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Archive for the ‘Public Accountability’ Category

Where you live can greatly influence on the educational outcomes of your children. Some education observers go so far as to say: “The quality of education is determined by your postal code.” In school systems with strict student attendance zones, it is, for all intents and purposes, the iron law of public education.

Students, whatever their background, can overcome significant disadvantages. ““Your destiny is in your hands, and don’t you forget that,” as former U.S. President Barack Obama said famously in July 2009. “That’s what we have to teach all of our children! No excuses! No excuses!”

ClosingtheGapCHClassPhotoThere is a fine line between identifying struggling schools and ‘labeling’ them.  “We identify schools and where they are on the improvement journey,” says Elwin LeRoux,, Regional Director of Education in Halifax, Nova Scotia. “Yet we are careful not to ‘label’ some schools in ways that may carry negative connotations and influence student attitudes.”

How a school district identifies struggling schools and how it responds is what matters. Accepting the socio-economic dictates or ignoring the stark realities is not good enough. It only serves to reinforce the ingrained assumption, contribute to lowered academic expectations, and possibly adversely affect school leadership, student behaviour standards, teacher attitudes, and parent-school relations.

While there are risks involved is comparing school performance, parents and the public are entitled to know more about how students in our public schools are actually performing. The Halifax Chronicle Herald broke the taboo in November 2018 and followed the path blazed by other daily papers, including The Globe and Mail and the Hamilton Spectator, in providing a school-by-school analysis of school performance in relation to socio-economic factors influencing student success. The series was based upon extensive research conducted for the Atlantic Institute of Market Studies (AIMS). 

A Case Study – the Halifax Public School System

The Halifax Regional Centre for Education (formerly the Halifax Regional School Board) enrolls 47,770 students in 135 schools, employs 4,000 school-based teachers,and provides a perfect lens through which to tackle the whole question. Student achievement and attainment results over the past decade, from 2008-09 to 2015-16, have been published in school-by school community reports and, when aggregated, provide clear evidence of how schools are actually performing in Halifax Region.

Unlike many Canadian boards, the HRCE is organized in an asymmetrical fashion with a mixed variety of organizational units: elementary schools (84), junior high/middle schools (27), senior elementary (7), P-12 academy (1), junior-senior high schools (6), and senior high schools (10).   Current student enrolment figures, by school division, stand at 25,837 for Primary to Grade 6, 11,245 for Grades 7 to 9, and 10,688 for Grades 10 to 12.

Student Achievement and School Improvement

Since November of 2009, the Halifax system has been more open and transparent in reporting on student assessment results as a component of its system-wide improvement plan. Former Superintendent Carole Olsen introduced the existing accountability system along with a new mission that set a far more specific goal: “Every Student will Learn, every School will Improve.”

HRSBGoodtoGreatCollageThe Superintendent’s 2008-09 report was introduced with great fanfare with an aspirational goal of transforming “Good Schools to Great Schools” and a firm system-wide commitment that “every school, by 2013, will demonstrate improvement in student learning.” Following the release of aggregated board-wide data, the HRSB produced school-by-school accountability reports, made freely available to not only the School Advisory Councils (SACs), but to all parents in each school.

Superintendent Olsen set out what she described as “a bold vision” to create “a network of great schools” in “thriving communities” that “bring out the best in us.” School-by-school reporting was critical to that whole project. “Knowing how each school is doing is the first important step in making sure resources and support reach the schools – and the students—that need them the most,” Olsen declared.

The Established Benchmark – School Year 2008-09

The school year 2008-09, the first year in the HRSB’s system-wide improvement initiative, provided the benchmark, not only for the board, but for the AIMS research report taking stock of student achievement and school-by-school performance over the past decade.

In 2008-09, the first set of student results in the two core competencies, reading and math, demonstrated that HRSB student scores were comparable to other Canadian school systems, but there was room for improvement. In Grade 2 reading, the system-wide target was that 77 per cent of all students would meet established board standards. Only 25 out of some 91 schools (27.5 %) met or exceeded the established target.

While Grade 2 and Grade 5 Mathematics students performed better, problems surfaced at the Grade 8 level, where two out of three schools (67.5 %) failed to meet the HRSB standard. High numbers of Grade 8 students were struggling with measurement, whole number operations (multiplication, division), problem-solving, and communication.

System Leadership Change and Policy Shifts

Schools in the Halifax school system may have exceeded the initial public expectations, but the vast majority of those schools fell far short of moving from “Good Schools to Great Schools.” Some gains were made in student success rates in the two core competencies, reading and mathematics, by the 2013 target year, but not enough to match the aspirational goals set by Superintendent Olsen and the elected school board.

HRSBElwinLeRoux

With Olsen’s appointment in September 2012 as Deputy Minister of Education for Nova Scotia, the robust HRSB commitment to school-by-school improvement and demonstrably improved standards in reading and mathematics faltered. Her successor, LeRoux, a 24-year board veteran, espoused more modest goals and demonstrated a more collegial, low-key leadership style. Without comprehensive school system performance reports, the school community reports, appended routinely as PDFs to school websites, attracted little attention.

The “Good Schools to Great Schools” initiative had failed to work miracles. That became apparent in May 2014, following the release of the latest round of provincial literacy assessments.  The formal report to the Board put it bluntly: “A large achievement gap exists between overall board results and those students who live in poverty.”

School administration, based upon research conducted in-house by psychologist Karen Lemmon, identified schools in need of assistance when more than one-third of the family population in a school catchment could be classified as “low income” households. Twenty of its 84 elementary schools were identified and designated as “Priority Schools” requiring more attention, enhanced resources, and extra support programs to close the student achievement gap.

The focus changed, once again, following the release of the 2017-18 provincial results in Grade 6 Math and Literacy. Confronted with those disappointing results, the HRSB began to acknowledge that students living in poverty came disproportionately from marginalized communities.

Instead of focusing broadly on students in poverty, the Board turned its attention to the under-performance of Grade 6 students from African/black and Mi’kmaq/Indigenous communities. For students of African ancestry, for example, the Grade 6 Mathematics scores declined by 6 per cent, leaving less than half (49 per cent) meting provincial standards. What started out as a school improvement project focused on lower socioeconomic schools had evolved into one addressing differences along ethno-racial lines.

Summaries of the AIMS Research Report Findings

Stark Inequalities – High Performing and Struggling Schools

Hopeful Signs – Most Improved Schools

Summation and Recommendations – What More Can Be Done?

Putting the Findings in Context

School-by-school comparative studies run smack up against the hard realities of the socio-economic context affecting children’s lives and their school experiences.  All public schools from Pre-Primary to Grade 12 are not created equal and some enjoy advantages that far exceed others, while others, in disadvantaged communities, struggle to retain students and are unable, given the conditions, to move the needle in school improvement. So, what can be done to break the cycle?

Questions for Discussion

Comparing school-by-school performance over the past decade yields some startling results and raises a few critical questions:  Is the quality of your education largely determined by your postal code in Canadian public school systems? What are the dangers inherent in accepting the dictates of socio-economic factors with respect to student performance?  What overall strategies work best in breaking the cycle of stagnating improvement and chronic under-performance? Should school systems be investing less in internal “learning supports” and more in rebuilding school communities themselves? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Surveying the education public as well as ‘stakeholders’ for their opinion is the latest trend in Canadian K-12 education policy. Two recent Canadian education surveys conducted in Nova Scotia and Alberta provide some recent examples worthy of further discussion.  The recent release of Alberta Education Minister David Eggen’s curriculum survey results (April 13, 2017) also demonstrates that unsuspecting citizens may need help in penetrating through the official spin to get at the actual results.

Facing deep divisions in P-12 education over future directions, and not inclined to follow the research evidence, provincial authorities are going, more and more, to soliciting public opinion utilizing surveys with pre-determined outcomes.  Upon closed scrutiny, the Alberta survey seems wholly designed to confirm intended curriculum directions.

Conducting public surveys is not without its risks. In the case of the 2014 Nova Scotia Education Review survey, a largely unvarnished, no-holds-barred instrument actually backfired on the Education Department. When the N.S. Review Committee headed by Myra Freeman polled 18,500 residents, the results published in October 2014 proved a real jolt and sent the provincial teachers’ union into a tizzy, mostly focused on being excluded from shaping the survey and serving on the commission.

One half of Nova Scotians, the survey found, were “not satisfied with the public school system” and teachers as well as parents identified plenty of reasons why. The report, Disrupting the Status Quo, generated very high expectations — never honoured — that major reform was on the way.  A three-month NSTU teacher work-to-rule in 2016-17 effectively sunk the quality education reform plan and generated a completely new set of teacher-driven demands for improvement in “working conditions.”

Alberta Education had no desire to see that pattern repeated.  Minister Eggen’s curriculum survey looked, and sounded, skewed in the Education Department’s preferred direction – toward more of what is loosely termed “21st learning.” In Alberta Education futuristic doubletalk, the overarching goal is to produce students who “are agents of change to create the globe that they want to be part of.”

The survey, conducted in October and November 2016 succeeded in attracting some 32,390 respondents, of whom only slightly over half (57%) might be classed as ‘outside the system.’The proposed directions were presented as amorphous curriculum “themes” where respondents are clearly led to certain conclusions. You are, for example, asked whether you agree or disagree with this statement: “Through learning outcomes curriculum should support the development of literacy, numeracy and 21st century competencies.”  It is impossible to answer if you think basic numeracy and literacy should take precedence over the ill-defined futuristic skills.

Conducting the survey was also further confirmation of the provincial strategy to thwart mathematics education reform. With the Alberta “Back to Basics” petition, initiated by parent Dr. Nhung Tran-Davies of Calmar, AB, piling up 18,332 signatures, the survey attempts, in clumsy fashion, to override that hardened opinion.

The Department’s summary of responses does its best to conceal the extent of resistance to current K-12 Mathematics teaching and curricula.  Sifting through the Mathematics responses, teaching math facts, restoring step-by-step algorithmic thinking, limiting the use of computers, and mastering mental math far outweighed any preference for “21st century competencies” or its step-child, discovery math.

Instead of addressing these findings, Minister Eggen  ‘cherry-picked’ one example of the desire for ‘relevance’ – support for including financial literacy in grade 4 to 9 classes. That too is a clear sign that parents want their kids to be able to balance a set of sums.

Albertans’ written responses to the open-ended questions are the clearest indication of their true inclinations.  Out of the 15,724 respondents committed enough to do more than tick boxes, the largest segment, again (10 %), favoured refocusing on “math basics” and singled out “discovery math” as a problem. Combined with “learning the basics” (6%) and teaching practical skills (7%), one in four who made comments targeted the lack of rigour in the curriculum.

Judging from the wording of questions, the entire survey also skewed in the direction of student-centred teaching methods. That’s strange because the recent PISA 2015 global results report demonstrated conclusively that “explicit instruction” produced much better student results than “minimally-guided instruction.”

The inherent bias pops up elsewhere. “This survey,” it reported, “was intended to focus on the ‘what’ of current provincial curriculum not ‘how’ teachers teach it.”   Serious curriculum analysts know it’s now virtually impossible to separate the two in assessing program effectiveness.

Provincial education authorities were, at one time, given explicit mandates based upon either firm political policy positions or best practice research. When governments are lost and searching for direction, they may turn to the public to find their bearings. In the case of Alberta, it looks more like surveying for confirmation of the ‘educrats’ own pre-determined direction.

*A condensed version of this Commentary appeared in the Edmonton Journal, April 18, 2017.

Why do school systems survey the public?  Are Canadian provincial governments totally lost on K-12 education and simply looking for direction? Do our Education Department’s  harbour a secret agenda?  Or are they looking for public confirmation of pre-conceived plans for curriculum changes? 

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A hard lesson in public education is being learned in one of the most unlikely places, the Canadian East Coast province of Nova Scotia, better known by license plates emblazoned with the motto “Canada’s Ocean Playground.”  The earth has shaken. That province has just survived its first protracted teacher dispute and the first teachers’ strike in the 122-year history of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union.

Here’s the backstory and a few questions raised by the bitter, divisive teacher dispute — where there are no clear winners and the provincial school system with 400 schools, 118,000 students, and 9,300 teachers shows few signs of recovery.

nsteachersstrike2017After 16 months of negotiations, three rejected teacher contracts, a 6-week work-to-rule, and a one day province-wide strike, Nova Scotia’s Stephen McNeil Liberal government finally brought the teachers’ dispute to an end. Under Bill 75, the province’s 9,300 unionized teachers were legislated back to work on February 22, almost a week ago.

With Nova Scotia Teachers Union supporters in the streets, the province’s reputed ‘Education Premier’ made a rare and startling admission: “decades” of education policy errors – including his own – had contributed to a full-blown education crisis.  Limiting teacher salary increases to 3% over 4 years was a key factor, but somehow did not factor in his thinking.

Reversing the former NDP Government’s education cuts helped catapult the Liberals into office in October 2013, and it was not supposed to work out this way.

Since 2013, McNeil’s government had invested almost $59-million in P-12 education to restore the depleted “learning supports” model. Reducing Grade 4 to 6 class sizes, hiring 59 math mentors, reactivating 114 Reading Recovery teachers, and adding more math and literacy supports simply band-aided the system’s endemic, festering problems.

Now the Premier was conceding that his own rather scattered “classroom investments” had “missed the mark.” Yet, amidst the education chaos, it appeared to be happening again.

Frustrated and angry teachers, emboldened by a few thousand placard-carrying NSTU protesters, came before the N.S. Law Amendments Committee not only seeking to block the back-to-work legislation.

They were also demanding immediate cures for a whole raft of legitimate complaints: a broken inclusion model, ‘no fail’ social promotion, chronic absenteeism, ‘do-over’ student assessment, increasing violence in the classroom, bulging high school class sizes, time-consuming data collection, and managerial excesses eroding teacher autonomy.

Concerned Nova Scotia parents and teachers are both demanding immediate correctives without really addressing the structural sources of what American social planner Horst Rittel  once termed a ‘wicked problem.’

A wicked problem is one that defies quick fixes and proves difficult or impossible to solve for a variety of reasons: incomplete or contradictory knowledge, the range of people and opinions involved, the prohibitive costs of resolution, or the complications presented by its interconnected nature.

Today’s school system is the product of a steady, repetitive stream of ‘progressive’ curriculum initiatives, overlaid since the mid-1990s with managerial reforms such as student achievement testing and school quality accreditation.

The P-12 public school system, like most in Canada, is now completely riddled with contradictions.  Curriculum innovations are almost constantly at odds with new system demands for managerial efficiency, student testing, and public accountability.

Curriculum and pedagogy or favoured teaching practices tend to support student-centred learning and incredibly labour-intensive practices, such as differentiated learning, authentic assessment, and ‘coding’ special needs students with ‘adaptations’ and individual program plans.

School authorities, ensconced in the Education Department and regional boards, now impose many external mandates, almost always delivered “top-down” on principals as well as classroom teachers. Vociferous complaints about “data collection” are code for the groundswell of school-level resistance to the system-wide imposition of technological initiatives (Power School and TIENET) or time-consuming provincial tests.

Inclusion is a ‘wicked problem’ of the highest order.  While the vast majority of parents and teachers claim that “the current model is not working,” they persist in believing that investing more in the regular classroom will make things better for special needs students, including those with severe learning challenges and complex needs.

Class composition not necessarily class size was the biggest concern of Canadian teachers in the Canadian Teachers Federation 2012 national survey, but it took a teacher contract upheaval to get Nova Scotia teachers finally talking out of school. Most are clamouring for more “learning supports” rather than holding out for a more permanent fix – a total re-engineering of Nova Scotia special education services.

After sixteen months of negotiations and three recommended agreements, the Bill 75 settlement will likely survive a court challenge. That was NSTU lawyer Ron Pink’s preliminary assessment. Unlike the Nova Scotia context, much of the British Columbia Teachers Federation decision turned on the B.C. government’s aversion to bargaining and arbitrary removal of class size and composition limits.

Establishing provincial commissions or committees to address inclusion and classroom conditions cuts little ice with frontline teachers, accustomed as they are to conflicted mandates and pointless paper exercises. Hashing out “working conditions” with or without an arbitrator is met with understandable skepticism.

Switching premiers every four years has not worked, so far. Education ministers come and go, but the so-called “iron cage” of education, protected by layers of bureaucracy and regulation remains essentially unchanged.

Looking for a better path forward?  Be bold enough to: Go to the root of the “wicked problem” and do not settle, once again, for watering the tree and rearranging the branches. Get on with undoing the failing program initiatives and rebuilding the system from the schools-up for the sake of today’s students.

What are the hard lessons to be learned from the Nova Scotia teacher dispute? How well are students served when Work-to-Rule ends, only to be replaced by Work-to-Contact?  Will other education authorities study the conflict in order to avert similar consequences?  Who will be the first to stand up and tackle the “wicked problem” of internal contradiction and self-defeating policy initiatives? 

 

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Islamophobia, racism, closing schools, running deficits, excessive expenses, and accountability lapses are the flash points for the latest crisis besetting elected school boards across Canada. The rash of recent pecadillos has pushed seasoned political commentators like The Toronto Star’s Martin Regg Cohn over the edge.

yrdsbsuperintendentracismSince the very public Toronto District School Board governance crisis in November 2014, Cohn’s been urging the abolition of school boards. His latest offering “Dismantle school boards, ditch our trustees” (February 1, 2017), delivered this cut line:  “Ontario’s rogue school boards are an embarrassment  to the students they teach–and the parents they serve.” The bungled York Region District School Board response to recent incidents of Islamophobia and racism not only prompted that reaction, but seemed to reveal systemic problems that required immediate reform.

Ridding the education sector of elected trustees is now fashionable, but few critics provide any viable alternatives capable of effectively representing school communities or protecting the public interest in K-12 public education. Abolishing local democratic bodies creates a vacuum that school administration is only too happy to fill in the modern bureaucratic education state.

School trustees have been steadily losing ground as public education became more centralized, regional, and bureaucratic, especially so since the 1920s.  In 1807, school trustees became the first democratically elected politicians in Ontario. Back then, local notables stepped forward to clear the land, build the schools and assemble the teachers — sitting as trustees on boards overseeing one-room schoolhouses and county academies. Today the province calls the shots — controlling the purse strings, opening new schools, and drafting the curriculum.

Trustees in Ontario were stripped of their taxing authority in the mid-199os, which has significantly undermined their power, influence and spending power. As for elected school boards, they are now completely emasculated entities that have lost their right to negotiate teaching contracts and determine the salaries of their own teachers.

Lacking in taxing powers and fiduciary responsibility, school trustees are “bit players in a big system bankrolled by the province,” where the Minister of Education and the provincial education bureaucracy assume responsibility for education and spending decisions. Deprived of any real authority, trustees have been downgraded to “elected Board members” and are suffering total “identity confusion” — which explains the bizarre outbursts, overspending, and secretive actions that have forced the province to step in so often.

Denigrated as “phantom politicians in training,” most elected school board members seek refuge in adhering to collective decisions.  It’s a part-time position that pays a measly stipend and typically attracts either long-service veterans out of retirement village  or rookie candidates who use it as a springboard for higher office. Trustee elections generally attract retired educators, or well-intentioned average citizens, but few prepared to challenge the existing educational order.

School boards in Ontario, Nova Scotia, and the West share a common pattern: feeble accountability, weak governance, and delusions of influence. Most of Ontario’s 700 trustees are p dedicated and hard-working, but their mandate remains a mirage — with no taxing powers, nor any negotiating authority for teachers’ salaries. They do their best, but are emasculated to the point of irrelevance and go through the motions as they pretend to preside over unwieldy and unaccountable school districts with sizable budgets.

Ontario’s Education Minister Mitzie Hunter is the latest to step in to investigate why another dysfunctional elected school board is in hot water with parents and the local public.  In late January 2017, she launched an investigation to get to the bottom of allegations of racism and lack of financial accountability at one of Ontario’s largest regional boards, the York Region District School Board. 

Margaret Wilson, appointed by Ontario’s education minister in November 2014 to investigate the Toronto District School Board, found it so radically dysfunctional she advised the government to examine other ways of running the schools. Her conclusion was far from unique. Across Canada, the traditional system of school boards overseeing local educational matters is gradually disappearing.

New Brunswick was first to eliminate elected trustees, abolishing its school boards altogether in 1996 in favour of a system of district education councils. Newfoundland and Labrador followed suit and reduced all English language school boards down to one province-wide board. In 2015-16, Prince Edward Island abolished its two regional English Boards and replaced them with a three-person Schools Branch education authority and province-wide education consultation groups. More recently, Quebec considered scrapping its 72 school boards and eliminating elected trustees before abandoning the whole project in May of 2016.

Eight elected school boards are still standing in Nova Scotia, but on shaky ground. In a scathing report in December 2015, auditor general Michael Pickup reviewed four boards and cited problems ranging from conflict of interest to a basic lack of understanding about the role of a trustee. In April 2016, the ruling N.S. Liberal Party adopted a policy resolution in favour of school board reduction and, in October 2016, some 66 per cent of the province’s 95 school board seats were uncontested.

vsbtrusteesfiredBritish Columbia’s largest school board, the Vancouver School Board, is in complete disarray. In October 2016, Education Minister Mike Bernier swooped down and “fired” the entire elected board for defying provincial policy directives, refusing to close schools, and running a deficit. Firing the trustees, including two prominent government critics, Mike Lombardi and Patti Bacchus, smacked of partisanship, but also clearly reinforced centralized governance and dealt a blow to local accountability.

Phasing out elected school boards and dismissing school trustees has not proven to be much of an improvement and, in some cases, has fatally wounded local democratic control in K-12 public education. School communities, particularly in rural Canada, are increasingly alienated from distant and bureaucratic school authorities. Public criticism of, and resistance to, the centralization of educational governance is widespread, flaring up during School Review for closure processes in Ontario, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island.

School governing boards or councils, like those in Edmonton, New Zealand and Quebec, have never really been given a fair chance. Rather than clear-cutting education democracy, it’s time to consider turning the whole system right-side up. It would make sense to re-engineer community school-based education governance and  to utilize District School Councils for coordination purposes.

Why are elected school boards now on the endangered educational species list?  How has administrative consolidation and board reduction impacted local school communities?  Who benefits from the centralization of school governance?  Is it feasible to rebuild school-level governance while retaining some measure of province-wide integration in terms of educational policy? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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