Archive for June, 2019

Talk about the inordinate number of ‘School Storm Days’ in the Maritimes never seems to go away. The current school year, it turned out, reflected the ‘new normal’ in Nova Scotia with between 5 and 14 days lost to storm closures. Yet a fierce public debate continues to flare up, almost like clockwork, every time the Maritime region experiences a run of school day closures disrupting the lives of families, interrupting student learning, and affecting the workplace.

Over the past decade, in spite of all that talk, little has really changed and, in some cases, the problem has actually worsened. That’s the conclusion of my latest research report, “Missing in Action: School Storm Days, Student Absenteeism and the Workplace.”

Almost ten years ago, two policy research papers, James Gunn’s December 2009 Discussion Paper, Storm Days in Nova Scotia, and my April 2010 AIMS research commentary, Schools Out, Again, documented the problem and demonstrated that Nova Scotia and the Maritimes were ‘out-of-line’ are when it comes to cancelling school for all sorts of reasons, mainly but not exclusively related to adverse weather conditions

Instructional time lost through storm day cancellations is a serious problem adversely affecting student learning when over two weeks of school are lost through school day cancellations.  Since the previous record setting year, 2008-09, Nova Scotia schools outside of Halifax regularly exceed that threshold, averaging over 10 days lost per year, almost double that recorded during the previous decade.

Storm day closures and student absenteeism are intertwined and need to be considered pieces of the puzzle. Leading researcher Dave E. Marcotte and his University of Maryland research collaborators documented the detrimental effect of weather-related school closures on math and reading results in Maryland elementary schools. Follow-up studies reached the same conclusion in Colorado and Minnesota.

Based upon research from 2003 to 2010 in Massachusetts, where school storm days average three to five a year, Joshua Goodman of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government found that planned disruptions like school day cancellations have less impact than the disruptive effects of student absences during periods of heavy snowfall. It is the only study to have reached that conclusion.

Organizing students to ensure effective instruction is difficult when large numbers of students are missing because of inclement weather. Forecasted rates of student absenteeism do need to be taken into consideration. Having said that, repeated and multiple school day cancellations such as those in Nova Scotia have a cumulative impact, especially on weaker students who can least afford missing whole days of school.

Student absenteeism also contributes to the achievement gap affecting students from disadvantaged households. One 2015 study of the impact of student absences in North Carolina primary schools provides ample evidence of the impact. “While absenteeism was not found to be a large factor overall, it did have a serious adverse impact upon struggling students lowering test scores by between 5 and 10 per cent.” Missing school days, whatever the reason, only contributes to those inequities.

In the case of Nova Scotia, cancelling school days only compounds the existing problem of chronic student absenteeism, affecting one out of four Grade 1  to 12 students. Some 37 per cent of Middle School and 32 per cent of High School students in 2014-15 missed more than 16 days school because of absenteeism. Losing an average of ten more days to storm days makes matters worse. It is difficult enough for many students to get to school even without the regular interruption of school storm days.

Unplanned school closures announced in the early morning can and do have unintended consequences. Families are left scrambling to rearrange their lives and, where both parents work outside the home, to find safe and reliable day care for younger children. Working parents employed on contract or in the hourly wage service sector can suffer lost pay by missing work and cannot stay home repeatedly, particularly in small enterprises or non-union workplaces.

School closure policies, the report points out, has a ripple effect on the workplace and largely unexamined impacts upon labour productivity.

It’s time to move from talk to corrective action. Our research paper calls upon the province, the teachers’ union, and district administrators to embrace a new province-wide policy with five key elements:

  • a provincial guarantee to students and parents of a minimum number of instructional days (i.e., 180 days of actual instruction) each school year;
  • the establishment of a flexible school year calendar with provision for make-up instructional days, including the substitution for PD Days and the option of adding days at the end of the year;
  • complete the Rural Broadband expansion and introduce e-learning days during periods of severe weather and dangerous roads;
  • a clear policy requiring the provision of student ‘homework bags’ when storms are forecast to bridge the gaps and ensure continuity in learning; and
  • a more comprehensive, detailed study of the disruptive effects of school day interruptions, planned and unplanned, on productivity in the workplace.

An earlier version of this commentary appeared in The Chronicle Herald, June 15, 2019. 

Why are school authorities in Nova Scotia and the Maritimes so inclined to close school at the first sign of snow, freezing rain or blustery wind?  Are those who claim that cancelling school for some two weeks a year doesn’t matter communicating something about the value of current instructional time?  What is the connection between mounting school cancellations and chronic student absenteeism? Who is looking out for local employers and working parents when school is cancelled with that regularity each year? 


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A recent headline in the New Scientist caught the eye of University College London Professor Rose Luckin, widely regarded as the “Dr. Who of AI in Education.” It read: “AI achieves its best mark ever on a set of English exam questions.” The machine was well on its way to mastering knowledge-based curriculum tested on examinations. What was thrilling to Dr. Luckin, might well be a wake-up call for teachers and educators everywhere.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is now driving automation in the workplace and the “Fourth Industrial Revolution” is dawning. How AI will impact and possibly transform education is now emerging as a major concern for front-line teachers, technology skeptics, and informed parents. A recent Public Lecture by Rose Luckin, based upon her new book Machine Learning and Intelligence, provided  not only a cutting-edge summary of recent developments, but a chilling reminder of the potential unintended consequences for teachers.

AI refers to “technology that is capable of actions and behaviours that require intelligence when done by humans.” It is no longer the stuff of science fiction and popping up everywhere from voice-activated digital assistants in telephones to automatic passport gates in airports to navigation apps to guide us driving our cars. It’s creeping into our lives in subtle and virtually undetectable ways.

AI has not been an overnight success. It originated in September 1956, some 63 years ago, in a Dartmouth College NH lab as a summer project undertaken by ten ambitious scientists.  The initial project was focused on AI and its educational potential. The pioneers worked from this premise: “Every aspect of learning or any other feature of intelligence can in principle be so precisely described that a machine can be made to simulate it.”  Flash forward to today — and it’s closer to actual realization.

Dr. Luckin has taken up that challenge and has been working for two decades to develop “Colin,” a robot teaching assistant to help lighten teachers’ workloads. Her creation is software-based and assists teachers with organizing starter activities, collating daily student performance records, assessing the mental state of students, and assessing how well a learner is engaging with lessons.

Scary scenarios are emerging fueled by a few leading thinkers and technology skeptics.  Tesla CEO Elon Musk once warned that AI posed an “existential threat” to humanity and that humans may need to merge with machines to avoid becoming “house cats” to artificially intelligent robots.  Theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking has forecast that AI will “either be the best thing or the worst thing for humanity.” There’s no need for immediate panic: Current AI technology is still quite limited and remains mechanically algorithmic and programmed to act upon pattern recognition.

One very astute analyst for buZZrobot, Jay Lynch, has identified the potential dangers in the educational domain:

Measuring the Wrong Things

Gathering data that is easiest to collect rather than educationally meaningful. In the absence of directly measured student leaning, AI relies upon proxies for learning such as student test scores, school grades, or self-reported learning gains. This exemplifies the problem of “garbage in, garbage out.”

Perpetuating Bad Ways to Teach

Many AIfE algorithms are based upon data from large scale learning assessments and lack an appreciation of, and input from, actual teachers and learning scientists with a grounding in learning theory. AI development teams tend to lack relevant knowledge in the science of learning and instruction. One glaring example was IBM’s Watson Element for Educators, which was based entirely upon now discredited “learning styles” theory and gave skewed advice for improving instruction.

Giving Priority to Adaptability rather that Quality

Personalizing learning is the prevailing ideology in the IT sector and it is most evident in AI software and hardware. Meeting the needs of each learner is the priority and the technology is designed to deliver the ‘right’ content at the ‘right’ time.  It’s a false assumption that the quality of that content is fine and, in fact, much of it is awful. Quality of content deserves to  be prioritized and that requires more direct teacher input and a better grasp of the science of learning.

Replacing Humans with Intelligent Agents

The primary impact of AI is to remove teachers from the learning process — substituting “intelligent agents” for actual human beings. Defenders claim that the goal is not to supplant teachers but rather to “automate routine tasks” and to generate insights to enable teachers to adapt their teaching to make lessons more effective.  AI’s purveyors seem blind to the fact that teaching is a “caring profession,” particularly in the early grades.

American education technology critic Audrey Watters is one of the most influential skeptics and she has expressed alarm over the potential unintended consequences. ” We should ask what happens when we remove care from education – this is a question about labor and learning. What happens to thinking and writing when robots grade students’ essays, for example. What happens when testing is standardized, automated? What happens when the whole educational process is offloaded to the machines – to “intelligent tutoring systems,” “adaptive learning systems,” or whatever the latest description may be? What sorts of signals are we sending students?”  The implicit and disturbing answer – teachers as professionals are virtually interchangeable with robots.

Will teachers and robots come to cohabit tomorrow’s classrooms? How will teaching be impacted by the capabilities of future AI technologies? Without human contact and feedback, will student motivation become a problem in education?  Will AI ever be able to engage students in critical thinking or explore the socio-emotional domain of learning? Who will be there in the classroom to encourage and emotionally support students confronted with challenging academic tasks?


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