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Archive for the ‘Education Reform’ Category

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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Islamophobia, racism, closing schools, running deficits, excessive expenses, and accountability lapses are the flash points for the latest crisis besetting elected school boards across Canada. The rash of recent pecadillos has pushed seasoned political commentators like The Toronto Star’s Martin Regg Cohn over the edge.

yrdsbsuperintendentracismSince the very public Toronto District School Board governance crisis in November 2014, Cohn’s been urging the abolition of school boards. His latest offering “Dismantle school boards, ditch our trustees” (February 1, 2017), delivered this cut line:  “Ontario’s rogue school boards are an embarrassment  to the students they teach–and the parents they serve.” The bungled York Region District School Board response to recent incidents of Islamophobia and racism not only prompted that reaction, but seemed to reveal systemic problems that required immediate reform.

Ridding the education sector of elected trustees is now fashionable, but few critics provide any viable alternatives capable of effectively representing school communities or protecting the public interest in K-12 public education. Abolishing local democratic bodies creates a vacuum that school administration is only too happy to fill in the modern bureaucratic education state.

School trustees have been steadily losing ground as public education became more centralized, regional, and bureaucratic, especially so since the 1920s.  In 1807, school trustees became the first democratically elected politicians in Ontario. Back then, local notables stepped forward to clear the land, build the schools and assemble the teachers — sitting as trustees on boards overseeing one-room schoolhouses and county academies. Today the province calls the shots — controlling the purse strings, opening new schools, and drafting the curriculum.

Trustees in Ontario were stripped of their taxing authority in the mid-199os, which has significantly undermined their power, influence and spending power. As for elected school boards, they are now completely emasculated entities that have lost their right to negotiate teaching contracts and determine the salaries of their own teachers.

Lacking in taxing powers and fiduciary responsibility, school trustees are “bit players in a big system bankrolled by the province,” where the Minister of Education and the provincial education bureaucracy assume responsibility for education and spending decisions. Deprived of any real authority, trustees have been downgraded to “elected Board members” and are suffering total “identity confusion” — which explains the bizarre outbursts, overspending, and secretive actions that have forced the province to step in so often.

Denigrated as “phantom politicians in training,” most elected school board members seek refuge in adhering to collective decisions.  It’s a part-time position that pays a measly stipend and typically attracts either long-service veterans out of retirement village  or rookie candidates who use it as a springboard for higher office. Trustee elections generally attract retired educators, or well-intentioned average citizens, but few prepared to challenge the existing educational order.

School boards in Ontario, Nova Scotia, and the West share a common pattern: feeble accountability, weak governance, and delusions of influence. Most of Ontario’s 700 trustees are p dedicated and hard-working, but their mandate remains a mirage — with no taxing powers, nor any negotiating authority for teachers’ salaries. They do their best, but are emasculated to the point of irrelevance and go through the motions as they pretend to preside over unwieldy and unaccountable school districts with sizable budgets.

Ontario’s Education Minister Mitzie Hunter is the latest to step in to investigate why another dysfunctional elected school board is in hot water with parents and the local public.  In late January 2017, she launched an investigation to get to the bottom of allegations of racism and lack of financial accountability at one of Ontario’s largest regional boards, the York Region District School Board. 

Margaret Wilson, appointed by Ontario’s education minister in November 2014 to investigate the Toronto District School Board, found it so radically dysfunctional she advised the government to examine other ways of running the schools. Her conclusion was far from unique. Across Canada, the traditional system of school boards overseeing local educational matters is gradually disappearing.

New Brunswick was first to eliminate elected trustees, abolishing its school boards altogether in 1996 in favour of a system of district education councils. Newfoundland and Labrador followed suit and reduced all English language school boards down to one province-wide board. In 2015-16, Prince Edward Island abolished its two regional English Boards and replaced them with a three-person Schools Branch education authority and province-wide education consultation groups. More recently, Quebec considered scrapping its 72 school boards and eliminating elected trustees before abandoning the whole project in May of 2016.

Eight elected school boards are still standing in Nova Scotia, but on shaky ground. In a scathing report in December 2015, auditor general Michael Pickup reviewed four boards and cited problems ranging from conflict of interest to a basic lack of understanding about the role of a trustee. In April 2016, the ruling N.S. Liberal Party adopted a policy resolution in favour of school board reduction and, in October 2016, some 66 per cent of the province’s 95 school board seats were uncontested.

vsbtrusteesfiredBritish Columbia’s largest school board, the Vancouver School Board, is in complete disarray. In October 2016, Education Minister Mike Bernier swooped down and “fired” the entire elected board for defying provincial policy directives, refusing to close schools, and running a deficit. Firing the trustees, including two prominent government critics, Mike Lombardi and Patti Bacchus, smacked of partisanship, but also clearly reinforced centralized governance and dealt a blow to local accountability.

Phasing out elected school boards and dismissing school trustees has not proven to be much of an improvement and, in some cases, has fatally wounded local democratic control in K-12 public education. School communities, particularly in rural Canada, are increasingly alienated from distant and bureaucratic school authorities. Public criticism of, and resistance to, the centralization of educational governance is widespread, flaring up during School Review for closure processes in Ontario, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island.

School governing boards or councils, like those in Edmonton, New Zealand and Quebec, have never really been given a fair chance. Rather than clear-cutting education democracy, it’s time to consider turning the whole system right-side up. It would make sense to re-engineer community school-based education governance and  to utilize District School Councils for coordination purposes.

Why are elected school boards now on the endangered educational species list?  How has administrative consolidation and board reduction impacted local school communities?  Who benefits from the centralization of school governance?  Is it feasible to rebuild school-level governance while retaining some measure of province-wide integration in terms of educational policy? 

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The recognized dean of Canadian education reporters, Louise Brown of The Toronto Star, has just stepped down and will leave a gigantic hole in the field.  Why that is so is worthy of a commentary on the state of the Education Beat in Canada as well as the United States.

EducationBeatLouiseBrownFor over thirty years, Louise not only “covered” education and family life, but produced numerous in-depth pieces demonstrating her formidable enterprise reporting skills and commitment to media accuracy. In her recent August 6, 2016 farewell piece, she identified the abandonment of Ontario Grade 13 as “the biggest mistake” of the past 30 years. It demonstrated, once again, the critical importance of “institutional memory” in education reporting.

Reading Louise’s retrospective piece prompted me to start investigating the state of Education Beat journalism and to look for research on recent trends over the past decade.  A May 2016 report, State of the Education Beat 2016, produced by the Education Writers Association, revealed how different the situation is on the other side of the continental line.

Based upon a survey of 400  American “education journalists,” the average reporter is a woman, 36 years old with 11 years experience and almost four of five (79 %) of the respondents are “very or fairly satisfied with their jobs.”  Optimism oozed from the report and the EWA made a bold declaration: “Education journalism is a field with a future.”

The EWA was, of course, attempting to dispel the myth abroad in the land of journalism that covering education is a “beginner beat” where novice reporters are broken-in and mark time waiting for more prestigious assignments to materialize at the newspaper or local television station.  Surveying local education reporters over the past forty years, most have looked (to me) either totally bored covering school board meetings or so completely out-to-sea as to be easy prey for board communications officers. 

EducationBeatEWACover2016Digging more deeply into the EWA 2016 report, a different, more familiar pattern begins to emerge. Most education journalists (60 per cent) work for newspapers, reporting in print and online. Very few are employed in television (4 %) and today’s education journalists are surprisingly critical of the token, superficial coverage provided on local television. The fastest growing segment, education-focused news outlets, like Ed Surge, Education Next or Chalkbeat, employ 22 per cent of American reporters, a field largely absent in Canada.

When it comes to nagging professional challenges, there is remarkable convergence across the border. Based upon my ongoing conversations with beat reporters, over forty years, the critical issues remain remarkably consistent: 1) being spread far too thin covering K-12 and PSE education or periodically reassigned to general reporting duties; 2) shortage of expertise, particularly among senior editors and regular reporters; 3) the spread of data analytics, skewing coverage to “click bait” topics or reactive reporting.

Two-thirds of American education reporters report having little or no difficulty getting in-person access to schools and campuses. The vast majority of them ( 88 per cent) still report getting their information primarily from school system insiders, via teachers (89%), news releases (89%), local education leaders (82%), or education departments (80%). Most “story leads” (70 %) are “planted” by school district communications officers, and only 41% are generated by academic research and 37% by education think tanks. Only 20 per cent of U.S. reporters admit that they find themselves covering topics they “don’t really understand.”

One-third of American education journalists find it difficult to penetrate the school or university system. Getting in-person access to schools or campuses is difficult for them and almost one-out-of four (23 %) of reporters find educational leaders either “uncooperative or hostile” toward them, effectively denying access. It would be interesting to know why this happens and whether, as one might assume, it is retribution for writing critical pieces on education.

Education reporting in Canada, based upon my experience, is in considerably worse shape. Few of our beat reporters make a career of covering education and those that do achieve legendary status. Over the past thirty years, only a handful have either registered as major players or stayed long enough to make a real impact. The Toronto Star’s Louise Brown belongs in that company, but so does Janet Steffenhagen of the Vancouver Sun, who, for fifteen years broke many stories in British Columbia education, most notably the crisis that tore apart the former BC College of Teachers. Promising education reporters such as Hugo Rodrigues of the Sun News chain and Frances Willick of The Chronicle Herald are more typical — making their mark and then moving on in journalism.

OverdueAssignmentCoverCanada’s national newspaper, The Globe and Mail, has employed an Education Reporter for years, but none better than Jennifer Lewington in the late 1980s and early 1990s.  She is also, to my knowledge, the only one ever to write a book about the state of education. Her 1993 book, co-authored with Graham Orpwood, Overdue Assignment, still offers the most thorough, insightful analysis of the “fortress-like,” self-absorbed school system.  It’s safe to say that educational leaders who dared to take her calls had done their homework.

One Canadian education news outlet that does exert influence inside the school system is the Canadian Education Association. Official education news has found a reliable outlet in the CEA, particularly through the pages of the CEA magazine, Education Canada, and, more recently, the CEA Blog. Provincial education ministries and faculty of education professors find Education Canada most useful in trumpeting new initiatives or disseminating research supporting those initiatives.  Under the guidance of Max Cooke, the CEA Blog has become more interactive, publishing many thoughtful pieces by former teacher Stephen Hurley, the curator of  VoiceED Canada, a truly unique open-ended online venture in a field too often characterized by echo chamber conversations.

Education commentators tend to fill the void in Canadian public education. Of all Canadian daily columnists, Margaret Wente, is — by far – the most influential and the most feared, judging by the rather foolish attempts of a University of Toronto OISE “Facts in Education” truth squad to discredit her opinions.  Manitoba social studies teacher Michael Zwaagstra, a tireless newspaper column writer, and Edmonton Journal online writer-editor, David Staples, regularly bang the drum for higher standards, improved math instruction, and proper teaching of reading.

Over the past month, two feisty and incredibly determined Canadian education reformers, Malkin Dare and Doretta Wilson, have taken a step back from the education battleground.  For over thirty years, “Aunt Malkin” of Waterloo, Ontario, the founder of the Society for Quality Education, churned out hundreds and hundreds of short research summaries and columns championing not only phonics and systematic reading instruction, but school choice and charter schools. As Executive Administrator of SQE, Doretta was the public face of the movement, appearing regularly on Ontario radio and television shows.

Education reform tends to get short-shrift in the Canadian popular press but not so in the United States. A May 2016 American Enterprise Institute (AEI) paper, How the Press Covers Charter Schools, reveals just how vibrant the public discourse is in American newspapers, magazines, and the electronic media. Based upon 2015 coverage in seven major news outlets, Rick Hess and his AEI team found a relatively balanced division of opinion, perhaps reflecting that country’s deeper right-left divisions.

One fascinating finding was the influence of gatekeepers such as Valerie Strauss, Editor of The Answer Sheet, a widely-read  regular feature in The Washington Post.  Of 36 Washington Post stories coded and analyzed, some 17 were from The Answer Sheet and, of those, nine were critical or “negative” on charter schools, eight were neutral, and none judged supportive or “positive” toward the reform.  Her presence, AEI noted, skewed Post coverage against school reform.

Carrying the torch for so-called “progressive education” in Strauss’s fashion would not even raise an eyebrow in Canadian educational circles. That’s why no one even asks why Toronto’s perennial education commentator Annie Kidder, founder of education funding lobby group People for Education, is quoted in a surprising number of  news stories generated by Toronto news media outlets. News biases are invisible in the mainstream Canadian educational echo chamber.

What’s happened to the education beat in Canada and the United States?  Why do so many education reporters simply recycle school district media releases or content themselves reacting to official policy pronouncements? Is there cause for the optimism reflected in the 2016 EWA report on the state of the field?  Who is going to fill the void in Canada left by the departures of veteran reporters like Louise Brown, Janet Steffenhagen, and Jennifer Lewington?

 

 

 

 

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