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Archive for May, 2015

Schools, parents and students are now clashing more frequently over the issue of regulating student attire. In November of 2014, some 25 young women attending Fredericton High School in New Brunswick walked out of class to protest the school’s dress code, labeling it “sexist,” discriminatory and indicative of a hidden “rape culture.” Since then similar student protests have spread, across Canada and the United States. When warm spring weather encouraged teens to rush the seasons, teachers and principals, bound by school dress codes, began clamping down on students, particularly teen girls, ‘showing off too much skin.’

SchoolUniformsCentralPeelPhoto

Protests against “sexist” school dress codes are raising new issues for North American schools. Teachers and principals disciplining students for wearing “revealing attire” find themselves in the eye of a very public storm. Tech-savvy teens turn to social media with hashtag protests like #MyBodyMyBusiness and #CropTopDay aimed at so-called “sexist rules” that seem to fixate more on girls than boys.

All the publicity has rekindled the old debate over appropriate school attire. It has also prompted some North American public schools to introduce uniforms as a way to address the increasingly controversial matter of making subjective judgements about student dress.  In a few schools such as Central Peel Secondary School in Brampton, Ontario, it led school authorities to institute a one-year pilot project now deemed successful by most students and their parents.

The then principal of Central Peel, Lawrence DeMaeyer, took the plunge with the support of parents and teachers looking to help kids focus more on their schoolwork. After introducing a regular uniform with white or green collared and crested polo shirts, he found “a lot less students dressing inappropriately,” “It raised the bar,” he said, and 9 out of 10 students complied immediately, while only a small percentage spent their time “trying to resist in every way.”  Dealing with uniform infractions was “much more palatable” than the “very difficult” conversations regularly pitting teachers and administrators against mostly female students.

One of the relatively few experts on school dress, Dr. Barbara Cruz, a University of South Florida professor of secondary education, tends to favour uniforms, but provides a reasonably sound assessment of the educational research.  In her book  School Dress Codes: A Pro/Con Issue (2001 and 2004), she notes that most of the case for uniforms is based upon anecdotal evidence. When surveyed, teachers and administrators in uniformed schools are fairly consistent in reporting that students are more focused, better behaved and have higher attendance records and academic achievement. It’s also much easier to spot a stranger at school when everyone is wearing similar clothes.

The empirical evidence to support such claims is harder to find because of the state of the research and the difficulty in isolating “dress” as a factor when many factors can contribute to better student progress and behaviour.

DressCodeLaurenWiggins

Recent protests over “sexist” dress codes may well open the door for more experiments in introducing school uniforms. Supporters of student uniforms, normally the informal crested polo shirt version, say that the issue of sex discrimination is significantly alieviated and, after some initial adjustment, students find ways to express their identities and personalities with jewelry, accessories, and various types of long and short pants and skirts.

One Grade 12 Moncton high school student, Lauren Wiggins, famous for being suspended in her halter-top dress, is now a surprising convert to more consistent student dress codes. After achieving international fame when George Takei, “King of Facebook,” took up her cause, Lauren now advocates clear, consistent, gender-neutral dress guidelines, including — where the community supports the concept– school uniforms. Ending the “sexist” and discriminatory aspects of current policies are the first priority for her and presumably others who fashion themselves young feminists.

Will student dress code controversies remain predictable contests between conformity and individuality? To what extent are existing dress codes being applied more on teen girls than boys?  Are disciplinary actions aimed at curtailing “revealing” attire and reducing “distractions” for boys indicative of a hidden “rape culture”? Would introducing simple, comfortable, gender-neutral uniforms help to address concerns raised by today’s politically-engaged young women?

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Few books on the state of Education have created as much of a stir as Daisy Christodoulou’s 2014 treatise, Seven Myths About Education. When It first appeared in July of 2013 as a short, persuasive e-book, British and American educators hailed it as a potential “game-changer” from a British schoolteacher willing to present the accumulating research evidence that challenges the prevailing “progressive education” orthodoxy.

SevenMythsBookCoverDaisyChristodoulou

Since its re-publication in March of 2014, the book has dominated educational discourse everywhere but here in Canada and much of the United States. In the wake of the May 2, 2015 ResearchED New York conference, that’s likely to change. Daisy Christopoulou’s workshop presentation found a new North American audience, including a few Canadians like John Mighton, Robert Craigen, and me.

When Daisy Christodoulou started teaching in September 2007 in a South East London secondary school she was immediately struck by how little her students actually knew.. In one class of 15 and 16-year-olds, she discovered children who “were barely literate and numerate” grappling with books written for eight and nine-year-olds. “Many of the pupils I taught could not place London, their home city, on a map of Britain. Plenty thought Africa was a country,” she says.

Widely regarded as “Britain’s brightest student” before entering teaching, Daisy set out to find out why students’ content knowledge had slipped so dramatically in state schools. Her research only confirmed that her experiences weren’t atypical. She stumbled upon Susan Jacoby’s 2008 book, The Age of American Unreason, which reached similar conclusions about the appalling level of students’ understanding about the core principles and foundations of the American democratic system.

Little in her British teacher’s college training prepared her for this discovery and, only when she began to look wider afield, did she discover the research and writings of two American authorities, E.D. Hirsch Jr. and Daniel T. Willingham. “It was a great relief to read Hirsch and Willingham,” she now recalls, “and to realize that the intuitions I’d had about the importance of knowledge were backed up by solid evidence. But it was also extremely frustrating, because I just couldn’t believe that all this vitally important evidence about how pupils learn hadn’t been taught to me when I was training to be a teacher.”

Then Daisy Christodoulou began to connect all the dots. “Much of what teachers are taught about education is wrong… I was not just shocked, I was angry. I felt as though I had been misled.”  She then added: “I had been working furiously for 3 years, teaching hundreds of lessons, and much information that would have made my life a whole lot easier and would have helped my pupils immeasurably had just never been introduced to me. Worse, ideas that had absolutely no evidence backing them up had been presented to me as unquestionable axioms.”

Awakened to that realization, Christodoulou proceeded to identify what she terms “Seven Myths About Education”:

1. Facts prevent understanding
2. Teacher-led instruction is passive
3. The 21st century fundamentally changes everything
4. You can always just look it up
5. We should teach transferable skills
6. Projects and activities are the best way to learn
7. Teaching knowledge is indoctrination

Her book not only identifies, but documents, why these beliefs fly in the face of social-science research and the latest discoveries in cognitive psychology.

Much of the book exposes the ideological bias that informs far too much of what passes for educational discourse. “Too often, people think that teaching knowledge is somehow right wing and elitist,” Christodoulou wrote in the AFT magazine, American Educator.  “But this isn’t the case. The kind of powerful knowledge that’s in the Core Knowledge curriculum in the United States doesn’t “belong” to any class or culture. The great breakthroughs of civilization were made by a whole range of people from different classes and cultures, and if they belong to anyone, they belong to humanity. Teaching these insights to children isn’t elitist—not teaching them is!”

Christodoulou is particularly critical of British and American school systems for educating students who “lack knowledge of important fundamentals.”  The education establishment, according to her, downplays the importance of knowledge. “There is general academic underachievement despite a multiplicity of reform efforts and relatively generous funding. Attention is paid to school structures over classroom practice.”

The British teacher-turned-author is difficult to label and discredit because of the soundness of her thinking and her impeccable research. Nor is she inclined to defend standardized student testing. ” The high-stakes, test-based accountability systems in both countries,” she says,” have, by and large, failed….when I advocate teaching knowledge, people assume I’m advocating high-stakes tests. That isn’t at all the case. In fact, I’d argue that a lot of the damaging test preparation we see in both systems is the result of the misconception that skills can be developed in the abstract.”

Christodoulou’s Seven Myths about Education is already one of the most talked-about books in British education over the past 20 years. A London Sunday Times book reviewer got it right in August 2013 when he commented that she had unleashed “a heat-seeking missile” at “the heart of the educational establishment” and her recent researchED Conference presentations have only enhanced her credibility among regular classroom teachers.

The book demonstrates the persuasive power of sound ideas and research-based approaches to education. “More and more teachers are realising the gap between the theory they are taught and their practical experience,” Christodoulou commented in The Spectator. “More and more books are being published which explain the insights of cognitive science and the implications they have for classroom teachers. Instead of the warmed-through fads of the past century, I think the next few years will see evidence-based reforms that lead to genuine educational improvements.”

That realization is what fuels the latest rising phoenix – the British teacher-led ResearchED movement.

What explains the dominance of certain persistent “mythologies” in the world of contemporary education?  How accurate was Daisy Christodoulou’s “heat-seeking missile”? Is there a danger in restoring “content knowledge,” that pedagocial approaches other than teacher-guided instruction will be similarly discarded or devalued? What can be done to transform teaching into the art and science of combining style with substance in today’s classrooms?

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The Inverness Community Leadership Centre in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, is edging closer to realization. A former coal mine office is about to be transformed through a $2 million renovation into Nova Scotia’s first “children’s zone” development initially housing two innovative local ventures, the Early Years Co-op and the Inverness Cottage Workshop for intellectually disabled adults, with plans to add an entrepreneurship centre. In it’s conception, the little venture is actually inspired more by American than Canadian precedents.

InvernessCentreVision

Campaigning to eradicate child poverty and promoting universal social support programs remain the well-worn Canadian policy approaches to “closing the income gap.” Community reconstruction in Inverness is markedly different because it begins and ends with children, youth and families. Much like glittery American ventures such as Harlem Children’s Zone and Promise Neighborhoods, it taps into the enormous, largely underutilized potential of community-based, child-centred alternatives.

The ambitious project in Inverness, a struggling Cape Breton town of 2,000 souls, is anything but an overnight success. It’s clearly the brainchild of a true visionary, Jim Mustard, a messianic Town Councillor with Early Child Development in his DNA. He is, after all, the son of the late Dr. Fraser Mustard, the world renowned McMaster University pediatrician famous for promoting maternal health and early childhood education.

Mustard was at his passionate best at the March 2015 Dalhousie Shift Rural Symposium. “We need to embrace children from birth,” he said, “and if we don’t provide Early Years programs now, there will be problems down the road. If we make our children the North Star, then we’ll stay on track.”

An Early Years Co- Op was only the first step for Mustard. He’s out to rebuild an entire community. “The idea is to generate a sense of community. It needs to feel like a kitchen table gathering with people just hanging out,” he remarked in December 2013. ”When you think of the expertise that will appear in an informal setting it will trump all the rest of it.”

Early learning is gradually advancing in Nova Scotia, by baby steps, and it is vital to the longer-term social regeneration agenda. Since the 2012 Canadian Pediatrics Society (CPS) report, the province has come onside. For every dollar spent on the early childhood years, governments now see a $4 to $6 return to society in terms of more productive youth and reduced expenditures for juvenile justice, jails and social assistance.

Child and family poverty remains a stark reality in Nova Scotia, especially outside of Halifax. Since 2000, the target year for the eradication of child poverty, Dr. Lesley Frank of Acadia University reports that the child poverty rate (22.2%) has barely budged, in spite of modest increases in the minimum wage and child support programs.

Children, youth and families in lower income homes bore the brunt of the brutal 2008-10 economic recession. One in 3 children (32.6%) in Cape Breton are living in poverty, compared to 24.4% in Kentville, 24.3% in New Glasgow, 21.8% in Truro, and 18.6% in Halifax. While child poverty statistics are hard to find in Yarmouth,  there’s a steady demand for shelter at SHYFT Youth Services, responding to the needs of homeless youth.

Most of the remedial measures bandied about — legislating a living wage, introducing the Guaranteed Basic Income, or province-wade subsidized child care — are well known. Most often they are proposed by Canadian child welfare activists committed to restoring the diminished and porous social safety net.

Establishing children’s zones and embarking upon social reconstruction street-by-street are still new and mysterious here in Nova Scotia and in other regions of Canada. One notable exception is the Toronto District School Board, where, since 2009, the TDSB’s Inner City Advisory Committee has assessed and ranked its neediest or “priority” school communities. That Learning Opportunities Index (LOI) identified some 77 school neighbourhoods where “children from lower income families” face “significant barriers” to ” achieving high educational outcomes.”

The Toronto LOI project is a promising first step, openly acknowledging that not all public school communities are equal. It can also be an extremely valuable indicator of where a school system needs to target its educational resources. The Toronto board, however, is less clear in how the LOI is actually being used. Beyond reporting in 2014 that LOI is utilized to “help allocate staff and other resources” it’s hard to identify visible, targeted programmatic initiatives.

Looking south to the United States, the initial glow surrounding Geoffrey Canada’s signature project, the Harlem Children’s Zone, has faded as time and student results tone down the somewhat unrealistic transformative expectations. While Canada’s project falls short of being “The Harlem Miracle,” it has produced measurable gains for kids living in one of North America’s most disadvantaged urban districts.

Now that Geoffrey Canada has stepped down as CEO of Harlem Chidren’s Zone (HCZ), more objective assessments of its success are appearing. Although they focus on HCZ, the appraisals may well apply to the replica projects supported by President Barack Obama in 20 different cities across the United States. Already, it is clear that allocating $60 million to the Promise Neighborhood projects in cities like Los Angeles, Boston, and Washington, will be insufficient to duplicate HCZ that required over $200 million to make a dent in schools serving 8,000 children and 6,000 adults across 97 blocks of Harlem.

HCZGeoffreyCanada

Critics of Geoffrey Canada and his HCZ tend to miss the whole point of his massive social reconstruction project. Through his work with HCZ’s precursor, Rheedlen Centres for Children and Families, Canada learned that child and family poverty was not amenable to eradication when projects focused on only one dimension of the problem. Establishing charter schools alone would not work without addressing the underlying social determinants of chronic student underperformance: early childhood development, housing, and health care.  His ambitious initiative, as MIT neuroscientist John Gabrieli recently noted, demonstrated how “ambitious community programs…. paired with aggressive school reform efforts” offer the best hope to “close the achievement gap” and revitalize whole communities.

American Children’s Zones, it turns out, have rather surprisingly much in common with Jim Mustard’s Inverness Community project. It too is a community-based social reconstruction venture that has the potential to change that dynamic. What Geoffrey Canada undertook in Harlem, is just the Inverness project on a gigantic scale. One look at that little Cape Breton project is enough to awaken anyone ready to think “outside the box” about the potential for child-centred models of community re-development.

What’s the real purpose of Children’s Zones in both inner city neighbourhoods and small communities? Does child-centred community redevelopment still have the potential to break the cycle of child and family poverty? If so, what’s standing in the way of its realization?

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