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Archive for December, 2015

A lively national conversation is underway in the United States over stalled upward mobility and stark income inequality and it has a more genteel echo in Canada.  Many North American educators point to poverty as the explanation for American students’ mediocre test scores and it also serves as a favoured rationale for explaining away the wide variations in achievement levels among and within Canadian provinces. Only recently have policy analysts, boring down into the PISA 2012 Mathematics data, begun to look at the alarming achievement gap between states and provinces, the relationship between education expenditures and performance levels, and the bunching of students in the mid-range of achievement.

PISA2012CanadaGraphicThe socio-economic determinists offer a simple-minded, mono-causal explanation for chronic student under-performance. American education policy analyst Michael Petrilli and Brandon Wright of The Thomas B. Fordham Institute recently recapped the standard lines: If teachers in struggling U.S. schools taught in Finland, says Finnish educator Pasi Sahlberg, they would flourish—in part because of “support from homes unchallenged by poverty.” Michael Rebell and Jessica Wolff at Columbia University’s Teachers College argue that middling test scores reflect a “poverty crisis” in the United States, not an “education crisis.” Adding union muscle to the argument, American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten calls poverty “the elephant in the room” that accounts for poor student performance.

The best data we have to tackle the critical questions comes from the OECD Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which just released its annual Education at a Glance 2015 report.  For its own analyses, PISA uses an index of economic, social, and cultural status (ESCS) that considers parental occupation and education, family wealth, home educational resources, and family possessions related to “classical” culture. PISA analysts use the index to stratify each country’s student population into quartiles. That broadens the focus so it’s not just about addressing the under-performance of disadvantaged children.

MathScoresSES2012The PISA socio-economic analysis identifies the key variations among international educational jurisdictions. Countries like Belgium and France are relatively better at teaching their higher-status students, while other countries like Canada and Finland do relatively better at instructing students from lower-status families. Contrary to past assumptions, the United States falls almost exactly on the regression line. It does equally well (or equally poorly, if you prefer) at teaching the least well-off as those coming from families in the top quartile of the ESCS index.

A Fall 2014 Education Next report by Eric Hanushek, Paul Peterson and Ludger Woessmann pointed out the wide variations, country-to-country, in overall Mathematics proficiency.   Some 35 percent of the members of the U.S. class of 2015 (NAEP) reach or exceed the proficiency level in math. Based on their calculations, this percentage places the United States at the 27th rank among the 34 OECD countries. That ranking is somewhat lower for students from advantaged backgrounds (28th) than for those from disadvantaged ones (20th).

Overall assessments of Mathematics proficiency on PISA offer no real surprises. Compared to the U.S., the percentage of students who are math proficient is nearly twice as large in Korea (65%), Japan (59%), and Switzerland (57%). The United States also lags behind Finland (52%), Canada (51%), Germany (50%), Australia (45%), France (42%), and the United Kingdom (41%). Within the U.S., the range is phenomenal – from a high of 51% in Massachusetts to a low of 19 % in Mississippi.

Cross-national comparisons are misleading, because Canadian students have plateaued on the PISA tests over the past decade.  While Canada was still among the high-level achievers, performance of the country’s 15-year-olds in mathematics has declined, with a 14-point dip in the past nine years. While performance in reading has remained relatively stable, the decline in science performance was “statistically significant,” dipping from an average of 534 in 2006 and 529 in 2009.

MathPISA2012RangesMuch like the United States, Canada exhibits significant variations from one provincial school system to another.  A 2013 Canadian Council of Ministers of Education Canada (CMEC) review of the OECD PISA 2012 Mathematics performance levels revealed the stark achievement inequalities. Four Canadian provinces set the pace – Quebec, British Columbia, and Ontario – and the remaining six are a drag on our average scores. Fully 25% of Prince Edward Island students score Below Level 2, below the OECD average (23%), in Mathematics proficiency. The other provinces with the next highest levels of under-performers were: Manitoba (21%), Newfoundland/Labrador(21%), Nova Scotia (18%), and New Brunswick (16%).

There is no case for complacency in Canada, as pointed out, repeatedly, by Dr. Paul Cappon, former CEO of the Canadian Council on Learning (2005-2011) and our leading expert on comparative international standards. For a “high-achieving” country, Canada has a lower proportion of students who perform at the highest levels of Mathematics on recent PISA tests (CMEC 2013, Figure 1.3, p. 25).  Canada’s 15-year-olds are  increasingly bunched in the mid-range and, when it comes to scoring Level 4 and above on Mathematics,  most score at or below the OECD average of 31 %.  The proportion of high-achievers (Level 4 and above in 2012) was, as follows: PEI (22%); Newfoundland/Labrador (27%); Nova Scotia (28%); Manitoba (28%); Saskatchewan (33%); and Ontario (36%). Mathematics students from Quebec continue to be an exception because 48% of students continue to score Level 4 and above, 17 points above the OECD average score.

Students coming from families with high education levels also tend to do well on the PISA Mathematics tests. The top five OECD countries in this category are Korea (73%), Poland (71%), Japan (68%)Germany (64%) and Switzerland (65%), marginally ahead of the state of Massachusetts at 62%. Five other American states have high-achievement level proficiency rates of 58% or 59%, comparable to Czech Republic (58%) and higher than Canada (57%) and Finland (56%). Canada ranked 12th on this measure, well behind Korea, Poland, Japan, Switzerland and Germany.

Educators professing to be “progressive” in outlook tend to insist that we must cure poverty before we can raise the standards of student performance. More pragmatic educators tend to claim that Canadian schools are doing fine, except for the schools serving our disadvantaged populations, particularly Indigenous and Black children.  Taking a broad, international perspective, it appears that both assumptions are questionable. There are really two achievement gaps to be bridged – one between the affluent/advantaged and the poor/disadvantaged and the other one between Canadian high achievers and their counterparts in the top PISA performing countries.

Does low Socio-Economic Status (SES) marked by child and family poverty set the pattern for student achievement in a deterministic fashion?  To what extent can and do students break out of that mold? How critical are other factors such as better teacher quality, higher curriculum standards, and ingrained ethno-cultural attitudes? Do school systems like Canada and Finland tend to focus on reducing educational inequalities at the expense of challenging their high achievers?  Is this the real reason that many leading western G21 countries continue to lag behind those in Asia? 

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The World Wide Web is an amazing human creation with unlimited potential to advance the education of children and youth. In its first phase, it was exciting and wide open, stimulating innovative thinking, sparking incredible creativity, and fomenting a little anarchy.  Out of this creative chaos emerged a master integrator known as Google. 

GAFEBoysWith its global mission—“To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible”—and its much-quoted mantra, “Don’t be evil,” Google won converts worldwide. More recently, Google Apps for Education (GAFE) has taken K-12 education by storm. School systems have adopted and embraced GAFE with remarkable zeal and surprisingly little critical analysis of its impact upon the way we think,  the personal privacy of students, or the implications for professional development. Google now competes with Microsoft and a few smaller players for a large share of the $8-9 billion market for software for elementary and secondary schools.

Google Apps for Education, first introduced in 2006, attracted some 30 million users (students, teachers and administrators) by 2013-14 before it hit a bump in the road. While Google kept GAFE advertisement-free, they did scan the contents of students g-mail accounts, gathering information that could be used to target ads to those students elsewhere online.

In 2013, students and g-mail users in California banded together to sue Google, claiming that e-mail scanning violated wiretap laws. During the litigation, Google conceded that they were scanning emails sent and received by students using GAFE.  Faced with a wave of popular opposition and media criticism, Google announced, in April 2014, that it would no longer mine student email accounts for ad-targeting purposes. That followed a decision made two weeks earlier that a competitor, InBloom, partly financed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, was shutting down its operations.

The Nova Scotia Department of Education and Early Childhood Development (DoEECD) is one of hundreds of school systems that have jumped on the latest 21st Century digital learning bandwagon. Three years ago, without much fanfare, provincial school authorities announced that they would be signing an agreement with Google to implement GAFE in the public schools.  After piloting the program in a number of schools in 2014-15, the DoEECD  decided to make GAFE available to every single child and teacher in the 400 schools across the province.

The Nova Scotia GAFE service, according to high school teacher Grant Frost, provides every student and teacher user with their own g-mail account, as well as several useful applications, including Google Docs, a leading edge word processing program, Google Sheets, which outperforms Excel, and Google Slides, which is a more integrated multi-platform version of PowerPoint. Users also have access to Google Classroom, where, with a click of mouse and a one time code entry, they can sign up for a class and receive notifications about upcoming events, class assignments and ask about homework questions with their teacher via his/her cell phone at all times of the week.

Twenty thousand out of Nova Scotia’s 118,000 students are now using free computer software from Google as part of their classroom activities. Provincial education officials expect Google Apps for Education to be nearly universal by the end of 2016-17.  The cloud-based suite of programs can be accessed on any electronic device with an internet connection and a web browser. It includes email, word processing and assignment management software. Some school boards have chosen to issue students $200 devices called Chromebooks to let them access Google products at school and at home.

Google Apps for Education is spreading quickly and teacher training summits have been held or are scheduled to be held in Ontario, Alberta, Quebec and BC as well as Nova Scotia.  In schools across the country, it is becoming increasingly essential for students to have access to the Internet in order to be successful. Homework, projects, even information and advice from teachers is now transmitted on-line, and more readily accessible if you have the electronic tools to access the information.

Google provides access to Apps for Education to schools for free, along with unlimited electronic storage on Google’s servers, with the expectation that students will be ‘inducted’ through education into the World of GoogleDr. Mike Smit, a computer scientist and associate professor at Dalhousie’s School of Information Management, told CBC News Nova Scotia  that the cost per student, per year of the free access is negligible for a company as large as Google. Besides, he said, Google has all the training modules and infrastructure in place to minimize its costs of implementation.

Many educators like Grant Frost express grave concern about the “digital divide” and the inequities in terms of student access to computers and digital devices. In schools across the country, it is becoming increasingly essential for students to have access to the Internet in order to be successful. Homework, projects, even information and advice from teachers is available on-line, if one only has the means to access it. Its hard to expect full student participation when,  according to a 2014 Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives report, 1 out of every 5 children living in Nova Scotia in 2012 was living below the poverty line.

Canadian universities, like K-12 school systems, have embraced “cloud technologies,” turning either to Google or Microsoft as the favoured vendors for outsourcing of  their eCommunications services. Ontario’s Lakehead University was early out of the gate late in 2006 and became the legal test case for the legality of storing sensitive personal data outside the country.  After it was settled in a 2009 arbitration decision ruling in favour of outsourcing, most universities went that route. More recently, academics Heidi Bohaker and John M. Dirks, have raised serious questions about the impact of outsourcing on “digital archives” containing personal user accounts, organizational memory, external and internal online conversations.

Student privacy concerns have not gone away in the United States. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) filed a complaint on December 1, 2015 with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) against Google for collecting and data mining school children’s personal information, including their Internet searches. It also launched a “Spying on Students” campaign, which launched today. to raise awareness about the privacy risks of school-supplied electronic devices and software.

EFFSpyingonStudentsThe EFF examined Google’s Chromebook and Google Apps for Education (GAFE), and found holes in the protection of student privacy and evidence of unfair trade practices.  While Google does not use student data for targeted advertising within a subset of Google sites, EFF found that Google’s “Sync” feature for the Chrome browser is enabled by default on the inexpensive brand of Chromebooks sold to schools.

The California-based advocacy group claims that the “Sync” feature allows Google to track, store on its servers, and data mine for non-advertising purposes, records of every Internet site students visit, every search term they use, the results they click on, videos they look for and watch on YouTube, and their saved passwords.  Since some schools require students to use Chromebooks, many parents are left unaware of the scanning of student data and unable to prevent Google’s data collection.

Does the spread of Google Apps for Education raise unresolved student privacy issues and the spectre of major corporations mining metadata to shape their messaging? Is student and teacher data stored with “cloud technologies” safe, secure and free from domestic spying operations? What’s the impact on education when whole school systems outsource to one supplier whether it be Google or a competitor? Is it possible for Google to virtually subsume professional development through system-wide online training and the enlisting of Google certified teacher-trainers?

 

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Twenty five years ago New Zealand faced a crisis of school system accountability. Then Prime Minister David Lange responded by introducing a “self-managed schools” system that turned the whole education world upside down. With that sweeping education reform, New Zealand became the test case for employing school-based governing boards to re-engineer the public school system.

SchoolCouncilBrainImageThe Tomorrow’s Schools reform plan of 1989 implemented nation-wide “self-governing schools,” eliminated school district bureaucracy, and delegated much of the responsibility to elected school council governing boards. Most decisions affecting students and teachers would be made at the school-level and closer to the point of implementation. It was particularly aimed at providing more flexibility to accommodate Maori schools and improve the educational opportunities for Aboriginal children.

Lange’s government went even farther than the Edmonton Public Schools in utilizing the model to reduce education bureaucracy and to create greater cost efficiencies. Seeking to improve system responsiveness, organizational flexibility, and public accountability, New Zealand’s model also held out the promise of more immediate delivery of services and resources, more parental and community involvement, and greater teacher responsibility for managing local schools.

Today New Zealand has a well-established “self-governing schools” system. Successive educational reviews, mostly conducted by Cathy Wylie of the NZ Council for Educational Research, have sustained the experiment and addressed a few early phase shortcomings, including the high turn over of the initial cohort of school-appointed principals.  Current Education Minister Hekia Parata is again reviewing the education system, assessing its effectiveness, and looking at making a few reforms.

Many Canadian provinces are saddled with a school board governing system that is floundering with expanding centralized administration far removed from students and parents. Back in 2013, a Canadian School Boards Association study, conducted by Memorial University’s Gerald Galway and a respected research team, issued a stiff warning that elected boards were in serious jeopardy. Elected school boards were no longer perceived to be the “voice of the people,” feeding the growing public concern that boards had lost their “raison d’être.”

The only real policy options presented in a subsequent Journal of Canadian Education Administration and Policy article (September 2013) were crystal clear: “quiet acquiescence to centralization” or “take action to save the sinking ship.” Rather sadly, the warning and the call to action went largely ignored, particularly in the Maritime provinces.

SchoolCouncilsPeelLogoThe CSBA research report identified the crux of the problem facing elected school trustees. For elected school board members to be credible, they must be perceived to be “accountable and committed to their mandate and their electorate; ensure a level of openness and transparency…; demonstrate a responsiveness (ensuring) that decisions are made within reasonable timeframes…; make the best use of their resources; (and) work to mediate different interests for the best outcome.” By adopting the corporate designation “board member” and adhering strictly to a “policy making role,” they had become distant from parents and communities and, in far too many boards, were suffering from a loss of democratic legitimacy.

School councils, proposed in Nova Scotia Premier Dr. John Savage’s 1995-96 Education Horizons reform plan, may well have filled the void in strengthening school-community relations. In their initial form, they were “school governing councils” designed as the centrepiece of a New Zealand-like “school-based management model.”

The original conception of school governing councils was rejected by the Nova Scotia Teachers Union and many of its NSTU-member principals, one of the principal victims of the 1995-96 NSTU campaign against Savage’s Education Restructuring plan. While school councils were sanctioned in the Education Act reform, they were reduced to “advisory bodies” with no power to appoint principals, manage the school budget, or pass binding resolutions contrary to school or board policy.

Today the SACs still limp along in Nova Scotia with mostly a handful of ‘hand-picked’ members functioning as little more than a sounding board for local principals. Elected board members are not only barred from membership in their local SAC, but actively discouraged from attending unless invited by the principal. A survey of the October 2011 School Advisory Council Handbook reveals that SACs “exist in most schools” but not all. With only six members, the principal and staff representatives hold half the SAC seats, and motions require 2/3 majorities, so none ever pass without teacher support. Any such school reform activity is strictly limited because the Handbook recommends “all decisions be made by consensus or be deferred until the next meeting.”

New Zealand’s system of self-managing schools may not have lived-up to its initial aims, but we know why and can address the identified shortcomings. School councils populated by elected trustees have succeeded in “bringing together school and community” and, at their best, allow local interests, including those of Indigenous peoples, to be reflected in education-policy making. The ideal size for a SGC of elected trustees is 10 to 12, double the N.S. SAC number, and a clear majority must be parents or community members, including representatives of local business employers.

Even with school-based governance, there is still a critical need for district education administration, albeit a much scaled-down version. There is also a continuing need for Regional Boards of School Trustees, possibly the elected SGC Chairs, to ensure proper linkage among and between local schools. All Regional School Trustees should be elected from, and remain ex-officio members, of the SGCs in their district.

District school administration would have to be re-purposed for their “support circle” role.  All school councils, we know now, still need professional support in the appointment and appraisal of principals, the development of provincially-aligned school plans, the provision of school-by-school student performance data, and in resolving periodic school-level disputes.

School Governing Councils, like those in New Zealand, Edmonton and Quebec, have never been given a fair chance in most Canadian provincial school systems.  It’s high time to seriously consider turning the whole system right-side up by focusing on building school-based education governance, redefining the role of elected school trustees, and providing improved democratic representation in all provincial public schools.

Would a school governance system based upon elected school-level trustees improve educational accountability and help to expand the number of “good schools”? What can be learned– 25 years on– from the New Zealand Tomorrow’s Schools educational reform? If educational research suggests elected board members have little impact upon student learning, how and why did it become their narrowly-defined mandate? Would community-school based governance help to spark innovation and strengthen community partnerships?

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