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Archive for September, 2015

An 87-year-old education reformer from the Land of Thomas Jefferson and the University of Virginia is now taking education in the United Kingdom by storm.  Since being rediscovered by former British Education Secretary Michael Gove, E.D. Hirsch, founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation, is enjoying a renaissance. He’s not only captured the attention of Britain’s brightest education scholar, Daisy Christodoulou, but is now finding a new and more receptive audience in Britain. His recent Policy Exchange Public Lecture on September 17, 2015, has made him the darling of education’s chattering class.

EDHirschLecturePosterHirsch is being rediscovered by a whole new generation of thoughtful, better-read educators completely fed-up with the “content-lite” curriculum predominant in state schools the U.K. and still blithely accepted across North America. He burst on the American national education scene in 1987 with the publication of Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs To Know, which – in a rare act of intellectual courage– proposed 5,000 subjects and concepts that every American ought to know to be considered a ‘fully educated person.’ He followed it up with his true educational classic, The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them (1999). That book spawned the Core Knowledge Foundation which works across the United States to publish “core content” materials and specifies the knowledge and skills which ought to be taught in every school year.

The educational pendulum tends to swing and today E.D. Hirsch is literally born again as both a wise prophet and a resilient education reformer. Once dismissed as an American “conservative” educator and purveyor of “hard facts,” he’s now being cherished in Britain as a stalwart defender of “knowledge” in state school systems seemingly mesmerized by teaching “competencies and skills” for the 21st century world. Educators everywhere are awakening to the fallacies entrenched in so-called “progressive education” dogma. If everything can now be “Googled,” why do we have schools?

Even though Hirsch is a liberal Democrat, he has been labelled in the United States as an arch-conservative for daring to question the basic premises of John Dewey’s “learn by doing” brand of education.  In his September 2015 Policy Exchange lecture series, he demonstrates that teaching knowledge to young children is egalitarian because it provides the foundation for becoming better early readers and more informed young citizens. Developing a sound vocabulary and knowledge about the world, not only aid in reading but make for more successful students. Developing that knowledge base is a “plant of slow growth,” so the early years are important to establishing the foundations.

Hirsch is no fan of the fashionable 21st century “students can teach themselves” school of thought. Search engines, he told his British audience at Pimlico Academy, cannot be relied upon to teach vital knowledge. “Google is not an equal opportunity fact-finder”: it requires some knowledge to know where to look in the first place and then to determine whether the information is completely bogus. It’s like fumbling around in a dark room looking for the light switch or trying to find that needle in that massive electronic haystack.

MassachussettsMiracleGraph2011Hirsch’s  teachings actually flow from a very logical, common sense educational premise: knowledge matters because knowing something remains important — and knowledge builds on knowledge; the more you know, the more you are able to learn. Twenty years ago, in 1993,  the State of Massachusetts adopted his “core knowledge curriculum” model and, since then, has surged ahead of the pack among American states. While American education schools, including Columbia, Harvard, and Boston College flirt with Finnish education, the United Kingdom has latched onto the “Massachusetts Miracle” and its initial inspiration, Hirsch’s Core Knowledge curriculum.

What we know about reading comprehension owes much to Hirsch.  As a professor of English Literature in his mid-fifties, he made a discovery about how reading is taught that, in his words, “changed his life.”  The prevalence of poor reading and writing skills among incoming university students troubled him and he set out to address the “literacy gap.”  It was most evident in classes where teachers embraced “reader-response” strategies in the study of literature.

Hirsch is best known as a scholar for his impeccable, in-depth research into reading comprehension.  He observed that “knowledgeable students” had an easier time comprehending the texts, and then discovered that reading comprehension was greatly enhanced by the early acquisition of “background knowledge.” His ground-breaking studies, summarized in a Spring 2003 American Educator article, demonstrated that the so-called “fourth grade slump” and stagnating reading scores could be traced back to a fundamental lack of background knowledge as well as weak foundational skills.

His research discoveries were transformed into what became the Core Knowledge curriculum framework. It rests on two key principles: 1) Coherent, cumulative factual knowledge is vital for reading comprehension, literacy, and critical higher-order thinking skills; and 2) Children from poor, illiterate homes remain disadvantaged and illiterate because of a lack of cultural literacy and core background knowledge.  Not addressing that problem constituted  “an unacceptable failure of our schools.”

The “Massachusetts Miracle, “ initiated with the 1993 Education Reform Act, is closely connected with the adoption of  knowledge-based standards for all grades and a rigorous testing system linked to those new standards. Between 2003 and 2011, Massachusetts students have soared to higher levels on the NAEP tests in grade 4 and grade 8 reading and mathematics. It is also commonly acknowledged that the state standards are Hirsch’s legacy. That is, more than anything else, what attracted the British Education authorities to Hirsch and the advantages of a core knowledge-based curriculum.

Hirsch’s curriculum reform agenda implemented in the Bay state spread to about 1,000 U.S. schools, driven by charter school adoptions. While his Core Knowledge framework faced fierce opposition from the Columbia School of Education and entrenched “educational progressives,” the architect of the project remained a determined, almost incurable optimist. The American Common Core reform initiative attempted to mimmic his curriculum with mixed success. The British version, promoted by former Education Secretary Gove, is more closely aligned with his model and will likely be a fairer test of its effectiveness.

Why have American education reformer E.D. Hirsch and his Core Knowledge Curriculum come once again to the fore? How much of the “Massachusetts Miracle” is attributable to the adoption of the core-knowledge curriculum, standards and accountability program ?  What went wrong when the United States attempted to implement the Common Core Curriculum with the sanction of the Barack Obama administration? How important is the mastery of content and the acquisition of knowledge in the most successful schools worldwide?

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School has resumed for another year and most parents, teachers and students are discussing the thorny issue of homework.  Common sense would suggest that it is desirable for students to come to class each day prepared and capable of contributing to activities and discussion. A body of educational research had accumulated by the late 1990s documenting its “positive benefits”for reinforcing classroom lessons, teaching responsibility and self-discipline. Assigning a steady diet of programmed-learning worksheets, mind-numbing repetitive exercises, and “busy work” –to be sure– gave conventional homework a bad name. It also opened the door to a short-lived North American backlash against homework in the mid- 2000s.

HomeworkHeadacheBCAfter the appearance of American education writer Alfie Kohn’s 2006 book, The Homework Myth, a vocal minority of parents and educators sparked a movement to curtail homework and eliminate it in the early grades. Kohn succeeded in challenging the purported benefits of homework in improving student academic performance and attracted friendly researchers like Dr. Linda Cameron at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. In February 2008, Cameron and OISE colleague Dr. Lee Bartel produced a study of parent opinions and attitudes that supported Kohn’s claims that homework was excessive, especially in lower grades, and that it reduced “family time” and affected “family relationships.”  That opinion research, buttressed by teacher union workload studies, led credence to moves underway  in Ontario to “ban homework” in lower elementary grades.

Limiting or eliminating homework gained favour in Canada’s major urban school boards, most notably in the Toronto District School Board, the Greater Vancouver region,  and the Halifax Regional School Board. By 2012, the impact of the changes was beginning to show in the reported weekly hours of homework and student preparation in mathematics. New studies also pointed to possible negative effects of cutting down homework on student work ethic, grit and resilience.

Fifteen-year-olds around the globe, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development reported in 2013,  spent an average of 5.9 hours a week in 2012 doing homework, one hour a week less than in 2003.  While Shanghai-China and Singapore students were assigned 13.8 hours and 9.7 hours respectively; United States and Canadian students were only expected to complete 6.1 hours and 5.5 hours of homework.  South Korean and Finnish students averaged 2.9 and 2.8 hours, considerably less than their North American peers. The OECD Education Office attributed it to adolescents spending more time on the Internet and to changes in homework policy.

The direct benefits of homework for student academic achievement are not clear before Grade 3, but researchers have identified and confirmed other important merits of the practice. The benefits tend to vary according to the subject and grade level, as well as the amount and type of homework.  Spending a lot of time on homework in the early grades does not translate into better reading performance (PIRL 2011), but it does contribute to developing self-discipline reflected in more focus, better time management, and improved self-confidence (CMEC, 2014).

The latest research confirms that doing homework is essential to performing reasonably well in junior and senior high school.  Since Canadian high schoolers now report doing less than one hour per day (CMEC, 2014), most education authorities reject Kohn’s claims and see a positive “return on the time invested” in subject-specific homework, balancing the multiple demands of competing subject areas.  All recent studies concur that older students continue to benefit more than younger students because of the edge it gives them in academic achievement.

The Homework Backlash is fizzling-out as parents and teachers recognize that too little rather than too much is now expected of most public school students. In the Canadian province of Nova Scotia, homework has made a real comeback.  A provincial Education Review, conducted by Myra Freeman in 2014, surveyed 19,000 Nova Scotians and discovered that half of those surveyed were “not satisfied” with P-12 education and a majority of parents and teachers felt students were “not prepared” for the next grade.

The Nova Scotia Education Review findings led to the proclamation of a Provincial Homework Policy (Grades P-12), effective September 2015, setting an “expectation for educators” to assign homework in graduated amounts, to evaluate it promptly, and to provide regular feedback to students. It was introduced, top-down on all students, ages 5 to 18, over the objections of the teacher union president Shelley Morse who saw it as another “source of work” for teachers.  This measure, it would seem, violated the cardinal principle that students and teachers are more inclined to carry out actions that they find palatable than to swallow bitter tasting curatives.

Schools without clear homework expectations are certainly ill-prepared for some of the most exciting innovations emerging across the continent.  The best example is the so-called “Flipped Classroom” model where students are expected to utilize the Internet to watch videos as 21st century-style “homework” and teachers are encouraged to utilize class time for interactive, follow-up learning activities.  What’s really odd about the Nova Scotia provincial policy, however, is that “homework” cannot introduce new material and thus the “flipped classroom” is actually rendered more difficult to implement.  Perhaps that’s a comment on the receptivity of Nova Scotia to online learning inside and outside the classroom.

What good does homework do at each stage of schooling? Should schools and school authorities be firmer in expecting more homework?  Why has recent research tended to blow holes in Alfie Kohn’s 2006 book, The Myth of Homework?  Do system-wide homework policies work when they are imposed from the top? How can new policies help to enable some innovative approaches such as the flipped classroom?

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Establishing and maintaining a positive climate for learning poses challenges in many of today’s schools. Six years ago British Education Secretary Ed Balls reacted to an April 2009 report by Sir Alan Steer by announcing a “crackdown” on student discipline in U.K. schools. “Children can’t learn if classes are disrupted by bad behaviour,” said Ed Balls. ”That’s why parents tell me they want tough and fair discipline in every school.”

“More schools will also be encouraged to use traditional methods such as detentions, suspensions, isolation rooms and lunchtime curfews to punish badly behaved pupils,” London’s Daily Telegraph reported. ”They will be told to order pupils to remove caps and confiscate mobile phones. Guidance also calls on schools to punish rowdy behavior, bullying and fighting outside the school gates, including incidents on public transport, to stop poor behavior spilling onto the streets.”

FollowingtheRules

Britain’s crackdown on student discipline marked a significant shift and a break with the prevailing philosophy in most North American school districts. A preventive student management system, Positive Behaviour Intervention Supports (PBIS), developed by George Sugai and Robert Horner at the University of Oregon, held sway throughout the early 2000s. “Punishment, in and of itself,” according to PBIS research, ” generally does not have a long-term benefit for students and creates a false sense of security. Practices that focus on positive and proactive approaches are more consistent with with learning acceptable behaviour in schools.”

The Positive Behaviour Supports model was taught in education schools and integrated into teacher Professional Development programs. Whole school systems, such as the Halifax Regional School Board, adopted the approach, renamed PEBS, and trained a whole cohort of teachers to focus more on providing “carrots” for good behaviour in an attempt to promote “pro-active school-wide prevention and early intervention.” Under the Nova Scotia School Conduct Code, adopted in 2001 and renewed in 2006, developing student discipline practices was left up to teachers and principals. “The climate of each learning community,” the PBIS manual read, “therefore, a one-size-fits-all approach is less effective than interventions based upon the needs of each school.”

Public reports of student violence did heighten demands for improved school security. While Ontario had passed a Safe Schools Act in 2000, that clampdown was primarily aimed at bolstering school security by introducing security guards, electronic surveillance, visitor ID tags, and ‘zero tolerance’ for violence rules. Curbing violent acts did lead to the identification of a list of offenses that could trigger expulsion, suspension, and other disciplinary sanctions. Most of the safe school measures were explicitly aimed at reducing the incidence of violence in urban, inner-city schools and large regional high schools.

Growing teacher and parent concerns about flagrant student misbehaviour called into question the school-based disciplinary model and spelled trouble for the PBIS student behaviour modification system. Thirty per cent of respondents in a 2014 Nova Scotia Education Review survey reported feeling unsafe or uncomfortable in and around the province’s 400 public schools. Bullying remained “a persistent issue,” teachers cried out for help in managing “disruptive classroom behaviours,” the disciplinary consequences were not only “unclear” but varied greatly from one school to another.

The Education Review raised the issue of violence in the schools, but the leak of provincial statistics in February 2015 suggested it was more widespread than reported.  In 2013-14, principals and school staff reported 4,730 acts of physical violence in a provincial system with less than 120,000 students from P to 12. The President of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union, Shelley Morse, expressed grave concern and provided a graphic illustration of her life as an elementary vice-principal. ” I’ve been kicked, punched, bitten. Had chairs and desks and rocks thrown at me. I’ve had students spit on me. Have been verbally abusive to me…and (students) destroyed my office….”

Like the United Kingdom and a host of American states, Nova Scotia responded by issuing a much stricter province-wide, top-down School Code of Conduct policy.  Announced on August 24, 2015, and implemented this September, all school boards and school principals will be expected to implement the policy designed to maintain “a positive and inclusive school climate.”  It sounded, at first glance, like a warmed over version of the old policy and it dropped previous references to maintaining “an orderly and safe learning environment.”

The Nova School School Conduct Code itself ran in a completely different direction, identifying a multitiude of student conduct offenses and spelling out the specific consequences. It was intended as a province-wide crackdown but there were some accommodations made to promote respect for diversity, including gender identity. Students arriving for the first day of school this year were presented with the new 9-page School Code of Conduct and it was part of the normal welcome back routine.  Hundreds of teachers trained to implement PEBS were left scrambling to master the new set of school conduct rules imposed, without much parent input, on each and every school.

Do top-down prescriptive Student and School Discipline Codes actually work?  What do students learn when they are confronted with a gowing list of “don’t dos” ? Is it possible to implement Positive Behaviour Supports under a regime that embraces deterrent measures that tend to obscure the previously emphasized positive values and behavioural expectations?  Is the policy aimed at teaching parents to raise more responsible, respectful kids as much as it’s intended to apply to students? 

 

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