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Archive for December, 2014

MerryGoRoundHangTightSurveying Canadian K-12 education in 2014 conjures up, for some peculiar reason, the image of a carnival Merry-Go-Round. The multi-coloured wooden horses representing Canada’s 10 provincial and three territorial education authorities continue to spin around in predictable circles, but periodic breakdowns not only cause a change in riders, but also unsettle the clientele.

Spinning wheels and running without a steady, consistent ride conductor (Chair, Council of Ministers of Education) does not improve either public enjoyment or satisfaction levels. It does produce a ride with a few notable highs and lows.

High Points – Hopeful Signs

High School Attainment Levels
More Canadians than ever before, Statistics Canada reported, are successfully completing high school. While rising secondary school graduation rates signify improved attainment but not necessarily higher achievement, they are a positive educational indicator. Three out of four students (73%) complete high school in three years, with Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Ontario leading the pack (at 80%+) and Quebec and the Territories still lagging behind, from 66% to only 12%. The rank order raised eyebrows because it runs counter to most student achievement test-based assessments.

Crowd-Sourcing Education Reform
Nova Scotia’s long anticipated October 2014 Education Review report, entitled “Disrupting the Status Quo,” finally gave voice to public concerns. Since half of the population was “dissatisfied with the public school system,” the report claimed changes were in order, stunning most of the system’s ‘insiders.’ Many of the recommended changes, based upon 19,000 survey responses, point to the critical need for a shake-up in teaching the basic skills, special education, teacher evaluation/certification and public accountability.

Big Jump for a Small Province
The Pan-Canadian Assessment 2013 report contained a little surprise. On the Grade 8 level national tests, Quebec students still lead in Math (Mean 527), Alberta students are tops in Science (Mean 521), and Ontario students perform best in Reading (524). Yet among the middle range provincial performers, little PEI was the big gainer. Students from PEI showed the biggest gains, finishing ahead of Nova Scotia in Reading (494 vs. 488), in Math (492 vs. 488), and close in Science (491 vs. 492). Island students also outperformed British Columbia students in Math for the first time.

Resurgence of Math Fundamentals
The teaching of elementary Math continued to be a zone of conflict in most provinces, with the possible exception of Quebec. Concerned parents, supported by Winnipeg Math professors Robert Craigen and Anna Stokke, have challenged “Discovery Math”, urging ministries of education to focus on Math fundamentals before free exploration. After securing Manitoba Math curriculum changes, the WISE Math movement spread to Alberta, Ontario and BC. When tens of thousands of Albertans petitioned Alberta Education, Education Minister Jeff Johnson relented, requiring students to learn their math facts and master standard operations.

Innovation in Joint Use of Schools
Community school planning and partnerships are bubbling up in Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia. Nine new Saskatchewan schools will be designed to be used jointly by Catholic and public boards and built using public-private partnership funding, serving the Regina, Saskatoon, Martensville and Warman communities. In Nova Scotia, the Provincial School Review Committee headed by Bob Fowler succeeded in securing changes in school closure legislation and a new set of regulations enabling the creation of Community Hub Schools. Innovation talk may eventually lead to action at the school level.

Low Points– Troubling Signs

British Columbia Teacher Strike Disruption
A full-blown, year-long “Class War” erupted pitting the militant leadership of the provincial Teachers Federation (BCTF) against the hard line Christy Clark BC Liberal Government. The dispute over salary scales and class size dragged out for months, ending the 2013-14 school year two weeks early and delaying the start of the current one by three weeks, costing teachers up to $10,000 in lost salaries. The BCTF membership eventually accepted a six-year deal including a 7.25 per cent salary increase, added extended health benefits, better teaching-on-call rates, and more specialist teachers.

Toronto School Board Meltdown
Canada’s largest school board, the TDSB, was engulfed in one crisis after another. Chief superintendent Donna Quan, who succeeded the disgraced Dr. Chris Spence, ran into hot water of her own. Controversy erupted over the TDSB’s ‘secret’ deal with the Confucius Institute, forcing Chair Chris Bolton to abruptly resign. Then a sizable faction of the board’s 22 elected trustees, including Howard Goodman, came into direct conflict with Quan, demanding access to personnel files. Trustee Goodman was charged with forcible confinement and criminal harassment of Quan, and Education Minister Liz Sandals finally stepped-in, putting the whole board under review.

Rejection of Chevron Schools Program
A raging controversy arose when the Vancouver School Board, led by Superintendent Steve Cardwell, elected to block the Chevron Fuel Your Schools program, turning down the potential for $400,000 in extra support for student activities. When mayoralty challenger Kirk Lapointe publicly criticized the decision, VSB Chair Patti Bacchus held firm, denouncing Big Oil and its insidious influences on children. Public opinion shifted enough to deny Bacchus’ Vision Team candidates a majority, bringing an end to her colourful 6-year tenure as Chair.

Drake University ‘Bird Course’ Salary Upgrades
Dozens of Nova Scotia teachers were revealed in February 2014 to have been boosting their salaries by thousands of dollars a year, acquiring additional credentials by taking ‘bird courses’ offered through Drake University’s online distance learning program. NSTU president Shelley Morse immediately spoke up defending the teachers who took the easy route to secure hefty salary increases. Even after the Education Minister stopped the practice, the union remained undeterred, calling it an “unprovoked attack” on teachers. .

School Board Video-cam Bans
Closed door school board meetings continue to persist, as demonstrated in two different school jurisdictions. Sudbury parents Dylan and Anita Gibson, banned in 2012 from the Rainbow District School Board office for videotaping meetings, then served with a no trespass order, campaigned unsuccessfully in October 2014 for elected trustee positions. Undaunted, Anita fights on for public transparency with her Facebook group, Parents Paying Attention. On November 18, the North Vancouver board banned school reformers Shane Nelson and Kerry Morris from videotaping a public meeting, eventually pressuring the newly elected board to reverse its stance a month later at its inaugural meeting.

MerryGoRoundOnOffThe Education Carousel went ‘round and round’ in 2014 as the principal riders jumped on and off the carnival ride. Chairmanship of the Council of Education Ministers passed from Alberta’s beleaguered Jeff Johnson to his successor Gordon Dirks, two powerful Board Chairs, Chris Bolton and Patti Bacchus, were toppled in Toronto and Vancouver, and Hamilton Wentworth chief superintendent John Malloy was promoted upward in the wake of school closure protests and a significant election turnover of trustees.

Changes at the top may have altered the faces, but the system continued its familiar spin, albeit at different speeds on at least ten different carousels.

What’s your reaction to my Canadian national Report Card for 2014?  Have the true “highs” and “lows” been identified — and what’s been missed in this year end review? Now that the Report Card is out, it’s over to you.

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Elected school board members deserve far more public respect, but can be their own worst enemies. Fighting to promote public engagement and strengthen public accountability at the school-community level is what really matters, not the shape or form of public education governance. What’s really at stake is the fundamental Canadian principle of “responsible government” in our school system.

The Toronto District School Board (TDSB) we are told is in “chaos” and populated by “dysfunctional trustees,” but so was Rob Ford’s City Council and no one called for its disbanding.  Just when it seemed that Ontario’s elected school boards might be on the chopping block, Toronto Star Education reporter Louise Brown did what official school trustee associations have consistently failed to do –made a compelling case for why elected representatives form a potentially “vital bridge between the public and the bureaucracy.”

SchoolTrusteePattiBacchusThere’s one significant problem with Brown’s very compelling story entitled “Secret life of a trustee.” TDSB school trustees like Pamela Gough, Jerry Chadwick, Shelley Laskin, Gerri Gershon and Sheila Cary-Meagher are seasoned and effective “school trustees” with a clear sense of purpose and identity. So is YRDSB Trustee for East Gwillimbury Loralea Carruthers and Vancouver Trustee Patti Bacchus.  Surveying the school governance models elsewhere, they are exceptions because they have public profiles, push at the boundaries, and wield far more influence than is normally permitted under the prevailing strict “governance rules.”

The Tri-County Regional School Board (TCRSB) exemplifies all that is wrong with the current governance model.  Nova Scotia Auditor General Michael Pickup’s damning December 2014 report identified the core of the bigger problem. The Tri-County board is simply not fulfilling its core mandate of “educating students,” school management is lax in overseeing “school improvement,” and the elected board is not exercising “proper oversight.”

The Tri-County board in Yarmouth, regrettably, is not alone in exhibiting these critical shortcomings. All eight of Nova Scotia’s boards display, to varying degrees, the same chronic weaknesses in performance management and public accountability. Such governance lapses have already sealed the fate of elected boards in New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland/Labrador. Where elected bodies exist, they are little more than examples of democratic tokenism in public education.

Consolidating school board administrative structures might be desirable and cost-effective, but abolishing elected school representatives without an alternative actually makes matters even worse. Without an elected representative, you are left on your own trying to get answers, lodge concerns or navigate your way through the many layers of educational bureaucracy.

While auditing a single school board, the Nova Scotia AG stumbled upon a more fundamental governance problem. Most elected school trustees, now socialized to act like “board members,” are easily co-opted into the corporate administrative culture. Over time, elected boards come to think, act, and react like corporate entities inclined toward protecting their interests, defending their “little empires,” and muzzling critical voices. Even more independently minded members succumb to fussing over “head lice” regulations and meddling in mundane operational matters.

Provincial government responses, so far, have been purely reactive: Dispatching former superintendent-turned-in-house consultant Jim Gunn back to Yarmouth to put the pieces back together is a stop-gap measure. Disbanding the fourth elected school board in Nova Scotia in the short space of eight years will not do any good either.

Each time an elected Nova Scotia board has been dismissed, in Halifax (2006), the Strait Region (2008), and the South Shore (2011), elected board members have been rendered more timid than before, further eroding public accountability at the school-community level.

Since those school board firings, they are now explicitly discouraged from, or obstructed in, working with School Advisory Councils or in responding directly to parent or media concerns. Nova Scotia Bill 131, the School Board Members Duties Clarification Act, enacted in November 2012, only compounded the problem by directing elected members to “respect” the superintendent and represent “the school board,” (not constituents) in their communities.

All of this may explain why Tri-County members, elected multiple times, still have no idea that their role is to hold the administration accountable for student and teacher performance. “Acclamation disease” is now in an advanced stage. In the October 2012 Nova Scotia-wide municipal elections, two-thirds of the seats were uncontested and only 155 candidates surfaced to contest 94 school board positions.

What might work best in fixing education governance and strengthening public accountability? Of the emerging policy options in Nova Scotia , three possible alternatives deserve serious consideration:

1. Re-empower elected boards: Reform the Education Act, clearly define the role and powers of “school trustees,” increase their public profile and compensation, and restore proper public accountability;

2. SAC the boards: Rebuild the existing School Advisory Council (SAC) system, and replace elected school boards with school governing councils entrusted with expanded powers and membership, including a better balance of parent, community and employer representatives;

3. Establish a community-school governance model: Replace school boards with district community-school councils and introduce true community school-based management at each school.

Establishing community school-based governance is a long-term project, but might ultimately be the best option. It was first implemented in the Edmonton public schools by superintendent Mike Strembitsky some 40 years ago. In the words of former teachers’ union president Karen Beaton, it “turned the entire concept of the district upside down.” The central idea was deceptively simple: “Every decision which contributes to the instructional effectiveness of the school, and which can be made at school level, should be made at school level.” Under this system, school principals were given more autonomy, school-community councils established, and parents ultimately secured more choice in terms of school and program options.

Centralized, top-down administrative decision-making, especially in priority areas like literacy, numeracy and school improvement, has been a real bust in the Tri-County area because initiatives were rarely monitored and simply did not “trickle down” to schools.

Introducing a community school governance model with elected district community education councils, supported by re-engineered school-level governing councils, might just be the shake-up the system needs. It is far more likely to foster what Harvard University’s Richard Chait terms “shared decision-making” and “generative policy-making.” It would also help to build public engagement, produce better decisions, and to attract elected members with something significant to contribute to public service.

Whatever happens, the Nova Scotia auditor general’s report has punched a giant hole in the current model of governance on display in far toom many school boards. Letting superintendents run the show in an accountability-free board earns you a clear failing grade. Forget the tinkering — only major governance reform and structural change can address the withered state of local public accountability in education.

Let’s start by asking the right questions: Why do we still need responsible government (elected representatives) at all levels of the provincial education system? What, if anything, can be done to salvage local education accountability and how can we reconstruct the current system of education governance? Is it time to start all over again?

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Readiness to learn upon entering school is now recognized as critical to the success of students. Since 1998-99, an Early Development Instrument (EDI) has been used to measure child development across five domains: physical health and well-being, social knowledge and competence, emotional health/maturity, language and cognitive development, and general knowledge and communications skills. Yet recent Canadian national and provincial surveys, conducted by McMaster University’s Offord Centre for Child Studies, continue to show that one in four children (26%) are ‘vulnerable’ in one or more areas of development before entering Grade 1.

ECEKidsThe latest province to embrace the Early Child Development movement is Nova Scotia.  In late November 2014, its recently renamed Department of Education and Early Child Development became the nineth (second last) province to conduct and release its EDI survey results. To virtually no one’s surprise, some 26.8% of pupils entering primary school face learning challenges. Physical health and well-being posed the biggest hurdle for kids and in three of the province’s eight school boards, Tri-County RSB , South Shore RSB, and the Strait RSB, one in three primary schoolers (33.6 to 40.8%) showed vulnerability in at least one area of development.

The Nova Scotia statistics, based upon teacher surveys in 2012-13, only confirmed what many previous reports have shown — that Canadian provinces lag behind other developed countries when it comes to the state of early childhood development and care. It also begged the critical question –what’s standing in the way of tackling this fundamental educational policy matter?

Early childhood education across Canada is still mostly provided in piecemeal fashion.  In most provinces, except for Quebec, their is a gap between the end of parental leave and the start of formal schooling, during which parents are left on their own. Where private day care is available, it is often prohibitively expensive and alternative cooperative day care is usually in short supply.  The quality of “child care” is highly irregular, judging from provincial regulatory reports and periodic shutdowns.

While the federal and provincial governments in 2011 provided over $11 billion of funding, spending on the ECE sector still lagged behind that of other advanced nations. In November 2012, TD Economics estimated that it would take another $3 to $4 billion in investment to bring Canada up to the average of other industrialized countries.  Across Canada, of the $7.5 billion spent by provinces and territories,  the allocations averaged only 1.53% of their total budgets, ranging from 0.59% in Nunavut to 4.67% in Quebec.

Passionate advocates for universal ECE are fond of claiming that it works miracles and has substantial long-term dollar benefits.  Most studies, largely funded by Child Development or Child Welfare organizations, estimate that the benefits of early learning far outweigh the costs. For every dollar invested, the claimed benefits range from roughly 1.5 to almost 3 dollars, with the ratio rising to double digits for disadvantaged children. Such investments do save us later in terms of the longer-term expenses for juvenile justice, jails, welfare and income supports. Even so, quantifying these benefits is not an exact science, in spite of the claims of advocates.

Early childhood education initiatives tend to be expensive and run into cost over-runs. Ontario’s full day Kindergarten program, beset by escalating costs and overcrowded sites, is a case in point. A more modest venture in Prince Edward Island is proving to be more successful. The soaring costs of Quebec’s universal program are, however, enough to deter late adopters like Nova Scotia.

Quebec’s current $7-a-day early childhood program is so costly that it may not be sustainable in its current form.  Since its inception in 1997, the $2.7 billion program has become what Konrad Yakabusky recently termed “a sacred cow.” Proposing to raise the daily rates to $20 for those earning over $50,000 has recently sparked a political firestorm.  Pointing out that Quebec’s subsidized daycare sites have much higher child to staff ratios ( 5:1 vs. 3:1 to 20:1 vs. 12:1) compared to other provinces gets you nowhere with young working parents. It’s also hard to prove that the Quebec program has improved the employment rate of women of child-rearing age.

Early childhood development still deserves to be identified and acted upon as an educational priority. Public spending on early childhood care and education continues to lag and we still rank last (at 0.5% of GDP) among comparable European and Anglo-speaking countries.  Looking at total spending, including child payments, parental leave benefits, and child care support, we remain 17% below the OECD average. Parents, except those in Quebec, pay 50% of the program costs, fourth highest among the OECD countries.  Now that our federal treasury is back to surplus, early learning should be a much higher national priority than doling out special, targeted tax exemptions, expressly designed to snare votes.

What’s standing in the way of a more committed, robust investment in Early Child Development at both the national and provincial levels? Given the countless reports demonstrating the learning challenges facing young children, how much longer can it be ignored or subject to underfunded, piecemeal public fixes?  Whether we decide to go universal or to target our early years investments, isn’t it time to take on the fundamental public policy issue?

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