Archive for June, 2016

Bridge building can provide a rather unconventional source of educational reform insights. All bridges built over water –and constructed with the expert advice of a construction engineer — need “a foundation which is rested on the bed.”  Solid foundations, therefore, are critical to successful bridge-building projects.

School, college and workplace are far too often islands separated by hard to traverse expanses of water. Building bridges for high school leavers involves far more than simply clearing a path and creating easier off-ramps. It should involve paying far more attention to the cardinal principle of bridge building science — sound foundations matter.

BridgeBuildingPhotoA recent Nova Scotia Transition Task Force report, From School to Success: Clearing the Path, released June 21, 2016, looks well-intended, but appears to have missed the most critical piece — shoring-up the foundations on both sides of the bridge.  With youth unemployment hovering above the Canadian national average, the task force focused mostly on repairing the bridges, providing more program supports, and better career counselling.  It even proposed that high school graduates take a “gap year” on their own, presumably to acquire the requisite job-ready skills and work ethic.

How well prepared students were for success in college and the workplace was not really addressed in the Task Force report. When pressed to explain what employers were looking for, the notable silence was filled by one Task Force member. Andrea Marsman of the Nova Scotia Black Educators Association. “There are issues around deadlines and attendance and work ethic,” she told CBC Nova Scotia News. “They were saying that over the past several years they’ve seen a decline of respect for those particular principles of work ethic.”

Boring into the report, the problem with the educational foundation of the K-12 level pillar comes into sharper relief.  While high school graduation rates soar above 85%, only four in 10 university students complete their degree within four years. Thirty per cent never complete their university studies at all. At the community college level, 32 per cent don’t come back after their first year of study.

Raising graduation rates has been the priority in Nova Scotia , Ontario, and elsewhere for the past decade or so.  School promotion policies and “no fail” student assessment practices have significantly raised retention levels.  In spite of this, about five per cent of Nova Scotia students drop out in grade 11, unable to collect a graduation diploma. Those who do leave before graduation, it is clear, are totally unprepared for the daily discipline/grind and rigors of the workplace.

The Nova Scotia Task Force report simply accepts the current status quo — trying to help high school dropouts to graduate. While it is true that dropouts are twice as likely to be unemployed, and college dropouts are have 3 % higher unemployment rates, the report does not really confront the the quality and preparedness of students leaving the system.  Instead, the Task Force recommended making it easier to graduate and funding more school-to-workplace bridge programs.

BridgingNSedReviewThe Transition Task Force recommendations completely flew in the face of the most recent evidence on employer satisfaction with Nova Scotia student graduates.  In the Nova Scotia Education Review survey, released in October 2014, only 38% of the 2,309 community members surveyed felt that students were “well prepared” for college or university, and fewer still, some 18%, felt they were well prepared for the workforce (p. 35).  Only one of three of the community respondents found students “well prepared” to move onto the next grade, so that is hardly an earthshaking revelation (p. 31).

The answers to the critical questions of preparedness and what today’s workplace demands may not be squarely addressed in the Nova Scotia report, but they are in a pertinent American study, produced in January 2014 by Bentley University researchers.  Just as in Nova Scotia and other provinces, the business sector concerns that today’s college graduates aren’t properly prepared are not going away.  What is changing is the willingness of U.S. colleges and universities to grapple with and address the core issue – improving the core competencies, skills, and work ethic of graduates.

The PreparedU Millennial Preparedness Survey questioned 3,000 respondents across nine audiences and examined skills, traits, use of technology, workplace attitudes and expectations, along with opinions of executives about millennials and vice versa, and much more. It directly addressed the preparedness problem and found a surprising consensus around the source of the problem – a lack of focus on developing strong character, determination, resilience and work ethic. It also found students’ self-perceptions, fostered in schools, to be out of line with those of employers.  Most alarming of all, businesses surveyed found graduates unprepared or unemployable, but seemingly confident in their own abilities.

Thirty-five percent of surveyed U.S. business leaders reported recent graduates they have hired would get a “C” or lower for preparation, if graded. However, they didn’t believe the fault rested entirely with students. Many businesses claimed that “soft skills” were highly valued, but their hiring decisions demonstrated otherwise, showing a clear preference for those with “hard skills,” such as technology training or apprenticeship certificates.

Just over half of business decision-makers and 43 percent of corporate recruiters surveyed said the business community itself deserves a “C” or lower on how well they are preparing recent grads for their first jobs. They also acknowledged that many businesses are not training new hires like they used to, leaving career colleges and private companies to fill the gaps.

School-college-workplace bridges will not be built in a day, nor will they be repaired by tinkering with, or extending, existing programs. Education department reports, like the June 2016 Nova Scotia Task Force study, tend to avoid going to the root of the preparedness problem. Looking at the membership of the Transitions Task Force, it is easy to see why.  Of the seventeen appointed members, the vast majority have a stake in the current system, only two were from business or industry and only one was a teacher in the K-12 school system.

What can school authorities wrestling with school-college-workplace transitions learn from bridge building science?  Why is the preparedness problem so difficult to tackle?  How can you assess the preparedness of high school and college graduates without systematically surveying job seekers or prospective employers? 



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Walking or biking to school is making a little comeback in one traffic clogged neighbourhood in North Vancouver.  On a sleepy Friday morning in late April a steady parade of kids and parents, accompanied by the mayor and local councillor, on foot and on bike, streamed down the boulevard sidewalks on their way to Canyon Heights Elementary School.  The festive  “Freedom Friday”  public event has become a hit with families and has helped to spike the numbers of kids walking or biking to school.

WalkableSchoolsFeedomFridayParent groups like the North Vancouver North Shore Safe Routes Advocates have been front and centre in a “movement afoot” in North American cities and towns to reclaim school communities from the “me-first car culture.”  Community wellness and active transportation advocacy groups are springing-up, mostly in cities, in places as diverse as Hamilton, Ontario, and Halifax, Nova Scotia.

The proportion of people who use active transportation – getting around without the use of a car –  has been on a steady decline for decades and it’s particularly evident in and around local schools.  ParticipAction’s 2015 report card on children’s physical activity gave Canada’s kids a D-minus for the third consecutive year. Fifty-eight per cent of today’s parents walked to school when they were kids. Only 28 per cent of their kids walk today.

The streets around our local schools become totally gridlocked when, in the words of a recent Toronto Globe and Mail editorial,  “legions of dutiful, well-meaning parents perform the mandatory drop-off and pick-up.  The school run has turned into a frustrating crawl as distracted chauffeurs bob and weave for a prime piece of curb-blocking real estate so their offspring don’t have to make too long or dangerous a trek from the car door to the school entrance.”

WalkableSchoolsGTADataA 2011 report by Metrolinx surveyed parents in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA). It showed that 53 per cent of children walked to school in 1985 and 15 per cent were driven. As of 2011, 36 per cent of children walk to school and 32 per cent are driven in cars. In Hamilton, 29 per cent of parents now drive their kids to school and 21 per cent drive them home. Eight per cent of those students live less than two kilometres from school.  Another 35 per cent of students take a school bus in the morning and 37 per cent take it on the way back. Thirty-one per cent walk to school and 36 per cent walk home.

Local health authorities and active transportation groups are attempting to turn back the tide. Metrolinx’s Big Move project aims to have 60 per cent of children walk or cycle to school by 2031. The Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board, under fire for recent school closures, endorsed a 2015 Active and Sustainable School Transportation (ASST) Charter and now works in partnership with the city and its sister Catholic board.

School boards and education ministries have been instrumental in contributing to the decline in walkable schools.  School closures lead to regional consolidation, moving kids further and further away from their designated school. Establishing  speciality academies, French Immersion, and international baccalaureate schools have also contributed to the withering and disappearance of neighbourhood schools.

An even more important factor in the decline of kids on foot has been the nagging but totally unfounded perception that it’s not safe for kids to walk. “Something happened along the way where ‘stranger danger’ took over,” says Carol Sartor, a Vancouver safe route advocate and school travel planner.  The reality is quite different: The RCMP estimate the odds of a child being abducted by a stranger are about one in 14 million.

WalkingSchoolBusActive transportation programs are not immune from budget cuts in times of austerity.  A year ago, the Halifax-based Ecology Action Centre slammed the Nova Scotia government for cutting funding for their walk to school programs across the province.  The budget cut, EAC’s Janet Barlow said, not only cut “longstanding and highly successful walk and bike to school initiatives,” but “hurt kids across the province.”

The EAC initiative had been provincially funded for 12 years and its funding had grown from $50,000 to $105,000 per year in the previous three years. Under a Nova Scotia Health and Wellness strategy, known as THRIVE,  the EAC programs had spread to 24 urban and rural schools reaching and over 2,000 students. In addition to helping kids become more active, the programs were also designed to encourage pedestrian and biking safety.

Student transportation often emerges as a bone of contention in the school review for closure process.  When the Hamilton-Wentworth school board was considering the closure of 11 more of its schools in May 2014, City Council weighed in, endorsing the safe school routes charter in an attempt to stave-off or delay the proposed closures.  Safe transportation, walking and bus distances became a critical factor, activating a joint city-board committee that had been moribund for years.

School closures definitely compound the problem of declining walkability for school children and teens. In the case of the 2014 Hamilton school closure controversy, Dr. Bill Irwin, a professor in economics and business at Huron University College in London, presented his findings on the impact of closures.

“School closures cause a loss of community identity,” Dr. Irwin said. And they’re based on a provincial funding formula established 17 years ago, “when the demographic makeup of the province was significantly different than it is today.” He suggested boards press for a funding formula used in some areas of Europe that’s based on individual student needs to meet a knowledge-based economy rather than “a head count.” The Hamiliton ASST Charter embraced that position affirming the city and school board’s longer-term and ongoing commitment to “active and sustainable school transportation.”

The walkable school movement faces an uphill battle against school consolidation and a car-driven culture. What’s standing in the way of implementing school-wide active transportation programs?  How can school boards professing support for active student transportation justify closing schools and forcing more families to either bus or drive kids over longer and longer distances?  Will it take “traffic gridlock” around schools to produce a change in school siting and planning policies? 

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E-Learning in Schools: What’s Holding Us Back?

The high-sounding North American vision of “21st Century Learning,” actively promoted by educational leaders and global learning corporations, has had real trouble taking-off in Atlantic Canadian school systems.

C21CanadaVision2012New Brunswick was first out of the gate in May 2010 embracing “21st Century Learning,” but that province’s flirtation with technology-driven school reform amounted to a flash in the pan. Four years later, an upbeat and visually attractive Nova Scotia “21st Century Learning” discussion paper appeared parroting, virtually word-for-word, the “technology shift” vision of our national education technology lobby group C21 Canada — and its dramatic call to action merely floated above the schools.

How and why the “21st Century Technology Shift” plan ran amok and what can be learned from that whole venture is the prime focus of my latest AIMS research report, E-Learning in P-12 Schools: The Prospects for Disruptive Innovation.

Since the bold, top-down New Brunswick initiative to introduce 21st Century Learning capsized five years ago, the region’s leading educators have been leery of the pan-Canadian movement promoting 21st century learning and technology-driven education.

Nova Scotia’s flirtation with “21st Century Learning” did not really register with students, teachers or parents, nor did it figure in either the October 2014 Education Review or the eventual Three Rs Education Reform Plan, released in late January 2015. A well-funded attempt to introduce the innovative ideas of American education technology guru Salman Khan into the teaching of Grade 7 Mathematics and Science in Nova Scotia schools did not fare much better.

Instead of promoting technology innovation, a January 2016 Nova Scotia Education CANeLearn presentation extolled the virtues of the centrally-managed Nova Scotia Virtual High School, enrolling just 500 of the province’s 118,000 students. It also chose to highlight Article 49 of the Nova Scotia Teachers Contract, limiting online classes to between 22 and 25 students and confining instruction to regularly scheduled school times.

Taken together with previous ventures, the CAN-e-Learn presentation confirmed that not much had changed in the Maritimes. Containing and managing online learning and limiting the creative potential of “disruptive innovation” remained the prevailing mode of operations.

Skepticism about passing educational fads is healthy and perhaps understandable, but structural barriers and resistance to technological innovation in the schools are now holding us back.

teenagers playing with mobile phones during class. Image shot 2005. Exact date unknown....AJEKXM teenagers playing with mobile phones during class. Image shot 2005. Exact date unknown.Elementary school student and teacher look at computer

My AIMS report sought to spark the needed “disruptive innovation” in our school system and to incite deeper learning for students. Such a strategy, initially built around supporting core innovation teams in each school, would include demonstrations of effective blended learning activities, the introduction of A La Carte model school courses, lifting of provincial restrictions on online classes, establishing reliable measures of “learning competencies,” and transforming our ‘one-size-fits-all’ school system into a “portfolio” of schools offering the full range of face-to-face, online and blended school programs.

The official reaction of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union to my report was totally bizarre. Turning teaching and IT services over to Google and partnering with Pearson International/Power School are perfectly fine, but– according to a peculiar May 18, 2016 media release—the “sentiments” expressed in my policy paper were downright dangerous. Teaching innovations, it appears, are welcome as long as they follow the prescribed curriculum within the ‘brick-and-mortar’ school model.

What’s really strange about that NSTU release was that the report was actually a call for teacher autonomy and freedom from the constraints inhibiting technology innovation in the schools. It all looked very much like the latest example of an all-too prevalent form of cognitive dissonance known as “bias confirmation.” That’s the tendency to selectively search for and consider information that confirms preconceived beliefs and to rule out other alternative explanations.

Top-down initiatives branded with “21st Century Learning” labels rarely succeed in winning over regular teachers or in penetrating the so-called ‘black box’ of the school classroom. Introducing Google Apps for Education, piloted last year in Nova Scotia schools, broke the mould and could well be a step in the right direction, but it’s still too early to tell.

The potential of e-learning will only be unleashed if we work with regular classroom teachers, and mobilize those teachers from the school-level up.  My nine school-based, teacher-friendly policy recommendations may bear repeating:

  1. Support early adopters committed to initiating Blended Learning Programs, giving them the freedom and resources to innovate outside the framework of the traditional classroom;
  2. Strengthen, expand and seed self-directed Online Learning Programs, especially in areas such as elementary literacy and mathematics, remedial tutoring, high school credit recovery, Advanced Placement coursework, and co-curricular gaming activities;
  3. Focus on building the A La Carte model of Blended Learning Programs in junior and senior high schools, offering engaging, substantive, and meaningful courses otherwise unavailable to students;
  4. Clear away the current structural barriers and regulatory constraints, like Article 49, to encourage more flexible, responsive online learning program initiatives outside the normal boundaries of brick-and-mortar schooling;
  5. Build school leadership capacity in E-Learning, Change Management, and Disruptive Innovation, providing principals and instructional leaders with the competencies and skills required to nurture, support and protect innovations in Blended Learning;
  6. Develop and test more reliable measures of the effectiveness of E-Learning Program innovations, including more reliable ways of measuring “learning competencies,” assessing the acquisition of core knowledge, and improving levels of student performance;
  7. Broaden the range of E-Learning Innovation policy initiatives through expanded school program choices, greater teacher autonomy, more flexible staffing formulas, expanded student learning time, and accredited, autonomous virtual high schools:
  8. Foster the development, school-by-school, of more agile, flexible and adaptable alternative school programs, including incubator (e-learning) schools;
  9. Transform traditional top-down school management systems into true “communities of schools” providing face-to-face, online and blended learning program choices.

Students and teachers yearning for more stimulating and engaging high quality instruction, tapping into the potential of e-learning, deserve much more from the school system. Skillful teachers properly supported and equipped need to be feed-up and given more scope to innovate in our schools.  That might well be dangerous — to the status quo.

What’s standing in the way of teacher-led initiatives in e-learning that incite deeper learning? How can we transform school systems into “communities of schools” offering face-to-face instruction, online learning, and blended learning program options? Where do the constraints originate and how can they be cleared away?  What would it take to empower skillful teachers equipped with educational technology to go deeper with students? 

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