Archive for the ‘Higher Standards’ Category

As students head back to school in September, USA Today Education Beat writer Greg Toppo recently reported that more American students than ever before will arrive dressed in a school-sanctioned uniforms.  Over the past decade, the adoption of school dress codes and uniforms in American public schools has expanded, even though the evidence of its impact on improving schools remains inconclusive.  In Canada, school uniforms are popular in independent private schools, but — with the exception of Quebec and Catholic high schools — still remain relatively scarce in regular co-educational public high schools.

MrDXavierAcademyNearly one in five American public schools required uniforms in 2010, up from just 1 in 8 a decade earlier, according to U. S. Department of Education statistics.  That’s a whopping 60% growth in uniform requirements in American state schools.  Boring deeper, more than half of public schools now have some sort of dress code.  The National Center for Education Statistics reports that about 57% of school now have a “strict dress code,” up from 47% a decade earlier.  Comparable statistics do not exist for Canadian schools, given the provincial education silos, but school uniforms are more prevalent as a result of the gradual spread of private and publicly-funded alternative schools.  It is no accident. for instance, that the mythical Xavier Academy in the CBC-TV sitcom Mr. D. features scrubbed kids in very traditional school uniforms.

School uniforms have a chequered history in North American education.  Private independent schools associated with the Canadian Association of Independent Schools (CAIS), and, to a lesser extent, the U.S. National Association of Independent Schools, have long championed school uniforms, even though some of their member schools have adhered to more relaxed dress codes.  In Quebec, school uniforms are far more common, influenced by the classical Quebec private colleges and Montreal’s English independent schools.  In Ontario and other provinces, publicly-funded Catholic Separate Schools have tended to maintain school-approved uniforms, ranging from jackets and ties to crested collared white polo shirts.

The idea of introducing school uniforms into the public schools enjoyed an upsurge in the 1980s and early 1990s.   In the 1980s, Washington’s Mayor Marion Barry attempted to introduce uniforms to close the performance gap between public school students and those in D.C.’s Catholic schools.   While the D.C. plan fizzled, in 1987, Cherry Hill Elementary School in Baltimore, MD, introduced what is believed to be the first school-wide uniform policy as “a means of  reducing  clothing costs and social pressures on children.”  Nine years later (1996), speaking in Long Beach, California, President Bill Clinton announced his support of that district’s uniform initiative: “School uniforms are one step that may help break the cycle of violence, truancy and disorder by helping young students understand what really counts is what kind of people they are,” Clinton said,  With this presidential nod of approval, more schools and school districts began to adopt school uniforms and stricter dress codes.

School uniforms were given a boost in Canada by the emergence in the 1980s and early 1990s of an “Academy Movement” in the public school system.  In Montreal, the decline in the English population after the Quebec Referendum played a role in the 1983 establishment of Royal West Academy and Royal Vale School, both public-private hybrid schools with uniforms and entrance examinations.  The Toronto School Board, facing competition from local private and Catholic schools, moved in 1989 to transform Scarborough’s near empty R.H. King High School into an Academy with traditional teaching, formal uniforms, and formal daily student mentoring groups.  Two years later, in September 1991, the York Region School Board did the same, establishing Woodbridge College as a traditional Grade 7 to OAC/13 school with a rigorous curriculum, uniforms, and more structured learning.  While many of these experiments faltered because of system-wide resistance and aenemic leadership, they did leave a symbolic legacy in the form of uniformed students.

Introducing school uniforms is sure to spark a raging public debate in public education, even in the United Kingdom where uniformed schoolkids are ubiquitous..  A recent piece in EduGuide provided a very handy summary of the arguments, pro and con, over the adoption of school-sanctioned, formal uniforms:

The Possible Benefits, commonly voiced by educators as well as parents:

  • Increase students’ self-esteem because they do not have to participate in the “school fashion show.” Dressing alike helps students learn that what really counts is on the inside.
  • Decrease the influence of gangs and gang violence. Uniforms make it more difficult to sneak in weapons, and easier to ban gang colors or symbols.
  • Improve learning by reducing distraction, sharpening focus on schoolwork and making the classroom a more serious environment.
  • Promote a sense of teamwork and increase school spirit.
  • Mask the income difference between families. All children dress the same, whether rich or poor.
  • Improve behavior and increase school attendance. Some students actually skip school to avoid embarrassment about their clothing.
  • Save families time and money. Many parents report that three uniforms cost about the same as one pair of designer jeans. Even some students admit that wearing the same colors everyday makes it easier to shop for new clothes.
  • Help administrators quickly identify outsiders who could be a danger to students.

The Downside, usually expressed by high school students and parents:

  • Violate the right to freedom of speech and expression.
  • Cost too much for families who already struggle to make ends meet.
  • Merely put a band-aid on the problem of school violence and fail to address the real issues behind it.
  • Emphasize conformity, not individuality, and do not allow students to develop their identity.
  • Hide warning signs that point to problems. Often the way a child dresses can indicate the way he is feeling. Uniforms eliminate these red flags.
  • Offer ways for administrators to exert power and an unnecessary amount of authority.
  • Have not been statistically proven to decrease violence or promote discipline.
  • Fail to allow students to learn to make good choices based on their own values.

Much has been made of the school-based research that supposedly shows school uniforms do not necessarily improve schools or student performance levels. One particular American book, David Brunsma’s The School Uniform Movement and What It Tells Us About American Education (2004) is routinely trotted out to support this claim.  Defenders of uniforms counter with  Virginia Draa’s 2005 study of 64 Ohio high schools linking uniforms with improved attendance and  graduation rates and fewer student suspensions.  Neither study demonstrated much impact on student academic performance.

School uniforms, as supporters of dress codes well know, mean little unless they are embedded in a school culture that affirms and supports the pursuit of high standards and improved academic performance.  Studying public schools that climb on the school uniform bandwagon proves little and the American public school world is littered with bad precedents.  In Canada, experiments like Woodbridge College go awry when the missionary leaders move on and school boards revert to “every day garden variety” progressive pedagogy and practice in schools with very average, uniformed kids.  Studying schools with Uniforms Plus higher standards, sound core curriculum, character education, structured learning, and compulsory athletics or cultural activities would likely produce far different results.

Do school uniforms, by themselves, make schools better?  Is the adoption of school uniforms in North American public schools largely symbolic rather than transformative?  Is it possible to maintain a strict school dress code without turning kids into uniform thinkers?  What would a broader study pitting traditional school methods, including uniforms, against progressive, student-centred methods actually prove, if anything?


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An 18-year old Texas student at Duncanville High School, Jeff Bliss, simply had enough — and could not take it anymore.  After being dismissed from class for asking a question and being told to “quit bitching” in Grade 12 World History class on May 6, 2013, he launched into a ninety second condemnation of his teacher’s uninspired attitude and habit of “packet teaching” depriving students of the opportunity to actually engage in learning.

JeffBlissRantAs the son of a teacher, and a student who returned to high school after having dropped-out, he expected more from teachers in his school.  Caught on video by an “undercover” student, his outburst went viral and discussions broke out over both the appropriateness of  his behaviour and the critical education reform issue he raised in the classroom rant. When the teacher, Julie Phung , was placed on leave with pay, a fierce public furor erupted over whether the outspoken Bliss may have a point.

Whether intended or not, Jeff Bliss happened to hit on many of the hot button issues in the American Education War.  “If you would just get up and teach ‘em instead of handing them a frickin packet, yo, there’s kids in here who don’t learn like that,” he said. “They need to learn face to face.”  When Phong, sitting at her desk, repeatedly admonishes him to leave and says he’s “wasting” her time, Bliss unloads with his own lesson about teaching:

“You want kids to come into your class, you want them to get excited for this? You gotta come in here and you gotta make them excited,” the tall student with flowing blond hair and red high tops says in the video, standing at the front of the class and gesticulating to further emphasize his point. “You want a kid to change and start doing better? You gotta touch his freakin heart. You can’t expect a kid to change if all you do is just tell them.” His closer: “This is my country’s future and my education.”

Local Dallas TV news affiliates quickly picked up the video, and by May 14, it  exceeded 1.8 million views and had gleaned international attention. The Innovative Educator, Lisa Neilsen, a strong advocate of “student voice” defended the student’s right to voice his opinion in a school where that was not normally encouraged or even permitted.   But public commenters were quick to point out the disrespectful nature of the outburst in an environment where teachers are supposed to be respected. They also warned this video doesn’t show us the full story.

The official response from the Duncanville Independent School District  was rather instructive.  “As a district with a motto of Engaging Hearts and Minds we focus on building positive relationships with students and designing engaging work that is meaningful,” the district said in a media statement. “We want our students and teachers to be engaged, but the method by which the student expressed his concern could have been handled in a more appropriate way. We are and will continue to be open to listening to students.”

Many educators were upset because it fed public perceptions of the “bad teacher.” One well-known American educational blogger, high school English teacher Tom Panarese, expressed his profound discouragement in a post entitled Why the Jeff Bliss story makes me want to quit.

” I’m probably just seeing end-of-the-school-year exhaustion manifest itself “, Panarese  wrote, noting that stressful June testing was about to begin.  Then he added: ” But it seems that the conversation about education as it is via social media has been happening this way for years and as noble as Jeff Bliss’s champions might think his “I Am Spartacus” moment might be, it won’t really change anything except get a black mark on his history teacher’s record.”

Was Texas high school student Jeff Bliss justified in speaking out against mediocrity in teaching?  Do we know enough about conditions in the school or that class to pass judgement on the teacher’s approach or the student’s behaviour?  Should students have more of a voice in shaping what is learned and how they are taught, especially in senior high school?  Are educators expressing legitimate concerns about the dangers of “trial by underground You Tube clip”?

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Teachers sense when students are bored in the classroom.  Eyes glaze over, their minds drift off, and a pall descends upon the class.  The tendency is to drone on, repeating your points, perhaps even answering your own questions.  A phrase, vividly recalled from childhood, is etched on their faces: “I’m bored!”

ShawiniganHandshakeCherrySeeing that happening before my very eyes, during a Grade 10 History Exam Review period, in late May 2009, I resorted to extraordinary measures.  Spotting the term “Jean Chretien Liberalism” on the review sheet, I walked up to an unsuspecting Grade 10 boy, asked him to stand, and administered “the Shawinigan Handshake.” It certainly grabbed the classes’ attention, and, thankfully, the startled boy was a good sport — and didn’t report it to his parents.

That’s definitely an unorthodox antidote to boredom in the classroom, but it speaks to a much larger issue. Although boredom has been viewed as a rather trivial and short-lived discomfort relived by a change in circumstances, it can be pervasive in high schools, where one period follows another, featuring mostly didactic instruction.

Today’s students are also finding it increasingly intolerable because virtually everything outside of the classroom is on speed dial and “teacher talk” seems to be in slow motion.  It’s also clear that engaging student minds is getting harder and that boredom is becoming an unfortunate and pervasive stressor that can have significant consequences for future health and well being.

Although it’s clear that boredom can be a serious problem, the scientific study of boredom remains an obscure field, and boredom itself is still poorly understood. Even though it’s a common experience, boredom hasn’t been clearly defined within the scientific community.

Psychological scientist John Eastwood of York University and colleagues at two other universities, Waterloo and Guelph, are emerging as leaders in the new field.  The September 2012 issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science featured their latest study.   It was designed to understand the mental processes that underlie our feelings of boredom in order to create a precise definition of boredom and to begin looking at how teachers and instructors might respond with new strategies designed to ease the silent pain endured by boredom sufferers of all ages.

Drawing from research across many areas of psychological science and neuroscience, Eastwood and the Canadian research  team defined boredom as “an aversive state of wanting, but being unable, to engage in satisfying activity,” which arises from failures in one of the brain’s attention networks.

Specifically, students become bored when they:

  • have difficulty paying attention to the internal information (e.g., thoughts or feelings) or external information (e.g., environmental stimuli) required for participating in satisfying activity
  • become aware of the fact that they’re having difficulty paying attention
  • believe that the environment is responsible for their aversive state (e.g., “this task is boring,” “there is nothing to do”).

Eastwood and his researchers are confident that integrating the disparate fields of cognitive neuroscience, social psychology, and clinical psychology will produce a more thorough understanding of boredom and attention.

My History class was often a social laboratory for measures designed to interrupt the boredom.  Surveying Dr. Eastwood’s experiments in inducing boredom had me laughing at similar boring activities. Taking daily attendance, the homework take-up routine, and showing instructional videos of any kind come readily to mind. Supervising study periods was absolute torture, especially in the past decade when students simply refuse, or are unable to, stop fidgeting and chatting. No wonder creative teachers go a little haywire sometimes!

What comes next for the researchers?  Eastwood and his colleagues hope to help in the discovery and development of new strategies that ease the problems of boredom sufferers and address the potential dangers of cognitive errors that are often associated with boredom. That cannot come soon enough for countless numbers of students — and a great many socially-aware educators.  After all, even wiz-bang Power Point presentations and You Tube videos are starting to wear thin with today’s generation of students.

Why are today’s students so easily bored?  Are students, particularly in high school, being challenged enough — or simply being entertained?  Why are the Canadian researchers focusing so much on on defining boredom when what we really need are strategies to improve the quality of teaching, revitalize student learning and foster student re-engagement?

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Toronto-born journalist Paul Tough has produced a very thought-provoking new book, How Children Succeed, and one that attempts to break the ideological gridlock currently paralyzing North American education reform.  Grit, curiosity, and character, he contends, are as critical as academic “smarts“ in explaining why children succeed in achieving “a happy, meaningful, and productive life.”  It’s already been hailed by The New York Times as the breakthrough book of the fall season, but will it produce the “shock treatment” needed to resuscitate reformers committed to raising educational standards?

With the American presidential election behind us, Tough’s book is not only timely but germane to the larger public dialogue about improving teaching and learning in all schools, public, private and independent.  If public schools are in crisis, it may well be because school reform lurches from cause to cause, from standardized testing to differentiated classrooms, from all-inclusive public schools to charter schools, and everything in between.

Tough’s How Children Succeed is being hailed as a revelation because it effectively challenges how schools now teach and how they measure student learning. Building upon recent research discoveries, he claims that traditional measures of academic ability and achievement, including standardized tests, miss an ingredient crucial to future success –the “non-cognitive skills” of perseverance, curiosity, conscientiousness, self-control and optimism.

Students who master the academics in decent schools tend to do well in high school, even if they are from lower socio-economic communities.  But, as University of Chicago professor James Heckman discovered in 2001 going over Perry Pre-School Project (Ypsilani,Michigan) student success rates, certain character traits and social behaviours were a much better predictor of improved life outcomes.

Tough’s book, like his 2008 offering Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America, focuses on raising success rates, particularly in low income urban neighbourhoods. He recognizes the formidable odds stacked against kids with “ACEs – adverse childhood experiences.” Such stresses and disadvantages, the book reports, alter brain chemistry and can lead to self-destructive adult behaviour, marked by anxieties, and depression.

Tough was heavily influenced by the famous rat experiments of McGill University neuroscientist Michael Meaney, demonstrating that high grooming (HG) rat mothers, who rush to lick and groom pups after they are handled by researchers, tend to raise offspring that are bolder, more alert, more curious, and longer-living.

While IQ remains reasonably set by age eight, Tough points out that children enrolled in “a high quality, two year pre-kindergarten program” performed better in the long-run. It was particularly true when pre-school teachers acted like the mother rats, grooming kids in “personal behaviour” and tending to their “social development” needs.

Public education reformers have latched upon Tough’s book and used it in the campaign against overdone standardized testing.  His book, however, is actually based upon personal journeys and in-depth research in two radically different schools, neither of which is from the public school system.

He closely examines the innovations of David Levin at the KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program), a charter school founded in 1999 in the South Bronx. Here, through a focused program of “high intensity teaching” and “character education,” the first graduates graduated from high school in record numbers, only to flounder a little in college.

After studying the life pathways of KIPP graduates, Levin found that the ones with grit and resilience fared better than the more academically gifted. That led to changes specifically designed to boost “performance character” using a “grit index,” a “C.P.A.” (character point average) report grades, and related resilience-building activities.

Further important insights were gleaned from Dominic Randolph’s Riverdale Country School, a prestigious Bronx private school at the other end of the spectrum. Leery about the KIPP model of “charter metrics,” Randolph adopted a more nuanced approach, better suited to rather privileged kids and totally engaged “helicopter” parents. Based upon Martin Seligman’s philosophy of “learned optimism,” he adjusted  the progressive “CARE 2.0” formula (Be Good, Avoid Gossip, Respect Others) into a more “performance character” model, striking more of a balance than at the KIPP academy.  That way, Randolph embraced “performance character” development with traditional “moral character education “ espoused in such schools.

American educational “progressives” are attracted to Paul Tough`s How to Succeed because of its critical perspective on standardized testing and its advocacy of early learning, beginning in the pre-school years. Once again, we see how important American charter schools and even forward-looking private schools are in initiating an “incubating` the most stimulating ideas in North American school reform.

Bold and innovative schools like KIPP South Bronx Academy and brave private school leaders are venturing into areas rarely ever explored in regular public schools. Vocal Canadian public school defenders should think again before rejecting truly innovative ideas and manning the barricades to resist genuine alternative schools and programs in Nova Scotia and other inwardly-focused Canadian provincial systems. That is why this book is well worth reading.

Tough`s How Children Succeed is really a book for innovative educators and parents interested in `big ideas` and real change. It`s also the flavour of the season in public education, so it will likely also be mined by `systematizers` for insights and examples that support preconceived notions about what`s best for today`s students.

Will Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed be the wake-up call we need, alerting us to the blind spots in current North American education reform?  Should schools be focusing on raising the bar instead of addressing the glaring learning deficits in students?  Would a reform initiative aimed at developing “performance character” serve all students better?  Have we been missing the significance of “grit” in improving our students’ life chances?   

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Higher standards, challenging curriculum, school choice, and superior teaching made Alberta Canada’s highest performing province and, for the past decade, the highest performing English-speaking or French-speaking school system in the world.  While Alberta ranked first on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests and topped the Pan-Canadian Assessment Programme (PCAP) tests in literacy and science, prominent Ontario educators captured the ear of the OECD, sponsors of the benchmark international testing programme.  Then, following Finland’s highly-publicized PISA success in 2006, a new infatuation bloomed — one which has now morphed into the “Global Fourth Way.”

Jumping on the latest educational bandwagon is not really new, but it is assuming a different form.  A recent thought-provoking post on The Conversation, by Australian Dr. Stephen Dinham, aptly called it “the problem of PISA envy.” 

Ironically, just as Australians have “gone cold” on Finland and become infatuated with Asian city school systems like Shanghai, North American school change theorists have adopted “the Finnish solution” and been swept up with Pasi Sahlberg’s alluring “Fourth Way.” It’s prime objective, in Sahlberg’s own words, is to vanquish the dreaded GERM, that Global Education Reform Movement, supposedly carrying the policy virus of “neo-liberalism” and its principal strains — higher standards, school choice, and competition in public education.

Leading the Canadian charge is school change theorist, Dr. Andy Hargreaves, former OISE professor and former policy advisor to Tony Blair’s Labour Government, now perched at Boston College’s Lynch School of Education. After producing the Ontario Public School Teachers’ Federation booklets, What’s Worth Fighting For? (c0-authored with Michael Fullan 1991-92), Andy has embraced a number of “Success for All”  teacher empowerment projects, the latest of which is The Global Fourth Way (Corwin, 2012), launched in Toronto on November 3, 2012 in cooperation with the Ontario Principals’ Council.

Andy Hargreaves’ latest venture, “The Canadian Fourth Way,” is featured in the Current Issue of the Canadian Education Association’s organ, Education Canada (Fall 2012), which reads like a virtual advertisement for the book.  Canada’s high performance on PISA, driven largely by Alberta and resource-rich Ontario, is now trumpted as the harbinger of a new “Great Schools for All” movement bringing a Finnish-Ontario hybrid solution to a school system near you.

Hargreaves’  The Global Fourth Way is based upon studies of six high performing school systems and attempts to cast the Alberta Model as the outlier.  Raising educational standards, rigorous testing, school choice, and teacher accountability for student performance are an anathema in Hargreaves’ educational world.  Since developing the Alberta Initiative for School Improvement (AISI) in 2009 with the Alberta Teachers’ Association, he has been chipping away at the real strengths of the Alberta school system. School assessment models, as he well knows, are very expensive and usually spell the death knell for provincial testing and any linked teacher quality initiatives.

Striving for “Great schools for All” sounds attractive until you begin examining the contradictions inherent in the new “Fourth Way” prescription for public education.  Who would quibble with any of  those glittery “seven principles”?  “An inspiring dream… Local authority…Innovation with improvement…Platforms for change… Building professional capital… Collective responsibility… and Intensive communication” have a familiar ring.  The new formula: Combine “Success for All” with the “Finnish Solution” (nix Standardized Testing and School Choice), “invest” millions more in education and presto — you have “the Fourth Wave.”

Whatever happened to learning from Alberta’s high performing school system?  No need to ask because it runs counter to the “Fourth Way”  which Hargreaves now terms “the imbedded and inclusive Canadian Way.”  Just in case you need help connecting the dots, Hargreaves’  The Fourth Way comes with a handy Alberta Teachers’ Association booklet, “a great school for all..”(ATA, August 2012). It’s actually a well packaged, thinly disguised attack on the highly successful Alberta Model of education.  Hargreaves and his former OISE colleague Michael Fullan, the ATA booklet reports, both oppose “the ‘business capital’ approach to school reform, one that focusees on standardization, compliance, school choice, market-based competition and technology.” (p. 5)

Andy Hargreaves and the Alberta Teachers Association talk of “transforming Alberta education” with the “Fourth Way.”  Stripping away the high sounding edu-babble, it is clear that they are out to dismantle the Alberta Model and essentially “Finlandize” that oil-resource rich, conservative Canadian province.  The ATA booklet targets provincial testing, expanded learning time, and teacher assessment tied to student performance. Alberta’s thriving “charter schools” and the truly innovative Edmonton Model of school-based management are nowhere mentioned in that skewed vision for the future. Those innovations are, presumably, not “the Canadian Way.”

What explains Canada’s Alberta Education innovation blindness and the Finnish infatuation?  What’s the real intention behind Andy Hargreaves’ latest educational “Big Idea” — The Global Fourth Way’?  How successful will Hargreaves and the Alberta Teachers’ Association be in convincing Alison Redford’s Conservative Government to renounce its impressive educational legacy?  The bigger question: Will knowledgable Canadians and savvy educators swallow the “Fourth Way” panacea?

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Personalized, student-centred learning is the centerpiece of the B.C. Ministry of Education’s new plan to enrich student learning through “individualization” aimed at providing high quality teaching and learning, more flexibility and choice, and fuller utilization of the power of technology.  Enriched high school programs like The Challenge Program at  Vancouver’s  Eric Hamber Secondary School seek to build upon previous gifted education programs in innovative ways.  A recent school visit on October 25, as part of an International Dialogue study group, revealed that this program is “giving a home” to students labelled as “gifted” but remains very much a work -in-progress.

The Eric Hamber “Challenge Program,” while well-intentioned, is now somewhat unique because most Canadian school systems have tended to utilize accelerated academic programs, such as International Baccalaureate (IB) and Advanced Placement (AP), to achieve those purposes.  Indeed, the steady growth of these two competing programs has supplanted many “gifted student” programs in high schools across Canada as in the United States. It also begs the fundamental question – which of the two programs provides a better challenge for academically-able high school students?

Surveying academic public high schools in the United States, the dominance of the IB and AP is abundantly clear.  Choosing sides in the AP vs. IB debate sparks fierce debate in influential newspapers and magazines, like The Washington Post and US News and World Report and in the family homes of university-bound high school students in virtually every city and most towns of any size.

Advanced Placement Canada, based in Victoria, BC, holds sway in B.C. and Ontario and is now offered in 587 schools in every province and territory, except Nunavut.  The International Baccalaureate now claims to have enlisted 320 IB World Schools, but only 147 offer the senior IB Diploma Program.  University bound students and their parents are plied with the allure of gaining an advantage in seeking university admission and securing advanced standing in a few subjects.  In a province like Nova Scotia, the IB has, since 2007, been sanctioned as the “official” high school enrichment program.  Today, some 16 high schools are IB Diploma Program Schools, representing over 10 per cent of the Canadian total and the jurisdiction with the highest concentration of such programs in North America.

A highly influential 2007 study by the U.S. Thomas B. Fordham Institute has served as an important touchstone for savvy and academically-inclined students and parents.  That study took a very favourable view of such academic courses offering “rigorous pre-college curriculum” in high school. It posed the critical question on the minds of students and parents –“Do the AP and the IB Deserve Gold Star Status?”  Both of these programs, according to Chester Finn, “offer something very much needed in today’s secondary education system: high academic standards combined with rigorous exams aligned to those standards.”

Both the AP and the IB were proliferating because were meeting the demand for programs of “academic excellence” and filling a void in state school systems.  “Students,” in Finn’s words,” are also expected to make sense of complex, and sometimes contradictory, materials; to write and defend their opinions about these materials intelligently; and to apply their knowledge in creative and productive ways. These are the skills that will serve them well in later years….” In that comparative analysis, the IB program came out slightly ahead, based upon a critical review of AP and IB courses in four subjects, English, mathematics, biology, and history.  There was considerable dispute over the Fordham report’s assessment of Mathematics courses too heavily dependent upon technological tools like graphing calculators.

Advanced Placement courses once were totally dominant in the United States, a nation with some 22,000 high schools.  First introduced in 1955, by 2006, over one million U.S. students took over 2 million AP examinations, including over  346,000(2008) in the most popular course, United States History.  In Canada, by 2007, 491 high schools were offering 19,274 examinations in every province except P.E.I.  AS of 2010, some 28.3 per cent of American high school students took an AP exam and 32.6 per cent of public high schools offered AP  courses in the four core subject areas – English, mathematics, science and social studies.  More recently, the IB is gaining ground, to the point where more than 778 American schools offer the IB Diploma Program.

Which is better at engaging students in academic challenges and at promoting critical thinking?

Most objective observers tend to give the edge to the IB because it is a fully-developed program encompassing academic athletic, cultural, and social development components.   Seasoned education observer Jay Mathews of The Washington Post contends that “both programs are top notch.” When pressed to choose one over the other, he gave a slight edge to the IB.  Why?  In his words, “because the exams demand more writing, having no multiple choice exams as the AP exams do, and because the IB program includes a 4,000 word essay requirement that the AP lacks.”  He noted, however, that in the United States, it was still easier to get college credits for AP exam scores because universities have been slower to accord recognition to the IB exam-based course results.

After helping to introduce the IB at Upper Canada College in 1997 and heading both a leading Canadian AP school and a leading IB school, I would also rate the IB as superior in terms of promoting deeper learning and student engagement.   The IB focus on providing a full, well-rounded program gives it the decided edge and makes t5he AP look like just a mix and match menu of accelerated courses. The additional IB components, namely the Extended Essay, the Theory-of-Knowledge course, and Creativity-Action-Service (CAS), set it apart as a pretty thorough challenge for high school students. The IB requirement to conduct a 4,000 word Extended Essay (based upon original research)  means, in many cases, students have to range far beyond high schools to find the latest research.

If the IB Diploma Program has a weakness, it is in the Fine Arts (Music, Drama, and Visual Art), where students tend to substitute out to take more science or mathematics these days with all the emphasis on STEM, preparation for Science, Engineering, Mathematics and Technology fields. Changes in the course selection framework giving more scope for taking Creative Arts would significantly strengthen the IB Diploma Program and make it much more attractive to students seeking to find what Sir Ken Robinson aptly describes as “the  element” that opens lifelong doors to leading “a happy, meaningful, and productive life.”

Creating Challenge programs for “gifted students” and diverting increasingly rationed resources might well be questioned when one of the two best known academic enrichment programs offers such scope for pursuing academic excellence and exploring passionate interests outside the classroom.

Which of the two academic enrichment programs is best – AP or the IB?  Do either of them provide enough scope for “personalized learning,” or for fostering curiosity and promoting creativity in students?  That remains an open question.

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Going to Summer School used to be the expected fate of Canadian high school students who either failed or performed poorly in academic credit courses.  In the old days, summer school functioned as a kind of purgatory for struggling students and for “slackers” who drifted through high school.  A recent Toronto Globe and Mail news feature, “Are kids failing at summer?” (July 7, 2012), unearthed new data from school boards in British Columbia, Alberta, and Ontario demonstrating that it’s now become a haven for “anxious students aiming for higher grades.” http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/are-kids-failing-at-summer/article4397211/?page=all

Typical of the new breed of Summer School students is Chris Stojanovski, a 90% Whitby, Ontario student, who has completed Grade 10 and is currently taking Grade 11 English this summer.  While his fellow students lined-up for a matinee showing of  The Amazing Spiderman, Chris could be found hunched over his desk in a stark flourescent lit classroom studying literary devices in Robert Burns’ A Red, Red Rose.  He’s back in class to get a head start on Grade 11 and it was his decision.

Summer School has certainly changed in recent years. High achieving students are gradually replacing struggling students in the traditional five-week high school credit course programs.  For a variety of reasons, they are choosing to forgo that first job, roaming shopping malls, and summer camp to “reach forward” and capitalize on opportunities to raise their marks.  Academic upgrading and credit recovery are becoming a thing of the past and it is time to ask why.

Summer School student enrolment is growing at a time when fewer and fewer students are actually failing courses from Grades 7 to 12 in Canadian schools. Over the past five years, B.C. summer school enrolment has increased from 1,165 to 46,666, a 40-fold increase.  Some 85% of Summer School students in the York Region District School Board are now taking courses for the first time rather than seeking academic upgrading.  Similar trends have been identified in the Calgary Public School Board and in the Durham District Board, just east of Toronto.

Some Canadian school boards still operate under the old principles while implementing “no fail” student assessment policies.  The Halifax Regional School Board, for example, with 16 junior and senior high schools and 49,500 students, continues to run a Summer School at one location, offering  Grade 7 to 12 five-week courses in only Mathematics and Language Arts/English. It’s a shrunken down traditional program running week days from July 5 to August 8 and scheduled for 8:30 am until 1 pm.  Students grades are “entirely based on course assessment during summer school.”  http://www.hrsb.ns.ca/content/id/953.html

Mark inflation, rising student attainment levels, and “no fail’ student assessment policies have radically reduced the traditional market for Summer School programs — struggling students who might benefit from upgrading in weak subjects.  Failing subjects is becoming rarer and Statistics Canada (2009) reports that  86.7% of young Canadians ages 25 to 29 now have high school graduation diplomas. Eliminating any sign of failure in schools has a way of reducing the need for high school credit recovery programs.

Three years ago, Ontario high school teachers complained about the spread of “no fail” policies, linking such policies to provincially-set targets to raise graduation rates.  Deputy education minister Dr. Ben Levin responded with a four-page memo defending the system. When Toronto Sun columnist Moira MacDonald  interviewed him, Levin, who is quite influential in Canadian education circles, claimed that, although students shouldn’t be given marks they did not earn, he believed students were also “demotivated” by failure. http://www.torontosun.com/comment/columnists/moira_macdonald/2009/05/19/9496746-sun.html

“No fail” policies appeal to students and parents but they raise the ire of many teachers.  High school teachers have coined terms such as “pseudo-credits” and “credit lite” to describe new alternative learning courses such as “credit recovery” catering to students at risk of dropping out. Fewer students are falling through the cracks, but it’s getting harder and harder to fail a course and repeating a grade is now next to impossible.  Once limited to elected or optional high school courses, “social promotion” is now common, even in Mathematics, Science, and English courses.

Some 5,000 citizens, mostly high school teachers, signed an online petition in April 2009 registering opposition to the province’s “no failure” policy with regard to high school students. ( http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/evaluation)  Students who miss tests because they skip class or even cheat on a test cannot be marked “zero” but instead must be given another chance.  Teachers in the Toronto region have also complained that the pressure to graduate more students has created a boon in students marching off to private school “credit factories”  to pick up credits in subjects they might barely scratch through at public school.

Edmonton high school physics teacher, Lynden Dorval, has become a hero for defending high school marking standards.  He simply refused to implement his school’s “no zero” policy and, after 35 years of teaching, is now facing dismissal for his actions.  He wasn’t even handing out zeros for poor work. His “radical” move was doling out zero for work not done at all, or skipped tests — after students were given chances to make them up.  Even though his Senior Physics course was an IB Diploma course expected to adhere to rigorous international standards, it didn’t matter to his principal who insisted that he code the work as “unable to assess” and assign grades based only on work a student actually completed. http://www.torontosun.com/comment/columnists/moira_macdonald/2009/05/19/9496746-sun.html

Today’s high schools focus on raising student attainment levels, seeking to sustain higher graduation rates.  Summer Schools for struggling students are acquiring a new mandate — supporting highly motivated, academically able students to “reach ahead” and secure higher grades for university admissions purposes.  “Failure” is now a dirty word in school, and so damaging to student self-esteem, that it is to be avoided through social promotion. That is why traditional Summer Schools are dying on the vine.

What’s happening to Summer Schools across Canada?  Why are student enrolments rising in academic acceleration courses?  What has caused the decline in academic credit course offerings catering to struggling academic students?  How have mark inflation and “no failure” policies impacted upon Canadian summer school enrolments?

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