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Archive for November, 2018

Where you live can greatly influence on the educational outcomes of your children. Some education observers go so far as to say: “The quality of education is determined by your postal code.” In school systems with strict student attendance zones, it is, for all intents and purposes, the iron law of public education.

Students, whatever their background, can overcome significant disadvantages. ““Your destiny is in your hands, and don’t you forget that,” as former U.S. President Barack Obama said famously in July 2009. “That’s what we have to teach all of our children! No excuses! No excuses!”

ClosingtheGapCHClassPhotoThere is a fine line between identifying struggling schools and ‘labeling’ them.  “We identify schools and where they are on the improvement journey,” says Elwin LeRoux,, Regional Director of Education in Halifax, Nova Scotia. “Yet we are careful not to ‘label’ some schools in ways that may carry negative connotations and influence student attitudes.”

How a school district identifies struggling schools and how it responds is what matters. Accepting the socio-economic dictates or ignoring the stark realities is not good enough. It only serves to reinforce the ingrained assumption, contribute to lowered academic expectations, and possibly adversely affect school leadership, student behaviour standards, teacher attitudes, and parent-school relations.

While there are risks involved is comparing school performance, parents and the public are entitled to know more about how students in our public schools are actually performing. The Halifax Chronicle Herald broke the taboo in November 2018 and followed the path blazed by other daily papers, including The Globe and Mail and the Hamilton Spectator, in providing a school-by-school analysis of school performance in relation to socio-economic factors influencing student success. The series was based upon extensive research conducted for the Atlantic Institute of Market Studies (AIMS). 

A Case Study – the Halifax Public School System

The Halifax Regional Centre for Education (formerly the Halifax Regional School Board) enrolls 47,770 students in 135 schools, employs 4,000 school-based teachers,and provides a perfect lens through which to tackle the whole question. Student achievement and attainment results over the past decade, from 2008-09 to 2015-16, have been published in school-by school community reports and, when aggregated, provide clear evidence of how schools are actually performing in Halifax Region.

Unlike many Canadian boards, the HRCE is organized in an asymmetrical fashion with a mixed variety of organizational units: elementary schools (84), junior high/middle schools (27), senior elementary (7), P-12 academy (1), junior-senior high schools (6), and senior high schools (10).   Current student enrolment figures, by school division, stand at 25,837 for Primary to Grade 6, 11,245 for Grades 7 to 9, and 10,688 for Grades 10 to 12.

Student Achievement and School Improvement

Since November of 2009, the Halifax system has been more open and transparent in reporting on student assessment results as a component of its system-wide improvement plan. Former Superintendent Carole Olsen introduced the existing accountability system along with a new mission that set a far more specific goal: “Every Student will Learn, every School will Improve.”

HRSBGoodtoGreatCollageThe Superintendent’s 2008-09 report was introduced with great fanfare with an aspirational goal of transforming “Good Schools to Great Schools” and a firm system-wide commitment that “every school, by 2013, will demonstrate improvement in student learning.” Following the release of aggregated board-wide data, the HRSB produced school-by-school accountability reports, made freely available to not only the School Advisory Councils (SACs), but to all parents in each school.

Superintendent Olsen set out what she described as “a bold vision” to create “a network of great schools” in “thriving communities” that “bring out the best in us.” School-by-school reporting was critical to that whole project. “Knowing how each school is doing is the first important step in making sure resources and support reach the schools – and the students—that need them the most,” Olsen declared.

The Established Benchmark – School Year 2008-09

The school year 2008-09, the first year in the HRSB’s system-wide improvement initiative, provided the benchmark, not only for the board, but for the AIMS research report taking stock of student achievement and school-by-school performance over the past decade.

In 2008-09, the first set of student results in the two core competencies, reading and math, demonstrated that HRSB student scores were comparable to other Canadian school systems, but there was room for improvement. In Grade 2 reading, the system-wide target was that 77 per cent of all students would meet established board standards. Only 25 out of some 91 schools (27.5 %) met or exceeded the established target.

While Grade 2 and Grade 5 Mathematics students performed better, problems surfaced at the Grade 8 level, where two out of three schools (67.5 %) failed to meet the HRSB standard. High numbers of Grade 8 students were struggling with measurement, whole number operations (multiplication, division), problem-solving, and communication.

System Leadership Change and Policy Shifts

Schools in the Halifax school system may have exceeded the initial public expectations, but the vast majority of those schools fell far short of moving from “Good Schools to Great Schools.” Some gains were made in student success rates in the two core competencies, reading and mathematics, by the 2013 target year, but not enough to match the aspirational goals set by Superintendent Olsen and the elected school board.

HRSBElwinLeRoux

With Olsen’s appointment in September 2012 as Deputy Minister of Education for Nova Scotia, the robust HRSB commitment to school-by-school improvement and demonstrably improved standards in reading and mathematics faltered. Her successor, LeRoux, a 24-year board veteran, espoused more modest goals and demonstrated a more collegial, low-key leadership style. Without comprehensive school system performance reports, the school community reports, appended routinely as PDFs to school websites, attracted little attention.

The “Good Schools to Great Schools” initiative had failed to work miracles. That became apparent in May 2014, following the release of the latest round of provincial literacy assessments.  The formal report to the Board put it bluntly: “A large achievement gap exists between overall board results and those students who live in poverty.”

School administration, based upon research conducted in-house by psychologist Karen Lemmon, identified schools in need of assistance when more than one-third of the family population in a school catchment could be classified as “low income” households. Twenty of its 84 elementary schools were identified and designated as “Priority Schools” requiring more attention, enhanced resources, and extra support programs to close the student achievement gap.

The focus changed, once again, following the release of the 2017-18 provincial results in Grade 6 Math and Literacy. Confronted with those disappointing results, the HRSB began to acknowledge that students living in poverty came disproportionately from marginalized communities.

Instead of focusing broadly on students in poverty, the Board turned its attention to the under-performance of Grade 6 students from African/black and Mi’kmaq/Indigenous communities. For students of African ancestry, for example, the Grade 6 Mathematics scores declined by 6 per cent, leaving less than half (49 per cent) meting provincial standards. What started out as a school improvement project focused on lower socioeconomic schools had evolved into one addressing differences along ethno-racial lines.

Summaries of the AIMS Research Report Findings

Stark Inequalities – High Performing and Struggling Schools

Hopeful Signs – Most Improved Schools

Summation and Recommendations – What More Can Be Done?

Putting the Findings in Context

School-by-school comparative studies run smack up against the hard realities of the socio-economic context affecting children’s lives and their school experiences.  All public schools from Pre-Primary to Grade 12 are not created equal and some enjoy advantages that far exceed others, while others, in disadvantaged communities, struggle to retain students and are unable, given the conditions, to move the needle in school improvement. So, what can be done to break the cycle?

Questions for Discussion

Comparing school-by-school performance over the past decade yields some startling results and raises a few critical questions:  Is the quality of your education largely determined by your postal code in Canadian public school systems? What are the dangers inherent in accepting the dictates of socio-economic factors with respect to student performance?  What overall strategies work best in breaking the cycle of stagnating improvement and chronic under-performance? Should school systems be investing less in internal “learning supports” and more in rebuilding school communities themselves? 

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“Wow!,” “Fantastic,” and “Inspirational”were words that filled the Twitter feed coming out of the latest Halifax Regional Centre for Education (HRCE) Innovation in Teaching Day (#HRCEID2018), held November 2 and 3, 2018.  The primary cause of the frenzied excitement was a keynote talk by Brian Aspinall, author of the edtech best-seller Code Breaker, a teacher’s guide to training-up a class of “coder ninjas.”  The former Ontario Grade 7 and 8 teacher from Essex County honed his presentation skills at TEDx Talks in Chatham and Kitchener and is now the hottest speaker on the Canadian edtech professional development circuit.

Mr. Aspinall, the #CodeBreaker, is a very passionate, motivational speaker with a truly amazing social media following. He built his first website in the 1990s before graduating from Harrow District High School, earned his B.Sc. and B.Ed. at the University of Windsor, and learned the teaching craft in the local Windsor Essex school system. In 2016, he won a Prime Minister’s Award for Teaching Excellence in STEM. Watching him in action on You Tube, it’s obvious that he’s a real showman and fairly typical of a new breed of North American edtech evangelists.

Like many edtech visionaries, Aspinall experienced an epiphany, in his case while teaching his Grade 8 class. “Someone brought to my attention that every grade 8 in our building was born in 2000 or 2001, ” he recalls. “You could hear the brain matter shift, turn, implode and explode in my head. I had never thought of it like that. My mind was blown.”  Then Aspinall remembered: “I have only taught in the 21st century…went to university in the 21st century!  And I’ve been teaching for nine years now!!”

Edtech evangelists like Aspinall have multiplied rapidly in the 2000s as provincial and school district authorities have pursued a succession of “21st century skills” initiatives. The leading motivational speakers, closely aligned with Google, Microsoft, or Pearson PLC, develop their own personalized brands and can be very persuasive engaging users without any overt marketing. The first and perhaps best known 21st century skills evangelist was Guy Kawasaki, the marketing genius who launched Apple Macintosh in 1984 and the one who popularized the use of the word “evangelist” to describe this marketing approach. The TED Talks back list is not only edtech dominated, but a ‘who’s who’ of ed tech evangelism.

Aspinall is an open book and connected almost 24/7, judging from his personal  MrApsinall.com Blog and rapid-fire Twitter feed. With 60,400 tweets to his credit, @mraspinall has amassed 40,900 followers and recorded 43,100 likes. Reading his tweets, it’s abundantly clear that he’s an unabashed educational constructivist who firmly believes in student-centred, minimal guidance, discovery learning.

Speaking on stage, Aspinall has a messianic, 21st century cool presentation style. “I’m on a mission to expose as many kids as possible to coding and computer science, ” he declared in June 2016 at TEDx KitchenerED.  That’s popular in provinces like Nova Scotia and British Columbia where coding is being implemented in elementary schools — and where teachers are hungry for classroom-ready activities. He’s filling a need, particularly among teachers in the early grades with little or no background or training in mathematics, science or computer science.

What’s contentious about the edtech evangelists is their rather uncritical acceptance of constructivist pedagogy and utopian belief that “students learn by doing’ and require minimal teacher guidance.  A few, like Brian Aspinall, are ideologues who believe that “knowledge is readily available” on the Internet, so teachers should reject teaching content knowledge and, instead, “teach and model an inquiry approach to learning.”

Aspinall’s educational philosophy deserves more careful scrutiny.  In his teaching guide and TEDx Talks, he embraces a distinctly “21st century learning” paradigm. In his 2016 TEDx talk “Hacking the classroom,” he distills his philosophy down to four “hacks” or principles: 1) focus on content creation; 2) embrace failure so kids take risks; 3) free up time and avoid time-limited tests/assignments; and 4) embrace the “process of learning” rather than the pursuit of knowledge-based outcomes.

Those principles may sound familiar because they are among the first principles of not only constructivist thinking on education, but the corporate movement driving “21st century learning” and its latest mutation, “personalized learning” enabled by computer software and information technology.   In the case of Aspinall, he’s clearly an educational disciple of the late Seymour Papert, the MIT professor who invented “logo” programming and championed ‘discovery learning’ in mathematics and science.  If Aspinall has a catechism, it is to be found in Papert’s 1993 classic, Mindstorms: Children, Computers and Powerful Ideas.

Aspinall has also latched onto the writings of Janette M. Wing, chair of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, PA. One of his favourite axioms, quoted regularly, is extracted from Wing: “Computational thinking is a fundamental skill for everyone, not just for computer scientists.” She goes further: “To reading, writing and arithmetic, we should add computational thinking to every child’s analytical ability.” Indeed, like Wing, Aspinall sees “coding” as a way of teaching mathematics in a more holistic curriculum.

EdTech evangelists such as Aspinall stir interest in learning coding, but fall into the trap of assuming that constructivism works in every class, irrespective of class composition, size, or capabilities. Utopian conceptions of teaching and learning bequeathed by Papert are now being seriously challenged by evidence-based research. Classroom conditions and student management concerns conspire to limit the applicability of “makerspace learning” and teachers rarely have the resources to make it work in practice.

More fundamentally, Papert’s model of “minimal guidance” has been effectively challenged by Paul A . Kirschner, John Sweller and Richard E. Clark (2006). “Prior knowledge, ” they found, is essential in providing the “internal guidance” required in truly learning something. High quality, engaging and explicit instruction is necessary, in most instances, to ‘bootstrap” learning,  While personal exploration is useful, the most effective teaching and learning approach combines teacher guidance with exploration woven into a child’s education.

Teachers dazzled by Aspinall’s presentations are most likely immersed in edtech culture. Computer software apps and tools such as “Makey Makey” and “Scratch” are bound to make teaching easier for educators and more pleasurable for students. Few question Aspinall’s promotion of Tynker coding programs or his corporate affiliation as a “Microsoft Innovative Educator Expert Fellow.” In his TEDx Talks, he is quite open about his admiration for Microsoft philosophy. “Microsoft believes every child should be exposed to coding,” he tells audiences. “Because you don’t know you like broccoli until you try it.” While he’s not pedaling 21st century ‘snake oil,’ such statements do raise suspicions.

Why have edtech evangelists come to dominate the ’21st century skills’ professional development circuit?  What explains the popularity of, and excitement generated by, TED Talk edtech speakers such as Brian Aspinall? Is coding emerging as the “4th R” of 21st century learning and what’s its impact upon the teaching of mathematics in the early grades? Should we be more leery of champions of coding who see it as a way of introducing “computational thinking” throughout the elementary years? 

 

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