Archive for January, 2015

School leaders responding to crises are subject to incredible scrutiny, not to mention second guessing.  The most recent example is the full-blown crisis that exploded at Dalhousie University in mid-December 2014 over the misogynistic Facebook posts of the infamous “DDS 2015 Gentlemen.”  That group of 13 fourth-year dentistry students, on a Facebook page established in 2011, degraded women, in post after disgusting post, including the male students’ female peers.

DalDentalCartoonWhat began as a Dalhousie Student Discipline case grew into a monster threatening the university’s cherished reputation.  Since a fateful Media Conference on December 18, 2014, the school’s handling of the scandal became the radioactive issue. Dalhousie University’s president, Richard Florizone, first proposed “Restorative Justice” as the answer, then backtracked in the face of a petition calling for expulsion signed by over 50,000 concerned citizens.

The Dental School Crisis dragged on for weeks and attracted widespread public concern. Three weeks after the initial announcement, the President announced that the 13 students would have their clinical privileges suspended. When the Restorative Justice process began to unravel, the President began to sound tougher, insisting that there would be “consequences” for the alleged miscreants. How it will end is anyone’s guess, but the issue still festers and the damage has been done.

Veteran school leaders all have “war stories” like this to tell and yet they remain silent in observing crises like this spinning out-of-control.  For most  battle tested leaders, the inner voice says, “There but for the grace of God.”  For others, it’s just a reminder that being “tested by fire” is the rite of passage for all school leaders, at some point in their career.  One of Canada’s wisest law professors, former university president Wayne MacKay, did venture some gentle early advice, tempered by his trademark sensitivity. Surviving a few crises of my own has rendered me more cerebral, less definitive, and more conflicted than usual.

At times like this, where might a school leader turn? My personal experiences, in two decades of senior education leadership roles, taught me three things — take charge, seek professional advice, and keep the lawyers at bay. Crises are extraordinary events and they call for some decisiveness as well as roll-up-the sleeves, informed, effective decision-making. What you say and do matters –and mistakes are rarely forgiven. You are also foolhardy if you simply take matters into your own hands and do not seek the advice of so-called “crisis management” professionals.

My “crisis management” confidante was Dr. Allan Bonner and he saved me from disaster more than once. After being trained by Allan in Toronto in the Spring of 1997, my eyes were opened and I was much more attuned to the potential for “incidents” to become “crises.”

“A crisis is a turning point for better or worse,” says Bonner.  “A crisis is a rapidly moving and changing event that taxes your response capabilities to their limits. You will need all the assets, people and skills you have and will need to procure new assets and skills very quickly.”

“Crisis management” is critical to solving school problems, and also to protecting your most valuable asset – the institution’s reputation.  If you fumble the ball, the media, board members, faculty, students and all stakeholders start to “question whether the underpinnings of ‘the system’ work. In a crisis, the system includes your approaches, policies and procedures, laws, ethics, codes of conduct and more.”

“Take the panic out of a crisis!” is one of Bonner’s favourite statements. Sexual harrassment, criminal charges, wrongful dismissal and media investigations are issues that can generate crises in schools.  If you do not know what a SOCKO is, be prepared to answer the same questions over and over again.  You also learn to re-gain control of the situation, buy some time, get to the bottom of the matter, and anticipate the unexpected.  Most importantly, take effective action in hours to nip a crisis in the bud before it expands.

Crises are, by their very nature, challenging to resolve, but they can be made worse by leadership lapses and mis-steps. While crises do not repeat themselves, you can learn from others tested by fire and those who make a profession of extricating school leaders out of periodic hot water. Just when you think you have it mastered, another crocodile in the education lagoon takes a snap at you.

Why do School Incidents become full-blown crises?  What can be learned from the handling of the Dalhousie Dental School crisis, the Saint Mary’s University ‘Rape Chant’ scandal, and the fumbling of the Rehteah Parsons case? What’s the best place to turn for guidance — your personal conscience, past experience, or the wisdom of others?


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Public schools in many Canadian regional school boards simply do not operate anymore without a ready fleet of yellow buses. A growing share of the school tax dollar in Maritime Canada is consumed by daily student transportation, even as student enrollment declines and opportunities are being missed to achieve better cost and energy efficiencies. That was the key finding of our  January 2015 AIMS research report, Education on Wheels, and it raised what has been, for many years, a largely “hidden” public policy issue in the education sector.

AIMSEDonWheelsTransporting students to school is consuming more and more of the costs of public education not only in the Maritimes, but in Ontario and most provincial school systems (Monteiro and Atkinson, 2012). In Nova Scotia, over the past five years, student transportation costs (actual operating/per F/S) have risen from $64.2 million to $71.2 million, an increase of 10.9 per cent (Nova Scotia, DoEECD, 2014) at a time when overall P-12 enrollment continues to decline. The same pattern is also exhibited in neighbouring New Brunswick.

While it is fast becoming a major challenge for provincial education authorities and school boards, the critical issues remain shrouded in mystery and largely hidden from the public. School transportation policy is essentially driven by provincial grants and the official 3.6km/2.4 km/1.6 km ‘Walk Limit Standard’ entrenched in the long-standing regulations. School board initiatives aimed at containing costs by fiddling with local busing regulations and enforcing walking distances have little effect when “Education on Wheels” is taking a bigger and bigger bite out of provincial education spending (Table 1: Nova Scotia, DoEECD, 2014).

School closures and consolidation are routinely implemented as cost reduction measures without any real disclosure of the impact on school board or provincial school busing costs. Small school advocates and community activists who ask questions about the added costs to taxpayers are assured that it is either of no concern or that more students can simply be added to existing bus routes (Bennett, 2013, 29-32).

Behind the scenes, school boards claim that costs are “at the breaking point” and lobby fiercely for increased grant support to maintain or augment their bus fleets. It is, as a 2008 Alberta School Boards Association report quipped, “the stone in everybody’s shoe” (ASBA, 2008, 3). Yet, in the case of Nova Scotia, closing schools and putting more students on buses has only compounded the problem. Five years ago three in five P-12 students (62.8%) were bused to school each day; by 2013-14, two-thirds (68.1%) of the province’s students rode the buses and travelling longer average daily distances (Table 2: Nova Scotia, DEECD, 2014).

Student transportation trends in the Maritimes tend to be at odds with the recent pattern across North America. Looking at the entire U.S. Kindergarten to Grade 12 student population, slightly over half (55.3 per cent) of the 25.3 million students in 2004 were transported on school buses at public expense. A 2009 American study of how that nation’s elementary school students get to school demonstrated that, while the proportion of U.S. K-12 students bused over the past forty years has remained about 39 per cent overall, the percentage being driven by parents had jumped from 12 per cent to 45 per cent. Most significantly, the proportion of American students walking or bicycling to school dropped from 48 per cent to only 13 per cent.

Such a pattern is not as evident in Maritime cities like Halifax, Saint John, Moncton, and Fredericton. In the Halifax Regional School Board (2013-14), for example, 24,509 of the 48,596 students (or 50.4 %) were bused, about 7.6 % more than five years earlier. For small town and rural Maritime children, student transportation by those distinctive yellow buses still predominates with most school districts busing between 80 and 95.9 per cent of their students to and from school each day from September to June (Table 2: Nova Scotia, DoEECD, 2014).

Over the past thirty years, since the mid-1980s, provincial authorities and school boards outside of the Maritime region have become much more attuned to student transportation costs and the potential for cost efficiencies. Sharing of bus services between school boards and with other educational institutions surfaced in the mid-1980s, mainly in Ontario and rural Alberta.

SchoolBusUrban The Ontario Student Transportation Reform initiatives provide many lessons for other provinces. A 2002 Ontario Education Equality Task Force recommended that the province create 8 to 10 joint transportation “service boards.” In 2006-07, the Ontario Ministry of Education took action, requiring school boards across the province to develop partnerships and combine school board transportation departments into separate fully integrated transportation organizations. The Student Transportation Reform initiative compelled all of the province’s 72 boards to embrace the co-operative student transportation model and to combine in common, coterminous geographical areas (Ontario, STR, 2014).

In the initial phases of coterminous sharing, millions of tax dollars were saved, but the entry of dominant bus industry players like Laidlaw/Student First and Stock and preferred supplier arrangements tended to reduce price competition over time. While the initial cost efficiencies were dramatic, they did not apparently last.

An Ontario Student Transportation Task Force report, in June 2011, identified the problem of competitive procurement and revealed that school bus costs, serving 800,000 students, had reached $845 million, representing 4 per cent of the education budget. Based upon such findings, Ontario economist Don Drummond included reducing student transportation costs by 25 % in his February 2012 report recommending province-wide austerity measures (Drummond, 2012, R 6-17). That recommendation was likely based upon the documented findings of Ministry of Education Effectiveness & Efficiency Reviews, conducted since 2008, and pointing out further potential cost savings.

The most recent research study, produced for the June 2012 Canadian Transportation Research Forum, provided a valuable critical economic market analysis of Canadian school bus transportation. Researchers Joseph Monteiro and Benjamin Atkinson offered an overview of student transportation, province-by-province, and then examined, in some detail, the school bus industry. The researchers identified the need to further examine the impact of subsidization of pupil transportation, the privatization of school bus services, and the costs relative to the primary mission of public education systems. Serious attention was drawn to the potential for collusion between bus operators and “bid rigging” in the awarding of contracts (Monteiro and Atkinson, 2012).

Better managing the bus fleet and achieving cost reductions are only one side of the public policy issue. Nova Scotia’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Robert Strang, has urged policy-makers to look at the impact of school consolidation and busing on the health of children and youth (Strang, CT-NS AGM, 2014). Community advocacy groups such as Community Transit-Nova Scotia and the Ecology Action Centre share this concern and support public policy initiatives promoting active, healthy transportation alternatives. A comprehensive audit of student transportation might open the door to community planning more focused on establishing walkable schools in healthier local communities.

A few critical questions need to be asked: What are the Real Costs – financial and social– of busing so many kids to school?  Why is Student Transportation rarely factored into public discussion about containing education costs and creating liveable, walkable communities? Simply posing those questions will spark a needed policy debate over school consolidation, the rising costs of student busing, and the disappearance of walkable community schools. 

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North American educational technology futurists see great things ahead in 2015.  After marveling at the amazing technological advances of 2014, the Ed Tech promoters at Getting Smart.com are even more bullish about the year ahead. What excites them? The new problems to be solved, the innovative power of technology, the promise of edu-resolutions, and the infinite possibilities ahead for students and teachers.

NewYear2015Optimism is fine, but heralding the coming of Ed Tech “Heaven” is indicative of what might be termed a 21st century “New Light” technological futurism.  How individuals, institutions, and school culture respond to technological change is fast emerging as the critical issue in today’s education world.  What now passes for educational forecasting, pitting the “Heaven” of the optimists versus the “Hell” of the pessimists,  is actually more akin to what Joel Garreau (2005) aptly labelled the “Prevail” or “Muddling Through” scenario.  With technology advancing, the idealism of the movement has given way to the “Prevail” option testifying to “the power of humans to muddle through extraordinary circumstances.”

Getting Smart sounds positively overflowing with optimism .  “What’s a new year without optimism?,” the lead blogger asks in rhetorical fashion. “Without a positive outlook on all things capable? What’s a new year without gathering to peer at the horizon of where we could be headed if we’re all in this together?” In its first post of 2015, Getting Smart, buoyed by fellow Ed Tech enthusiasts at Digital Promise, not only took time to celebrate the launch of Smart ParentsGenDIY, and the new year by examining how 2015 will be different for parents and students.

The Getting Smart 2015 predictions are lofty and perhaps typical of the rather pollyannish thinking of ed tech futurists:

1. With increased access to anytime, anywhere learning, students will have more options than ever to personalize their education in 2015.

2. Lots of schools and districts will move from planning mode to implementation mode on efforts related to personalized and blended learning.

3.  Parents will become more knowledgeable about the opportunities available to their students thanks to personalized, blended learning, ultimately resulting in more smart parents.

4. 2015 will provide even better student experiences for quality online and blended higher education through the personalization of virtual learning, including more cohorts and webinars, allowing them to tailor their degree program.

5.  The millennial generation will show us the way as Generation Do-It-Yourself (GenDIY), educators and EdLeaders will now shape instruction, strategies, and practices to best fit the jobs of today and tomorrow.

6. Solutions to a handful of EdTech issues will emerge in 2015 making it easier to combine formative data, compare student growth rates, and acknowledge progress, and hopefully improving guidance and counseling systems.

Taking a closer look at the Getting Smart prognostications, the initial over-the-top optimism seems to be rooted in a firm belief in a technology-driven society.  They also reflect the pragmatic optimism of the so-called “Prevail” camp.  As American education technology researcher Adam Therier puts it in The Technology Liberation Front,  today’s ed tech promoters focus not so much on its transformative powers as on how we can adapt and learn to cope with technological disruption and prosper in the process.

Modern thinking on the impact of technological change on societies continues to be largely dominated by skeptics and critics. From the French philosopher Jacques Ellul (The Technological Society) to Neil Postman (Technopoly) and Nicholas Carr (The Shallows), social critics have alerted us to the potential for the subjugation of humans to “technique” or “technics” and feared that technology and technological processes would come to control us before we learned how to control them.

Postman, perhaps best known as co-author of the 1968 classic, Teaching as a Subversive Activity, had a way of capturing your attention. The rise of a “technopoly”, he wrote, would mean “the submission of all forms of cultural life to the sovereignty of technique and technology” — that would destroy “the vital sources of our humanity” and lead to “a culture without a moral foundation” by undermining “certain mental processes and social relations that make human life worth living.”

National education technology lobby groups like C21 Canada simply brush aside any such concerns in their overall pursuit of the so-called “Mind Shift” to “21st century learning.” Most of the C21 Canada initiative is focused on mobilizing education CEOs and tapping into corporate funding from the leading technology providers, most notably Pearson Canada. This top-down educational leadership strategy was exemplified in the C21 Canada partnership with the Council of Ministers of Education (CMEC) under past Chair Jeff Johnson and most recently in the announcement of a C21 CEO Academy composed of West Vancouver ed tech champion Chris Kennedy and 21 other school superintendents.

School-level examples of the “Mind Shift” ushered in by prophets of the new technology are still hard to find here in Canadian provincial school systems. Well- funded ICT projects initiated by Mind Share Learning produce rather uninspiring “Let’s Play with IT” student activity videos like Foggs Science Classes and How to Integrate ICT.  So far, it’s doubtful if such small-scale, teacher-led activities are making much of a difference in the classroom.

We can move forward with education technology without ignoring the more sobering prophecies and succumbing to the allure of “technics.”  What Adam Therier calls “permissionless innovation” is definitely needed in the education sector. Creating the spaces to experiment with new technologies and pedagodgies is critical if we are to take fuller advantage of the success of the Internet and the digital economy.  In doing so, however, let’s not lose our heads and succumb to the technopoly in all its insidious forms.  It’s also fair to ask whether the current C21 Canada approach led by the CEOs will ever lead to true bottom-up ‘disruptive innovation’ in the schools.

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