Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Back to School Issues’ Category

School has resumed for another year and most parents, teachers and students are discussing the thorny issue of homework.  Common sense would suggest that it is desirable for students to come to class each day prepared and capable of contributing to activities and discussion. A body of educational research had accumulated by the late 1990s documenting its “positive benefits”for reinforcing classroom lessons, teaching responsibility and self-discipline. Assigning a steady diet of programmed-learning worksheets, mind-numbing repetitive exercises, and “busy work” –to be sure– gave conventional homework a bad name. It also opened the door to a short-lived North American backlash against homework in the mid- 2000s.

HomeworkHeadacheBCAfter the appearance of American education writer Alfie Kohn’s 2006 book, The Homework Myth, a vocal minority of parents and educators sparked a movement to curtail homework and eliminate it in the early grades. Kohn succeeded in challenging the purported benefits of homework in improving student academic performance and attracted friendly researchers like Dr. Linda Cameron at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. In February 2008, Cameron and OISE colleague Dr. Lee Bartel produced a study of parent opinions and attitudes that supported Kohn’s claims that homework was excessive, especially in lower grades, and that it reduced “family time” and affected “family relationships.”  That opinion research, buttressed by teacher union workload studies, led credence to moves underway  in Ontario to “ban homework” in lower elementary grades.

Limiting or eliminating homework gained favour in Canada’s major urban school boards, most notably in the Toronto District School Board, the Greater Vancouver region,  and the Halifax Regional School Board. By 2012, the impact of the changes was beginning to show in the reported weekly hours of homework and student preparation in mathematics. New studies also pointed to possible negative effects of cutting down homework on student work ethic, grit and resilience.

Fifteen-year-olds around the globe, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development reported in 2013,  spent an average of 5.9 hours a week in 2012 doing homework, one hour a week less than in 2003.  While Shanghai-China and Singapore students were assigned 13.8 hours and 9.7 hours respectively; United States and Canadian students were only expected to complete 6.1 hours and 5.5 hours of homework.  South Korean and Finnish students averaged 2.9 and 2.8 hours, considerably less than their North American peers. The OECD Education Office attributed it to adolescents spending more time on the Internet and to changes in homework policy.

The direct benefits of homework for student academic achievement are not clear before Grade 3, but researchers have identified and confirmed other important merits of the practice. The benefits tend to vary according to the subject and grade level, as well as the amount and type of homework.  Spending a lot of time on homework in the early grades does not translate into better reading performance (PIRL 2011), but it does contribute to developing self-discipline reflected in more focus, better time management, and improved self-confidence (CMEC, 2014).

The latest research confirms that doing homework is essential to performing reasonably well in junior and senior high school.  Since Canadian high schoolers now report doing less than one hour per day (CMEC, 2014), most education authorities reject Kohn’s claims and see a positive “return on the time invested” in subject-specific homework, balancing the multiple demands of competing subject areas.  All recent studies concur that older students continue to benefit more than younger students because of the edge it gives them in academic achievement.

The Homework Backlash is fizzling-out as parents and teachers recognize that too little rather than too much is now expected of most public school students. In the Canadian province of Nova Scotia, homework has made a real comeback.  A provincial Education Review, conducted by Myra Freeman in 2014, surveyed 19,000 Nova Scotians and discovered that half of those surveyed were “not satisfied” with P-12 education and a majority of parents and teachers felt students were “not prepared” for the next grade.

The Nova Scotia Education Review findings led to the proclamation of a Provincial Homework Policy (Grades P-12), effective September 2015, setting an “expectation for educators” to assign homework in graduated amounts, to evaluate it promptly, and to provide regular feedback to students. It was introduced, top-down on all students, ages 5 to 18, over the objections of the teacher union president Shelley Morse who saw it as another “source of work” for teachers.  This measure, it would seem, violated the cardinal principle that students and teachers are more inclined to carry out actions that they find palatable than to swallow bitter tasting curatives.

Schools without clear homework expectations are certainly ill-prepared for some of the most exciting innovations emerging across the continent.  The best example is the so-called “Flipped Classroom” model where students are expected to utilize the Internet to watch videos as 21st century-style “homework” and teachers are encouraged to utilize class time for interactive, follow-up learning activities.  What’s really odd about the Nova Scotia provincial policy, however, is that “homework” cannot introduce new material and thus the “flipped classroom” is actually rendered more difficult to implement.  Perhaps that’s a comment on the receptivity of Nova Scotia to online learning inside and outside the classroom.

What good does homework do at each stage of schooling? Should schools and school authorities be firmer in expecting more homework?  Why has recent research tended to blow holes in Alfie Kohn’s 2006 book, The Myth of Homework?  Do system-wide homework policies work when they are imposed from the top? How can new policies help to enable some innovative approaches such as the flipped classroom?

Read Full Post »

Establishing and maintaining a positive climate for learning poses challenges in many of today’s schools. Six years ago British Education Secretary Ed Balls reacted to an April 2009 report by Sir Alan Steer by announcing a “crackdown” on student discipline in U.K. schools. “Children can’t learn if classes are disrupted by bad behaviour,” said Ed Balls. ”That’s why parents tell me they want tough and fair discipline in every school.”

“More schools will also be encouraged to use traditional methods such as detentions, suspensions, isolation rooms and lunchtime curfews to punish badly behaved pupils,” London’s Daily Telegraph reported. ”They will be told to order pupils to remove caps and confiscate mobile phones. Guidance also calls on schools to punish rowdy behavior, bullying and fighting outside the school gates, including incidents on public transport, to stop poor behavior spilling onto the streets.”

FollowingtheRules

Britain’s crackdown on student discipline marked a significant shift and a break with the prevailing philosophy in most North American school districts. A preventive student management system, Positive Behaviour Intervention Supports (PBIS), developed by George Sugai and Robert Horner at the University of Oregon, held sway throughout the early 2000s. “Punishment, in and of itself,” according to PBIS research, ” generally does not have a long-term benefit for students and creates a false sense of security. Practices that focus on positive and proactive approaches are more consistent with with learning acceptable behaviour in schools.”

The Positive Behaviour Supports model was taught in education schools and integrated into teacher Professional Development programs. Whole school systems, such as the Halifax Regional School Board, adopted the approach, renamed PEBS, and trained a whole cohort of teachers to focus more on providing “carrots” for good behaviour in an attempt to promote “pro-active school-wide prevention and early intervention.” Under the Nova Scotia School Conduct Code, adopted in 2001 and renewed in 2006, developing student discipline practices was left up to teachers and principals. “The climate of each learning community,” the PBIS manual read, “therefore, a one-size-fits-all approach is less effective than interventions based upon the needs of each school.”

Public reports of student violence did heighten demands for improved school security. While Ontario had passed a Safe Schools Act in 2000, that clampdown was primarily aimed at bolstering school security by introducing security guards, electronic surveillance, visitor ID tags, and ‘zero tolerance’ for violence rules. Curbing violent acts did lead to the identification of a list of offenses that could trigger expulsion, suspension, and other disciplinary sanctions. Most of the safe school measures were explicitly aimed at reducing the incidence of violence in urban, inner-city schools and large regional high schools.

Growing teacher and parent concerns about flagrant student misbehaviour called into question the school-based disciplinary model and spelled trouble for the PBIS student behaviour modification system. Thirty per cent of respondents in a 2014 Nova Scotia Education Review survey reported feeling unsafe or uncomfortable in and around the province’s 400 public schools. Bullying remained “a persistent issue,” teachers cried out for help in managing “disruptive classroom behaviours,” the disciplinary consequences were not only “unclear” but varied greatly from one school to another.

The Education Review raised the issue of violence in the schools, but the leak of provincial statistics in February 2015 suggested it was more widespread than reported.  In 2013-14, principals and school staff reported 4,730 acts of physical violence in a provincial system with less than 120,000 students from P to 12. The President of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union, Shelley Morse, expressed grave concern and provided a graphic illustration of her life as an elementary vice-principal. ” I’ve been kicked, punched, bitten. Had chairs and desks and rocks thrown at me. I’ve had students spit on me. Have been verbally abusive to me…and (students) destroyed my office….”

Like the United Kingdom and a host of American states, Nova Scotia responded by issuing a much stricter province-wide, top-down School Code of Conduct policy.  Announced on August 24, 2015, and implemented this September, all school boards and school principals will be expected to implement the policy designed to maintain “a positive and inclusive school climate.”  It sounded, at first glance, like a warmed over version of the old policy and it dropped previous references to maintaining “an orderly and safe learning environment.”

The Nova School School Conduct Code itself ran in a completely different direction, identifying a multitiude of student conduct offenses and spelling out the specific consequences. It was intended as a province-wide crackdown but there were some accommodations made to promote respect for diversity, including gender identity. Students arriving for the first day of school this year were presented with the new 9-page School Code of Conduct and it was part of the normal welcome back routine.  Hundreds of teachers trained to implement PEBS were left scrambling to master the new set of school conduct rules imposed, without much parent input, on each and every school.

Do top-down prescriptive Student and School Discipline Codes actually work?  What do students learn when they are confronted with a gowing list of “don’t dos” ? Is it possible to implement Positive Behaviour Supports under a regime that embraces deterrent measures that tend to obscure the previously emphasized positive values and behavioural expectations?  Is the policy aimed at teaching parents to raise more responsible, respectful kids as much as it’s intended to apply to students? 

 

Read Full Post »

Anxiety and the jitters are winning the Back-to-School internal tug-of-war with excitement and exhilaration.  Today’s schoolkids are full of worries, feeling threatened by cyberbullying and being diagnosed with new forms of childhood and teen anxiety and depression. “Typical” Parents are hovering in helicopter formations waiting for schools to open, and a few are fretting about, and envious of,  Finnish education.  Pencil, pen and paper teachers wedded to chalkboards are quietly derided as throwbacks for resisting mobile learning devices and shunning the latest Apps.  While all of this is a gross distortion of reality, it does reflect the impressions and perceptions conveyed in Back-to-school media reports, including the recent series of articles featured in Canada’s national newspaper, The Globe and Mail.

BacktoSchoolHigh anxiety clearly consumed Canadian news columnist Elizabeth Renzetti.  In “Back-to School Stress,” The Globe and Mail, 31 August 2013, she grabs our attention with this lead: “The week before school begins is often filled with a special anxiety.  Every night is dominated by the hour of the wolf, the sleepless time of dread: What will class be like this year? Pass or fail? How to keep up? When it’s all over will there be any jobs left that don’t require a polyester uniform?”  That’s just the pretext for apiece about Amanda Ripley’s new book, The Smartest Kids in the World.  Reading it will only generate more worries about why our kids are falling behind those in Finland in the international race to the top.

One Back-to School news story produced by CTV News, aired on September 4, 2012, is back and posted on “Back-to-School” section of The Globe and Mail website.  The news clip, “Nerves and Excitement on the First Day of School,” is enough to rattle even the most seasoned parent and educator.  It focused on the first anxious day for kIndergarten kids at Carlton Village School in Toronto and was followed by a Metro Toronto Police news story warning parents about the child safety dangers of dropping-off their kids at school.

Letting your kids walk to school is now a practice that can produce deep parental angst.  “Just as exciting as your kid going to first grade is your kid walking to first grade,” advises Lenore Skenazy, author of Free Range Kids, a daring mother who achieved infamy by allowing her 9-year-old son ride the New York subway on his own.  She recently told The Globe and Mail that “letting go of the leash” can be liberating for today’s helicopter parents.  “It’s only in this moment in time that we are paralyzed with fear about what’s normally a lovely part of childhood.”

Today’s parents are bombarded and innundated by professional experts and well-intentioned elementary school educators dispensing advice.   THe videos posted on The Globe and Mail website tell the story.  The titles speak for themselves:  “Why jittery kids feel stressed this time of year.“Getting gadget ready for school.”  “Is your kid a picky eater? Try packing these lunches.”   My favourite recent advice piece, Kate Carraway’s “A letter for your locker,” is an aunt’s idea of what it takes to survive and thrive in the veritable jungle of the Middle School. It ends with this honey-coated line: “I want you to have an incredible life, but more than that, I know you will.”

Even today’s teachers are feeling the pressure.  For educators, trying to keep pace with technology is daunting. After all iPads have only been on the market since April 2010, and now they are the all-in-one device that is insinuating itself into every corner of daily life, including the schools.  Social media inspired educators like Thomas Whitby, founder of #edchat, are a constant reminder of how much more teachers could be doing to integrate technology into teaching and professional learning.  Shutting the classroom door and carrying on the usual “chalktalk” routine are getting harder when your SMART Phone Twitter feed contains a stream of links to pieces like those aggregated on  Edutopia.

SchholKidsatDesksFew education observers or policy analysts dig a little deeper trying to fathom and explain why going back to school has become such a source of  ‘over-the-top’ anxieties for kids, parents, and teachers. Buried in those Back-to-School stories is one that does, a September 2012  interview with Zander Sherman, author of The Curiosity of School. In that interview with Chris Berube, Sherman argues the changes in the nature of The School are the source of the problem.

School is something you dread when it’s associated with unpleasant experiences.  In Sherman’s words: “Schools have historically turned out citizens and voters, today, though, you could say we’re focused on human resources – schools have become standardized, and that’s because it makes for a good labour pool, it’s convenient for the economy.”

What’s gone wrong? Education should be about instilling a sense of wonder and a love of learning,”   Without the capacity to instill that curiosity,  Sherman points out that schools can have a deadening effect on children and teachers. Going to school should be like going to the gym for personal fitness — an experience people actually look forward to.

What’s the real cause of Back-to-School stress for students, parents and teachers?  To what extent do professional experts and well-intentioned educators contribute to the hype and apprehensions?  Do schoolchildren today dread school anymore than their parents — or grandparents?  How legitimate is Zander Sherman’s claim that changes in The School itself are heightening the natural anxieties?

Read Full Post »

On Thursday August 2, hundreds of Calgary Catholic school students cut short their carefree summer vacation and headed back for the first day of class. While most students could look forward to a month more of summer holidays, students and teachers at Monsignor Neville Anderson School in Sandstone, AB, returned to school during one of the most glorious Calgary summers in recent memory. Yet a feature story in the Calgary Herald (August 1, 2012) painted a very positive picture, carrying the message that teachers found their “pupils” returning early far “more eager” than those on traditional September to June school calendars.  http://www.calgaryherald.com/news/calgary/Summer+ends+early+Calgary+Catholic+year+round+students/7026505/story.html

The glowing endorsement of Year Round Schools running on the so-called Modified School Year (MSY) Calendar flew in the face of most of the accumulating evidence.  Extending the School Year, by simply spreading out the holidays, once considered a means to improve student performance and to reduce classroom overcrowding, has produced mixed results since the advent of the MSY concept in the early 1990s.   http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/12/debate-over-yearround-ver_n_1668482.html

Over the past two decades, only about 100 public schools across all of Canada have adopted and implemented the Modified School Year Calendar, reducing the length of the 9-week summer break and spreading the 180 to 185  instructional days  more evenly throughout the year.  http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/time-to-lead/does-year-round-schooling-make-the-grade/article4261901/  The first of those was the Calgary Board of Education’s Terry Fox Public School in Falconridge, initiated in 1995.  Today the original pilot school still runs on a modified calendar, with students due to return in mid-August on a 45 days on, 15 day break schedule. In the Toronto region, Roberta Bondar Public School, Peel Region District Board, Brampton, enjoys similar notoriety. South of the border, some school districts that adopted the extended schedule, like Las Vegas and Salt Lake City, have actually turned back to traditional school calendars.

Modified School Year supporters claim that extending the school year directly addresses what is termed “summer learning loss.”  Reducing the summer holidays from 9-weeks to 5-weeks or less, they believe prevents students from falling behind academically and keeps troubled kids off the streets. Some of the more  reliable U.S. research has also shown that students in high-needs districts and students with special needs tend to do better in schools with extended calendars.

Rick Hess, director of education policy at the American Enterprise Institute, remains unconvinced.  Appearing recently on Fox-TV News with Dr. Peter Gray of Boston College, he insisted that extending the school year was “not for everyone” and without significant improvements in teaching, such a move might make little difference for student learning. “We want to extend the school year for kids for whom it would benefit them and for kids who are attending schools where we’re confident the time’s going be used well and it’s going to be used effectively.” http://video.foxnews.com/v/1775447053001/

A strong case can be made to offer the choice of a Modified School Year schedule, particularly if it is targeted for children and families in lower socio-economic communities  Less educated, low income families, according to Hess,  are more likely to experience summer learning loss, but mandating a longer calendar for all students will not prove beneficial. “Even when children start school at age six in more or less the same space, kids from low income or less educated families are a few years behind by the time they get to high school,” Hess said. “I think we owe it to those kids to do something about it.”

Expanding actual teaching time may well make a difference. The U.S. National Center on Time and Learning reports that more than 170 schools around the United States have extended their school year to more than 190 days, including at least two schools in the state of Missouri. Both schools in Missouri and the majority of schools across the United States that are opting for longer days or longer years are charter schools.
The renowned national charter network Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) lists “more time” as one of their strategies for delivering a high-quality education to their students. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rVi07IxmVkg  Students at KIPP Inspire Academy in Saint Louis attend school from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. every other Saturday. Additionally, students are required to attend summer school. Their efforts to improve education outcomes for disadvantaged students are now attracting widespread attention and even imitations, like the Citizen Schools.  Ardent supporters of KIPP schools will tell you that it’s as much about what is actually taught in school as it is the length of the school year.
Extending the School Year is not popular with students and parents for lots of reasons and a sound case has to be made that there will be real gains in terms of student learning and performance.  Why is the Modified School Year producing such mixed results?  Will simply dividing-up the year differently make much of a difference?  What really explains the remarkable success of the KIPP schools in the United States?  What’s stopping Canadian provinces and school boards from extending learning time and building more flexibility into the school day and annual schedule?

Read Full Post »

Back to School ads signal the start of an annual family shopping spree. Shopping expeditions begin in early August, as parents with kids in tow hit the stores to attack long lists of school supply ‘must haves,’ fall clothes, the latest sports gear and mobile electronic devices. It is the second biggest consumer spending season of the year, putting a strain on family budgets and causing hardship for parents struggling to make ends meet. Across North America, the cost of heading back to school is escalating, and parents are finding out the hard way.

The average Canadian family with school age children, according to a recent poll conducted by VISA, will spend $403.89 on back to school items ($240 of which spent online), between August 1 and Labour Day. Some 34 per cent of shoppers start in the first two weeks of August, but most families find themselves rushing around when back to school shopping amounts to a frenzy. http://blogs.todaysparent.com/saving/what-does-back-to-school-cost-you/

Many Canadian families in tight economic times are struggling with back to school costs. A recent post in Today’s Parent (August 3, 2011) entitled “What does back to school cost you?” touches rather lightly on the critical issue. The author “Sandra” describes shopping for her two school age daughters at Mountain Equipment Co-op only to discover that last year’s backpacks have gone out of style! For families like Sandra’s the rising costs are an irritant, but for thousands of Canadian parents finding the money for such expenses means running up credit cards or doing without.

Why are more and more families dreading the Back to School merry-go-round of shopping? The cost of going back to school is rising each year, and so are all costs for “school supplies” and “incidentals” being borne by families in public schools as well as independent and alternative schools. A Back to School CBC Radio News program (Information Morning, August 16, 2011) identified the issue squarely and demonstrated how it adds to the stresses of family life.

It’s a problem that originated in the 1980s, as school boards sought to download costs for school supplies on parents and compelled many teachers to supplement their classroom supply budgets. Successive waves of edu-cuts have imposed more costs on families. One of the major drivers is charging kids to compete in sports or play in the school band, now known as the “pay-to-participate” or “pay-to-play” model of funding a whole range of extra-curricular activities. http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/43856978/

Hard pressed families from Toronto to Calgary, from Youngstown, Ohio, to Denver, Colorado, and all over Ireland, are raising alarm bells about the soaring cost of school basics. In Youngstown, WKBN TV, ran a news story ( August 12, 2011) using Huntington Bank statistics claiming that from 2010 to 2011 costs went up $56 for elementary kids, $136 for middle school, and $91 for high school. (www.wkbn.com) The Calgary Board of Education was concerned enough to post a Survival Guide of Tips entitled “Worried about the Cost of Back-to-School?” In some cities, the neighbourhood Walmart store actually has school supplies lists posted that came from local Boards of Education.

Most of the Back to School costs media stories offer practical family budgeting tips, but studiously avoid addressing the larger education policy issue.
Why are Back to School costs rising so rapidly? Should public schools and boards of education be off-loading the costs for back-to-school basics? How can school systems professing to provide “education for all” be justified in imposing unreasonable costs on families in disadvantaged communities? To what extent are school systems forcing Food Banks into the school supplies business?

Read Full Post »