Archive for the ‘Private Schools’ Category

The McTutor World is on the rise. Private tutoring is growing by leaps and bounds and it’s now the fastest growing segment of Canadian K-12 education. Since the financial meltdown of 2008, the tutoring business has rebounded, particularly in major Canadian cities and the burgeoning suburbs. From 2010 to 2013, Kumon Math centre enrollment in Canada rose by 23% and is now averaging 5 % growth a year. It’s estimated that one in three city parents in Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver and Calgary now hire private tutors for their kids.

PrivateTutorsSylvanMy recent radio interviews on CBC Radio Drive Home shows (September 4-5, 2014) focused on the trend and tackled the bigger question of why today’s parents are turning increasingly to after-school tutors to supplement the regular school program. That’s a question that begs for a more thorough, in-depth explanation.

The expansion of private tutoring is driven by a combination of factors. The world is changing and, for good or ill, we now inhabit an increasingly competitive global world. International student testing is one symptom and so are provincial testing programs — and parents are better informed than ever before on where students and schools rank in terms of student achievement.  While high school graduation rates are rising, student performance indicators are either flat-lined or declining, especially in Atlantic Canada. In most Canadian provinces, university educated parents also have higher expectations for their children and the entire public education system is geared more to university preparation than to employability skills.

System issues play a critical role in convincing parents to turn to tutors. Promoting “Success for All” has come to signify a decline in standards and the entrenchment of “social promotion” reflected in student reports overflowing with edu-babble about “learning outcomes” but saying little about the pupils themselves.  When parents see their kids struggling to read and unable to perform simple calculations, reassurances that “everything is fine” raises more red flags.

New elementary school curricula in Literacy and Mathematics only compound the problem —and both “Discovery Math” and “Whole Language” reading approaches now face a groundswell of parental dissent, especially in Manitoba, Alberta, British Columbia, and Ontario.  It’s no accident that the private tutors provide early reading instruction utilizing systematic phonics and most teach Math using traditional numbers based methods.

The tutoring business is definitely market-driven and more sensitive to public demand and expectations. Canadian academic researchers Scott Davies and Janice Aurini have shown the dramatic shift, starting in the mid-1990s, toward the franchising of private tutoring. Up until then, tutoring was mostly a “cottage industry” run in homes and local libraries, mainly serving high schoolers, and focusing on homework completion and test/exam preparation. With the entry of franchises like Sylvan Learning, Oxford Learning, and Kumon, tutoring evolved into private “learning centres” in cities and the affluent suburbs.  The new tutoring centres, typically compact 1,200 sq. ft spaces in shopping plazas, offered initial learning level assessments, study skills programs, Math skills instruction, career planning, and even high school and university admissions testing preparation.

Hiring private tutors can be costly, but parents today are determined to come to the rescue of their struggling kids or to give the motivated child an extra edge.  Today it’s gone far beyond introducing your child to reading with “Fun with Phonics” and some Walmart stores even stock John Mighton’s tutoring books for the JUMP Math program. An initial assessment costs $99 to $125 and can be irresistable after reading those jargon-filled, mark-less reports. For a full tutoring program, two nights a week, the costs can easily reach $2,o00 to $3,000 a school year.  Once enrolled, parents are far more likely to look to private independent schools, a more expensive option, but one that can make after-school family life a lot simpler and less hectic.

The tutoring explosion is putting real pressure on today’s public schools. Operating from 8:30 am until 3:00 pm, with “bankers’ hours,” regular schools are doing their best to cope with the new demands and competition, in the form of virtual learning and after-hours tutoring programs.  Parents are expecting more and, like Netflicks, on demand!  That  is likely to be at the centre of a much larger public conversation about the future of traditional, bricks and mortar, limited hours schooling.

What explains the phenomenal growth of private tutoring?  With public schools closing at 3:00 pm, will today’s parents turn increasingly to online, virtual education to plug the holes and address the skills deficit?  How will we insure that access to private tutors does not further deepen the educational inequities already present in Canada and the United States? Will the “Shadow Education” system expand to the point that public schools are forced to respond to the competition?  


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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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A recent Toronto Star series,produced by investigative reporters Robert Cribb and Jennifer Yang, created a sensation by conveying the strong impression that private schools inflate student marks and some privately-owned Toronto high schools operate as virtual “credit mills.” http://www.thestar.com/printarticle/1054778 The second expose was a gripping undercover story, once again highlighting the perennial problem of so-called VISA schools operating beyond the irreproachable scrutiny of Ontario’s Ministry of Education inspectorate. Since 2009, the Toronto Star also reported that the Ontario MOE had received dozens of complaints about “private schools,” including many about the greatest ‘credit mill’ of them all, Scarborough’s notorious “Toronto Collegiate Institute.” http://www.parentcentral.ca/parent/article/1055379–star-investigation-slacking-off-gets-high-marks-at-this-high-school

Slacking-off can earn students high marks at the TCI Summer School, but so what? Most struggling high school students have known for years that the easiest route to re-gaining a Mathematics or Science high school credit is by attending Summer School anywhere. The Toronto Collegiate Institute is, by most accounts, only the most blatant example of the practice, common in both public and private education. For the most part, simply “putting in the hours” guarantees you a credit and a touched-up mark.

News stories like the Toronto Star series attempt to blacken the reputation of not only ‘fly-by-night’ private schools, but also to sully the reputation of Canadian private schools, including some of Canada’s outstanding independent schools. http://www.cais.ca/ Indeed, someone with only a passing acquaintance with Canadian private school world or an ideological axe to grind, might easily be taken-in by such clap-trap.

Students who attend private schools tend to perform “significantly better “ on international achievement tests, so stories about the so-called soft standards in such schools should be taken with a grain of salt. A new August 2011 report, commissioned by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), confirms this while painting a more complicated picture, factoring in a socio-economic analysis of the results. Given the OECD’s mandate, the detailed analysis focused as much on the perceived educational value of private schools as on reporting the actual student performance results. http://www.pisa.oecd.org/dataoecd/6/43/48482894.pdf

In the August 2011 study reported in PISA in Focus, private school students at 14-years-of-age were compared with the much larger public school cohort using results from the 2009 Program of International Standards and Assessment (PISA). Based upon straight results, private school students in 36 OECD countries, including Canada, scored 30 points higher in PISA reading scores, essentially equivalent to three-quarters of a year’s worth of formal schooling. The private school performance edge, according to the OECD researchers, was attributable to three key factors: the competitive school environment, greater teacher autonomy in deciding curriculum and allocating resources, and the ability to attract higher performing socially-advantaged students.

The OECD study bore deeper into the results for reading performance. Comparing socially-advantaged students from public schools with their private school counterparts, the OECD study claimed, effectively narrowed the advantage or removed it entirely in 13 of the 16 countries showing significant differences in raw results. Some three-quarters of the 30 point advantage disappeared when OECD compared the two socio-economically advantaged groups of students. The study of PISA reading results compared public and private schools, across the range of countries, in relation to four key criteria: higher (positive) socio-cultural-economic status; disciplinary climate; material resources for instruction; and shortage in supply of teachers.

The PISA in Focus report provided a valuable picture of the state of private education across the 36 OECD countries. The percentage of students attending private schools was reported, showing a great variation among the countries. Those with the highest percentages were Macao-China ((95%), Hong Kong-China (92%) and Dubai-UAE (69%) and the lowest were the former Eastern Bloc countries. The United States (7%) and Canada (6%) were well below the OECD average of 15% private school enrolment. It also demonstrated that all private schools are not alike, making a clear distinction between private independent schools (like those in Dubai and Canada) and private government-dependent schools ( such as most in Macao, Hong Kong, Ireland, and Chile).

The OECD study, like many applying SES factors, is inclined to explain away the sharp variations in actual results. The report’s contention that public schools with comparable student populations offer the same advantages is problematic because it’s difficult for parents to determine which public schools are better than others. While private schools and socially advantaged public schools do benefit the students attending them, the OECD study claims that private schools, perhaps because of their smaller numbers, do not “raise the level of the school system as a whole.”

The sweeping conclusions reached by the OECD report authors will certainly be challenged by great numbers of students, parents, and staff. Why? Because their appraisal will be based upon more than SES benchmarked comparative test results, and they are likely far more familiar with the true advantages– for better or worse — of a private school education.

What was behind the sensationalist Toronto Star story painting all private schools with the same tarred brush? Why do private school students, worldwide, tend to perform better on student achievement assessments? If some socially-advantaged “public schools” do produce better student results, why do public school promoters continue to insist that all schools provide a good education? What is it about private schools that explains why their students tend to perform “significantly better” when assessed on a level playing field?

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