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Archive for the ‘Educational Change’ Category

Starting next year, students from Kindergarten to Grade 12 in Canada’s largest province, Ontario, will be bringing home report cards that showcase six “transferable skills”: critical thinking, creativity, self-directed learning, collaboration, communication, and citizenship. It’s the latest example of the growing influence of education policy organizations, consultants and researchers promoting “broader measures of success” formerly known as “non-cognitive” domains of learning.

Portrait of Primary Schoolboys and Schoolgirls Standing in a Line in a Classroom

In announcing the latest provincial report card initiative in September 2017, Education Minister Mitzie Hunter sought to change the channel in the midst of a public outcry over continuing declines in province-wide testing results, particularly in Grade 3 and 6 mathematics. While Minister Hunter assured concerned parents that standardized testing was not threatened with elimination, she attempted to cast the whole reform as a move toward “measuring those things that really matter to how kids learn and how they apply that learning to the real world, after school.”

Her choice of words had a most familiar ring because it echoed the core message promoted assiduously since 2013 by Ontario’s most influential education lobby group, People for Education, and professionally-packaged in its well-funded Measuring What Matters‘ assessment reform initiative. In this respect, it’s remarkably similar in its focus to the Boston-based organization Transforming Education.   Never a supporter of Ontario’s highly-regarded provincial testing system, managed by the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO), the Toronto-based group led by parent activist Annie Kidder has spent much of the past five years seeking to construct an alternative model that, in the usual P4E progressive education lexicon, “moves beyond the 3R’s.”

Kidder and her People for Education organization have always been explicit about their intentions and goals. The proposed framework for broader success appeared, almost fully formed, in its first 2013 policy paper.  After referring, in passing, to the focus of policy-makers on “evidence-based decision making,” the project summary disputed the primacy of “narrow goals” such as “literacy and numeracy” and argued for the construction of (note the choice of words) a “broader set of goals” that would be “measurable so students, parents, educators, and the public can see how Canada is making progress” in education.

Five proposed “dimensions of learning” were proposed, in advance of any research being undertaken to confirm their validity or recognition that certain competing dimensions had been ruled out, including resilience and its attendant personal qualities “grit’/conscientiousness, character, and “growth mindset.” Those five dimensions, physical and mental health, social-emotional development, creativity and innovation, and school climate, reflected the socially-progressive orientation of People for Education rather than any evidence-based analysis of student assessment policy and practice.

Two years into the project, the Measuring What Matters (MWM) student success framework had hardened into what began to sound, more and more, like a ‘new catechism.’  The Research Director, Dr. David Hagen Cameron, a PhD in Education from the University of London, hired from the Ontario Ministry of Education, began to focus on how to implement the model with what he termed “MWM change theory.” His mandate was crystal clear – to take the theory and transform it into Ontario school practice in four years, then take it national in 2017-18. Five friendly education researchers were recruited to write papers making the case for including each of the domains, some 78 educators were appointed to advisory committees, and the proposed measures were “field-tested” in 26 different public and Catholic separate schools (20 elementary, 6 secondary), representing a cross-section of urban and rural Ontario.

As an educational sociologist who cut his research teeth studying the British New Labour educational “interventionist machine,” Dr. Cameron was acutely aware that educational initiatives usually flounder because of poorly executed implementation. Much of his focus, in project briefings and academic papers from 2014 onward was on how to “find congruence” between MWM priorities and Ministry mandates and how to tackle the tricky business of winning the concurrence of teachers, and particularly in overcoming their instinctive resistance to  district “education consultants” who arrive promising support but end up extending more “institutional control over teachers in their classrooms.”

Stumbling blocks emerged when the MWM theory met up with the everyday reality of teaching and learning in the schools. Translating the proposed SEL domains into “a set of student competencies” and ensuring “supportive conditions” posed immediate difficulties. The MWM reform promoters came four square up against achieving “system coherence” with the existing EQAO assessment system and the challenge of bridging gaps between the system and local levels. Dr. Cameron and his MWM team were unable to effectively answer questions voicing concerns about increased teacher workload, the misuse of collected data, the mandate creep of schools, and the public’s desire for simple, easy to understand reports. 

Three years into the project, the research base supporting the whole venture began to erode, as more critical independent academic studies appeared questioning the efficacy of assessing Social and Emotional Learning traits or attributes. Dr. Angela L. Duckworth, the University of Pennsylvania psychologist who championed SEL and introduced “grit” into the educational lexicon, produced a comprehensive 2015 research paper with University of Texas scholar David Scott Yeager that raised significant concerns about the wisdom of proceeding, without effective measures, to assess “personal qualities” other than cognitive ability for educational purposes.

Coming from the leading SEL researcher and author of the best-selling book, GRIT, the Duckworth and Yeager research report in Education Researcher, dealt a blow to all state and provincial initiatives attempting to implement SEL measures of assessment. While Duckworth and Yeager held that personal attributes can be powerful predictors of academic, social and physical “well-being,” they claimed “not that everything that counts can be counted or that that everything that can be counted counts.” The two prominent SEL researchers warned that it was premature to proceed with such school system accountability systems. “Our working title, ” she later revealed, “was all measures suck, and they all suck in their own way.”

The Duckworth-Yeager report provided the most in-depth analysis (to date) of the challenges and pitfalls involved in advancing a project like Ontario’s Measuring What Works.  Assessing for cognitive knowledge was long-established and had proven reasonably reliable in measuring academic achievement, they pointed out, but constructing alternative measures remained in its infancy. They not only identified a number of serious limitations of Student Self-Report and Teacher Questionnaires and Performance Tasks (Table 1), but also provided a prescription for fixing what was wrong with system-wide implementation plans (Table 2).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Duckworth went public with her concerns in February of 2016.  She revealed to The New York Times that she had resigned from a California advisory board fronting a SEL initiative spearheaded by the California Office to Reform Education (CORE), and no longer supported using such tests to evaluate school performance. University of Chicago researcher Camille A. Farrington found Duckworth’s findings credible, stating: “There are so many ways to do this wrong.” The California initiative, while focused on a different set of measures, including student attendance and expulsions, had much in common philosophically with the Ontario venture.

The wisdom of proceeding to adopt SEL system-wide and to recast student assessment in that mold remains contentious.  Anya Kamenetz‘s recent National Public Radio commentary(August 16, 2017) explained, in some detail, why SEL is problematic because, so far, it’s proven impossible to assess what has yet to be properly defined as student outcomes.  It would also seem unwise to overlook Carol Dweck’s recently expressed concerns about using her “Growth Mindset” research for other purposes, such as proposing a system-wide SEL assessment plan.

The Ontario Measuring What Matters initiative, undeterred by such research findings, continues to plow full steam ahead. The five “dimensions of learning” have now morphed into five “domains and competencies” making no reference whatsoever to the place of the cognitive domain in the overall scheme.  It’s a classic example of three phenomena which bedevil contemporary education policy-making: tautology, bias confirmation and the sunk cost trap.  Repeatedly affirming a concept in theory (as logically irrefutable truth) without much supporting research evidence, gathering evidence to support preconceived criteria and plans, and proceeding because its too late to take a pause, or turn back, may not be the best guarantor of long-term success in implementing a system-wide reform agenda.

The whole Ontario Measuring What Works student assessment initiative raises far more questions than it answers. Here are a few pointed questions to get the discussion started and spark some re-thinking. 

On the Research Base:  Does the whole MWM plan pass the research sniff test?  Where does the cognitive domain and the acquisition of knowledge fit in the MWM scheme?  If the venture focuses on Social and Emotional Learning(SEL), whatever happened to the whole student resilience domain, including grit, character and growth mindset? Is it sound to construct a theory and then commission studies to confirm your choice of SEL domains and competencies?

On Implementation: Will introducing the new Social Learning criteria on Ontario student reports do any real harm? Is it feasible to introduce the full MWM plan on top of the current testing regime without imposing totally unreasonable additional burdens on classroom teachers?  Since the best practice research supports a rather costly “multivariate, multi-instrumental approach,” is any of this affordable or sustainable outside of education jurisdictions with significant and expandable capacity to fund such initiatives? 

 

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American education professor Peter W. Cookson, Jr., currently President of Ideas without Borders, recently set the education world atwitter with a futuristic October 10, 2017 Education Week commentary.  Under the eye-catching title, “Ten Disruptions That Will Revolutionize Education, Dr. Cookson proclaimed with declaratory certainty that “Artificial Intelligence (AI) and technology will prove significant for education” in the not-too-distant future.

His Education Week commentary provides a fine example of what Canadian journalist and author Dan Gardner has aptly termed Future Babble.”  In his 2011 book of the same name, he demonstrated that “experts” in any given field were just slightly better at making predictions than a dart-throwing chimp. In addition, the more certain an expert was of a predicted outcome, and the bigger their media profile, and the less accurate the prediction was likely to be.

Reading Dr. Cookson’s rather ‘edutopian’ musings and mindful of the past record of modern day soothsayers, it’s fair to ask whether any of the ten “disruptions” will ever “revolutionize education.”

Let’s start by summarizing his hypothesis and reviewing his list of “creative disruptions” forecasted to “revolutionize” schooling. The advance of machines, according to Peter Cookson, was to be embraced rather than resisted like the plague. “The development of advanced artificial intelligence, or super-intelligence,” he contended,”opens up doors to discoveries never before imagined. While opinions vary about the speed with which superintelligence will develop, there is little doubt that within the next decade, the cognitive landscape will be very different than it is today.”

Here is the full list of purportedly positive “disruptions”:

1. Digital learners will rebel against intellectual conformity.

2. Learning avatars will become commonplace.

3. Participatory-learning hubs will replace isolated classrooms.

4. Inquiry skills will drive learning.

5. Capacities will matter more than grades.

6. Teachers will become inventors.

7. School leaders will give up their desks.

8. Students and families will become co-learners and co-creators.

9. Formal credentials will no longer be the Holy Grail.

10. Policymakers will form communities of continuous improvement.

His summation amounts to a declaration of faith in the new gospel of “21st century learning.” “If education stays stuck in the past, generations of students will be miseducated,” Cookson claims. “They (students) won’t be equipped to thrive in a world of new ideas and technologies. The current task of educators should be to embrace these changes with an open mind and consider how new disruptions can aid, rather than hinder, learning for all students.”

Cookson’s vision of a digital learning future proved tantalizing to leading education education observers and, whether intended or not, was seen as a provocation.  University of Virginia cognitive psychologist Daniel T. Willingham responded tersely on Twitter: “My bold prediction: none of these 10 will disrupt education. None.”

All but one of the 16 comments on the post on the Education Week website dismissed Cookson’s forecast as either sheer nonsense or a threatening forecast of a dystopian future where teachers were supplanted by robots.  Most of the teacher respondents considered the commentary the hallucinations of a “21st century education” futurist.  Canadian education blogger and Math/Technology teacher David Wees rejected Cookson’s forecast entirely and provided a ‘reality check’ list of his own, pointing out the real obstacles to American educational advance, including the status and salaries accorded to teachers, inequitable funding and resources, and the stark inequalities facing students from marginalized communities.

Cookson’s forecast is so problematic that it is hard to decide where to start and whether there is enough space in a short blog commentary to take issue with each of his prognostications.  Since Cookson provides no research evidence to support his claims, you are expected to accept them as unassailable truths. If one thing is abundantly clear, Cookson exhibits a significant blind spot in his total neglect of the “knowledge domain” in his brief in support of embracing technology-driven. “21st century learning.”

Dr. Willingham is essentially correct in his critique of the education futurists. Since 2008, he has been sounding the alarm that the pursuit of “21st century skills” will prove unwise because the acquisition and application of knowledge still matters and will continue to matter in the future.  Without sound background knowledge, students have more difficulty mastering reading and are susceptible to online hoaxes such as the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus activity. He goes further in pointing out that mathematics, science, reading, civics, and history are more critical in K-12 education than what are termed “21st century skills.”

Being attuned and open to new research and pedagogical advances is desirable and but so is applying a skeptical eye when confronted with unproven theories. Willingham, for example, is not opposed, per se, to developing critical capacities in students, particularly in new media literacy.  Yet, he and other prominent edutopia skeptics, still worry that futurists are leading us astray and they certainly have past experience on their side.

Where are North American edutopian educators like Peter W. Cookson, Jr. leading us?  Where did he come up with the purported “creative disruptions”?  Is there any evidence, that such changes will improve student achievement or produce better informed, more productive citizens? Without radical changes in the socio-economic conditions of, and schooling provision for, marginalized students, can we expect much of an improvement?  And finally, is it sound thinking to put so much faith in the transformative powers of technology? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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“Restructuring education” was a popular reform nostrum that dominated North American K-12 school reform in the early to mid 1990s. Emerging as a stepchild of the “Reinventing Government” movement, it was driven by a reform impulse to introduce school-based management as a means of busting the bureaucracy that dominated public education systems.  Centralization, consolidation, and bureaucracy eventually triumphed, aided and abetted by corporate managerialism, testing, and accountability. Twenty years on, it’s time to take a closer look at why decentralization  capsized and what lessons can be learned from the whole venture.

Today centralization is far advanced in all ten Canadian provincial education systems. A study for the Canadian School Boards Association, conducted from December 2010 to November 2011, raised red flags about the impact of centralization on the state of local democratic control in Canada’s provincially regulated school boards. Surveying national trends over the past two decades, the authors conclude that “the significance of the school district apparatus in Canada has diminished as provincial governments have enacted an aggressive centralization agenda” (Sheppard et al. 2013, 42).

School board trustees, once the bulwark of local school accountability, have been rendered almost powerless through a succession of “corporate model” governance reforms.  Two research studies in 2013 and 2016 produced by Gerald Galway and Bruce Sheppard demonstrated conclusively that democratic school board governance is in serious jeopardy because trustees and superintendents now operate in a politicized policy environment that is “antagonistic to local governance” (Galway et al. 2013, 27–28). Elected school boards subscribing to a corporate policy-making model have also tended to stifle trustee autonomy and to narrow the scope of local, community decision-making (Bennett 2012).

Community-school-based management was first implemented in Canada some 40 years ago in the Edmonton public schools by newly appointed superintendent Mike Strembitsky. In the words of former teachers’ union president Karen Beaton, Strembitsky’s innovation “turned the entire concept of the district upside down” (Neal 1991, 4; see also Ouchi 2008, 24). Adopting a completely new approach, he embarked on an initiative to give self-governance to principals and schools through the decentralization of decisions from the district office to the school. The central idea was deceptively simple: “Every decision which contributes to the instructional effectiveness of the school and which can be made at school level, should be made at school level” (Coleman 1984, 25). Most of the transfers have involved school-based budgeting and resource-allocation decisions, but the basic principle is also applied to all educational decisions.

Decentralized education governance was also implemented in Australia and New Zealand as well as in American cities, including Seattle, Washington and Houston, Texas.  From the 1990s until 2001 the decentralized model was fully established in both US cities and piloted in a few Canadian provinces, including Quebec and Nova Scotia. 

Since the publication of William G. Ouchi’s Making Schools Work (2008), school reformers have been more attuned to the centralizing tendencies of education systems and the advantages of school-based management. Those lessons have been absorbed and implemented in innovative systems around the globe; in particular, they have been adopted by the World Bank in its international educational decentralization development projects. One 2005 World Bank study perhaps put it best: “a service education is too complex to be efficiently produced and distributed in a centralized fashion.”

Introducing education restructuring in Nova Scotia in the mid-1990s proved to be impossible, given the intransigence and passive resistance of school administrators, including anxious school principals.

Three decentralized Governance Models were proposed in a 1994 NSDE Discussion paper and all embraced “school-based management” with school councils at each school site, ranging along the continuum from purely advisory councils to school council-school board shared leadership to totally decentralized school-based local governance. Much more educational authority and responsibility was to be transferred from school districts to the school-level and vested in school councils.  Those local councils were to have authority to make decisions in ten specified areas, including setting school priorities, developing a school budget and improvement plans, making recommendations on the hiring and dismissing of principals, appointing principals and staff, and producing community accountability reports.

A 1995 Nova Scotia Education Horizons report spelled out actual plans for school council governance and the reduction of school district structures from 22 regional boards to either five or seven, complete with illustrative maps and district-to-district student enrolment data. The Dr. John Savage government followed through on school district reduction, but gave ground on entrusting so much authority to school-level councils.  School Advisory Councils (SACs), established in 1995, provided periodic advice and improved school-community communications, but did little to shift the locus of education decision-making.

School boards consolidated and retrenched, and superintendents expanded their authority over not only elected boards, but the whole K-12 school system. Closing schools has led to bigger elementary and secondary school plants and administrators now routinely refer to their schools as “buildings.” Since 1995, School Advisory Councils (SACs) have struggled and floundered, most functioning under the thumb of principals and some competing with holdover home and school groups for legitimacy and recognition. Today, scanning school websites, you will look in vain for the names and contact information for anyone on the school advisory councils. If you inquire about the SAC, you are immediately referred to the school principal.

Provincial and regional school boards, as presently constituted, have completely lost their democratic legitimacy. and it’s time to replace them with a far more responsible, grounded and accountable system of school community-based governance. Like most informed parents, engaged citizens, and awakened communities, small school advocates find themselves on the outside looking in and puzzled by why our provincial school systems are so top down, bureaucratic, distant and seemingly impervious to change.

Abolishing school boards altogether or conducting provincial reviews of school closure regulations do not really change the situation – our P-12 school system operates more to serve those in charge than those it purportedly serves – children, parents, and local communities.  The time for restructuring education is now.

Why does education restructuring to decentralize school decision-making authority remain a vision beyond reach?  Whatever happened to the School-Based Management model successfully implemented in Edmonton Public Schools? What’s the connection between school-based management and effective local school governance?  How can we clear away the obstructions and obstacles and win the support of the educators who inhabit our schools? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“Learning isn’t a destination, starting and stopping at the classroom door. It’s a never-ending road of discovery and wonder that has the power to transform lives. Each learning moment builds character, shapes dreams, guides futures, and strengthens communities.” Those inspiring words and the accompanying video, Learning makes us, left me tingling like the ubiquitous ‘universal values’ Coke commercials.

Eventually, I snapped out of it –and realized that I’d been transported into the global world of  British-based Pearson Education, the world’s largest learning and testing corporation, and drawn into its latest stratagem- the allure of 21st century creativity and social-emotional learning. The age of Personalized (or Pearsonalized) learning “at a distance” was upon us.

Globalization has completely reshaped education policy and practice, for better or worse. Whatever your natural ideological persuasion, it is now clear in early 2017 that the focus of K-12 education is on aligning state and provincial school systems with the high-technology economy and the instilling of workplace skills dressed-up as New Age ’21st century skills’ – disruptive innovation, creative thinking, competencies, and networked and co-operative forms of work.

The rise to dominance of “testopoly” from No Child Left Behind (NCLB) to the Common Core Standards assessment regime, and its Canadian variations, has made virtually everyone nervous, including legions of teachers and parents. Even those, like myself, who campaigned for Student Achievement Testing in the 1990s, are deeply disappointed with the meagre results in terms of improved teaching and student learning.

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The biggest winner has been the learning corporation giants, led by Pearson PLC, who now control vast territories in the North American education sector. After building empires through business deals to digitalize textbooks and develop standardized tests with American and Canadian education authorities, and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the company was again reinventing itself in response to the growing backlash against traditional testing and accountability.

Critics on the education left, most notably American education historian Diane Ravitch and BCTF research director Larry Kuehn, were among the first to flag and document the rise of Pearson Education, aptly dubbed “the many headed corporate hydra of education.” A June 2012 research report for the BCTF  by Donald Gutstein succeeded in unmasking the hidden hand of Pearson in Canadian K-12 education, especially after its acquisition, in 2007, of PowerSchool and Chancery Software, the two leading  computerized student information tracking systems.

More recently, New York journalist Owen Davis has amply demonstrated how  Pearson “made a killing” on the whole American testing craze, including the Common Core Standards assessment program. It culminated in 2013, when Pearson won the U.S. contract to develop tests for the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, as the only bidder.

testopolystudentprotesrnm2015When the pendulum started swinging back against testing from 2011 to 2013, Pearson PLC was on the firing line in the United States but remained relatively sheltered in Canada. From Texas to New York to California, state policy makers scaled back on standardized assessment programs, sparked by parent and student protests. In Canada, the Toronto-based People for Education lobby group, headed by veteran anti-tester Annie Kidder, saw an opening and began promoting “broader assessment” strategies encompassing “social-emotional learning” or SEL. Pearson bore the brunt of parent outrage over testing and lost several key state contracts, including the biggest in Texas, the birthplace of NCLB.

Beginning in 2012, Pearson PLC started to polish up its public image and to reinvent its core education services. Testing only represented 10 per cent of Pearson’s overall U.S. profits, but the federal policy shift represented by the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) tilted in the direction of reducing “unnecessary testing.” The company responded with a plan to shift from multiple-choice tests to “broader measures of school performance,” such as school climate, a survey-based SEL metric of students’ social and emotional well-being. 

“For the past four years, Pearson’s Research & Innovation Network has been developing, implementing, and testing assessment innovations,” Vice President Kimberly O’Malley recently reported. This new Pearson PLC Plan is closely aligned with ESSA and looks mighty similar to the Canadian People for Education “Broader Measures” model being promoted by Annie Kidder and B.C. education consultant Charles Ungerleider. Whether standardized testing recedes or not, it’s abundantly clear that “testopoly” made Pearson and the dominance of the learning corporations is just entering a new phase.

How did Pearson and the learning corporations secure such control over, and influence in, public education systems?  What’s behind the recent shift from core knowledge achievement testing to social-emotional learning?  Is it even possible to measure social-emotional learning and can school systems afford the costs of labour-intensive “school improvement” models?  Will the gains in student learning, however modest, in terms of mathematics and literacy, fade away under the new regime? 

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When my policy research report, Education on Wheels, was released by the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS) in January 2015, the official reaction was totally unexpected in the Atlantic Canadian province of New Brunswick.

New Brunswick is currently facing a significant financial challenge with public discussion animated by books like Richard Saillant’s 2014 title, Over the Cliff?: Acting Now to Avoid New Brunswick’s Bankruptcy. It’s also a fully bilingual province with a dual school system where students are educated in either Anglophone or Francophone schools. Every proposed change, we learned, is assessed in relation to its impact upon the duality of educational provision.

AIMSEDonWheelsFew among the political class noticed that our report was subtitled “Seizing Cost and Energy Efficiency Opportunities in Student Transportation.” Instead of seizing the initiative in controlling student transportation costs now consuming up to 7 per cent of the education budget, policy-makers became side-tracked in a time consuming, fruitless debate over maintaining dual busing services.

As the lead author of the first comprehensive review of Atlantic Canadian K-12 student transportation, it was disappointing, to say the least, to see two N.B. cabinet ministers pluck one recommendation, rip it out-of-context, and turn the whole public discussion into a test of the province’s commitment to duality in student busing.

Spending almost two years pursuing a court reference to curtail one rural area (Kent County) involving eight buses out of 1,200 in the province and affecting only 92 students speaks volumes about misplaced provincial priorities. The only real benefit was to raise the profile of law professors seeking to turn this into a test of French linguistic rights.

Now that the New Brunswick Government has wisely abandoned its almost two-year quest to seek a court ruling on the question of dual busing, it’s time to actually get on with tackling the bigger issues, most of which can be done without venturing into that political minefield again.

Under the newly announced provincial policy, N.B. District Education Councils are now free to secure a better deal on bus services for local ratepayers and to reinvest the savings where it counts – in the classroom. To suggest that the recent decision means the “status quo” remains in place is simply indefensible when the AIMS report demonstrated that shared administrative services, contracting out, and energy efficiencies could save New Brunswick taxpayers millions in the years ahead.

Leaving aside dual busing, my report (co-authored with Derek M. Gillis) revealed that the number of school buses in N.B. increased to 1,237 in 2014 from 1,156 in 2009, despite the fact that the total student population declined to 74,055 from 85,000 during that time. Unlike other provinces, over 90 per cent of the province’s school buses are owned and operated by the government with little or no integration or shared agreements with municipal transit services.  The entire system is ‘grant-driven’ without any real competition to help achieve better cost efficiencies.

New Brunswick student transportation costs, we found, were largely driven by capital replacement cost recovery and government employee contracts with little or no private contracting. Consolidating schools only compounds the problem by extending daily routes and piling-on additional, incremental busing costs.

schoolbusstopsignIf student transportation research in Ontario and Alberta are any guide, the absence of competitive bidding for bus contracts, over time, results in higher per student costs that take a bigger and bigger bite out of education budgets.  Since the late 1980s, leading Canadian school boards, beginning in Ottawa and York Region, have, on their own, created regional transportation authorities. Since 2006, all of Ontario’s 72 boards have integrated, shared bus services, managed by twenty-two “consortia” with a mandate to contain costs and achieve energy efficiencies.

Mounting provincial deficits and tightening education budgets suggest that New Brunswick and its school districts should look first to educational support services in pursuit of cost savings. There is much that can be achieved in student transportation reform without compromising student safety.

Combining government-run and contracted services and providing incentives to form joint transportation service authorities is a proven success, as demonstrated in both Alberta and Ontario. Once that is achieved, the harder work begins in implementing improved transportation cost management systems and a whole range of new business practices based upon the latest advances in data collection/analysis, route scheduling software, energy efficiency, and improved point-of-service daily operations.

We are now calling upon the N.B. government and school districts to act upon the following practical, no-nonsense recommendations: embrace a province-wide joint services strategy, permitting School Districts to jointly manage their own student transportation services; review potential cost efficiencies in rural busing and special education services; utilize the latest technology to improve route management and reduce duplication of services; adopt a ‘walkable schools’ plan encouraging active transportation; initiate two pilot student services consortia (urban and rural) to model best practice; and implement reliable performance metrics.  Once these initiatives are underway, authorize regular provincial audits to benchmark and track student transportation service levels.

Where does bilingualism begin for students in public education — at the doorstep or the school entrance? What’s the real impact of bilingual duality on the capacity of school districts to achieve cost and energy efficiencies? If separate transportation is official provincial policy, then is co-mingling on the sidewalks and bike trails subject to that same policy? Is New Brunswick alone in facing such public policy challenges? 

 

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