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Archive for April, 2016

The rise of autism poses one of the biggest current challenges facing North American families and school systems everywhere. The latest education jurisdiction to step into the breach was the Canadian province of Ontario. In response to the mounting pressures for expanding services, the Ontario government announced a new $333 million, five-year autism program initiative packaged as good news.

AutismAndraFelsmanSonRiellySudburyInstead of being welcomed by parents of autistic kids, the move sparked a firestorm of provincial and local community protests. Hundreds of parents descended upon the Ontario Legislature to protest on April 12 and, three days later, local groups carrying signs reading “Autism Does Not End at Age Five” rallied in more than half a dozen smaller centres, including Ottawa, Kitchener, Aurora, Sudbury, Mississauga,and Waterdown, near Hamilton.

Young children with autism spectrum disorder in Ontario were promised shorter wait times for intensive therapy covered by the province, but those ages 5 and up will no longer be eligible as part of a revamped Ontario system. The New Ontario program aimed to cut wait times in half for Intensive Behavioural Intervention (IBI) within two years, and then down to six months by 2021, according to the Ministry of Children and Youth Services.

The decision meant that 2,200 children ages 2 to 4 would be removed from wait lists over the next two years, while some 1,378 in treatment after age five, over half of the 2,000 currently served, would be transitioned out with an $8,000 grant intended to subsidize the less intensive Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) therapy.  Denying access to children over age five left many near desperate parents completely “heartbroken” and some totally outraged over being denied the needed services.

Ontario’s Minister of Children and Youth Services, Tracy MacCharles, broke into tears when faced with the barrage of opposition, and Irwin Elman, the provincial Child and Youth Advocate, sided with the aggrieved parents, urging the government to postpone its plans. “The debate is not about waitlists,” He added. “It’s about children. It’s about people, and it is about their possibility and futures.”

Addressing the growing incidence of children with autism is now such a critical public policy issue that it recently attracted the attention of The Economist, one of the world’s most widely read business magazines. Since 2000, the share of eight-year-olds diagnosed with some form of autism spectrum disorder, including Asperger Syndrome, has doubled to one in every 68 children or 15 in every 1,000 kids.
AutismIncidence2000to2012Autism affects different people in different ways, ranging from severe communications impairment and compulsive repetitive movements to milder forms of social anxieties with a few intense, almost obsessive interests.  School can be extremely difficult for autistic children, and they are three times more likely to be bullied or ostracized by peers, and many withdraw before graduation.
In Canada, the United States and Britain, they tend to be educated in mainstream classrooms with Special Education supports, which is considered less expensive than providing intensive programs. Regular classroom teachers in all three countries regularly report that they lack the training and resources to properly serve children with autism.

The Canadian province of Alberta stands out as an exception.  Since the mid-1990s, Alberta Education has embraced more school choice, especially in special education services.  Alberta’s direct funding system provides grant support for kids with developmental disabilities, based on each child’s needs, to pay for whatever services suit them best. Options include special needs schools, a range of behavioural, speech and occupational therapies, respite care, camps, and personal support workers to accompany children to recreational activities.

Children are assessed through the Family Support for Children with Disabilities program, which determines the amount. Wait times are minimal. Parents have choices, unlike in Ontario, where IBI is the only sustained treatment covered by the province. While Nova Scotia has a Tuition Support Program, it is limited to children with diagnosed SLD attending three designated schools enrolling fewer than 230 students. Financial support to attend specialized programs is extremely rare elsewhere in Canada.

One example of such a school program is Janus Academy, a Calgary, Alberta, school for children with autism. It’s a specialized private school where parents pay $12,000 in tuition each year for a program that costs $40,000 per student to operate. In other words, providing access to a specialized IBI program at a quarter of what parents would pay in Ontario.

Teaching autistic children using IBI can be expensive, but it can produce noticeable gains., especially if started in the early years. The Alberta government underwrites most of the difference, and the school also fundraises to support the tuition subsidies. “We don’t have to fight the schools (for what the children need), they’re partners with us. And I know they are learning,” reports Janus Academy parent Tim Ingram, formerly of London, Ontario.  The intensive and wrap-around support, he adds, helps the whole family function, but it takes some extra effort to secure a place in such a school.

School can be tough for autistic children and teens, but many have a worse time once they leave the system. A study by the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute in Philadelphia found that only 19% of American autistic people in their early 20’s lived independently, away from their parents. Wherever they live many are isolated: one in four said that they had not seen friends or received invitations to social events in the past year. Some autistic people prefer their own company, but many are unhappy.

Preparing and training autistic young people for the workforce is emerging as a priority in the new economy.  While academic studies on global employment rates for adults with autism are rare, the UN estimates that 80% do not work. A survey by Britain’s National Autistic Society, a charity, suggests that only 12% of higher-functioning autistic adults work full time. For those with more challenging forms of autism, only 2% have jobs.

Job training, life-skills coaching and psychotherapy could really help in tackling the problem. An American study found that 87% of autistic youngsters who were given assistance to find a job, got one. Only 6% who did not receive support were successful. But in most countries, services disappear the moment autistic people finish full-time education.

There is hope that the life prospects for those with autism will improve in the future. More progressive business leaders and enterprises, as reported in The Economist, are stepping-up and providing more flexible employment arrangements to take fuller advantage of the truly unique skills and aptitudes of autistic people. Providing early treatment and effective intensive behavioural intervention is where it has to start.

Why is autism considered one of the biggest school challenges of our time? Why is Intensive Behaviour Intervention (IBI) so much in demand– and so rationed in our public school systems?  What’s standing in the way of provinces and states adopting the Alberta model of school choice and tuition support for intensive programs? What more can be done to properly “transition” autistic students into the workplace?  
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“Tear yourself away from the Saturday cartoons, boys, it’s time to go outside and play.” That oft-repeated mother’s admonition still rings in my ears. Today, sixty years later, with millions of children seemingly hypnotized by computer and video games, that parental lesson has now been appropriated by the big brands and is being repeated with much greater urgency.

MinecraftFatherSonA ‘Brand War’ is now underway for the minds of children.  Global technology colossus Microsoft essentially conquered home play rooms and has just launched Minecraft Education for schools.  A “Dirt is Good” Movement, funded by Unilever’s laundry products division, Persil, has even enlisted TED Talk superstar Sir Ken Robinson in its latest campaign to win parents and kids back from the virtual world with an appeal for the forgotten pleasures of outdoor play.

One of Britain’s most astute education observers, Martin Robinson, author of Trivium 21c (2013), was among the first to spot the emerging societal trend. In his recent online commentary, “Progressive Education, Shared Values, Play and Dirt” ( April 4, 2016), he identified the fault lives in the contemporary war for the hearts and minds of children.

“The story starting to unfold,” Robinson pointed out, was one of “global brands tapping into progressive education discourse and using it, emotionally, to firstly sell a product and secondly to campaign for libertarian parenting and play based learning.” The ultimate objective, he added, was to woo us into “letting go of what we know, opening our minds to creativity, playing outside and not on computers, or playing inside on computers or with (Lego) bricks…”

After reviewing the “Dirt is Good” media campaign and the recent Microsoft Minecraft Education launch promotion, Robinson’s critique appears to be deadly accurate. A report, Play in Balance, commissioned by Unilever’s Persil division, polled 12,000 parents of 5-12 year olds worldwide and provides the fodder for the “Dirt is Good” campaign.

ChildUtopiaThe Persil-funded survey (February and March 2016) results were startling: In the United Kingdom, 75 per cent of parents reported that their children preferred to play virtual sports games on a screen rather than real sports outside. Almost one-third of children in the UK play outside for 30 minutes or less a day and one in five do not play outside at all on an average day. Children spend twice as much time on screens as they do playing outside.

Sir Ken Robinson’s interpretation of the survey’s lessons is far more problematic. “I think it’s important that we look again at the importance of play-based learning — there’s a long history of research to show that play is not a waste of time, it is not time that is badly spent. Play, among human beings, has very important social benefits.”

That sounds a lot like the competing narrative advanced by global technology advocates like Sky Academy, the British high-tech learning firm espousing ‘human potential’ and ” the power of TV, creativity and sport, to build skills and experience to unlock the potential in young people.” In announcing the impending launch of the Minecraft Education edition, Anthony Salcito, Microsoft VP of Worldwide Education, championed it as the next stage in the “immersive learning experience” which would “open the door to a classroom and a world of possibilities and learning infused with curiosity.”

MinecraftJuneauClassMicrosoft Education does not seem to be deterred in the least by Sir Ken Robinson and the “Dirt is Good” defenders of outdoor play. After spreading to millions of homes worldwide and 7,000 schools in 40 different countries, Minecraft Education edition will be rolled out in June 2016 in 11 languages and 41 different countries, and will allow teachers to download the program for free, in exchange for product marketing feedback. Corporate promotion touts the product as one that will “help to educate children on social skills, problem-solving skills, empathy and even help to improve literacy.”

The latest phase in what is generally termed “21st Century Learning” is starting to look a lot like an attempt to revive the now faded ‘romance’ of educational progressivism. Instead of learning from the past and its lessons, the ‘Brand War’ for children’s minds seems to be devolving into a tug of war between contending versions of play-based theory.  In pursuit of play learning, it amounts to a familiar contest between those who want our kids to play inside and those who want them to play outside. Whether it’s outside or inside, one can only hope that they will be learning something of enduring value, deeper meaning, and measurable substance. 

Who –and what — is winning the ongoing war for children’s minds?  Is “play theory” making a comeback in today’s “Brand Wars” being waged in and around children and schools?  What are the risks inherent in turning children’s education over to the big brands? How can the concept of “wholesome outdoor play” compete with “digital Lego” and virtual sports?  Most importantly, what — if anything– have we learned from our educational past? 

 

 

 

 

 

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A five month-long CBC-TV Marketplace investigation into “Teacher Misconduct” aired on April 8, 2016 —and it  confirmed much that we already know about the current state of the Canadian teaching profession. Fewer than 400 teachers have been dismissed over the past ten years, out of a teacher force that now exceeds 400,000 in our 10 provinces and 3 territories. Only 1.7 out of every 1,000 teachers was “weeded out” of the profession over the past ten years. That begs the fundamental question – who is really served by the current teaching profession regulation and discipline regime?

TeacherMisconductCBCThe CBC Marketplace National Report Card also revealed that teacher discipline decisions are often kept secret, can take years to resolve and that credentials are rarely revoked. In nine of the 13 educational jurisdictions, no information is publicly available, including past disciplinary measures. Even guilty findings are kept private across most of Canada by bodies responsible for keeping students safe.

The two major cases highlighted in the CBC Marketplace investigation are perfect examples of what happens and why in too many cases of serious teacher misconduct.  As a 12-year old girl, Carmen North and twenty other teen girls in Oakville, Ontario, were “tracked” on MSN by Mr. Gavin Bradford, a “cool teacher” with a sexually-charged  ‘food fetish.’ While he was removed from the school, it took five years to remove his teaching certificate, allowing him to teach for two more years in Scotland.

Eleven year-old Fredericton girl, Karley Merrill, was bullied by a mean woman teacher so much that she missed 41 days of school and had to be sent to the hospital during one particularly bad spell. Unable to get any response at the school level, her mother wrote directly to the New Brunswick Minister of Education. One day an official-sounding letter arrived stating only that the teacher had been disciplined for “Category 2: Misconduct.”  You can only imagine how upset the Merrill family was to discover, the next year, that the same teacher was doing it again at another school across town.

If all of this sounds familiar, it should be– because I was invited by CBC TV’s Marketplace to assist with their Teacher Discipline research and we started with my February 2014 AIMS research report, co-authored with Karen Mitchell, with the intriguing title “Maintaining Spotless Records.”  It was particularly heartening for us to learn that, for the most part, the CBC investigation corroborated our findings and embraced our principal recommendation for significantly ‘beefed-up’ teacher regulation and accountability.

Since the release of our report and the recent CBC Marketplace investigation, the issue of teacher discipline has gained considerable policy traction. The new BC Teacher Regulation Branch, replacing the teacher union-dominated BC College of Teachers, has proven far more effective, most recently clamping down on the flagrant abuse of “teacher sick days.”  Saskatchewan has acted upon Dr. Dennis Kendel’s November 2013 report and is now publishing teacher records, albeit disclosing only infractions since the start of the registry.

TeacherLicesesRevokedCBCThree other Canadian provinces are making audible noises about changing their teacher discipline regimes. After beating back the Alberta Teaching Excellence initiative and forcing-out Education Minister Jeff Johnson, the Alberta Teachers Association has opened the door a tiny crack on teacher records. Nova Scotia’s January 2015 Three Rs Reform Plan proposed — for the first time – to actually discuss the novel concept of establishing “teacher standards” and plugging the holes in teacher regulation with the Nova Scotia Teachers Union. In New Brunswick, the CBC Marketplace investigation was such an eye-opener that Education Minister Serge Rousselle conceded that the province was now “looking at” more public disclosure.

My comments on the CBC Marketplace revelations perhaps warrant repeating: “We should be able to find information about whether teachers have had any current or past indiscretions, whether they’ve been found guilty of any offences and what steps have been taken to try to remediate those….We also need to know if there are teachers teaching in the system who shouldn’t be, and [if they] should be removed from teaching positions or … given much more stringent disciplinary measures…Right now, teachers are better protected than students.”

Public access to more serious disciplinary decisions in provinces where there is little available would improve the system “significantly,” I told CBC Marketplace. “It would make everyone much more attuned to the importance of performing well and it would give those teachers that are doing a great job­­ — and that’s the majority of them­­ — some confidence that they were actually in a profession.” ­

A positive first step might be to actually articulate a clear set of teaching quality standards, before proceeding to significantly upgrade teacher accreditation, regulation, and de-certification. Weeds left unattended, after all, tend to take over the garden.

Weeding out the few “bad apples” in the profession would seem to be in everyone’s interest – students, teachers, parents, and the public. So what is standing in the way of introducing more effective teacher evaluation and discipline in Canadian schools?  

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Climate change is becoming the biggest public policy issue — closer to home and in our junior and senior high schools.  A recent CBC News Nova Scotia series, Making the Grade which aired in February 2016, not only looked at the plight of classroom teachers, but ripped the lid off of growing teacher concerns about, and frustration over, the deterioration in academic tone and school climate. It also exposed the leading symptom of the malaise – chronic student absenteeism and “school refusal behaviour” in our high schools.

AbsenteeismEmptyDesksOne Nova Scotia teacher, Christine Emberley of the Bedford Education Centre, finally broke the silence.  Teachers have lost the ability to enforce deadlines while they are being told by school authorities to “teach real-world skills,” Ms. Emberley told CBC News, and that’s a big contradiction. Professional teachers and parent who recognize  deadline importance, she explained, are up against educators who insist, quite wrongly, that “consequences of any kind equals punishment.”  School should be the safe pace to make mistakes — like missing deadlines or skipping classes –and experience consequences.

Student absenteeism is a complex problem because it has multiple causes and is deeply embedded in a contemporary high school culture which can be almost consequence-free for so-called ‘floaters.’  A young woman taught by Ms. Emberley knew there was a problem when she arrived at high school.  “Pushed through with no effort –sometimes missing weeks at a time for behavioural incidents or because she just didn’t feel like going — she knew she lacked the foundational skills to succeed and the work ethic to catch up.” Giving students every opportunity to succeed, she concluded, does not mean “bypassing the lessons that teach work ethic so they can pass grade levels.”

Some 25 to 30 per cent of today’s student population are ‘turned-off’ and disengaged from schools. That was the principal finding of leading UNB social science researcher Dr. J. Douglas Willms in studies conducted five years ago. Interviewed in the Summer 2011 Ontario Education newsletter, in conversation, he pointed out that in a school of 500 students that meant that perhaps 125 teens were disengaged, frequently absent and drifting around the fringes of school life. If engaging the students is “not our job” as principals or teachers, Willms had the temerity to say, “then whose job is it?”

While high school graduation rates are climbing, particularly in Ontario and the Maritimes, one out of four students is still not completing secondary school on time. Entering high school, these struggling students lapse into chronic absenteeism and ‘school refusal behaviour’ that tends to mask their disengagement and alienation. “we don’t call them dropouts anymore,” Willms noted, “we call them ‘fade-outs’ or ‘push-outs.’ ”  In their final school years, few if any fail, but they do ‘check-out’ and are screened-out through course selections and post-secondary admissions selection processes.

VERNONIA, OR - January 9, 2014 - An empty desk here and there can mean many things, but it is a subtle reminder of who isn't in class. School attendance data shows who is winning the battle for student attention. Michael Lloyd/The Oregonian

VERNONIA, OR – January 9, 2014 – An empty desk here and there can mean many things, but it is a subtle reminder of who isn’t in class. School attendance data shows who is winning the battle for student attention. Michael Lloyd/The Oregonian

School absenteeism is a prevalent problem for today’s schools with tremendous long-term social, economic and human costs. While American school data shows that elementary school absenteeism has remained virtually unchanged since 1994, high school attendance rates have significantly deteriorated. A 2003 American study, based upon 230 youths in 4 high schools and 1 middle school found that many students “sometimes” (29.1%) or “often” (9.1%) deliberately or completely miss school. In addition, 54.6% of students sometimes skipped classes and 13.1% often did so.

Skipping school or refusing to attend for days on end is now being described in some U.S. states as a massive but overlooked “absenteeism epidemic.” In 2012, the estimated national rate of chronic absenteeism was pinpointed at 10 per cent, representing the percentage missing 21 or more days of school each year.  In February 2014, a feature story produced by Betsy Hammond for The Oregonian and aptly entitled Empty Desks”  revealed that one in five Orgeon students missed at least 10 per cent of the school year, equivalent to 3.5 weeks of school or more.

One Canadian province that has clearly identified student attendance as a serious problem is Nova Scotia. Five years ago, an NS Education Advisory Commission report, produced by Howard Windsor, Halifax’s former “one-man school board,” recommended extending compulsory school attendance to age 18/Grade 12 and a series of “staged interventions” for chronic “skippers” and truants.  Along with those measures, the committee proposed a range of inducements to keep students in school.  In extending schooling to 18, Nova Scotia would be following the lead of Ontario, New Brunswick, and Nunavut.

By 2009-10, chronic absenteeism, assessed in ten different N.S. high schools, was already rampant. With 7.4% of students missing 20% or more of classes and 45% absent for 10% of their classes, was a deeply entrenched problem.  Permissive discipline approaches such as the elementary level behaviour modification (PEBS) program and high school exam exemptions had contributed to the problem, so the proposed response was compulsion  in the form of compulsory schooling to 18. Extending compulsory school age was ultimately rejected by Education Minister Marilyn More, but a few band-aids were applied, including credit recovery programs and a two-year pilot project to deny course credit for non-attendance with a 20% threshold level.

Five years on, student absenteeism was still so rife that it surfaced again as a major unresolved problem.  An October 2014 Provincial Review of Nova Scotia Education, with the peculiar title Disrupting the Status Quo, found that  “student responsibility” was  sadly lacking, reflected in their laxity in attending classes, meeting deadlines, and making a genuine effort to do their best. Such factors, including disruptive students, warranted “stronger consequences than is currently the case in some classrooms.” Under School Climate, the renewed goal was to create learning environments where “respectful behaviour is an expectation for students, teachers, and parents.”(pp. 47 and 49).  The NS Education Department’s Action Plan for 2016 promises to introduce “a new student attendance policy.”  Another official proclamation is now in the offing.

What’s the fundamental cause of rampant student absenteeism and disengagement, particularly in high schools? How important are the major “risk factors” identified by leading American expert Christopher A. Kearney – poverty and socio-economic status, psycho-social and mental health issues, teen pregnancies, school climate, family structure, and parental involvement? In the case of school climate, what works to develop a higher level of student commitment, belonging and connectedness?  Will a student attendance crackdown be enough to change the current trajectory? 

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