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Archive for the ‘Education Reform’ Category

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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Public education trends in K-12 schools across Canada can be difficult to track. Without an eagle eye and a swivel-head, the next epic “education crisis” can come and go without much public notice. Nor do Canadians have any real federal presence in education to either establish national standards or provide independent assessments of provincial or territorial school programs.

Gauging the upticks and downticks is still possible, in between the beats and before the self-repairing school system quickly returns to its normal rhythms. What follows is a look back at 2015 in Canadian education with an eye to the coming year.

Notable Upticks

Educational Reconciliation

TRCReconcilePosterThe release of Justice Murray Sinclair’s massive December 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, together with the appointment of Dr. Carolyn Bennett as Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister, bode well for educational reconciliation and a satisfactory resumption of First Nations education reform. Establishing a stronger basis of trust, more stable federal funding, and more holistic, Indigenous-informed curricula, will go a long way to repairing the damage.

International Teaching Summit

The fifth annual International Summit on the Teaching Profession (ISTP 2015), at the Banff Springs Hotel, March 29-30, 2015, was sponsored by the OECD Education Office, but it shied away from discussing PISA testing and instead focused on supporting teachers and building their confidence to prepare students for a rather nebulous “rapidly changing world.” Chaired by short-lived Alberta Education Minister Gordon Dirks, ISTP 2015 was clearly the work of OECD education director Andreas Schleicher, OISE eminence gris Michael Fullan, and Stanford University education professor Linda Darling-Hammond. Out of the 400 delegates, most were actually Canadian officials or educators sponsored by provincial authorities and teaching unions.

Nova Scotia’s Three Rs Reform Plan

Public school students in Nova Scotia will focus more on mastering the fundamentals in mathematics and literacy, less on writing standardized tests under a N.S. January 2015 reform plan with the catchy title, The Three Rs: Renew, Refocus, Rebuild.  Delivered by Education Minister Karen Casey, the initiative responded to a blunt October 2014 provincial review that found half of Nova Scotians “not satisfied” with the quality of education.  It also called for a stronger teacher certification and evaluation system and a provincial audit of the efficiency of school boards.

Math Matters Protests

Hundreds of Alberta parents rallied in July 2015 to protest a new Math curriculum, dubbed “Discovery Math” by a growing number of parents, math professors, and local business advocates. Spearheaded by Dr. Nhung Tran-Davies and bearing a Math Petition with 18,074 signatures, the protestors continued to pressure a succession of Education ministers for changes to restore basics-first math instruction. The popular protests came on the heels of a May 2015 C.D. Howe Institute report claiming that Canada’s math teachers need to shift their focus away from discovery-based learning and move back towards traditional methods.

Indigenous Leadership Renewal

A new harvest of Indigenous leaders began to emerge in 2015 aroused by the Stephen Harper Conservative government’s intransigence and emboldened by the public support engendered by the nation-wide TRC hearings.  Two of the better known of the newly empowered generation were National Assembly of First Nations chief Perry Bellegarde, who succeeded the deposed Shawn Atleo, and the multi-talented Wab Kinew, author, host of CBC’s Canada Reads competition, and Associate Vice-President at the University of Winnipeg.

Memorable Downticks

TDSB Leadership Upheaval

Canada’s largest public school district, Toronto District School Board, endured one of its worst years on record.  When Board Director Donna Quan resigned in mid-November 2015, it brought a tumultuous end to her short tenure, 18 months before the expiration of her contract. Torn by a deep rift between Quan, her staff and the elected Board, the beleaguered Director stepped aside. In doing so, she also bowed to the findings of an earlier TDSB investigation, ordered by Education Minister Liz Sandals, that described in detail the board’s “culture of fear” and dysfunctional leadership.

School Closure Express Train

Armed with the dreaded New Brunswick Policy 409, and aided by that province’s District Education Councils (DECs), Education Minister Serge Rousselle  and his Department imposed a top-down, speeded-up “school sustainability process” upon supporters of a dozen threatened rural schools. Described by critics as a runaway “Express Train 409” bearing down on their communities, it sparked the formation in April 2015 of the first Rural Schools Coalition in the province.

Protracted Ontario Teachers’ Strikes

TeachersProtestON15A year of teacher strike disputes continued in Ontario, with a few interruptions, until November 2015.  Public elementary school teachers (EFTO) reached a tentative salary deal in early November, ending a lengthy period of work-to-rule. Support staff represented by a separate union (CUPE) also struck a deal then, ending negotiations that lasted over a year. One major difference between the November deals reached with ETFO and CUPE and the agreements with other unions is that these did not come with payments from the government to cover the unions’ negotiating expenses. A return to normalcy was promised with the issuing of full December 2015 student report cards.

Missing B.C. Student Records

British Columbia’s Minister of Technology Amrik Virk shocked British Columbians in late September 2015 when he publicly disclosed the loss of an unencrypted backup hard drive containing about 3.4 million student records.  The missing hard drive contained student data from 1986 to 2009, including information on children in care with serious health and behaviour issues. While the minister called the breach “low risk,” the B.C. information and privacy commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, claimed it raised “very serious privacy issues,” and launched an investigation.

Threat to Local Education Democracy

Elected school boards continued to flounder across Canada in 2015 because they are being eclipsed by expanding centralized administration far removed from students and parents. Since the stiff warning issued in a 2013 Canadian School Boards Association study, conducted by Gerald Galway and a Memorial University research team, elected trustees have been unable to recover their “voice of the people” role and face probable extinction.  In the fall of 2015, Quebec and P.E.I. joined New Brunswick in ending elected boards.  Disbanding school trustees without a viable replacement is not what’s best for students, parents, or local schools.

So much for the most visible trends and newsworthy events:  Where is Canadian K-12 education drifting? Will the next round of OECD Education international tests show any real change in student performance levels?   Is the era of centralized administration and standardization showing signs of fracturing in our provincial school systems? Has the education sector borne the full brunt of government austerity or is more to come? Will elected school boards survive as presently constituted across Canada? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The famous German sociologist Max Weber’s conception of the “iron cage” of rationality and bureaucracy has proven not only durable, but applicable to the changing nature of modern bureaucratic education systems. In its original form, it was applied broadly by Weber to explain the tyranny of rationalization in the modern transformation of social life, particularly in Western capitalist societies. The “iron cage,” in his view, trapped individuals in systems purely driven by teleological efficiency, rational calculation, and control. Weber’s most brilliant insight was seeing, into the future, the potential “bureaucratization” of the social order into “the polar night of icy darkness.”

BureaucracyCageThe original German term was stahlhartes Gehäuse and  it morphed into”iron cage,” in 1930 with the appearance of Talcott Parson’s translation of Weber’s classic, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. More recently, sociologists have interpreted the term a little differently as meaning “shell as hard as steel.”  Whatever the precise meaning, its utility in assessing school systems will be readily apparent to anyone attempting to affect change or to promote community-driven initiatives in the modern and post-modern bureaucratic education state.

Weber’s “iron cage” concept is so broad that it almost invites education reformers to pour whatever they want into the theoretical framework. Prominent Canadian education thinkers, most notably George Martell, have appropriated Weber’s concept and applied it in their analysis of schooling in our global capitalist world.  Moving beyond such ideologically-laden conceptions, Martell and his colleague David Clandfield have provided a very thoughtful critique of the school system’s stubborn and persistent resistance since the 1980s to true “community schools.”

In their Summer 2010 Special issue of Our Schools/Our Selves, they see the demand for Community Schools as a manifestation of popular, progressive impulses provided that they “stay true” to their essential democratic principles.  True community schools, operating as genuine two-way community hubs, they argue, can advance “really useful” learning and community development.

That vision has taken root in Nova Scotia over the past three years, incited by Dr. David Clandfield’s advocacy and nurtured by a determined  provincial parent advocacy group, the Nova Scotia Small Schools Initiative. Every step of the way, the Nova Scotia community school advocates have confronted and tangled with the provincial and school board mutations of the “iron cage.”

Three Nova Scotia school communities spent the past two years developing Hub School proposals and recently suffered a calamitous fate.  All three innovative community school development projects were crushed like a bug on June 10 at the Chignecto-Central Regional School Board meeting in Truro, effectively abandoning three more small villages, Maitland, River John and Wentworth. Confronted with a senior staff report recommending “rejection,” the sixteen elected school board members made their fateful choice – management priorities driven by strict bureaucratic rules trumped community interests, once again.

Properly serving children, families and communities does not figure in such calculations. While the new School Review process, adopted in June 2014, is designed to be broader and more community-based, the provincial Hub regulations, written entirely by educrats, conspire against such local innovations. It is, regrettably, just the latest example of the workings and inner dynamics of what is known as the “iron cage” of education.

EdBureaucracyGraphicOf all the public bureaucratic systems, education is perhaps the most puzzling. Provincial authorities and school boards all purport to put “children first,” but do not really operate that way. Advocating actively for your children, fighting for your child’s school or questioning board student services policies is considered being ‘disruptive’ or, even worse, ‘overly emotional.’ Big stakes negotiations with teachers over salaries, class composition, and instructional days are, we are told, also none of our business.

The logic of the iron cage even leads elected board members to accept the bureaucratic mentality. “We only responsible for running schools,” as one Chignecto-Central RSB member stated, “we are not in the business of saving communities.”

Eighteen months ago, Robert Fowler’s February 2014 Nova Scotia School Review report exposed the”iron cage” and attempted to change the whole dynamic by recommending a community-based school planning and development process. If Fowler’s strategic approach had been followed in Truro, one or two of the Hub School proposals would have secured a green light and gone some distance towards winning back damaged public trust in those communities.

Myopic educational thinking is next-to-impossible to stamp out. Closing schools, the Chignecto-Central administration now claims, saves money and preserves teaching jobs. School librarians, we are assured, will survive because schools and villages are abandoned in Maitland, River John and Wentworth. That’s a complete fabrication designed only to counter the political fallout. North American research shows that consolidations rarely save any taxpayer’s money in the long run. The three Hub School groups, in their submissions, not only pointed out the limited immediate savings achieved through those closures, but provided sound and viable plans with some modest revenue generating potential.

Studying how educational bureaucracies function provides a window on what happens and why in the world of state education. Disrupting the status quo would mean confronting these deeply concealed educational realities and busting down the bureaucratic silos – for the sake of children, families and communities.

Does Max Weber’s conception of the “iron cage” still have utility in explaining the impulses and dynamics of educational bureaucracies? Why do true community school initiatives encounter such resistance at all levels of many school systems? What can be learned from the fate of local Community Hub School projects championed by the Nova Scotia Small Schools Initiative? What might work in breaking down the silos and opening the door to more local projects of genuine social enterprise and educational innovation?

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