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Archive for April, 2015

Guided parent engagement has become, like apple pie and motherhood, almost sacrosanct in publicly-funded education. School systems across North America now have an established apparatus to sanction ‘approved’ parent organizations and many employ senior staff to guide and mentor school-level parent advisory councils. Promoting “parent involvement” to overcome administrative roadblocks and systemic problems has become a business in and of itself, especially in more affluent provinces like Ontario and British Columbia.

EdWeekLogo2015Surveying Canadian provincial systems, you will discover that official parent organizations promoting increased “investment” in public education are themselves beneficiaries of provincial education funding. A few groups, like Ontario-based People for Education enjoy exalted status, called upon to provide “parent opinion” on every issue from student testing to child poverty and sex education to First Nations schooling. Groups seeking significant reform or challenging the status quo like the Society for Quality Education or WISE Math get nothing but crumbs as a reward for their independence. In public education, it’s all too often about rewarding the “friendlies” and marginalizing groups that are seeking deeper and more systemic changes.

Leading parent voices like Annie Kidder and a host of provincial Parent Teacher Federation presidents claim to have moved “Beyond the Bake Sale,” but their organizations spend most of their time lobbying for funding and promoting the latest provincial education panacea for what ails the system. In Ontario since 2006, the Ministry of Education has awarded more that $24 million to fund 15,000 Parents Reaching Out (PRO) grants to local school councils and 568 regional grants — all aimed at increasing “parent involvement” in schools. What’s been the impact? At the school level, the vast majority of parent councils still busy themselves raising money for class supplies, sponsoring multicultural festivals, and even running “cupcake” parties for the kids.

Ontario’s PRO grants were initially tied to the Dalton McGuinty Liberal Government’s “Poverty Reduction Initiative” and presented as a way of addressing social inequalities facing identified “priority” school neighbourhoods. By the Fall of 2014, the Ministry’s Ottawa Field Services Branch  was putting a positive spin on the increased participation of school councils in socially-disadvantaged communities. Since 2006, after awarding thousands of grants across the province, the Ministry reported that applications from priority schools were up 300 % and approvals up 450%. That bears further investigation.

Poverty reduction has all but disappeared from the public announcements about PRO grants.  In early March 2015, Education Minister Liz Sandals was singing a different tune: “When parents are active in their children’s education, student well-being and achievement are improved — especially in challenging areas like math. This helps students reach their full potential and better prepares them for a bright future.”

A Ministry media release (March 3, 2015), announcing the Parents Reaching Out grants for 2015-16 claimed that they were now designed to fund  “a wide range of initiatives that help parents become more involved in their child’s education.” The posted “success stories” reported on grants to reduce language barriers, celebrate diversity, conduct parenting sessions, alert parents to cyberbullying, foster community connections, and assist parents with homework. None of the cited examples related directly to reducing educational inequalities or child and family poverty.

From its inception, the Ontario PRO grant program was also presented as a provincial initiative lauded in a 2010 McKinsey & Company report analyzing high achieving school systems around the world. The Ministry spin on that report is far more positive than the actual report.  That global school system review,  introduced, incidently, with a Forward by Ontario’s own Dr. Michael Fullan, makes only a fleeting reference (p. 101) to Ontario’s PRO-grant driven “parent involvement” program. The American Aspire charter school model earns far more praise.

The McKinsey global school system reports issued in 2007 and 2010 considered holy grail in Ontario are now mostly repudiated elsewhere.  Most of that “independent report” anoints Ontario schools as “among the best in the world”and actually attributes it to the “tenure of strategic leaders,” specifically Fullan and his former OISE colleague Ben Levin  as well as Premier McGuinty and then Education Minister Kathleen Wynne. Most of the authoritative critiques, summarized in January 2012 by University of London professor Frank Coffield, dispute such success claims based upon “implausible” declaratory statements with a “thin evidence base.”

Spending $24 million spread out over thousands of school councils is unlikely to make much of a difference in closing the social inequality gap between school communities. In a TV Ontario program, aired in September 22, 2014 and hosted by Steve Paikin of The Agenda, four leading Ontario anti-poverty activists reviewed the progress made in eradicating poverty since 2000. Coordinator of Freedom 90, Yvonne Kelly, showed her impatience with the “broad-based prevention framework” which “doesn’t help those already marginalized.” That’s a neat summary of what went wrong with the PRO grants as an “anti-poverty” initiative.

Promoting parent engagement, it turns out, is not really about addressing inequality in Ontario’s schools. The Toronto District School Board’s Learning Opportunities Index (LOI) for 2014 reveals that the “gap” is as wide as ever.  Funding parent groups is simply not properly aligned with the overall strategy.  Giving parent councils PRO grants to expand their diversity of membership and activities has clearly taken precedence over reducing educational inequality. Indeed, the one program that might have made a difference, the Learning Opportunities Grant (LOG) was substantially cut in 2006 when PRO grants were introduced by the McGuinty Government.

Who’s promoting Parent Engagement — and for what purpose?  What does Ontario have to show for spending $24 million since 2006 on shoring-up friendly parent advisory councils? Whatever happened to that initial rationale for the PRO grants — closing the gap for schools in the 133 “priority neighbourhoods”?

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Two Canadian provinces, New Brunswick and Ontario, are on the front lines in the ongoing battle over school closures, mostly concentrated in small rural communities. With school consolidation on pause in Nova Scotia the wake of the 2013 School Closure Moratorium, it has returned with a vengeance in both N.B. and Ontario. The renewed threat in New Brunswick has now sparked a feisty province-wide Rural Schools Coalition.

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A dozen small New Brunswick communities are currently in a state of upheaval with local schools facing possible closure, sparking growing popular resistance from Dorchester to Pennfield and north to Dalhousie, affecting Anglophone and Acadian communities alike. In Ontario, Education Minister Liz Sandals has not only identified some 600 schools as “half full” and ripe for review, but now introduced legislative changes to “speed-up” that province’s “School Accommodation Review” process.

Armed with the dreaded New Brunswick Policy 409, and aided by that province’s District Education Councils (DECs), the Education Department is imposing an arbitrary, cost-driven “school sustainability” process upon supporters of the threatened schools. It looks, sounds, and feels distinctly like a runaway “Express Train 409” bearing down on their rural communities. After blowing through the first dozen, forty-two more schools, 27 anglophone and 15 francophone, are next in line.

Ontario’s new School Review process, unveiled in late March 2015, reflects the so-called “speed-up” agenda. Faced with a deficit reduction challenge, Minister Sandals has enacted changes shortening the timelines from seven months to five, cutting the number of public consultation meeting from 4 to 2, and limiting the criteria to “impact on student achievement.” Eliminating the criterion “value to the community” has upset municipal mayors and re-ignited the Community School Alliance, led by London-Middlesex small school advocate, Doug Reycraft. 

Hundreds of Save Our School Signs have appeared all over rural N.B. and the whole exercise threatens to kill the “community spirit” that still animates much of rural New Brunswick. In the case of two Anglophone East School District communities, Dorchester and Riverside-Albert, local public school supporters were given less than two months to a react to weighty facilities cost reports and documents stacking the deck in favour of closure.

The New Brunswick School Closure process is not only top-down and draconian, but also completely at odds with best policy and practice elsewhere. Compared with School Review for closure rules in Ontario and Nova Scotia, for example, the current practice violates every principle of fairness, legitimacy, and civic engagement.

“Procedural fairness” is so narrowly circumscribed under N.B. Policy 409 that it amounts to little more than a commitment to carry out prescribed, pre-scheduled public hearings designed simply to validate the closure recommendation. It’s top-down decision making in the extreme, driven entirely by the provincial government’s cost reduction targets and based upon the unproven assumption that moving students to bigger schools is more cost-effective.

Estimated cost savings accruing from closure, in the case of both the Dorchester and Riverside schools, running to $1.8 million, are grossly inflated, based upon projected staff reductions and compounded costs accumulated after years of deferred maintenance. Additional busing costs, at $50,000 per vehicle annually, are not acknowledged and community school cost reduction plans are simply not being considered.

Schools listed for closure are excluded completely from the information gathering process and presented with “infrastructure planning” reports that put facilities ahead of students, parents and communities. Under the policy, closure proceedings can be sprung on schools at any time, with insufficient time to formulate a response let alone generate viable, community-based alternatives.

The standard model of School Accommodation Reviews, utilized in Ontario gives school communities ample time (5 to 7 months), builds-in more school-level engagement, and provides for a provincial mediator. It’s far from perfect, but respects the right of aggrieved communities to proper representation and legitimate opportunities to be heard before school boards make their final decision. No school would ever be closed on the tight timeline currently being implemented in N.B.

Just across the border, in Nova Scotia, the whole School Review process is radically different and aimed at achieving cost efficiencies through a brand new school-centred community planning model, supporting the gradual re-purposing of school buildings. Schools are viewed as community assets and not simply liabilities to be abandoned and off-loaded to local towns and villages.

Under the newly established October 2014 N.S. model, school boards are required to engage municipalities, school communities, local groups and business organizations in a Long Range Planning process. Schools with declining enrollments are encouraged to develop Community Hub plans aimed at re-purposing surplus school space and generating revenue to assist in ongoing operational and maintenance costs. Once the initial spadework has been done, the School Review process goes forward guided by a “School Options Committee” mandated to find local solutions. Only when such efforts flounder, do the schools close.

New Brunswick’s School Closure policy was already grossly unfair, and Education Minister Serge Rousselle has just made it even worse. His latest revisions, announced in mid-stream, adding two “triggers” for closure – under 100 students or 30 per cent or less occupancy — merely confirm the suspicions of rural New Brunswickers. Appropriating the concept of a “trigger” mechanism, borrowed from the world of firearms, may have been a Freudian slip. If Express Train 409 does not run you over, then the DECs can pull the trigger to kill the vitality and resilience of rural communities, leaving them school-less and eventually childless.

New Brunswick can do much better — and Ontario should know better than to deny the critical role schools play in smaller communities. It’s time to re-think the current move to “Hurry Up” school closure process, to take stock of what happened in Nova Scotia, and to build local communities into a more school-centred rural revitalization process.

What’s “fair” about imposing School Consolidation and springing closures on struggling rural communities? What’s driving the “speed-up” in provincial School Review process time-frames for closure?  Where’s the hard evidence to support the purported cost savings and operational efficiencies? An how can such bitter, divisive and arbitrary public processes be transformed into community-building, cost-efficiency-generating  exercises?

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A British grassroots, teacher-led movement, known as researchED, is emerging as a new player in the rather closely-knit, education school-centred, internally-referenced world of education policy research.  It originated, almost by accident in 2013, when Tom Bennett (no relation) with assistance from  Helene O’Shea, came up with the idea of holding a conference exploring school-level and system-wide research into “what works in education.” What a revolutionary idea!

ResearchEdlogoOn the first Saturday after school opened in September 2013, over 500 British educators, policy wonks, and researchers came to Dulwich College simply to “talk, listen and learn.” With the support of former UK policy advisor Sam Freedman and The Guardian columnist Ben Goldacre, the incipient movement took-off and spread across Britain. The movement founder, Tom Bennett, who ran Soho night clubs before entering teaching, became its passionate emissary and pied piper, sponsoring follow-up events in York and Birmingham. When both were sell-outs, researchED began to develop even more expanding throughout 2014 , far beyond the wildest dreams of its pioneers.

Tom Bennett and ResearchEd have tapped into the creativity, energy and ideas of regular teachers and “ideas people’ from outside the normal cloistered world of academe and the “fad-prone” educational bureaucracy. While accepting the critical value of “educational experience,” Tom and his supporters see “huge areas” that are “amenable to scientific investigation” utilizing insights from other subject disciplines, not just psychology. “It’s time teachers started insisting upon evidence,” Tom declares, “before being expected to accept every claim and magic bullet sent their way. It’s time for a quiet revolution.”

The ResearchEd movement has not only expanded, but amassed considerable brainpower — mostly from outside the established OECD Education circles.  Surveying the ResarchEd contributors, now numbering well over 60 individuals, it’s a very eclectic, diverse group of thinkers ranging from Founder and Chief Executive of the Teacher Development Trust David Weston and Times Education Supplement editor Ann Mroz to Science Education specialist Mary Whitehouse and well-known Head Teacher Tom Sherrington.

The UK’s Teacher Conference success story of 2014 comes to the USA in early May of 2015.  The first North American ResearchEd conference will be on Saturday May 2, 2015 at the Riverside School in the Bronx area of New York City. One look at the line-up of speakers and you can see that it will be a ground-breaking day for teachers, academics, and anyone interested in finding out what the latest research really says about how to improve classrooms and schools. Some of America’s and the UK’s most prominent thought leaders, academics and educators will be there, very few of whom were invited to the recent ISTP2015 Conference in Banff, Alberta, dominated by education ministers, union leaders, and hand-picked ‘friendlies.’

One example of ResearchED’s iconoclastic spirit appeared in the April Issue of its online magazine.  “Only one in ten education reforms,” Gemma Ware of The Conversation reported, is ever “analyzed for their impact.” Based upon an OECD study covering 34 member countries from 2008 to 2013, that was worth reporting. So was OECD education director Andreas Schleicher’s comment that the education world needs a “more systematic and evidence-based approach to reforms.” Most significantly, Finnish education guru Pasi Sahlberg is quoted as conceding that education authorities have little appetite for spending more studying “failure.”

In today’s education world, ResearchED is a breath of fresh air with a commitment to bringing the UnConference to the neglected field of education policy research. Inspired partly by the progressive EdCamp movement. it may pose a threat to the ‘usual suspects’ like education experts Michael Fullan, Andy Hargreaves, and Pasi Sahlberg who tend to identify trends, feed-off one another,  and tap into the educational treasure chest of  OECD Education and state education authorities. Not to mention plowing those resources into the very traditional pedantic, OISE-centred graduate student KMb (Knowledge Mobilization) research movement.  What’s appealing about Tom Bennett’s grassroots insurgency is it’s cheekiness and willingness to tilt at the windmills propelling the modern education state.

Does the ResearchED movement have the potential to challenge popular ‘fads and fetishes’ that constantly wash over public education?  Can regular teachers be engaged in assisting to develop research-based, workable solutions to the system’s chronic problems? Will Tom Bennett’s little ‘quiet revolution’ move beyond simply stirring the pot? Will the North American education establishment even notice the little disturbance in the Bronx?

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