Archive for the ‘Charter Schools’ Category

One of Canada’s provincial premiers, Brad Wall of Saskatchewan, has waded into the Catholic Separate School question and brought the issue of school choice, once again, to the fore.  In Late April 2017, he announced that, in direct response to a recent Court of the Queen’s Bench decision in the controversial Theodore Catholic School case, the province would be invoking the Charter “notwithstanding” clause to support the right of non-Catholics to attend the province’s Catholic schools.

A tiny local dispute, as is often the case, erupted into a  full-blown debate over the right of parents to choose the best school for their children.  It was sparked by the decision of 42 multi-denominational parents in the village of Theodore, fifteen years ago, to resist a public school closure and instead create a Catholic School Division and open their own publicly-funded Catholic school.

Premier Wall staked out his ground in defense of the right of parents to school choice encompassing public, separate and faith-based schools. It was a courageous decision given the complexity of the issue and the passions aroused by the Catholic question in public education.

Sorting out such a thorny educational-constitutional issue should not be left to the lawyers because it has far-reaching implications for parental school choice far beyond Saskatchewan.  That is why The National Post invited me to take a much closer look at the whole controversy.

The court decision to end funding for non-Catholics to attend such schools had great potential for massive disruption. Some 10,000 students and their parents province-wide were left in limbo facing the prospect of being forced out of their Catholic schools.

The Saskatchewan Catholic schools dispute is, for better or worse, a critical “test case” that may well determine the fate of the Catholic school option in Saskatchewan and perhaps elsewhere. It’s also about far more than the funding of Catholic schools in that province. School choice in Saskatchewan, as in Alberta and Ontario, rests, in many ways, on having parallel public and separate school systems, both in English and in French. Such options, freely accessible to everyone, provide more choice than is commonly recognized.

In spite of what look from the outside like uniform bureaucratic structures and curricula, such denominational and language options do allow for variations, particularly in core philosophy, academic focus, and student discipline.  One out of five Saskatchewan students (21.1 percent), 22.9 per cent of Alberta students, and 30.3 per cent of Ontario students were enrolled in fully-funded, principally Roman Catholic schools, in 2009-10, the most recent data.

Separate religiously oriented schools within the public education system not only offer choice but a measure of competition. Students and parents can opt for schools with provincially-approved religious instruction as an alternative to the predominantly secular, non-denominational public schools.

Saskatchewan is not the only province where the religious walls have recently come down. In many Catholic school districts across the three provinces, the relaxing of strict religious expectations and admittance of non-Catholics (or students of different faiths) has effectively expanded the range of choice, since such schools are no longer available exclusively to more religiously oriented families.

CharterSchoolCalgaryGirlsAlberta is hailed as Canada’s undisputed leader in the provision of a wide range of school choices. A February 2014 Fraser Institute report only bolstered that claim by demonstrating that Alberta offered six different publicly-funded options: regular public, francophone public, separate Catholic, separate francophone, separate Protestant, and charter schools.  The report’s principal author Jason Clemens noted that “Alberta goes out of its way purposefully, strategically, to provide parents with choice not only within the public system but outside the public system.”

Next to Alberta and Ontario, Saskatchewan offers the most school options: regular public, public francophone, separate Catholic, and separate Protestant schools. The continued vitality of one of those options is imperiled by that Theodore school court decision.

School choice should not be simply taken for granted. The vast majority of Atlantic Canadians living in Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, and Prince Edward Island have only one real choice. Over 95% of all K-12 students in these three provinces are offered only one brand of school, the standard English Public School model. In New Brunswick, some 28% of all students attend Francophone schools, but their curriculum and program are, with a few exceptions, a French mirror image of the Anglophone version.

Atlantic Canada is, putting it bluntly, a “take it or leave it” public system where only more affluent families have an alternative, the odd private independent school and homeschooling, enrolling from 1 per cent to 3 per cent of the total student population. About 2,600 First Nations students in Nova Scotia (2.1%) do attend very small Mi’kmaw Education Authority (MK) schools in 13 different native communities. Fewer than 250 Nova Scotia students receive tax support to attend special schools for kids with severe learning disabilities.

Public fears about charter schools in Alberta are fueled by defenders of the existing educational order— and appear to be not only irrational but unfounded. Under that province’s  1993 Charter School law, the numbers of publicly-funded charters are limited (to 15) and enrollments are capped, Introducing charter schools in the mid-1990s hardly proved destabilizing because the flow was restricted and only 1% of the student population were able choose them.

Giving parents and students more school choices and more variety in terms of alternative programs would not be ‘the end of the world.’  Students and parents in Canada’s largest urban school systems like Toronto, Edmonton and Vancouver, already have many school choice options and have “open school boundaries” allowing students to attend schools of their own choice.  School district “boundary reviews” provoke an intense public outcry for good reason – the school board is dictating where your children are going to attend school.

School choice is gradually emerging as a fundamental human right for students and families. Choosing the best school for your child should not be so difficult or next-to-impossible without significant financial means. School systems benefit from being more open and responsive to a wider range of student needs and aspirations. Safeguards do need to be built-in to prevent a mass exodus and to provide some recourse in the case of under-performing schools.

Putting a stop to the removal of non-Catholics who have chosen to exercise their option of choosing an alternative to the ‘one-size-fits-all’ system is not only defensible, it’s advisable, especially in Saskatchewan. One can only hope that it derails any movement to further restrict parental choice in education.

What’s causing all the ruckus over the Saskatchewan separate school question?  Who gains when provinces move to “one big English language system” for all? How fundamental is the right to parental choice in Saskatchewan as well as Alberta and Ontario?  Should non-Catholics continue to have free, unimpeded access to Catholic separate schools?  Wherein lies the danger of broadening the range of choice in our provincial school systems? 

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Digital learning is on the rise in Canadian K-12 schools and is now emerging as a critical education policy issue in most of the nation’s ten provinces and three territories. Annual reports on K-12 Online Learning from 2008 to 2015, mostly researched and written by Canadian information technology expert Michael K. Barbour, demonstrate steady and incremental growth in the implementation and practice of distance, online and blended learning.

CaneLearnNov14TitlePageWithout a national education authority and public education governed by the provinces and territories, accurately assessing that growth in a country with 5.3 million K-12 students and 15,000 schools remains challenging for researchers. Based upon increasingly reliable annual surveys, the numbers of tracked “distance education students” have risen from some 140,000 (0.5%) in 2008-09 to 332,077 (6.2%) in 2013-14 (Barbour and LaBonte 2014).

The use of blended learning is also spreading, even if the reported data is rather patchy. With the 2012 formation of the CAN eLearning Network, a national pan-Canadian consortium focused on K-12 online and blended learning, better data may be generated, making tracking much more accurate and reliable for policy analysis and decision-making (Barbour 2013, CAN eLearning Network 2015 ).

Compared with the recent explosion of digital learning schools in the United States, online and blended learning in Canada’s K-12 public schools has followed a decidedly different pattern of evolution (Finn and Fairchild 2012; Barbour 2012). Much of the online learning in parts of Canada remains an outgrowth of correspondence school education, involving e-format programmed units, audio distance learning and video conferencing. The radical variations, free market experimentation, and ‘disruptive’ innovation found in the United States (Chubb 2012; Christensen et al. 2013) have not been replicated in Canadian public education.

The primary drivers in Canadian provincial and territorial systems are government authorities, while learning corporations serve as contractors providing content, learning technologies, and support services to the government-run operations. In spite of the tremendous potential for expansion in online learning programs, the free market remains regulated and private providers are largely absent. Provincial or school district authorities promote a ‘growth-management ‘strategy where online and blended learning are considered the next evolution of effective technology integration (Barbour PTDEA 2015).

Significant gaps still exist in service levels and barriers stand in the way of expansion into un-serviced frontiers, particularly in the Far North and First Nations communities. Only British Columbia, Ontario, and Alberta have, so far, proven to be fertile ground for private school ventures in the form of virtual or online schools.(Barbour 2010, 41; Kuehn, 2013).

Virtually all Canadian educational systems remain designed around seat time, defined as providing in-school classes of regulated size with a minimum number of instructional hours (Jenson et al. 2010; Powell et al. 2015). Some private sector virtual schools have recently arrived and thrive outside the mainstream system.

No full-time online public charter schools exist, even in Alberta, the only province in Canada with Charter School legislation (Bennett 2012). The rise of virtual schooling delivered by ‘cyber charter schools’ has surfaced as a public policy issue in Alberta, where a University of Alberta research unit, Parkland Institute, released an October 2013 report warning of the dangers of “pedagogical innovation” in the form of privatization presented as a way of easing “budgetary constraints” (Cummins and Gibson 2013).

CANeLearnOnlineEnrolments2014The growth of online learning in Canada may be more significant than reported by provincial and territorial authorities. While Quebec and New Brunswick both reported modest distance education enrolments in 2013-14, estimates for teachers using the curriculum in blended format are much higher. From 2011 to 2014, to cite another example, the Ontario Ministry of Education coordinated an initiative to expand access to blended learning for all K-13 students, which generated almost 240,000 blended learning enrolments in the provincial learning management system during the 2013-14 school year (Barbour and LaBonte 2014).

The national advocacy group 21C Canada holds some sway over provincial ministers of education (C21 Canada 2015), but, so far, the implementation of 21st century learning and the explicit teaching of ‘digital literacies’ is very uneven, particularly outside of the recognized lead provinces, Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta (People for Education 2014).

The natural evolution of online and face-to-face education from 2008 until 2015 is exemplified by the spread of blended learning.  Newer blended learning models, promoted by the Christensen Institute (Powell et al. 2015), are beginning to emerge in the so-called “hybrid zone” in what might be termed ‘lighthouse’ schools.

While provinces such as BC, Alberta and Ontario actively promote eLearning, innovation is limited by the current structural boundaries and education authorities are only beginning to track blended learning enrolment. In 2012-13, British Columbia enacted legislation enabling “flexible learning choices” and, with the support of the BC Distributed Learning Administrators’ Association (BCDLAA), blended learning and “flipped classroom” practices are becoming more mainstream (Barbour 2013, 61-62).

National online education survey reports, produced by the CAN eLearning Network (Barbour and LaBonte BIT 2015), testify to the steady growth of distance education and online programs, but identify the need for “better data” and more evidence of the transition to blended ‘competency-based learning’ in Canada. Evolution rather than revolution appears to be the Canadian way.

What’s really driving the growth in Canadian K-12 online and blended learning?  Where is the initiative coming from – from the top-down or the schools-up? What advantages does the “managed-growth” approach over the “destructive innovation” doctrine prevalent in some American states? Would Canadian students and families benefit from more “flexible learning” choices in K-12 public education?

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American education historian Diane Ravitch once enjoyed a reputation as one of the leading public intellectuals of our time. After four decades of impressive historical research and compelling writing pushing at the boundaries of education reform, she has now emerged almost unrecognizable as the fiercest critic of school reform in the United States. Her two most recent books, The Death and Life of the Great American School System (2010) and the sequel Reign of Error (2013), bear witness to that radical transformation and provide clues to the fundamental question: What in the world has happened to Diane Ravitch?

RavitchDeathCoverHer 2010 national best seller, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, marks a radical break in her reform advocacy. Much of the book is a revisionist interpretation of the previous decade of education reform, but it also represents a startling about-face. The leading advocate of testing and accountability emerges, almost born-again, as a fierce critic of the Barak Obama –Arne Duncan ‘Race to the Top’ reform agenda, especially standardized testing, school choice and the closure of low-performing schools. “I too had fallen for the latest panaceas and miracle cures,” she confesses, but, as time wore on, simply “lost the faith” (pp. 3 and 4).

Always known for her independent, contrarian streak, Ravitch was again swimming against the tide. Under George W. Bush’s NCLB , she contended that the whole standards movement had been “hijacked” by the testing movement. Instead of focusing upon curriculum reform, “standardized test scores” were considered “the primary measure of school quality.” “Good education,” she wrote, “cannot be achieved by a strategy of testing children, shaming educators, and closing schools”(p. 111). Charter schools, according to Ravitch, had strayed from the original concept best articulated in 1988 by then American Federation of Teachers president Albert Shanker. Instead of becoming a vehicle for empowering teachers to initiate innovative methods of reaching disaffected students, it evolved into a means of advancing privatization, producing an “education industry” dominated by entrepreneurs, philanthropists, and venture capitalists (pp. 123-4). Test-based accountability, Ravitch now claimed, narrowed the curriculum and was being used in inappropriate ways to identify ‘failing schools,’ fire educators, determine bonuses, and close schools, distorting the purpose of schooling altogether (p. 167).

Ravitch focuses much of her scathing criticism on what she termed the “Billionaire Boys’ Club.” Since the turn of the millennium, she claims that the traditional educational foundation world had been significantly changed by the emergence of a new breed of venture philanthropists. By 2002, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, and the Eli Broad Foundation had emerged to frame and dominate the school reform agenda. School choice, turnaround schools strategies, and competitive market incentives were all harnessed in mostly failed attempts to leverage improved student test scores. “with so much money and power aligned against the neighbourhood public school and the teaching profession, she bluntly forecast that “public education itself is placed at risk” (p. 222).

Ravitch’s The Fall and Life of the Great American School System harkened back to A Nation at Risk and made a compelling case that American school reform has lost its way. In rejecting the charter school panacea and test-based accountability, she sets out a reasonable, balanced approach to educational improvement. Raising academic standards utilizing the Common Core Curriculum continue to be the centrepiece of her reformist philosophy, but she is more sanguine about the likelihood of reaching a national consensus, settling for a sound balanced curriculum including history, civics, geography, literature, the arts and sciences, foreign languages, and physical/health education. “ If our schools had an excellent curriculum, appropriate assessment and well-educated teachers,” she concludes, “we would be way ahead of where we are now in renewing our school system’ (p. 239).

Swept up in the wave of public reaction to her 2010 book, Ravitch sought to answer the question posed but not fully explored – where should American education be heading? A completely reformed fiery warrior emerges in Reign of Error, a book with an attention grabbing, inflammatory subtitle: “The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools.” Expanding upon her critique of the American venture philanthropists, she restates her strong opposition to blind faith in charters, testing excesses, shuttering ‘failing’ schools, and removing ‘bad’ teachers. Without the same tone of authenticity and humility, Reign of Error descends into polemic and reads, for the most part, like an angry diatribe. Not quite prepared to provide a constructive path forward, she simply sets out to crush her former allies, now seen as enemies, real and imagined.

RavitchSoundBitesIn the opening chapter of Reign of Error, Diane Ravitch stuns the reader by claiming that there is “no crisis” in American education. “Public education is not broken,” she writes. “It is not failing or declining. Our urban schools are in trouble because of concentrated poverty and racial segregation….Public education is in crisis only so far as society is and only so far as this new narrative of crisis has de-stabilized it” (p. 4). In her book introduction, she also states: “ I do not contend that schools are fine just as they are. They are not. American education needs higher standards for those who enter the teaching profession. It needs higher standards for those who become principals and superintendents. It needs stronger and deeper curriculum in every subject…” (p. xii). You will look in vain, as New Jersey teaching expert Grant Wiggins (2013) noted, for any serious discussion of how to tackle that second set of problems.

The “crisis” myth, according to the newly radicalized Diane Ravitch, is only sustained by “orchestrated attacks” on teachers and principals. “These attacks,” she declares,” create a false sense of crisis and serve the interests of those who want to privatize the public schools.” In an attempt to overturn the prevailing narrative, she argues that these ‘outsiders’ represent not reform but the status quo in education. Together, they form a dangerous bipartisan alliance committed to “corporate reform” and encompassing a broad spectrum from Education Secretary Duncan to Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and the Bezos Foundation, from the Hoover Institution to Hollywood, purveyors of films like Waiting for Superman. Since education is not really in crisis, Ravitch contends that all of these interests are destroying the public school system while pursuing an illusion.

Making such claims can win you legions of followers inside the system, but also damage your credibility as a respected scholar purporting to present an “evidence-based” assessment of the state of education. In the chapter entitled “The Facts about the International Test Scores,” Ravitch’s analysis simply does not hold water, especially when it comes to the mathematics scores of U.S. students, compared with other top performing countries. While U.S. grade 4 students do perform reasonably well on basic operations, they are not competitive with the Taiwanese, for example, at higher performance levels. Seventeen-year old Americans, not referenced by Ravitch, have stagnated in reading and mathematics since the first tests in the early 1970s.

In defending teacher autonomy, Ravitch tends to ignore research on the impact of effective teaching on student achievement levels. If New Zealander John Hattie (2008) is correct, teaching may well account for 30 cent or more of student improvement and highly effective teachers can add an extra year or two of growth in achievement level. Without advocating for the firing of teachers on the basis of ‘half-baked’ test-based assessment systems, there is much evidence that poor performance is tolerated for variety of reasons. National estimates from the U.S. Department of Education confirm that, on average, school districts only dismiss 1.4% of tenured teachers and 0.7% of probationary teachers each year.

Instead of focusing so much on the sinister influence of “Billionaire Boys’ Club,” Ravitch might have been more convincing if she had actually produced a coherent reform agenda based upon curriculum improvement and enhancing teacher effectiveness. More vigorous advocacy on her part might have bolstered and possibly salvaged more of the Common Core Curriculum which she campaigned so hard to get on the national policy agenda. Rather than tackling the structural problems, Ravitch may have exerted more impact by venturing into what Larry Cuban (2013) terms the “Black Box” of the classroom. Improving teaching pedagogy, student assessment, and the consistency of teaching, educators like Wiggins insist, would certainly help far more to advance school improvement and student learning, whatever the form or organization of the school.

Over the past five years, Diane Ravitch has become more of an education reform warrior than a credible scholar, especially when she ventures well outside the field of educational history. Since discovering Twitter five years ago, she has become a serial tweeter spewing out snappy 140 character comments and regularly goes ad hominem with those holding opposite views. Standing on the Save Our Schools rally platform on the Ellipse in July 2011, Ravitch spoke for only eight minutes, all in punchy protest sentences. Slogans and sloganeering, as Brian Crittenden reminded us back in 1969, are no substitute for serious thinking and confronting the many contradictions in educational discourse.

American education reform today is a contested terrain occupied by tribalists. Side-stepping critical education reform issues such as teacher quality that might offend camp followers is right out-of-character for Ravitch, the once independently-minded public intellectual. Former reform allies like Frederick Hess, a respected conservative policy analyst, who welcomed The Fall and Life of the Great American School System, now chastise her for becoming a virtual mouthpiece of the teachers’ unions. Whether you think education is in crisis or not, Ravitch’s latest books provide an inventive, perplexing re-interpretation, but will do little to help us overcome the current impasse.

Why is American education reform such a polarized field of public policy?  What happens to respected scholars like Diane Ravitch when they get absorbed into the Manichean world view?  Whatever happened to Ravitch’s deep commitment to putting higher standards and curriculum reform before teacher autonomy and advocacy? Will the tribalism fostered in the School Wars ultimately lead anywhere?

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The latest report on the state of School Choice in Canada dropped out of thin air on February 27, 2014 and hit with barely a thud. Produced for the Vancouver-based Fraser Institute, the report entitled Measuring Choice and Competition in Canadian Education generated a predictable media response. “Alberta leads the nation in offering parents and kids more school options compared to its provincial counterparts,” The Calgary Herald chirped.  “In terms of choice, it’s very clear that Alberta goes out of its way purposefully, strategically, to provide parents with choice not only within the public system but outside the public system,” stated Jason Clemens, executive vice-president of the Fraser Institute and co-author of the report. So, you might ask, what else is new?

SchoolChoiceRallyThe Fraser Institute study  provided a very useful comparative analysis of the range of school choices available from most (Alberta and BC) to least (all of Atlantic Canada, except for New Brunswick).  Like most previous North American reports, it turned to free market economic theory to make its case. Increasing school choice and competition, Clemens and his co-authors argue,  spurs “quality, lower prices and innovation,” which in turn leads to improved student performance and an enhanced education system.

School choice in Canada, according to the Fraser Institute, now encompasses having parallel public and separate school systems (both in French and English) and so Canada is, by virtue of this factor, supposedly more open to choice than might be thought, given the relative uniformity of bureaucratic structures and provincial curricula.  Once again, Alberta is the exemplary province, the only one to authorize charter schools and provide some funding to students who are homeschooled.

“The presence of charter schools in Alberta provides an additional source of choice, which provides parents with additional options outside of traditional linguistic and religious alternatives offered by public school boards,” reads the report. Conversely, the Atlantic Provinces offer “comparatively little parental choice and competition among schools.”

“It’s pretty hard to look at any metric in the independent school sector, public or home-schooling where Alberta is not at the top of the list in terms of trying to proactively provide parents with more choice,” Clemens said. He also pointed to a growing body of research in Europe and the U.S. that suggest a “clear link” between parental choice and student performance.   Then, he attempted to apply that to Canada, arguing that it explained, in many ways, why BC and Alberta tend to ” do pretty well on education testing and education performance generally.”

The School Choice report is disappointing, especially for those who favour expanding the range of choice available in Canada’s provincial school systems. Parents and students in the 21st century are so accustomed to having and making choices in life that the public school systems are completely out of sync with the rest of society. Instead of relying on the tired old arguments of Milton Friedman and the free market theorists, the case would have had far more bite if it had been based upon the rights of students and parents as “‘consumers of education’ to better schools more attuned to student needs.

Students and parents in all Canadian provinces, including Alberta, would benefit from more school choices inside the public school system. There is only one choice for the vast majority of Atlantic Canadians living in Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, and Prince Edward Island. Over 95% of all K-12 students in these three provinces are offered only one brand of school, the standard English Public School model. In New Brunswick, some 28% of all students attend Francophone schools, but their curriculum and program are, with a few exceptions, a French mirror image of the Anglophone version.

Atlantic Canada is, putting it bluntly, a “take it or leave it” public system where only more affluent families have an alternative, the odd private independent school and homeschooling, enrolling only 1 to 2.5% of the total student population. Out of 430 total schools in Nova Scotia, only 30 are private or independent (without public funding) and they only enroll 2,949 students or 2.2 % of the total provincial enrollment.  About 2,600 First Nations students (2.1%) do attend very small Mi’kmaw Education Authority schools in 13 different native communities. Fewer than 250 Nova Scotia students receive tax support to attend special schools for kids with severe learning disabilities.

Alberta, upon closer examination, is not quite the nirvana painted by the Fraser Institute.  Some 70.4 % of Alberta students attend the “one big system” ( Public/English), 22.9% the Catholic/French systems, 4.6% private/independent, 1.3% charter schools, and 1.6% are home schooled, receiving some $1650 per year for resources. Under the Alberta Charter School law, the numbers of publicly-funded charters are limited (to 15) and enrollments are capped, leaving 8,000 students on waiting lists in Calgary alone.  Introducing charter schools in the mid-1990s hardly proved destabilizing because the flow was restricted and only 1% of the student population were able choose them.

Public fears about charter schools are fueled by defenders of the existing educational order — and appear to be not only irrational but unfounded. Giving parents and students more school choices and more variety in terms of alternative programs would not be ‘the end of the world.’  Students and parents in Canada’s largest urban school systems like Toronto, Edmonton and Vancouver, already have many school choice options and have “open school boundaries” allowing students to attend schools of their own choice.  School district “boundary reviews” provoke an intense public outcry for good reason – the school board is dictating where your children are going to attend school.

School choice is gradually emerging as a fundamental human right for students and families. Choosing the best school for your child should not be so difficult or next-to-impossible without significant financial means. School systems would benefit from being more open and responsive to a wider range of student needs and aspirations. The only challenge is to build in safeguards to prevent a mass exodus and to ensure that actions are taken to improve under-performing schools. That is the kind of “transition planning” that will make a real difference in the lives and educational outcomes of students.

Why is the School Choice Debate in Canada so theory-ridden and ideologically stilted?  Why do School Choice advocates rely so heavily on Milton Friedman and the free market theorists? Why, on the other hand, do Canada’s so-called ‘educational progressives’ cling to the established system and respond with cliche-ridden critiques of creeping “neo-liberalism” and “privatization”?  What if we simply gave students and parents a wider array of public school options and stopped worrying about limiting their choices?

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“Taking back the schools” is a growing battle cry in America and it has now attracted the attention of Hollywood. In late September 2012, the feature film Won’t Back Down will hit North American movie theatres and stir further school reform activity. The much anticipated movie, featuring frustrated parents seeking to transform a “failing school” in Pittsburgh, PA, is a Norma Rae for the 21st century.  Produced by Walden Media, as a powerful sequel to Waiting for Superman (2010), the new drama film stars Maggie Gyllenhaal as a concerned  parent and Academy Award nominee Viola Davis as a teacher working together to marshall community support for a petition to restructure and turn around a low performing school.

   The film is already attracting widespread public attention and considerable critical fire from inside the school system. A Hollywood epic issuing a call to “Stand Up. Speak Out. Fight for Something Better” is sure to spark more “take back the schools” eruptions and might even fire-up parent activists with the film’s promotional cry of “Let’s Make our Schools Better!”  That’s heady stuff for passionate American school reformers, but will it resonate with Canadian parents harbouring similar concerns about their own local schools and wondering who actually drives and controls the publicly-funded school system?

Educational happiness is difficult to gauge and rarely measured in an objective fashion. Annual parent satisfaction surveys conducted by Dr. David Livingston at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education have become something of a joke inside and outside the Ontario public education world.  That is why the recent Ipsos Reid poll, released September 6, 2012, was so stunning for parents and educators. An overwhelming majority of Canadians (86%) now express concern about public elementary school children’s performance in Reading, Writing and Mathematics. Furthermore, three-quarters of those surveyed (75%) agree that “standardized testing” is “a good way” to measure and compare students’ performance against other provinces and countries.

Public concern about the state of K-12 public education, judging from the Epsos Reid survey, have rarely been higher.  Since the mid-1990s, provincial testing and accountability programs have dampened down parental concerns and sent out signals that Education Ministries and school boards were capable of listening and appropriating the language of “improving student learning.”  In major school boards like the Halifax Regional School Board, the public mantra has been “Every Child can Learn and Every School Can Improve.”  It has, however, mostly been top-down, system-wide accountability meant to raise “the water levels” for all schools within a provincial or regional system.

School choice and charter schools are demonstrating to American parents and families that schooling can be better and far more responsive to the needs of students and the real concerns of today’s parents.  While the American education system is in an absolute mess, public charters and independent “start-ups” are meeting a growing demand for quality education, particularly in poorer communities.   Over the past few years, parent trigger laws have popped-up in states and school districts and opened the door to some radical strategies for fixing struggling schools. Parent-trigger laws—now in California and  three other states—are even getting their “red carpet moment” at recent film showings of Won’t Back Down at both the Republican and Democratic conventions.

The CEO of Anschutz Film Group, David Weil, finds the irrational responses of Randi Weingarten to be completely over-the-top. He told Education Week that the film  story is not tied to “any one law or event,” and that the film depicts a number of parents and teacherscollaborating in making changes to a school, not doing battle. Several key characters, he said, “are teachers and are central heroes to the story.”

“We believe that teachers are the unsung heroes of our society and they represent our hope for the future as a nation,” Weil said. “When audiences screen the film in its entirety, they’ll find that the film tells the story of a school where the majority of the teachers are engaged and working to find solutions to the challenges they face in the system.” Weil cautioned against judging “Won’t Back Down” by its trailer. “Would you judge a book by its cover?” he said. While the preview “depicts some of the storylines and issues that are featured in the film,” he said, it is not meant to “summarize the plot.”

How happy are Canadian parents with their provincial school systems and local public schools?  Was the recent Ipsos Reid poll an accurate reflection of deep concerns over the teaching of Reading, Writing, and Math in public elementary schools?  Will the American film Won’t Back Down get a fair hearing in Canada or be dismissed in a fashion similar to that of  the powerful documentary film Waiting for Superman?

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School Choice and Equity was recently recognized by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) as a critical public policy issue throughout the educational world.  An OECD study with that title published by Pauline Musset on 24 January 2012 surveyed and assessed the range and variety of school choice in 34 different countries. While Canada was among the countries included, much of the Canadian data was incomplete, rendering any definitive evaluation of where we stand virtually impossible. Not only that, but the detailed bibliography contained no academic research whatsoever emanating from Canada.   http://www.oecd.org/officialdocuments/publicdisplaydocumentpdf/?cote=EDU/WKP%282012%293&docLanguage=En

The Toronto Globe and Mail’s Erin Anderssen followed up on February 17, 2012 with a feature story, “Inequitable Schooling,” purporting to be responding to the OECD study, School Choice and Equity. Departing from Musset’s OECD paper, Anderssen focused almost entirely on one particular aspect — the potential impact of parental choice on “equality” within the educational system. http://m.theglobeandmail.com/life/parenting/education/school/why-inequality-is-growing-in-public-schools/article2341085/?service=mobile

Faced with incomplete data, the Globe writer, left to her own devices, cobbled together interviews from educators, parents and education school professors. In many ways, the piece missed the entire point of the OECD study and simply reinforced conventional educational thinking here in Canada. In what amounted to a Freudian slip, the OECD study was even misidentified as a report on “School Choice and Equality.”

Why take issue with The Globe and Mail ‘s Family and Relationships section story? For one simple reason: It completely ignores the OECD study’s most significant findings and the compelling case it presents for extending school choice to improve both student performance and social equity.  Nor does the piece ask the most fundamental question of all – why Canada stands out as one of the few countries not actively introducing school choice within the publicly-funded system.

The facts presented in the OECD report would be startling to most Canadians with children in the school system.  Over the past 25 years, over two-thirds of the OECD countries have increased “school choice opportunities for parents.”  Choice programs, Musset notes, “can be perceived as leading to a general improvement in the quality of education, and fostering efficiency and innovation.”  She also recognizes that school choice can “exacerbate inequities” if it is not introduced in a careful fashion seeking to balance “parental right to choose with the social imperative of equity.”

The OECD report, unlike Anderssen’s article, reaffirms the right and desire of most parents to choose a school.  It assesses the availablity of choice across the range of OECD countries, albeit with fragmentary evidence from Canada.  Countries offering the greatest school choice, according an OECD principals survey, are Australia, Japan, the Slovak Republic, and Belgium, and not the United States.

On average across OECD countries, 85% of students are enrolled in public education. Sixteen of the 33 countries (48.5%) have 10% or more of their students enrolled in either government-dependent or government-independent private schools. Five countries have adopted fee zones for attendance, eliminating districting by school planners: The Netherlands, New Zealand, Chile, Italy, and Belgium.  Most significantly, the OECD reports that private schools clearly outperform public schools in only three countries: Slovenia, Canada, and Ireland.

School choice, according to the report, “has become prevalent across OECD countries, and is increasing.”   While  United States school choice policy initiatives garner much public debate, the OECD study highlights different models, most notably Sweden’s voucher system.  Since 1992, Sweden — unlike Finland — has had a universal voucher system where grants follow the child and a voucher can be used to pay tuition in a private, independent, non-denominational school.  In this social democracy, all places are open to sudents on a “first come, first served” basis and private schools cannot charge more than the per pupil grant for tuition. Both The Netherlands and Chile also have universal progressive voucher systems.

Targeted school choice programs are more common in the United States. In states like Wisconsin and Ohio, school choice initiatives were tailored specifically for students from disadvantaged families. The initial Milwaukee voucher program, started in 1990, was strictly limited to serving lower income families, whereas Ohio’s state-wide educational choice scholarship program, introduced in 2006 and limited to students in “failing schools” , expanded to serve 34 school districts and 213 schools by 2008. Outside of Alberta, few Canadian school boards, except for Ontario’s largest, the Toronto District School Board and one or two others, have dared to hint at moving in this direction.

The OECD study did not, as The Globe story implies, obsess over the potential inequalities resulting from giving parents freedom of choice in education. It was identified as a possible consequence, but the report also recognized the “imperfections” associated with “a single provider system.”  The OECD actually reached the opposite conclusion. “A careful design of school choice schemes,” Musset asserted,  “can allow (education authorities/ districts) to combine parental freedom, enhanced opportunities for disadvantaged children and equity.”(p. 43)

Public discussion of school choice in Canada remains at a very primitive level. Since the mid-1990s, the Society for Quality Education has performed yeoman service championing the caise of parental choice in the face of a rather intransigent public education system.  A recent move by the York Region District School Board to eliminate the Arts@Baythorn program has backfired badly on defenders of the one-size-fits-all public education system.  It has succeeded in arousing parents seeking arts enrichment English programs in an otherwise “choice-less” school district.  http://www.yrdsb.edu.on.ca/pdfs/a/agenda/ms/sc120124/yrdsb-sc120124-p1-20.pdf

Defenders of the single provider education system are marshalling their forces with the support of the usual band of OISE education professors. A recent TVO  program The Agenda, hosted by Steve Paikin, gave Annie Kidder of People for Education so much airtime that everyone was left confused  about the real issues at stake. Her posts on P4E’s Blog reveal a particular fondness for social solidarity based upon a vague notion of “common school” experience.  http://schools-at-the-centre.ning.com/forum/topics/choice-specialty-schools-and

All is not lost. Most encouraging has been the rise of a School Choice movement centred in York Region, north of Toronto.  http://yorkregionwantschoice.org/ ” School doesn’t have to be boring,” York Region advocates say. ” If it’s the right school for the right kid, it can be a wonderful, stimulating experience. Many kids can find this social and educational success at their home school. But not all…. If you feel that the children, the rate-payers, and the communities of York Region are no less deserving of educational choice and opportunity than people in the Catholic board, the Toronto board, the Peel board, or the many others, it’s time to raise your voice. Because after April 4, these opportunities for our children could be lost forever.”

School choice is on the horizon and Canadian educational authorities, except possibly for those in Alberta and Metropolitan Toronto, are still in denial.  Why is Canada now an outlier among the leading OECD countries?  Why is school choice essentially absent from the research agenda at OISE and other faculties of education?  What is standing in the way of a wide-open public debate over the current “single provider” system and the policy option of allowing parents the freedom to choose their children’s schools?

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American investigative journalist Steven Brill, author of the latest book entitled Class Warfare, has stirred up another hornet’s nest in the world of education. The main title of the book is exactly the same as that of an earlier Canadian title, Maude Barlow and Heather-jane Robertson’s Class Warfare: The Assault on Canada’s Schools, but the two books inhabit parallel universes in education. Each book casts teacher unionism in a radically different light and offers a completely different prescription for what ails public education.

Brill, the founder of American Lawyer magazine and Court TV, is certainly a quick study. Just two years ago, he stumbled into the School Wars while writing a feature for The New Yorker about the New York City public system’s “rubber rooms” where teachers accused of misconduct were hived-off, putting in time for full pay, sometimes for years on end. His brand new book, Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America’s Schools, probes deeply into the state of the school reform movement in the United States. http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2011/08/26/steven-brill-on-school-reform-in-new-book-class-warfare.print.html

The American Education Debate sparked by Brill’s Class Warfare is reminiscent of the furor generated by the 2010 feature film Waiting for Superman. His book explores the origins of President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top program, the success of American public charter schools, and the plight of idealistic teachers chewed up by the system. What emerges is another stinging critique of American teacher unionism and its new defenders, Diane Ravitch, Deborah Meier and the so-called “school reform deniers.” http://blogs.reuters.com/great-debate/2011/08/21/the-school-reform-deniers/

Barlow and Robertson’s 1996 book Class Warfare responded to Canadian education critics by raising alarm bells about the so-called “privatization” of the Canadian educational system. The Canadian duo, unlike Brill, completely rejected any and all evidence that the public schools were failing our kids. “Our literacy rates are among the highest in the world, ” they declared. “We are turning out scientists faster than the economy can absorb them. And our curriculum reflects the kind of society Canadians want.” Big corporations, the Christian right, and Albertan charter schoolers were painted black and the Canadian teacher unions were the “progressives” virtually at one with godliness. http://www.chapters.indigo.ca/books/Class-Warfare-Assault-Canadas-Schools-Maude-Barlow-Heather-Jane-Robertson/9781550135596-item.html

Barlow and Robertson quickly became the darlings of the Canadian teachers federations and were, in hindsight, the first generation of Canadian “school reform deniers.” Presidents of Ontario’s local teacher union branches, like Fred Mayor and Lynn Johnston (York Region), provided elected school trustees with free copies to immunize them against “the attack on public education as it continues on many fronts.” At a time before the return of standardized testing when charter schools were merely a concept, the Ontario teacher unions saw Barlow and Robertson as the first line of defense against “business interests” seeking “control over public education.”

American political and civic leaders, unlike their Canadian counterparts, have undergone quite an awakening. Liberal Democrats like former San Diego schools head Alan Bersin led the way and came to the same realization as Joel Klein, Superintendent of New York’s schools. “It didn’t even take me ninety days,” Bersin reports in Class Warfare, “before I went from being a Democrat who always thought the unions were the good guys to realizing that unions were not the good guys—that the Democratic Party and the school reform movement had run into a rock because of the transformation of the teachers’ union movement from the ’60s to the ’90s from a progressive force to the most conservative force in the mix.”

Canadian educational leaders, with a few notable exceptions, remain oblivious to such discoveries. Among the national press British Columbia columnist Gary Mason is one of those who has, at least, begun to ask the right questions. In The Globe and Mail (August 25, 2011, he drew attention to the inherent lessons of Steven Brill’s new book. While Mason clearly sees that the American education system is in far worse shape than ours, he continues to be critical of unions like the BC Teachers Federation for their blind adherence to the status quo. For him, the BCTF’s rigidity and defense of teacher tenure is indicative of a broader problem. The rhetoric is “progressive”; the real priority is now “union protection” not the kids. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/opinions/opinion/teachers-who-dont-deserve-union-protection/article2140640/

American education is in the throes of a crisis where there is no room for complacency. Yet the standard line of defense in Canadian education still follows the same “talking points” served up in Barlow and Robertson’s 1996 book. School reforms like charter schools and teacher quality initiatives are too often simply dismissed as “privatization” initiatives. Stripping away the progressive “talking points,” the union’s progressive talk amounts to a defense of special entitlements, iron-clad contracts, and empty slogans that stand in the way of genuine school reform and public accountability for results.

The American Education Debate sparked by Brill’s Class Struggle is the latest round in what has become a noisy “dialogue of the deaf.” Any hopes for an American adult conversation on classroom reform were quickly dashed when shouting matches broke out in the media among those on various sides of the education debate.

In Canada, the fundamental debate remains sublimated or muffled by the relative power and influence of the “core interests” who dominate provincial education systems – the superintendents, education faculties, and the teacher unions, staunchly supported by the Canadian Education Association and its surrogates. Even the most prominent parent advocacy group, People for Education, simply parrots the “fund more of the same” philosophy of the American school reform deniers. http://www.peopleforeducation.com/

What lies at the root of the problem identified in Steven Brill’s Class Warfare? Should Canadians be asking similar questions about their provincial education systems? How long will the Barlow-Robertson line of defense survive in the face of growing concerns and the undeniable success of Alberta Education reforms, such as school choice, charter schools, and the public engagement initiative? When will the worm turn in Canadian public education?

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The new documentary film Waiting for Superman packs quite a wallop.  Directed by Davis Guggenheim of An Inconvenient Truth, it promotes school choice, champions charter schools, and blames teacher unions for much of what ails American public education. It has also taken the educational world by storm since its debut at the Toronto International Film Festival.  On September 20th, The Oprah Winfrey Show focused on the film and featured a discussion including Bill Gates, an enthusiastic supporter of the project.  The cover of New York Magazine asked “Can One Little Movie Save America’s Schools?” and Tom Friedman heaped praise on the film in The New York Times. American TV networks are rolling out programs based upon the film and Time Magazine  is planning a full-scale conference on the theme.

Public and media reaction to Waiting for Superman in the United States has been, in a word, “rapturous.”  Not so in Canada, where the film first exploded upon the scene.  Indeed, the first public response by Dr. Jane Gaskell, former Education Dean at OISE/Toronto, threw cold water on the entire production.  In The Toronto Star (September 16), Gaskell blew a gasket, denouncing the movie, the Gates Foundation, and all those who might think its lessons apply here in Canada.

The world premiere of Waiting for Superman sparked a  mini-explosion within the Ontario education establishment.  It also proved Doretta Wilson and the Society for Quality Education right, once again.    http://www.societyforqualityeducation.org/index.php/blog/read/if-they-could-just-get-some-kryptonite/

The call for Charter Schools in Canada always hits a raw nerve at OISE and among the usual apologists for the current system.  Since the  emergence of Charter Schools in the early 1990s, the official reaction has been apoplectic. The Canadian educational establishment, under stress, becomes an impenetrable public fortress beholden to its core interests, bureaucratic solidarity and union rights.  Instead of fairly evaluating proposals to broaden School Choice, we are treated, time after time, to a defensive response casting aspersions on the motives of its proponents. Even though up to 33% of student learning is determined by teacher effectiveness, addressing the critical issue of teacher quality is never on the agenda.

Charter schools have been with us in Canada for over 15 years.  They are publicly-funded, autonomous schools which are formed to “provide innovative or enhanced education programs that improve the acquisition of student skills, attitudes, and knowledge in some measurable way.” (Alberta Education, 2010). The first Canadian charter schools in Alberta were the result of the tireless campaigning of Dr. Joe Freedman, a fiercely determined radiologist from Red Deer, Alberta. Since  March 1994, Alberta has been the only province to authorize charters.  Today, Alberta continues to embrace “School Choice” in public education and to support 13 different charter schools. (www.education.alberta.ca)

Following the breakthrough in Alberta, education reform groups favouring “School Choice” mounted a campaign in Ontario and in Atlantic Canada. The Ontario Coalition for Education Reform, the Society for Quality Education, and the Atlantic Institute of Market Studies (AIMS) all embraced the cause. Inspired by Dr. Freedman and American advocates of charters, the groups held conferences and published pamphlets proclaiming Charter Schools “an idea whose time has come.”  The frenzied activity peaked in 1997 and then stalled when educational authorities closed ranks and attempted to out-flank the proponents by embracing a domesticated version of student testing and accountability. The Vancouver-based Fraser Institute, normally an ally, undermined the whole effort by publishing a “Freedom Index” suggesting (erroneously) that Canada’s public system already had more educational choice than the United States.

Parental choice remains very popular in Canada, in spite of the current constraints in the system. Today’s parents are very much aware of the success of Charter Schools in New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and in parts of the United States.  Many Canadian parents with high expectations for their children are aware of the KIPP schools thriving in the U.S.

In Alberta, the existing Charter Schools have survived, but still face surprisingly strong institutional resistance, fueled by the teacher unions. A recent January 2010 Canada West Foundation report, “Innovation in Action: An Examination of Charter Schools in Alberta,” put it best: Alberta’s chartering legislation is a straight-jacket which amounts to “the equivalent of clipping a bird’s wings and then asking it to fly.” (www.cwf.ca)  Still, there is hope and a few signs of progress.  Forward-looking school systems, like the Edmonton Board, the Toronto Public Board, and the Langley BC Board, have embraced school-based management and allowed more choice within their schools.

Now for the Big Question: Living as we do in a North American cultural universe, will Waiting for Superman awaken Canadians to the possibilities of school choice and the advantages of charter schools?  Can a “little Hollywood movie” put Charter Schools back on the education reform agenda? And if  Charter Schools are sanctioned in other Canadian provinces, how do we ensure that their wings are not clipped at birth by those ingenious educrats and their system “partners”?

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