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Archive for June, 2015

The famous German sociologist Max Weber’s conception of the “iron cage” of rationality and bureaucracy has proven not only durable, but applicable to the changing nature of modern bureaucratic education systems. In its original form, it was applied broadly by Weber to explain the tyranny of rationalization in the modern transformation of social life, particularly in Western capitalist societies. The “iron cage,” in his view, trapped individuals in systems purely driven by teleological efficiency, rational calculation, and control. Weber’s most brilliant insight was seeing, into the future, the potential “bureaucratization” of the social order into “the polar night of icy darkness.”

BureaucracyCageThe original German term was stahlhartes Gehäuse and  it morphed into”iron cage,” in 1930 with the appearance of Talcott Parson’s translation of Weber’s classic, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. More recently, sociologists have interpreted the term a little differently as meaning “shell as hard as steel.”  Whatever the precise meaning, its utility in assessing school systems will be readily apparent to anyone attempting to affect change or to promote community-driven initiatives in the modern and post-modern bureaucratic education state.

Weber’s “iron cage” concept is so broad that it almost invites education reformers to pour whatever they want into the theoretical framework. Prominent Canadian education thinkers, most notably George Martell, have appropriated Weber’s concept and applied it in their analysis of schooling in our global capitalist world.  Moving beyond such ideologically-laden conceptions, Martell and his colleague David Clandfield have provided a very thoughtful critique of the school system’s stubborn and persistent resistance since the 1980s to true “community schools.”

In their Summer 2010 Special issue of Our Schools/Our Selves, they see the demand for Community Schools as a manifestation of popular, progressive impulses provided that they “stay true” to their essential democratic principles.  True community schools, operating as genuine two-way community hubs, they argue, can advance “really useful” learning and community development.

That vision has taken root in Nova Scotia over the past three years, incited by Dr. David Clandfield’s advocacy and nurtured by a determined  provincial parent advocacy group, the Nova Scotia Small Schools Initiative. Every step of the way, the Nova Scotia community school advocates have confronted and tangled with the provincial and school board mutations of the “iron cage.”

Three Nova Scotia school communities spent the past two years developing Hub School proposals and recently suffered a calamitous fate.  All three innovative community school development projects were crushed like a bug on June 10 at the Chignecto-Central Regional School Board meeting in Truro, effectively abandoning three more small villages, Maitland, River John and Wentworth. Confronted with a senior staff report recommending “rejection,” the sixteen elected school board members made their fateful choice – management priorities driven by strict bureaucratic rules trumped community interests, once again.

Properly serving children, families and communities does not figure in such calculations. While the new School Review process, adopted in June 2014, is designed to be broader and more community-based, the provincial Hub regulations, written entirely by educrats, conspire against such local innovations. It is, regrettably, just the latest example of the workings and inner dynamics of what is known as the “iron cage” of education.

EdBureaucracyGraphicOf all the public bureaucratic systems, education is perhaps the most puzzling. Provincial authorities and school boards all purport to put “children first,” but do not really operate that way. Advocating actively for your children, fighting for your child’s school or questioning board student services policies is considered being ‘disruptive’ or, even worse, ‘overly emotional.’ Big stakes negotiations with teachers over salaries, class composition, and instructional days are, we are told, also none of our business.

The logic of the iron cage even leads elected board members to accept the bureaucratic mentality. “We only responsible for running schools,” as one Chignecto-Central RSB member stated, “we are not in the business of saving communities.”

Eighteen months ago, Robert Fowler’s February 2014 Nova Scotia School Review report exposed the”iron cage” and attempted to change the whole dynamic by recommending a community-based school planning and development process. If Fowler’s strategic approach had been followed in Truro, one or two of the Hub School proposals would have secured a green light and gone some distance towards winning back damaged public trust in those communities.

Myopic educational thinking is next-to-impossible to stamp out. Closing schools, the Chignecto-Central administration now claims, saves money and preserves teaching jobs. School librarians, we are assured, will survive because schools and villages are abandoned in Maitland, River John and Wentworth. That’s a complete fabrication designed only to counter the political fallout. North American research shows that consolidations rarely save any taxpayer’s money in the long run. The three Hub School groups, in their submissions, not only pointed out the limited immediate savings achieved through those closures, but provided sound and viable plans with some modest revenue generating potential.

Studying how educational bureaucracies function provides a window on what happens and why in the world of state education. Disrupting the status quo would mean confronting these deeply concealed educational realities and busting down the bureaucratic silos – for the sake of children, families and communities.

Does Max Weber’s conception of the “iron cage” still have utility in explaining the impulses and dynamics of educational bureaucracies? Why do true community school initiatives encounter such resistance at all levels of many school systems? What can be learned from the fate of local Community Hub School projects championed by the Nova Scotia Small Schools Initiative? What might work in breaking down the silos and opening the door to more local projects of genuine social enterprise and educational innovation?

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Two years ago, Korey Breen’s son, was struggling in elementary school and suffering from three debilitating conditions —fear, anxiety and loss of confidence. The clouds lifted when the Moncton mother of three found an educational lifeline in a tiny, home-like school established to serve kids with severe learning challenges. There he finally felt safe, accepted and at  home. RiverbendAwardDay Finding a place like Riverbend Community School was a godsend, but only the beginning of that struggle to turn her son’s life around. “Raising a child with special needs and severe learning disabilities and no financial support,” she confesses, “has been extremely difficult and takes everything we have.”

Struggling students in Moncton, New Brunswick, have very few options outside the regular mainstream public school system. For elementary students with severe learning challenges and their families, Riverbend Community School is really the only option, and, even then, only viable when you can scrape together the money to pay its hefty $11,500 tuition fees. For hundreds of families this is simply beyond reach.

My latest research report, published by the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS), demonstrates that a gaping hole exists in New Brunswick’s Special Education safety net. Since 2004, that gap has been closed in Nova Scotia with the adopting and expansion of that province’s unique Tuition Support Program, designed to meet the needs of Korey’s son and hundreds of others struggling on the margins of the regular school system.

New Brunswick now has a school providing a beacon of hope that could easily serve as a pilot school for a completely new approach embracing the full continuum of special education support services. Since its inception as a Day School in September 2013, a small but growing number of families are discovering Riverbend, attracted by the passion of its youthful Co-Director, Rebecca Bulmer, and often desperate for a special program specifically designed to respond to their children with such complex needs. “If you have a struggling and confused child in your life,” Bulmer says, “we can help. We can replace fear and anxiety with pride and success” That is also the key message of her recent CBC Moncton Information Morning series called “Learning Outside the Box,” explaining the world of learning disabilities to a new audience.

The Moncton school for high risk students is filling a gaping hole in the system. Struggling students and their parents are finding the Riverbend Community School completely on their own because it flies below the radar and is funded entirely by fee-paying parents. Like most such independent ventures, it exists because of the sheer dedication and commitment of its founders, Rebecca and Jordan Halliday, and Rebecca’s mother, Priscilla Wilson, the retired school teacher who first saw the need and, back in 2008, opened her own Moncton tutoring centre.

Out of that little project emerged today’s Riverbend School, a growing presence with 10 day students and some 40 students enrolled in its after-school tutoring programs in reading and mathematics. All are attracted by the simple commitment to “discover the potential” in each child and to provide “the proper intervention” needed to strengthen their “resilience” and give them back the feeling of success. For many families, it’s a financial struggle to keep the children there.

The Nova Scotia Tuition Support Program (TSP), initiated in September 2004, is providing the bridge for many families without the financial means to pay much in the way of tuition fees. The TSP exists to be that lifeline for severely learning challenged kids who cannot be served at their local public school. It was explicitly intended for short-term purposes and works on the assumption that students can eventually be successfully “transitioned” back into the regular system.

The TSP funding covers most of the tuition costs to attend designated special education private schools (DSEPS) in Nova Scotia. At a cost of $2.5 million a year, it currently serves some 225 students attending three designated schools, in six locations across Nova Scotia.

Since my initial AIMS report, A Provincial Lifeline, three years ago, the TSP has been sustained and further improved in Nova Scotia, but has yet to appear in either New Brunswick or Prince Edward Island. Consistent and reliable support from the Nova Scotia Department of Education and Early Childhood Development has been of great help to families that are in –or near — crisis. Since February 2012, it’s easier to qualify and parents now have more secure support, a blessing for those desperately in need of financial assistance to pay the tuition fees.

Specialized learning disabilities schools like Moncton’s Riverbend deserve that opportunity to be recognized and extending similar tuition support would certainly help broaden accessibility in N.B., a province where an estimated 1,000 children suffer from these challenges. Providing a lifeline for our most vulnerable children and youth simply makes common sense all around for students, families, and the province. It not only helps to reduce potential long-term social and economic costs, but in Nova Scotia is already helping to producing happier families and more productive young citizens.

Why are Special Needs Kids falling between the cracks in New Brunswick’s school system?  What impact has the Nova Scotia Tuition Support Program had on access to specialized support services? What can New Brunswick and PEI learn from Nova Scotia’s TSP experience?  Will the AIMS report provide the nudge needed to close the gaping hole in the NB system?

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