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Archive for the ‘Annual National Report Card’ Category

Public education trends in K-12 schools across Canada can be difficult to track. Without an eagle eye and a swivel-head, the next epic “education crisis” can come and go without much public notice. Nor do Canadians have any real federal presence in education to either establish national standards or provide independent assessments of provincial or territorial school programs.

Gauging the upticks and downticks is still possible, in between the beats and before the self-repairing school system quickly returns to its normal rhythms. What follows is a look back at 2015 in Canadian education with an eye to the coming year.

Notable Upticks

Educational Reconciliation

TRCReconcilePosterThe release of Justice Murray Sinclair’s massive December 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, together with the appointment of Dr. Carolyn Bennett as Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister, bode well for educational reconciliation and a satisfactory resumption of First Nations education reform. Establishing a stronger basis of trust, more stable federal funding, and more holistic, Indigenous-informed curricula, will go a long way to repairing the damage.

International Teaching Summit

The fifth annual International Summit on the Teaching Profession (ISTP 2015), at the Banff Springs Hotel, March 29-30, 2015, was sponsored by the OECD Education Office, but it shied away from discussing PISA testing and instead focused on supporting teachers and building their confidence to prepare students for a rather nebulous “rapidly changing world.” Chaired by short-lived Alberta Education Minister Gordon Dirks, ISTP 2015 was clearly the work of OECD education director Andreas Schleicher, OISE eminence gris Michael Fullan, and Stanford University education professor Linda Darling-Hammond. Out of the 400 delegates, most were actually Canadian officials or educators sponsored by provincial authorities and teaching unions.

Nova Scotia’s Three Rs Reform Plan

Public school students in Nova Scotia will focus more on mastering the fundamentals in mathematics and literacy, less on writing standardized tests under a N.S. January 2015 reform plan with the catchy title, The Three Rs: Renew, Refocus, Rebuild.  Delivered by Education Minister Karen Casey, the initiative responded to a blunt October 2014 provincial review that found half of Nova Scotians “not satisfied” with the quality of education.  It also called for a stronger teacher certification and evaluation system and a provincial audit of the efficiency of school boards.

Math Matters Protests

Hundreds of Alberta parents rallied in July 2015 to protest a new Math curriculum, dubbed “Discovery Math” by a growing number of parents, math professors, and local business advocates. Spearheaded by Dr. Nhung Tran-Davies and bearing a Math Petition with 18,074 signatures, the protestors continued to pressure a succession of Education ministers for changes to restore basics-first math instruction. The popular protests came on the heels of a May 2015 C.D. Howe Institute report claiming that Canada’s math teachers need to shift their focus away from discovery-based learning and move back towards traditional methods.

Indigenous Leadership Renewal

A new harvest of Indigenous leaders began to emerge in 2015 aroused by the Stephen Harper Conservative government’s intransigence and emboldened by the public support engendered by the nation-wide TRC hearings.  Two of the better known of the newly empowered generation were National Assembly of First Nations chief Perry Bellegarde, who succeeded the deposed Shawn Atleo, and the multi-talented Wab Kinew, author, host of CBC’s Canada Reads competition, and Associate Vice-President at the University of Winnipeg.

Memorable Downticks

TDSB Leadership Upheaval

Canada’s largest public school district, Toronto District School Board, endured one of its worst years on record.  When Board Director Donna Quan resigned in mid-November 2015, it brought a tumultuous end to her short tenure, 18 months before the expiration of her contract. Torn by a deep rift between Quan, her staff and the elected Board, the beleaguered Director stepped aside. In doing so, she also bowed to the findings of an earlier TDSB investigation, ordered by Education Minister Liz Sandals, that described in detail the board’s “culture of fear” and dysfunctional leadership.

School Closure Express Train

Armed with the dreaded New Brunswick Policy 409, and aided by that province’s District Education Councils (DECs), Education Minister Serge Rousselle  and his Department imposed a top-down, speeded-up “school sustainability process” upon supporters of a dozen threatened rural schools. Described by critics as a runaway “Express Train 409” bearing down on their communities, it sparked the formation in April 2015 of the first Rural Schools Coalition in the province.

Protracted Ontario Teachers’ Strikes

TeachersProtestON15A year of teacher strike disputes continued in Ontario, with a few interruptions, until November 2015.  Public elementary school teachers (EFTO) reached a tentative salary deal in early November, ending a lengthy period of work-to-rule. Support staff represented by a separate union (CUPE) also struck a deal then, ending negotiations that lasted over a year. One major difference between the November deals reached with ETFO and CUPE and the agreements with other unions is that these did not come with payments from the government to cover the unions’ negotiating expenses. A return to normalcy was promised with the issuing of full December 2015 student report cards.

Missing B.C. Student Records

British Columbia’s Minister of Technology Amrik Virk shocked British Columbians in late September 2015 when he publicly disclosed the loss of an unencrypted backup hard drive containing about 3.4 million student records.  The missing hard drive contained student data from 1986 to 2009, including information on children in care with serious health and behaviour issues. While the minister called the breach “low risk,” the B.C. information and privacy commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, claimed it raised “very serious privacy issues,” and launched an investigation.

Threat to Local Education Democracy

Elected school boards continued to flounder across Canada in 2015 because they are being eclipsed by expanding centralized administration far removed from students and parents. Since the stiff warning issued in a 2013 Canadian School Boards Association study, conducted by Gerald Galway and a Memorial University research team, elected trustees have been unable to recover their “voice of the people” role and face probable extinction.  In the fall of 2015, Quebec and P.E.I. joined New Brunswick in ending elected boards.  Disbanding school trustees without a viable replacement is not what’s best for students, parents, or local schools.

So much for the most visible trends and newsworthy events:  Where is Canadian K-12 education drifting? Will the next round of OECD Education international tests show any real change in student performance levels?   Is the era of centralized administration and standardization showing signs of fracturing in our provincial school systems? Has the education sector borne the full brunt of government austerity or is more to come? Will elected school boards survive as presently constituted across Canada? 

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MerryGoRoundHangTightSurveying Canadian K-12 education in 2014 conjures up, for some peculiar reason, the image of a carnival Merry-Go-Round. The multi-coloured wooden horses representing Canada’s 10 provincial and three territorial education authorities continue to spin around in predictable circles, but periodic breakdowns not only cause a change in riders, but also unsettle the clientele.

Spinning wheels and running without a steady, consistent ride conductor (Chair, Council of Ministers of Education) does not improve either public enjoyment or satisfaction levels. It does produce a ride with a few notable highs and lows.

High Points – Hopeful Signs

High School Attainment Levels
More Canadians than ever before, Statistics Canada reported, are successfully completing high school. While rising secondary school graduation rates signify improved attainment but not necessarily higher achievement, they are a positive educational indicator. Three out of four students (73%) complete high school in three years, with Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Ontario leading the pack (at 80%+) and Quebec and the Territories still lagging behind, from 66% to only 12%. The rank order raised eyebrows because it runs counter to most student achievement test-based assessments.

Crowd-Sourcing Education Reform
Nova Scotia’s long anticipated October 2014 Education Review report, entitled “Disrupting the Status Quo,” finally gave voice to public concerns. Since half of the population was “dissatisfied with the public school system,” the report claimed changes were in order, stunning most of the system’s ‘insiders.’ Many of the recommended changes, based upon 19,000 survey responses, point to the critical need for a shake-up in teaching the basic skills, special education, teacher evaluation/certification and public accountability.

Big Jump for a Small Province
The Pan-Canadian Assessment 2013 report contained a little surprise. On the Grade 8 level national tests, Quebec students still lead in Math (Mean 527), Alberta students are tops in Science (Mean 521), and Ontario students perform best in Reading (524). Yet among the middle range provincial performers, little PEI was the big gainer. Students from PEI showed the biggest gains, finishing ahead of Nova Scotia in Reading (494 vs. 488), in Math (492 vs. 488), and close in Science (491 vs. 492). Island students also outperformed British Columbia students in Math for the first time.

Resurgence of Math Fundamentals
The teaching of elementary Math continued to be a zone of conflict in most provinces, with the possible exception of Quebec. Concerned parents, supported by Winnipeg Math professors Robert Craigen and Anna Stokke, have challenged “Discovery Math”, urging ministries of education to focus on Math fundamentals before free exploration. After securing Manitoba Math curriculum changes, the WISE Math movement spread to Alberta, Ontario and BC. When tens of thousands of Albertans petitioned Alberta Education, Education Minister Jeff Johnson relented, requiring students to learn their math facts and master standard operations.

Innovation in Joint Use of Schools
Community school planning and partnerships are bubbling up in Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia. Nine new Saskatchewan schools will be designed to be used jointly by Catholic and public boards and built using public-private partnership funding, serving the Regina, Saskatoon, Martensville and Warman communities. In Nova Scotia, the Provincial School Review Committee headed by Bob Fowler succeeded in securing changes in school closure legislation and a new set of regulations enabling the creation of Community Hub Schools. Innovation talk may eventually lead to action at the school level.

Low Points– Troubling Signs

British Columbia Teacher Strike Disruption
A full-blown, year-long “Class War” erupted pitting the militant leadership of the provincial Teachers Federation (BCTF) against the hard line Christy Clark BC Liberal Government. The dispute over salary scales and class size dragged out for months, ending the 2013-14 school year two weeks early and delaying the start of the current one by three weeks, costing teachers up to $10,000 in lost salaries. The BCTF membership eventually accepted a six-year deal including a 7.25 per cent salary increase, added extended health benefits, better teaching-on-call rates, and more specialist teachers.

Toronto School Board Meltdown
Canada’s largest school board, the TDSB, was engulfed in one crisis after another. Chief superintendent Donna Quan, who succeeded the disgraced Dr. Chris Spence, ran into hot water of her own. Controversy erupted over the TDSB’s ‘secret’ deal with the Confucius Institute, forcing Chair Chris Bolton to abruptly resign. Then a sizable faction of the board’s 22 elected trustees, including Howard Goodman, came into direct conflict with Quan, demanding access to personnel files. Trustee Goodman was charged with forcible confinement and criminal harassment of Quan, and Education Minister Liz Sandals finally stepped-in, putting the whole board under review.

Rejection of Chevron Schools Program
A raging controversy arose when the Vancouver School Board, led by Superintendent Steve Cardwell, elected to block the Chevron Fuel Your Schools program, turning down the potential for $400,000 in extra support for student activities. When mayoralty challenger Kirk Lapointe publicly criticized the decision, VSB Chair Patti Bacchus held firm, denouncing Big Oil and its insidious influences on children. Public opinion shifted enough to deny Bacchus’ Vision Team candidates a majority, bringing an end to her colourful 6-year tenure as Chair.

Drake University ‘Bird Course’ Salary Upgrades
Dozens of Nova Scotia teachers were revealed in February 2014 to have been boosting their salaries by thousands of dollars a year, acquiring additional credentials by taking ‘bird courses’ offered through Drake University’s online distance learning program. NSTU president Shelley Morse immediately spoke up defending the teachers who took the easy route to secure hefty salary increases. Even after the Education Minister stopped the practice, the union remained undeterred, calling it an “unprovoked attack” on teachers. .

School Board Video-cam Bans
Closed door school board meetings continue to persist, as demonstrated in two different school jurisdictions. Sudbury parents Dylan and Anita Gibson, banned in 2012 from the Rainbow District School Board office for videotaping meetings, then served with a no trespass order, campaigned unsuccessfully in October 2014 for elected trustee positions. Undaunted, Anita fights on for public transparency with her Facebook group, Parents Paying Attention. On November 18, the North Vancouver board banned school reformers Shane Nelson and Kerry Morris from videotaping a public meeting, eventually pressuring the newly elected board to reverse its stance a month later at its inaugural meeting.

MerryGoRoundOnOffThe Education Carousel went ‘round and round’ in 2014 as the principal riders jumped on and off the carnival ride. Chairmanship of the Council of Education Ministers passed from Alberta’s beleaguered Jeff Johnson to his successor Gordon Dirks, two powerful Board Chairs, Chris Bolton and Patti Bacchus, were toppled in Toronto and Vancouver, and Hamilton Wentworth chief superintendent John Malloy was promoted upward in the wake of school closure protests and a significant election turnover of trustees.

Changes at the top may have altered the faces, but the system continued its familiar spin, albeit at different speeds on at least ten different carousels.

What’s your reaction to my Canadian national Report Card for 2014?  Have the true “highs” and “lows” been identified — and what’s been missed in this year end review? Now that the Report Card is out, it’s over to you.

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“What’s Standing in the Way of Educational Change?” is a fundamental question that deserves an answer.  On October 21, 2013, it was also the theme of a Canadian Education Association (CEA) Symposium held in Calgary and attended by some 300 educators, including delegates from seven ministries of education, 12 faculties of education, and chief superintendents from 15 different cities.  After all the edu-chatter, a clear, unqualified answer still eludes us.

CEAStandininWayofChangeHolding that Symposium was still one of the year’s bright spots.  The Canadian student results on the Big Test, the 2012 Program of International Student Assessment (PISA) mathematics supremacy test,  proved to be the biggest downer.  Surveying Canada’s provincial K-12 education systems brings into sharper relief the most notable ups and downs on the learning curve.

The Best – Hopeful Signs
. Teen Mental Health Initiative
With the Rehtaeh Parsons case capturing the headlines, a Mental Health Pathway to Care program championed by Dalhousie University psychiatrist Dr. Stan Kutcher was implemented in Nova Scotia and other provinces without much fanfare. Adopting an integrated model, training teachers and focusing on Grade 9 students will pay longer-term social dividends. Most of the credit belongs to two Nova Scotia regional school boards, the South Shore and Halifax, for taking it on before “Rehtaeh” became a household word across North America.
•    Adoption of Cyberbullying Laws
The continuing controversy swirling around Rehtaeh Parsons teen suicide finally bore fruit in the form of a series of new statutes known as Cyberbullying Acts. In the wake of Rehtaeh’s death, Nova Scotia moved quickly to pass a Cyber-Safety Act, establishing a Cyber Scan police unit to clamp down on cyberbullies. In November 2013, federal Justice Minister Peter MacKay followed-up with legislation aimed at cyberbullying, including a prohibition of the non-consensual distribution of intimate images. Distributing “cyber-porn” was now deemed a criminal offense in Canada.
•    Resurgence of C21 School Reform
The resurrection of former New Brunswick deputy education minister John D. Kershaw as CEO of C21 Canada signaled a resurgence in the technology-driven “21st Century Schools” movement. Inspired by American Tony Wagner’s “creativity and innovation” crusade, Kershaw and his hi-tech partner William Kierstead held a February 2013 “Shifting Minds” Summit Conference and then developed an expanding ITC partnership with the Canadian Council of Ministers of Education (CMEC).  A well-publicized 2013 research report, entitled Future Tense and produced by the Action Canada program scholars, helped to advance a closely related assault on provincial student testing.
•    Community Hub School Revival
A February 2013 policy proposal, presented by the Nova Scotia Small Schools Initiative and based upon Toronto educator Dr. David Clandfield’s international research, succeeded in changing the adversarial, divisive public dialogue around school closures in Maritime rural communities.  Community hub school ‘talk’  became de rigeur and then even Nova Scotia Education Minister Ramona Jennex began voicing her support. When the N.S. School Review Process was suspended, in early April 2013, small school advocates celebrated the temporary halt of school consolidation.
•    Quebec Math Student Prowess
In the wake of the 2012 PISA student results, Canadian education policy analysts were stunned, once again, by the stellar performance of Quebec students in mathematics. With Quebec ranking first in Canada, among the world’s top ten and far ahead of the English-speaking provinces, experts were at a loss to explain why.  Setting higher standards, provincial testing, and more rigorous math curricula are the most plausible explanation, but not what the dominant ‘progressive education’ thinkers like to hear.
The Worst – Troubling Signs
•    The 2012 PISA Results Slide
On December 3, 2013, the 2012 Program of International Student Assessment (PISA) student rankings hit Canada with the force of an Asian tsunami.  Our 15-year-old students, competing against those of 64 other OECD countries, slid down to 13th place, dropping out of the top ten, and falling further behind students from Shanghai/China, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea, Macau, and Japan. Canada’s former educational leader, Alberta, continued to slide, as did all provinces following the Western and Northern Canada Protocol (WNCP) ‘discovery math’ curriculum. For Prince Edward Island, the dismal PISA student results continued to be nothing short of an educational disaster.
•    Tarnishing of the TDSB’s Reputation
The Director of the Toronto District School Board, Chris Spence, abruptly resigned on January 10, 2013, amid a cascade of plagiarism allegations. Parts of Dr. Spence’s dissertation, submitted in 1996 for his Ph.D. from OISE were also copied from unattributed sources. That thesis on “Black Male Student Athletes in Toronto High Schools” had also formed the basis for his black student leadership programs. A year later an Ontario audit of TDSB books during his administration turned up financial irregularities, including evidence that senior administration collected hefty increases during a staff salary freeze.
•    Fumbling of the “Rehtaeh File”
With the eyes of the world on Nova Scotia, the Government hired Torontonians Penny Milton and Debra Pepler to conduct a limited, ‘no fault’ review of the Halifax RSB’s policy and procedures in relation to the handling of the case. When Parsons’ mother Leah dismissed the slim 25-page June 2013 report as “fluffy,” the credibility of the exercise was completely shot.  Two more external reviews later, the essential questions remain unanswered.
•    Bungled Student Testing Initiative
Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall’s government attempted to introduce provincial student testing in an effort to improve that province’s student performance levels. The Saskatchewan standardized testing initiative was rushed and ran into fierce opposition mounted by Dr. Marc Spooner and his supporters at the University of Regina.  In August 2013, the province announced a tactical delay in the implementation of testing and a month later Education Minister Russ Marchuk was replaced in the cabinet by a more conciliatory figure, Don Morgan.
•    Lightening Up of Standards
British Columbia’s 21st Century Learning project, promoting a student-centred focus and known as “Personalized Learning,” was cruising along until it hit a significant knot in the educational road – the 2012 PISA results. That province’s steady improvement in mathematics (under its old, test-driven curriculum) left many wondering why a “revolutionary change in learning” was being implemented. The Globe and Mail columnist Jeffrey Simpson joined the chorus urging British Columbians to “pitchfork” the lightweight “21st century schools” education reform.

Predictions can be risky in the world of K-12 Canadian education. A prophecy made by Canadian international standards expert Dr. Paul Cappon in December 2010 was actually borne out over the past year.  Compared to the world’s leading education states, Canada was “sliding down the learning curve.”

What kind of year was 2013 in the world of Canadian P-12 education? Did we get an answer to the CEA Conference question – What’s Standing in the Way of Educational Change?  Is it possible to answer that question given that Canadian educators continue to inhabit 10 little educational silos?

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If it bleeds, it leads, or so it is said in North American television newsrooms.  And that maxim certainly applied to the popular coverage of school-related matters in 2012.  Two horrible school tragedies, the suicide of cyberbullying victim Amanda Todd and shooting rampage at Newtown’s Sandy Hook School deeply affected students, parents, teachers, and schools right across Canada.  Driven by those shocking events, cyberbullying and school security dominated much of the public policy agenda nearly everywhere in Canadian K-12 education.

SchoolZoneSignMedia saturated events like the British Columbia teen’s suicide and the Newtown massacre also tended to obscure more significant, longer-term tectonic plate shifts like a truly landmark  Supreme Court Special Education decision and Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty’s meltdown aggravated by Bill 115 and mass teacher walkouts.  It was, looking back, a year marked by more by scares, misadventures, and reversals of fortune than giant steps forward.

The Best – Hopeful Signs

  • Early Learning Advances

Out of the blue in late May, 2012, Nova Scotia  Premier Darrell Dexter visited a Halifax family resource centre, unveiled a discussion paper Giving Students the Best Start,  and announced that Nova Scotia was finally joining the national parade for universal early learning programs.  It was a direct response to the Canadian Council of Child Development’s recent 2011 Early Years Study praising Quebec and P.E.I. and giving Nova Scotia low marks ( 5 out of 15) for its current patchwork of services. With Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty under fire for his costly Kindergarten program, the Nova Scotia move bolstered the case for universal, publicly-funded ECE starting at age 3.

  • Cyberbullying Initiatives 

Nova Scotia was first out of the gate when Wayne MacKay released his March 2012 report, There’s No App for That, setting the public agenda for a strategic, long-term strategy to curb bullying and cyberbullying in schools.  After the teen suicide of Amanda Todd in September 2012, the nation-wide public outcry was for firmer, clearer punitive responses, including the criminalization of serious repeated online offenses.  McKay’s community-based, preventative approach survived the initial sniping and is gradually winning over those preferring direct deterrent action.

  • Championing of Curiosity in Schools

A first-time author, Zander Sherman, burst on the scene in August 2012 with The Curiosity of School, a searing indictment of every aspect of schooling, from kindergarten to university. Since its inception, the home schooled author contended that the North American school system has remained “Prussian” in philosophy and orderliness, killing natural curiosity in children  and thwarting their desire to know the world around us. Coming from a lone wolf outside the education system, yet reinforcing Sir Ken Robinson’s powerful TED Talk message, it was nothing short of earth-shaking.

  • Right to Special Education Decision

A landmark Supreme Court of Canada decision on the Jeffrey Moore case in November 2012 has dealt a surprise blow to all-inclusive, one-size-fits-all public education. Waving aside the financial concerns of a North Vancouver school board, the court found that the board had discriminated against a dyslexic child who was not given adequate help to attain literacy. “Adequate special education is not a dispensable luxury,” Judge Rosalie Abella ruled.  “For those with severe learning disabilities, it is the ramp that provides access to the statutory commitment to education made to all children in British Columbia.”

  • Junior High Goes Prime Time

 The CBC-TV sitcom, Mr. D, starring comedian Gerry Dee and focusing on a bumbling Middle School teacher at fictional Xavier Academy (Citadel High School), achieved respectable ratings and returns for a second season.  From the antics of Mr. D faking it through lessons to the paranoid VP and the small battles over copy machine access, it’s an exaggerated version of daily life in schools.  The Globe and Mail’s John Doyle listed the show as one of the top 5 “shows that mattered” over the past year.

The Worst – Troubling Signs

  • The Ontario Public Education Meltdown

Facing a $14.4 billion deficit, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty acted on economist Don Drummond’s report on Ontario public service costs by authorizing a two-year freeze on teacher salaries and an end to banking of sick days.  Education Minister Laurel Broten introduced Bill 115, the Putting Students First Act, to implement the new contractual arrangements.  Secondary school teachers withdrew from all voluntary extra-curricular activities and, in December 2012, the Elementary School Teachers Federation of Ontario (EFTO) staged a series of massive one-day teacher walkouts shutting the schools.  Amidst the turmoil, Premier McGuinty abruptly resigned, seemingly perplexed by wreckage of his 2003-2011 educational legacy, including massive Early Years program spending and a 24% increase in teacher salaries.

  • Plight of the Severely Learning Disabled and Autistic Children

Somewhere between 2 and 4 per cent of all school children and teens, numbering from 2,100 to 4,200 in New Brunswick, are reportedly struggling with serious learning challenges, while served mostly in inclusive regular classrooms.  During a 2012 five-year provincial review of Inclusive Education, Harold L. Doherty of Facing Autism in New Brunswick lambasted the radical inclusionist review co-chair  Gordon Porter for abandoning autistic and serverely learning disabled kids by denying them access to intensive, research-based intervention strategies and programs.  His legitimate concerns and those of the New Brunswick Learning Disabilities Association (LDANB) fell mostly on deaf ears.

  • Alberta Education’s Finnish Dalliance

Canada’s recognized provincial leader in education, Alberta, strayed a little during 2012 from its recognized Model of Education based upon pursuing higher standards,  parental choice, charter schools, and local school accountability.  With the tacit approval of a former Education Minister, the Alberta Teachers’ Association hired Dr. Andy Hargreaves to produce a new directions policy paper.  That September 2012 study, entitled A Great School for All..Transforming Education in Alberta drew heavily on the Finnish Education Reform agenda and proposed a Fourth Way for K-12 education investing in teacher development and phasing out provincial testing and student results-based teacher evaluation.  When the plan got a chilly reception in Alberta conservative circles, a new Education Minister Jeff Johnson distanced himself from the Finland-inspired reform plan.

  • Closure of Urban Inner City and Rural Schools

Save community schools groups fought school closures in critical battlegrounds, opposing school consolidation and the spread of “Big Box” suburban schools and rural K-12 regional Education Centres.   In downtown Regina, SK, Real Renewal led by Trish Elliott  and Carla Beck succeeded in slowing the pace of inner city school closures, only to be confronted by pricey Minneapolis-based Fielding Nair Open Concept Design schools. A Small School Summit held in Bridgewater, NS. in January 2012 set the stage for a province-wide Small Schools Initiative, spearheaded by Kate Oland, Michelle Wamboldt, and Randy Delorey.  Inner city high schools in Kingston, Ontario, and Moncton, New Brunswick, were threatened with closure and students joined with urban activists like KCVI’s Lindsay Davidson to temporarily stave-off the shuttering of older schools.    With no resources, social media became an effective tool to mobilize their supporters.

  • Cold War on School Choice

Massive teacher labour disruptions in Ontario and earlier in British Columbia adversely affected tens of thousands of students and their families.  Aside from The Globe and Mail’s Gary Mason and the Ontario-based Society for Quality of Education (SQE), few spoke out in favour of real alternatives or to challenge the prevailing ‘One System for All’ ideology.   A January 2012 report on the sad state of Online Learning created a minor kerfuffle, but the SQE’s polished three-part video series, Our Children, Our Choice, was treated like a radioactive substance.  Real alternatives to the standard, ‘one-size-fits-all’ school system remained few and far between, particularly in Ontario outside of the GTA and throughout Atlantic Canada.

* Originally published in The Mark News, 3 January 2013.

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Holding up a mirror to the Canadian K to 12 education system produces a dozen or so jarring images. Over the past year, surveying the 10 provinces and three territories, a chequered pattern emerges with quality standards and student performance all over the map.

For every hopeful sign, troubling concerns represent trends which may, borrowing Dr. Paul Cappon’s apt turn-of-phrase, “leave us internationally-challenged” in the years ahead.

What stands out in the national educational landscape? My own Our Kids Report Card  of the best and worst of 2011 in education offers a few surprises.

The Year 2011 in Education

THE BEST—HOPEFUL SIGNS

Hitting a Plateau With the Help of Alberta and Ontario
Canadian 15-year-olds achieved respectable results on the latest Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests released Dec. 7, 2010. Driven by Alberta and Ontario’s improved results, Canada finished eighth among 65 OECD countries in mathematics, seventh in science and fifth in reading. When the PISA results sunk in in early 2011, it became clear that Canada had plateaued and five of the top 10 countries were Asian, led by Shanghai (China), Singapore and Korea.

Driving Higher IB Standards
Only 141 of the 1,926 high schools offering the full International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Programme are located in Canada, but they definitely punch above their weight. A handful of the 14 full diploma “IB World Schools” belonging to the Canadian Accredited Independent Schools (CAIS) ranked among the world’s finest. A brand new cohort of 11 Nova Scotia public high schools also achieved respectable results in May 2011, when 84.7 per cent secured a pass, compared to only 70.3 per cent across North America.

B.C.’s Online Learning Renaissance
A November 2011 report on K-12 Online Learning, authored by Wayne State University’s Dr. Michael K. Barbour, lauded British Columbia for its innovative leadership in promoting and expanding online learning. Working in collaboration with the B.C. Teachers Federation, that province leads the way with some 88,000 of Canada’s 206,000 registered students, spread over 68 different distance education programs.

Setting the Early Learning Pace
An Early Childhood Education report, released in November and inspired by the late Dr. Fraser Mustard’s research, called for greatly expanded universal programs to give kids the best possible start in life. Quebec’s $7-a-day program earned that province top spot on a new Childhood Education Index, followed closely by P.E.I. on the strength of its new full-day kindergarten and fresh start initiatives.

Toronto’s Multiple Choice School Initiative
On Nov. 17, the Toronto District School Board trustees decided to move forward with the final stage in its Africentric school pathway, pledging to establish the first secondary school within the next two years. In addition, the TDSB also approved opening nine elementary alternative learning options, including two academies specializing in boys’ and girls’ leadership, three in sports, two in health and fitness, and two in vocal music.

THE WORST—TROUBLING SIGNS

Cyberbullying in Schools
The suicide of Mitchell Wilson of Pickering, Ont., an 11-year-old bullying victim suffering from muscular dystrophy, shone new light on the growing incidence of horrendous new forms of bullying. In Nova Scotia, Wayne MacKay, chair of a Cyberbullying Task Force, declared that he was “overwhelmed by the extent of the problem,” after receiving more than 5,000 online responses and meeting with 35 focus groups totalling 1,000 students from across the province.

Muslim Prayer in School Controversy
On July 8, 2011, the Toronto District School Board touched off a firestorm of controversy when it issued an official statement that the Muslim students attending Valley Park Middle School in North York had a “constitutional right” to pray during school hours. Although the school was 80 to 90 per cent Muslim and had been quietly allowing it on Friday afternoons for a year, it became the latest test case reopening a deeply divisive public issue.

Withering of Canada’s Education Monitoring Council
On Oct. 10, 2011, Dr. Paul Cappon released the final report of the Canadian Council on Learning (CCL) and raised serious questions about Canada’s drifting K to 12 education system. When CCL disappears in March 2012, an “enormous vacuum” will be left at the very centre of our national education leadership as we soldier on without any effective means for setting Canada-wide performance goals.

Firing of Elected School Boards
Nova Scotia Education Minister Ramona Jennex shocked everyone in late November 2011 by dismissing the entire elected South Shore school board, the third such action in five years. This time the minister faced a stiff public backlash when local parents rallied to protest the mass firing and to stop pending school closures. Earlier in the year, P.E.I.’s Doug Currie also wielded the axe, firing the entire Eastern P.E.I. School Board, again in the wake of prolonged school closure skirmishes.

Gazing into 2012, spotting the sun amid the gathering clouds requires concentration. Teachers will go into schools each day, as always, performing yeoman service without hearing enough in the way of appreciation. Without the CCL around, provincial education ministers will likely feed off their own glowing media releases, leaving us to muddle through in a more competitive international world. It would likely take an “Occupy the Schools” movement in rural and small town Canada to arrest the relentless process of “big box” consolidation gobbling up small community schools. Let’s hope that the tiresome “War Games” waged by the paid mouthpieces of the “key stakeholders” will subside, so we can focus first, last and always on what’s really best for students.

Why is the overall pattern so chequered? Without the Canadian Council on Learning, where can we look for independent, reasonably balanced assessments of public policy issues?  Will 2012 be the year that we rise to the global challenge, open the provincial windows, and start putting students first in education? 

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The best to worst lists for 2010 have all appeared, but you will look in vain for any relating to breakthroughs, disasters, or trends in Canadian education. South of the border, the public schools were aflame with controversy, the hard-hitting feature film Waiting for Superman stirred up a frenzy,  and The New York Times heralded the abysmal 2010 Program of International Student Assessment (PISA) results as a “Sputnik moment” or game-changing crisis.

Yet here in Canada critical issues in education continue to elicit something approaching a collective shrug. While education zealots bombard the blogs, most of the “live talk” about the state of education is confined to animated conversations in the school parking lot or chit-chat around the staff coffee machine.

Why does Canadian education get a free pass, drifting into the future without much of a national debate? Out of 70 participating countries in the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), we are the only one without a federal presence in education. More regrettably, the recent gutting of the Canadian Council on Learning promises to render cross-national as well as international comparisons a problematic venture.

Undaunted by the challenges, here’s my personal list of the Best and Worst in education news, just to  to incite a little discussion:

The Best of 2010

The most promising and potentially important events and developments were:

1. Pathways to Education

The dramatically successful Canadian stay-in-school initiative, launched in 2001 by Carolyn Acker in Toronto’s Regent Park, has now spread to 12 high dropout areas in three other provinces, Quebec, Nova Scotia, and Manitoba. Students-at-risk are rewarded with $1,000 a year for four years towards PSE tuition for successfully completing the program.

2. The PISA Results Plateau

Alberta and Quebec 15-year olds set the pace ensuring that Canada held its own on the 2009 PISA international tests in mathematics, science and reading. Young Canadians finished 10th in math, 8th in science, and 6th in reading, while their American counterparts slid to 31st, 23rd, and 17th, respectively, in math, science, and reading.

3. Rising Graduation Rates

Provincial departments of education began to see some return on their concerted efforts to raise the high school “attainment rate.” In Ontario, the graduation rate rose from 68%  in 2003 to 79% in 2009. Oddly enough, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and P.E.I.  boast rates from 80 to 83% (10% above the national average)

4. High School Rankings Go Westward

Eight years after introducing the High School Report Card, the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies teamed up with the Winnipeg-based Frontier Institute in early 2010 to produce the first comprehensive school-by-school rankings in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and B.C.  The major breakthrough in public disclosure was only marred by the hostile reaction in the most resistant “dark ages” province, Manitoba.

5. Toronto’s School Choice Initiative

Toronto Education Director Dr. Chris Spence challenged the status quo in 2009-10 with his “Vision for Hope” to shore up the system against private school student losses. He proposed four new alternative schools, an all-boys school, an all-girls school, and a choir school for the musically talented, before encountering resistance from nervous trustees and a vocal minority of parents.

The Worst of 2010

The most widely discussed  public disasters or major setbacks were:

1. The Ken Fells Fiasco

Principal Ken Fells’ forcible takedown of a 15-year old boy in a March 2010 disciplinary action was captured on security video for the world to see. The infamous “Dartmouth Handshake” split the Halifax School Board, prompted the Chief Superintendent’s husband to leak the tape, and finally forced a belated RCMP investigation. When Fells was restored, the HRSB boss suffered lost credibility and principals everywhere were left wondering what was now permissible.

2. Gutting of the Council on Learning

Federal funding for the respected national educational research institute, the Canadian Council on Learning founded in 2004 at $85 million for 5 years, was eliminated in January 2010 by Stephen Harper’s government. CCL head Dr. Paul Cappon, the architect of Canada’s strategy for raising international standards, cried foul, but the plea was dismissed by a cost-conscious cabinet looking to vacate provincial jurisdiction.

3. Ontario’s Early Learning Program Reversal

Ontario’s “Education Premier” Dalton McGuinty announced a December 15, 2010 “flip-flop” by abandoning plans to fully implement a seamless, wrap-around, year-long Early Learning Program, integrating full-day kindergarten with child care services. After creating inflated expectations, he backed-down amid intense local opposition and mounting concerns about run-away ELP costs.

4. Blackout on Waiting for Superman

The American feature film, Waiting for Superman, produced by An Inconvenient Truth’s Davis Guggenheim and praised by Barak Obama, was trashed in September 2010 by former OISE Dean Jane Gaskell as a “teacher-bashing” movie and then virtually blacked-out across Canada, with the exception of a few Toronto cinemas. Never underestimate the influence of our educational establishment.

5. School Closure Debacle

Community school advocates lost ground, often in small town and rural areas suffering severe declining enrolments. Small victories in Nova Scotia’s Antigonish and Colchester counties were offset by the relentless march of school closures elsewhere. The Ontario scene was marked by the forced closure of Niagara-on-the-Lake’s only high school and the fizzling of two Ontario citizen’s action groups, Save Our Schools, and the Middlesex-based Community Schools Alliance.

Over to You

Why are Canadians so averse to “telling it like it is” in our education system?  What’s your reaction to my highly subjective list?  Looking back over 2010, what has Educhatter missed? What do you think of his rankings?  What value, if any, do you see in compiling such year-end-lists?

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