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Archive for December, 2013

The Rehteah Parsons case has made us all far more aware of the contemporary spectre of cyberbullying and teen sexual assault. Coming on the heels of recent teen suicides and prescription drug tragedies, Rehteah’s death prompted a flurry of immediate — and delayed — responses from Nova Scotia’s education, child and youth services, hospital, police and judicial systems. Every Canadian province far too many Rehteah Parsons-like stories of lost teens who fell through the cracks in the system.

RehtaehMemorialAfter all of this frenzied activity, Rehtaeh’s own province  still has a a gaping hole in its child and youth service system. Simply reacting to the regular and ongoing “youth crisis” eruptions is not good enough.  Nova Scotia desperately needs the visible and active presence of an empowered Child and Youth Advocate, independent of the Government and separate from the provincial Ombudsman’s Office.

The current provincial ombudsman, Dwight Bishop, has, to his credit, raised the alarm bells in late June and again in his latest annual report. Sadly, both of those sincere and impeccably diplomatic appeals fell mostly upon deaf ears.
Provincial bureaucrats like Bishop, unlike those heavyweight auditor generals, often appeal for bigger budgets to expand their reach, but – in this case – the cry for a more robust presence is not only justified, but long overdue.

The 2007 Nova Scotia Child and Youth Strategy established a better policy framework and the situation now cries out for real action. Many teen suicides are preventable, child poverty is growing, financially-pressed families are stressed out, domestic violence exists in too many children’s lives, and abuses still happen in child welfare and educational institutions.

The N.S. Ombudsman Office, founded in response to allegations of institutional abuse in the 1960s, labours on with a very limited mandate and an annual budget of only $1.7 million, a fraction of what is invested elsewhere.  Last year, Nova Scotia spent only $400,000 investigating child and youth complaints, less than one-quarter of the amount expended in Newfoundland and Labrador.

The mandate of Nova Scotia’s ombudsman is far too narrow, limiting Bishop to investigating cases of abuse in provincial child and youth care facilities. His latest recommendation to establish a “child death review committee” was well intended, but is woefully inadequate because we cannot be satisfied with simply providing justice at the tail end of the process.

It’s time Nova Scotia joined Canada’s eight other provinces with Child and Youth Advocates in taking a more robust approach with a full mandate to investigate a wider range of individual cases, to recommend changes in child, youth and education service systems, and to take the lead in advocating changes in child and youth policy.

When Nova Scotia adopted the Child and Youth Strategy, the key initiatives were entrusted to the Community Services Department and, to a lesser extent, the Education Department. Some progress has been made in promoting juvenile justice reform, restorative justice practices and integrated service delivery, including the SchoolsPlus program aimed at supporting the 10 to 15 per cent of children and youth at highest risk.

The time is ripe for an independent agency to assess recent reforms and to attack child and youth problems at the source .It is not enough to simply focus on individual cases of abuse and death when an open, accessible complaints office and comprehensive reviews yield so much more for policy-makers. Such independent provincial reviews are also much more affordable for taxpayers.

An August 2009 review of Canadian provincial child and youth advocacy offices, conducted by Robin MacLean and R. Brian Howe at Cape Breton University, found that Saskatchewan, Ontario and Manitoba had the most effective operations.  Those jurisdictions were reportedly “more active and successful in advising government and influencing systemic reform,”  leading to policy and legislative changes.  Nova Scotia lagged behind other provinces, particularly in its scope of operations and public advocacy role.

The Saskatchewan Child and Youth advocacy system has proven itself capable of effecting positive change. Since 2007, that office has sparked the province-wide adoption of eight Child and Youth First Principles, based upon the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), establishing child rights and provisions for “the greater protection from harm.”  That led to a prohibition of corporal punishment in public schools, youth detention centre detox programs, teen health information clinics, and bullying prevention policies.

Child poverty reduction now tops the agenda in BC and Saskatchewan where the provincial offices have issued Child Poverty Report Cards. More than one in eight Nova Scotia children live in poverty, the fourth highest percentage in Canada, after BC, Manitoba and Ontario. A provincial Child and Youth Advocate here would ensure that we look “upstream” at the root causes of child poverty, child abuse, juvenile delinquency, and later criminal activity.

The N.S. ombudsman’s proposal for a “child death committee” falls far short of what Nova Scotia children, youth, and families need in a time of financial stress and high anxiety complete with new threats like serial sexting and cyber harassment.   Taking action now may be just what saves us from a succession of Rehteah Parsons cases in the years ahead.

Who speaks up for Children and Youth who go off track at a critical point in their lives?  Which Canadian province has the best record in Child and Youth advocacy? What will it take to convince governments to address the problems of troubled children and youth at the source rather than a the tail end?

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“Creativity and innovation” are the new buzz words in education.  Leading proponents of “21st Century Schools” such as  Tony Wagner and John D. Kershaw have  appropriated those two words and incorporated them into the latest “vision” aimed at transforming North American public education. The “21st Century Schools” mantra has captured the British Columbia Ministry of Education and been re-branded as “Personalized Learning.”  In other provinces and states, the movement is embedded in what Boston education professor Andy Hargreaves now calls “The Global Fourth Way.”  The hidden agenda of public-private ventures like 21C Canada , strangely enough, is to roll back standardized testing and to replace it with a “culture of trust” rather than accountability.

GritSignClosing the global learning gap is critical to the future of American public education. and the recent PISA 2012 student results were a also wake up call for Canada.  Judging from the PISA 2012 results, Asian 15-year-old students are leaving ours behind, particularly in mathematics.  Espousing “creativity and innovation” is no substitute for demonstrating academic rigour, hard work, and resilience on international tests of actual achievement.   The North American ‘systematizers’ seem to have mastered the faddish “21c” language, but what good is “creativity and innovation” without the grit and determination to make it happen?

Now that the smoke has cleared after the release of the PISA 2012 student rankings, a clearer picture is emerging to help explain why North American students —with the exception of those in Quebec — are losing ground in math and to a lesser extent in science.  Pursuing excellence through equity is producing a few surprises. Many socio-economically disadvantaged students, schools, and systems are now beating the odds and achieving reasonably high performance levels by international standards. “Grit and determination” rather than “creativity and innovation” are what is making the difference.

The OECD has identified high performing students from disadvantaged backgrounds as “resilient” because they manage to overcome difficult socioeconomic circumstances to achieve in school. A resilient student, according to the OECD, is one who performs and behaves the same as an “advantaged high achiever.” Only 6 per cent of students in the 65 countries participating in the PISA  are classified as “resilient.” Some 8% of Canadian students are “resilient” and resilience is highest in Quebec and lowest, as expected, in PEI.

The PISA 2012 resilience rankings, in Excellence Through Equity, Vol II, 95-97,  are truly startling. When the PISA 2012 results are analyzed based upon the “resilience” criteria, Asian students come out even farther ahead. The top eight national groups are all Asian, with between 15 and 19 % of their students classifiable as “resilient.” Canada and Finland rank 14th and 15th with 8% and 7.5% respectively and the United Sates lags behind in 37th place with 5% of their students demonstrating resilience.

Canada has done better than most countries in narrowing the achievement gap between affluent and poor students. Having recognized that, it’s worrisome that half of our “disadvantaged low achievers” report being late or skipping school, while only a third of “resilient” students do so. The resilient among Canadian students are reported to be 1 per cent more conscientious than their more advantaged classmates. It is clear, as Simona Chiose recently claimed, that — as Asian countries like Vietnam, Korea and Japan show,  targeting energies and resources on students of little means will ultimately pay dividends.

Boring down into the PISA results shatters a few other oft-repeated myths. Students who perform poorly on the triennial PISA test tend to have a “double liability” of coming from a “disadvantaged background” and “attending a school with lower quality teaching resources.”  Yet more is not always better.  The pupil teacher ratio is generally higher in advantaged schools than in disadvantaged schools. In Canada, it is 16.9 STR vs. 14.7; in the United States STR 18.5 vs. 16.8; and in Finland STR 11.4 vs. 9.2.  World leading Shanghai/China is demonstrably more elitist with smaller classes for advantaged students, STR 10.5, vs. 14.7 for disadvantaged students.

Defenders of fuzzy standards like American education  gadfly Alfie Kohn will receive cold comfort from the results.  Socio-economically advantaged students not only perform well but also spend “more time on homework,” especially in Shanghai, Japan, Taipei, Belgium, Bulgaria, Hungary, Italy,  and the U.K.  World beaters in Korea and Japan, to no one’s surprise, spend more time attending after school tutoring programs.  Across all OECD countries, in advantaged schools, parents are reported to “set very high academic standards” and “expect children to achieve them.”

Crusaders for “21st Century Schools” are in another orbit when it comes to raising educational standards and better preparing students for a changing world. “Creativity and innovation” are important, but “grit and determination” can make or break you in your life and career.  Visionaries drawn to “21c” like bugs to a light should take the time to read Paul Tough’s insightful 2012 book, How Children Succeed. Why do some kids succeed while others fall short of potential? Grit, curiosity, and character matter more today than ever before.

What are PISA 2012’s real lessons? International assessments are a valuable reality check in comparative education. Sticking educational pitchforks into the BC Personalized Learning initiative, as proposed by Globe and Mail columnist Jeff Simpson,  might be a way to prevent an Alberta-like slide in our Pacific province. It’s time we started challenging children to really think and to fully apply themselves instead of developing magic potions and aiding students in looking for short-cuts to better marks. Educating for resilience has given Asian nations an edge and it’s getting harder to evade the issue.

Will the global learning gap be overcome through a “21C Vision” (i.e., a supersonic wing and a prayer) or through educating for resilience?  To what extent is advancing learning technology and ‘connectivity’ the answer to the slide in standards?  Can “creativity and innovation” succeed in turning the system around without more grit and determination from our students?

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The ‘Big Test’ has hit us and rocked our education world. The sliding math scores of Canadian 15 year-olds outside Quebec have just captured all the headlines and a series of PISA news stories and commentaries identified the “discovery learning” approach to teaching mathematics as the source of the recent, and continuing decline. Columnist Konrad Yakabuski , a close observer of the American education wars, saw the declining math scores as a “damaging legacy” of discovery learning. We are falling backward, he claimed, in both excellence and equity raising the fundamental question – “Has the education elite learned its lesson?”

PISAMathKidsIn the OECD’s 2012 Programme for International Assessment (PISA) rankings released December 3, 2013, , Canada  dropped out of the top 10 in student mathematics scores, a decline that raised alarms about the country’s future prosperity. Canadian students placed 13th overall in mathematics, down three spots from 2009 and six spots from 2006, in the highly anticipated test conducted every three years and which measures how 15-year-olds around the world are doing in math, reading and science. Canada ranked behind many Asian economies, including Shanghai (China), Singapore, Korea and Japan, while the United States lagged far behind and 36th out of 65 participating countries.

PISA12RankingsThe PISA test jolt comes on the heels of declining math scores nationally and a surprisingly poor showing from youth on a recent OECD literacy and numeracy test. The Canadian math curriculum, ushered in over the past decade, catching the blame for lower scores for good reason.  Curricula like the Western and Northern Canada Protocol (WNCP) is out-of-sync with high performing Asian countries because it  places far more emphasis on real-world concepts  than on abstract thinking, standard algorithms, and practice. The accompanying OECD report, in fact,  noted that the top performers had more exposure to formal mathematics than word problems. That may explain why Shanghai students topped the rankings and performed three grade levels above those of most other nations.

Topping the PISA student performance rankings attracts international acclaim, school system imitators, and increasingly scarce public education dollars. Once reviled by Canadian anti-testing advocates, the PISA test results are –oddly enough –what provides the ammunition for much of what now passes for informed debate over quality, equity, and accountability in Canada’s provincial school systems. They also bred a certain Canadian complacency until the recent release of the 2012 student results.

National and provincial reputations now ride on the PISA results. From 2000 to 2006, the PISA test results catapulted Finland’s education system to star status, and that ‘Finnish infatuation,’ essentially swept the Canadian educational establishment off its feet, blinding us to the Quebec’s success in mathematics and Ontario’s progress in improving reading and closing the socio-economic education gap.

Between 2000 and 2009, Canada plateaued in overall student performance and Canadian students posted a 10 per cent decline in reading scores. This week’s PISA results confirm that 15-year-old Canadian students, with the execution of those in Quebec, are losing ground, particularly in mathematics.

The rise and fall of Alberta, Canada’s former top performing province, contains a few valuable lessons. Two decades ago, Alberta was the first province to really confront the global learning gap, forecasting that, if trends continued, Albertan and Canadian students were going to be left behind.  

Dr. Joe Freedman, a Red Deer radiologist, and Andrew Nikiforuk, a Calgary-based Globe and Mail columnist, raised the first alarm bells and founded Albertans for Quality Education.  In 1991, they convinced the Alberta Chamber of Resources (ACR) and the Conference Board of Canada to produce a truly ground-breaking study,  International Comparisons in Education, comparing Alberta math and science curriculum with that in Japan, Germany and Hungary.

Alberta’s mathematics and science curriculum was then virtually re-written and bench-marked against that of the top performing nations. Under Education Minister Jim Dinning, the province built its rock solid reputation on raising standards, student testing, school choice and charter schools.

While Alberta ranked first on the PISA tests and topped the Pan-Canadian Assessment Programme (PCAP) tests in literacy and science for most of two decades, it has slipped precipitously since 2006. Adopting the WNCP math curriculum with its “discovery learning” focus and the Finnish infatuation have been key factors in the decline.

The ‘Finnish solution’ began to lose its lustre after the 2009 PISA test when Finland saw its reading scores drop by 11 per cent. Outside of Canada, education policy analysts have now become far more enamoured with Asian school systems like Shanghai and Korea.

None of this seems to matter to Canadian ‘progressives,’ sponsoring a Canadian tour for Finnish education expert Pasi Sahlberg, promoting Finland as the “Global Fourth Way,” and seeking to curtail standardized testing. They are bent on turning back the dreaded “GERM,” the Global Education Reform Movement, supposedly carrying the plague of “neo-liberalism” and its principal strains — higher standards, school choice, and competition in public education.

The Alberta Teachers Association (ATA), armed with a 2012 report written by Sahlberg’s North American ally, Andy Hargreaves, now talks of “transforming Alberta education” with “The Fourth Way, “ and is out to dismantle provincial testing, curtail expanded classroom learning time, and block teacher assessment tied to student performance. More recently, the Finnish wave of “personalized learning” has reached British Columbia.

Finland, like Canada, got a jolt from the 2012 PISA test results. That will finally prompt education observers to acknowledge that Finnish education is fuzzy on standards.  It is, after all,  light on standardized testing, soft on homework, and promotes a “culture of trust” instead of accountability.

Looking deeper, Finland is also a “one provider” system with little or no choice for parents, delays the start of school until age 7, and streams students after Grade 9  into two tracks, academic and vocational, based upon arbitrary average-mark cut-offs.

The Canadian attraction to “discovery learning” and the rush to abandon standardized testing have both hit a significant bump in the road. In the wake of the 2012 PISA results, Canadians are awakening to the dangers of turning back the clock to the days of ‘accountability-free’ public education. Without PISA and the OECD follow-up research studies we are left almost completely in the dark on critical educational quality issues that matter for students and our public schools.

What are the powerful lessons of Canada’s recent decline in PISA test scores?  When will Canadian mathematics educators face reality and come to accept the need to develop a more rigorous, soundly-based curriculum providing a solid grounding in the fundamental skills?  Will Canada come to accept the need to stop being what Paul Cappon aptly termed “a school that never issues report cards”?  And finally, is the real message sinking in?

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