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Archive for November, 2014

American education historian Diane Ravitch once enjoyed a reputation as one of the leading public intellectuals of our time. After four decades of impressive historical research and compelling writing pushing at the boundaries of education reform, she has now emerged almost unrecognizable as the fiercest critic of school reform in the United States. Her two most recent books, The Death and Life of the Great American School System (2010) and the sequel Reign of Error (2013), bear witness to that radical transformation and provide clues to the fundamental question: What in the world has happened to Diane Ravitch?

RavitchDeathCoverHer 2010 national best seller, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, marks a radical break in her reform advocacy. Much of the book is a revisionist interpretation of the previous decade of education reform, but it also represents a startling about-face. The leading advocate of testing and accountability emerges, almost born-again, as a fierce critic of the Barak Obama –Arne Duncan ‘Race to the Top’ reform agenda, especially standardized testing, school choice and the closure of low-performing schools. “I too had fallen for the latest panaceas and miracle cures,” she confesses, but, as time wore on, simply “lost the faith” (pp. 3 and 4).

Always known for her independent, contrarian streak, Ravitch was again swimming against the tide. Under George W. Bush’s NCLB , she contended that the whole standards movement had been “hijacked” by the testing movement. Instead of focusing upon curriculum reform, “standardized test scores” were considered “the primary measure of school quality.” “Good education,” she wrote, “cannot be achieved by a strategy of testing children, shaming educators, and closing schools”(p. 111). Charter schools, according to Ravitch, had strayed from the original concept best articulated in 1988 by then American Federation of Teachers president Albert Shanker. Instead of becoming a vehicle for empowering teachers to initiate innovative methods of reaching disaffected students, it evolved into a means of advancing privatization, producing an “education industry” dominated by entrepreneurs, philanthropists, and venture capitalists (pp. 123-4). Test-based accountability, Ravitch now claimed, narrowed the curriculum and was being used in inappropriate ways to identify ‘failing schools,’ fire educators, determine bonuses, and close schools, distorting the purpose of schooling altogether (p. 167).

Ravitch focuses much of her scathing criticism on what she termed the “Billionaire Boys’ Club.” Since the turn of the millennium, she claims that the traditional educational foundation world had been significantly changed by the emergence of a new breed of venture philanthropists. By 2002, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, and the Eli Broad Foundation had emerged to frame and dominate the school reform agenda. School choice, turnaround schools strategies, and competitive market incentives were all harnessed in mostly failed attempts to leverage improved student test scores. “with so much money and power aligned against the neighbourhood public school and the teaching profession, she bluntly forecast that “public education itself is placed at risk” (p. 222).

Ravitch’s The Fall and Life of the Great American School System harkened back to A Nation at Risk and made a compelling case that American school reform has lost its way. In rejecting the charter school panacea and test-based accountability, she sets out a reasonable, balanced approach to educational improvement. Raising academic standards utilizing the Common Core Curriculum continue to be the centrepiece of her reformist philosophy, but she is more sanguine about the likelihood of reaching a national consensus, settling for a sound balanced curriculum including history, civics, geography, literature, the arts and sciences, foreign languages, and physical/health education. “ If our schools had an excellent curriculum, appropriate assessment and well-educated teachers,” she concludes, “we would be way ahead of where we are now in renewing our school system’ (p. 239).

Swept up in the wave of public reaction to her 2010 book, Ravitch sought to answer the question posed but not fully explored – where should American education be heading? A completely reformed fiery warrior emerges in Reign of Error, a book with an attention grabbing, inflammatory subtitle: “The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools.” Expanding upon her critique of the American venture philanthropists, she restates her strong opposition to blind faith in charters, testing excesses, shuttering ‘failing’ schools, and removing ‘bad’ teachers. Without the same tone of authenticity and humility, Reign of Error descends into polemic and reads, for the most part, like an angry diatribe. Not quite prepared to provide a constructive path forward, she simply sets out to crush her former allies, now seen as enemies, real and imagined.

RavitchSoundBitesIn the opening chapter of Reign of Error, Diane Ravitch stuns the reader by claiming that there is “no crisis” in American education. “Public education is not broken,” she writes. “It is not failing or declining. Our urban schools are in trouble because of concentrated poverty and racial segregation….Public education is in crisis only so far as society is and only so far as this new narrative of crisis has de-stabilized it” (p. 4). In her book introduction, she also states: “ I do not contend that schools are fine just as they are. They are not. American education needs higher standards for those who enter the teaching profession. It needs higher standards for those who become principals and superintendents. It needs stronger and deeper curriculum in every subject…” (p. xii). You will look in vain, as New Jersey teaching expert Grant Wiggins (2013) noted, for any serious discussion of how to tackle that second set of problems.

The “crisis” myth, according to the newly radicalized Diane Ravitch, is only sustained by “orchestrated attacks” on teachers and principals. “These attacks,” she declares,” create a false sense of crisis and serve the interests of those who want to privatize the public schools.” In an attempt to overturn the prevailing narrative, she argues that these ‘outsiders’ represent not reform but the status quo in education. Together, they form a dangerous bipartisan alliance committed to “corporate reform” and encompassing a broad spectrum from Education Secretary Duncan to Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and the Bezos Foundation, from the Hoover Institution to Hollywood, purveyors of films like Waiting for Superman. Since education is not really in crisis, Ravitch contends that all of these interests are destroying the public school system while pursuing an illusion.

Making such claims can win you legions of followers inside the system, but also damage your credibility as a respected scholar purporting to present an “evidence-based” assessment of the state of education. In the chapter entitled “The Facts about the International Test Scores,” Ravitch’s analysis simply does not hold water, especially when it comes to the mathematics scores of U.S. students, compared with other top performing countries. While U.S. grade 4 students do perform reasonably well on basic operations, they are not competitive with the Taiwanese, for example, at higher performance levels. Seventeen-year old Americans, not referenced by Ravitch, have stagnated in reading and mathematics since the first tests in the early 1970s.

In defending teacher autonomy, Ravitch tends to ignore research on the impact of effective teaching on student achievement levels. If New Zealander John Hattie (2008) is correct, teaching may well account for 30 cent or more of student improvement and highly effective teachers can add an extra year or two of growth in achievement level. Without advocating for the firing of teachers on the basis of ‘half-baked’ test-based assessment systems, there is much evidence that poor performance is tolerated for variety of reasons. National estimates from the U.S. Department of Education confirm that, on average, school districts only dismiss 1.4% of tenured teachers and 0.7% of probationary teachers each year.

Instead of focusing so much on the sinister influence of “Billionaire Boys’ Club,” Ravitch might have been more convincing if she had actually produced a coherent reform agenda based upon curriculum improvement and enhancing teacher effectiveness. More vigorous advocacy on her part might have bolstered and possibly salvaged more of the Common Core Curriculum which she campaigned so hard to get on the national policy agenda. Rather than tackling the structural problems, Ravitch may have exerted more impact by venturing into what Larry Cuban (2013) terms the “Black Box” of the classroom. Improving teaching pedagogy, student assessment, and the consistency of teaching, educators like Wiggins insist, would certainly help far more to advance school improvement and student learning, whatever the form or organization of the school.

Over the past five years, Diane Ravitch has become more of an education reform warrior than a credible scholar, especially when she ventures well outside the field of educational history. Since discovering Twitter five years ago, she has become a serial tweeter spewing out snappy 140 character comments and regularly goes ad hominem with those holding opposite views. Standing on the Save Our Schools rally platform on the Ellipse in July 2011, Ravitch spoke for only eight minutes, all in punchy protest sentences. Slogans and sloganeering, as Brian Crittenden reminded us back in 1969, are no substitute for serious thinking and confronting the many contradictions in educational discourse.

American education reform today is a contested terrain occupied by tribalists. Side-stepping critical education reform issues such as teacher quality that might offend camp followers is right out-of-character for Ravitch, the once independently-minded public intellectual. Former reform allies like Frederick Hess, a respected conservative policy analyst, who welcomed The Fall and Life of the Great American School System, now chastise her for becoming a virtual mouthpiece of the teachers’ unions. Whether you think education is in crisis or not, Ravitch’s latest books provide an inventive, perplexing re-interpretation, but will do little to help us overcome the current impasse.

Why is American education reform such a polarized field of public policy?  What happens to respected scholars like Diane Ravitch when they get absorbed into the Manichean world view?  Whatever happened to Ravitch’s deep commitment to putting higher standards and curriculum reform before teacher autonomy and advocacy? Will the tribalism fostered in the School Wars ultimately lead anywhere?

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The Maritime province of Nova Scotia is now fully engaged in a rather unique education reform experiment.  A recent Education Review, headed by former Lieutenant-Governor Myra Freeman, went to the public with a very broad, diffuse agenda and opened the door through online surveys to allow 19,000 Nova Scotians to identify the Primary to Grade 12 system’s strengths and weaknesses and to register their ‘satisfaction level” with the state of curriculum, teaching, and learning.

ClassroomSceneThe Nova Scotia Government got an earful, especially from parents, community members and regular teachers.  It came in the form of an October 30, 2014 report, entitled, Disrupting the Status Quo:  Nova Scotians Demand a Better Future for Every Student. “When 50 per cent of Nova Scotians are not satisfied,” Education Minister Karen Casey declared, “I know it’s time for change.”

The stark reality, unearthed by the Minister’s Panel on Education survey exercise, led by Freeman, is that education “insiders” and “outsiders” inhabit parallel universes. A majority of parents and community members think that, putting it crudely, “the system sucks.” Two out of three school administrators, board staff, and hand-picked high school students are quite satisfied with the world as it is in the schools.

Boring down into the findings of the Freeman panel’s nine-month long study and survey findings, a major shakeup may well be ahead, but it’s still hard to divine a clear set of priorities. The minister and her department appear to be “crowd-sourcing” their educational vision.

While Freeman was introducing her Oct. 30 report, two bulletin boards full of strategic change planning schematics on the wall in the Department of Education briefing room caught my eye. The display board to the left entitled “DoE Strengths & Challenges” was pretty predictable, but the board on the right, under the headline “Change Ed Vision” was more revealing. Under “Managing Change through Communication,” it stated “the Dept. of Ed is a leader in innovative collaboration & learning for the success of every student.” Such formulaic edu-babble seemed totally at odds with Freeman’s well-rehearsed call for “disruptive” change.

The external messaging is, of course, dramatically different than the internal strategizing. With the system’s clients demanding changes, the time for tinkering with the system should be over. The diagnosis may be “patient condition critical,” but the panel’s prescriptions are all over the map, attempting to address seven rather disparate afflictions.

With seven “themes” and 30 guiding recommendations, the broad, “holistic approach” is so scattered that it’s ripe for cherry-picking and instant analysis. Empowering school boards to “fire teachers for sub-standard performance” and “increasing the number of credits needed for graduation from high school” captured the headlines, but hardly constitute an overall turnaround strategy.

A deeper dive reveals evidence of serious deficiencies in the system. While Ben Levin’s  April 2011 education review declared Nova Scotia to be a “good system,” the Freeman panel learned otherwise. “The current system,” they conclude, “is failing our students and the public has sent a strong message that there is an urgent need for change.”

Many parts of the system are deemed to “not be working well” and need major reform. “A one size-fits-all curriculum,” to cite a glaring example, “is not serving students well. The pace is too slow for some, too fast for others.”

NSPrepNextGradeSerious parental concerns have been registered over the quality of teaching and learning. Only 62 per cent of parent respondents felt that students receive “highly effective teaching in their classes.” Most alarmingly, only 49 per cent of parents and some 33 per cent of community members feel students are being “well prepared to move onto the next grade.” Fewer still believe graduates are being “well prepared” for either university or the workforce.

Critical questions have been posed and expectations raised sky-high for system-wide change. Surveying those scattered recommendations, a few possible policy initiatives do present themselves. Teacher quality reform, toyed with in the 2012 Kids & Learning First report, is back on the public agenda. On the heels of our March 2014 AIMS report, “Maintaining Spotless Records,” it’s now morphed into setting higher faculty of education admission standards, more rigorous teacher performance evaluation and removing administrators from the teachers’ union.

The February 2014 public row over Drake University “bird course” teacher salary upgrades obviously struck a chord with the public, if not with the teachers’ union. “Initial teacher classification, advancement in classification levels, and pay increases,” the panel recognizes, “need to be tied to system requirements and strong performance in assigned duties.”

Student conduct and discipline may well finally get addressed. The panel heard, loud and clear, that “punctuality, attendance, organization, and responsibility” were lacking, adversely affecting graduates’ “job and life-related competencies.”

After a decade of promoting higher graduation levels and adopting “no fail” policies, the panel found “social promotion” was causing a whole set of new student performance problems. Openly confronting the “attainment-achievement” gap and aligning grade progression with actual student competency levels will be a massive undertaking.

Inclusion of special education students continues to be a serious concern for teachers as well as parents and student support staff. Fewer than one in three respondents in those categories feel special education services are “meeting the needs of all students.” Instead of confronting the problem head on, the panel reverts to the usual response — add “more learning supports.”

The Freeman report’s rhetoric about “disrupting the status quo” echoes the battle cry of Ray Ivany’s Now or Never Nova Scotia report. It all sounds good, but it’s still hard to imagine two consummate insiders, Freeman and Casey, leading the charge. Winning over those wedded to the status quo will be a formidable challenge.

What does “disruptive change” actually mean in education – and do “insiders” and “outsiders” see it the same way?  Who’s defending the Status Quo in Nova Scotia and elsewhere — and where are they hiding?  Are calls for “disruptive change” just a way of blowing-off stem and intended more as “expressions of sentiment” rather than policy direction?  Will education ‘ insiders’ ever warm to such changes or will it require a wholesale change in school administration at every level?

 

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Luke MacDonald, the leading champion of Sparks Fly,  is in the business of helping people to get active and healthy.  Since 1996, he’s been promoting a series of Youth Run projects and volunteering with Phoenix House as a community outreach dimension of of his own Halifax sports equipment shop, Aerobics First.  After 34 years in business, he’s now turned to promoting  stationary “spin bikes” and “self-regulation” as the way of reaching and re-engaging today’s ‘stressed-out,’ distracted school children.

LukeMacDonaldSparksFlyLuke is in the vanguard of the Canadian ‘self-regulation’ movement. Building on the research connecting improved mental concentration with physical exercise, the Run for Life Foundation (www.runforlife.ca) has developed the Sparks Fly program. With the support of private donors, Sparks Fly has placed child-sized spin bicycles into classrooms across Canada, including more than a dozen within the Halifax Regional School Board.

Here’s how it works: Students are encouraged to hop on the bike if they are having difficulty focusing on their lessons. The idea is that children learn to identify when they are having difficulties with attention, and then use physical activity as a stimulant to engage the parts of the brain that help with this cognitive skill. At Dalhousie University, a research team is also conducting a study to determine the optimal dose of exercise to promote improved cognitive functioning, focusing on university-age students.

The Sparks Fly spin bike project  has a practical, utilitarian objective — to help “stressed-out.’ distracted children focus and perform better in school.  “The ideal situation is that the bikes remain in the classroom,” Luke told The Chronicle Herald  during last year’s Fitness Week. “So when a student is feeling anxious, they just have to get on the bike. A little bit of movement can calm them, and they learn that.”

Halifax healthy living activist MacDonald experienced an epiphany, of sports, when he was awakened to its intellectual origins in the ‘self-regulation’ movement. Inspired by a powerful address by York University’s Dr. Stuart Shanker at “The Collision” conference in Waterloo and Dr. John Ratey’s book, The Spark, he was completely hooked on the initiative that attempted to marry physical activity with ‘self-regulation’ principles in elementary schools.

Self-regulation is the latest manifestation of neuroscience and it’s catching on as the latest panacea to grab the attention of today’s stressed children and high speed screenagers.  In an August 2014 Toronto Globe and Mail feature, social trends reporter Erin Anderssen was drawn to neuroscience as “a subversive solution.” “Cut math class,” she wrote, ” to dance–or walk, skip, play catch — the theory being that whatever gets the heart pumping will get the brain humming as well.”

Aerobic fitness is now touted by RunForLife.ca as one of the best ways to develop a child’s ability to self-regulate.  In simplest terms, self-regulation is the ability to stay calmly focused and alert.  Its research-based origins can be traced back to the famous 1989 “Marshmallow Test”  where only 30 per cent of four-year-olds left alone in a room for a few minutes could resist eating the tasty treat.

EurekaMindfulnessSelf-regulation is now being promoted as an educational alternative to “behaviour management” and is increasingly favoured by so-called progressive, child-centred elementary school educators. “Self-regulation,” in Shanker’s words, “does not involve making an effort to inhibit impulses” but rather “to reduce the stressors affecting the nervous system.”  It’s so widely accepted by Ontario child psychologists that it’s actually enshrined as “a measurement outcome” on the latest provincial school report cards.

Student learning initiatives based upon neuroscience now enjoy a patina of  scientific research respectability. Growing numbers of education observers are beginning to question the legitimacy of “self-regulation” in the context of its actual brain research origins.  A January 2014 Time Magazine feature, written by Kate Pickert, identified the movement as an outgrowth of what is termed “The Mindful Revolution,” the popular science of “finding focus in a stressed-out, multitasking culture.’  She and a number of North American scholars see self-regulation as a recent mutation of “Mindfulness,” a Stress Reduction curriculum (MBSR) developed in 1979by Jon Kabat-Zinn, an MIT-educated scientist heavily influenced by Buddhism.

Much of the rationale for ‘self-regulation’ echoes Kabat-Zinn’s MBSR neuroscience theories and some of its proponents make it sound like a “New Age retread” of previous prescriptions for stress.  Mindfulness is definitely rooted in Eastern philosophy, while it is being presented as “secular” in our schools.  Dr. Catherine Gidney at Fredericton’s St. Thomas University is currently exploring the historical context surrounding the implementation of mindfulness in Canadian classrooms. In doing so she documents some of pedagogical and spiritual concerns and objections that have been raised about this phenomenon.  A few other education scholars have also pointed out the laser-like focus of mindfulness on “the here and now” and its implicit lack of respect for wisdom and learned experience.

American writer and skeptic Dan Hurley, writing in New York Times Magazine (January 14, 2014), has also pointed out a few of its “unwanted side-effects.”  While presented as a virtual cure-all for “split focus’ distractibility, more recent research demonstrates that it sharpens focus , but actually impairs “implict learning,”  making it more difficult to ride a bicycle, speak grammatically, or read people’s facial expressions.  More concerning, it is being shown to inhibit “mind wandering” and the sort of “mind vacations” that often lead to epiphanies and Big Ideas.

Educators are always looking to improve upon current student behaviour management strategies. If Self-Regulation becomes dominant practice,  we may succeed in incorporating more physical activity and securing more attentiveness.  It’s fair to ask whether we will also be producing more placid kids — sacrificing intellectual risk taking, academic learning time, and perhaps a little creativity in our classrooms.

What explains the rise and spread of Self-Regulation as the latest educational panacea for modifying children’s behaviour in the schools?  How is the self-regulation movement connected to Eastern philosophy and should that be a matter of concern in essentially sectarian state schools?  What impact are Sparks Fly and comparable programs having on teaching and learning in elementary schools?  Is there any danger that Self-Regulation may actually curb creativity and historical-mindedness by inculcating “willpower” and stamping out “mind wandering” ?

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