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Archive for May, 2018

A recent CBC News Nova Scotia investigation into school fundraising stirred up a little controversy.  The CBC story, which aired on May 16, 2018, focused on inequities in school fundraising, highlighting some rather predictable findings. One South End Halifax elementary school in an affluent residential district raised $70,000 per year in 2016 and 2017, while another in a lower income North End area averaged $15,000 a year. A retired Halifax principal featured prominently in the story saying she found it “disturbing” that some schools can raise so much more than others.

The decision to fixate on parent fundraising was peculiar, when more telling data is readily available bearing more directly on educational inequities in the classroom.  It also begged the question — does parent fundraising really matter or is it just an issue for those who exhibit an education system version of the ‘tall poppy syndrome.’

Schools in wealthier neighbourhoods, the CBC story line ran, secured further advantages raising tens of thousands of dollars for those ‘extras’, such as smart boards, team jerseys, and choir risers. Fundraising capacity, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) researcher Erika Shaker claimed on a subsequent Maritime Connections phone-in show, was directly related to “the economic status of the community” and that gives “those kids an unfair advantage.”

While the seven-school sample showed quite a discrepancy, school fundraising tends to go to extras and frills that do not really make a fundamental difference in teaching and learning. Not only that, but the proposed solutions completely missed the mark.

The former chair of the Halifax Regional School Board, Gin Yee, responded to the CBC revelations in a sound, sensible and informed fashion. Some schools will always be better at fundraising, he pointed out, and, besides, the monies raised not only go to extras rather than essentials, but matter far less than the quality of teaching, class sizes, and in-class supports.

Tampering with fundraising will do little to address the fundamental inequities demonstrated on recent provincial student assessments. The published School Community Reports for 2015-16 support Yee’s contentions.

The top fundraising schools, Sir Charles Tupper and LeMarchant-St. Thomas, finished first or second among the seven sample schools on Grade 3 and 6 reading and Grade 4 and 6 mathematics, with between 86 and 98 per cent of their students meeting the provincial standards. In the case of the identified disadvantaged school, Joseph Howe Elementary, student results were terribly alarming, ranging from 18 per cent to 45 per cent meeting standards.

Leaving aside these three schools, the fundraising totals for St. Catherine’s Elementary, Westmount Elementary, East St. Margaret’s Consolidated, and Dutch Settlement do not even support the overall argument. Two of the lower fundraising schools produce student results at or above the provincial standard, contrary to the story line.

“Pooling the funds” raised and “sharing them collectively,” suggested in the CBC story, is a bad idea, and it went over with CBC listeners like a lead balloon, judging from the 137 comments generated by the accompanying news report.

While the CBC journalists floated it as a serious proposition, Shaker told the radio audience that she favours the “pooling of resources” through redistributive taxation rather than through the sharing of parent fundraising proceeds.  “I’m a big fan of pooling our collective resources to ensure that all kids and schools have access to the resources they need … but really the most effective way is to do it at the provincial scale … we even have a mechanism in place: it’s taxation.”

Parent engagement is critical to student success in every school and any proposal to “cap fundraising” or slap down parent initiatives would prove to be detrimental.  Sharing the proceeds raised at one so-called “advantaged school” with a “disadvantaged school” only provides a temporary fix and may actually lead to long-term dependency on revenue sharing.

Reallocating funds raised at Sir Charles Tupper or LeMarchant- St. Thomas, the two top fundraisers, also ignores the stark reality that those schools compete with pricey private independent schools to retain students. Clamping down on those parents and denying their students those extras may well drive them right out of the public school system.

The real solution to addressing the inequities lies elsewhere. Differential bloc funding of schools has been telegraphed by the new Deputy Education Minister Cathy Montreuil and, more recently, by Minister Zach Churchill.

If and when Minister Churchill announces the change on school funding formula, he would be wise to leave parent fundraising alone and to focus on what really matters – supporting teachers and greatly enhancing learning supports, particularly in disadvantaged school communities.

The Halifax Regional School Board’s “priority schools” funding supports initiative pointed us in a more productive direction. Designating struggling schools as “education reconstruction zones’ would go one step further, focusing educational policy and resources on “turnaround projects.” It would open the door to intensive reading and math supports, wraparound student support services, and our own provincial version of the highly successful “Pathways to Education” after-school tutoring and homework program.

Engaging in empty ideological disputes over tangential issues such as parent fundraising should not be distracting us from getting to the root of the problem. No one, it seems, is now prepared to publicly defend sharing school fundraising proceeds.

What does fusing over school fundraising have to do with addressing educational inequities? Should we be concerned about school fundraising totals or addressing more fundamental problems?  Why did the proposal to adopt school-based budgeting attract so little attention in the ensuing public discussion? What’s standing in the way of school districts zeroing-in on “education reconstruction zones” with targeted “turnaround” programs? 

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The latest student achievement results, featured in the April 30, 2018 Pan-Canadian Assessment Program (PCAP) 2016 report, prove, once again, how system-critical testing is for K-12 education. Students in every Canadian province except Ontario saw gains in Grade 8 student scores from 2010 to 2016 and we are now much the wiser. That educational reality check simply confirms that it’s no time to be jettisoning Ontario’s Grade 3 provincial tests and chipping away at the reputation of the province’s independent testing agency, the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO).

The plan to end Grade 3 provincial testing arrived with the final report of Ontario: A Learning Province, produced by OISE professor Carol Campbell and her team of six supposedly independent advisors, including well-known change theorists Michael Fullan, Andy Hargreaves and Jean Clinton. Targeting of the EQAO was telegraphed in an earlier discussion paper, but the consultation phase focused ostensibly more on “broadening measures of student success” beyond achievement and into the largely uncharted realm of “social and emotional learning” (SEL).

The final report stunned many close observers in Ontario who expected much more from the review, and, in particular, an SEL framework for assessment and a new set of “student well- being” reports for the 2018-19 school year.  Tampering with Grade 3 testing made former Ontario Deputy Minister Charles Pascal uncomfortable because it interfered with diagnosis for early interventions.

It also attracted a stiff rebuke from the world’s leading authority on formative assessment, British assessment specialist Dylan Wiliam. He was not impressed at all with the Campbell review committee report. While it was billed as a student assessment review, Wiliam noted that none of the committee members is known for expertise in assessment, testing or evaluation.

Education insiders were betting that the Kathleen Wynne Liberal-friendly review team would simply unveil the plan for “broader student success” developed by Annie Kidder and her People for Education lobby group since 2012 and known as the “Measuring What Matters” project. It is now clear that something happened to disrupt the delivery of that carefully nurtured policy baby. Perhaps the impending Ontario provincial election was a factor.

Social and emotional learning is now at the very core of Ontario’s Achieving Excellence and Equity agenda and it fully embraces “supporting all students” and enabling them to achieve “a positive sense of well-being – the sense of self, identity, and belonging in the world that will help them to learn, grow and thrive.”

The Ontario model, hatched by the Education Ministry in collaboration with People for Education, is based upon a psycho-social theory that “well-being” has “four interconnected elements” critical to student development, with self/spirit at the centre. The whole formulation reflects the biases of the architects, since grit, growth mindset, respect and responsibility are nowhere to be found in the preferred set of social values inculcated in the system. Whatever the rationale, proceeding to integrate SEL into student reports and province-wide assessments is premature when recognized American experts Angela Duckworth and David Scott Yeager warn that the ‘generic skills’ are ill- defined and possibly unmeasureable.

Evidence-informed researchers such as Daisy Christodoulou, author of Making Good Progress (2017), do not support the proposed change in Ontario student assessment focus. Generic or transferable skills approaches such as Ontario is considering generate generic feedback of limited value to students in the classroom. Relying too heavily on teacher assessments is unwise because, as Christodoulou reminds us, disadvantaged students tend to fare better on larger-scale, objective tests. The proposed prose descriptors will, in all likelihood, be jargon-ridden, unintelligible to students and parents, and prove particularly inaccessible to students struggling in school.

One of the reasons Ontario has been recognized as a leading education system is because of its success over the past 20 years in establishing an independent EQAO with an established and professionally-sound provincial testing program in Grades 3, 6, and 9 and a Grade 10 literacy test that needs improvement. Legitimate teacher concerns about changes that increase marking loads do need to be addressed in any new student assessment plan and so do objections over the fuzzy, labour-intensive SEL student reports.

The proposal to phase out Ontario provincial testing may already be dead in the water.  If it is, you can guess that the April 30, 2018 editorial in The Toronto Star was definitely a contributing factor.  If the Wynne Liberals go down to defeat in the June 2018 election, the whole plan will likely be shelved or completely revamped by a new government.

Whether you support the EQAO or not, the agency has succeeded in establishing reliable quality standards for student performance in literacy and mathematics. Abandoning Grade 3 testing and gutting the EQAO is not only ill-conceived, but ill advised. Without the PCAP and provincial achievement benchmarks we would be flying blind into the future.

What can possibly be gained from eliminating system-wide Grade 3 provincial assessments?  How does that square with research suggesting early assessments are critical in addressing reading and numeracy difficulties?  Without Ontario, would it be possible to conduct comprehensive Grade 3 bench-marking across Canada?  If staff workload is the problem, then aren’t there other ways to address that matter?  And whatever happened to the proposed Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) assessments and reports? 

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An eye-catching satirical cartoon, “7 Sins in the Digital World,” is now making the rounds on Twitter feeds and it packs quite a punch aimed squarely at today’s somewhat unhealthy social media habits. Seven digital platforms are identified with one of the “sins” or vices.  Facebook is associated with Envy, Instagram with Pride, LinkedIn with Greed, Tinder with Lust, Yelp with Gluttony, Netflix with Sloth, and, last but not least, Twitter with Wrath.

That trenchant cartoon might well have been produced by the Halifax-based Canadian Centre for Ethics in Public Affairs, the sponsors of Dr. Justin Tosi’s April 26 Public Talk on one of the biblical “Seven Deadly Sins,” Wrath. His actual theme, “Moral Grandstanding and Self-Righteous Anger,” also ties in nicely with one of its greatest contemporary sources – the Twitterverse. “Moral grandstanding is the use of moral talk for self-promotion,” Tosi told the CCEPA audience. “ It’s people using moral conversation, making moral claims, to present an impressive image of themselves to others.”

Moral grandstanding is getting easier to spot with so much of our lives spent online. Chest-thumping Facebook posts and pontificating Tweets fill today’s social media. Posts presented as personal observations or short political statements tend to be laden with a much different underlying message: “I’ve got something important to say, worth paying attention to, here on the Internet.”

Joining in on social media seems to feed our innate narcissism. Hours are consumed burnishing an image and seeking approval from our online “friends” or registering our “likes” and favourites, piling on with a certain “tribal abandon.” It’s become a substitute for real-time engagement in morally useful projects and community activities. The allure of social media is hard to resist and, if we are honest, almost everyone has fallen prey to using social media as a platform for moral grandstanding, often to express our moral outrage about one issue or another. Some of us, the real zealots, are more frequent offenders than others.

Moral grandstanding seems to be particularly rampant in the Twitter world of academia. One of North America’s most engaged philosophers, Brian Leiter of the University of Chicago Law School, hit a nerve when he quipped in a blog post that Twitter is revealing in that “otherwise intelligent people” tend to “stake out careers on preposterous-but-shocking arguments.”

Most troubling to Tosi is the way moral grandstanding is foreclosing on free, open and meaningful public discussion. Whether it’s the crisis in health care, the state of public education, or the threat of climate change, the critical issues cannot be reduced to GIFs or 140-character declarations.

Moral grandstanding may provide some outlet for moral outrage or a safety-valve, but it encourages people to stake out radical positions to impress their friends, instead of engaging in civil dialogue and a mutual sharing of ideas. Nuances tend to dissolve when factions are formed and people gravitate to echo chambers, likened to “bizarre partisan camps,” often divided along “progressive” or “neo-traditional” lines. Extreme partisanship, formerly the preserve of card-carrying political party activists, spreads to social action committees, teachers’ unions, and education twitter groups.

When normally intelligent people resort to posting very foolish things on Facebook and Twitter, it is often a prime example of a very real psychological phenomenon, group polarization. Before adding to the pile of “likes,” contributing to the blather, or retweeting an insulting comment, it might be advisable to think first, and decide whether it helps anyone trying to grasp an issue in all its complexity.

The threat to civil discourse posed by the Internet’s most diabolical sub-species, the troll, needs to be confronted. Partisan groups seem to breed trolls and serial re-tweeters (or parakeets) who spew mostly nonsense interspersed with insults or slurs directed against those targeted or marginalized by the faction.

Five common fallacious arguments employed by trolls were ‘outed’ in a recent British Channel 4 News “Fact Check” feature, How to Defeat the Troll (online).  All of them are regularly employed by moral grandstanders on social media  Keep your eye open for examples of these false arguments, aptly described as “rubbish”:

The Straw Man (Person) Attack – Exaggerating or twisting your opponent’s point to make it easier to knock down. Response: You are putting words in my mouth

The Ad Hominem Argument – Attacking the person rather than addressing the point they are making.  Response: That’s an insult, not a counter-argument.

Anecdotal Evidence – Assuming your personal experience trumps more reliable sources of information. Response: That’s one example, can you cite any more?

Whataboutery – Using someone else’s bad behaviour to deflect from your own.  Response: Two wrongs do not make a right.

Shifting the Burden of Proof – Because no one can prove your claim is false… does not mean it’s automatically true. Response: Extraordinary claims need solid supporting evidence.

WrathCCEPATosiCivil dialogue and discourse is under threat in today’s mainstream politics, and especially so on social media. Grandstanding is a major factor and it takes many forms. In their quest to solidify their reputation or impress their in-group, grandstanders tend to trump up moral charges, attempt to silence or marginalize ‘outliers,’ and to pile on in cases of public shaming. Small mistakes or poor choices of words can attract swarms of partisans vilifying the supposed perpetrator. Swarming on social media can also have a chilling effect on others.

Most disturbing of all, grandstanders denounce people who hold contrary views, exaggerate emotional displays, and ramp up discussion until it degenerates into what Toshi calls “a moral arms race.” Today, everyone seems to have their own platform: It’s time to take a hard look in the mirror and to re-assess why and how we engage with one another over political and moral issues.

Whatever happened to civic discourse in the education world? How and why has EduTwitter become such a wild frontier? How prevalent is moral grandstanding?  Is there an alternative to  ‘Echo Chamber Happy Talk” or spectacles of “Twitter Warfare”?  Is there still hope for EduTwitter?

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