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Archive for June, 2018

Smoking in and around high schools has become ‘cool, once again. Over the past year, vaping has overtaken cigarette smoking as the surreptitious habit of choice among teens as well as undergraduate university students. While smoking e-cigarettes is officially outlawed on school property, that has not stopped a dramatic rise in the popularity of vaping among high schoolers. In the case of Ontario, a 2017 provincial survey revealed that more students in Grades 7 to 12 self-reported vaping (18 per cent) than smoking tobacco cigarettes (12 per cent).

The latest vape innovation, the Juul, now dominates the United States teen market and is beginning to spread into Canada. Inhaling multi-flavoured vapors with nicotine is now much harder for school administrators and teachers to detect. The small, sleek device, or juul, which can be easily mistaken for a portable USB drive has cornered the market for e-cigarettes and vaping products, particularly in affluent school districts where students can afford the latest gadgets and stimulants. Concealing bulging vaporizers was tough, but these low-profile, sleek designs allow students to easily conceal their habit and to escape detection not only in in the usual spots (bathrooms, back hallways, and under stairwells), but even in classrooms.

Like most teen crazes, vaping and ‘julling’ caught on far faster than school officials realized and became well established before authorities saw the scale of the problem. School principals are scrambling to contain the practice and trying to stamp it out.  “I think it’s everywhere, and my school is no different, ” Connecticut principal Francis Thompson recently told Education Week. Then he added, “I think it’s the next health epidemic..”

Vaping with the stealth devices, while less prevalent, is reportedly rising in and around Canadian high schools. “Everybody’s doing it, ” a Grade 9 student in Windsor-Essex County told Windsor CBC News in early April 2018.  Teens in Ottawa high schools featured in a May 2018 Canadian Press news story confirmed that it was now “cool” to smoke again, albeit with vaporizers and in well-known hiding spots. In Sydney, Cape Breton, students at Sydney Academy were well-aware of students vaping in class undetected, and fellow students suspended for smoking who were actually vaping on school grounds.

The new federal legislation, the Tobacco and Vaping Products Act, passed in May 2015, may help to clarify the legal position of school principals trying to cope with the latest craze. Bill S-5 (2018) may improve the quality and regulation of  vaping products and it does restrict use to adults. Federal regulations, expected within six months, will reduce the number of flavours used in e-cigarettes, banning those designed to mimic ‘confectionary,’ cannabis, or energy drinks, and designed to hook young people on these devices.

Defenders of e-cigarettes continue to maintain that they are a safer alternative to tar-producing tobacco cigarettes. Tobacco experts at Public Health England tend to support such claims, as confirmed in a February 2018 UK government report. Whether vaping is effective in promoting smoking cessation is far from clear in studies to date.

School policies banning smoking have been updated to include vaping, but the new stealth devices are making it harder than ever to enforce, especially when the juul looks so much like a USB stick and can be easily concealed by student users. The latest fear expressed by school principals and teachers is the prospect of vaporizers being used to deliver cannabis, circumventing school detection and regulations. When cannabis is legalized across Canada, October 17, 2018, we shall see whether it further complicates the job of policing and eliminating vaping on school grounds.

Why is vaping replacing tobacco smoking as the nicotine product of choice in and around schools?  Will the American juul craze become more widely accepted and entrenched among teens here in Canada? Should we be focusing so much on stamping out vaping or on convincing students to stop smoking, whatever the substance? Will the legalization of marijuana only compound this problem for teachers and school administrators? 

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Ontario Progressive Conservative leader Doug Ford swept into power at Queen’s Park  on June 7, 2018 with an explicitly populist agenda in K-12 education. Campaigning with the slogan “Ford for the People,” he pledged to reform the school curriculum, defend provincial testing,introduce a moratorium on school closures, and consult more with disaffected communities. Most of these planks in the Ontario PC education “promise package” were presented in plain and simple language that appropriated “back to the basics” philosophy and “common sense” reform.

Presenting these policies in such unvarnished “populist language” made it easy for the Ontario media to caricature “Ford Nation” and earned him the derision of the Ontario education establishment.   On what The Globe and Mail  aptly termed “the mourning after,” the core interests who dominated the 15-year-long Dalton McGuinty- Kathleen Wynne era sounded traumatized and completely disoriented.  Premier Doug Ford clearly scares the Ontario education “elites,” but such straight talk only endears him more to “Ford Nation” supporters committed to “taking back” the public schools.

Doug Ford’s PC Education promises, once dismissed as “bumper sticker” politics, will now get much closer scrutiny.  The fundamental challenge facing Ford and his new Education Minister will be to transform that reform philosophy and list of education promises into sound and defensible education policy.  It not only can be done, but will be done if Ford and his entourage seek proper advice and draw upon the weight of education research supporting the proposed new directions.

The overall Ontario PC education philosophy rests on a complete rejection of the Wynne Liberal Toronto-centric vision and education guru driven brand of “identity politics” in education.  “At one time, Ontario schools focused on teaching the skills that matter: reading, writing and math. This approach helped to prepare our kids for the challenges of work and life. Today, however, more and more of our schools have been turned into social laboratories and our kids into test subjects for whatever special interests and so-called experts that have captured Kathleen Wynne’s ear.”

Premier-elect Ford’s campaign captured well the groundswell of public dissent over top-down decision-making and the tendency to favour “inclusion” in theory but not in practice. It was expressed in this no-nonsense fashion: “By ignoring parents and focusing on narrow agendas or force-feeding our kids experimental curricula like ‘Discovery Math’ the Liberals are leaving our children woefully unprepared to compete with other students from across Canada and around the world. And instead of helping our kids pass their tests, the NDP want to cancel the tests altogether.”

The Ford Nation plan for education appealed to the “little guy” completely fed-up with the 15-year legacy of “progressive education” and its failure to deliver more literate, numerate, capable, and resilient students. Education reform was about ‘undoing the damage’ and getting back on track: “It’s time to get back to basics, respect parents, and work with our teachers to ensure our kids have the skills they need to succeed.”

The specific Ontario PC policy commitments in its 8-point-plan were:

  • Scrap discovery math and inquiry-based learning in our classrooms and restore proven methods of teaching.
  • Ban cell phones in all primary and secondary school classrooms, in order to maximize learning time.
  • Make mathematics mandatory in teachers’ college programs.
  • Fix the current EQAO testing regime that is failing our kids and implement a standardized testing program that works.
  • Restore Ontario’s previous sex-ed curriculum until we can produce one that is age appropriate and broadly supported.
  • Uphold the moratorium on school closures until the closure review process is reformed.
  • Mandate universities to uphold free speech on campuses and in classrooms.
  • Boost funding for children with autism, committing  $100-million more during the mandate.

Most of the Ford Nation proposals are not only sensible, but defensible on the basis of recent education research.  Ontario Liberal Education policy, driven by edu-gurus such as Michael Fullan and Andy Hargreaves and championed by People for Education was out-of-sync with not only public opinion but education research gaining credence though the emergence of researchED in Canada.   The Mathematics curriculum and teacher education reforms, for example, are consistent with research conducted by Anna Stokke, Graham Orpwood, and mathematics education specialists in Quebec.

Provincial testing, school closure reform and addressing autism education needs all enjoy wide public support. Former Ontario Deputy Minister of Education Charles Pascal, architect of EQAO, supports the recommendation to retain provincial testing, starting in Grade 3.  The Ontario Alliance Against School Closures, led by Susan Mackenzie, fully supports the Ontario PC position on fixing the Pupil Accommodation Review process.  Few Ontarians attuned to the enormous challenges of educating autistic children would question the pledge to invest more in support programs.

The Ontario PC proposal to reform sex-education curriculum is what has drawn most of the public criticism and it is a potential minefield. The Thorncliffe Park Public School parent uprising and the voices of dissenting parents cannot be ignored, but finding an acceptable compromise will not be easy.  Separating the sex-education component from the overall health and wellness curriculum may be the best course of action.  Tackling that issue is a likely a “no-win” proposition given the deep differences evident in family values. Forewarned is forearmed.

How will the Doug Ford Ontario PC Government transform its populist electoral nostrums into sound education policy?  How successful with the Ford govenment be in building a new coalition of education advisors and researchers equipped to turn the promises into specific policies? Where are the holes and traps facing Ford and his Education Minister?  Can Doug Ford and his government implement these changes without sparking a return to the “education wars” of the 1990s?  

 

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Schools around the globe are entering a new era of electronic surveillance.  Heightened security threats, high tech innovation and personal data profiling are making for a dangerous combination when it comes to civil rights. One American school system, the Lockport City School District near Buffalo, NY, is trumpeting its plan to spend $2.7 million to install high-tech surveillance cameras in its public schools.  Over in China, Hangzhou No. 11 High School, has just attracted world-wide attention for installing cameras to take attendance and track every activity of students, including reading, writing or listening. High tech, it seems, has a solution for most of today’s school problems and challenges.

School shootings are an all-too frequent and tragic phenomenon in American schools.  The Sandy Hook shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, on December 14, 2012, claimed the lives of 20 children and 6 teachers. One American gun safety organization, Everytown Research, has identified at least 315 incidents of gunfire on U.S. school grounds since 2013. When it comes to how American children are exposed to gun violence, gunfire at schools is just the tip of the iceberg–every year, over 2,700 children and teens are shot and killed and nearly 14,500 more are shot and injured.  An estimated 3 million U.S. children are exposed to shootings per year.

School security is definitely a growth industry, right across the United States and increasingly in Canadian urban school districts. In the wake of the recent rash of shootings, educators are asking what more can be done to safeguard students, leading to some rather radical proposals from arming teachers to essentially security-proofing schools.

Shortly after Sandy Hook, Tony Olivo of Corporate Screening and Investigative Group, was invited to Lockport City School District and began conducting school security assessments in the spring of 2013. He and his team sold Superintendent Michelle Bradley on the latest technological solution — SN Tech’s facial recognition software, known as Aegis. The technology was actually developed by SN Tech based in Gananoque, Ontario. In 2016, the company held demonstrations at facilities, including Erie 1- BOCES, in Western New York and those sessions were attended by representatives from some 40 school districts. Lockport City School District became the first to adopt the software and to incorporate it into the district’s $3.8 million security enhancement project.  It is also a real pioneer, since most other Niagara County districts have chosen to invest more in classroom technology than in school surveillance.

HighTechSNTechControlRoomSN Tech’s Aegis software for schools provides heavy duty surveillance, similar to that found in casinos and high security facilities. It includes a facial recognition tool called “Sentry,” a shape recognition tool called “Protector, ” and a forensic search engine called “Mercury.” The Gananoque company claims that “Sentry” can alert school officials if suspended students, fired employees, known sex offenders or gang members  enter a school. “The Protector” is designed to recognize any of “the top ten guns used in school shootings,” including AR-15-style rifles.

While utilizing similar high tech software, the Chinese school is turning it to different purposes. Facial recognition software is used in its cafeteria and library, supposedly for the convenience of students. Several classrooms have been equipped with cameras that can recognize the emotions of students, tapping into artificial intelligence (AI) but raising plenty of concerns about monitoring students for purposes of behavioural compliance. Installed in March of 2018, the Chinese system provides real-time data on students’ outward expressions. tracking whether they look happy, scared, surprised, angry, disgusted, or neutral (disengaged). The whole project is touted as a leading-edge way of ensuring that students are attentive and happy, learning quickly and being prepared well for tests.

Both high tech initiatives raise fundamental issues and deserve to be challenged by educators, parents, and concerned citizens. In China, the Hangzhou High School system has drawn fire from brave citizens and Chinese expatriates. One 23-year-old photographer went online with his critique. “This technology is so twisted, it’s anti-human,” he wrote, likening the students to robots. A Chinese-born Harvard researcher, Jiang Xueqin, saw it as an example of using education as a means of social control. He predicted that it would lead to further “mass experiments” in how to predict and to channel student behaviours.

Installing cameras in Upstate New York schools has not gone unchallenged.  One Niagara County parent and activist, Jim Shultz, put the concerns of many citizens into words.  In April of 2018, he spoke out publicly against the Lockport City School District plan. “The Lockport district,” he wrote in the Lockport Journal, is “making a big mistake” in spending “a huge amount of money” that “could be far better spent on our children’s education and on much wiser security measures at well.”

Three fundamental problems have been raised with the district’s plan.  First, the claim that it is a huge waste of taxpayer’s money that will not necessarily make the schools safer. It was estimated to cost $500 per student and had not been used successfully anywhere else because of glitches.  Second, the project represented an unprecedented invasion of both student and teacher privacy. It could easily be used by administration to conduct investigations for other purposes, including student and staff discipline. Finally, the community of Lockport was never properly consulted about the use of “spy cameras’ until after the initiative was well underway had been made and only a few weeks before the board’s final decision on approving a budget allocation.

Installing cameras and facial recognition software in schools does raise broader concerns. Does the security threat warrant such radical technological  interventions? Should schools use such high tech innovations to monitor and track the activities, movements and expressions of all students and staff in public schools? In establishing limits on electronic surveillance, where might schools draw the line?  At what point do schools begin to resemble high security zones and/or custodial institutions like detention centres? 

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