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Archive for the ‘Educational Change’ Category

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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School district consolidation is a striking phenomenon not only in Atlantic Canada, but right across Canada and the United States. Two levels of consolidation, encompassing the merging of smaller schools and the collapsing of school districts, leads to the centralization of management. It also rests primarily on two presumed benefits: (1) fiscal efficiency and (2) higher educational quality.

With the recent release of Dr. Avis Glaze’s education restructuring report, Raise the Bar, a fierce public debate is underway in Nova Scotia focusing on her plan to dissolve the seven remaining English school boards, reassign administrators to the schools, and reinvest any savings in the classroom. Following that report, a CBC News Nova Scotia investigation revealed that the 38 school board administrators potentially affected earned $4.7 million a year. Whether her plan retaining the seven districts will yield much in the way of cost savings is very much in question.  The research, so far, is decidedly mixed when all factors are taken into consideration.

The sheer scale of district consolidation is staggering. Driven largely by the pursuit of financial economy and efficiency, district consolidation swept across the United States, reduced the number of K-12 districts from 117,108 in 1939-1940 to 13,862 by 2006-2007, a decline of 88 per cent. The rate of consolidation has slowed over the past decade, but at least a few districts consolidate every year in many states (Duncombe and Yinger 2010). While comparative Canadian data is not readily available, it is relatively safe to observe the existence of a similar pattern (Bennett 2011, Corbett 2014).

School district consolidation in Canada is driven by provincial education authorities looking for cost reductions, but in some cases, the trigger factor is eliminating local education authorities obstructing education initiatives. Provincial announcements authorizing educational restructuring, such as the 1996 Ontario School Reduction Task Force, justify the school district consolidation as a cost reduction measure and commit to redirecting any savings into the classroom (Ontario 1996). Declining student enrolments, demographic trends, out-migration, and duplicated functions are among the common factors cited in making the case for consolidation (Galway, Sheppard, Wiens and Brown 2013).

In some cases, such as Prince Edward Island, the prime justification is clarity of direction rather than any economic benefits. In October 2011, for example, the P.E.I. Education Governance Commission recognized that the evidence of “operational efficiencies and net savings” is mixed, based upon previous ventures in Prince Edward Island and elsewhere. “There is a risk,” the Commission report recognized, “that any savings that may result from elimination of duplication in some areas could be offset. Initially by transition costs, and in the longer term by rising expenditures in other areas such as increased specialization and more hierarchy.”   (PEI Governance 2011).

Most American state governments are more explicit about the incentives uses to nudge along the process of school district consolidation. The most common form of U.S. state policy is transition funding designed to encourage district reorganization, typically in the form of consolidation, by providing additional money for operations or capital projects during the transition to the new form of organization. The aid bonus from consolidation can be quite large. In the State of New York, consolidating districts may receive an increase in their basic operating aid of up to 40 percent for five years, with declining increases for an additional nine years.

On top of this aid, consolidating districts also may receive a 30 percent increase in building aid for projects initiated within 10 years of consolidation.  Possibly as many as one-third of all American states, including some with consolidation bonuses, still maintain countervailing policies that provide support to school districts for “sparsity” (or low population density) or for small scale operations, factors that work against consolidation (Duncombe and Yinger 2010).

Forecasted Savings

The prime justification for school district consolidation has long been that it is a way to cut costs. These cost savings arise, the argument goes, because the provision of education is characterized by economies of size, which exist whenever the cost of education per pupil declines as the number of pupils goes up. In this context, the cost of education is not the same as education spending but is instead the amount a school district would have to spend to obtain a given level of performance, as measured by test scores, graduation rates and perhaps other output measures. To put it another way, economies of size exist if spending on education per pupil declines as the number of pupils goes up, controlling for school district performance. Because consolidation creates larger school districts, it results in lower costs per pupil whenever economies of size exist (Duncombe and Yinger 2010).

Economies of size could arise for many reasons:

Indivisibilities: First, the school services provided to each student by certain education professionals may not diminish in quality as the number of students increases, at least over some range. All districts require a superintendent and the same central administration may be able to serve a significant range of enrollment with little change in total costs.

Increased Dimension: Second, education requires certain physical capital, such as a heating system and science laboratories, which require a certain scale to operate efficiently and therefore have a high cost per pupil in small districts.

Specialization: Third, larger districts may be able to employ more specialized teachers, putting them in a better position to provide the wide range of courses required by public accountability systems and expected today by students and parents.

Innovation and Learning: Finally, teachers in larger districts have more colleagues on which to draw for advice and discussion, interactions that presumably lead to improved effectiveness (Duncombe and Yinger 2007, 2010).

Potential Mitigating Factors
Popular assumptions about economies of size have been challenged by researchers focusing on the relationship between school and school district size and student performance and well-being. Rural education studies have demonstrated that the sizes of the school district and the high school are highly correlated and, in many cases, cost savings are rarely realized and larger schools can have detrimental impact upon student performance and engagement (Howley, Johnson and Petrie 2011). Effective schools research also tends to show that small to moderate-sized schools are more successful than mega-schools at retaining students through to high school graduation (Howley 2002). Leading American experts on school district consolidation William Duncombe and John Yinger have found that extremely large districts (those enrolling 15,000 or more students—are likely to be fiscally inefficient because consolidation has proceeded beyond the point of a favourable cost-benefit ratio (Duncombe and Yinger 2005, 2010).

Four sources of potential diseconomies of size are:

Higher Transportation Costs: First, consolidated school districts usually make use of larger schools, which implies that average transportation distance must increase. As a result, consolidation might increase a district’s transportation spending per pupil.

Levelling Up of HR Costs: Second, consolidating districts may level up salaries and benefits to those of the most generous participating district, thereby raising personnel costs.

Lowering of Staff Morale: Third, administrators and teachers tend to have a more positive attitude toward work in smaller schools, which tend to have more flexible rules and procedures.

Less Student and Parent Participation: Finally, students can be more motivated and parents more comfortable to interact with teachers in smaller districts, which tend to have a greater community feel. These reactions and closer student-faculty relationships may result in higher student performance at any given spending level. Longer school bus rides have a detrimental impact upon student engagement and achievement.

Overall, the net impact of consolidation on education costs per pupil is not always clear. Consolidation of tiny school districts of 1,500 students or less is likely to tap into economies of size and thereby lower these costs, but, beyond those numbers, consolidation might actually cause costs per pupil to rise (Duncombe and Yinger 2010). The most recent research literature review, published in 2011 by the U.S. National Education Policy Center, concluded that “claims for educational benefits from systematic state-wide school and district consolidation are vastly overestimated and, beyond school districts of 1,500, have actually been maximized years ago” (Howley, Johnson and Petrie 2011).

What happens to the projected savings forecasted in school district consolidation plans?  How does the education finance process work to obscure and conceal the data required to conduct a thorough cost-benefit analysis? What mitigating factors arise to compromise or nullify the forecasted savings?  Is it possible to assess the full extent of losses, financial and social, at the school level? What are the real lessons for those tempted to tackle education restructuring? 

Research conducted for this post is part of a larger project on Restructuring Education (Halifax: Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, 2018).

 

 

 

 

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Fifty years ago, the Ontario Provincial Education Committee headed by Emmett Hall and Lloyd Dennis released Living and Learning (1968), one of the most earth-shaking reports in Canadian educational history. It  proposed a bold and provocative progressive reform prescription for the perceived ills afflicting the Ontario public school system. While it was initially welcomed by education progressives and the Toronto media, it aroused fierce and determined resistance, mainly voiced by leading academics and high school subject specialists. Many academic teachers considered it a virtual declaration of war on subject disciplines and the knowledge-based high school curriculum. Fifteen years later, the pendulum of pedagogical and curriculum reform was swinging in the other direction.

One of the most strident critics of the Hall-Dennis Report was Dr. James Daly, a little known 36-year-old McMaster University English history and classics professor. After being presented with a copy by History Department Chair, Professor John H. Trueman, Daly started reading the document and could not believe his eyes. “You ought to see this. It’s everything we might have feared!, ” he told Trueman, and needs to be exposed as dangerous educational thinking.  It was that brief encounter that gave rise to Dr. James Daly’s little pamphlet, Education or Molasses?, a stinging critique of the Hall-Dennis Report, and a resistance movement determined to expose the fallacies of its unabashed “child-centred philosophy” and to rid the educational world of its deleterious influence.

As a former Ontario secondary school teacher and a classicist, Dr. Daly saw the Report as a dangerous utopian panacea and “an assault on civilization as we know it.” For Daly, the campaign against the Report amounted to a modern-day crusade in defence of a knowledge-centred curriculum aimed at resisting “the supine acceptance of fashionable piffle.”While Daly’s little book echoed the essential message of Hilda Neatby’s So Little for the Mind (1953), it never attracted the same popular acclaim. Many Canadian educators from regular classroom teachers to academics sympathized with Daly, but few rallied to his defence in the ensuing public debate.

The standard history of Ontario’s modern educational system, R.D. Gidney’s  From Hope to Harris, offers a compelling re-interpretation of the Hall-Dennis Report and its legacy, recognizing the profound influence of the Department’s eminence gris, Jack McCarthy, and cutting Lloyd Dennis down to proper size.  When it came to discussing the “dissenting voices,” Gidney consigned them to a mere footnote.  While describing Daly’s little book as “one scintillating and scathing jeremiad” that was “not to be missed,” he wrote him completely out of the public debate.

Leading education progressives tend to have a blind spot when it comes to considering the Hall-Dennis movement in the round. Canadian history specialist Ken Osborne is a case in point.  His 1999 historical primer entitled Education: A Guide to the Canadian Debate ignores Daly’s critique, even though it found tremendous support among Ontario secondary school teachers. Indeed, Osborne looked back wistfully on the Report as “the shining star of educational reform” and, without referencing Daly, bemoaned those who “painted” progressivism as “at best woolly-minded idealism and at worst reckless irresponsibility.”

 Daly was not alone in raising such strenuous objections to the Report’s progressive philosophy and program. Within a week of the Report’s release, three senior university academics had written scathing Letters to the Editor, each published in The Globe and Mail:  Chairman of York University’s Physics Department, R.W. Nicholls, economics professor Ralph Blackmore of Waterloo Lutheran University, and Professor D.J. Dooley of Toronto’s St. Michael’s College. Each of them registered strong objections to “the apparent naivete” of many of the recommendations, questioned  “removing the structure from the school system,” warned about school years being “squandered on trivialities and fads”; and the “watering down of standards” and “elimination of grades.”

Daly’s pamphlet flew in the face of the Hall-Dennis Report’s promotional campaign.  From the time of its release until June 1969, Co-Chair Lloyd Dennis embarked on a “road show” to promote the Hall-Dennis Report and its recommendations. His zealous, super-charged message capitalized upon the initial favourable reviews and buoyed the spirits of educational progressives across Ontario and in every other province and territory. Hired by the Department under contract, he delivered a folksy, entertaining talk and gave “285 speeches in 180 working days” over nine months promoting the Report.

With this active promotion, the glossy Report became a bestseller with 60,000 copies either sold or in print.  It was deemed required reading in all of Ontario’s teachers’ colleges and education faculties. One year after its release, The Toronto Daily Star reported that Committee members had given over 600 speeches reaching live audiences approaching 250,000 persons; in addition, some 100 conferences had been held and special committee were at work in almost every Ontario school system

 The periodic murmurs of misgiving began to turn into signs of protest, in spite of Lloyd Dennis’s strenuous missionary efforts. . Many Ontario teachers felt threatened by the call for a fundamental change in methods and even potential allies, such as Toronto’s George Martell of This Magazine is About Schools,found fault with the supposedly “liberalizing” education manifesto.  To Martell and more radical progressives, the emphasis on “individualized” learning was seen as corporatist idea threatening to undermine the “sense of community” in public schools

School trustees, departmental officials and even Education Minister William Davis became irritated by Dennis’s unrelenting attack upon the existing system as rigid and stultifying for students. After nine months, his contract was not extended, and he was told that there was no job for him in the Department. At age 44, he found refuge as a Director of Education in Leeds Grenville County Board, a frontier regional board with 50 scattered schools and only 1 psychologist serving 17,000 students.

One of the largest conferences held on the Hall-Dennis Report, “Re-Thinking Education,” held at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) on April 17-19, 1969, proved to be a major letdown for Dennis and his allies. Education Minister Davis opened the Conference by distancing himself and the Department from the Report. The final Conference report, prepared by James M. Paton, concluded that  “No longer will it be regarded as Holy Writ, the pure Milk of the Word….” The Hall-Dennis document, Paton added,  may well have “performed a useful function in stimulating the desire to change by exposing specific weaknesses; but it also raised more questions than it provided answers.”:

Daly’s pamphlet knocked the wind out of the sails of the flagging Hall-Dennis reform movement. His first 500 copies, printed by Cromlech Press in Ancaster, Ontario, sold out in one week.  In an influential October 1969 commentary, Toronto Telegram columnists Douglas Fisher and Harry Crowe welcomed Daly’s potent little jeremiad with open arms. After reading the document in mid-1968, they had become, in their own words, “sworn enemies of the report.” Their terse assessment: “We think it windy and dangerous.”

 The stinging critique, summarized in the Fisher and Crowe column, was taken up by teachers who took exception to Living and Learning.  Many educators saw the Report, in the words of the Telegram columnists, as “a blanket slander of Ontario teachers.”  Abandoning structured approaches to learning, giving students a broad menu of course choices, and phasing-out grades and examinations were not popular, especially with seasoned secondary school teachers. Most felt threatened by the rapidity of the changes and saw their ability to control classes gradually slipping away.

Attempting to disassemble the prescribed curriculum provoked genuine outrage.  Seeing the Report’s evidence drawn mostly from the early grades, academically-inclined teachers instinctively agreed with Daly that the proposed Hall-Dennis curriculum as a “melange of mush” organized around little more than “general areas of learning.” With the proposed abandonment of prescribed curricula, teachers would be left on their own to design new curricula without any training in the field.  Academics and classroom teachers alike claimed that the Report utterly failed to make adequate provision for certain “core subjects,” such as English, Mathematics, and Science, which were essential for an effective, balanced curriculum.

A province-wide “Hall-Dennis PD Day” scheduled by the Ontario Teachers Federation (OTF) for October 8, 1969 planned so elementary and high school teachers could meet to discuss Living and Learning was scuttled by Ontario school boards over the objections of the OTF and Department.

Ontario’s History and Social Studies teachers complained about the proposed curriculum’s presentist bias and seeming acceptance of the assumption that “the present and the future are all that matters.”  After viewing the resulting Ontario History Guidelines, John Ricker, Chairman of History at Toronto’s Faculty of Education, confirmed their worst fears, declaring the Hall-Dennis-inspired changes “an invitation for teachers to do their own thing.”

 While Daly was writing Education or Molasess?, the Ontario secondary school system was in a state of upheaval.  Eight months after the release of Living and Learning, in March 1969, Minister of Education Davis announced a brand new system of organization.  The so-called Credit System, first proposed in Circular H.S.1 for 1969-70 and completely adopted in 1972-73, was significantly advanced by means of the Hall-Dennis Report. All of these changes went forward amid the public controversy generated by the Report and Daly’s stinging response.

 After some initial flirtations with Hall-Dennis reform, most of the other provinces absorbed the lessons of the bitter divisions aroused by forcing the progressive educational agenda. Education observers in Maritime Canada were totally unmoved by the excitement generated by Living and Learning. In Nova Scotia, Deputy Minister of Education Harold M. Nason remained extremely cautious, even after being prodded by his Ontario counterpart, Jack McCarthy. In May 1971, Maritime educator Russell Hunt put it more bluntly in a review of Satu Repo’s This Book is About Schools. “ The crest of the liberal education reform wave in Ontario was marked by the establishment of OISE… and by the publication of the splashily- produced Hall-Dennis report,” he wrote. That very report, he added, provided a clear sign that “liberal reform of public education was to prove a failure.” Senior academics like John Trueman, a renowned history textbook author, considered the Hall-Dennis report to be “the beginning of the slide” in education standards.

The bloom was completely off the Hall-Dennis rose by June of 1983, fifteen years after its appearance.  The Globe and Mail published a news feature by Judy Steed entitled “Crisis in the Schools.” West Toronto history teacher and OHASSTA spokesperson John Sheppard told Steed that teachers held the Hall-Dennis Report responsible for “destroying education in Ontario.”  The full-page feature story proclaimed the Hall-Dennis era finally over. “Now, it’s the eighties,” Steed stated, “and it’s back to the basics with more structure.”

Why did the 1968 Ontario Hall-Dennis Report inspire such passions?  Who supported the campaign for Hall-Dennis-style “student-centred learning”?  Why did leading academics and academic high school teachers line up against the Report and its core philosophy?  What came out of the furor stirred up by the controversial report? 

Second in a Series on the Ontario Hall-Dennis Report

 

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