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Archive for the ‘Education Research’ Category

A hard lesson in public education is being learned in one of the most unlikely places, the Canadian East Coast province of Nova Scotia, better known by license plates emblazoned with the motto “Canada’s Ocean Playground.”  The earth has shaken. That province has just survived its first protracted teacher dispute and the first teachers’ strike in the 122-year history of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union.

Here’s the backstory and a few questions raised by the bitter, divisive teacher dispute — where there are no clear winners and the provincial school system with 400 schools, 118,000 students, and 9,300 teachers shows few signs of recovery.

nsteachersstrike2017After 16 months of negotiations, three rejected teacher contracts, a 6-week work-to-rule, and a one day province-wide strike, Nova Scotia’s Stephen McNeil Liberal government finally brought the teachers’ dispute to an end. Under Bill 75, the province’s 9,300 unionized teachers were legislated back to work on February 22, almost a week ago.

With Nova Scotia Teachers Union supporters in the streets, the province’s reputed ‘Education Premier’ made a rare and startling admission: “decades” of education policy errors – including his own – had contributed to a full-blown education crisis.  Limiting teacher salary increases to 3% over 4 years was a key factor, but somehow did not factor in his thinking.

Reversing the former NDP Government’s education cuts helped catapult the Liberals into office in October 2013, and it was not supposed to work out this way.

Since 2013, McNeil’s government had invested almost $59-million in P-12 education to restore the depleted “learning supports” model. Reducing Grade 4 to 6 class sizes, hiring 59 math mentors, reactivating 114 Reading Recovery teachers, and adding more math and literacy supports simply band-aided the system’s endemic, festering problems.

Now the Premier was conceding that his own rather scattered “classroom investments” had “missed the mark.” Yet, amidst the education chaos, it appeared to be happening again.

Frustrated and angry teachers, emboldened by a few thousand placard-carrying NSTU protesters, came before the N.S. Law Amendments Committee not only seeking to block the back-to-work legislation.

They were also demanding immediate cures for a whole raft of legitimate complaints: a broken inclusion model, ‘no fail’ social promotion, chronic absenteeism, ‘do-over’ student assessment, increasing violence in the classroom, bulging high school class sizes, time-consuming data collection, and managerial excesses eroding teacher autonomy.

Concerned Nova Scotia parents and teachers are both demanding immediate correctives without really addressing the structural sources of what American social planner Horst Rittel  once termed a ‘wicked problem.’

A wicked problem is one that defies quick fixes and proves difficult or impossible to solve for a variety of reasons: incomplete or contradictory knowledge, the range of people and opinions involved, the prohibitive costs of resolution, or the complications presented by its interconnected nature.

Today’s school system is the product of a steady, repetitive stream of ‘progressive’ curriculum initiatives, overlaid since the mid-1990s with managerial reforms such as student achievement testing and school quality accreditation.

The P-12 public school system, like most in Canada, is now completely riddled with contradictions.  Curriculum innovations are almost constantly at odds with new system demands for managerial efficiency, student testing, and public accountability.

Curriculum and pedagogy or favoured teaching practices tend to support student-centred learning and incredibly labour-intensive practices, such as differentiated learning, authentic assessment, and ‘coding’ special needs students with ‘adaptations’ and individual program plans.

School authorities, ensconced in the Education Department and regional boards, now impose many external mandates, almost always delivered “top-down” on principals as well as classroom teachers. Vociferous complaints about “data collection” are code for the groundswell of school-level resistance to the system-wide imposition of technological initiatives (Power School and TIENET) or time-consuming provincial tests.

Inclusion is a ‘wicked problem’ of the highest order.  While the vast majority of parents and teachers claim that “the current model is not working,” they persist in believing that investing more in the regular classroom will make things better for special needs students, including those with severe learning challenges and complex needs.

Class composition not necessarily class size was the biggest concern of Canadian teachers in the Canadian Teachers Federation 2012 national survey, but it took a teacher contract upheaval to get Nova Scotia teachers finally talking out of school. Most are clamouring for more “learning supports” rather than holding out for a more permanent fix – a total re-engineering of Nova Scotia special education services.

After sixteen months of negotiations and three recommended agreements, the Bill 75 settlement will likely survive a court challenge. That was NSTU lawyer Ron Pink’s preliminary assessment. Unlike the Nova Scotia context, much of the British Columbia Teachers Federation decision turned on the B.C. government’s aversion to bargaining and arbitrary removal of class size and composition limits.

Establishing provincial commissions or committees to address inclusion and classroom conditions cuts little ice with frontline teachers, accustomed as they are to conflicted mandates and pointless paper exercises. Hashing out “working conditions” with or without an arbitrator is met with understandable skepticism.

Switching premiers every four years has not worked, so far. Education ministers come and go, but the so-called “iron cage” of education, protected by layers of bureaucracy and regulation remains essentially unchanged.

Looking for a better path forward?  Be bold enough to: Go to the root of the “wicked problem” and do not settle, once again, for watering the tree and rearranging the branches. Get on with undoing the failing program initiatives and rebuilding the system from the schools-up for the sake of today’s students.

What are the hard lessons to be learned from the Nova Scotia teacher dispute? How well are students served when Work-to-Rule ends, only to be replaced by Work-to-Contact?  Will other education authorities study the conflict in order to avert similar consequences?  Who will be the first to stand up and tackle the “wicked problem” of internal contradiction and self-defeating policy initiatives? 

 

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A recent visit to the St. Andrew’s Episcopal School Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning (CTTL) in Potomac, MD, opened my eyes and forced me to confront my preconceived notion about the efficacy of “brain science” in guiding teaching practice. Director of the CTTL Glenn Whitman and his Research Head Ian Kelleher are leaders in the “neuroteach” movement deeply committed to applying sound, research-based principles from cognitive psychology and neuroscience in the real life classroom. Their new book, Neuroteach: Brain Science and the Future of Education, also attempts to sort out the ‘wheat’ from the ‘chaff’ in this burgeoning field.

neuroteachcttlcoverSince my faculty of education days, the critical pedagogical concept of “crap-detection” introduced in Charles Weingarten and Neil Postman’s 1969 classic Teaching as a Subversive Activity has loomed ever larger in my thinking about education. The whole notion actually originated with the great novelist Ernest Hemingway who when asked if there were one quality needed, above all others, to be a good writer, replied, “Yes, a built-in, shock-proof, crap detector.” For at least two decades, listening to various and sundry travelling education consultants promoting “brain-based learning” has tended to set-off my own internal crap-detector.

That perception was further cemented by reading Daniel T. Willingham’s 2012 book, When Can You Trust the Experts: How to Tell Good Science from Bad in Education. The field of teaching and learning , he warned us, is “awash in conflicting goals, research ‘wars’, and profiteers” and we need to be vigilant in critically evaluating new pedagogical ideas and less persuaded by “bad evidence” drawn particularly from neuroscience. He provided us with a helpful shortcut to help in assessing the latest panacea: “strip it and flip it, trace it, analyze it, and make your own decision about whether to adopt it.”  In short, become an informed consumer of initiatives floating on unproven theories or based upon dubious research evidence. 

Whitman and Kelleher’s book Neuroteach and the CTTL both venture into contested terrain in the larger debate over the value of neuroscience in informing and guiding classroom teaching. Like many such cutting-edge ventures, the CTTL is housed in an impresssive state-of-the-art learning centre and comes beautifully packaged in booklets exhorting teachers to “think differently and deeply” about their practice.  Upon closer examination, however, there is more to this initiative than meets the eye.

Whitman and Kelleher are plainly aware of the wall of skepticism aroused by pseudoscience and expressed in hushed tones in today’s high school staff rooms. British education gadfly David Didau (@LearningSpy) put it best: “While cognitive psychology is playing an increasingly important role in how teachers understand their craft and how students can best learn, neuroscience has, for the most part, remained the realm of quacks and snake-oil salesmen.” In such a field, Whitman and Kelleher are a breath of fresh air – playing an important role in bridging the gap between sound research and classroom practice.  They also use “crap-detection” in helping us to understand “the complexities of the science of learning.”

The CTTL is school-based and focused specifically on improving teaching practice by applying the best research in cognitive psychology and neuroscience. Some readers of Neuroteach may be put-off by the optimistic, aspirational tone and tendency to appropriate “transformational” rhetoric. It’s a bit of a stretch to imagine teachers caught up in the euphoria as they “begin to rewire each other’s brain, to develop neural pathways and connections informed by mind, brain and education science.” Not everyone possesses an “ambitious brain” and will be easily convinced to either stop teaching as they were once taught or to abandon teaching to their own “learning strengths.” ( p. 7).  Some outstanding teachers, we all know, do both.

neuroteachpcknowledgeWhitman and Kelleher, to their credit, do deliver more than the usual messianic educational progressivism. Educators familiar with Tom Bennett’s ground-breaking work with researchED will heartily approve of certain sections of this book.  It’s encouraging to see British teacher-researcher Carl Hendrick’s classroom wisdom brought to a North American audience. The doctor who still uses leeches to treat his patients and, when questioned on it, replies “it works for me” is, as Carl reminds us, simply not good enough these days. Research-informed teachers will also be pleased to see Professor Robert Coe, head of Britain’s College of Teaching, cited for his penetrating observation: “The problem with what’s obvious is that it is often wrong.”  This applies not only to the traditional “leeches” but to supposed 21st century psuedoscientific curatives.

The proposed CTTL teacher research agenda is a welcome contribution to the field of teacher growth and development.  Focusing on two different strands makes good sense: 1) mastering MBE (mind-brain-education) science and 2) curriculum understanding ( p. 153).  The primary objective, according to Whitman and Kelleher, is to marry curriculum understanding and teaching strategies informed by MBE science to achieve pedagogical content knowledge. 

The CTTL approach aligns well with Rob Coe’s recent Sutton Trust research review identifying six “research-backed components of “great teaching,” all cast within the context of assessing “teacher quality.” Coe’s top two factors match the two strands underlying the CTTL program philosophy: 1) content knowledge; and 2) quality of instruction, both of which show “strong evidence of impact on student outcomes.”  In essence, “knowing your stuff” still matters and applying the lessons of MBE science can make you even better as a teacher.

Cutting through the accretion of “crap” in cognitive psychology and neuroscience is not easy. What can be done to develop in new teachers and everyday classroom teachers what Postman termed a “built-in crap detector”?  Is it possible to transform teacher development into something approaching immersion in research-informed practice?  How can we separate initiatives like the CTTL from the commercial and trendy purveyors of pseudoscience? 

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The Chinese city of Shanghai has a school system that produces students who soar far above the rest.  On the 2009 and 2012 Programme of International Student Achievement (PISA) tests, administered to 15-year-olds worldwide, Shanghai-China students ranked first in all three major domains –mathematics, reading and science.

ShanghaiTeacherUntil recently, the secret of that astounding student achievement success was essentially shrouded in mystery.  With the release of the May 17 World Bank study, “How Shanghai Does It,” the answers are beginning to emerge, providing vitally-important lessons for education policy-makers in Canadian school systems and far beyond.

The World Bank report on Shanghai education, issued by World Bank research director Harry Patrinos, provides a counterpoint to the prevailing narrative that North American school systems should look to Finland for lessons on school improvement. It demonstrates, in incredible detail, what lies behind Shanghai-China’s rise to ‘education super-nova.’

The report, based upon SABER, a comprehensive World Bank system for benchmarking school system performance, delves deeply into how and why Shanghai students achieve excellent learning results. In the process, it smashes a few stubborn stereotypes and dispels the image of a mechanistic, test-driven, joyless educational enterprise.

Shanghai’s student successes stem, according to the World Bank, from a focus on teaching excellence. What’s unique about Shanghai-China is the way it “grooms, supports, and manages” teachers to raise educational quality and to a culture which accords great respect to the “teaching profession.”

We know that Shanghai students break records for extraordinary test scores, but lesser known is the success achieved in raising the floor for overall student achievement. The city has the highest share of disadvantaged students in the top 25 per cent range on PISA tests, and that is no accident. Educational equity is becoming a higher priority, especially targeting children of migrants.

Teachers in Shanghai are, by all accounts, well-trained and mentored after they become licensed to teach in schools. Ongoing professional development is not only offered, as in Canada, but integrated into a “collegial and supportive” professional growth process.  Subject mastery and pedagogical training go together in developing skilled and accomplished teachers.

Teaching time is organized far differently than in Canadian schools.  The Chinese teachers spend only one-third of their time actually teaching and far more emphasis is placed on preparation of demonstration lessons. Teaching effectiveness is the clear priority, not scattered efforts spread across a range of classes.

Teaching is also rewarded far differently.  Instead of being paid on a lock-step grid based upon seniority, Shanghai teachers move up the ladder based upon merit and guided by principals who are trained as instructional leaders not building administrators.

The biggest surprise is how Shanghai’s school system works to reduce educational inequalities. While education funding is vested in the school district, a proportion of the ‘education tax’ is specifically allocated to poor and low performing school districts.

ShanghaiSchoolBBCOne educational innovation worth emulating is what is known as the “entrusted school” management model to help raise up underperforming schools.  High-performing Shanghai schools are “twinned” with struggling schools within the state system. Instead of establishing private schools or creating charters, the Chinese use “twinning” to extend management, training, and resource support to teachers and students in the struggling schools.

Since 2006, the world of education has been enraptured with the so-called “Finnish Miracle,” while Shanghai-China has surged far ahead in student achievement. Instead of hitching our school improvement wagon to Finnish education promoter extraordinaire Pasi Sahlberg and his Finnish lessons, we should be looking at best practice anywhere and everywhere.

Let’s start by finding out where exactly we rank and what might be the areas that need improvement.  We generate lots of national, provincial and international student performance data, so why not put it to better use?

A really bold initiative would be to invite the World Bank to assess one Canadian provincial school system in relation to the SABER benchmarks.  The State of Maryland in the United States has already done so, and the SABER report for Maryland demonstrates just how incredibly valuable it can be in planning for, and advancing, school improvement.

The Finnish Education Miracle has begun to lose its lustre. Perhaps it’s time to consider edutourism junkets to Shanghai instead of Helsinki – in search of educational excellence as well as innovative teaching-learning ideas.

*An earlier version of this Commentary appeared in The Telegraph-Journal, provincial edition, based in Saint John, NB.

Will the World Bank report on Shanghai’s Educational Success be a wake-up call for North American educational leaders? Do popular stereotypes about Chinese education obscure our vision of Shanghai’s remarkable student performance achievements? Should we be producing more detailed studies of “Shanghai Lessons” for educators? And which Canadian province will be the first to follow Maryland in stepping-up to participate in the SABER assessment of school system effectiveness? 

 

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The public cries of “crisis” are in the air, especially when it comes to child/teen mental health in the schools. Britain’s government-appointed Mental Health Champion, Natasha Devon, rang the latest alarm bell in The Telegram (April 29, 2016) claiming that the “child mental health crisis is spinning out of control.” In issuing her “Mental Health Manifesto” for Britain’s schoolchildren, Devon frequently cites a scary figure to buttress her public claims — the statistic that “rates of depression and anxiety among teenagers have increased by 70 per cent in the past 25 years.”

TeenDepressionUKNot everyone accepts her public pronouncements at face value — and a few are looking more deeply into the nature, definition, and prevalence of the so-called “child public health crisis.” Devon’s further claim that it constitutes an “epidemic” has sparked even more skepticism. Is this the proverbial twenty-first century equivalent of “crying wolf” or just a manifestation of our contemporary tendency to ‘pathologize’ social-psychological trends?

One of Canada’s leading teen mental health experts, Dr. Stan Kutcher, devotes his life to educating teachers, students and families about mental health disorders, but he is very skeptical about overblown claims. When asked about the purported “crisis” at St. Francis Xavier University a few weeks ago, he startled a local newspaper reporter with this statement: “there is no mental health crisis for crying out loud.”

Dr. Kutcher was not minimizing  the severity of the problem, but rather questioning the veracity of some of the recent public claims. “We have the same proportion of mental illness in our society now that we had 40, 50, 60 years ago,” he explained. “There is no epidemic of illness, there is better recognition of illness, which is good but what we’re seeing now is an epidemic of ‘I think I have a mental disorder when I’m just really feeling unhappy,’ and that is a direct reflection of poor mental health literacy.”

Like many health professionals, Dr. Kutcher sees the popular media as contributing to the public misunderstanding about the nature and prevalence of mental disorders. He’s critical of those who exaggerate the “crisis” and equally concerned about others too quick to dismiss
it as a ‘teenage fad.’“Now the depression happens in adolescents and depression is a serious disease and if you have depression you need the proper treatment for depression, but feeling unhappy, that’s not depression,” he said.“So I think a lot of people have become confused with all the talk about mental health and mental illness without the literacy to understand what they’re talking about.”

TeenMentalHealthDrStanStress and distress is not all bad, according to Kutcher. “People do have daily distress, that is normal, ubiquitous, necessary and good for you,” he said.“And all of us are going to have a mental health problem like the loss of a loved one, moving to a new city, losing your job – those are substantive challenges in our lives and we need extra help for that. But those two things aren’t mental illnesses and they don’t need to be medicalized, they don’t need medications, they don’t need specialized psychotherapy, they don’t need access to the mental health care system.They can be dealt with, the first one, mental distress, by yourself with your friends. The second one with special support, sometimes counselors, sometimes your clergy, whoever.”

As the Sun Life Chair of Teen Mental Health at Dalhousie University Medical School, Kutcher’s assessment carries considerable weight and he makes the critical distinctions that the popular media tend to completely miss: “Mental illnesses are different; they need specialized treatment like a treatment for any illness. But one of the challenges we have is that socially we’re tending to confuse mental distress and mental health problems with mental illness. So, because I feel unhappy today I feel like I should have therapy, because I take umbrage at what you said to me I have an anxiety disorder, that’s not true at all.”

Dr. Kutcher seems to dispute the whole approach taken by Britain’s Mental Health czarina and ‘body health’ counsellor, Natasha Devon. While Devon and her Self-Esteem Team (SET) target standardized tests and exams as “stress-inducers,” Kutcher and other specialists, including Dr. Michael Ungar, see value in competitive activities in developing “resilience” in teens.  Dr. Kutcher puts it this way: “We have to be very careful to differentiate the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune in real life which we have to learn to deal with and overcome, and for which we don’t need treatment, and those things which actually require treatment.”

Mental health disorders are serious and providing more accessible, effective and sustainable services should be a top public policy priority, inside and outside of schools. “Teenage angst,” as Ella Whelan recently pointed out, “is not a serious mental health issue.” It is important to carefully consider all public claims for their veracity and to be skeptical of mental health charities seeking to “normalize mental illness.” We must also recognize that “not all of the kids are all right.” Nor are mental health services accessible or available when and where they are needed in and around the schools. Therein lies the real problem.

What ‘s driving the public call to address the “child mental health crisis” in schools? Are school authorities and educators equipped to make the critical distinction between normal ‘mental health stresses’ and serious disorders requiring treatment?  Is there a danger that those ringing the alarm bells are ‘pathologizing’ teenage anxieties and stress?  Is it possible to identify and support those in serious personal crisis while recognizing that competition and stress develops ‘resilience’ and is part of healthy preparation for life? 

 

 

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Stationary bikes are now appearing in Canadian classrooms in the latest wave of the  North American “self-regulation” movement.  Frustrated , angry and fidgety kids and stressed-out parents are driving many teachers almost crazy and they are grasping for life preservers in today’s classrooms.  That may explain why principals and teachers in the Halifax Regional School Board and far beyond see spin bikes as almost magical in their powers.

SpinBikeSelfRegHRSBIs this becoming the latest ‘cure-all’ and where’s the scientific research to support its widespread use in regular classrooms? Since the publication of British teacher Tom Bennett’s book Teacher Proof, more and more classroom teachers are raising a “skeptical eyebrow” and confronting the succession of teaching fads that have come and gone over the past twenty years. It’s becoming acceptable to ask whether “self-regulation” with or without bikes is destined for the same fate.

The current expectations for Self-Regulation and Spin Bikes are sky high. Discovery of the latest ‘cure-all’ has sparked incredible media interest with recent CBC-TV short documentaries and CBC Radio The Current feature interviews.

The sheer excitement created by spin bike frenzy is captured well in Aly Thomson’s March 9, 2016 Canadian Press story: “Frustrated at her inability to draw a sofa, five-year-old Mylee Lumsden began to cry. She liked her drawing of a TV, but the couch confounded her, and so she grew increasingly upset. Her teacher, Mary Theresa Burt, looked at the brewing storm, and suggested the little girl take a turn on the bright yellow stationary bicycle at the centre of her primary classroom at Ian Forsyth Elementary School.” Within minutes, Mylee was “bright again, cheerful, and smiling widely.”

That tiny yellow bike was simply working miracles — calming rambunctious kids down, quietening the class, getting restless boys to sit still, and making teaching life liveable again. “Now, amid a shift in how educators shift and embrace various styles of learning,” Thomson wrote, “such bikes are helping to boost moods, relieve stress and regulate energy in students of all ages.”

“Learning styles” simply won’t go away long after it has been exposed as fraudulent educational practice.  It’s the best known of the myths recently exposed by Tom Bennett, co-founder of ResearchED and Britain’s 2015 Teacher of the Year.  A year ago, in the Daily Telegraph, he pointed out that many such theories that fill classrooms in Britain have little grounding in scientific research.

“We have all kinds of rubbish thrown at us over the last 10 to 20 years,” he stated. “We’ve been told that kids only learn properly in groups. We’ve had people claiming that children learn using brain gym, people saying kids only learn when you appeal to their learning style. There’s not a scrap of research that substantiates this, and, unfortunately, it’s indicative of the really, really dysfunctional state of social science research that exists today.”

Bennett is far from alone in challenging the research basis for a whole range of initiatives floating on unproven educational theories. According to a research scan by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), trillions of dollars are spent on education policies around the world, but just one in 10 are actually evaluated.

Commenting on the research, Andreas Schleicher, OECD director of education and skills, said: “If we want to improve educational outcomes we need to have a much more systematic and evidence-based approach.” Speaking at the 2014 Education World Forum in London, Schleicher added: “We need to make education a lot more of a science.”

Cutting through the hype surrounding Self-Regulation, it’s difficult to find independent, validated research support. A very perceptive October 2012 feature in The Tyee actually bore down into the British Columbia self-regulation movement looking for the research basis while 3,000 teachers were being taught the strategy.

While much of Dr. Stuart Shanker’s work is compromised by his promotion of his own particular program, Kimberley Schonert-Reichl, of UBC’s Human Development, Learning and Culture research unit, has studied MindUP , an alternative approach to teaching self-regulation as the basis for Social and Emotional Learning (SEL). Over a period of six years, she only found one large-scale independent research study, a CASEL study of 270 programs, that documented its actual benefits.

“So little(in education) has actually been formed by rigorous research, as opposed to the medical field, Schonert-Reichl claimed. ” I heard someone compare where we are with understanding well-designed educational studies to where we were with clinical drug trials in the early 1900s.”

Self-regulation definitely holds promise, but the research basis is quite limited and teachers are wise to be skeptical until there’s more evidence that it actually works and is sustainable in the classroom.  A new study by Shanker and his associates, Child Development (September/October 2015), may add to the puzzle by demonstrating the the meaning of the term ‘self-regulation’ is still unclear and therefore expandable to accommodate an array of some 88 different concepts, including  self-control, self-management, self-observation, learning, social behavior, and the personality constructs related to self-monitoring.

Who is really being served by ‘self-regulation’ is particularly unclear. Much of the rationale has its underpinning in neurocience and that’s what is being debated rather than its efficacy for the majority of students.  Some like former BC Education Minister George Abbott see it as a way of serving severely learning-challenged kids and getting rid of the extensive, expensive Special Education system with all those individual program plans.

Child psychologist and elementary teachers, as The National Post columnist Marni Soupcoff  anticipated three years ago, are latching onto self-regulation believing that you can ‘teach kids to behave properly in schools’ because the job is not being done in today’s family homes. The real reason it’s needed, in other words, is because too many kids aren’t getting the “psychological stability and support” they need from their own families.

Is Self-Regulation — with or without Spin Bikes – another unproven educational initiative that will come and go without a discernable impact on students? Should researchers marketing their own programs be relied upon to provide the supporting research? Will ‘self-regulation’ end up resembling mother’s version of  “sit in the corner,” “go to your room” or “get down and do five push-ups, now” ? Should we intervene if kids riding those bikes ever come to look like hamsters on wheels in the Cage?  

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British educator Katie Ashford, the spunky curator of Tabula Rasa Blog, is stirring-up much needed education reform thinking.  “Education in the UK isn’t always good enough,” she says in her first “Why I Blog” post. “Far too many children pass through the doors of our schools into the real world knowing little, unable to read, and incapable of expressing themselves. To me, this is a tragedy. Our education system is flawed and we need to do something about it urgently.”

StrugglingTeenReaderThat commitment to raising educational standards and sense of urgency certainly shines through in her most recent commentary, “Please teach my daughter to read,” posted January 17, 2016, and now generating quite an online reaction. In it, Katie utilizes the case of a British teen’s amazing turnaround in reading fluency over 18 months to demonstrate that “correct methods” can work apparent wonders in making Special Education Needs (SEN) all but disappear.

She certainly spins a compelling story. As Assistant Head at Michaela Community School, in the Wembley District of London, Ashford reports that the student’s father enrolled “Georgia” in her school convinced that her academic struggles, entering secondary level, stemmed from not being able to read. Without promising miracles, she took on the project based upon her “hunch” that Georgia was “yet another victim of our profession’s ignorant mistakes” and, rather than having a “cognitive disability,” simply needed to be taught to read through proven, research-based methods.

Her “hunch” was borne out by Georgia’s experience. Eighteen months later, Ashford reported that “Georgia has received rigorous reading instruction and reads thousnds of words per day, including the classics. She is no longer on the SEN register and her reading age (level) has improved by 4 years. She still has lots of catching up to do, but she is making rapid progress.”

Ashford and her Tabla Rasa Education blog are, as expected, drawing flack from ‘diehard’ progressive educators either wedded to “whole word” approaches or simply hostile to academy schools such as Michaela with its explicit KIPP educational philosophy.  Resorting to such criticisms is revealing because it attacks the institution without really confronting the evidence of success.

Hunches about the impact of early reading failure on the rising incidence of SEN coded or designated students are well-founded and supported by mounds of research findings. Since the mid-1990s reading research has tended to show that children who get off to a poor start in reading rarely catch up. The poor first-grade reader almost invariably continues to be a poor reader (Francis, Shaywitz, Stuebing, Shaywitz, & Fletcher, 1996; Torgesen & Burgess, 1998). And the consequences of a slow start in reading become monumental as they accumulate exponentially over time.

The recognized pioneer in the field is Canadian researcher, Dr. Keith Stanovich, Professor Emeritas at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. Thirty years ago, Stanovich pointed out in his well-known paper (1986) on the “Matthew effects” (the rich get richer and the poor get poorer) that failure to acquire early word reading skills has lasting consequences ranging from negative attitudes toward reading (Oka & Paris, 1986), to reduced opportunities for vocabulary growth (Nagy, Herman, & Anderson, 1985), to missed opportunities for development of reading comprehension strategies (Brown, Palinscar, & Purcell, 1986), to less actual practice in reading than other children receive (Allington, 1984).

“Catch Them Before They Fall” is the key message conveyed by Joseph K. Torgesen, Jamie Metsala and other leading reading research specialists.  “It is a tragedy of the first order,” according to Torgeson,” that while we know clearly the costs of waiting too long, few school districts have in place a mechanism to identify and help children before failure takes hold. Indeed, in the majority of cases, there is no systematic identification until third grade, by which time successful remediation is more difficult and more costly.”

Early reading failure is now recognized as a critical factor contributing to the burgeoning numbers of Special Needs students not only in Britain but elsewhere. The Reading Reform Foundation has led the charge in the U.K. and one of the best articles making the connection is Dr. John Marks piece “Special Need or Can’t Read?” published in the May 2001 RRF Newsletter.  In it, he expressed alarm that the U.K. had ten times as many pupils with ‘Special Educational Needs’ than in 1980 and over a million and a half pupils in total.

Across Britain, Marks reported in 2001 that more than one in five of all pupils were on ‘Special Needs’ registers – and in some schools the figure was as high as a staggering 55% or more.  The numbers of SEN children with “statements” of severe disabilities stood at 2 to 3 per cent, meaning that the vast majority of SEN students were what was described as “soft” with, at best, moderate or undiagnosed learning disabilities. He then posed the fundamental question: “Is the explosion in ‘Special Needs’ real? Or has it happened because schools have failed over many years to teach properly – and to teach reading in particular.”

A recent shift in British SEN policy is beginning to address the problem identified a decade ago.  In September 2014, Special Needs and Disability (SEND) reforms to the Children and Families Act were introduced to better track and properly designate students by their SEN provision.  Since then, the total number of SEN students has dropped from 1.49 to 1.3 million, while the number with a clear SEN “statement” stands at 2.8%, a slight increase over the past year.  This was consistent with a 2010 Ofsted Study that found about one-quarter of all children labelled with SEN and as many as half of those on “School Action” lists, did not actually have SEN.

Literacy levels are now considered to be a major contributing factor perpetuating economic inequality.  A 2014 report of the National Literacy Trust and commissioned by Save the Children has now sparked the publication ‘How reading can help children escape poverty’ produced by the Read On. Get On. coalition. That U.K. campaign brings together teachers and other professionals, charities, businesses, publishers and local communities pursuing the lofty goal of all children reading well by the age of 11 by 2025. Much like Katie Ashfield, they see the potential for all children learning to read if taught by more effective methods and fully embraced by the school system.

How many of our Special Education Needs (SEN) population are actually casualties of ineffective early reading instruction? Why are education reformers questioning the incidence of SEN student numbers often labelled as hard-nosed or unsympathetic to students? Which early reading interventions work best in producing fluent readers?  If we were to “catch them early,” what would SEN programs look like and would we actually be serving those who need intensive support much better? 

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School has resumed for another year and most parents, teachers and students are discussing the thorny issue of homework.  Common sense would suggest that it is desirable for students to come to class each day prepared and capable of contributing to activities and discussion. A body of educational research had accumulated by the late 1990s documenting its “positive benefits”for reinforcing classroom lessons, teaching responsibility and self-discipline. Assigning a steady diet of programmed-learning worksheets, mind-numbing repetitive exercises, and “busy work” –to be sure– gave conventional homework a bad name. It also opened the door to a short-lived North American backlash against homework in the mid- 2000s.

HomeworkHeadacheBCAfter the appearance of American education writer Alfie Kohn’s 2006 book, The Homework Myth, a vocal minority of parents and educators sparked a movement to curtail homework and eliminate it in the early grades. Kohn succeeded in challenging the purported benefits of homework in improving student academic performance and attracted friendly researchers like Dr. Linda Cameron at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. In February 2008, Cameron and OISE colleague Dr. Lee Bartel produced a study of parent opinions and attitudes that supported Kohn’s claims that homework was excessive, especially in lower grades, and that it reduced “family time” and affected “family relationships.”  That opinion research, buttressed by teacher union workload studies, led credence to moves underway  in Ontario to “ban homework” in lower elementary grades.

Limiting or eliminating homework gained favour in Canada’s major urban school boards, most notably in the Toronto District School Board, the Greater Vancouver region,  and the Halifax Regional School Board. By 2012, the impact of the changes was beginning to show in the reported weekly hours of homework and student preparation in mathematics. New studies also pointed to possible negative effects of cutting down homework on student work ethic, grit and resilience.

Fifteen-year-olds around the globe, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development reported in 2013,  spent an average of 5.9 hours a week in 2012 doing homework, one hour a week less than in 2003.  While Shanghai-China and Singapore students were assigned 13.8 hours and 9.7 hours respectively; United States and Canadian students were only expected to complete 6.1 hours and 5.5 hours of homework.  South Korean and Finnish students averaged 2.9 and 2.8 hours, considerably less than their North American peers. The OECD Education Office attributed it to adolescents spending more time on the Internet and to changes in homework policy.

The direct benefits of homework for student academic achievement are not clear before Grade 3, but researchers have identified and confirmed other important merits of the practice. The benefits tend to vary according to the subject and grade level, as well as the amount and type of homework.  Spending a lot of time on homework in the early grades does not translate into better reading performance (PIRL 2011), but it does contribute to developing self-discipline reflected in more focus, better time management, and improved self-confidence (CMEC, 2014).

The latest research confirms that doing homework is essential to performing reasonably well in junior and senior high school.  Since Canadian high schoolers now report doing less than one hour per day (CMEC, 2014), most education authorities reject Kohn’s claims and see a positive “return on the time invested” in subject-specific homework, balancing the multiple demands of competing subject areas.  All recent studies concur that older students continue to benefit more than younger students because of the edge it gives them in academic achievement.

The Homework Backlash is fizzling-out as parents and teachers recognize that too little rather than too much is now expected of most public school students. In the Canadian province of Nova Scotia, homework has made a real comeback.  A provincial Education Review, conducted by Myra Freeman in 2014, surveyed 19,000 Nova Scotians and discovered that half of those surveyed were “not satisfied” with P-12 education and a majority of parents and teachers felt students were “not prepared” for the next grade.

The Nova Scotia Education Review findings led to the proclamation of a Provincial Homework Policy (Grades P-12), effective September 2015, setting an “expectation for educators” to assign homework in graduated amounts, to evaluate it promptly, and to provide regular feedback to students. It was introduced, top-down on all students, ages 5 to 18, over the objections of the teacher union president Shelley Morse who saw it as another “source of work” for teachers.  This measure, it would seem, violated the cardinal principle that students and teachers are more inclined to carry out actions that they find palatable than to swallow bitter tasting curatives.

Schools without clear homework expectations are certainly ill-prepared for some of the most exciting innovations emerging across the continent.  The best example is the so-called “Flipped Classroom” model where students are expected to utilize the Internet to watch videos as 21st century-style “homework” and teachers are encouraged to utilize class time for interactive, follow-up learning activities.  What’s really odd about the Nova Scotia provincial policy, however, is that “homework” cannot introduce new material and thus the “flipped classroom” is actually rendered more difficult to implement.  Perhaps that’s a comment on the receptivity of Nova Scotia to online learning inside and outside the classroom.

What good does homework do at each stage of schooling? Should schools and school authorities be firmer in expecting more homework?  Why has recent research tended to blow holes in Alfie Kohn’s 2006 book, The Myth of Homework?  Do system-wide homework policies work when they are imposed from the top? How can new policies help to enable some innovative approaches such as the flipped classroom?

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