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Archive for March, 2019

The Ontario government’s multi-headed education announcement, released on March 15, 2019, gave new meaning to William Shakespeare’s infamous dictum, “Beware the Ides of March,”  judging from the chilling effect it had on educators and close observers of the school system.  Rooting out ‘Discovery Math,’ restoring the basics, and realigning an ‘age-appropriate’ sex education curriculum were entirely expected, but not the declaration that all secondary school students would be required to take four online courses. Mandating online courses appeared to come out of nowhere.

Secondary students will be required to take a minimum of four e-learning credits out of the 30 credits needed to earn a Grade 12 Ontario Secondary School Diploma, equivalent to one credit per year of high school. All we really know about implementation is that the changes will be phased-in starting in 2020-21 and that the delivery of the e-learning courses will be centralized.

Where the online learning initiative originated and what it actually meant for students and teachers generated plenty of speculation. That was largely because Ontario Education Minister Lisa Thompson announced it as a fait accompli with nothing approaching a detailed rationale.

Now that the furor over mandating online courses has subsided the question of where it came from can be pieced-together. It is looking, more and more, like a foray into ‘disruptive innovation’ rather than another sleight-of-hand scheme to reduce the $26.6 billion education budget.

Online learning and virtual schooling show great potential for transforming student learning, but Ontario like other provinces has pursued a ‘growth-management’ strategy quite different than most American states. Unlike the U.S., the free market remains regulated and private providers are largely absent.  South of the border, “virtual schooling” outside of bricks-and-mortar schools has grown by leaps and bounds in a largely unregulated education environment.

Online learning in Ontario evolved out of what were known as provincial correspondence courses. Since 1994-95, many of the province’s school boards have established their own district programs and then in 2006 twenty of the boards formed the Ontario e-Learning Consortium (OeLC).  That joint venture has helped increase course offerings and the sharing of resources with positive results.

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From 2008-09 to 2009-10, online student enrolments in OeLC boards jumped from 6,276 to 9,695. The consortia model has also been replicated by Ontario’s French language boards and by the province’s constitutionally guaranteed separate Catholic school boards. In 2010, a Northern e-Learning Consortium (NeLC) was established to allow remote northern Ontario school districts to address shared challenges (Ontario Education 2011).

Ontario’s regulatory regime, outlined in the 2006 E-Learning Strategy and codified in school regulations initially imposed limits on the delivery of online learning.   “In some instances,” North American online learning expert Michael K. Barbour reported, “the Ministry requirements were once quite restrictive.”

Originally, the Ontario provincial Learning Management System (LMS) could not be used for either blended learning or the professional development of teachers. That led school districts to run parallel systems, the provincial LMS as well as their own separate LMS for those other purposes.

Ontario has gradually loosened its regulations and, in September 2011, finally embraced blended learning as part of the system. By 2013-14, it was estimated that 52,095 students were taking e-learning courses, including summer school, from school boards through the Ontario Ministry’s virtual learning environment. In addition, 20,000 Ontario students were enrolled in correspondence courses and about 6,000 in private online schools.

The leading Ontario parent lobby group, Toronto-based People for Education, emerged after 2013-14 as a champion of “digital literacies” (information, media and ICT) and the promotion of ICT to enhance student learning.

Expanding e-Learning became a contentious issue at the bargaining table. Back in 2010, the big issue, for the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation (OSSTF) was not quality programming but rather closing the so-called “digital divide” separating students fully equipped with the latest e-tools and those without such access.  Closing the “ICT competency divide” between urban and rural Ontario proved to be a stumbling block to progress.

Online learning has grown, but at a carefully managed rate. Today, the Canadian e-Learning Network estimates that only 65,000 Ontario students (2017-18) take at least one online course and that represents approximately 10 per cent of all high school students. If the PC plan goes forward, the numbers enrolled will balloon to as many as 630,000 students a year.

Such a dramatic change is a classic example of what Clayton Christensen and his Harvard University Institute team of researchers mean by ‘disruptive innovation.’  The goal of such a change is to open the door to a whole new population of consumers (students) at the bottom of a market access to a product or service (online learning) that was previously denied to them and accessible only to the few with the access, resources, or expertise.

Lifting technology use regulations and removing barriers may be messy and fraught with risk, but students, according to Christensen, thrive in such a dynamic, competitive learning environment. Free to embrace e-learning in all its forms, they gain access to the full range of teaching modalities, ranging from strictly online, self-paced learning to blended learning combining online and face-to-face classroom instruction.

The Ontario Progressive Conservative education ‘brains trust’ has definitely latched onto technology-driven educational change. Mandating online high school courses is a clear sign that the Department has embraced the kind of market experimentation and disruptive innovation common in the United States.

Education reforms implemented in Florida from the late 1990s to the 2000s, spearhead by Republican Governor Jeb Bush and known as the “Florida Formula,’ now hold sway among PC education policy-makers at Queen’s Park.  Ford’s “Back to Basics” education reform echoes most of the five key Bush policies – high expectations, school accountability, student performance targeted funding, teacher quality standards, and school choice.

Florida, under Jeb Bush, was among the first to mandate online learning as a secondary school graduation requirement.  Today, five states – Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Michigan and Virginiarequire one compulsory online course.  Some other states, including Georgia, New Mexico, Massachusetts and West Virginia, have passed legislation or approved regulations supporting the inclusion of online courses. No state goes as far as requiring the four courses stipulated in the Ontario plan.

Ontario’s shotgun online learning initiative deserves to be challenged. Classroom teachers and informed researchers have much to contribute as school systems wrestle with how effectively integrate technology into classroom practice. Front-line practitioners bring real life experience and a healthy skepticism to bear on ephemeral fads and what might be termed ‘hair-brained’ transformation schemes.

Top-down educational initiatives, especially in ICT and technology integration, die a quick death or simply languish without the active support and engagement of regular classroom educators.  That is why innovative and disruptive ideas like the ‘flipped classroom’ and a Virtual Enriched learning environment dreamed up by corporate change management  experts and delivered from on high have, so far, not succeeded in changing the trajectory or improving the quality and variety of student learning in K-12 education.

What sparked the Ontario Doug Ford government’s move to introduce compulsory high school online courses? Was the policy announcement driven by change-management theory, sound e-learning research, or a commitment to reducing education costs?  Is it feasible to expand online courses so significantly over such a relatively short timeline? Will it now be possible for Ontario educators to come to terms with the change? Is “disruptive innovation” destabilizing, by definition, or potentially beneficial when it sparks new ways of thinking and deepens learning for students?  

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A year ago, a Nova Scotia Inclusive Education Commission headed by Dr. Sarah Shea of the IWK Children’s Hospital broke new ground in proposing a robust $70-million, 5-year plan to re-engineer inclusive education. The new model known as Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS) attracted immediate and widespread support from classroom teachers, parents of learning-challenged students, and advocacy groups, including Autism Nova Scotia.

Today there are clear signs that the implementation of Nova Scotia Inclusive Education reform is going off-the-rails and the whole venture in danger of being turned to different purposes. Three critical implementation pieces have been dropped and the whole project is now under completely new management.

Education Minister Zach Churchill and his recently appointed Deputy Minister Catherine Montreuil have already abandoned three first stage recommendations: establishing an independent Institute for Inclusive Education (NSEII), appointing an Executive Director to spearhead the initiative; and commencing independent Canadian research into evidence-based MTSS practices.

Much of what is going inside Nova Scotia’s Education Department is now carried out behind closed doors and completely outside public view. Piecing together the puzzle requires the investigative skills of a Detective William Murdoch. Sleuthing in and around the Department does provide a few clues.

A January 2019 Provincial Advisory Council on Education (PACE) agenda featured a peculiar item under the heading “Inclusive Education Policy.” Assembled members of the appointed body, chaired by former HRSB chair, Gin Yee, were assembled to engage in an ‘interactive exercise’ focusing on “Dr. Gordon Porter’s work.” The published meeting minutes made no reference whatsoever to that discussion.

Seven months after Nova Scotia embraced the plan to build a Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS), the surfacing of Dr. Porter was downright strange on two counts. Canada’s leading champion of all-inclusive classrooms, New Brunswicker Porter, is well-known for advocating an approach at odds with the government’s stated policy. Not only that, but in October 2018, Education Minister Churchill had named Porter as the lead consultant responsible for overseeing implementation.

If there was any doubt as to where Dr. Porter stands on inclusion, that vanished on February 15, 2018 when he published a very revealing commentary in his house organ publication, the Inclusive Education Canada newsletter.

When a Toronto Globe and Mail feature story on an autistic Ontario boy, Grayson Kahn,  pointed out that his ‘inclusive classroom’ had failed him, Porter took great exception to the piece because it called into question the appropriateness of the all-inclusive model for everyone. “Classrooms, inclusive or not, do not fail students,” he wrote. “The responsibility for success or failure lies with officials of the Education Ministries and the leaders of the school districts who set the policies, allocate resources and are responsible to ensure accountability to both parents and taxpayers.”

After thirty years of fighting to rid the system of alternative settings and specialized support programs, he was not about to change, even when confronted with the current challenges of class composition posed by the dramatically rising numbers of students with complex needs and sometimes unmanageable behavioural disorders in today’s classrooms.

Porter and his Inclusive Education Canada allies, well entrenched in New Brunswick, continue put all their faith in the all-inclusive classroom. Most, if not all, of their public advocacy seeks to demonstrate how every child can thrive in a regular classroom. The whole idea of providing alternative placements, ranging from one-on-one intensive support to specialized programs is an anathema to Porter and his allies.  Instead of addressing the need for viable, properly-resourced multi-tiered levels of support, they promote provincial policy aligned with the international Zero Project, aimed at enforcing inclusion for all, including those, like Grayson, with complex needs and severe learning difficulties.

Defenders of the New Brunswick model, shaped and built by Porter, remain blind to the realities of today’s complex classrooms. Sending children regularly to “time-out rooms” or home as “exclusions” for days-on-end come to be accepted as expedients to keep, intact, the semblance of inclusive classrooms.

Further detective work reveals that Porter is not without an ally on the PACE.  The sole education faculty appointee on that essentially faceless appointed body is Professor Chris Gilham of St. Francis-Xavier University, trained at the University of Alberta and closely aligned with Porter’s thinking.

Gilham’s research and teaching are steeped in the Inclusive Education Canada philosophy. He’s a public advocate of Universal Design for Learning (UDL), an educational framework designed initially for Special Needs children that aims to increase “access to learning for all students” by removing all school-level barriers, physical, cognitive, intellectual and organizational.

Classifying and coding Special Education students, Gilham and co-author John Williamson claimed in a 2017 academic article, is part of the “bounty system” which provides funding on the basis of designated, documented exceptionalities. It is clear, from his writings, that he’s opposed to the “bifurcation of students” into a “value-laden, deficit-oriented, gross categories” aligned with their particular learning needs.

Inclusion of all students is now virtually universally accepted, but the Nova Scotia Inclusion Commission, to its credit, recognized that it does not necessarily mean inclusion in one particular setting, but rather in the one best suited to the child along a continuum of services from regular classroom to specialized support programs. The Students First report pointed Nova Scotia in that direction and challenged us to build an entirely new model significantly different than that to be found in New Brunswick.

Reaching every student and building a pyramid of tiered supports were the Nova Scotia plan’s overarching goals, not endlessly seeking ways to integrate students into one universal, one-size-fits-all classroom and concealing the actual numbers of students on alternative or part-time schedules. It’s time to urge Minister Churchill and his Department find their bearings and return to the True North of MTSS as charted by Dr. Shea and the Inclusive Education Commission.

What is happening to the implementation of the new Nova Scotia model for inclusive education? Do the decisions to drop three first-stage implementation recommendations signal a change in direction? Why did Nova Scotia’s government hire Dr. Gordon Porter to review implementation?  Will Dr. Porter’s upcoming review report confirm the change in direction? 

 

 

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Student report cards are a critical point of contact with parents and that’s why they attract more critical scrutiny than other aspects of K-12 education.  Most parents seek clear, intelligible, individualized, regular student progress reports with understandable grades, while student assessment consultants come up with wave-after-wave of changes modeling the latest proposed innovation in assessment practice.  That explains, in many ways, why the subterranean issue never seems to disappear.

Every five years or so, school authorities from Canadian province to province attempt to revamp their student report cards, usually aimed at challenging the prevailing orthodoxy. Introducing outcomes-based student assessment in the 1990s produced a new impenetrable language accompanied by “competencies” and hundreds of “micro-outcomes.”  Repeated attempts were made to replace letter grades in elementary schools and percentage marks in high schools with outcomes-based reporting and newly-constructed scales of development in learning. That initial wave produced what have become standardized, digitally-generated provincial or school district report templates.

Most top-down report card modernization plans end up imposing heavier reporting loads on teachers and leaving most parents baffled. Six years ago, Nova Scotia parent Marshall Hamilton spoke for perhaps hundreds of thousands of parents: “I don’t see my child in the comments.”  “The language doesn’t really give the parent or the child any idea of critical feedback,” he explained to CBC News. ” I can probably figure out more about what the curriculum is meant to do than to understand my daughter’s performance in that current curriculum.”

Student report cards in Canadian school systems are, in theory, intended to provide ‘meaningful information” to parents and guardians on “how their child is progressing in school.” Since that wave of parent criticism six years ago, Nova Scotia’s student reports have become far clearer and more intelligible with actual marks from Grade 7 to 12 , but there are still a few missing pieces.

Legitimate concerns about teachers’ classroom conditions and workloads sometimes prompt initiatives to “streamline” reporting that have unintended consequences.  Surveying his daughter’s November 2018 Grade 6 Nova Scotia report, former teacher Kristopher Snarby was surprised to see that it provided no feedback on subject courses representing over half her weekly schedule. Report cards from Grades P to 6, Snarby discovered, only contained marks and comments on Language Arts and Mathematics, providing no marks, comments or attendance for any of her other subjects. The standard provincial report template simply did not fit his daughter’s school, where multiple teachers taught a variety of subjects.

Those report card changes originated back in March 2018 as one of the recommendations to “streamline” November reports from a provincial teacher advisory body, the Council to Improve Classroom Conditions. The problem, as framed by the Council, was “time-consuming” reporting processes and reports that were “confusing to parents.” The solution: reduce “data entry for teachers” and provide “integrated comments” for only two subjects, Language Arts and Math.

Making reports less comprehensive with fewer subject specific comments would never fly with parents who, after all, are the main consumers of those reports. If they were ever asked, they would also likely favour reports with more definitive feedback, including individual student assessment test results in Grades 3, 6 and 8.  Elementary student progress reports that provide feedback on integrated subjects also tend to obscure how students are actually performing in two critical areas, reading and numeracy.

Providing parents with reports including their own child’s provincial assessment scores would remedy that omission. That is not such an outlandish idea when one considers the latest teacher-friendly innovations (Christodoulou 2017) in student assessment reporting. Most North American school authorities are actually providing more and more information not less on both school standards and individual student performance.

Take Ontario, for example. Students in Ontario are all tested in grades 3 and 6 and, while they do not appear on school progress reports, the independent Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) provides parents with a detailed individual report on their child’s progress, benchmarked against provincial student performance standards.

The EQAO individual student report card for Primary Division (Grades 1-3) provides incredibly detailed feedback on reading, writing, and mathematics, reflecting four distinct levels of achievement. It’s also relatively easy to identify how students actually measure up in their performance.

The Grade 9 EQAO math test is a component of the regular school report, accounting for up to 10 per cent of a student’s math mark. Ontario students are also required to pass a Grade 10 Literacy Test or remedial Literacy course to secure a secondary school diploma.

Parents in Ontario are encouraged to work together in partnership with their teachers to improve student learning. “Talk to your child’s teacher,” the EQAO report advises, “about how these results compare to your child’s daily classroom work and assessment information.”

Providing parents with individual student reports on provincial assessment results would be a step forward, but integrating them into Grade 3, 6, and 8 school district reports would be even better. Then parents would be able to see, on one report, how students were performing not only in local schools, but in relation to provincial standards.

What Canadian education needs is more parents like Kristopher Snarby keeping an eye on changes in the system. As a former teacher, he is particularly alert to “teacher-speak” on reports that are “not really intelligible for parents.” “Feedback is critical for parents,” Snarby says, and “that’s why what’s on student reports  really matters.”

Do Student Report Card reforms make matters better – or worse — for parents and students?  Can we find the right balance between providing meaningful, individualized reports while easing teachers’ workloads? What can possibly be wrong with giving teachers more autonomy to make more personal, pointed comments about actual student performance?  Would it be helpful to see both teacher assessments and provincial test results on those reports?  

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