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Archive for March, 2018

A British Columbia poster campaign aimed at starting a conversation around racism within School District No. 74 (Gold Trail) schools has sparked more animated discussion than its initiators — Superintendent Teresa Downs and the District management team — ever imagined. When the posters went up in January 2018, nothing much happened, then in early March the whole issue exploded on social media and in the national press.

WhitePrivilegeBCSD74Indigenous

Three anti-racism posters featuring the formal leaders of the District—Secretary Treasurer Lynda Minnabarriet, District Principal of Aboriginal Education Tammy Mountain, and Superintendent Downs—went up in all SD74 schools. All three feature the speaker’s picture, with Minnabarriet’s poster reading “I lose an opportunity if I don’t confront racism”, and Mountain’s reading “I have felt racism. Have you?”

The poster featuring Downs was the one that attracted by far the most attention. Downs—who is white—is featured beside the words “I have unfairly benefitted from the colour of my skin. White privilege is not acceptable.”

WhitePrivilegeBCSD74Poster

The Downs poster proved to be a lightning-rod. One parent, Kansas Field Allen, whose son attends Grade 9 at Kumsheen Secondary School in Lytton, BC, took great exception to the “Got privilege?” campaign and particularly to the contentious poster. Allen, who is married to a First Nations man, has three children, all of whom carry First Nations status cards. Her prime objection to the campaign was that it ignored mixed race families like her own.  As someone who herself has faced racism and labelled a ‘white mama,’ she was upset to hear one student say he was ‘ashamed to be white’ and the way the whole episode affected her son. When she asked him about it, he fell silent an ‘bent his head down.”

The controversy swirled around the school district for over a week. Many commenters  applauded Downs and the administration for highlighting the often-hidden issue of white privilege, but many others sided with Field and charged that the statement smacked of  reverse racism. Hard questions were asked about whether it went too far or implied that Downs only got where she is because of her skin colour rather than her own efforts.

The “Got Privilege?” posters did not come out of nowhere.  With a sizable indigenous population, BC District 74 has embraced anti-racist education in a very pro-active fashion. The district management team is deeply committed to the cause and has sought to promote a discussion of colonization, discrimination, race, and privilege for more than five years. “Two years ago we interviewed secondary students, and they said they saw racism and prejudice in their schools and their communities,” Downs told a local news outlet. “We knew we needed to be addressing those issues.”

The poster campaign was actually inspired by a similar June to July 2017 venture in Saskatoon that featured giant billboards at the high-traffic bridge crossings. Sponsored by the City of Saskatoon, the campaign “I am the Bridge…to Ending Racism,” featured one billboard where a middle-aged white citizen was quoted as saying “I have to acknowledge my own privilege and racist attitudes.”  Like the B.C. school poster, the billboard provoked quite a reaction, especially on CKOM AM 650, the all news talk station.  It sparked outrage, division, and a horrible rash of hand-made racist telephone pole posters.

Downs and her team considered the Saskatchewan initiative to be “very brave” and knew it might spark controversy. The posters were devised last fall, all the District principals were approached about them and were very supportive. The decision for the posters to feature Downs, Mountain, and Minnabarriet was a conscious one. “As the formal leaders of the District, we wanted to have a message and be a part of the conversation, not be seen as isolated from it. We wanted to be a piece of the puzzle.”

Since the public outcry, Downs has held her ground and expressed appreciation to those who supported the campaign through the turbulence. Given the emotions stirred by the controversy, she has resisted calls for a public meeting and worked to explain it all in  “one-to-one talks with people.” One group of students rallied to the District’s defense and appealed to their principal to resist calls for the posters to be taken down. “A discussion about race and privilege is difficult to have,” Downs says,” “but it’s important.”

 

Privilege

With controversy raging in B.C. in early March 2018, similar posters, headed “Check Your Privilege,appeared at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT).  Branded with the UOIT crest, the Ontario posters promoted “a more just and inclusive world” and encouraged students to “check their privilege” using a list of privileges such as “Able-bodied,” “Christian,” “Heterosexual,” “Male, ” and White.”  After attracting social media criticism, the posters were taken down, but school administration offered up an explanation, claiming that they were not intended to shame people who fell into one of the identified privilege categories.

Racism is a serious public concern and anti-racist education deserves a place in today’s educational world. Having said that, the recent controversies do raise the critical question of how best to combat racism in and around schools. Why did the”white privilege” posters attract criticism, while the others relatively little adverse reaction?  How successful are such campaigns in initiating conversation? Can you see positive or negative long-term effects from such conversations?  

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The title of the late Denis John Cassivi‘s 1981 book, Education and the Cult of Modernism, caught my eye.  I spotted it referenced  in my well-worn copy of  Andrew Nikiforuk’s  School’s Out and that’s what first piqued my interest. After obtaining one of the few remaining copies from a local rare bookstore, Dustjacket Books and Treasures, it quickly became apparent that this was not a quick read, but rather a deep, philosophical and probing exploration of the nature and purpose of education itself. Brilliant, incisive, idiosyncratic and sadly forgotten.

“What difference  do elaborate buildings, nifty class schedules and computerized timetables make if the children are not learning?”  That’s a pretty fundamental question and typical of the multitude of insights to be gleaned, even today,  from this little book, published by Cassivi’s research institute and modestly sub-titled, “A Personal Observation.”  We learn, through the book, that such things, the products of “modernism,” are impoverishing education. He sees them as mere ‘bobbles’ or surface preoccupations that exemplify the “destructive impact” of an “educational experiment” he labels “modernism.” No wonder Andrew Nikiforuk (above) was drawn to his ideas.

His extended essay attempts to identify and explain “modernism” as a new ideology and to alert us to its excesses and warn us of its destructive capabilities. Cassivi sees it as “a cult” because in the 1980s, in his view, it was the “dominant force” which had gained “widespread acceptance in the face of countless rational limitations.” It was a form of ideological “theism” which he described as “secular-narcissistic.” Much like radical cults in the Ancient world or the Jonesvile Cult in Guyana, the predominant thinkers were possessed of their vision and viewed everyone else with suspicion (pp, 1-2).  While “modernism” claimed to be a further evolution of Enlightenment ‘liberalism,’ it was not at all — but rather an irrational mutation borne of the present age.

“Modernism” was, in Cassivi’s reading, a false god which had “become an end in itself.”  The purpose and aims of today’s education were being subsumed by it and we were losing our way.  “What we are doing in schools, and why?” was no longer being asked because modernization was an end in itself. One can only imagine what Cassivi would have thought of “globalization” or “21st century skills.”

The “Cult of Modernism” was far from benign because it was corrosive in the world of education.  According to Cassivi, it was destructive of western educational tradition because it exhibited eight rather destructive characteristics: the perversion of democracy, intolerance, relativity of knowledge, realivity of values, rejection of personal responsibility, narcissism, process orientation, and rejection of the old (pp. 7-24).

The aims and purposes of contemporary education were now, in his view, subordinated to modernism.  Leading “education progressives” were completely enraptured with modernism. Instead of steering a steady path and respecting past legacies, they “foster a relativity of knowledge and belief often manifested in the justification of bizarre programs and activities” (p. 39).

Cassivi’s analysis of modernist excesses extended to nearly every corner of education: administration, teaching, teacher education, curriculum priorities, special education and career education (pp. 57-129. Every section of the book contains searing insights and observations.

Educational research did not escape his attention. As a leading education researcher at the time, his critique carried quite a sting. ” Education researchers, ” he observed, ” are that breed of mankind who have made a career out of pursuing senseless questions with a vigor and technical precision that makes the exercise both bizarre and extravagant.”  He thought they only asked questions that had self-evident answers: “How many people in _____ like universities and to what extent?” “Do teachers in _____ use overhead projectors in their classrooms and how often and under what circumstances?”

Today’s researchers can still fall into that trap with rather predictable research questions.  A few possible examples of the mindset: “Does IT assist teachers in ‘personalizing learning?” and “What are schools doing to adversely affect “student well-being”?  Perhaps you can spot real examples.

The author himself could not quite bring himself to conducting such research. His Saint Mary’s University M.A. Thesis on teacher training in Nova Scotia stands out, even today. “What do teachers think about the quality of teachers’ college training?”  The short version of his  answer: “bloody awful.”  It was a worthwhile project, but it depressed him because it was “the stuff of which careers are made.”

Cassivi’s book was simply one small chapter in an incredibly diverse and active professional career in secondary schools, adult education and community development. Ten years ago, on November 11, 2008, Cassivi of Howie Centre, passed away in Sydney, Cape Breton, following a long battle with cancer.  He was a true life-long learner. His early teaching career included various high schools throughout the province, as well as St. Mary’s University, Mount St. Vincent University and McGill University in Montreal. His studies landed him a post as visiting scholar at Cambridge University in England, where he was associated with Clair College and the Cambridge Institute of Education.

Cassivi was a true innovator in adult and career education. In 1979, he was appointed program director of continuing education at the University College of Cape Breton in Sydney, N.S., and completed a 20-year career with the university. During this period he was appointed research assistant for the Royal Commission on Post Secondary Education in Nova Scotia. He became registrar at UCCB in 1994 and founded many lighthouse programs of teacher and leadership development across the Maritimes. In his sixties, he was awarded a doctoral fellowship for study at the University of London, England.

His official obituary is very extensive, but makes no specific reference to his classic work, Education and the Cult of Modernism.  It ends with these lines: “His special interest was in promoting critical thinking for active, mature participation in the community by confronting superstition, bigotry, prejudice and greed. Denis will be sorely missed by the educational and academic community.” Now you know why.

What was Cape Breton educator Denis Cassivi’s sadly forgotten jeremiad getting at?  Why did former Globe and Mail education columnist Andrew Nikiforuk take note of the book? What has changed in Canadian education since the early 1980s?  Is it too late to absorb some of his lessons and apply them to today’s challenges? Or is it all better, left forgotten? 

 

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Speaking to the Nova Scotia School Boards Association in Dartmouth in November 2016, Professor Gerald Galway of Memorial University posed the critical question in the starkest terms.  Were Canadian school boards “outworn relics of the past or champions of local democracy?”  That storm warning came too late to save the last school boards still standing in Atlantic Canada.. Today regional school boards are on the verge of extinction and what’s left of local school governance is an endangered species all over eastern Canada, west of Quebec.

The elimination of elected regional school boards was clearly foreshadowed in a synthesis of national research conducted from 2012-13 for the Canadian School Boards Association (CSBA) and later presented in a most revealing September 2013 article in the Canadian Journal of Educational Administration and Policy.  The principal researchers not only rang an alarm bell, but called upon elected board members across Canada to face squarely the choices that lay ahead.  One option, they claimed, was “quiet acquiescence to the centralization of educational governance;” the other was “some form of productive opposition to these forced changes.”  It was “perhaps preferable,” in their words, “to take action to save a sinking ship than to quietly allow nature to take its course in the hope that it (the existing order) will be spared.”

Elected regional boards have passed away, one province at a time, over the past 20 years. The first province to discard regional school boards was New Brunswick.  In February 1996, the Frank McKenna government announced without consultation or any warning that all school boards would be eliminated and elected trustees removed from office, effective March 1, 1996.  The gaping hole in local governance was partially corrected in 2001 with the restoration of District Education Councils (DECSs) populated by well-meaning volunteers serving in elected positions. With real authority still centralized at the provincial level, the DECs have faced an uphill battle to gain public support and confidence.

Next up was Prince Edward Island, when — following a bitter and protracted school closure battle, Minister of Education Doug Currie intervened in January 2011 and fired the entire Eastern District Board, citing the “acrimony among trustees” as his rationale. A single English Language School Board, composed of appointed province-wide trustees, regularly challenged the Education Department’s priorities and questioned its policy directives.. The Wade MacLauchlan government elected in May of 2015 simply absorbed the school board into the Department of Education, Early Learning and Culture and, in September 2016, the Public Schools Branch assumed control of the whole system and English Language school governance was turned over to a three-person Public Schools Branch (PSB) Board, chaired by the Deputy Minister of Education, Susan Willis.  The new model failed its first real test in April 2017 when the Premier MacLauchlan was forced to overturn a PSB recommendation to close two Island schools.

School boards in Newfoundland/Labrador, like those in P.E.I., struggled for public legitimacy and become a regular ‘whipping boy’ for concerns about a myriad of educational issues.  Regional boards, according to Memorial University’s Gerald Galway, bore “the brunt of public dissatisfaction” for “a long list of sins,” including underfunding of schools, busing regulations, and closing or consolidating schools. Within the space of twenty years, the province managed to radically downsize the local governance system three times, reducing the 27 English school districts to 10 in 1997, down to four in 2004, and then to a single district in 2013. The provincial Newfoundland/Labrador English School Board (NLESB) now has 4 sub-districts and 17 elected trustees representing 252 schools. Much like New Brunswick, this restructuring was executed without any public consultation or public debate.

Nova Scotia’s regional school board system remained essentially unchanged in its structure and organization for over twenty years. The N.S. model was established as a result of structural reforms initiated in 1996 by the Liberal government of Dr. John Savage as a critical piece in their education reform agenda.The Nova Scotia government of Stephen McNeil, acting upon Dr. Avis Glaze’s January 2018 report, abolished the English boards and, in their place, vowed to establish a 15-member Provincial Advisory Council on Education, and enhance the authority of School Advisory Councils across the province.

School boards in Nova Scotia, like those elsewhere, demonstrated some glaring and disguised deficiencies:

  • Governance Philosophy and Practice:

Informal and flexible governance practices were gradually supplanted, over time, by more formal guidelines and policies, patterned after John Carver’s “policy governance” model, effectively neutering the elected boards.  School board members were trained to adopt a corporate governance philosophy that significantly weakened their representative role as the “public voice” in the school system.

  • Size and Scale Problem – Too Big to Be Responsive

School district consolidation, from the 1990s onward, has resulted in larger and larger boards where decisions are made further and further away from the schools. One of the early warnings that regional school boards were too big to be effective was issued in 2003 by Queen’s University education professor T.R. Williams:  “Given the present size of boards, the traditional concept of an elected part-time trustee who can fully represent the interests of individual constituents is no longer viable. The current elected district boards are simply too large.”

  • Resistance to School-Level Democratic Accountability

School boards since the mid-1990s, successfully beat back any proposals to significantly restructure Nova Scotia education governance. During the 2006-07 school year, following the firing of two school boards, Charles Cirtwill, then acting president of AIMS, mounted a determined effort to replace existing school boards with “school-based management.” Inspired by the Edmonton Public Schools model and with the support of former Superintendent Angus McBeath, Cirtwill seized the opportunity to rid the province of what were termed “dysfunctional boards” and to devolve more decision-making authority to principals and local school councils. That proposal and other representations fell on deaf ears.

  • Introduction of Strict Board Member Discipline Codes

Following the twin firings of the Halifax Regional School Board and the Strait Regional School Boards in 2006, senior superintendents, with the department’s support, began to enforce stricter “Codes of Conduct” on elected board members and to rein in and effectively muzzle unruly “trustees,” especially during intense periods of school reviews for closure.

  • Public Disengagement and Spread of Acclamation Disease

Elected school boards also suffered from an advanced stage of what might be termed “acclamation disease.”  In the October 2012 municipal election, only three of the province’s eight school boards remained democratically healthy, and two of them were cleansed through previous firings. The problem persisted in October 2016 in spite of an NSSBA campaign to encourage more public participation in school board elections.

  • Inability to Address Declining Student Performance

School boards proved incapable of tackling the problem of lagging student performance.  Nova Scotia’s Auditor General Michael Pickup, in his December 2014 review of the Tri-County Regional School Board (TCRSB) based in Yarmouth, NS, found that board oversight did not stand up under close scrutiny.   While investigating record low scores on math and literacy tests, Pickup uncovered serious lapses in “management oversight” and found that the board did not “spend appropriate effort on the fundamental role of educating students.”

  • Failure to Exercise Effective Oversight over Senior Administration

The N.S. Auditor General was most critical of the lack of oversight exercised by the elected boards in their dealings with their one employee, the Superintendent, and his/her senior staff.  In the case of the Tri-County Regional School Board he found little or no evidence that the elected board properly evaluated or held accountable its own superintendent. The next AG report in November 2015 confirmed that three other “governing boards” were not effectively performing their oversight function.

  • Rigid and Inflexible Responses to School Closures and Hub School Renewal Plans

From 2006 onwards, elected school boards occupied the front-lines in successive waves of school consolidation pitting elected members against communities throughout rural and small-town Nova Scotia. A Nova Scotia Hub School movement gave small communities some reason for hope, but the strict admionistrative guidelines made it next-to-impossible for local parent groups to secure approval for innovative proposes to repurpose their community schools. In the case of Chignecto-Central Regional School Board, the superintendent and staff-imposed requirements that thwarted, at every turn, hub school proposals for three elementary schools, River John, Maitland and Wentworth. When the George D. Lewis Hub School Society plan was rejected in 2017 by the Cape Breton Victoria Regional School Board, the parent group called for the resignation of the entire elected school board. Shooting down hub school plans, on top of closing schools, burned bridges and alienated active parents in a half dozen or more communities.

Regional school boards grew more and more distant and disconnected from local school communities. School boards consolidated and retrenched, and superintendents gradually expanded their authority over not only elected boards, but the whole P-12 school system. The NSSBA and its member boards operated in a peculiar educational bubble. When the decision to dissolve all seven English school boards was announced, it hit the leading members of NSSBA and most regional board chairs like a bolt out of the blue.

What caused the demise of elected school boards in Atlantic Canada? Was it simply a matter of creeping centralization driven by provincial education ministers and senior bureaucrats? How important were school closures in undermining their democratic legitimacy?  Why did alternative school-based governance models vesting more responsibility in school councils fail to materialize? 

 

 

 

 

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