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Archive for August, 2014

Alberta’s most unlikely hero, Physics teacher Lynden Dorval, has finally been vindicated.  Two years after he was fired in September 2012 by the Edmonton Public Schools for giving his high school students zeros for incomplete work, an Alberta appeal tribunal ruled on August 29, 2014 that he was “unfairly dismissed” and restored his lost salary and pension. There is justice, it seems, in the education world.  The bigger question is – how did it happen and will it encourage more teachers to stand-up  against eroding educational standards?

LyndenDorvalEPSPhotoThe Physics teacher at Ross Sheppard High School, was a 33-year veteran with an “unblemished” teaching record.  He stood his ground when a new Principal arrived and intervened to end the common practice of teaching students a valuable life lesson – failing to hand in an assignment or missing a test without a valid reason – would result in a mark of zero. In Dorval’s case, he even gave students fair warning and a second chance before taking that step.  It worked because Dorval , according to the tribunal, had “the best record in the school and perhaps the province for completion rates.”

The “no zeros” issue  came to a head when the school’s computer generated reports were programmed to substitute “blanks” for zeros, eliminating the practice.  Dorval considered banning zeros “a stupid idea” and said he “simply couldn’t follow it.”  Two other teachers did the same but escaped any repercussions.

The Alberta tribunal’s decision supported Dorval because he had raised very legitimate questions about whether the policy was good for students.  In the wording of the decision, “the school board did not act reasonably in suspending the teacher. The implementation of the new assessment policy has several demonstrable problems.” Specifically, since there was “no accountability or penalty for missing assignments in the new policy, there was little incentive for a student to actually complete the assignment.”

The written ruling was particularly harsh in its criticism of the principal and former superintendent Edgar Schmidt.  It agreed that Dorval was made an example for challenging the principal’s authority and found that the policy was imposed without proper consultation with teachers, students, or parents. Even more telling, the tribunal was very critical of the Edmonton board for denying Dorval due process during its September 2012 dismissal hearing.

The sheer idiocy of the Edmonton Public Schools student assessment policy was clear to most outside the system. Faced with a groundswell of resistance, the Edmonton board of elected trustees itself backtracked, approving a revised student assessment policy (protecting the Lynden Dorvals) and explicitly allowing zero as a possible mark.

School system Student Evaluation policy remains a total mystery to most parents and to tuned-in high school students.  Over the past two decades, provincial testing programs and school-based student evaluation have been moving in opposite directions.

Provincial tests such as the Ontario EQAO assessments hold students accountable for measuring up to criteria-referenced standards, while school board consultants promote the new “Assessment for Learning” (AfL) theories, pushing-up graduation rates through a combination of “no fail” and “do-over” student evaluation practices.  Defenders of such ‘soft, pass everyone’ practices like AfL consultant Damian Cooper   tend to see enforcing higher standards as a dire threat to student self-esteem.

Public school authorities have a way of silencing independently-minded teachers and many pay a professional price for openly expressing dissenting views. A small number of those educators stumble upon Canadian independent schools which generally thrive on giving teachers the freedom to challenge students and to actually teach.  Thousands of public school teachers just accept the limits on freedom of expression, soldier on and mutter, below their breath, “I’m a teacher, so I’m not allowed to have an opinion.”

Why did Lynden Dorval become an Alberta teacher hero?  It comes down to this: He said “No” to further erosion of teacher autonomy and standards.

 

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Today’s North American Education Debate is so circular that it’s getting to be tiresome. Surveying the Education Wars at a distance, it begins to resemble a “merry-go-round.” Recent serious contributions such as David L. Kirp’s New York Times column “Teaching is Not a Business” seem to get it half right. Peeling away the layers to get at its complexity is even posing a challenge for perceptive analysts like Frederick (Rick) Hess, curator of Education Week’s Straight Up blog. Few education observers in Canada have the temerity to even attempt a diagnosis let alone offer a prescription.

EdReformFuturesNorth American school reformers now routinely declare that “schools are broken and need to be fixed.”  Some committed school reform warriors seek to promote charter schools to introduce competition; others embrace “disruptive innovation” to unfreeze a monopolistic education system. Defenders of the status quo in public education respond that students are graduating at ever higher levels and, besides, “education is not a business.” A new breed of futurists wedded to technological transformation are attempting to use machines to implement system-wide “personalized learning.” It’s tempting to say “a pox on all their houses.”

The sad state of the Education Debate is most dramatically revealed in British Columbia public education, where the system is experiencing a protracted ‘crisis’. The gulf separating the Government and the BC Teachers Federation is now a canyon and the total breakdown has all the elements of a “class war” with students as the victims. In this game of brinkmanship, BCTF militants like Tobey Steeves are attempting to depict the conflict as “an encounter” with what Naomi Klein termed the “shock doctrine,” a cruel by-product of world-wide “disaster capitalism.”

It’s time to reclaim the sensible middle ground. More thoughtful educators like Kirp are correct in claiming that “teaching is not a business” and system-wide reforms based upon the business model are bound to fall far short of expectations. Failing to build professional relationships and organizational capacities can and do make or break any —and all –well-intentioned, clearly needed, school reforms.

The real lesson is that system-wide reforms live and die in the classroom.  “It’s impossible to improve education by doing an end run around inherently complicated and messy human relationships,” Kirp wisely points out. “All youngsters need to believe that they have a stake in the future, a goal worth striving for, if they’re going to make it in school. They need a champion, someone who believes in them, and that’s where teachers enter the picture. The most effective approaches foster bonds of caring between teachers and their students.”

Education policy reformers have been very slow to grasp what American educator Robert Evans once termed “the human side” of school change.  Here’s how it works: School reform initiatives come in waves and seasoned teachers do have a built-in “crap detector.”  Most veteran teachers have learned to be skeptical about “faddism” and can often be heard muttering, particularly in secondary school staff rooms , that “it too will pass.”  Change in education is threatening because it always signifies “a loss” of some kind, usually infringing upon teacher freedom or autonomy.

Waves of reform disappear as quickly as they arise at school level.  When provincial testing, or destreaming, or differentiated learning, or one-to-one student laptops fall short of initial expectations, policy-makers and school managers tend to blame it on “confusion” or “implementation problems.”  The severity of the implementation problem, as Rick Hess recently observed, is rarely acknowledged, and even then only when it is too late to turn back.

School reform breaks down and falls apart for a variety of interconnected reasons.  It is determined by how complex and technocratic the measure is (blended learning); whether it’s imposed from the top-down (provincial testing); whether the plan is fully baked (personalized learning); whether incentives exist for effective execution (teacher evaluation); or whether, in Canada, the teacher unions are fully on board with the change.

School leadership is a critical factor, particularly in school systems where superintendents and principals play musical chairs. Block scheduling, destreaming, outcome-based-learning, gradeless schools, and the holistic curriculum were all passing fads that attracted rather opportunistic champions.  Superintendents and principals who embraced them were promoted upwards, leaving others to make it actually work.  More problematic are the “serial champions of reforms” who move from one faddish initiative to another, swinging from student accountability to esteem-building, without missing a beat.

What matters in Canadian education is what happens in our 15,500 schools, spread over 10 provinces and three territories, educating some 5 million children. It is, as Rick Hess reminds us, all about implementation.  “Good policy” is too often stymied by poor implementation because we should be paying more attention, at the outset, to the visible and subterranean implementation challenges.  Introducing charter schools in Canada outside Alberta is perhaps a good example. What if that good, well-intentioned idea is best not pursued because the “winning conditions” are not present and, in any case, broadening parental school choice can be achieved more effectively through other means.

Why have a succession of North American school reform initiatives  since the 1970s come in waves and then disappeared?  In pursuing school reform, are we drawing the right lessons from the business world?  What can be done to find a sensible middle ground in the struggle to improve the performance of both schools and students? Is it possible for us to overcome that hardy perennial – “bad implementation”?  How critical are “organizational capacities” and the teacher-student-parent relationship?

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School recess remains one of the favourite times of the day for most elementary school students. Until recently, it was also a largely forgotten part of school life. With the advent of the overprotected kid” and the spread of campaigns against bullying, obesity, and boredom, recess has become a hot topic for public discussion.  Many school administrators and psychologists now see ‘free play’ at recess to be dangerous and threatening, especially for marginalized or bullied kids.  A new breed of North American parents, armed with Lenore Skenazy’s 2010 best seller, Free-Range Kids, have risen in defense of  unstructured ‘free play’ as a critical component in the education of healthy, happy and creative children.

RecessBoyRecessSceneThree years ago, in November 2011, a St. Catharines, Ontario, elementary school hit the news by banning balls from recess after a child bystander was hit on the head on the playground. After an enterprising 10-year-old boy, Mathew Taylor, voiced his objections, started a petition, and secured a meeting with the principal, Lockview Public School rescinded the ball ban.  Mathew’s parents, Scott and Angela Taylor, only learned about the protest after the children had booked the meeting with the school principal. Banning balls at recess, in their view, was not only “a bit of an overreaction” but also a symptom of school boards “over-regulating the playground out of fear of lawsuits.”

Today’s school psychologists view the world through a child protection lens and tend to be hyper sensitive to the dangers lurking in and around schools, particularly on the playgrounds.  A recent CBC News report, aired in September 2013, only stoked those fears. “More than 28,000 children are injured every year on playgrounds across Canada, ” CBC reported, “and the rate of hospitalizations has gone up eight per cent between 2007 and 2012.”

Student injuries and accidents are upsetting — and their impact should not be minimized.  Since the 1970s, however, the Safe Playground movement has all but eliminated “Adventure  Playgrounds” and any equipment deemed dangerous, yet the incidence of accidents has remained essentially unchanged. One of Canada’s leading experts on playgrounds, Alex Smith, Founder of PlayGroundology, corroborates this, noting that he cannot recall one serious accident on Halifax’s 400 playgrounds over the past five years.

Public concern about children’s health and safety, according to British child health researcher Tim Gill, does not reflect the real level of risk. In his 2007 book, No Fear: Growing Up in a Risk-Averse Society, Gill points out that children are no more likely to be abducted or murdered than they were 30 years ago.  In 1971, some four out of five British kids aged 7 or 8 years walked or biked to school on their own; today fewer than one in ten do so.  Fear of being sued, he concedes, is a much bigger factor affecting the policies of school districts and providers of facilities for children.

School recess has been significantly eroded in both the United States and the United Kingdom. Since the 1970s and particularly so in the past two decades, school districts in the U.S. and Britain have reduced or eliminated recess time in order to allow for more instructional time.  Children have lost about 12 hours a week of free time, including a 25% reduction in play time and a 50% decrease in unstructured outdoor activities. In 2011, a U.S. study reported that only 57% of  school districts required regularly scheduled recess and some 40% of districts were either eliminating recess or considering such action.

Crusaders for “Free-Range Kids” such as American journalist Hanna Rosin do tend to wear ‘rose-coloured-glasses’ when it comes to minimizing the risks to children in completely unstructured free play environments.  More sensible child’s play advocates, like Megan Rosker, who campaigned to restore recess at her local Redington Shores, Florida school, see the need for some limits on “unstructured play” at elementary schools. “We need to strive for a more balanced parenting approach, ” she wrote  in November 2014, where “kids are receiving … free play, devoid of screen time,” and also “a lot of form and structure in their day” to enable them to go on to inventive, satisfying and  productive lives.

New research initiated by Brock University’s Dr. Lauren McNamara and generated by her “Recess Project” holds promise for breaking the impasse.  Her three year study from 2011 to 2014 demonstrated that most of today’s children have “forgotten how to play,” particularly outdoors.  While McNamara and her research team see the need for “free time” in a world where kids are highly programmed, they claim that there is a critical need to “re-teach kids” how to play, particularly during regular recess times.  Based upon local Niagara Region case studies, they show how activity levels soar and fighting subsides when new playground equipment is added and yard supervisors or junior leaders provide guidance to promote physical exercise, active engagement, and fair play among the kids.

Achieving the right balance is not as easy as outside experts might expect.  The Peel Region recess program, Playground Activity Leaders in Schools Program (PALS), initiated by a Toronto region health authority and touted by McNamara, is an attempt to move in that direction.  With a deft and diplomatic approach, it shows promise for reducing the incidence of bullying and inappropriate behaviour and increasing levels of physical activity, particularly among kids from grades 5 to 8.  Under certain types of administrative direction, it will quickly devolve into adults or their young surrogates “micromanaging recess.”

School recess is now under closer scrutiny and social psychologists are at work to either revamp “free play” or to eliminate the “free break time” altogether.  What is threatening recess in Canadian, British, and American schools?  Is unstructured free play for children endangered in today’s risk-averse society?  Is it possible to reform school recess to strike a balance between freedom and purposeful form?

 

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