Archive for January, 2014

Amy Chua, the infamous Asian American “Tiger Mother,” is back with a provocative new book, The Triple Package, that started generating monsoon-high waves even before its publication. Teaming up with her spouse, fellow Yale law professor Jed Rubenfeld, Chua tackles what is considered a taboo subject – why certain “cultural groups” in the United States are “astonishingly successful” and perform particularly well in school.

TriplePackageCoverStudying the more materialistic measures of success — income, occupational, status and test scores — Chua and Rubenfeld  claim that top performers come disproportionately from certain cultural groups, most notably Chinese Americans and Mormons.  While the controversial book focuses on American immigrant student success, it might well apply here in Canada where Asian Canadian students are now academically soaring in the major cities of Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal.

The central thesis of Chua and Rubenfeld’s The Triple Package is not only plausible, but defensible, and that’s what’s driving the legion of critics crazy. According to the authors, three traits breed success: a superiority complex, insecurity, and impulse control.  Only when this “Triple Package” comes together does it “generate drive, grit, and systematic disproportionate group success.”  Lost in the largely hostile initial reviews in The New York Post, The Guardian, and Salon.com is any reference to Chua’s rather forthright analysis of the downsides of “The Triple Package” –the burden of carrying a family’s high expectations, and the deep insecurities instilled in children that may exact a psychological price later in life.

Since the early 2000s, Canadian educational leaders and researchers have begun to conduct demographic studies that yielded some unexpected and perhaps unwanted results.  Driven by the Educational Equity research agenda, they have focused almost exclusively on the deficits, studying under-performing student groups and attempting to close what is known as the “learning gap.”

In the case of the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), Canada’s largest public school system,  the first comprehensive “demographic snapshot” released in June of 2008 was presented as a wake-up call demonstrating how “the system was failing to help students overcome roadblocks of culture, poverty and family background.”  Then Director of Education Gerry Connelly was quoted in The Toronto Star issuing a fateful pledge: “I am bringing an action plan to address the underachievement of marginalized students that will specify targets and actions to break the cycle over the next five years (2008-2013).”  Those five years are now up, and the latest TDSB Demographic Profile for 2011-12 seems to accept the dictates of “socio-economic gravity” when it comes to school success.

Leading researchers like Dr. Bruce Garnett, Research Director in BC District 36 (Surrey),  produces fine immigrant student studies, but is not entirely helpful in explaining why students from some “cultural groups” are far outperforming others.  After just completing his PhD at UBC in 2008, he seemed to rule out the potential of looking at “the minefield” of demographics and student excellence. “This isn’t some kind of horse race, ” he told The Toronto Star, and we do this kind of research in the interest of equity because we know know kids from different countries can come to school with different degrees of preparedness, depending upon the dominant values of the culture.” He then hastened to add that it was “dangerous to use this kind of data to make genetic assumptions.”

TDSBScanRacialProfileMounting evidence is accumulating that Garnett cannot afford, any longer, to avoid turning over that stone. The latest TDSB Environmental Scan for 2010-11 and particularly the Census Portraits for demographic groups has rendered such blinkered approaches almost untenable. Toronto school board research specialist, Maria Yau, and OISE Graduate student Sangeetha Navaratnam, have blown a hole in earlier research assumptions. The most recent Census Portrait of Toronto’s East Asian Students actually confirms the “Triple Package” thesis, and so do the findings of the South Asian demographic analysis.

The TDSB research findings for the East Asian and South Asian students, now representing some 40% of the TDSB student population, are impossible to ignore.  Taken together, they are now the majority group in the system, larger than the “White” population (31%), and clearly driving recent improvements academic achievement and graduation rates.  What explains their recent success?  The three East Asian sub-groups from China, Hong Kong, and Korea, according to Yau, share several “commonalities” (i.e., traits): they achieve well academically, spend far more time per week on homework and studying (14-15 hours, almost double that of”white” students); and have parents more likely to expect them to go to university.

Asian Canadian students in the TDSB are also setting the academic pace, even though they are not drawn from the most economically-favoured, high income communities. Their academic achievement levels of East Asian students are truly outstanding, especially when so many start as “E.S.L” students.  Between 85% and 89% of East Asian students achieve Levels 3 and 4 on the provincial  Grade 6 Math test, some 25 to 30 points higher than the TDSB average., and a higher percentage at Grade 10 (84% to 69%) are on track to earn a high school graduation diploma. South Asian students, originally from Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan, Guyana, and Bangladesh, are also performing well, all (except the Guyanese) with Grade 6 Math scores 2% to 15% above the board average.

Asian Canadian students in the TDSB are beating the socio-economic odds and performing very well in school. While it is true that more East Asian parents, except those from Hong Kong, have university degrees, parents from China are actually most likely to be in the two lowest income groups  (i.e., with annual household incomes of less than $30,000 or between $30,000 and $49,000 per year).  South Asian students tend to come from larger families and their parents , except for the Guyanese, are also mostly university educated. Once again, South Asian students have parents mostly in the lowest two income groups, earning under $50,000 per year.

American immigrant student research is proving to be closer to the mark than comparable work conducted by Canadian researchers.  While Bruce Garnett and OISE researcher Jim Cummins focus on race and language as a disability affecting E.S.L. students, American scholars Grace Kao (University of Pennsylvania) and the late John Ogbu (UC Berkeley) saw great strengths in recently arrived immigrant students. Since 1995, Dr. Kao’s  “model minorities” thesis has gained wide currency. She has made a compelling case that Chinese and Korean Americans are imbued with a strong sense of cultural values attaching great importance to achieving economic success through schooling and higher education.

Nigerian American Ogbu added credence to the “model minority” explanation by documenting the radically differing academic achievement levels achieved by children of “voluntary” immigrants compared to those from refugee or involuntary minority communities.   In short, students from voluntary immigrant groups like the Chinese, Koreans, and East Asians, have higher hopes for school success and apply more effort than the so-called “colonized” and “conquered” immigrants such as Aftrican-American or First Nations children.

The ground-breaking American studies of Kao and Ogbu, buttressed by recent TDSB demographic research, strongly suggest that Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld’s controversial book The Triple Package should not be dismissed as completely off-base and might help to shed more light in the dark corner of North American education.

Why are Canadian Asian students performing so well in Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal public schools?  Do East Asian and South Asian students exhibit what Amy Chua terms “The Triple Package” of a superiority complex, insecurity, and impulse control?  If not, then what else explains their “academic trajectories” and pace-setting achievement levels?  And perhaps most significantly, where would Canadian schools (particularly in Toronto and Vancouver) rank in international student assessments without the presence of these high performing students?

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A new educational venture, Teach for Canada (TFA), is certainly stirring up a fuss in the normally predictable, politically-correct world of Canadian K-12 public education. It’s the brainchild of two hyper-kinetic high achievers, Kyle Hill and Adam Goldenberg, and initially modeled after the Teach for America (TFA) organization, founded in 1989 by Princeton University grad Wendy Kopp.  The Canadian offshoot was hatched by Hill and Goldenberg while they were Action Canada fellows during 2010-11, but it did draw its inspiration from TFA, a ground-breaking  American school reform initiative that has recruited 30,000 top college graduates and professionals to teach in the nation’s “most high-needs classrooms” and to “work throughout their lives to increase opportunity for kids.”

RiseUpTeachersTeach for Canada is still in its infancy and, so far, looks much like a paper tiger.  Unlike Teach for America’s founders , its principal initiators are both small-l liberals rather than neo-conservative education reformers.  Both TFA and TFC focus on bridging educational inequities, improving disadvantaged schools, and promoting a culture of teaching excellence.  Under Kopp’s visionary leadership, TFA was also a serious attempt to challenge the status quo by recruiting higher calibre teacher candidates and promoting an alternative to traditional and restrictive teacher education programs. The Canadian variation, in fact, has much more in common with Teach for All, a recent spinoff now headed by TFA founder Kopp and active in 32 countries around the world.

Given its stated and laudable liberal reform objectives, why has Teach for Canada stirred up such a hornet’s nest? While it comes from centre-left field,  it still represents one of the first attempts to seed the “New Progressivism” here in Canada. On top of that, TFA does challenge the current teacher certification regime and a licensing system that has survived, virtually unchanged, for much of the past century.  Judging from the sharpness and ferocity of recent attacks on TFC, attempting to take direct action to allieviate stark inequalities faced in high-needs communities is threatening. Opening the doors to preparing teachers in a different fashion, such as the popular six-week Teach Like a Champion program, is heresy.

Painting Teach for Canada black sounds like the first step in the direction of black-balling. It’s not a surprise that faculty of education professors and B.Ed. certified teachers would feel threatened. Teacher education proponents in Canada, cheered on by Dr. Michael Fullan and other deans, have been campaigning since 1993 to stamp out one year B.Ed. programs.  Clinical teacher education training appeals to them and moving to two -year programs is good for job security.

Regular teachers currently in the schools tend to get defensive.  As for current certified teachers with a B.Ed. (like me), it’s hard to accept the mere idea that extraordinarily talented recent university grads and young professionals might make better teachers.  Heaven help us if more academic and professional specialists (MAs, LLBs, and MBAs) are ever allowed in those classrooms. Don’t even bother to suggest that remote communities facing teacher shortages or high-turnover schools might benefit from an infusion of high energy, idealistic young recruits. After all, a Mathematics or Science class taught by a certified teacher teaching “out of field” is accepted as good enough in far too many school boards.

If Canadian education needs Teach for Canada, it’s regrettably not where the organizers have focused their project – on rescuing First Nations and Metis children and youth. Buying into the Stephen Harper Government’s agenda, embodied in the proposed First Nations Education Act, is ill-considered because it assumes that talented white teachers from largely urban lives can save students on the reserves. It runs counter to the fundamental principle of “Aboriginal Self-Government” in education and flies in the face of promising initiatives, like the N.S. Mi’kmaw Education Authority (MK), based upon preparing First Nations teachers for their own schools.

Teach for Canada may yet live up to its promise.  It’s probably too late to establish a clearer differentiation between TFA and the Canadian project.  The co-founders, and particularly CBC-TV’s Three to Watch panelist, Adam Goldenberg, a former Michael Ignatieff Liberal aide, should know better than to try to transplant an American initiative without anchoring it in the Canadian youth service tradition.

Perhaps it’s too obvious or just too archaic for bright-eyed millennials.  Choosing the right cultural reference points is critical to the success of any school reform initiative.  Bridging socio-economic gaps, engaging recent grads in youth service, and embracing community activism actually have more in common with the Pierre Elliott Trudeau tradition of Liberalism than with Wendy Kopp’s American educational “peace corps.”

What started out as a clone of Teach for America is beginning to resemble, in its mission, Canadian youth advocacy and education programs from the 1960s until the 1990s. Why not build upon Canadian foundations in youth service?  Look to the Company of Young Canadians (1966-1977) to recapture that idealistic “fire in the belly,” to Katimavik (Inuktituk for “meeting place”) (1977-2012), for a passionate social service ethic, and to Youth Service Canada (1994-1997) for painful lessons about institutional resistance to youth employment ventures.

What’s causing all the commotion over Teach for Canada, especially among certified teachers and tenured faculty?  Why did the co-founders start by attempting to import Teach for America into Canada?  What’s wrong with building a “New Progressivism” in education upon clearly-stated reform objectives?  Is it too late to reclaim the Canadian ‘small-l and Big L’ liberal tradition to clear away the structural barriers standing in the way of real educational change? And most importantly, does the provincial ‘certification regime’ represent a barrier to engaging more young teachers and reducing educational inequities in our schools?

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“What’s Standing in the Way of Educational Change?” is a fundamental question that deserves an answer.  On October 21, 2013, it was also the theme of a Canadian Education Association (CEA) Symposium held in Calgary and attended by some 300 educators, including delegates from seven ministries of education, 12 faculties of education, and chief superintendents from 15 different cities.  After all the edu-chatter, a clear, unqualified answer still eludes us.

CEAStandininWayofChangeHolding that Symposium was still one of the year’s bright spots.  The Canadian student results on the Big Test, the 2012 Program of International Student Assessment (PISA) mathematics supremacy test,  proved to be the biggest downer.  Surveying Canada’s provincial K-12 education systems brings into sharper relief the most notable ups and downs on the learning curve.

The Best – Hopeful Signs
. Teen Mental Health Initiative
With the Rehtaeh Parsons case capturing the headlines, a Mental Health Pathway to Care program championed by Dalhousie University psychiatrist Dr. Stan Kutcher was implemented in Nova Scotia and other provinces without much fanfare. Adopting an integrated model, training teachers and focusing on Grade 9 students will pay longer-term social dividends. Most of the credit belongs to two Nova Scotia regional school boards, the South Shore and Halifax, for taking it on before “Rehtaeh” became a household word across North America.
•    Adoption of Cyberbullying Laws
The continuing controversy swirling around Rehtaeh Parsons teen suicide finally bore fruit in the form of a series of new statutes known as Cyberbullying Acts. In the wake of Rehtaeh’s death, Nova Scotia moved quickly to pass a Cyber-Safety Act, establishing a Cyber Scan police unit to clamp down on cyberbullies. In November 2013, federal Justice Minister Peter MacKay followed-up with legislation aimed at cyberbullying, including a prohibition of the non-consensual distribution of intimate images. Distributing “cyber-porn” was now deemed a criminal offense in Canada.
•    Resurgence of C21 School Reform
The resurrection of former New Brunswick deputy education minister John D. Kershaw as CEO of C21 Canada signaled a resurgence in the technology-driven “21st Century Schools” movement. Inspired by American Tony Wagner’s “creativity and innovation” crusade, Kershaw and his hi-tech partner William Kierstead held a February 2013 “Shifting Minds” Summit Conference and then developed an expanding ITC partnership with the Canadian Council of Ministers of Education (CMEC).  A well-publicized 2013 research report, entitled Future Tense and produced by the Action Canada program scholars, helped to advance a closely related assault on provincial student testing.
•    Community Hub School Revival
A February 2013 policy proposal, presented by the Nova Scotia Small Schools Initiative and based upon Toronto educator Dr. David Clandfield’s international research, succeeded in changing the adversarial, divisive public dialogue around school closures in Maritime rural communities.  Community hub school ‘talk’  became de rigeur and then even Nova Scotia Education Minister Ramona Jennex began voicing her support. When the N.S. School Review Process was suspended, in early April 2013, small school advocates celebrated the temporary halt of school consolidation.
•    Quebec Math Student Prowess
In the wake of the 2012 PISA student results, Canadian education policy analysts were stunned, once again, by the stellar performance of Quebec students in mathematics. With Quebec ranking first in Canada, among the world’s top ten and far ahead of the English-speaking provinces, experts were at a loss to explain why.  Setting higher standards, provincial testing, and more rigorous math curricula are the most plausible explanation, but not what the dominant ‘progressive education’ thinkers like to hear.
The Worst – Troubling Signs
•    The 2012 PISA Results Slide
On December 3, 2013, the 2012 Program of International Student Assessment (PISA) student rankings hit Canada with the force of an Asian tsunami.  Our 15-year-old students, competing against those of 64 other OECD countries, slid down to 13th place, dropping out of the top ten, and falling further behind students from Shanghai/China, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea, Macau, and Japan. Canada’s former educational leader, Alberta, continued to slide, as did all provinces following the Western and Northern Canada Protocol (WNCP) ‘discovery math’ curriculum. For Prince Edward Island, the dismal PISA student results continued to be nothing short of an educational disaster.
•    Tarnishing of the TDSB’s Reputation
The Director of the Toronto District School Board, Chris Spence, abruptly resigned on January 10, 2013, amid a cascade of plagiarism allegations. Parts of Dr. Spence’s dissertation, submitted in 1996 for his Ph.D. from OISE were also copied from unattributed sources. That thesis on “Black Male Student Athletes in Toronto High Schools” had also formed the basis for his black student leadership programs. A year later an Ontario audit of TDSB books during his administration turned up financial irregularities, including evidence that senior administration collected hefty increases during a staff salary freeze.
•    Fumbling of the “Rehtaeh File”
With the eyes of the world on Nova Scotia, the Government hired Torontonians Penny Milton and Debra Pepler to conduct a limited, ‘no fault’ review of the Halifax RSB’s policy and procedures in relation to the handling of the case. When Parsons’ mother Leah dismissed the slim 25-page June 2013 report as “fluffy,” the credibility of the exercise was completely shot.  Two more external reviews later, the essential questions remain unanswered.
•    Bungled Student Testing Initiative
Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall’s government attempted to introduce provincial student testing in an effort to improve that province’s student performance levels. The Saskatchewan standardized testing initiative was rushed and ran into fierce opposition mounted by Dr. Marc Spooner and his supporters at the University of Regina.  In August 2013, the province announced a tactical delay in the implementation of testing and a month later Education Minister Russ Marchuk was replaced in the cabinet by a more conciliatory figure, Don Morgan.
•    Lightening Up of Standards
British Columbia’s 21st Century Learning project, promoting a student-centred focus and known as “Personalized Learning,” was cruising along until it hit a significant knot in the educational road – the 2012 PISA results. That province’s steady improvement in mathematics (under its old, test-driven curriculum) left many wondering why a “revolutionary change in learning” was being implemented. The Globe and Mail columnist Jeffrey Simpson joined the chorus urging British Columbians to “pitchfork” the lightweight “21st century schools” education reform.

Predictions can be risky in the world of K-12 Canadian education. A prophecy made by Canadian international standards expert Dr. Paul Cappon in December 2010 was actually borne out over the past year.  Compared to the world’s leading education states, Canada was “sliding down the learning curve.”

What kind of year was 2013 in the world of Canadian P-12 education? Did we get an answer to the CEA Conference question – What’s Standing in the Way of Educational Change?  Is it possible to answer that question given that Canadian educators continue to inhabit 10 little educational silos?

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