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Archive for the ‘Comparative School Reform – North America’ Category

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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An 87-year-old education reformer from the Land of Thomas Jefferson and the University of Virginia is now taking education in the United Kingdom by storm.  Since being rediscovered by former British Education Secretary Michael Gove, E.D. Hirsch, founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation, is enjoying a renaissance. He’s not only captured the attention of Britain’s brightest education scholar, Daisy Christodoulou, but is now finding a new and more receptive audience in Britain. His recent Policy Exchange Public Lecture on September 17, 2015, has made him the darling of education’s chattering class.

EDHirschLecturePosterHirsch is being rediscovered by a whole new generation of thoughtful, better-read educators completely fed-up with the “content-lite” curriculum predominant in state schools the U.K. and still blithely accepted across North America. He burst on the American national education scene in 1987 with the publication of Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs To Know, which – in a rare act of intellectual courage– proposed 5,000 subjects and concepts that every American ought to know to be considered a ‘fully educated person.’ He followed it up with his true educational classic, The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them (1999). That book spawned the Core Knowledge Foundation which works across the United States to publish “core content” materials and specifies the knowledge and skills which ought to be taught in every school year.

The educational pendulum tends to swing and today E.D. Hirsch is literally born again as both a wise prophet and a resilient education reformer. Once dismissed as an American “conservative” educator and purveyor of “hard facts,” he’s now being cherished in Britain as a stalwart defender of “knowledge” in state school systems seemingly mesmerized by teaching “competencies and skills” for the 21st century world. Educators everywhere are awakening to the fallacies entrenched in so-called “progressive education” dogma. If everything can now be “Googled,” why do we have schools?

Even though Hirsch is a liberal Democrat, he has been labelled in the United States as an arch-conservative for daring to question the basic premises of John Dewey’s “learn by doing” brand of education.  In his September 2015 Policy Exchange lecture series, he demonstrates that teaching knowledge to young children is egalitarian because it provides the foundation for becoming better early readers and more informed young citizens. Developing a sound vocabulary and knowledge about the world, not only aid in reading but make for more successful students. Developing that knowledge base is a “plant of slow growth,” so the early years are important to establishing the foundations.

Hirsch is no fan of the fashionable 21st century “students can teach themselves” school of thought. Search engines, he told his British audience at Pimlico Academy, cannot be relied upon to teach vital knowledge. “Google is not an equal opportunity fact-finder”: it requires some knowledge to know where to look in the first place and then to determine whether the information is completely bogus. It’s like fumbling around in a dark room looking for the light switch or trying to find that needle in that massive electronic haystack.

MassachussettsMiracleGraph2011Hirsch’s  teachings actually flow from a very logical, common sense educational premise: knowledge matters because knowing something remains important — and knowledge builds on knowledge; the more you know, the more you are able to learn. Twenty years ago, in 1993,  the State of Massachusetts adopted his “core knowledge curriculum” model and, since then, has surged ahead of the pack among American states. While American education schools, including Columbia, Harvard, and Boston College flirt with Finnish education, the United Kingdom has latched onto the “Massachusetts Miracle” and its initial inspiration, Hirsch’s Core Knowledge curriculum.

What we know about reading comprehension owes much to Hirsch.  As a professor of English Literature in his mid-fifties, he made a discovery about how reading is taught that, in his words, “changed his life.”  The prevalence of poor reading and writing skills among incoming university students troubled him and he set out to address the “literacy gap.”  It was most evident in classes where teachers embraced “reader-response” strategies in the study of literature.

Hirsch is best known as a scholar for his impeccable, in-depth research into reading comprehension.  He observed that “knowledgeable students” had an easier time comprehending the texts, and then discovered that reading comprehension was greatly enhanced by the early acquisition of “background knowledge.” His ground-breaking studies, summarized in a Spring 2003 American Educator article, demonstrated that the so-called “fourth grade slump” and stagnating reading scores could be traced back to a fundamental lack of background knowledge as well as weak foundational skills.

His research discoveries were transformed into what became the Core Knowledge curriculum framework. It rests on two key principles: 1) Coherent, cumulative factual knowledge is vital for reading comprehension, literacy, and critical higher-order thinking skills; and 2) Children from poor, illiterate homes remain disadvantaged and illiterate because of a lack of cultural literacy and core background knowledge.  Not addressing that problem constituted  “an unacceptable failure of our schools.”

The “Massachusetts Miracle, “ initiated with the 1993 Education Reform Act, is closely connected with the adoption of  knowledge-based standards for all grades and a rigorous testing system linked to those new standards. Between 2003 and 2011, Massachusetts students have soared to higher levels on the NAEP tests in grade 4 and grade 8 reading and mathematics. It is also commonly acknowledged that the state standards are Hirsch’s legacy. That is, more than anything else, what attracted the British Education authorities to Hirsch and the advantages of a core knowledge-based curriculum.

Hirsch’s curriculum reform agenda implemented in the Bay state spread to about 1,000 U.S. schools, driven by charter school adoptions. While his Core Knowledge framework faced fierce opposition from the Columbia School of Education and entrenched “educational progressives,” the architect of the project remained a determined, almost incurable optimist. The American Common Core reform initiative attempted to mimmic his curriculum with mixed success. The British version, promoted by former Education Secretary Gove, is more closely aligned with his model and will likely be a fairer test of its effectiveness.

Why have American education reformer E.D. Hirsch and his Core Knowledge Curriculum come once again to the fore? How much of the “Massachusetts Miracle” is attributable to the adoption of the core-knowledge curriculum, standards and accountability program ?  What went wrong when the United States attempted to implement the Common Core Curriculum with the sanction of the Barack Obama administration? How important is the mastery of content and the acquisition of knowledge in the most successful schools worldwide?

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Thirty-five years ago Peter McLaren’s memoir Cries from the Corridor not only exposed the gritty underside of Canada’s inner ring suburbs, but disrupted much of the complacency afflicting education authorities everywhere. The young Toronto-born, 32-year-old teacher published his personal diaries describing, in considerable detail, his real life school experiences in “The Jungle,” as North York’s Jane-Finch corridor was labeled in those days.  It was a totally authentic, brutally honest little book that attracted rave popular press reviews and was recognized as a surprise 1980 Canadian bestseller by The Toronto Star and Maclean’s magazine.

PeterMclarenMcLaren was breaking the established rules and telling tales out-of-school. Today, reading the original version, a heavily used 1981 PaperJacks edition, is to marvel at the young teacher’s graphic descriptions, searing insights and honest portrayal of life in the middle school trenches. Sensationalist magazine writers ate it up and, rather predictably, seasoned education faculty members like Gordon West pronounced the book of “limited academic utility” because it portrayed “individualized and isolated students” and stopped short of analyzing the total context of “working class life.”

McLaren’s little diary account did more to raise public consciousness about the plight of inner city schools than any Canadian education book ever written. Yet, as an aspiring academic, McLaren was troubled by the sensational media treatment labeling kids and communities as “losers” and stung by the theoreticians and what amounted to academic carping. Within five years, he had acquired a University of Toronto PhD in Education, been released from a Brock University lecturing position, and disappeared from the Canadian scene.

Writing Cries from the Corridor and pursuing graduate studies radicalized Peter McLaren and he gradually shed his reputation as a ‘hands on’ veteran inner city teacher insufficiently schooled in critical theory, Marxist literature, cultural studies, and feminist research.  He was essentially rescued in 1985 by an American-born radical scholar Dr. Henry Giroux who invited him to Miami University of Ohio to help start a Cultural Studies Center dedicated to advancing “critical pedagogy”and exposing the dangers of global capitalism dressed up in the guise of “neo-liberalism.”

Gradually, McLaren was transformed from a disciple of critical postmodernism into a secular prophet of Marxist-infused revolutionary pedagogy. He renounced his original venture, Cries from the Corridor, saying that he “grew to dislike the book” and went so far as to sate that it now “disgusted” him because it totally lacked “a coherent philosophy of praxis.” For the next thirty years, through six rewrites, as a key component of a larger book, Life in Schools, he managed to expunge the bad parts and generate a radical textbook to prepare teachers for resistance against global capitalism and its attendant problems.

If Giroux was has mentor, then the Brazilian radical scholar Paulo Freire became his North Star.  While at Miami University, Freire invited him to a conference in Cuba and he came into contact with Brazilians and Mexicans that shared his vision and ideas. After several sojourns to Latin America, McLaren grew disenchanted with postmodern theory and was drawn to Marxism. “I was haunted by the realization, ” he recalled in 2003, “that I had not sufficiently engaged the work of Marx and Marxist thinkers.”

Increasingly influenced by Freire and “Marxist anti-colonial projects” in the Americas, McLaren’s Marxism deepened and he saw “the Marxist critique” as the key to confronting “the differentiated totalities of contemporary society and their historical imbrications in the world system of global capitalism.” After eight years at Miami of Ohio, he taught as a Professor of Education at the University of California, Los Angeles from 1993 to 2013 and is now Distinguished Professor and Co-Director of the Paulo Freire Democratic Project at Chapman University, Orange, CA.

LifeinSchoolsCoverProfessor McLaren has lost none of his zeal and is the author of nearly 50 books and his writings have been translated into over 25 languages.  Five of his books have won the Critics Choice Award of the American Educational Studies Association.  His most influential text, Life in Schools: An Approach to Critical Pedagogy in the Foundations of Education, is now in its sixth edition, and contains his revised version of Cries from the Corridor. Among global radical scholars, he is now mentioned and considered alongside Freire, Ivan Illich, Pierre Bourdieu and E.P. Thompson. Much like Freire, he embraces “revolutionary critical pedagogy” and seeks to “create pedagogical spaces and contexts for the oppressed to fashion their own understandings of their shared history of struggle.”

McLaren is what university students would describe as a strange bird with the unmistakable style of an ‘aging sixties radical.’  An April 2006 UCLA News story described him as “a cross between a rock star and a motorbike enthusiast.” When a foolhardy conservative UCLA grad posted a Hit List of the “Dirty Thirty” left-wing faculty, he topped the list and achieved even greater notoriety across the United States.

McLaren is an engaged scholar who devotes his teaching life to awakening students to the potential for radical social change. His faculty office at UCLA was crammed with revolutionary memorabilia and objects of art, including busts of Lenin, Marx and Mao.  His right shoulder bears a tattoo of Cuba revolutionary Che Guevera and Mexico’s Emiliano Zapata is tatooed on his left shoulder. “Both struggled for peasants,” he told a wide-eyed UCLA reporter, and “I will die with them someday.”

What if — Peter McLaren had stayed in Canada and capitalized on the public awakening unleashed by his ground-breaking 1980 book?  No doubt his intellectual journey might have been different and perhaps less consumed by the internal doctrinal battles on the intellectual Left. In the company of critical education theorists Freire and Giroux his focus has shifted from the “real life experiences” of working class youth to more rarified debates over “revolutionary praxis, ” the “Achimedian fulcrum,” and enlisting educators in the “war of position.”   No wonder renowned American education researcher Michael Apple finds the language of McLaren and the “critical theorists” so “abstract and confusing.”

Reading and attempting to fathom Peter McLaren’s recent writings reminded me of a critical issue raised by the late British social historian E.P. Thompson in his famous 1978 essay, The Poverty of Theory. While Thompson was responding, at the time, to Stalinism and the preponderant influence of Louis Althusser on European Marxism, he also exposed the excesses of “mechanical Marxism” and “ideological totalitarianism” that tends to obscure rather than shine light on the real lives lived in working class communities.

Working people and youth, Thompson, claimed “made their own lives” and were not simply the victims of “a series of interlocking events” that amounted to “a post-facto determinism.” Getting absorbed with dialectical materialism, according to Thompson, can become “an excuse for not studying history.” He also reminded us of one of Leon Trotsky’s philosophical gems: “an ignoramous, armed with the materialist dialectic….inevitably makes a fool of himself.”

Try to imagine what the inner city children and youth in McLaren’s Cries from the Corridor would make of some of his recent writings on “critical revolutionary pedagogy” and the “totality” of “neoliberal hegemony.” Speaking the same language might be a good starting point if we are ever to really confront the very real, deeply rooted problems facing youth in today’s inner city and rougher suburban schools.

What really happened to the Peter McLaren who wrote Cries from the Corridor?  Why did he later renounce his role in  producing a brutally honest, unvarnished record of a young teacher’s struggles to reach students in a tough suburban school? What if — McLaren had encountered E.P. Thompson and focused more on exposing and documenting the real lives of struggling students?  Thirty years on, would McLaren have been less inclined toward guarding “proletarian science” and less absorbed the rather esoteric world of “academicism”?

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A British grassroots, teacher-led movement, known as researchED, is emerging as a new player in the rather closely-knit, education school-centred, internally-referenced world of education policy research.  It originated, almost by accident in 2013, when Tom Bennett (no relation) with assistance from  Helene O’Shea, came up with the idea of holding a conference exploring school-level and system-wide research into “what works in education.” What a revolutionary idea!

ResearchEdlogoOn the first Saturday after school opened in September 2013, over 500 British educators, policy wonks, and researchers came to Dulwich College simply to “talk, listen and learn.” With the support of former UK policy advisor Sam Freedman and The Guardian columnist Ben Goldacre, the incipient movement took-off and spread across Britain. The movement founder, Tom Bennett, who ran Soho night clubs before entering teaching, became its passionate emissary and pied piper, sponsoring follow-up events in York and Birmingham. When both were sell-outs, researchED began to develop even more expanding throughout 2014 , far beyond the wildest dreams of its pioneers.

Tom Bennett and ResearchEd have tapped into the creativity, energy and ideas of regular teachers and “ideas people’ from outside the normal cloistered world of academe and the “fad-prone” educational bureaucracy. While accepting the critical value of “educational experience,” Tom and his supporters see “huge areas” that are “amenable to scientific investigation” utilizing insights from other subject disciplines, not just psychology. “It’s time teachers started insisting upon evidence,” Tom declares, “before being expected to accept every claim and magic bullet sent their way. It’s time for a quiet revolution.”

The ResearchEd movement has not only expanded, but amassed considerable brainpower — mostly from outside the established OECD Education circles.  Surveying the ResarchEd contributors, now numbering well over 60 individuals, it’s a very eclectic, diverse group of thinkers ranging from Founder and Chief Executive of the Teacher Development Trust David Weston and Times Education Supplement editor Ann Mroz to Science Education specialist Mary Whitehouse and well-known Head Teacher Tom Sherrington.

The UK’s Teacher Conference success story of 2014 comes to the USA in early May of 2015.  The first North American ResearchEd conference will be on Saturday May 2, 2015 at the Riverside School in the Bronx area of New York City. One look at the line-up of speakers and you can see that it will be a ground-breaking day for teachers, academics, and anyone interested in finding out what the latest research really says about how to improve classrooms and schools. Some of America’s and the UK’s most prominent thought leaders, academics and educators will be there, very few of whom were invited to the recent ISTP2015 Conference in Banff, Alberta, dominated by education ministers, union leaders, and hand-picked ‘friendlies.’

One example of ResearchED’s iconoclastic spirit appeared in the April Issue of its online magazine.  “Only one in ten education reforms,” Gemma Ware of The Conversation reported, is ever “analyzed for their impact.” Based upon an OECD study covering 34 member countries from 2008 to 2013, that was worth reporting. So was OECD education director Andreas Schleicher’s comment that the education world needs a “more systematic and evidence-based approach to reforms.” Most significantly, Finnish education guru Pasi Sahlberg is quoted as conceding that education authorities have little appetite for spending more studying “failure.”

In today’s education world, ResearchED is a breath of fresh air with a commitment to bringing the UnConference to the neglected field of education policy research. Inspired partly by the progressive EdCamp movement. it may pose a threat to the ‘usual suspects’ like education experts Michael Fullan, Andy Hargreaves, and Pasi Sahlberg who tend to identify trends, feed-off one another,  and tap into the educational treasure chest of  OECD Education and state education authorities. Not to mention plowing those resources into the very traditional pedantic, OISE-centred graduate student KMb (Knowledge Mobilization) research movement.  What’s appealing about Tom Bennett’s grassroots insurgency is it’s cheekiness and willingness to tilt at the windmills propelling the modern education state.

Does the ResearchED movement have the potential to challenge popular ‘fads and fetishes’ that constantly wash over public education?  Can regular teachers be engaged in assisting to develop research-based, workable solutions to the system’s chronic problems? Will Tom Bennett’s little ‘quiet revolution’ move beyond simply stirring the pot? Will the North American education establishment even notice the little disturbance in the Bronx?

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North American educational technology futurists see great things ahead in 2015.  After marveling at the amazing technological advances of 2014, the Ed Tech promoters at Getting Smart.com are even more bullish about the year ahead. What excites them? The new problems to be solved, the innovative power of technology, the promise of edu-resolutions, and the infinite possibilities ahead for students and teachers.

NewYear2015Optimism is fine, but heralding the coming of Ed Tech “Heaven” is indicative of what might be termed a 21st century “New Light” technological futurism.  How individuals, institutions, and school culture respond to technological change is fast emerging as the critical issue in today’s education world.  What now passes for educational forecasting, pitting the “Heaven” of the optimists versus the “Hell” of the pessimists,  is actually more akin to what Joel Garreau (2005) aptly labelled the “Prevail” or “Muddling Through” scenario.  With technology advancing, the idealism of the movement has given way to the “Prevail” option testifying to “the power of humans to muddle through extraordinary circumstances.”

Getting Smart sounds positively overflowing with optimism .  “What’s a new year without optimism?,” the lead blogger asks in rhetorical fashion. “Without a positive outlook on all things capable? What’s a new year without gathering to peer at the horizon of where we could be headed if we’re all in this together?” In its first post of 2015, Getting Smart, buoyed by fellow Ed Tech enthusiasts at Digital Promise, not only took time to celebrate the launch of Smart ParentsGenDIY, and the new year by examining how 2015 will be different for parents and students.

The Getting Smart 2015 predictions are lofty and perhaps typical of the rather pollyannish thinking of ed tech futurists:

1. With increased access to anytime, anywhere learning, students will have more options than ever to personalize their education in 2015.

2. Lots of schools and districts will move from planning mode to implementation mode on efforts related to personalized and blended learning.

3.  Parents will become more knowledgeable about the opportunities available to their students thanks to personalized, blended learning, ultimately resulting in more smart parents.

4. 2015 will provide even better student experiences for quality online and blended higher education through the personalization of virtual learning, including more cohorts and webinars, allowing them to tailor their degree program.

5.  The millennial generation will show us the way as Generation Do-It-Yourself (GenDIY), educators and EdLeaders will now shape instruction, strategies, and practices to best fit the jobs of today and tomorrow.

6. Solutions to a handful of EdTech issues will emerge in 2015 making it easier to combine formative data, compare student growth rates, and acknowledge progress, and hopefully improving guidance and counseling systems.

Taking a closer look at the Getting Smart prognostications, the initial over-the-top optimism seems to be rooted in a firm belief in a technology-driven society.  They also reflect the pragmatic optimism of the so-called “Prevail” camp.  As American education technology researcher Adam Therier puts it in The Technology Liberation Front,  today’s ed tech promoters focus not so much on its transformative powers as on how we can adapt and learn to cope with technological disruption and prosper in the process.

Modern thinking on the impact of technological change on societies continues to be largely dominated by skeptics and critics. From the French philosopher Jacques Ellul (The Technological Society) to Neil Postman (Technopoly) and Nicholas Carr (The Shallows), social critics have alerted us to the potential for the subjugation of humans to “technique” or “technics” and feared that technology and technological processes would come to control us before we learned how to control them.

Postman, perhaps best known as co-author of the 1968 classic, Teaching as a Subversive Activity, had a way of capturing your attention. The rise of a “technopoly”, he wrote, would mean “the submission of all forms of cultural life to the sovereignty of technique and technology” — that would destroy “the vital sources of our humanity” and lead to “a culture without a moral foundation” by undermining “certain mental processes and social relations that make human life worth living.”

National education technology lobby groups like C21 Canada simply brush aside any such concerns in their overall pursuit of the so-called “Mind Shift” to “21st century learning.” Most of the C21 Canada initiative is focused on mobilizing education CEOs and tapping into corporate funding from the leading technology providers, most notably Pearson Canada. This top-down educational leadership strategy was exemplified in the C21 Canada partnership with the Council of Ministers of Education (CMEC) under past Chair Jeff Johnson and most recently in the announcement of a C21 CEO Academy composed of West Vancouver ed tech champion Chris Kennedy and 21 other school superintendents.

School-level examples of the “Mind Shift” ushered in by prophets of the new technology are still hard to find here in Canadian provincial school systems. Well- funded ICT projects initiated by Mind Share Learning produce rather uninspiring “Let’s Play with IT” student activity videos like Foggs Science Classes and How to Integrate ICT.  So far, it’s doubtful if such small-scale, teacher-led activities are making much of a difference in the classroom.

We can move forward with education technology without ignoring the more sobering prophecies and succumbing to the allure of “technics.”  What Adam Therier calls “permissionless innovation” is definitely needed in the education sector. Creating the spaces to experiment with new technologies and pedagodgies is critical if we are to take fuller advantage of the success of the Internet and the digital economy.  In doing so, however, let’s not lose our heads and succumb to the technopoly in all its insidious forms.  It’s also fair to ask whether the current C21 Canada approach led by the CEOs will ever lead to true bottom-up ‘disruptive innovation’ in the schools.

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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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A new Canadian study, “Teacher Incentive Pay That Works,” produced by Vicki Alger for the Fraser Institute, contends that performance bonuses and other incentives  for teachers would improve teaching and ultimately student achievement standards.  Since performance-based rewards are common in other professions, Alger makes the case that they should be adopted in education, as a means of ensuring that our students remain “competitive” on the world stage.

HattieBookCoverMaking the case for Teacher Merit Pay is popular in certain circles outside of education.  It may be a noble idea, designed to reward the high performers, but it tends to fall apart when we turn to the formidable challenge of implementation in the schools.

Two critical questions arise:  Would teachers respond to Teacher Pay Incentives by improving their teaching and focusing more on the performance of their students?  And, if so, should we tie teacher evaluation and salary increases, in part,  to student performance levels?  The Fraser Institute says “Yes,” but the current research on improving teacher quality indicates otherwise.

Most of the proposed and implemented schemes linking teacher evaluation/compensation with student performance levels are, in the words of leading Australian researcher Stephen Dinham, “half-baked plans.”  While the Fraser Institute researchers review ten global case studies, they are only able to identify three or four that are working effectively, namely those in Washington (DC), Dallas (TX), Chile, and the United Kingdom.  The Washington, DC, IMPACT Program, for example, was born out of a well-publicized “student performance crisis” during Commissioner Michelle Rhee’s short-lived tenure and the jury is still out on its ultimate effectiveness.

Teaching matters – and far more than North American ‘progressive” educators were ever prepared to admit. The prevailing notion, widely held since the 1960s, was that socio-economic status disadvantage (SES) was the main determinant of student performance. For students from disadvantages backgrounds and communities, SES and family background were like “life sentences.”  Recent research over the past 20 years, synthesized by New Zealander John Hattie, has essentially rejected that presumption. Poor student achievement, we know know, is far more spread out across the full SES spectrum.

HattieAchievementVarianceWhat really matters in influencing and determining student achievement?  Since the 2008 book Visible Learning by John Hattie, we can answer that question with far more certainty. Based upon a synthesis of hundreds of studies, Hattie has demonstrated that teachers and teaching really do matter. Although about 50 per cent of student performance is closely related to SES, prior learning, and home expectations, about 30 per cent of the achievement variance is determined by the quality of teaching.  School leadership, resources, and supports represent  about 20 % of the variance.

Teacher incentive and rewards programs may well work, but not the kind proposed by the Fraser Institute.  Indeed, leading Teacher Quality researchers Hattie and Dinham have both set out teacher improvement plans with a more convincing rationale, based upon actual in-school research. That’s why it’s a bit shocking not to find either Hattie or Dinham even referenced in the Fraser Institute study.

The Australian “Career Ladder” Teacher Performance plan and salary scale, initiated by Dr. Stephen Dinham, in 2009, is far superior to any referenced in the Fraser Institute study. Like the preferred Fraser Institute models, it is aimed at raising teaching standards  and tied, in part, to student performance data.  Where it differs is in its far more sophisticated and nuanced approach to fostering both higher quality teaching and professional growth. Instead of  jettisoning established salary scales, the Australian model builds in a more flexible, competency-based ladder to minimize the role of seniority in the career progression.

Here’s how it works.  Clear national performance standards are established for Australian teachers, with five levels reflecting stages of  professional competence and development. The teaching categories are: C1: Graduate/Certified; C2: Proficient (Regular); c3: Highly Proficient (Growth-Oriented); C4: Lead Teacher; and C5: School Leader.  You progress up the salary scale by achieving higher levels of competency, but are not rewarded unless and until you meet higher level teaching standards.  Standardized test results documenting student performance levels are used, in moderation, as one indicator among several of teacher quality and effectiveness.

The Australian plan may retain the familiar grid, but it also provides a pay-for-performance incentive. Salaries are calibrated according to professional performance levels akin to the professorial career ladder.  In the model, C1 teachers at $30,000 = 1.0; C2 teachers are 1.25 ($37,500); C3 teachers are 2.0 ($60,000); C4 teachers are 2.5 ($75.000); and C5 lead teachers are 3.0 ($9o,000). Teachers who demonstrate excellence and professional growth can be accelerated to higher levels; those who simply conform or stagnate are plateaued or assigned to a lower salary level.  Extremely talented teachers rise rapidly and stagnant teachers are, over a number of years, counselled out of the profession.

Improving the quality of teaching is now finally rising to the top of the Canadian education policy agenda.  Adopting “half-baked” schemes such as those currently being piloted or implemented in numerous American states is definitely not the way to go for our provincial systems.  In most of the best programs, student performance results are factored in, so the testing systems are critical to establishing benchmarks in a wider array of subjects, from elementary literacy and numeracy to high school subject exit exams.  Phasing out standardized tests makes little sense if you are serious about eventually factoring student performance into teacher assessment and compensation.

What might actually work to improve the quality of teaching in the schools?  Should we start by establishing professional teaching standards along the career ladder?  If the teacher salary grid was retained, but re-engineered around teacher competencies and performance levels, would teachers embrace that opportunity?  How long might it take to establish a set of student performance benchmarks that could reliably be integrated into teacher performance/compensation programs?

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