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Archive for the ‘Ontario Education Reform’ Category

“Asking the right questions” is what most of our best teachers encourage and expect from our students. It’s also what our leading education researchers do when trying to grapple with a particularly thorny or “wicked” problem besetting students and teachers in the schools. Yet far too many teachers across Canada remain reticent to do so because they are essentially trained to carry out provincial mandates. Raising the difficult questions is not always welcomed or appreciated where it counts — among those who set education policy, prepare teachers, and implement curriculum in our K-12 school system.

Working out what works in education is not as simple as it seems, particularly when it comes to improving student learning and deciding upon the most effective pedagogical approach for widely varying cohorts of students. Unfreezing fixed positions, both “progressive” and “traditionalist,” is what opens the door to more meaningful, productive conversations.  We see that in the recent success of Stephen Hurley’s VoicED radio conversations, introducing passionate educators representing differing perspectives to one another for the first time in living memory.

Since its inception in September 2013, researchED has championed creating space for regular classroom teachers in “working out what works” in their classrooms.  Posing those difficult questions can ruffle a few feathers, especially among curriculum leaders and in-house consultants. It’s not easy to venture outside the safe confines of social media “echo chambers” and to consider research generated outside the established “research bubbles.” It’s most encouraging to see Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation president Harvey Bischof and his Provincial Executive actively supporting the movement.

Grassroots, teacher-led organizations can also, at times. be messy  Teachers are given a new platform to express not only their real life frustrations but also to share their discoveries during forays into the education research world. Independently-minded teachers are free to speak for themselves, but do not speak for researchED.  Debates can get overheated, especially on social media. We do need to be reminded that educators, whatever their persuasions, have to be prepared to listen, consider divergent viewpoints, and treat each other with respect.

The Internet and smart technology has changed the rules of engagement, bringing the latest research within a few keyboard clicks.  One would think that providing a forum for asking deeper questions would be more widely accepted in assessing province-wide and school board-wide initiatives before they are rolled out every September in our K-12 school system.  It can, however, be a little threatening to those promoting theory-based curriculum reform or pedagogical initiatives. Questioning such initiatives, most teachers sense– at least in some school systems –is not always conducive to career advancement.

We should all welcome the arrival of the latest book on Canadian education, Pushing the Limits, written by Kelly Gallagher-Mackay and Nancy Steinhauer and published August 29, 2017.  In many ways, it’s a hopeful and encouraging book because it identifies well-funded “lighthouse projects” in the GTA and a few other Canadian jurisdictions.  While the title is somewhat puzzling, the sub-title is far more indicative of the books real intent, i.e., explaining How Schools Can Prepare Our Children Today for the Challenges of Tomorrow. For Canadian educators and parents looking for a  popular, well-written, fairly persuasive brief for the defense of current policy directions, this is the book for you. For serious education researchers, it will be a goldmine of information on recent initiatives sparking further inquiry into the state of evidence-based teaching practice.

Teachers familiar with researchED will immediately spot a few contentious assertions in Pushing the Limits. Success stories abound and they serve to provide credence to provincial curriculum initiatives underway, particularly in Ontario, Alberta, and British Columbia. The overriding assumption is that schools exist to “prepare our students for the future” and to equip them with “21st century skills.”  Grade 7 teacher Aaron Warner, creator of the two-hour per week  “Genius Hour,” repeats a very familiar claim: “Sixty per cent of the jobs of the future haven’t been invented yet.” That buttresses the overall thesis that lies at the heart of the book.

As leading members of the Ontario People for Education research team, Gallagher-Mackay and Steinhauer, as expected,  do make a case for broadening provincial student assessments to include SEL, short for “Social and Emotional Learning.” That’s hardly surprising, given the Ontario Education- P4E partnership  driving that initiative across the province. Digging more deeply, it will be interesting to see what evidence the authors produce that it is either advisable or can be done successfully.

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

Good books tackle big issues and raise fundamental questions, whether intended or not. Teachers imbued with the researchED spirit will be well equipped to not only tackle and effectively scrutinize Pushing the Limits, but to bring a broader and deeper understanding and far more scrutiny of the book’s premises, contentions, and prescriptions. That, in turn, will  hopefully spark a much better informed discussion within the Canadian K-12 educational community.

What’s causing all the buzz in the rather small Canadian teacher education research community? Is it the appearance of a new player committed to raising those difficult questions and to assessing initiatives, through a teachers’ lens? Is it our seeming aversion to considering or supporting evidence-based classroom practice? And is there room for a new voice in Canadian teacher-led education research and reform? 

 

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Ontario elementary school teachers are now being totally immersed in the new pedagogy of Social Justice Education. The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario’s newish resource, Social Justice Begins with Me, is being rolled out as a teaching resource for the Early Years to Grade 8.  It’s a prime example of the deep inroads being made by “social justice educators” in transforming “character education” into a vehicle for addressing social injustices through the schools.

The EFTO promotes Social Justice Begins with Me  as an “anti-bias, literature-based curriculum resource kit” that is designed for year-round use and is aligned with the Ontario Ministry of Education’s Equity and Inclusive Education Strategy.  The ten monthly themes are explicitly aimed at inculcating nine core “social justice principles”: acceptance, respect, hope, empathy, inclusion, diversity, human rights, and equity. It also targets some identifiable 21st century ‘evils’: anti-Semitism, ageism, heternormality, sexism, racism, classism, ableism, prejudice and faith.

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The EFTO teaching resource, like the SJE movement, thrives in a culture dominated by ‘political correctness’ and has found a comfortable home in Canada’s largest education graduate school, the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, in Toronto.  That movement now has its own exclusive research unit, replacing what was left of the Department of History and Philosophy of Education. Full disclosure – I’m an unrepentant graduate of that now defunct research department.

Social Justice Education has now taken on a life of its own in many Canadian urban elementary school divisions. Serious concerns raised by the infamous June 2012  Maclean’s Magazine cover story, “Why are schools brainwashing our Children?” have done little to derail the movement. Nor has North American education research lending support to an alternative version of “character education,” founded on a different set of core principles aimed at developing student resilience.  Curriculum-informed parents will also spot the complete absence of critical success attributes, labelled ‘old school,’ such as grit, perseverance, resilience, and accountability for actions.

True believers in social justice education see elementary teaching through an engaged sociopolitical lens. Working for social justice in the schools requires “a deliberate intervention” that challenges society’s “fundamental inequalities” and seeks to advance the cause of “better educational and economic outcomes” for “marginalized children.” Social justice pedagogy aims to develop in teachers and students an understanding of “critical literacy” and its key dimensions: 1) disrupting the commonplace; 2)interrogating multiple viewpoints; 3) focusing on sociopolitical issues; and 4) taking action and promoting social justice.

Pursuing social justice in the early grades stirs up considerable controversy, especially among parents more focused on raising standards and improving student performance. Maclean’s writer Cynthia Reynolds certainly unearthed some outlandish, and undoubtedly extreme examples, of actual “social justice education ” activities:

During the 2011-12 school year, first graders in Toronto brought home student planners marked with the international days of zero tolerance on female genital mutilation and ending violence against sex workers, a means to spark conversation on the issues. In Laval, Que., a six-year-old boy was disqualified from a teddy-bear contest because a Ziploc was found in his lunch instead of a reusable container. The  Durham Board of Education in Ontario came under fire for discouraging the terms “wife” and “husband” in class in favour of the gender-neutral “spouse,” and the words “boyfriend” and “girlfriend” in favour of “partner.” And in the name of inclusiveness, some school boards include Wiccan holidays in their school calendars.

Such examples of how Social Justice Education can go awry cut little ice with surprising numbers of Education School faculty entrusted with training elementary school teachers. Deeply committed to social justice reform, they believe that the classroom is the front line in the battle to address social ills and establish “safe spaces” for the children of marginalized families. It’s really just the latest battle over the age-old question: who gets to decide on the best way to educate the very young?

OISESocialJusiceEd.jpgMiddle-school teacher David Stocker, author of the textbook  Math That Matters: A Teacher Resource for Linking Math and Social Justice, for Grades 6 to 9,is in the vanguard of the movement. His math problems include items focusing on issues like  workers’ rights, racial profiling and homophobia.  “All material carries bias of some sort,” he writes in the introduction. “Really the question is whether or not we want to spend time educating for peace and social justice. If we do, let’s admit that bias and get to work.”

Psychologist Robin Grille, the author of Parenting for a Peaceful World,takes a far more balanced approach, recognizing the inherent risks in imposing a social justice perspective in the early grades. Getting too political in elementary school, where the power differential between teacher and student is vast, verges on manipulation. “You can’t use children as fodder for your cause,” says Grille.

Nor is Grille afraid to pose the right questions: “How do you know these young kids aren’t just parroting what their teacher is telling them? How easy would it be to get them to protest, say, abortion? How much are the young truly able to make up their own minds?”It’s particularly true in classrooms where kids are being graded. So what does she recommend? Children, she points out,  need to develop emotionally before they can develop politically.

The controversial 2012 Maclean’s feature story provided a few of what be termed teacher survival tips. Elementary school teacher and Simon Fraser University education professor Rhonda Philpott identified one of the biggest risks: You can’t walk into a classroom and just start a social-justice activity. It takes trust.” Not all parents appreciate the politically-driven pedagogy either. Professor Ng-A-Fook of the University of Ottawa urges practitioners to “know your students” and “prepare your parents” so you do not “offend families or traumatize kids.”

Social justice education is fraught with difficulties and tends to narrow the focus of classroom activities around issues drawn solely from a rather narrow, albeit well-intended sociopolitical perspective. More recent education research tends to focus on addressing student underperformance and ways of instilling resilience in children.

Character is now seen as the “X-factor” in explaining why some children succeed and others get left behind in and out of schools. Toronto-born writer Paul Tough,author of How Children Succeed, influenced by Angela Duckworth’s research, called the character-based X-factor “grit,” but parenting expert Dr. Michele Borba favours the term moral intelligence. 

Character education also tends to be broader and more inclusive in its reach than social justice education, particularly as exemplified in the EFTO Social Justice curriculum. The Peel District School Board, west of Toronto, embraces a “character education” model that embraces six different character attributes and seeks to educate children who are caring, cooperative, honest,inclusive, respectful and responsible. That approach is not only broader, but includes two factors related to “grit” – respect and responsibility. It’s no accident that the PDSB credo ends on this note: “Demonstrate initiative and perseverance in overcoming difficulties.” 

What is driving the movement to introduce Social Justice Education into elementary schools in Ontario and elsewhere? What are the risks of implementing a Primary School curriculum with such an overt sociopolitical agenda?  Are the fears that kids are being “brainwashed” all that exaggerated?  What’s wrong with pursuing a more balanced approach in the pursuit of character education? 

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Educational talk about “grit” – being passionate about long-term goals, and showing the determination to see them through –seems too be everywhere in and around schools. Everywhere, that is, except in the rather insular Canadian educational world. Teaching and measuring social-emotional skills are on the emerging policy agenda, but “grit” is (so far) not among them.

GritFaceGirlGrit is trendy in American K-12 education and school systems are scrambling to get on board the latest trend.  A 2007 academic article, researched and written by Angela Duckworth, made a compelling case that grit plays a critical role in success.  Author Paul Tough introduced grit to a broad audience in his 2013 book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, which went on to spend a year on the New York Times bestseller list.  And in the same year, Duckworth herself gave a TED talk, which has been viewed more than 8 million times online.

Since then, grit initiatives have flourished in United States school systems. Some schools are seeking to teach grit, and some districts are attempting to measure children’s grit, with the outcome contributing to assessments of school effectiveness. Angela Duckworth’s new book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, is one of the hottest North American non-fiction titles this publishing season.  In spite of the flurry of public interest, it has yet to register in the Canadian educational domain.

GritDuckworthBookCoverOver the past three years the Ontario-based People for Education (P4ED) advocacy organization has been pursuing the goal of broadening the existing measures of student success to embrace “social-emotional skills” or competencies. With a clear commitment to “move beyond the ‘3R’s” and redefine the established testing/accountability framework, P4ED founder Annie Kidder and the well-funded Toronto-centred research team have been creating a “broad set of foundational skills” and developing a method of “measuring schools’ progress toward those goals.”

The Ontario P4ED initiative, billed as “Measuring What Matters “(MWM), proposes a draft set of “Competencies and Skills” identified as Creativity, Citizenship, Social-Emotional Learning, and Health — all to be embedded in what is termed “quality learning environments” both in schools and the community. The proposed Ontario model makes no reference whatsoever to cognitive learning and subject knowledge or to the social-emotional aspects of grit, perseverance or work ethic.

The P4ED project has a life of its own, driven by a team of Canadian education researchers with their own well-known hobby horses. Co-Chair of the MWM initiative, former BC Deputy Minister of Education Charles Ungerleider, has assembled a group of academics with impeccable “progressive education” (anti-testing) credentials, including OISE teacher workload researcher Nina Bascia and York University self-regulation expert Stuart Shanker.

A 2015 MWM project progress report claimed that the initiative was moving from theory to practice with “field trials” in Ontario public schools. It simply reaffirmed the proposed social-emotional domains and made no mention of Duckworth’s research or her “Grit Scale” for assessing student performance on that benchmark. While Duckworth is cited in the report, it is for a point unrelated to her key research findings. The paper also assumes that Ontario is a “medium stakes” testing environment in need of softer, non-cognitive measures of student progress, an implicit criticism of the highly regarded Ontario Quality and Accountability Office system of provincial achievement testing.

GritGrowthMindsetWhether “grit” or any other social-emotional skills can be taught — or reliably measured — is very much in question. Leading American cognitive learning researcher Daniel T. Willingham’s latest American Educator essay (Summer 2016) addresses the whole matter squarely and punches holes in the argument that “grit” can be easily taught, let alone assessed in schools. Although Willingham is a well-known critic of “pseudoscience” in education, he does favour utilizing “personality characteristics” for the purpose of “cultivating” in students such attributes as conscientiousness, self-control, kindness, honesty, optimism, courage and empathy, among others.

The movement to assess students for social-emotional skills has also raised alarms, even among the biggest proponents of teaching them. American education researchers, including Angela Duckworth, are leery that the terms used are unclear and the first battery of tests faulty as assessment measures.  She recently resigned from the advisory board of a California project, claiming the proposed social-emotional tests were not suitable for measuring school performance.  “I don’t think we should be doing this; it is a bad idea,” she told The New York Times.

Why are leading Canadian educators so committed to developing “social-emotional” measures as alternatives to current student achievement assessment programs? Should social-emotional competencies such as “joy for learning” or “grit”  be taught more explicity in schools?  How reliable are measures of such “social-emotional skills” as creativity, citizenship, empathy, and self-regulation? 

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Two retired Ontario educators, Dr. Denis Mildon and Gilles Fournier, have now surfaced in an attempt to preserve and protect the educational investment legacy of the Dalton McGuinty Liberal reform agenda (2003-13). In a Toronto Star opinion column (July 6, 2015), they repeat the familiar claim that Ontario’s system is “considered one of the finest in the world.”

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Ontario’s educational supremacy is presented, as usual, as a statement of incontestable fact. “Though sound research, innovation and policy development Ontario’s system, ” Mildon and Fournier contend, “has become a model of equity and inclusiveness in education and, as a result, in student achievement.”

Ontario education under McGuinty was certainly among the best resourced systems in the world. With OISE school change theorists Michael Fullan and Ben Levin championing increased system-wide investment, spending skyrocketed by over 57% from 2003 to 2011 to $22 billion while school enrollment fell by some 6 per cent. Public funding poured in to support a series of Poverty Reduction initiatives, enhanced special program supports, universal full day Kindergarten, and even Parents Reaching Out (PRO) Grants for parent education.

The origin, of course, of the now infamous “Best System” claim is the two McKinsey and Company reports (2007 and 2010) purporting to identify and then analyze the success of twenty of the world’s leading education systems. It also echoes the very wording used by the Ontario education reform architect Michael Fullan in a high profile  2012 Atlantic article assessing the success of his own initiatives. Aside from Fullan’s 2010 report forward, there is surprisingly little about Ontario initiatives in the actual report, except for one passing reference to PRO grants.

Repeating such claims,referencing the reform advocates themselves,is wearing mighty thin as fresh evidence accumulates that closing the education equality gap does not necessarily translate into improved student achievement. Even more telling, much of the McGuinty era funding-driven “progress” was fueled by increases in spending that are simply unsustainable.

Outsized claims of educational excellence based upon the McKinsey & Company reports are now highly problematic. British researcher Frank Coffield’s 2012 critique of the reports, published in the Journal of Education Policy, has shredded the research and raised serious questions about the reports’ credibility.  Alarmed that the report’s analysis and prescriptions have “hardened into articles of faith” among politicians and policy makers, he argues that the McKinsey-Fullan system-wide reform agenda will “not improve school systems.”

MichaelFullanMuch of Coffield’s critique of McKinsey-style reform applies to Ontario, the Canadian province where Fullan field-tested his school change theories from 2003 to 2013. Centralized reform initiatives, like Fullan’s, he shows, reflect “an impovershed view” of the state of teaching and learning, favouring professionalization over school-level initiatives.

Coffield is particularly skeptical about the legitimacy of the whole assessment. Claims of student success by McKinsey and Fullan are problematic because of the “weak evidence base” and suspect claims about “educational leadership” that “outrun the evidence” in the reports. He’s also troubled by the McKinsey-Fullan language which sounds “technocratic and authoritarian.”  Cultural and socio-ethnic differences are also “underplayed” in such systems-thinking and there is little or no recognition of the role democratic forces play in the public education domain.

One of the few Canadian educators to raise flags about the McKinsey-Fullan ideology was former Peel Catholic Board teacher Stephen Hurley. Writing in March 2011 on the CEA Blog, he expressed concern over the report’s basic assumptions – that teachers come with “low skills” and that centralized approaches are best at fostering professional growth.

Hurley pinpointed two critical weaknesses of the McKinsey-Fullan reform agenda. “As we move forward, how do we give back to our teachers that professional space to develop a strong sense of purpose and efficacy?  How do we as teachers work to reclaim our identities as highly trained and highly competent professionals?”

Two years after McGuinty’s fall from grace, serious questions are being asked about whether the lavish education spending actually produced better results. Staking the claim on rising graduation rates is suspect because, while the graduation rate rose from 68 to 83 per cent, we know that “attainment levels” do not usually reflect higher achievement levels, especially when more objective performance measures, such as student Math scores,stagnated during those years.

Upon closer scrutiny, the Mildon and Fournier commentary is not about protecting student achievement gains at all. Defending current time-consuming evaluation practices, smaller class sizes, preparation time, banking of sick days, ready access to sub teachers, and current curriculum approaches sounds far more like a teacher-driven agenda for Ontario schools. Wrapping Ontario education in that “world leading school system” banner, does not have the appeal or resonance it once had now that parents and the public have a better read on the actual results of that rather high-cost reform agenda.

What did the Dalton McGuinty Education Reform agenda actually achieve in terms of improving student progress and achievement? Where are the independent assessments of McGuinty education reforms supported by serious professionally validated research? Will the Education Reform global “success” story turn out to be essentially a carefully constructed, nicely-packaged mirage?

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