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Archive for the ‘Educational Change’ Category

The global shock of the COVID-19 pandemic proves, once again, the old adage that “it takes a crisis” and especially so in the world of K-12 education. Surveying the fallout from the school shutdown, the six-month hiatus, and the rocky school-start-up in September, everyone from school leaders to students, educators and parents, is absorbing the lessons, rethinking past assumptions and considering what once seemed like unlikely scenarios.

Pandemic distance learning was mostly an educational disaster. The centralized and overly bureaucratic school system described in my new book, The State of the System: A Reality Check on Canada’s Schools, proved to be vulnerable and ill-equipped to respond to the massive COVID-19 pandemic disruption. Students, parents, and teachers have –in many ways – still not recovered from the disruption and subsequent upheaval.

The three-month long school shutdown exposed what German sociologist Max Weber aptly termed the “Iron Cage” – a bureaucratic structure which traps individuals in an invisible web of order, rationality, conformity, and control. We came to see how dependent students, teachers and families were on provincial and school district directives. Little did we realize that it would devolve into a marathon and that possibly the worst was yet to come.

Since the resumption of school in September, the unsettling impact of the massive distance learning experiment, compounded by fears and anxieties over COVID-19 health risks, have destabilized whole school systems. Tens of thousands of Ontario students and parents, particularly in the Greater Toronto Area, abandoned in-person schooling for hastily assembled online learning programs. Some 11,000 parents, in spired by Toronto parent Rachel Marmer, flirted with creating pandemic “learning pods” and hiring teacher/tutors to serve small groups of four or five students.

The initial school schedule combining in-person and online classes proved incredibly complex to manage and, in some cases, unsustainable. Hundreds of teachers were reassigned to centrally managed online instruction and school timetables ended up being reorganized several times. Smaller class cohorts have now been collapsed as school districts, starting with the Dufferin-Peel and York Region Catholic boards, readjust again and resort to offering single stream combined courses utilizing live streamed lessons.

Building back the disrupted and damaged School System will involve confronting squarely the fragility and limitations of top-down, bureaucratic K-12 education. Cage-busting leadership will be required to transform our schools into more autonomous social institutions that, first and foremost, serve students, families and communities. It’s also looking, more and more, like schools will need to be far more responsive to the radically altered health conditions and shifting preferences of students and families.

Community-school based reform
Some forty years after the advent of decentralized democratic governance in the form of school-based management, provincial authorities and regional centres remain wedded to system-wide management of virtually every aspect of educational service. What is needed is a complete rethink of school governance and a commitment to clear away the obstacles to building a more agile, responsive, community of self-governing schools that puts student needs first. Without re-engineering education governance from the schools up, this is not going to happen.

Humanizing education
Flipping the system has emerged as a new COVID-19 era imperative, but decentralizing management and control, by itself, has little or no effect on what really matters—teaching and learning in the schools. It is only the first stage of an overall strategy to make our schools more democratic, responsive and accountable to parents, teachers, students and communities.

Students should come first in our schools, and this is best achieved in smaller schools operating on a human, student scale. Instead of re-inventing the wheel, let’s draw upon the lessons learned through the Human Scale Education (HSE) movement, particularly downsizing high schools, giving students a voice, and building genuine partnerships with parents.

Teaching-centred classrooms
Teachers are clamouring for a much larger role in setting priorities and determining what happens in today’s schools. The recent wave of neo-liberal education reform, driven by large-scale testing and accountability, has chipped away at teacher autonomy in the classroom. That has bred what Gert Biesta has termed “learnification” – a new educational language where students are “learners,” teaching is “facilitating learning,” and the classroom is a “learning environment.” Now promulgated by ministries of education and education faculties, the technocratic language threatens to subvert the real point of education—to learn something, to learn it for a reason, and to learn it from someone.

Teachers know what works in the classroom and are attuned to the spread of unproven theories and practices. Challenging education gurus and the school improvement industry will be essential if we are to base teaching on evidence-based practice and what works with students in the classroom.

Engaging parents in family-centric schools
Parent engagement is now part of the standard educational lexicon, but, in practice, it is incredibly hard to find it exhibited, particularly during the COVID-19 disruption.

One of Canada’s leading researchers on parent-school relations, Debbie Pushor, makes a clear distinction between school-managed parent involvement and genuine parent engagement. School superintendents, consultants and many school principals have a lot to unlearn.
What we need is a completely different model: the family-centric approach, embracing a philosophy of “walking alongside” parents and genuinely supporting the active engagement of the families that make up the school community.

Looking ahead—seize the day
Centralization of school administration has had its day. Eliminating or neutering locally elected school boards has moved us further in the direction of centralizing control over provincial systems. Without access to school-level education governance, concerned parents, educators and the public were left with nowhere to turn to address a host of COVID-19 education problems.

Global learning corporations, exemplified by Pearson International and Google, have achieved dominance through the spread of educational technology and licensed learning resources—and are finally attracting critical scrutiny. The pandemic has also laid bare parental concerns about technology-driven “21st-century learning” and student skill deficits in mathematics and literacy.

A new set of priorities are emerging: put students first, deprogram education ministries and school districts, and listen more to parents and teachers in the schools. Design and build smaller schools at the centre of urban neighbourhoods and rural communities. The pandemic shock has made us more aware of the critical need for meaningful public engagement, rebuilding social capital and revitalizing local communities. Rescuing the system may turn out to be essentially about taking back our schools and charting a more constructive path forward.

What’s happened to our centralized, bureaucratic and stable K-12 school system? Will the pandemic shock lead to a complete rethinking of the current structure and clear the way for systemic reform? Where do we start in building education back from the schools up?

*Adapted from The State of The System: A Reality Check on Canada’s Schools (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2020).

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“Canada’s public schools are the envy of the world.” So claim two of Canada’s leading architects and promoters of the current centralized, bureaucratic and learning-focused Canadian K-12 public education system, Michael Fullan and Andy Hargreaves. What’s most surprising and indeed shocking to them is that anyone would question that claim, let alone want to tamper with their creation, especially in Ontario, where the school change theorists first tested and implemented their system-wide reforms.

The global pandemic has not only confounded Canadian school leaders and policy-makers, but thrown Hargreaves and Fullan, the principal players in the school improvement industry, for a loop. Systemic change is derailed when the centralized bureaucratic apparatus becomes discombobulated and top-down directives become impossible to implement in properly functioning schools or to download on teachers in a conventional classroom.

That explains why the leading school change theorists rang a giant alarm bell and pushed the proverbial panic button in a most remarkable Toronto Star guest opinion column on September 23, 2020 with the scary headline “How to ruin a world-class education system.”  Adopting a rather paternalistic and condescending  tone, the two former advisors and confidantes to Ontario Liberal governments mocked today’s Ministers of Education and policy-makers for failing to protect the system during the COVID-19 pandemic crisis and for giving implicit aid and comfort to those who threaten to undermine the status quo in the form of a free, universal and accessible single platform with few if any alternatives for students, parents, and families.

The two systemic reformers sound as if they are running scared in COVID-19 education times. The metaphoric System , in their view, is threatened by dark, shadowy forces with a foothold in Ontario and Alberta, two wayward provinces with Conservative governments committed to dismantling their legacy. Any and all deviations from that formula are now deemed to be not merely threats but the slippery slope leading to ruination.  Lurking behind local initiatives and innovations is the spectre of something almost as lethal as the virus — creeping “privatization” 

Provincial education authorities, particularly in Ontario and Alberta, are now dangerous enough to be enemies of the “public good” and unwitting tools of the “wealthy” forsaking the many while implicitly doing the bidding of the few.  Such diabolical forces are fomenting a “crisis” in education through a variety of ruinous means. Taken together the unseen enemy forces are plotting to 1) Undermine public education; 2) create private alternatives; 3)misuse technology; 4) impose austerity; and 5) mortgage the future. Unmasking the hidden agenda is presented as a clarion call to “see the light,” rise up, and save public education.

The fundamental problem with the Hargreaves-Fullan analysis is that is largely fictional and, quite possibly delusional. The origin, of course, of the now infamous “Best System” claim is the two McKinsey and Company reports (2007 and 2010) purporting to identify and then analyze the success of twenty of the world’s leading education systems. It also echoes the very wording used by the Ontario education reform architect Fullan in a high profile  2012 Atlantic article assessing the success of his own initiatives.

Most of Ontario’s success, as touted in the 2010 report, is attributed to “continuity of leadership” under successive Dalton McGuintyKathleen Wynne Liberal education regimes. It began in 2004 when Fullan teamed up with Ontario Education Minister Gerard Kennedy promising to pump $2.6 -billion more into education over the next four years and to raise math and reading results to 70 per cent meeting provincial standards.

Aside from the 2010 McKinsey & Company report forward, written by Fullan, there is surprisingly little about Ontario initiatives in the actual document, except for one passing reference to Parents Reaching Out grants.  Any true cost-benefit analysis must weigh in the balance the fact that education spending skyrocketed by over 57% from 2003 to 2011 to $22 billion while school enrollment fell by some 6 per cent. Much of that massive infusion poured in to support a series of Poverty Reduction initiatives, enhanced special program supports, and universal full day Kindergarten.

Two years after the triumph of the Doug Ford Conservatives in Ontario, the Ontario Liberal education legacy has lost considerable lustre. A “Back to Basics” education platform helped to bring Ford to power in June of 2018. The lavish education spending of the Liberal years may have helped reduce the equity gap, but it fell short of producing better student results. Staking the claim on rising graduation rates is suspect because, while the graduation rate rose from 68 to 83 per cent, we know that “attainment levels” do not usually reflect higher achievement levels, especially when more objective performance measures, such as student Math scores, stagnated during those years.

The global shock of the COVID-19 pandemic bears most of the responsibility for the current crisis facing public education, in Ontario, Alberta and most other provinces. Three months of emergency home learning was, by most accounts, an unmitigated disaster for student social progress, attendance, and achievement. School reopening in September 2020 posed tremendous challenges, especially in higher population provinces with much more severe virus infection rates. Blaming it all on misguided policy choices or mismanagement of the teacher union front is ill-considered and, at best, a partial explanation of what went wrong.

Substandard pandemic education and complicated or unpredictable school schedules have undermined support for the public system. Some 80,000 students in the Toronto District School Board and tens of thousands more across Ontario have turned the system on end by opting for online learning.  Some 11,000 parents have joined a grassroots parent movement initiating “Learning Pods” for teacher-guided home learning, launched by Greater Toronto Area mother Rachel Marmer in July 2020,  Students and parents may well be harming public education by voting with their feet and aggravating existing inequities.

Public education reformers like Hargreaves and Fullan look and sound to be on the defensive, fighting to maintain hegemony over school reform in COVID-19 times. Close observers of the two school change theorists, going back over four decades, will note that the current “education crisis” has brought the “old team” back together again.

Progressive educators clamouring for a new vision for future education exemplifying “Maslow before Bloom got a real surprise with the reappearance of Hargreaves over Fullan.”  “Transforming education for public good, not for private profit that rewards the wealthy few” are more the words of a staunch British Labourite than the utterance of the global head of Fullan Enterprises Inc. hitherto closely aligned with  Pearson International PLC and Microsoft Corporation. It took a crisis, real or imagined, to produce the latest reunion.

What has actually caused the current education crisis?  Was the upheaval simply the result of a cataclysmic pandemic that turned the K-12 public  system upside down?  How much of the disaster is attributable to provincial policy missteps and troubled education labour relations?  Are today’s fearful and anxious parents to blame for choosing alternative options, including online learning and home learning pods?  With parents looking for something different, shouldn’t the system be broadening its range of school options? 

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Standing in a classroom at University of Toronto Schools in the spring of 2004, global education consultant Dr. Michael Fullan, former Dean at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), uttered one of his most memorable lines. “People only call me a guru, ” he joked, “because they can’t spell charlatan.” Appointed, for a second time, as a Senior Education Advisor to the Ontario government (2004-2018), he was in a buoyant mood after being welcomed back from a a period of exile (1997 to 2004) guiding Tony Blair’s New Labour education reforms.

Today, sixteen years later, the global education consultant still ranks 20th out of the top 30 “Global Education Gurus” as posted annually by All American Entertainment (AAE), the Durham, NC-based speakers’ bureau.  Michael Fullan, O.C., now billed as Global Leadership Director, New Pedagogies for Deep Learning, still commands fees of $10,000 to $20,000 for his North American speaking engagements.

Now considered  “a worldwide authority” on education reform, he occupies considerable territory in Education Guru Land. Preaching system-wide reform, advising ministers of education, and mingling with thought leaders, he’s far removed from the regular teacher’s classroom. He’s also more likely to be found in the company of other members of the pantheon, TED Talk legend Sir Ken Robinson (#8), school leadership expert Andy Hargreaves (#21), and Finnish education promoter Pasi Sahlberg (#28).

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The world’s leading education gurus seem to have had a hypnotic effect on policy-makers and superintendents in the entire K-12 education sector. The profound influence of Fullan and his global reform associates is cemented by an intricate network of alliances which, in the case of Ontario, encompasses the Council of Directors of Education (CODE), the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), the Ontario Principals’ Council (OPC), and a friendly parent organization. People for Education. 

Challenging the hegemony of this entrenched educational change establishment is a formidable undertaking. “Teacher populism” inspired by British teacher Tom Bennett and exemplified in the spontaneous eruption of researchED from 2013 to 2018 made serious inroads, particularly in Britain, Western Europe, and Australia.  It faced stronger headwinds in the United States and Canada, where the progressive education consensus is more all-pervasive. The fear and panic generated by empowered teachers (working around education schools) has sparked not only seismic reactions, but the closing of ranks.

One of the most recent responses, produced by Cambridge University School of Education lecturer Steven Watson, attempted, not altogether successfully, to paint “teacher populism” as a movement of the New Right and offered up a piece of Twitter feed ethnography smacking of contemporary “cancel culture.” That article completely ignored the fundamental underpinning of researchED — the crowds of educators attending Saturday PD conferences, paying your own registration fees, and engaging with teacher-researchers who speak without remuneration.

Curiously absent from Watson’s article was any reference to dozens of top-notch researchED speakers, including British-born student assessment expert Dylan Wiliam (#11 – 2020 – $10,000-$20,000), AFT magazine cognitive psychologist Dan T. Willingham, and How to Learn Mathematics specialist Barbara Oakley, who regularly speak without remuneration at such conferences.

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researchED emerged to fill a gaping hole in K-12 teacher development. The researchED conference Model is decidedly different. Conferences are held on Saturdays in schools rather than hotel conference centres. Two dozen or more teacher researchers or practicing teachers are featured presenting in actual classrooms. researchED events showcase speakers reflecting a wide range of perspectives, spark lively pedagogical debates, and are increasingly diverse in their composition. Many of the short 45-minute presentations by volunteer presenters focus on contested curricular or pedagogical issues, including education myths, explicit instruction, cognitive load, early reading, mathematics skills, and teacher assessment workload.

Over 45,000 teachers on four continents attended dozens of researchED events over the seven years before COVID-19 hit us with full force. The London-based teacher research organization publishes its own bi-annual free magazine and is producing, in collaboration with John Catt Educational Publishing, a series of researchED guides to the latest evidence-based research.  Since April 2020, the movement has continued with free virtual PD conferences under the banner of researchED Home. 

Today’s education world is full of high-priced speakers who are featured at state, provincial and regional professional development conferences, mostly at events where the registration fees are many times higher than that of a researchED conference anywhere in the world. Dr. Fullan’s speaking fees pale in comparison with more messianic gurus such as Harlem Children’s Zone founder Geoffrey Canada ($50,000 – $100,000) and global tech researcher Sugata Mitra (#19 –$30,000 – $50,000), but he still commands fees comparable to American public school champion Diane Ravitch (#1 -2020), OECD Education director Andreas Schleicher, progressive education advocate Alfie Kohn, and Alberta ed tech innovator George Couros.

Almost forty years since the the publication of The Meaning of Educational Change (1983), Fullan’s real influence is reflected in the missionary work of his extensive Educational Change entourage, including Pearson International advisor Sir Michael Barber, Welsh education change professor Alma Harris, former York Region superintendent Lyn Sharratt, and OISE School Leadership professor Carol Campbell. 

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Although Dr. Hargreaves was mentored by Fullan at OISE, he’s branched out and, while at Boston’s Lynch School of Education, generated (with colleague Dennis Shirley) an interconnected  network of his own. The Fullan-Hargreaves educational change constellation sustains two academic journals and is closely aligned with two American educational enterprises, Corwin Educational Publishing and PD resource provider Solution Tree. That alliance has produced a steady stream of books, articles and workshops inspired by the global school change theorists.

The prevailing educational reform consensus has largely gone unchallenged for the past few decades. Reading Steven Watson’s thinly-veiled academic assault on “teacher populism” demonstrates how little it takes to rattle the cage of the ideologues actively resisting teacher-driven research, the science of learning, and challenges to current pedagogical orthodoxy.  Equipping today’s classroom teachers (and learners) with what the late American education reformer Neil Postman once termed “built-in shockproof crap detectors” is as threatening now as it was a few decades ago.

What sustains the hegemony of today’s educational reform establishment?  How much of that controlling influence is perpetuated by education gurus committed to upholding the prevailing consensus and defending a significant number of uncontested theories? Will the recent COVID-19 education shutdown change the terms of engagement?  Should “teacher populism” be dismissed as subversive activity or approached as a fresh opportunity to confront some of the gaps between philosophical theory and actual classroom practice? 

 

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Staggered school start times, medical checkpoints, classes split in half, desks spaced two metres apart, social distancing in hallways, eating lunch in classrooms, and washing hands every two hours. These are just some of the changes being implemented in the highly contested first phase of the reopening of Quebec schools after the COVID-19 pandemic.

With the premiers and public health officers actively planning for opening up again, senior school superintendents are hunkered down and now beginning to map out a plan for post-COVID-19 schools in the era of physical distancing. Seeing images of Danish ‘social distancing’ elementary schools with classrooms full of students spurred some initial detailed resumption planning. It still shocked many parents and educators to see students re-entering schools on May 11 all over Quebec outside of Montreal.

Ensuring the safety and health of students and staff will be the highest priority, of course, in determining when schools can safely re-open. Looking for guideposts, school planners have looked to educational systems like Denmark, as well as New Zealand and California, all ahead of the curve in planning for the transition to regular classes. Facing pushback from anxious parents and teachers, many provinces will be drawn to a go-slow “rota approach” like Australia and Scotland, adopting a one-day-a-week or alternating days schedule.

Schools resumed for pre-school to Grade 5 students in Denmark on April 15, as the first phase in that nation’s relaxation of strict coronavirus lockdown measures. It’s fairly makeshift because, as Danish head teacher Tanja Linnet conceded, “we need to make plans for terrorist attack here—but not this kind of attack.”

Under new Danish school regulations complying with public health sanitary guidelines, start times are staggered, students are seated two metres apart, schoolyards are divided into play zones, and entrance/exit routes diagrammed on school maps. Students wash their hands upon arrival, and then every two hours, and all contact surfaces, including door handles, are disinfected twice per school day.

New Zealand Education Minister Chris Hipkins began to  tackle the huge logistical challenges as he prepared to meet his target re-opening date of April 29.  That meant moving from Level 4 (shutdown) to Level 3 (partial opening) of schools and early childhood centres. Schools are reopening in “waves.” Teachers were allowed back first to plan for the continuation of online learning and the resumption of in-class teaching. Distance learning continues to be delivered from schools, especially in communities where broadband connections are better and teachers have ready access to more resources.

Children of essential workers were identified in New Zealand as a priority in returning to school, making it easier for their parents to do their jobs. Starting with the integration of children of parents critical to the workforce sparked vocal criticism from principals who claimed it sent out the signal that schools are little more than “baby-sitting services.”  Senior high school students, they claimed, were in greater need of teacher-guided instruction to mitigate the impact of closure on “learning loss” and preparedness for their next stage.

Getting younger kids back to school emerged as a priority for California Governor Gavin Newsom in a state where 6.1 million students from K to 12 were enrolled in “distance learning” for weeks on end. Addressing educational inequities was California’s biggest concern, especially in poor and marginalized Los Angeles region communities where students lack computers, adequate broadband, and suitable home study conditions.

Schools in Canada’s provincial K-12 systems will likely look significantly different when they reopen elsewhere either in June or September of 2020. Among the operational changes you can expect are: staggered school schedules to create smaller grade-level cohorts; regular medical check-ins with temperature monitoring; deep cleaning and stricter sanitization measures; social distance classrooms and movement routines: blended (combined seat-based and online) learning; classroom take-out lunch services: expanded school-based supply teacher pools;  limited athletics and arts cocurricular programs; small, congregated Special Needs/ ELL classes; and academic ‘catch-up’ programs to mitigate significant ‘learning loss’. among certain cohorts of students.

Announcing the resumption of school will spark renewed fears of a flare-up of COVID-19 spread by ‘vectors’ in the communal school environment. School re-openings announced by, or in conjunction with public health authorities, may help to allay such student and parent concerns. We are already seeing a parent backlash comparable to the “My kid is not going to be a Guinea Pig” Facebook protest which garnered more than 40,000 supporters in Denmark.

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Seasoned public health observers, spurred on by National Globe and Mail Health Reporter Andre Picard, claim that it is pre-mature in May 2020 for Quebec students to be heading back to school.  Principals and teachers need to be brought on-side to ensure that school re-opening is ultimately a success. Properly equipping teachers with protective masks and access to PPE, personal protective equipment, may be necessary until the immediate threat of a second wave has passed. Reducing class size groupings and expanding the school-level pool of substitute teachers should help to allay teacher concerns.

Whether the radical COVID-19 shift to e-learning will actually stick is more difficult to assess. Thrust unprepared into the emergency use of e-learning technology may sour teachers on adopting ed tech and activate their social justice impulses, focusing on the digital divide in terms of access.  Parents and families struggling to cope with the fears, anxieties, and stress of a pandemic are not at their best. When the crisis is finally over, this totally unplanned “experiment” with e-learning may well send everyone in K-12 education back into their comfort zones.

*An earlier and abridged version of this commentary appeared in The Globe and Mail, April 28, 2020.

What will post-COVID-19 Canadian schools look like? What is the tipping point when it is safe to reopen schools without significant health risks?  Is the early reopening in Quebec an aberration, or a predictor of what is to come? Why is it so much easier to authorize a full-system shutdown than it is to stage a resumption of school following a pandemic? 

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Our whole world has been turned upside down and none, more so, than the educational world inside Canada’s provincial school systems. Previous assumptions have been shattered by the frightening COVID-19 virus. Fierce ideological battles over the introduction of high school online courses, which dominated Ontario education warfare for the past two years, have subsided, for now.

What K-12 education is experiencing, going into a second month, may be a school shutdown, but it’s more like a power outage which has left students, teachers, and parents in the dark. Fumbling around to find the light switch is enough of a challenge without having to master unfamiliar education technology tools and completely re-invent the delivery of teaching.

E-learning has arrived, by default, and ministries of education and school districts are scrambling to fill the gap with patched together ‘continuity of learning’ programs.  Even the charter members of the C21 CEO Academy who’ve been espousing “21st Century Learning” dogma for years are suffering culture shock. Especially so, when compelled to make radical readjustments, following lock-step with public health directives. It’s what online learning expert Michael K. Barbour aptly described as  triage schooling in the education ER aimed at stabilizing the shaken K-12 system.

With children and families essentially quarantined and homebound, educating children, for the first few weeks, has fallen largely upon parents and guardians. Resuming contact with students on the phone or by Zoom is a good, positive first step, but very soon most parents are going to be desperate for meaningful learning activities to keep their children and teens on track and out of trouble. Interactive games and videos won’t be sufficient if the school hiatus lasts until the end of the year.

Systems under such stress either rise to the dramatically new challenges with smart, innovative plans to bridge the torrent of change – or cling to comfortable structures, revert to familiar policy responses, and apply band-aids.

The COVID-19 has really wacked Canada’s provincial school systems and educational leaders initially lost their bearings, like everyone else. The first and most instinctive response was to reaffirm ingrained and practiced policy nostrums, such as providing equal opportunities for all children and addressing educational inequities first.

With such a mindset, the focus is almost exclusively on ‘worst-case social policy:’the belief that any policy initiative or program that may not reduce social inequities should not be undertaken at all.  In this case, e-learning was initially seen as problematic because of digital access inequities and so, in spite of the system outage, it should not be pursued until we were able to meet everyone’s needs all the time.

Schools and their teachers filled the vacuum and responded in sometimes radically different ways. Some super-keen educators seized the unexpected opportunity to try something new and to provide their students with short video chats, online learning and/or ‘lesson packets’ during the period of social isolation.  For others, the protracted shutdown provided a respite from in-person teaching and so there was no rush to resume parent or teacher-led education, essentially leaving kids and families to fend for themselves.

Some provinces such as Alberta and Ontario have moved quickly to establish Continuity of Learning portals, posted online course material, made e-learning resources readily available, and set explicit expectations for teachers in terms of the assignment of work and the delivery of content. Some provincial responses, most notably Nova Scotia’s Learning at Home program, announced March 30, 2020, took a “feel-better” approach, providing a set of broad guidelines and a smattering of hastily-assembled resources, emphasizing interactive games, fun activities, and healthy living exercises.

E-learning programs require far more planning and preparation than is possible right now in the throes of the coronavirus emergency. Teachers, willingly or not, are being expected to become online instructors on the fly, while everyone struggles to adjust to the brave new world of social distancing and almost everything going digital.

Existing educational inequities may be exacerbated by the current global crisis. Students of upwardly mobile, university educated parents may surge ahead, with more exposure to a knowledge-rich curriculum through Khan Academy, the Core Knowledge Curriculum, and the Discovery Channel.  Poor and marginalized kids and families without access to technology or safe, secure home study space will suffer more than others.

Relying solely upon standard provincial elementary curricula with a well-being focus emphasizing SEL (social and emotional learning) may not serve to advance achievement. In some cases, it might well deprive children of sound, evidence-based instruction in the fundamental skills of reading and mathematics.

“Learning loss” during the shutdown may be a concern of Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce, but it’s  the farthest thing from our minds when we’re in the path of a potentially devastating pandemic. Ringing arm bells about students falling off the COVID-19 educational cliff and losing ground to those of other nations pale in significance in such times. Right now, it’s all hands on deck.

Sooner or later, the real impact of the shutdown of K-12 education will hit us. When the black hood of COVID-19 lifts, the imapact will be more apparent.

*An earlier version of this commentary appeared in The Spectator (Hamilton, Ontario), April 8, 2020.

What impact did the COVID-19 Pandemic have on school system leaders from province-to-province across Canada?  Why does the term “triage” coined by Michael K. Barbour seem particularly appropriate in describing the e-learning responses of provincial school systems?  Will the COVID-19 health crisis spark lasting changes or not in the conventional mode of operations?  When might it be the time to examine the impact in terms of student learning loss? 

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Students and parents in the Pontus school in Lappeenranta, one of the first  Finnish schools to implement the “phenomenon-based” digital curriculum, are now disputing the broad claim made by the World Economic Forum in its 2018 Worldwide Educating for the Future Index. Concerned about the new direction, parents of the children have lodged a number of complaints over the “failure” of the new school and cited student concerns that they didn’t “learn anything” under the new curriculum and pedagogy. For some, the only recourse was to move their children to schools continuing to offer a more explicit teaching of content knowledge and skills.

The Finnish parent resistance is more than a small blip on the global education landscape. It strikes at the heart of the Finnish Ministry of Education’s 2016 plan to introduce “phenomenon’ problem-solving — replacing more traditional subject-based curriculum in mathematics, science, and history with an interdisciplinary model focusing on developing holistic skills for the future workplace. Perhaps more significantly, it blows a hole in the carefully-crafted image of Finland as the world leader in “building tomorrow’s global citizens.”

The basis for Finland’s claim to be a global future education leader now rests almost entirely upon that 2018 global ranking produced by the World Economic Forum, based upon advice gleaned from an ‘expert panel’ engaged by The Economist Intelligence Unit Limited.  While Finland has slipped from 2000 to 2015 on the more widely-recognized Program of International Student Assessment (PISA) rankings, that educational jurisdiction remains a favourite of global learning corporations and high technology business interests. A close-up look at who provides the “educational intelligence” to the World Economic Forum demonstrates the fusion of interests that sustains the global reputation of Finland and other Western nations heavily invested in digital technology and learning.

The 2018 World Economic Forum future education index was a rather polished attempt to overturn the prevailing research consensus.  The PISA Worldwide Ranking – based upon average student scores in math, reading and science — place Asian countries, Estonia and Canada all ahead of Finland in student achievement.  The top five performers are Singapore (551.7), Hong Kong (532.7), Japan (528.7), Macau (527.3), and Estonia (524.3). A panel of seventeen experts, selected by The Economist Intelligence Unit, sets out to dispute the concrete student results of an OECD study of 70 countries ranking 15-year-olds on their scholastic performance.

The Economist Intelligence Unit index runs completely counter to the PISA rankings and attempts to counter the well-founded claim that student mastery of content-knowledge and fundamental skills is the best predictor of future student success in university, college and the workplace. Upon close examination, the World Economic Forum index seeks to supplant the established competencies and to substitute a mostly subjective assessment of “the effectiveness of education systems in preparing students for the demands of work and life in a rapidly changing landscape”( p. 1). It focuses on the 15 to 24 year-old-age band in some 50 countries around the world. Setting aside how students are actually performing, we are provided with a ranking based almost exclusively on compliance with so-called “21st century learning” competencies – leadership, creativity, entrepreneurship, communication, global awareness, and civic education skills.

The poster child nation for the World Economic Forum rankings is Finland, now ranked 8th on its PISA scores, because it has now embraced, full-on, the “21st century learning” ideology and invests heavily in technology-driven digital education. The balance of the Top 5 World Economic Forum nations, Switzerland, New Zealand, Sweden, and Canada, rank 15th, 16th, 26th, and 5th on the basis of their students’ PISA scores. Most problematic of all, the future education ranking downgrades the current global education leaders, Singapore (7th), Japan (12th), and Hong Kong (15th).  Mastery of academic competencies is, based upon the assessment criteria, not relevant when you are ranking countries on the basis of their support for technology-driven, digital education.

Who produced the World Economic Forum rankings?  The actual report was written by Economist Intelligence Unit contract writer Denis McCauley, a veteran London-based global technology consultant, known for co-authoring, a Ricoh-sponsored white paper, Agent of Change, alerting business leaders to the urgent necessity of embracing Artificial Intelligence and technological change.  Scanning the seventeen-member expert panel, it’s dominated by the usual suspects, global technology researchers and digital education proponents. One of the more notable advisors was Chief Education Evangelist for Google, Jaime Casap, the American technology promoter who spearheaded Google’s Apps for Education growth strategy aimed at teachers and powered by online communities known as Google Educator Groups, and “leadership symposiums” sponsored by the global tech giant.

Most of The Economist Intelligence Unit advisors see Finland as the ‘lighthouse nation’ for the coming technological change in K-12 education. Heavily influenced by former Finnish education ambassador, Pasi Sahlberg, they are enamoured with the Finnish model of phenomenon-based learning and its promise to implant “21st century skills” through structural changes in curriculum organization and delivery in schools.  It’s not surprising that it was actually Sahlberg who first tweeted about the Pontus school uprising, likely to alert Finnish education officials to the potential for broader resistance.

Launched in 2016 with a flurry of favourable ed-tech friendly research, the Finnish curriculum reform tapped into the rather obscure academic field of phenomenology.  The new curriculum adopted a phenomenon-based approach embracing curriculum integration with a theoretical grounding in constructivism. All of this was purportedly designed to develop student skills for the changing 21st century workplace. The ultimate goal was also spelled out by Canadian education professor Louis Volante and his associates in a World Economic Forum-sponsored April 2019 commentary extolling “broader measures” of assessing success in education. Peeling away the sugary coating, “phenomenon learning” was just another formulation of student-centred, project-based, 21st century skills education.

The daily reality for students like grade 6 student Aino Pilronen of Pontus School was quite different. “The beginning of the day was chaotic,” she reported, as students milled around developing study plans or hung-out in the so-called “market square.” “It was hard for me that the teacher did not teach at first, but instead we should have been able to learn things by ourselves.” Her brutally honest assessment: ” I didn’t learn anything.”

The Economist Intelligence Unit not only ignored such concerns voiced by students and parents, but brushed aside evidence that it would not work for the full range of students. A Helsinki University researcher, Aino Saarinen, attributed the decline in Finland’s PISA education standing to the increasing use of digital learning materials. Investing 50 million Euros since 2016 in training teachers to use digital devices and laptops, she claimed was not paying-off because “the more that digital tools were used in lessons, the worse learning outcomes were” in math, science, and reading. The most adversely affected were struggling and learning-challenged students, the very ones supposedly better served under the new curriculum.

What can we learn from taking a more critical, independent look at the actual state of Finnish education?  If Finnish education is in decline and 21st century learning reform encountering parental dissent, how can it be the top ranked “future education” system?  Who is providing the educational intelligence to the World Economic Forum?  Is it wise to accept a global ranking that discounts or dismisses quantitative evidence on trends in comparative student academic achievement? 

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The rise of the Internet has created a new generation of edu-gurus initially showcased in TED Talks and now powered by their personal blogs and popular e-books. One of the most influential of the crop is Seth Godin, the creative force and animator famous for his rapid-fire commentaries on Seth’s Blog. Hailed by Business Week as “the ultimate entrepreneur for the Information Age,” the marketing whiz also has, since 2012, acquired a following in the education world. His TED Talks, published in an e-book as Stop Stealing Dreams, have been wildly popular with educators and shared millions of times on the Internet.

SethGodinBlogPixWatching Seth Godin in action is very alluring and entertaining, but, when you break down his performances and closely examine his bold assertions, you wonder if there is less here than meets the eye. Marketing is all about mass persuasion and pleasing your customers and some practitioners are essentially mesmerizers or worse, con-artists. In his own field, he is regarded as a star performer and has been likened to “the JFK of the blogosphere: revered, quoted, beloved.” Many in his field were likely aghast in June 2007 when one of their tribe posted a critical commentary that dared to ask What if Seth Godin was full of crap?” 

Godin is a rather unlikely guru for educators. After working as a software brand manager in the mid-1980s, he started Yoyodyne, one of the first dot.com direct marketing enterprises. His firm was acquired by Yahoo in 1998 for $30-million and the global Internet giant hired Godin as vice-president of permission marketing. He’s authored 18 books, mostly in marketing, including such attention-grabbing best-sellers as Permission Marketing (1999), Purple Cow (2003), All Marketers Are Liars (2005), and The Icarus Deception (2012).  It’s rare for a global marketing expert like Godin to find a friendly audience in the education sector.

Today’s educators know Godin through Seth’s Blog, his personal platform generating a steady stream of posts and tweets, some of which venture into education. He made his name in the field with an October 2012 TEDxYouth Talk entitled Stop Stealing Dreams – The School System and a subsequent YouTube Interview on Education Reform. “When we put kids in the factory we call school, the thing we built to indoctrinate them into compliance,” he stated, “why are we surprised when they ask ‘what’s on the test’?” Comparing work with art, he used his rhetorical skills to make the case that schools were monolithic in their structure — not only factory-like but trained kids for “compliance” and “obedience” rather than meaningful, engaged lives.

Godin poses a Big Question – “What are Schools For?” and that raises expectations that he will be providing a fresh perspective. Much of his system analysis lacks depth and is derivative. He encourages us to freely “steal ideas from others” and, in this case, he offers up simplified versions of John Taylor Gatto (factory system and weapons of mass instruction), Sir Ken Robinson ( find your ‘creative’ element), and Alfie Kohn ( gradeless schools, learn at your own pace).  He’s either oblivious to, or dismissive of, more firmly grounded answers to that question, including the highly original formulations of Mortimer Adler ( The Paideia Proposal), Kieran Egan (Getting it wrong from the beginning), Martin Robinson ( Trivium 21c), and Paul A. Kirschner (future-proof education)

As a former dot.com executive, Godin put tremendous faith in technology to transform schools and learning.  “For the first time in history,” he proclaimed, ” we do not need humans standing in front of us teaching us square root.” His technology-driven agenda set out eight proposed education reforms, many now parroted by his followers. His key tenets were:

  • Flip the classroom by exposing students through homework to world-class speakers on video at night and devoting class time to face-to-face interactions and discussion of concepts and issues;
  • Open book, open notes all the time, based upon the belief that memorization is pointless in the Internet age;
  • Abandon grade-level and subject knowledge progression in favour of access to any course anywhere in the world, anytime;
  • Measure experience instead of standardized test scores and focus on cooperation rather than isolation;
  • Precise, focused education instead of mass, batch-driven education;
  • Transform teachers into coaches;
  • Life-long learning with work happening earlier in life;
  • Depth of study in college rather than attending famous ‘brand name’ universities.

Stepping back and zeroing-in on Seth’s education reform agenda, it becomes clear that most if not all of these reforms embrace what is known as “21st century learning” and are prime examples of “romantic progressivism.” Furthermore, it is mostly technology-driven and bound to undermine the remaining autonomy and disciplinary expertise of teachers.

SethGodinPictogramA more recent July 2019 Seth Godin post, “Pivoting the education matrix,” reaffirms his  well-known ‘meta-model” and reform agenda. Schools and classes, Godin continues to insist, “do not teach what they say they teach” and still focus on inculcating “obedience through comportment and regurgitation.” That would seem to imply that most student-centred methodologies featured in PD sessions and model constructivist practices posted on Edutopia are either just for show or figments of the imagination.

His proposed menu of skills is rather odd, like a grab-bag of ill-defined options. Most surprising of all, Godin utterly fails to draw a distinction between the proposed curricular skills (cooperation, problem-solving, mindfulness, creativity and analysis) and the implicit or hidden curriculum (management and obedience). Buried in the curious mix is one nuanced, evidence-based idea: “teaching domain knowledge in conjunction with the skill, not the other way around.” 

TED Talkers like Seth Godin are quickly becoming passe and facing increasing challenges from educators far better versed in school settings, evidence-based research, and what actually works in the classroom. His view of the contemporary school system, in my view, is a rather crude caricature and his reform proposals come off as amazingly facile. His regular Blog posts likely do provide fodder for career-building administrators and needed sustenance to those pursuing the latest educational fads.

What explains the success of Seth Godin and Seth’s Blog in the educational space? Does his simple caricature of the school system appeal to those looking for a neat, clean and uncomplicated picture? Where exactly do teachers as professionals with disciplinary knowledge fit in Seth’s ideal school? Where’s the research in cognitive science to support any of his claims about the process of student learning?  

 

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A recent headline in the New Scientist caught the eye of University College London Professor Rose Luckin, widely regarded as the “Dr. Who of AI in Education.” It read: “AI achieves its best mark ever on a set of English exam questions.” The machine was well on its way to mastering knowledge-based curriculum tested on examinations. What was thrilling to Dr. Luckin, might well be a wake-up call for teachers and educators everywhere.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is now driving automation in the workplace and the “Fourth Industrial Revolution” is dawning. How AI will impact and possibly transform education is now emerging as a major concern for front-line teachers, technology skeptics, and informed parents. A recent Public Lecture by Rose Luckin, based upon her new book Machine Learning and Intelligence, provided  not only a cutting-edge summary of recent developments, but a chilling reminder of the potential unintended consequences for teachers.

AI refers to “technology that is capable of actions and behaviours that require intelligence when done by humans.” It is no longer the stuff of science fiction and popping up everywhere from voice-activated digital assistants in telephones to automatic passport gates in airports to navigation apps to guide us driving our cars. It’s creeping into our lives in subtle and virtually undetectable ways.

AI has not been an overnight success. It originated in September 1956, some 63 years ago, in a Dartmouth College NH lab as a summer project undertaken by ten ambitious scientists.  The initial project was focused on AI and its educational potential. The pioneers worked from this premise: “Every aspect of learning or any other feature of intelligence can in principle be so precisely described that a machine can be made to simulate it.”  Flash forward to today — and it’s closer to actual realization.

Dr. Luckin has taken up that challenge and has been working for two decades to develop “Colin,” a robot teaching assistant to help lighten teachers’ workloads. Her creation is software-based and assists teachers with organizing starter activities, collating daily student performance records, assessing the mental state of students, and assessing how well a learner is engaging with lessons.

Scary scenarios are emerging fueled by a few leading thinkers and technology skeptics.  Tesla CEO Elon Musk once warned that AI posed an “existential threat” to humanity and that humans may need to merge with machines to avoid becoming “house cats” to artificially intelligent robots.  Theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking has forecast that AI will “either be the best thing or the worst thing for humanity.” There’s no need for immediate panic: Current AI technology is still quite limited and remains mechanically algorithmic and programmed to act upon pattern recognition.

One very astute analyst for buZZrobot, Jay Lynch, has identified the potential dangers in the educational domain:

Measuring the Wrong Things

Gathering data that is easiest to collect rather than educationally meaningful. In the absence of directly measured student leaning, AI relies upon proxies for learning such as student test scores, school grades, or self-reported learning gains. This exemplifies the problem of “garbage in, garbage out.”

Perpetuating Bad Ways to Teach

Many AIfE algorithms are based upon data from large scale learning assessments and lack an appreciation of, and input from, actual teachers and learning scientists with a grounding in learning theory. AI development teams tend to lack relevant knowledge in the science of learning and instruction. One glaring example was IBM’s Watson Element for Educators, which was based entirely upon now discredited “learning styles” theory and gave skewed advice for improving instruction.

Giving Priority to Adaptability rather that Quality

Personalizing learning is the prevailing ideology in the IT sector and it is most evident in AI software and hardware. Meeting the needs of each learner is the priority and the technology is designed to deliver the ‘right’ content at the ‘right’ time.  It’s a false assumption that the quality of that content is fine and, in fact, much of it is awful. Quality of content deserves to  be prioritized and that requires more direct teacher input and a better grasp of the science of learning.

Replacing Humans with Intelligent Agents

The primary impact of AI is to remove teachers from the learning process — substituting “intelligent agents” for actual human beings. Defenders claim that the goal is not to supplant teachers but rather to “automate routine tasks” and to generate insights to enable teachers to adapt their teaching to make lessons more effective.  AI’s purveyors seem blind to the fact that teaching is a “caring profession,” particularly in the early grades.

American education technology critic Audrey Watters is one of the most influential skeptics and she has expressed alarm over the potential unintended consequences. ” We should ask what happens when we remove care from education – this is a question about labor and learning. What happens to thinking and writing when robots grade students’ essays, for example. What happens when testing is standardized, automated? What happens when the whole educational process is offloaded to the machines – to “intelligent tutoring systems,” “adaptive learning systems,” or whatever the latest description may be? What sorts of signals are we sending students?”  The implicit and disturbing answer – teachers as professionals are virtually interchangeable with robots.

Will teachers and robots come to cohabit tomorrow’s classrooms? How will teaching be impacted by the capabilities of future AI technologies? Without human contact and feedback, will student motivation become a problem in education?  Will AI ever be able to engage students in critical thinking or explore the socio-emotional domain of learning? Who will be there in the classroom to encourage and emotionally support students confronted with challenging academic tasks?

 

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The Canadian education system is largely provincially-driven and stands as among the most decentralized among the member states in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Within the small group composed of a dozen provincial/territorial ministers known as the Council of Ministers of Education Canada (CMEC), the Atlantic province of Nova Scotia tends to exemplify a “middling province,” almost routinely finishing in the middle-of-the-pack when it comes to national and international student assessment results.

While Nova Scotia education is widely seen as “median Canadian,” it might also be viewed, in some respects, as a bellwether.  It may be hard to imagine Nova Scotia as “the leading sheep of a flock, with a bell on its neck,” but the province may well be where national trends are most visible.  With the abolition of Nova Scotia’s seven English school boards in March 2018, national education observers are taking more interest and wondering if it is an omen of things to come elsewhere. If so, reading the signs of public disaffection may provide a few vitally-important lessons.

A November 2018 Public Opinion survey commissioned by the Nova Scotia Teachers Union revealed that the Stephen McNeil government’s structural education reforms are far from popular with the public. What is clear, based upon an analysis of responses to all of the questions in that the NSTU survey, is that there are educational lessons for governments elsewhere.

Centralizing education in April 2018 through the elimination of the seven English school boards created more problems than it solved. Of those Nova Scotians who think public education is getting worse, over three-quarters (78 per cent) believe it is because the structural reforms have made the system “too centralized” (30 per cent), reduced input from community/local groups (24 per cent), or eliminated regional input from boards (24 per cent).

More than half (52 per cent) of Nova Scotians polled rated the quality of public education as “fair/poor,” very much in line with surveys going back to 1992. Whatever the problems, some 82 per cent of Nova Scotians still hold teachers in relatively high esteem. The most critically important current public concerns identified were, in order: lack of support for special needs students (74 %), violence in classrooms (72 %), poor student achievement (67 %), lack of leaning supports (65 %), and teacher morale (65 %). Fewer than 60 per cited teacher workloads, class sizes, and student bus issues.

Provinces looking at following Nova Scotia in abolishing their elected school boards would be well advised to take a closer look at Nova Scotia and the legacy of that decision. Eliminating the seven English school boards and replacing elected board members with an appointed Provincial Council on Education (PACE) is looking more and more like a serious blow to both public accountability and school-level democratic participation.

With the exception of sweeping aside elected board members, nothing much has changed and it’s actually reaffirmed bureaucratic rule. Regional Superintendents of Education have come out on top and preside over eight school districts without any real school-level accountability. School-based management and governance was squashed, aided and abetted by School Advisory Council Chairs comfortable in their current roles.

Two more provinces, Quebec and Manitoba are reviewing the status of their elected school boards and have signaled that they may be moving to eliminate those democratic structures.

Quebec Education Minister Jean-François Roberge confirmed in December 2018 the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) government’s policy commitment to abolish school boards.  He made that statement right after meeting with representatives of the Quebec English School Boards Association (QESBA) and its French counterpart, the Fédération des commissions scolaires du Québec (FCSQ),

“Let’s be clear: the Quebec government will turn school boards into service centres and will abolish school elections,” Roberge said in a Facebook post. “We’re open to comments, but we will not deviate from this plan.”  He also contends the move is necessary.“It is imperative to bring decision-making closer to those who know the students by name,” he said.

Manitoba could well be next. Former PC education minister Ian Wishart announced in 2018 that a provincial governance review would take place and it is to be released in 2019.  The Manitoba School Boards Association (MSBA) strongly opposes amalgamation, claiming that the savings would be minimal and it’s a question of democracy, transparency and accountability.

All is not well with Manitoba’s existing boards. The Winnipeg School Division (WSD) was the subject of a scathing report in 2015 that criticized the irresponsible conduct and performance of trustees. In 2016, the province ordered a third-party audit, after noting that while the school board had made progress in transparency and accountability, an independent review was still required. The WSD continued “under a dark cloud” for a number of years with growing concerns that too much business was being conducted behind closed doors. While the WSD may have improved, news in January 2018 that the Louis Riel School District had suspended a school trustee, without explanation, suggests that transparency and accountability may be just a slogan.

One outspoken Manitoba trustee, Patty Wiebe of Pembina Valley, MSBA Region 2 Director, urged fellow trustees in early December 2018 to send out a consistent message that elected members speak for their communities: “That we are your local elected officials. That we represent your voice when it comes to how your schools are run, and how important that voice is,” she said. “Schools are the hubs of your community, it’s important to have local voice when it comes to governing those buildings and what happens in those buildings.”

The Brian Pallister government in Manitoba has said everything will be examined during the education review, including proposals to eliminate or amalgamate school boards.

School board promoters can, and do, damage to the cause by conveying confused and contradictory messages about the philosophy and purpose of elected boards — and the expected role of elected trustees. One veteran school board consultant, Stephen Hansen of BoardsworkCA, provided a recent example of what has gone sadly wrong in school board governance.

His “New Years Message to School Trustees” espoused the sort of governance philosophy that has rendered elected board members totally ineffectual. Judging from the established ground rules, trustees are expected to behave much like children in grade school: Focus on policy and don’t mess with administrative matters; think corporate interest/regional and keep your distance from local groups; respect the code of board solidarity; express your views in a respectful manner; act as a goodwill ambassador; and come prepared to meetings (i.e., do your homework).

Giving the public a voice and bringing local concerns to bear on board decisions are not even mentioned as core responsibilities. No school reformers need apply because the rules of engagement are a recipe for toadyism. It’s just the kind of thinking that spelled the end of elected trustees in Nova Scotia.

Hardened, unresponsive, insular and unaccountable school boards tend to self-destruct.  That was the case in Nova Scotia and may well be what is happening in provinces such as Manitoba and Quebec. If Quebec and Manitoba go the way of Nova Scotia, seven of the ten provinces (including New Brunswick, Newfoundland/Labrador, and Prince Edward Island) will have eliminated elected regional school boards and adopted far more centralized educational administrative systems.

Simply brushing aside local democratic control of the schools is definitely not the answer if we wish to retain a semblance of public accountability in the education sector. Provinces eliminating elected regional boards without replacing them with locally-responsive, school-based governance alternatives can expect the same kind of backlash witnessed throughout 2018 in Nova Scotia. That’s in no one’s interest.

Will Nova Scotia turn out to be a national bellwether for educational  centralization? What lessons can be learned from the elimination of elected boards in Nova Scotia? Looking ahead in 2019, has public resistance to elected boards, as presently constituted, stiffened in the mold? Why are provincial and regional school authorities so resistant to alternatives such as school-based governance? 

 

 

 

 

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Ontario Progressive Conservative leader Doug Ford swept into power at Queen’s Park  on June 7, 2018 with an explicitly populist agenda in K-12 education. Campaigning with the slogan “Ford for the People,” he pledged to reform the school curriculum, defend provincial testing,introduce a moratorium on school closures, and consult more with disaffected communities. Most of these planks in the Ontario PC education “promise package” were presented in plain and simple language that appropriated “back to the basics” philosophy and “common sense” reform.

Presenting these policies in such unvarnished “populist language” made it easy for the Ontario media to caricature “Ford Nation” and earned him the derision of the Ontario education establishment.   On what The Globe and Mail  aptly termed “the mourning after,” the core interests who dominated the 15-year-long Dalton McGuinty- Kathleen Wynne era sounded traumatized and completely disoriented.  Premier Doug Ford clearly scares the Ontario education “elites,” but such straight talk only endears him more to “Ford Nation” supporters committed to “taking back” the public schools.

Doug Ford’s PC Education promises, once dismissed as “bumper sticker” politics, will now get much closer scrutiny.  The fundamental challenge facing Ford and his new Education Minister will be to transform that reform philosophy and list of education promises into sound and defensible education policy.  It not only can be done, but will be done if Ford and his entourage seek proper advice and draw upon the weight of education research supporting the proposed new directions.

The overall Ontario PC education philosophy rests on a complete rejection of the Wynne Liberal Toronto-centric vision and education guru driven brand of “identity politics” in education.  “At one time, Ontario schools focused on teaching the skills that matter: reading, writing and math. This approach helped to prepare our kids for the challenges of work and life. Today, however, more and more of our schools have been turned into social laboratories and our kids into test subjects for whatever special interests and so-called experts that have captured Kathleen Wynne’s ear.”

Premier-elect Ford’s campaign captured well the groundswell of public dissent over top-down decision-making and the tendency to favour “inclusion” in theory but not in practice. It was expressed in this no-nonsense fashion: “By ignoring parents and focusing on narrow agendas or force-feeding our kids experimental curricula like ‘Discovery Math’ the Liberals are leaving our children woefully unprepared to compete with other students from across Canada and around the world. And instead of helping our kids pass their tests, the NDP want to cancel the tests altogether.”

The Ford Nation plan for education appealed to the “little guy” completely fed-up with the 15-year legacy of “progressive education” and its failure to deliver more literate, numerate, capable, and resilient students. Education reform was about ‘undoing the damage’ and getting back on track: “It’s time to get back to basics, respect parents, and work with our teachers to ensure our kids have the skills they need to succeed.”

The specific Ontario PC policy commitments in its 8-point-plan were:

  • Scrap discovery math and inquiry-based learning in our classrooms and restore proven methods of teaching.
  • Ban cell phones in all primary and secondary school classrooms, in order to maximize learning time.
  • Make mathematics mandatory in teachers’ college programs.
  • Fix the current EQAO testing regime that is failing our kids and implement a standardized testing program that works.
  • Restore Ontario’s previous sex-ed curriculum until we can produce one that is age appropriate and broadly supported.
  • Uphold the moratorium on school closures until the closure review process is reformed.
  • Mandate universities to uphold free speech on campuses and in classrooms.
  • Boost funding for children with autism, committing  $100-million more during the mandate.

Most of the Ford Nation proposals are not only sensible, but defensible on the basis of recent education research.  Ontario Liberal Education policy, driven by edu-gurus such as Michael Fullan and Andy Hargreaves and championed by People for Education was out-of-sync with not only public opinion but education research gaining credence though the emergence of researchED in Canada.   The Mathematics curriculum and teacher education reforms, for example, are consistent with research conducted by Anna Stokke, Graham Orpwood, and mathematics education specialists in Quebec.

Provincial testing, school closure reform and addressing autism education needs all enjoy wide public support. Former Ontario Deputy Minister of Education Charles Pascal, architect of EQAO, supports the recommendation to retain provincial testing, starting in Grade 3.  The Ontario Alliance Against School Closures, led by Susan Mackenzie, fully supports the Ontario PC position on fixing the Pupil Accommodation Review process.  Few Ontarians attuned to the enormous challenges of educating autistic children would question the pledge to invest more in support programs.

The Ontario PC proposal to reform sex-education curriculum is what has drawn most of the public criticism and it is a potential minefield. The Thorncliffe Park Public School parent uprising and the voices of dissenting parents cannot be ignored, but finding an acceptable compromise will not be easy.  Separating the sex-education component from the overall health and wellness curriculum may be the best course of action.  Tackling that issue is a likely a “no-win” proposition given the deep differences evident in family values. Forewarned is forearmed.

How will the Doug Ford Ontario PC Government transform its populist electoral nostrums into sound education policy?  How successful with the Ford govenment be in building a new coalition of education advisors and researchers equipped to turn the promises into specific policies? Where are the holes and traps facing Ford and his Education Minister?  Can Doug Ford and his government implement these changes without sparking a return to the “education wars” of the 1990s?  

 

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