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Archive for February, 2015

Smaller communities in Ontario are accustomed to receiving the Queen’s Park ‘shock treatment.’ It happened again on January 28, 2015 when Ontario Education Minister Liz Sandals stated that $1 billion out of the $22.5 billion education budget could be saved by “closing about 600 half-empty schools.” A day later the Minister backtracked, saying that her primary concern was underutilized Toronto schools, not those in rural or remote communities.

SavingSchoolsParrySound The whole Accommodation Review Committee (ARC) process, as school closure exercises are now called, has been under fire in central Ontario ever since Toronto consultant Margaret Wilson released her September 2013 independent report rapping the knuckles of the Near North District School Board (NNDSB) for its “lack of public transparency” in the forced consolidation of three North Bay elementary schools.

A more recent provincial proposal to shorten the ARC process also aroused concerns for local school board trustees in North Bay and elsewhere. It proposed to give municipal governments a bigger role, suggesting “a shift away from consideration (of the) impact of school closures” on “community well-being and the local economy” toward “a more exclusive focus on student achievement.”

Veteran NNDSB trustee, Al Bottomley, sees the ARC reform proposal as a “dangerous” initiative. “It seems that the government wants to close schools at all cost,” he said. “Kids do better in small schools,” Bottomley added. “Putting them in one school is not going to benefit the kids. They’ll be so tired, they won’t be able to do anything. The buses might be going 15 to 20 or 30 kilometres more. That’s ridiculous. Student achievement is something they won’t get.”

The bigger question is whether closing small schools and moving students to regional education centres saves any education dollars at all. School planners continue to base closure recommendations on predicted “economies of scale.” Such claims are highly suspect, according to American researcher Barbara Kent Lawrence, if and when you factor-in the operating costs per square foot, the actual cost per graduate, the added cost of busing students, and the often inflated costs of new school construction.

School capital funding decisions can also leave smaller towns and villages out in the cold. In the case of Mattawa, a town of 2,100 near North Bay, North Bay Nipissing News Editor Rob Learn recently laid bare what can happen. In mid-December, he made public the contents of a Ministry of Education – NNDSB communications trail showing how between 2010 and 2013 that small town lost out on its promised school funding, not just now but into the future.

Without any public disclosure, and ignoring public pleas from Mattawa Mayor Dean Backer, a 2010 $1 million grant commitment earmarked for F.J. McElligott Secondary School was quietly diverted from the town and shifted to fund a North Bay school re-build to turn it from an intermediate school to a K to 6 facility.

The Mattawa school controversy brought into sharp relief what NNDSB Chair David Thompson recently conceded was a “shell game.” Capital grants for Mattawa were diverted to North Bay, then topped-up with unspent money from Full Day Kindergarten capital grants, allocating a total of $1.5 million to Silver Birches Elementary School which opened in September of 2014.

The nub of the whole matter is the spectre of school closures shifting even more students out of their home communities, down the highway to larger regional population centres. Proposed changes to the ARC school closure process will only worsen that problem.

SaveRuralSchoolSignSmall school advocates have countered Sandals and the education officials at Queen’s Park with a “community building” solution. Instead of closing the remaining rural and remote schools, the proposed plan is to transform underutilized schools into what Dr. David Clandfield terms “community hub schools.”

The Hub School model, now authorized in Nova Scotia regulations, opens the door to the potential for school and community revitalization. Under such a model, the adversarial, divisive closure processes become community planning exercises designed forge community partnerships and re-purpose the underutilized space without displacing the students and teachers.

Closing schools is a losing proposition for much of small town and rural Ontario. It’s time to explore a third option with better prospects. Stop the closures and consider more innovative solutions, starting with “hubification” and the sharing of school space.

Provincial and district education authorities must commit in a big way to school renovation rather than current ‘tear down’ and relocate approaches. Then let’s empower school boards to hire local business development officers to initiate community partnerships, tap into alternative funding sources, and rent out school space to local organizations from child care and seniors groups to social enterprises and performing arts organizations.

Rebuilding struggling communities with emptying schools sure beats tearing them down and “community hub schools” could well give them a new lease on life.  The fundamental question is: What’s standing in the way of proceeding with such community-based, “dollars & sense” alternatives to closing schools and abandoning smaller communities?

An earlier version of this Commentary produced for the Northern Policy Institute appeared in the Parry Sound North Star.

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The Fraser Institute’s Centre for Improvement in Education is stirring it up again in the normally tranquil world of Canadian K-12 education. The latest report, Education Spending in Canada: What’s Actually Happening? , released in mid-February 2015, returns to one of the Vancouver think tank’s familiar themes. While the popular news media outlets in Canada’s provinces are quick to report on every “education cut” or proposed “cutback,” public spending in the sector continues to rise as predictably as sun in the morning.

EdSpendingGraphicThe newest report, produced by Deani Neven Van Pelt and Joel Emes, was delivered with a rather provocative media release and an eye-popping infographic. Seizing upon the most glaringly sensational statistic, the Fraser Institute graphic artists depict the rise in “nominal spending” from 2001-2 to 2011-12. Seeing that “public school spending” rose from $39.9 to $59.6 billion or 53.1% while enrollment dropped across all provinces by 6.2% is hardly news. Learning that per pupil spending over that decade also rose from $7,250 to $11,835 or 63.5 % is enough to raise your temperature.

The Fraser Institute, for the uninitiated, is to Canadian education what Greenpeace is to the environmental movement. Setting-off emergency flares is the West Coast think tank’s stock-and-trade.  Like most of their reports, it’s important to cut through the sheen of pure free market analysis to get at the real meat of the matter.  In this case, it’s the valuable work done in reconstructing the growth in spending per pupil, province-by-province, adjusted for inflation and enrollment. Those figures are less “sexy” but far more relevant for education observers and policy-makers. It is also what that national education ‘paper tiger’ CMEC, the Council of Ministers of Education, should be producing for public accountability purposes.

The overall growth in education spending in “nominal dollars” is hardly earth-shaking and it pales in comparison with rising costs in health care, not really properly acknowledged in the report. When compared with enrollment declines in every province except Alberta (up 5.4%), the provincial spending levels are worth noting. The reported Ontario spending level of $24.7 billion is staggering, especially when compared with 2001-2, when it was $15.2 billion, or about $9 billion less. It’s hard, however, to get worked up over PEI spending 51.3% more, bringing the total spending to a mere $236 million.

EdSpendingPerPupil2011Comparing provincial student enrollments with per-pupil spending, adjusted for inflation, produces some significant insights. Alberta’s student enrollment rose by 5.4%, and so did its K-12 education spending (up $1.5 billion or 37.0%). Declining enrollments from 2001-2011, hit a few provinces particularly hard without impacting much on their overall spending levels. Newfoundland and Labrador absorbed a 22% enrollment drop, and spending per pupil after inflation/enrollment adjustment declined by 3.1 %. Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, like two peas in a Maritime pod, spent 3.4% and 3.6% more to educate 18.2% and 16.5% fewer students. Without the absorption of Kindergarten into the public system, PEI would likely have demonstrated a similar pattern.

The Fraser Institute’s most potentially valuable findings are the estimates for provincial overspending on K-12 education in so-called “government schools.” Overall, Canada’s provincial enrollments declined from 5.36 million to 5.o3 million students, but spending still rose 15% after adjusting for inflation and enrollment.  All together, they also spent some $15 billion more than if they had contained costs to the adjusted levels, allowing for inflation and enrollment. In the case of Ontario, enrollment dropped by 5.5%, but the Ministry of Education spent 15.8% ($2.4 billion) more ( in real terms) to educate 120,000 fewer students.  The Ontario overspending figure is double the total cost of educating Nova Scotia’s 125,500 students.

British Columbia teachers will be intrigued by the Fraser Institute study’s findings.  Comparing the new figures with the BCTF’s “Fair Deal” graphs shows how data can be manipulated to prove almost anything in education.  The new Statistics Canada figures for 2011-12 tend to show that the BC government has taken a “tougher line” and made gains in closing the gap between declining enrollment and spending levels. While BC student numbers plummeted 11% from 622,800 to 550,700, spending was contained to a 19.3% increase (or a 5.4% increase after inflation and enrollment adjustment). Salary and wage restraints affecting teachers explain how BC was able to break the cycle of escalating education costs so evident in Alberta and Ontario.

What the Fraser Institute study does not do is answer the big question – why do education expenditures (nominal, per pupil, and adjusted) continue to rise while enrollments decline? It is possible, however, based upon provincial research studies, to isolate three of the leading cost increase components.

First and foremost, salary and wage settlements for teachers and support staff, representing at least 75% of all recurrent education expenses and guaranteeing step increments to teachers in their first 10-12 years of service.  Second, provincial class size policies, particularly class enrollment caps, which — if poorly administered — result in overall much lower PTRs and smaller classes over time.  And finally, the growth of Special Education expenditures (once 15% of the budget, now as much as 20%) driven by the “student supports” philosophy and the trend to providing EAs in many more regular classes.

The key K-12 education cost inflators are much easier to identify than to analyze and assess, especially in the absence of a national education accountability office charged with such a public responsibility. Nor is there much definitive evidence that any of these relatively costly policy measures correlate positively with improvements in student engagement and achievement or preparedness for a productive, fulfilling life.

Why do Education Spending levels continue to rise in the face of overall declines in student enrollment? How credible are the Fraser Institute findings that compare “nominal spending”, province by province, over a ten year period? What is the real utility of the comparative figures for spending per pupil adjusted for inflation and enrollment?  To what extent are the main spending escalators “fixed costs” and, if so, is it possible to develop a spending model more closely aligned with improvements in student engagement and performance?

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“Don’t Stand By, Stand Up!,” is the popular rallying cry. “Don’t be part of the problem. Be part of the solution!”  Taken together, these two popular exhortations are also the main slogans of StopCyberbullying, the first prevention program in North America. Founded in the 1990s by Parry Aftab, an American lawyer from suburban Wyckoff, NJ, it spread from New Jersey throughout the United States and, since a recent rash of cyberbullying-related teen suicides in Nova Scotia, has popped up in the Maritimes, Alberta, and the Northwest Territories.

BullyParryAftabThe feisty New Jersey crusader, married to Canadian child advocate, Allan McCullough, is widely known as the “kids Internet lawyer,” especially after TV appearances on Dr. Phil and being honoured as the 2010 New Jersey recipient of the FBI Director’s Community Leadership Award. Her charitable organization

StopCyberbullying aims to mobilize a so-called “cyber-army” of students and teachers to rid the schools of what Aftab calls the “pandemic” of cyberbullying. The program also promotes the adoption of prevention toolkits and resources developed by her online child safety operation, WiredSafety.com

While Parry Aftab’s campaign is gaining traction in the Maritimes, it has stalled in the United States like most of the anti-bullying initiatives south of the border. “I’ve been doing this for over the past 16 years and I’m losing this battle,” she confessed in April 2014. Ineffective or poorly worded laws, misunderstandings over the law’s intent, fear of legal reprisals from parents, and avoidance of negative publicity for the school or town are all key reasons why cyberbullying laws and regulations don’t seem to be working to deter perpetrators.

BullySchoolSignAn entire industry, known as the “Bully Business,” has emerged to combat both bullying and cyberbullying.  Filmmakers, politicians, lobbyists, and corporations that sell in-school programs have joined pioneers like Aftab and Alberta teacher Bill Belsey in the ‘War on Bullying’ in schools and to hawk their latest anti-bullying classroom resources.

In Aftab’s home state, New Jersey, some $2 million was invested in 2012 in state-wide anti-bullying initiatives, including some $1 million to put an anti-bullying coordinator and teacher in every school.  School surveillance was increased and the numbers of reported incidents rose accordingly, but the results proved disappointing.

The New Jersey initiative may well have backfired on anti-bullying activists. As Richard Bozza, Ed.D., executive director of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators, observed in November 2011: “The anti-bullying law also may not be appropriate for our youngest students, such as kindergartners who are just learning how to socialize with their peers. Previously, name-calling or shoving on the playground could be handled on the spot as a teachable moment, with the teacher reinforcing the appropriate behavior. That’s no longer the case. Now it has to be documented, reviewed and resolved by everyone from the teacher to the anti-bullying specialist, principal, superintendent and local board of education.”

Whatever happened in New Jersey is passe for Aftab and her anti-cyberbullying supporters because Canada is now the new northern frontier. After the Nova Scotia Bullying and Cyberbullying report and the tragic death of Rehteah Parsons, Aftab focused her energies on “little Nova Scotia,” the world’s most important cyberbullying battleground with “more suicides per capita connected to cyber issues.” Flush from headlining the Nova Scotia Bullying and Cyberbullying Conference in May 3013, she took the campaign to Prince Edward Island, of all places, where she maintained a seasonal residence.

The International Stop Cyberbullying Youth Summit held in Charlottetown on Nov. 9, 2013 was quite an extravaganza.  A handpicked delegation of Prince Edward Island students formed the core of the 400 students in total from grades 4 to 12 and the 200 adults at the youth summit.  While the focus was on mobilizing students, Aftab rolled out the high profile heavy hitters. Industry leaders, including high-level representatives from Facebook, Microsoft and Google, attended the summit as well as the world renowned champion of anti-bullying, Barbara Coloroso, and the creator of Victims of Violence, Sharon Rosenfeld.

Anti-bullying activists like Aftab now have to contend with vocal critics, questioning the deterrent strategies and the effectiveness of school policies and laws. Former editor of Parenting magazine, Deborah Skolnik, raised hackles in March 2013 by speaking out about the “Bully Backlash” and arguing that “teasing, name-calling or taunting” were not necessarily acts of bullying but rather a natural, if unpleasant, part of growing up from childhood to adolescence.

More recently, New York writer Cevin Soling took to the pages of The Atlantic to address what he deemed the “elephant in the room” – the root cause of bullying. ” Children are confined in schools, often against their will, and deprived of the capacity to make choices that affect their lives, yet policymakers ignore these conditions,” he claimed. The most widespread catalyst for bullying, according to the author, was a school environment much like captivity “rendering children powerless” and from which there seemed to be “no escape.”

The somewhat  contradictory disciplinary philosophies underlying popular anti-bullying campaign are also coming under closer scrutiny. State and provincial legislators, including Nova Scotia, typically favor creating a no tolerance for bullying climate, pushing for formal incident reports and clamping down on any sign of  “hurt feelings” and even incidents resulting from “playful derogatory banter among friends.”  School administrators may revert to  a “snitch culture” in which everyone is encouraged to report incidents they witness.  Educational progressives gravitate to The Bully Project approach seeking to engage students in finding “peaceful solutions” and promoting a rather unnatural, warm-and-fuzzy climate where “nobody should be mean to others.”

School-based anti-bullying programs have not fared well when assessed for their effectiveness. One of the best known research reports, published in the Criminal Justice Review (December 2007) and based upon a meta-analysis, showed that anti-bullying programs produce “little discernible effect on youth participants.” A University of Texas researcher Seokjin Jeong analyzed data from 7,000 students in 50 states and found that such programs “plant” bullying ideas in young children that likely increase the incidence of schoolyard or online bullying.  Much of the research showing short-term positive impact may well be measuring the extent to which the visible symptoms are suppressed as opposed to remedying the underlying problems.

Passing cyberbullying laws may not be the answer. In the United States, all but one state, Montana, has a cyberbullying law in place. Despite that remarkably extensive thicket of cyber-harrassment laws, an investigative report by Associated Press concluded that the laws in place are simply not effective.

In Nova Scotia, the first Canadian province to pass a Cyber Safety Act, the legislation remains contentious.  Halifax’s leading internet and privacy lawyer David Fraser has judged the provincial law to be “half-baked” because of its “broad definition” cyberbullying which infringes on the right to free expression and holds parents responsible for their children’s actions.  He also predicts that that the law will be ruled unconstitutional.   That explains, Fraser says, why other Canadian provinces have taken different approaches.  In a 2013 research report, “Cyberbullying and the Law,” Fraser and his research team asked “Are We Doing Enough?” and proposed taking a closer look at treating internet bullying as a form of “harassment.”

Whatever happened to the flurry of Anti-Bullying initiatives launched in the wake of the 2010 to 2013 spate of teen suicides? Who are the leaders in the “Bully Business” and to what extent are they addressing the symptoms as opposed to the real underlying problems? Why have American cyberbullying laws failed to make much of a difference in the lives of students?  What will come of the Canadian Cyberbullying Youth Summits in the next few years?

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