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Archive for the ‘Education Reform’ Category

Fifty years ago, in June of 1968, an Ontario government report, entitled, Living and Learning, captured the experimental flavour of the late 1960s and rocked the Ontario educational world.  While that report created a major creative disruption, it disappeared like a meteorite and, a decade later, was widely dismissed as a passing phase. Its influence in reaffirming progressive education’ ideals cannot be over-estimated and, in many ways, the ghost of Hall-Dennis haunts K-12 education still.  It remains the one report that sparked progressive thinking in provincial school systems right across Canada.

Looking back at the Hall-Dennis Report, is rewarding and opportune because it demonstrates the enduring value of historical-mindedness and provides a few lessons for present day education policy-makers. We can learn much from the excitement of its arrival, the fierce debate it provoked, and  its long-term impact on “progressive education.” Many ideas labeled ‘innovative’ in teaching and learning can be traced back to the pages of Living and Learning and the influence of those ideas can be seen in most elementary school classrooms to this day.

 When it first appeared, the Ontario Hall-Dennis Report, named after its co-chairs, Emmett Hall and Lloyd Dennis, was greeted with lavish praise, mostly generated by the Toronto popular media. Unlike previous dry and formalistic government reports, it conveyed a powerful message with catchy slogans such as “the truth shall make us free” and images of smiling children at play in the schools.

The attractive and well-packaged report was so impressive that even Ontario Education Minister William G. Davis was initially swayed by its charms.  Even though it was not formally endorsed by the Ontario government, it was essentially the brainchild of Deputy Education Minister J.R. (Jack) McCarthy and his freshly-recruited band of “progressive education” acolytes within the Department.

When the Report was released on June 12, 1968, the Toronto media were effusive in their praise for the three-year study with its 258 sweeping recommendations.  It was “a revolutionary blueprint for education,” The Toronto Daily Star proclaimed, and nothing short of “a radical program to liberate our school system.”Even the normally dour Toronto Globe and Mail jumped on the bandwagon.  With a big splash, The Globe’s news team of Barrie Zwicker and Douglas Sagi welcomed the Report as one that recommended “Ontario’s educational system be turned upside down and all the old ways of doing things be shaken from it.” Education Minister Davis’s mere presence at the official announcement was interpreted as an endorsement, even though he cautioned that it was only  “a step in the right direction for planning.”

 The initial editorials were equally rapturous and reflected the irreverent spirit of the times. In its lead editorial, The Globe and Mail heralded the Hall-Dennis Report as truly revolutionary in the sense that, unlike other commission or inquiry reports, it would not be “retired to gather dust.”  Its ringing endorsement of the report was total and unqualified:

The school system it envisions would abolish all the multiplicity of rigidities that now dominate the child, and set him free to search, with assistance, for the truth….What the report does is to set a goal –creative, conscienceful (sic), human –away out ahead of the solemn strivers in the present educational prisons. It may frighten and infuriate, but by degrees, it will also force, by its sheer rightness, the changes that we all know must be made.

Not to be outdone, The Toronto Daily Star appropriated “the language of the hippies” and noted that the Report “advises us to let every schoolchild ‘do his own thing.’” Conscious of how it sounded, the editorialists hastened to add that the “carefully reasoned recommendations of this excellent report” would never “stoop to such ‘pop’ language.” But it was too late for such qualifiers. Most of the popular commentaries latched onto the line that the Report was an open invitation for students to “do their own thing” in Ontario’s public schools.

The Globe and Mail’s influential and widely-read columnist Richard J. Needham quickly emerged as one of the Report’s champions. He was, in the mid-to- late 1960s, a popular but quixotic Toronto cultural figure, a balding, pipe-smoking and a ‘pied piper’ for the rising youth culture. Viewed by most parents as an aged “hippie,” he paid close attention to, and gave voice to, the young and restless.  Needham’s daily newspaper ramblings were wildly popular with school teachers and even read by more studious teens, like me.

Needham’s pronouncements on the Report carried some weight at the time. “It’s a good report,” he told his readers, because it reflected “what he had observed visiting hundreds of public schools over the previous three years.” In Needham’s familiar overblown rhetoric, it promised an end to “fear, threats, humiliations, beatings…”  He went even further. The “Ontario Establishment,” he wrote, “lives by fear, threats, humiliations, beatings; being anti-people, It doesn’t know any other way to run things…” He then offered this memorable prediction:

…the schools will keep right on being at worst operated like grim penitentiaries and at best like cloistered monasteries – cut off from the real world of life, strife, adventure, change, triumph, disaster, action, beauty, glory, and poetry. Stop thinking about the Taj Mahal and get your nose into that algebra book! Don’t you want a good job in the glue factory?

Inciting rabid debate and stirring a reaction was his stock-and-trade and the Hall-Dennis Report provided him with plenty of fodder.

Socially aware Ontario teens and ‘hip’ high school English teachers simply ate up Needham’s regular comments, especially on the subject “doing your own thing” over the objections of stuffy, old-fashioned parents. One of those receptive teens was Fred Freeman, a politically-active Grade 11 student at Toronto’s Bathurst Heights Collegiate.  He wholeheartedly agreed with Needham. There was “something wrong with the way high schools are run,” he told  The Toronto Daily Star. “Who else can decide what a student is to learn except the student himself,?” he asked, before complaining that being forced to study Latin from Grade 10 onward squelched his enjoyment of learning. Such viewpoints only echoed those of Needham and fixed, in the public mind, the distinct but rather misleading impression that the Report was a colourful recipe book for an “anything goes” brand of  education.

 The Report did not spring out of nowhere.  It was actually an outgrowth of the progressive educational philosophy inspired by American educator John Dewey then being espoused by Deputy Minister McCarthy.  A student-centred, team-teaching, open concept school model had been seeded in 1962 with a few pilot schools, including Pleasant Avenue Public School in the Toronto suburb of Willowdale, Ontario.  What had begun in 1965 as a modestly conceived elementary curriculum review had gradually morphed into a full-blown committee of inquiry into the aims of education with an ever-expanding mandate.

The Committee, as education researcher Eric W. Ricker demonstrated, was a classic example of a bureaucratically-driven consensus-building exercise. It was structured in a fashion recommended by McCarthy and the Department; its agendas and working papers were drafted by Department staff; almost all of the initial expert testimony was provided by the ‘educrats’; and , finally, a number of its key members were “insiders’– close associates, or former teachers and professors, of members of the Department’s curriculum branch.  Although the Committee of 22 appointed members was described by Lloyd Dennis as a group of “all sorts” chosen from a “grab bag,” it was, in Ricker’s words, “clearly biased before its work even commenced.”

In the three-year-long study, McCarthy and his officials skilfully steered the Committee in the direction of “progressivism.” While the Committee had its share of traditionalists, as well as a number of Catholic members, both French and English, the progressives gained the upper hand in its internal workings. The predominantly child-centred philosophy conveyed in the briefs was reinforced by the” professionals” relatively unencumbered by the usual teacher federation pressures and constraints. The addition of Charles E. Phillips, the reputed dean of Canadian educational history,  to the Committee strengthened the hand of progressives.

Most significantly, the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF), which favoured a reformed traditionalist approach, was effectively marginalized on the Committee.  The OSSTF’s one lone representative was, in fact, no longer a high school teacher by the time the Committee got down to serious work. Under such favourable conditions, the progressive educators were able to seize the initiative in not only planning the Committee’s work, but also in drafting its recommendations. That decision would turn out to be a critical mistake when, within weeks, a furious and determined opposition began to take shape among high school teachers, university academics, local chambers of commerce, and captains of industry.

 What caused the Great Disruption associated with the arrival of the Hall-Dennis Report?  Where did the progressive ideas espoused in the Report actually originate? What can be learned about the shaping of a “broad consensus” in education politics? To what extent was the over-hyping of the Report responsible for the fierce debate that ensued in education circles? 

First in a Series on the Ontario Hall-Dennis Report, Fifty Years On

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Surveying educational trends in Canadian K-12 education is always a challenge when Canada’s ten provincial school systems rarely move together in the same direction. International comparisons in education, including those sanctioned by the the OECD’s Education Office, can be downright misleading, especially when “Ontario” stands in for “Canada.” Few operating within the Queen’s Park orbit would likely notice that difference.

Drawing up a National Report Card is such a challenge that we have the field all to ourselves. Changes in provincial governments and the appointment of new education ministers can result in seismic changes, and governments seeking re-election tend to front-load spending and campaign for more “investments” in public education.  It is possible, however, to identify a few emerging issues and to point to some hopeful signs.

Dominant Issues:

Sea Change in BC Education

The BC New Democratic Party under newly-elected premier John Horgan moved forward with what was labelled by the BCTF and the provincial media as an “education correction.” “We don’t want chaos and confrontation, ” Horgan assured teacher union leaders, and he vowed to lead a government “showing respect in tangible ways” from the leadership level down to the schools. New Education Minister Rob Fleming arrived bearing $177-million more in education funding. In 2017, Fleming announced the hiring of 3,500 new teachers, made a commitment to fully honour the 2016 Supreme Court ruling on class sizes, and set aside another $40-million to ease enrollment pressures.

 

School Closures and Local Governance

Canada’s smallest province, Prince Edward Island, was rocked by a school closure crisis in early 2017 when the Wade MacLauchlan Liberal Government attempted to close small schools, rezone school districts, and reorganize the entire K-12 school system.  After sacking the regional school boards from 2012 to 2014, the new PEI Schools Branch governance model, fronted by Deputy Minister Susan Willis, aroused a storm of rural resistance and utterly failed its first real governance test.  In early April, MacLauchlan abandoned the whole plan, overruling his own Deputy Education Minister, and long-serving Education Minister Doug Currie retired before year’s end. That’s why the Charlottetown Guardian’s editorial board chose the closure of Island schools as Prince Edward Island’s 2017 News Story of the Year.

Treaty Education Controversy

Saskatchewan Education Minister Bronwyn Eyre got hammered for perhaps unwittingly wading into “treaty education” by daring to question the version of history being taught to her own Grade 8-level son.  She voiced concern that her son was being taught, as fact, that “European settlers were colonialists, pillagers of the land… who didn’t respect Mother Earth” and objected to such “indigenous” interpretations being “infused” in classroom teachings. The embattled Minister survived calls for her resignation, offered abject apologies, and learned to keep such views to herself in the future.

 

Defense of Gay Straight Alliances

Alberta Education Minister David Eggen proceeded full steam ahead with his ambitious progressive reform agenda. passing four bills, visiting 100 schools, and meeting with two dozen school boards.  In his year-end- interview with The Edmonton Journal, he claimed that the revised GSA legislation stood out as a major accomplishment.  Weathering opposition from conservative-minded Albertans, he succeeded in upholding the commitment to GSAs and claimed that the new version protected kids from being “outed” who belonged to such school organizations. Defenders of GSAs like Edmonton trustee Michael Janz won re-election while facing vocal local opposition.

Ontario Student Assessment Review

Ontario Education Minister Mitzie Hunter finally launched the long-awaited Student Assessment Review, foreshadowed by the People for Education Measuring What Matters advocacy and guided by OISE professor Carol Campbell. Facing a public backlash over the latest declining Math scores, Premier Kathleen Wynne sought to not only to  change the channel, but to initiate a “student assessment review” targeting the messenger, the EQAO, and attempting to chip away at its hard-won credibility, built up over the past twenty years.  Where improving literacy and numeracy fits in the emerging Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) student assessment plan is far from clear at year’s end.

Student Mental Health Issues

With the news full of stories warning of a “mental health crisis,” teachers in the K-12 system are feeling anxious and more conscious than ever of their role in the front lines of education.  One of Canada’s leading teen mental health experts, Dr. Stan Kutcher, has emerged as a voice of reason in the wake of school suicides and angst-ridden parents. What Dr. Kutcher’s Mental Health talks and research offered was something of a tranquilizer because he not only rejects the “crisis” narrative, but urges classroom practitioners to develop “mental health literacy” so they can “talk smart” with students and their parents.

Inclusive Education Implosion 

Popular theories supporting inclusion for all in the regular classroom are now coming under much closer scrutiny — and being challenged everywhere by evidence-based models offering a wider “continuum of services.”  The Interim Report of Nova Scotia’s Inclusive Education Commission, headed by IWK physician Sarah Shea, released in June 2017, signaled that the province was looking at expanding its programs to meet the complex needs of a wider range of learning-challenged children and teens. In New Brunswick, the New Brunswick Teachers Association (NBTA) and education staff have drawn the line after a rash of well-publicized cases where regular teachers are forced to wear protective Kevlar clothing in class or to seek medical treatment for black-eyes and teeth marks as victims of classroom violence.

Hopeful Signs

The Rise of VoicED Canada

The most positive development was the remarkable growth and expansion, in 2017, of voicED Canada, a 24/7 education radio network hosted by Ontario educator Stephen Hurley. Generating radio broadcasts on such a scale was mammoth undertaking but Hurley managed to ‘pull it off’ by enlisting the support and participation of teachers and educators in a growing network extending from Ontario to every part of Canada. It’s truly inspiring to hear teachers sharing their pet innovations and speaking up on larger educational issues.  Under Hurley, voiceED radio has become a vehicle open to everyone right across the spectrum.

Arrival of researchED Canada

The international teacher research phenomenon, researchED, founded by Tom Bennett in September 2013, finally arrived in Canada on November 10-11, 2017, at Trinity College, University of Toronto.  After twenty-four conferences on four continents, the researchED Toronto program featured 29 speakers from Britain and Canada, including luminaries such as Tom Bennett, Trivium 21C author Martin Robinson, and British Council Schools Director Susan Douglas.  Among the stimulating and diverse session speakers were Self-Regulation advocate Dr. Stuart Shanker, mathematics teacher Mathew Oldridge, Manitoba teacher-researcher Michael Zwaagstra, and Dalhousie psychiatrist Dr. Stan Kutcher. 

It was great to learn that Harvey Bischof and the OSSTF will be offering a second researchED Canada conference on April 14, 2018 in Peel School District, just west of Toronto.  Something exiting is stirring among research-savvy Canadian classroom teachers and cutting-edge education researchers!

What were the dominant trends in Canadian K-12 education in 2017?  Does this summary cover the most notable developments? If not, what’s missing?  Is the arrival of researchED merely an aberration or the beginning of an awakening among class practitioners and grassroots education reformers? 

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Making space for creativity in the classroom sounds like common sense. Few educators today would dispute the wisdom of challenging students to think critically and to solve problems in creative ways. When it is elevated to the primary goal of elementary schools, displacing the acquisition of foundational knowledge and skills, it’s time to ask deeper and more fundamental questions.

KenRobinsonTEDprofile

Teacher Aaron Warner, initiator of the Google-inspired “Genius Hour” at Regina’s Douglas Park Elementary School, is definitely a true believer in teaching creativity.  Justifying his two hour-a-week program in a new book, Kelly Gallagher-Mackay and Nancy Steinhauer’s Pushing the Limits (2017), Warner provides this declaratory statement: “Sixty per cent of the jobs of the future haven’t been invented yet.”  That “insight”, we are told, echoes Sir Ken Robinson’s contention in “Do Schools Kill Creativity?,” the most watched TED Talk of all time.  It is Robinson, of course, who uttered what became that simple, unassailable, unverifiable educational truth that “creativity” is central in developing education that will “take us to a future we can’t grasp.”

What’s the problem with repeating Robinson’s claim and citing a statistic to support that hypothesis? It’s a classic example of transforming education or “building the future schoolhouse,” on what Hack Education commentator Audrey Watters has termed “theory of mythical proportions”  instead of evidence-based policy-making. Citing the statistic that  “60% (or 65%) of future jobs have not been invented yet,” is doubly problematic because no one can authenticate the research behind that oft-repeated statistic.

Two enterprising British teacher-researchers, Daisy Christodoulou and Andrew Old, recently tracked the origin  of that statistic and found it essentially without substance. On the BCC World News Service program, More or Less, aired May 29, 2017, they identified how that statistic originated and got parroted around the globe.  Most fascinating of all, one of the researchers who popularized the claim, Dr. Cathy Davidson, of The Graduate Center CUNY, has now reached similar conclusions and ceased repeating the “65% statistic.”

“I haven’t used that figure since about 2012,” Davidson said, in response to the BBC News investigation.  Her explanation of how the statistic disappeared is revealing about the sorry state of educational policy discourse, not only in Canada but across the world.

The disputed statistic was promulgated in Davidson’s 2011 book, Now You See It:  How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn.  The figure, she says, didn’t originate with her.  She first encountered it in futurist Jim Carroll’s book, Ready, Set, Done (2007). and it has been tracked down to an Australian website where the “65%” figure was quoted with some visuals and categories of new jobs that hadn’t existed before. After Now You See It  appeared, that 65% figure kept being quoted so Davidson attempted to contact the authors of the study to be able to learn more about their findings but with no luck.  By then, the site was down and even the Innovation Council of Australia had been closed by a new government.

Since the reputed source of the statistical claim had disappeared, Davidson began issuing a disclaimer and stopped repeating the figure. She also embraced “Big Data” and started to deconstruct what the category of “job” really means. Much to the surprise of the British researchers, Davidson welcomed the probing questions and agreed that educators need to be far more careful about their use of statistical claims, and, most significantly, the wisdom of “using statistics like that at all.”

SevenMythsBookCoverWhy is 65% so problematic?  The BBC researchers, Christodoulou and Old, also did rough calculations by looking at jobs that exist now and jobs that existed in the past and compared job titles.   They found that maybe 1/3 of all jobs today are actually “new,” even by the most generous count.  That’s 33% not 65% and hardly justification for turning the entire school system upside down.

No one has yet challenged one of Daisy Christodoulou’s key points in the BBC News broadcast. When asked whether “21st century skills” would last, she responded that, in her judgement, “the alphabet (language) and numbers (numerology)” would outlive us all. Surely that claim deserves a much wider public discussion.

Davidson has abandoned that unverified statistic and changed her rationale for system-wide change in the direction of “21st century learning.” Her brand new book, The New Education: How To Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World in Flux (2017), carefully avoids recycling the statistic and, instead, claims with “intuition” rather than “data” that “closer to 100 per cent of jobs have changed in some way” in recent decades.

The American promulgator of the “65% statistic” has definitely backtracked on one of her best known claims. The whole episode has real implications for Canadian education policy discourse. Indeed, it raises serious questions about a whole set of related claims made in Pushing the Limits that schools have to be “transformed to prepare kids for jobs that don’t exist.”

What is the research base for the popular claim that schools should be transformed to “prepare students for jobs not invented yet”? Should we base system-wide reform on unassailable, unverified claims in Sir Ken Robinson’s TED Talks?  Is the spread of the “65% statistic” another example of “bias confirmation’?  Are promoters of “creativity in schools” expanding the space for creativity or looking to displace foundational skills?  Most significantly, how do we dispel claims made using questionable research data? 

 

 

 

 

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researchED, the grass-roots, U.K.-based organization propelled by teachers, may be the first launched by a single Tweet on social media.  Since its creation in 2013 by two British teachers, Tom Bennett, and Helene Galdin-O’Shea, it has attracted droves of teachers to its Saturday conferences and spread to Australia, the European Union, Scandinavia, and the United States. On November 10-11, 2017, the “British education invasion” arrives here in Canada.

From its inception, researchED has been like a spontaneous combustion.  A chance discussion with Sam Freedman (Director of Research and Impact at Teach First) and Ben Goldacre (author of Bad Science and Bad Pharma, columnist for The Guardian) provided the initial spark.  It also prompted Tom to post a late night Tweet suggesting that he was putting together a conference to explore and assess the notoriously dry subject of educational research. That post floated the idea and asked if anyone wanted to help with the venture.

Four hours later, by 2 am, Tom Bennett was inundated with two hundred offers of help, moral support, venues and volunteer speakers. ‘I didn’t build researchED,’ Tom says, ‘it wanted to be built. It built itself. I just ran with it.’ After puzzling over the venue offers, Tom settled on Dulwich College, and on the first Saturday after the beginning of the new school year in September 2013, over 500 people came to talk, listen and learn. What started as a one day event just exploded and is now a full-fledged international education research reform movement.

Teacher leadership was more critical than Tom Bennett acknowledges.  Fired up by his own passion for education research reform and armed with his own provocative book, Teacher Proof (2013), he is every inch a teacher and his co-conspirator, English teacher Galdin-O’Shea is the kind of organizer that makes things happen.

The most amazing aspect of researchED is that the movement is driven entirely by teachers, thinkers and educational experts who volunteer and give freely of their time and talent.  It’s been that way right from the beginning. Reflecting on what actually transpired at the first researchED conference, Tom put it this way: ‘It was genuinely moving, people offered their time and skills for nothing, without hesitation. From the logo design, to the name, to the people making up the name badges on the day, we were propelled by an army of the willing and able. I have never witnessed such organised, coherent, yet spontaneous kindness in my life.’

reasearchED came across my radar three years ago when I discovered Tom and a few of his compatriots, including  Andrew Old, Daisy Christodoulou, and Martin Robinson on my Twitter feed.  Their independence of spirit, critical awareness, and commitment to applying the best research to teaching practice caught my attention. I was completely captivated by their courage in questioning the established orthodoxy and commitment to improving teaching life and practice.

When I got wind that researchED was coming to New York in May of 2015, I literally moved heaven and earth to get there. Flying from a Canadian Business College conference in St. John’s Newfoundland to Toronto, then on to New York, I was one of the first to arrive at the Riverside Country Day School, site of the first U.S. conference. The first person I met there was New York education blogger Tom Whitby, founder of #edchat, and  then Dominic A.A. Randolph, the Head of Riverdale School featured in Paul Tough’s best-seller, How Children Succeed.  Next, I bumped into Tom Bennett in conversation with none other than the renowned University of Virginia cognitive psychologist Daniel T. Willingham, the keynote speaker.  I left researchED New York 2015 completely captivated by the excitement of competing ideas and hooked on the whole philosophy behind the venture.

Out of that initial New York conference emerged a group of Canadian educators, including JUMP Math founder John Mighton, Winnipeg mathematics professor Robert Craigen, and Okanagan College instructor Brian Penfound,  determined to bring researchED to Canada. Gradually, others joined us as word spread about the growth and expansion of researchED.  Dalhousie teen mental health expert Stan Kutcher joined me at the September 2016 researchED National Conference in London and came away a believer.  Many of us gathered again at researchED Washington in late October 2016, where we decided to produce a proposal to bring researchED to Toronto.

We are all drawn to researchED because of our undying and undiminished commitment to learn what the latest research tells us about the best ways to teach, lead schools, and help children learn. Having attended researchED conferences in the U.K. and the U.S., I came away completely energized by the excitement generated by teachers and researchers passionate about dispelling enduring myths, challenging unproven theories, and putting the best research into practice in our schools.

The growth and expansion of researchED has astounded not only its pioneers but even the most hardened education reformers. Regular teachers gave rise to the movement and it is, at heart, a movement built from the classroom up.  One of the greatest challenges is in reaching teachers and conveying the message that they are free to innovate outside the confines of curriculum and pedagogical mandates. Whether it catches fire among Canadian teachers is yet to be seen. If they get a taste of researchED, it will change their teaching lives and there will be no turning back.

The first Canadian researchED Conference is scheduled for November 10-11, 2017, in Toronto and you can register today at the link to researchED Toronto

Part One of three in a Series on the researchED Movement.

What really sparked the British teacher insurgency known as researchED?  How critical was fiercely independent teacher leadership in getting the U.K. teacher research movement off the ground? Are British schools more open to, or conducive to, free and open discussion about established practices floating more on theory than on serious research? What stands in the way of Canadian teachers learning about — and embracing—researchED? 

 

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Today’s business leaders have a clear sense of where a better future lies for Canadians, especially those in Atlantic Canada. The Canadian Chamber of Commerce initiative Ten Ways to Build a Canada That Wins has identified a list of key opportunities Canada, and the Atlantic Region, can seize right now to “regain its competitiveness, improve its productivity and grow its economy.” Competitiveness, productivity and growth are the three cornerstones of that vision for Canada at 150 and this much is also clear – it cannot be done without a K-12 and Post-Secondary education system capable of nurturing and sustaining that vision.

Yet the educational world is a strange place with its own tribal conventions, familiar rituals, ingrained behaviours, and unique lexicon. Within the K-12 school system, educational reform evolves in waves where “quick fixes” and “fads” are fashionable and yesterday’s failed innovations can return, often recycled in new guises.

Today’s business leaders –like most citizens–also find themselves on the outside looking in and puzzled by why our provincial school systems are so top down, bureaucratic, distant and seemingly impervious to change.  Since Jennifer Lewington and Graham Orpwood described the School System as a “Fortress” maintaining clear  boundaries between “insiders and outsiders” back in 1993 not much has changed.  Being on an “advisory committee” gives you some access, but can easily become a vehicle for including you in a consultation process with pre-determined conclusions determined by the system’s insiders and serving the interests of the educational status quo.

Provincial education authorities, pressed by concerned parents, business councils and independent think tanks like the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS) have embraced standardized testing in the drive to improve literacy and numeracy, fundamentals deemed essential for success in the so-called “21st century knowledge-based economy.” Student testing and accountability may be widely accepted by the informed public, but they are far from secure. Provincial teachers’ unions remain unconvinced and continue to resist standardized testing and to propose all kinds of “softer” alternatives, including “assessment for learning,” “school accreditation,” and broadening testing to include “social and emotional learning.”

Two decades ago, the Metropolitan Toronto Learning Partnership was created and, to a large extent, that education-business alliance has tended to set the pattern for business involvement in public education. Today The Learning Partnership has expanded to become a national charitable organization dedicated to support, promote and advance publicly funded education in Canada.  With the support of major corporate donors, the LP brings together business, government, school boards, teachers, parents, labour and community organizations across Canada in “a spirit of long term committed partnerships.”  It’s time to ask whether that organization has done much to improve student achievement levels and to address concerns about the quality of high school graduates.

A change in focus and strategy is in order if the business voice for education reform is to be heard and heeded in the education sector. Our public school system is simply not good enough. Penetrating the honey-coated sheen of edu-babble and getting at the real underlying issues requires some clear-headed independent analysis. We might begin by addressing five significant issues that should be elevated to the top of the education policy agenda:

  • declining enrollment and school closures – and the potential for community-hub social enterprise schools,
  • the sunk cost trap — and the need to demonstrate that education dollars are being invested wisely,
  • the future of elected school boards — and alternatives building upon school-based governance and management,
  • the inclusive education morass — and the need to improve intensive support services;
  • the widening attainment-achievement gap — improving the quality of high school graduates.

In each case, in-depth analysis brings into sharper relief the critical need for a business voice committed to major surgery –educational restructuring and curriculum reform from the schools up rather than the top down.

The education system in Atlantic Canada, for example, has come a long way since the 1990s when the whole domain was essentially an “accountability-free zone.” Back in 2002, AIMS began to produce and publish a system of high school rankings that initially provoked howls of outrage among school board officials.  Today in Atlantic Canada, education departments and school boards have all accepted the need for provincial testing regimes to assess Primary to Grade 12 student performance, certainly in English literacy and mathematics.

Prodded and cajoled by the annual appearance of AIMS’s High School Report Cards, school boards became far more attuned to the need for improvement in student achievement results. While we have gained ground on standardized assessment of student achievement, final high school examinations have withered and, one -by-one been eliminated and graduation rates have gone through the roof, especially in the Maritime provinces. Without an active and engaged business presence, provincial tests assessing student competence in mathematics and literacy may be imperiled.  Student assessment reform aimed at broadening the focus to  “social and emotional learning” poses another threat. Most recently, a Nova Scotia School Transitions report issued in June 2016 proposed further “investment” in school-college-workplace bridging programs without ever assessing or addressing the decline in the preparedness of those very high school graduates.

Today, new and profoundly important questions are being raised:  What has the Learning Partnership actually achieved over two decades? What have we gained through the provincial testing regimes — and what have we lost?  Where is the dramatic improvement in student learning that we have been expecting?  If students and schools continue to under-perform, what comes next?  Should Canadian education reformers and our business allies begin looking at more radical reform measures such as “turnaround school” strategies, school-based management, or charter schools? 

Where might the business voice have the biggest impact? You would be best advised to either engage in these wider public policy questions or simply lobby and advocate for a respect for the fundamentals: good curriculum, quality teaching, clear student expectations, and more public accountability.  Standing on the sidelines has only served to perpetuate the status quo in a system that, first and foremost, serves the needs of educators rather than students and local school communities.

Revised and condensed from an Address the the Atlantic Chamber of Commerce, June 6, 2017, in Summerside, PEI. 

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Surveying the education public as well as ‘stakeholders’ for their opinion is the latest trend in Canadian K-12 education policy. Two recent Canadian education surveys conducted in Nova Scotia and Alberta provide some recent examples worthy of further discussion.  The recent release of Alberta Education Minister David Eggen’s curriculum survey results (April 13, 2017) also demonstrates that unsuspecting citizens may need help in penetrating through the official spin to get at the actual results.

Facing deep divisions in P-12 education over future directions, and not inclined to follow the research evidence, provincial authorities are going, more and more, to soliciting public opinion utilizing surveys with pre-determined outcomes.  Upon closed scrutiny, the Alberta survey seems wholly designed to confirm intended curriculum directions.

Conducting public surveys is not without its risks. In the case of the 2014 Nova Scotia Education Review survey, a largely unvarnished, no-holds-barred instrument actually backfired on the Education Department. When the N.S. Review Committee headed by Myra Freeman polled 18,500 residents, the results published in October 2014 proved a real jolt and sent the provincial teachers’ union into a tizzy, mostly focused on being excluded from shaping the survey and serving on the commission.

One half of Nova Scotians, the survey found, were “not satisfied with the public school system” and teachers as well as parents identified plenty of reasons why. The report, Disrupting the Status Quo, generated very high expectations — never honoured — that major reform was on the way.  A three-month NSTU teacher work-to-rule in 2016-17 effectively sunk the quality education reform plan and generated a completely new set of teacher-driven demands for improvement in “working conditions.”

Alberta Education had no desire to see that pattern repeated.  Minister Eggen’s curriculum survey looked, and sounded, skewed in the Education Department’s preferred direction – toward more of what is loosely termed “21st learning.” In Alberta Education futuristic doubletalk, the overarching goal is to produce students who “are agents of change to create the globe that they want to be part of.”

The survey, conducted in October and November 2016 succeeded in attracting some 32,390 respondents, of whom only slightly over half (57%) might be classed as ‘outside the system.’The proposed directions were presented as amorphous curriculum “themes” where respondents are clearly led to certain conclusions. You are, for example, asked whether you agree or disagree with this statement: “Through learning outcomes curriculum should support the development of literacy, numeracy and 21st century competencies.”  It is impossible to answer if you think basic numeracy and literacy should take precedence over the ill-defined futuristic skills.

Conducting the survey was also further confirmation of the provincial strategy to thwart mathematics education reform. With the Alberta “Back to Basics” petition, initiated by parent Dr. Nhung Tran-Davies of Calmar, AB, piling up 18,332 signatures, the survey attempts, in clumsy fashion, to override that hardened opinion.

The Department’s summary of responses does its best to conceal the extent of resistance to current K-12 Mathematics teaching and curricula.  Sifting through the Mathematics responses, teaching math facts, restoring step-by-step algorithmic thinking, limiting the use of computers, and mastering mental math far outweighed any preference for “21st century competencies” or its step-child, discovery math.

Instead of addressing these findings, Minister Eggen  ‘cherry-picked’ one example of the desire for ‘relevance’ – support for including financial literacy in grade 4 to 9 classes. That too is a clear sign that parents want their kids to be able to balance a set of sums.

Albertans’ written responses to the open-ended questions are the clearest indication of their true inclinations.  Out of the 15,724 respondents committed enough to do more than tick boxes, the largest segment, again (10 %), favoured refocusing on “math basics” and singled out “discovery math” as a problem. Combined with “learning the basics” (6%) and teaching practical skills (7%), one in four who made comments targeted the lack of rigour in the curriculum.

Judging from the wording of questions, the entire survey also skewed in the direction of student-centred teaching methods. That’s strange because the recent PISA 2015 global results report demonstrated conclusively that “explicit instruction” produced much better student results than “minimally-guided instruction.”

The inherent bias pops up elsewhere. “This survey,” it reported, “was intended to focus on the ‘what’ of current provincial curriculum not ‘how’ teachers teach it.”   Serious curriculum analysts know it’s now virtually impossible to separate the two in assessing program effectiveness.

Provincial education authorities were, at one time, given explicit mandates based upon either firm political policy positions or best practice research. When governments are lost and searching for direction, they may turn to the public to find their bearings. In the case of Alberta, it looks more like surveying for confirmation of the ‘educrats’ own pre-determined direction.

*A condensed version of this Commentary appeared in the Edmonton Journal, April 18, 2017.

Why do school systems survey the public?  Are Canadian provincial governments totally lost on K-12 education and simply looking for direction? Do our Education Department’s  harbour a secret agenda?  Or are they looking for public confirmation of pre-conceived plans for curriculum changes? 

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School systems tend to be leery of trailbrazers, especially when it comes to instilling rigour and improved student behaviour.

One U.K. school head, Katharine Birbalsingh, stands out in this regard. Over the past three years, as headteacher at Michaela School in Brent, North London, she has earned a formidable reputation for her “no excuses” approach that has turned an inner city school serving largely ‘deprived children’ into a model of striving for excellence and ‘optimizing student behaviour.’  That reputation will only be enhanced by March 2017 U.K. Government report, Creating a Culture, authored by researchED founder Tom Bennett issuing a clarion call for school leadership to address the deplorable state of student behaviour in far too many state schools.

As the U.K.’s  leading behaviour expert, Bennett (much Younger and unrelated to me ) puts great stock in school leadership to set the course and  spearhead needed changes in tackling student behaviour and discipline, including setting high standards, being crystal clear about expectations, and having the courage to create effective “inclusion units” in higher level schools. Among his key recommendations are:

  • revise the certification for all headteachers, so that it includes a requirement to demonstrate knowledge of how to create a good behaviour culture;
  • introduce the use of a national standardised method that captures data on student behaviour which can then be used to compare schools;
  • fund schools to create internal inclusion units for direct intervention with a goal of returning special needs students to mainstream classes;
  • provide greater guidance for schools on how to manage and support the most challenging pupils.

Running through Bennett’s report is one consistent message: the importance of a strong culture of behaviour  initiated by the headteacher and running through the school.  It is also a message that needs to be heard on the other side of the Atlantic, in Canada and the United States.

All of this leads us back to Birbalsingh and her Michaela School. “Are school leaders born or made?” is a question difficult to answer.  Yet, some educators with a courage of conviction like Birbalsingh do seem destined to lead.

Decried by some as Britain’s “strictest head teacher,” she is definitely breaking the mold and winning converts to the so-called “Michaela Way” of educating children. Born in 1973 in New Zealand, while her father York University professor Frank Birbalsingh was teaching there as a visiting professor, she was raised in Toronto, moved to Warwick, England at age 15, and went on to graduate from New College, Oxford in French and philosophy studies. Education was certainly a high priority in her Guyanese-Jamaican family, going back to her grandfather, Ezrom S. Birbalsingh, former head of the Canadian Mission School in Better Hope, Guyana.

Birbalsingh was imbued with that same passion for education. Upon graduating,  she chose to teach and write (as ‘Miss Snuffy‘) about life in inner-city schools, producing a lively blog, To Miss With Love After reading E.D. Hirsch‘s classic, The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them (1999),  she was absolutely convinced about what was wrong with today’s schools and that public education should be about teaching children to pursue knowledge, not ‘learning skills.’  In October 2010, as head of a south London school, she spoke out at a British Conservative Party Conference, lambasting the education system exhibiting a “culture of excuses, of low standards” marooned in “a sea of bureaucracy” and contributing to “the chaos in our classrooms.” Forced to step down in the wake of the controversy, she bounced back in 2014 as the founding head of Michaela, one of London’s newest’free schools’ with alternative programs.

The Michaela Way, pioneered by Birbalsingh at the state-funded school, exemplifies, in many ways, the kind of model envisioned in Bennett’s student behaviour report. The school’s head is, to be sure, larger than life, in that school community.  Her book on the school, subtitled “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers,” is definitely radical by today’s mushy liberal education standards. “This book should be banned,” says New Schools Network Director Toby Young, because if the parent of any teenager gets hold of it, they would demand the same for their son or daughter.

In her book’s Introduction, “Free at Last,” Birbalsingh outlines her school’s mission this way: “‘Where’s the rigour?’ was what my friend and inspiration Michaela used to shout. Michaela loved to teach from the front. She liberated herself in her classroom by closing her door so that she could get on with what worked. She dis things differently, and so do we.” 

The Michaela School rises to most of the challenges cited in Tom Bennett’s report by essentially clearing away most of the obstacles that “impede improvement.” The vision articulated by Birbalsingh and her carefully recruited staff of youngish teachers is not only clearly articulated but put into action in class, the lunchroom, and in the halls.  Since the school head is skeptical about current teacher certification programs, most of the teaching staff have advanced subject specialist degrees (without official teaching papers) and are taught proper teaching and classroom management skills through a mentorship training program. High expectations pop out at you in school assemblies, on wall posters, and in classroom routines. The school, under Birbalsingh, exhibits consistency from top -to-bottom in a fashion that is inspiring to visiting educators and parents.

Michaela is different from the vast majority of public high schools in three significant ways: the laser focus on student discipline, the traditional style of teaching, and the explicit character education. “We teach kindness and gratitude,” Birbalsingh says,” because we think that children should be kind to each other and and to their teachers and be grateful for everything we do for them.”  That’s her way of describing the consistent focus on educating for respect and responsibility instead of pandering, far too often, to student whims and desires.

Michaela School is only three years old, so it has yet to face the biggest test of all — it’s first full U’K. school inspection and, in two years time, its first GCSE examination results.  With 30 per cent of students in the Michael school district of Bent on free school meals, all eyes will be on how Michaela fares on those national school and student assessments.  If Tom Bennett’s report is any indication, it will pass the ‘student behaviour’  test with flying colours.

How important is school leadership in setting the tone and improving student behaviour in schools?  Does Tom Bennett’s prescription for U.K. schools have significance as a possible guide for Canadian and American public high schools? What can be learned from the success of Michaela School in inner city London?  Would the Canadian system benefit from having a model school like Michaela to help break the cycle of eroding student discipline? 

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