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Archive for March, 2014

The latest report on the state of School Choice in Canada dropped out of thin air on February 27, 2014 and hit with barely a thud. Produced for the Vancouver-based Fraser Institute, the report entitled Measuring Choice and Competition in Canadian Education generated a predictable media response. “Alberta leads the nation in offering parents and kids more school options compared to its provincial counterparts,” The Calgary Herald chirped.  “In terms of choice, it’s very clear that Alberta goes out of its way purposefully, strategically, to provide parents with choice not only within the public system but outside the public system,” stated Jason Clemens, executive vice-president of the Fraser Institute and co-author of the report. So, you might ask, what else is new?

SchoolChoiceRallyThe Fraser Institute study  provided a very useful comparative analysis of the range of school choices available from most (Alberta and BC) to least (all of Atlantic Canada, except for New Brunswick).  Like most previous North American reports, it turned to free market economic theory to make its case. Increasing school choice and competition, Clemens and his co-authors argue,  spurs “quality, lower prices and innovation,” which in turn leads to improved student performance and an enhanced education system.

School choice in Canada, according to the Fraser Institute, now encompasses having parallel public and separate school systems (both in French and English) and so Canada is, by virtue of this factor, supposedly more open to choice than might be thought, given the relative uniformity of bureaucratic structures and provincial curricula.  Once again, Alberta is the exemplary province, the only one to authorize charter schools and provide some funding to students who are homeschooled.

“The presence of charter schools in Alberta provides an additional source of choice, which provides parents with additional options outside of traditional linguistic and religious alternatives offered by public school boards,” reads the report. Conversely, the Atlantic Provinces offer “comparatively little parental choice and competition among schools.”

“It’s pretty hard to look at any metric in the independent school sector, public or home-schooling where Alberta is not at the top of the list in terms of trying to proactively provide parents with more choice,” Clemens said. He also pointed to a growing body of research in Europe and the U.S. that suggest a “clear link” between parental choice and student performance.   Then, he attempted to apply that to Canada, arguing that it explained, in many ways, why BC and Alberta tend to ” do pretty well on education testing and education performance generally.”

The School Choice report is disappointing, especially for those who favour expanding the range of choice available in Canada’s provincial school systems. Parents and students in the 21st century are so accustomed to having and making choices in life that the public school systems are completely out of sync with the rest of society. Instead of relying on the tired old arguments of Milton Friedman and the free market theorists, the case would have had far more bite if it had been based upon the rights of students and parents as “‘consumers of education’ to better schools more attuned to student needs.

Students and parents in all Canadian provinces, including Alberta, would benefit from more school choices inside the public school system. There is only one choice for the vast majority of Atlantic Canadians living in Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, and Prince Edward Island. Over 95% of all K-12 students in these three provinces are offered only one brand of school, the standard English Public School model. In New Brunswick, some 28% of all students attend Francophone schools, but their curriculum and program are, with a few exceptions, a French mirror image of the Anglophone version.

Atlantic Canada is, putting it bluntly, a “take it or leave it” public system where only more affluent families have an alternative, the odd private independent school and homeschooling, enrolling only 1 to 2.5% of the total student population. Out of 430 total schools in Nova Scotia, only 30 are private or independent (without public funding) and they only enroll 2,949 students or 2.2 % of the total provincial enrollment.  About 2,600 First Nations students (2.1%) do attend very small Mi’kmaw Education Authority schools in 13 different native communities. Fewer than 250 Nova Scotia students receive tax support to attend special schools for kids with severe learning disabilities.

Alberta, upon closer examination, is not quite the nirvana painted by the Fraser Institute.  Some 70.4 % of Alberta students attend the “one big system” ( Public/English), 22.9% the Catholic/French systems, 4.6% private/independent, 1.3% charter schools, and 1.6% are home schooled, receiving some $1650 per year for resources. Under the Alberta Charter School law, the numbers of publicly-funded charters are limited (to 15) and enrollments are capped, leaving 8,000 students on waiting lists in Calgary alone.  Introducing charter schools in the mid-1990s hardly proved destabilizing because the flow was restricted and only 1% of the student population were able choose them.

Public fears about charter schools are fueled by defenders of the existing educational order — and appear to be not only irrational but unfounded. Giving parents and students more school choices and more variety in terms of alternative programs would not be ‘the end of the world.’  Students and parents in Canada’s largest urban school systems like Toronto, Edmonton and Vancouver, already have many school choice options and have “open school boundaries” allowing students to attend schools of their own choice.  School district “boundary reviews” provoke an intense public outcry for good reason – the school board is dictating where your children are going to attend school.

School choice is gradually emerging as a fundamental human right for students and families. Choosing the best school for your child should not be so difficult or next-to-impossible without significant financial means. School systems would benefit from being more open and responsive to a wider range of student needs and aspirations. The only challenge is to build in safeguards to prevent a mass exodus and to ensure that actions are taken to improve under-performing schools. That is the kind of “transition planning” that will make a real difference in the lives and educational outcomes of students.

Why is the School Choice Debate in Canada so theory-ridden and ideologically stilted?  Why do School Choice advocates rely so heavily on Milton Friedman and the free market theorists? Why, on the other hand, do Canada’s so-called ‘educational progressives’ cling to the established system and respond with cliche-ridden critiques of creeping “neo-liberalism” and “privatization”?  What if we simply gave students and parents a wider array of public school options and stopped worrying about limiting their choices?

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Closing schools at the first sign of a coming snowstorm is a 20th century tradition that may soon come to an end.  So is turning on the morning radio or TV bright and early in eager anticipation of the predictable announcement. The local Storm Centre list makes it official: “School’s out again.”

SnowDaySceneNow comes news from the American “snow belt” states that the storm day itself may be threatened by, of all things, the gradual advance of 21st century e-learning. Already, U.S. school districts from Pittsburgh, Pa., to Westerville City, Ohio, to Trimble County, Ky. are beginning to take full advantage of the Internet to convert snow days into cyber-learning days.

While many Canadian and American  school boards continue to declare snow days, idling millions of students and thousands of teachers, a viable alternative to cancelling school days is slowly emerging in the United States. Since August of 2011, the State of Ohio has authorized school districts to develop “e-day plans” for storm days, implementing them once five days have been lost in the school year. It’s a very ingenious response to the significant loss of student learning time.

School snow days are back with a vengeance in the current school year. So far in 2013-14, students in Nova Scotia, Canada’s largest Maritime province,  have already lost from three to 12.5 full school days, depending upon the school board, mostly as a result of storm cancellations. Two of the regional boards, Chignecto-Central (CCRSB) and Annapolis Valley (AVRSB), are on pace to break the previous record of 14 lost days, set during the 2008-09 school year.

Five years ago, the high incidence of school cancellations sparked a provincewide debate. Jim Gunn’s storm days report (December 2009) documented the extent of the problem and recommended a number of operational changes to minimize the impact upon the system. My own April 2010 policy report for the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS) compared school days lost in boards across Canada and contended that the number of days lost in 2008-09 hurt student performance, particularly on the June 2009 Grade 12 mathematics exams.

A few minor policy adjustments have been implemented since then. Schools in the Halifax regional board are, as a result of David Cameron’s 2011 board motion, now closed more often by families of schools, conserving time lost in walkable city school zones. The CCRSB has also attempted to be more flexible, not always closing across the board. In the South Shore school board, a “back roads closure plan” has been implemented, keeping school buses operating on snowy days and allowing more schools to stay open.

School days are still being written off by system administrators and school principals and the Education Department continues to take a laissez-faire approach. Working parents and concerned community members who raise any objections are treated as “kill-joys” or chastised for their lack of concern for child safety on hazardous roads. Why worry? some say. Enjoy the family time and be happy.

Why are the three Maritime provinces so out of sync with other Canadian school systems and most American states? School boards in Calgary, Winnipeg, south central Ontario and the Quebec Eastern Townships all experience brutal storms and heavy snow, but rarely, if ever, close their schools. School officials in Calgary, Winnipeg, and York Region maintain that students are safer in school and in buses rather than cars.

What changed the dynamic in the American snow belt states? Political and business leadership was critical. State governors and school commissioners, at the urging of business employers, responded to public concerns when school was cancelled repeatedly, disrupting working families and affecting productivity levels in the plant or business office.

How did it happen? Concerned parents pressed state governors and legislators to take action to stop the erosion of instructional time. School districts in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Wheeling, West Virginia, and rural Kentucky sought to eliminate the lost days entirely by introducing make-up school days in place of professional development days or at the end of the term.

The best solution came out of Ohio. After five days lost, school districts were authorized to institute either “e-lesson days” or to provide make-up days to guarantee a minimum number of instructional days each year. Faced with those options, some 86 Ohio schools have now registered to offer e-days during school storm closures. On those days, teachers go online at 10 a.m. and provide lessons online until 5 p.m., providing a full day of online learning.

E-days do work best in digital-learning, networked lap-top schools, but surprising numbers of schools rely solely on school-to-home computer connections. Since most of today’s homes have networked home computers or mobile devices, more students report in than on some regular school days.

Turning disposable storm days into e-learning days is clearly the wave of the present as well as the future. It’s time to get serious about moving forward with 21st century learning and to tackle the problem of throw-away school days.

What’s standing in the way of implementing E-Learning Days in schools?  The Internet is no longer a novelty and the 21st century began almost 15 years ago. Go ahead and give us your rationalizations.

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