to actually sanction the axing of academic awards?  When pressed for a rationale, the CCDSB posted a rather bizarre summary of the “education research” intended to support the decision and come to the rescue of Kittelson,  the beleaguered school principal.  Surveying that short brief, makes for fascinating reading because it leads off by quoting American radical critic John Taylor Gatto, a leading “unschooler” opposed to compulsory schooling, then cherry picks evidence from Alfie Kohn’s favourite sources.  As a validation for the policy, it’s a classic example of a selective, politically-driven education research “mash-up” — the very kind that has landed education research in such bad odour in academe.

Just when it appeared that America’s leading progressive gadfly was fading in influence, Bower and a new generation of disciples are taking up the cause. Having heard Alfie Kohn speak at a Quebec  English Teachers Conference in Montreal in the early 2000s, I have seen–first hand– his tremendous gifts as an orator and felt the allure of his iconoclastic ideas, until I began to consider the consequences of putting those ideas into actual practice.  Born in Miami Beach, Florida, the preppy-looking, reed thin author and lecturer, now in his late 50s, has authored a dozen books with catchy titles such as No Contest: The Case Against Competition (1986), Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars (1993), The Case Against Standardized Testing (2000), The Homework Myth (2006), and Feel Bad Education (2011).  He has staying power, judging from the steady stream of simple Kohn axioms spewing out of Bower and his other camp followers.

Like most educational evangelicals, Kohn has undeniable appeal, especially to North American teachers, tapping into their very real feelings of alienation, powerlessness, and resistance to imposed change.  He finds a ready audience because he has identified a vein of dissent and resistance running though the rank and file teacher forces, often manifested in opposition to top-down educational decision-making.  Academic critics like Daniel Willingham, author of Why Don’t Students Like School, point out that Kohn is effective as an agent provocateur and likely “not bad for you or dangerous to your children.”  He raises important questions, but, according to Willingham, “should not be read as a guide to the answers” because his writings “cannot be trusted as an accurate summary of the research literature.” In his reply to Willingham, Kohn held his ground, while conceding that some of his distillations run the risk of oversimplying complex issues.

One of the most incisive assessments of Alfie Kohn comes from Michael J. Petrilli of The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an American education gadfly of a different stripe. Writing in the March 2012 issue of Wisconsin Interest, Petrilli hit the mark: “Kohn’s arguments are half-crazy and half-true, which is what makes him so effective — and so maddening.” He also provides a useful corrective to Kohn’s particular educational worldview. “What fuels the modern school reform movement,” he claims, “is not acquiescence to Corporate America but outrage over the nation’s lack of social mobility.” You can be sure this will not appear on Joe Bower’s blog or in one of his next tweets.

What fuels American education gadfly Alfie Kohn’s zealous contrarianism and various progressive education crusades?  How much of Kohn’s core progressivist ideology is rooted in the teachings of John Dewey and Jean Piaget — and what proportion is pure creative imagination?  What has Kohn actually contributed to the education world in terms of sound policy ideas?  What does explain his continuing influence and undeniable capacity to attract new adherents?

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