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Archive for the ‘School Choice’ Category

One of Canada’s provincial premiers, Brad Wall of Saskatchewan, has waded into the Catholic Separate School question and brought the issue of school choice, once again, to the fore.  In Late April 2017, he announced that, in direct response to a recent Court of the Queen’s Bench decision in the controversial Theodore Catholic School case, the province would be invoking the Charter “notwithstanding” clause to support the right of non-Catholics to attend the province’s Catholic schools.

A tiny local dispute, as is often the case, erupted into a  full-blown debate over the right of parents to choose the best school for their children.  It was sparked by the decision of 42 multi-denominational parents in the village of Theodore, fifteen years ago, to resist a public school closure and instead create a Catholic School Division and open their own publicly-funded Catholic school.

Premier Wall staked out his ground in defense of the right of parents to school choice encompassing public, separate and faith-based schools. It was a courageous decision given the complexity of the issue and the passions aroused by the Catholic question in public education.

Sorting out such a thorny educational-constitutional issue should not be left to the lawyers because it has far-reaching implications for parental school choice far beyond Saskatchewan.  That is why The National Post invited me to take a much closer look at the whole controversy.

The court decision to end funding for non-Catholics to attend such schools had great potential for massive disruption. Some 10,000 students and their parents province-wide were left in limbo facing the prospect of being forced out of their Catholic schools.

The Saskatchewan Catholic schools dispute is, for better or worse, a critical “test case” that may well determine the fate of the Catholic school option in Saskatchewan and perhaps elsewhere. It’s also about far more than the funding of Catholic schools in that province. School choice in Saskatchewan, as in Alberta and Ontario, rests, in many ways, on having parallel public and separate school systems, both in English and in French. Such options, freely accessible to everyone, provide more choice than is commonly recognized.

In spite of what look from the outside like uniform bureaucratic structures and curricula, such denominational and language options do allow for variations, particularly in core philosophy, academic focus, and student discipline.  One out of five Saskatchewan students (21.1 percent), 22.9 per cent of Alberta students, and 30.3 per cent of Ontario students were enrolled in fully-funded, principally Roman Catholic schools, in 2009-10, the most recent data.

Separate religiously oriented schools within the public education system not only offer choice but a measure of competition. Students and parents can opt for schools with provincially-approved religious instruction as an alternative to the predominantly secular, non-denominational public schools.

Saskatchewan is not the only province where the religious walls have recently come down. In many Catholic school districts across the three provinces, the relaxing of strict religious expectations and admittance of non-Catholics (or students of different faiths) has effectively expanded the range of choice, since such schools are no longer available exclusively to more religiously oriented families.

CharterSchoolCalgaryGirlsAlberta is hailed as Canada’s undisputed leader in the provision of a wide range of school choices. A February 2014 Fraser Institute report only bolstered that claim by demonstrating that Alberta offered six different publicly-funded options: regular public, francophone public, separate Catholic, separate francophone, separate Protestant, and charter schools.  The report’s principal author Jason Clemens noted that “Alberta goes out of its way purposefully, strategically, to provide parents with choice not only within the public system but outside the public system.”

Next to Alberta and Ontario, Saskatchewan offers the most school options: regular public, public francophone, separate Catholic, and separate Protestant schools. The continued vitality of one of those options is imperiled by that Theodore school court decision.

School choice should not be simply taken for granted. The vast majority of Atlantic Canadians living in Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, and Prince Edward Island have only one real choice. Over 95% of all K-12 students in these three provinces are offered only one brand of school, the standard English Public School model. In New Brunswick, some 28% of all students attend Francophone schools, but their curriculum and program are, with a few exceptions, a French mirror image of the Anglophone version.

Atlantic Canada is, putting it bluntly, a “take it or leave it” public system where only more affluent families have an alternative, the odd private independent school and homeschooling, enrolling from 1 per cent to 3 per cent of the total student population. About 2,600 First Nations students in Nova Scotia (2.1%) do attend very small Mi’kmaw Education Authority (MK) schools in 13 different native communities. Fewer than 250 Nova Scotia students receive tax support to attend special schools for kids with severe learning disabilities.

Public fears about charter schools in Alberta are fueled by defenders of the existing educational order— and appear to be not only irrational but unfounded. Under that province’s  1993 Charter School law, the numbers of publicly-funded charters are limited (to 15) and enrollments are capped, Introducing charter schools in the mid-1990s hardly proved destabilizing because the flow was restricted and only 1% of the student population were able choose them.

Giving parents and students more school choices and more variety in terms of alternative programs would not be ‘the end of the world.’  Students and parents in Canada’s largest urban school systems like Toronto, Edmonton and Vancouver, already have many school choice options and have “open school boundaries” allowing students to attend schools of their own choice.  School district “boundary reviews” provoke an intense public outcry for good reason – the school board is dictating where your children are going to attend school.

School choice is gradually emerging as a fundamental human right for students and families. Choosing the best school for your child should not be so difficult or next-to-impossible without significant financial means. School systems benefit from being more open and responsive to a wider range of student needs and aspirations. Safeguards do need to be built-in to prevent a mass exodus and to provide some recourse in the case of under-performing schools.

Putting a stop to the removal of non-Catholics who have chosen to exercise their option of choosing an alternative to the ‘one-size-fits-all’ system is not only defensible, it’s advisable, especially in Saskatchewan. One can only hope that it derails any movement to further restrict parental choice in education.

What’s causing all the ruckus over the Saskatchewan separate school question?  Who gains when provinces move to “one big English language system” for all? How fundamental is the right to parental choice in Saskatchewan as well as Alberta and Ontario?  Should non-Catholics continue to have free, unimpeded access to Catholic separate schools?  Wherein lies the danger of broadening the range of choice in our provincial school systems? 

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Canada’s tiny province of Prince Edward Island, ancestral home of Anne of Green Gables, is all abuzz with the latest news. Two groups of Amish families from Woodstock and Waterloo County, Ontario, are heading east to P.E.I. and plan to establish not only a new colony of farm settlers but a traditional one-room schoolhouse to educate their children. Friendly Islanders in Eastern P.E.I. are preparing a hearty spring 2016 welcome and the P.E.I. Government has amended its School Act to smooth the way.

AmishPEIThe courtship of the Amish began two years ago.  An Ontario farm-equipment salesman specializing in horse-drawn vehicles, Tony Wallbank, was the key player in the planned Eastern Migration.  A few years ago, he began seeking new, affordable land for the growing colonies of Ontario Amish and explored prospective properties in Northern Ontario and various places in the northern United States. That ended when he toured eastern P.E.I. in 2014 and discovered rolling fields and landowners anxious to sell their properties for a fraction of the $20,000 an acre cost in Ontario.

Wallbank and the Amish elders found, in eastern P.E.I., perhaps the last vestige of unspoiled rural life in the settled region of southern Canada. The reception committee of Islanders, including Paul MacNeill, publisher of The Eastern Graphic and local realtor Brad Oliver of Montague, P.E.I., laid out quite a welcome mat.  In this region of the Island, it was not hard to find landowners anxious to retire and citizens enthused about seeing their properties farmed rather than sitting idle or being sold-off as acreage for expanding agribusinesses.

The prospect of attracting Amish settlers did what no amount of lobbying by P.E. I. home schoolers could ever have achieved.  Canada’s least receptive province to school choice and home schooling, P.E.I., almost overnight underwent a tremendous conversion. A formal request from Wallbank and the Amish in the fall of 2015 to amend the School Act regulations was hurried into law.

A critically-important P.E.I. School Act provision limiting Home Schooling to groups with a “certified teacher-advisor” was lifted.  That restrictive provision, enacted in 2009, to limit and control any expansion of home education,  was suddenly deemed unnecessary by provincial school officials.

The official Education Department line was rather interesting. “It wasn’t really a barrier,” Education Minister Hal Perry told CBC News PEI in October 2015. “It was a bit of a hurdle,” he added, and an issue for the newcomers. “(The Amish) felt it was important that they home school their children in their own tradition. We as a government, respect that.” Deputy Minister Sandy MacDonald, when asked about the change insisted it was not a big issue because the Amish were proposing to home school their children without any expectation of provincial funding.

The impending arrival of two colonies of Amish, numbering perhaps 50 families, was enough to secure a small sliver of “school choice” in Canada’s least receptive province. Virtually all students in P.E.I. have only one school choice — and 98.8 % of the 21, 516 students in 2009-10 attended the public system. In a 2015 report on Home Schooling in Canada, P.E.I. was identifed as restrictive in its regulations with only 81 students (or 0.4% of the total school enrolment) home schooled in 2011-12.  By 2005-16, the numbers had dropped to 77 students from some 45 families — all with an approved teacher-advisor.

The Amish are firm in their belief in traditional education delivered by lay teachers who are members of the Christian religious sect.  For Old Order Amish families, schooling ends in Grade 8 and children are then generally expected to join the family farming enterprise. Children are expected to master the fundamentals of reading, writing and mathematics and to observe Amish ways, including leading simple lives without modern conveniences such as electricity or indoor plumbing.

Amish education represents a complete rejection of the modern, pluralistic and religion-free secular school system.  The rights of the Old Order Amish to freedom from public schooling was guaranteed in a landmark U.S. legal decision, Wisconsin v. Yoder (1972). It granted the Amish the right to limit their children’s education to eight grades in parochial, one-room schools operating in traditional fashion and further held that such an education was “as effective ” as that provided by modern public elementary schools. That right, once secured, has been vigorously defended by Amish elders and educators in Canada as well as the United States.

Why did it take an Amish migration to open the doors a little more to school choice in Prince Edward Island? Now that Old Order Amish have the right to home schooling their children in groups, does that right extend to other families and groups with alternative school plans?  To what extent would P.E.I. and other parts of rural Canada benefit from opening the doors to groups seeking to establish alternative schools? 

 

 

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A provocative and insightful article in the September 2013 issue of Our Schools/Ourselves paints a now familiar but largely mythical picture of the so-called “neo-liberal assault” on Canadian as well as American public education.  Written by Westmount High School teacher Robert Green, founder of MontrealTeachers4Chanage.org, it sought to explain why thousands of U.S. teachers were flocking to a “Badass Teacher” movement and suggested that Canadian teachers, facing similar threats, might consider doing the same.

BadAssDeweyAmerican public education, much like U.S. foreign policy, continues to be a fiercely contested ideological battleground. American-style school reformers claim to “put students first” and support raising achievement standards, school choice, and student testing, seeking to “turnaround” failing or under-performing schools and campaigning to improve Teacher Quality (TQ) in the classroom. Supporting that agenda with political clout and massive resources are education publishing giants like Pearson International  and major private foundations, led by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

BadAssRavitchDefenders of the American public school system are fighting school reforms they label and condemn as hoary intrusions driven by “corporate education reform,” best exemplified by OECD PISA Testing, and its step-child, Barack Obama’s Race to the Top national education agenda. Education historian -turned- advocate Diane Ravitch, author of The Death and Rise of the Great American School System (2010), has emerged as their patron saint and leading public warrior.  A more recent, militant offshoot of the American teacher unions, the Badass Teachers Association, surfaced in 2013 to lead mass actions, including a phone-in campaign calling for the removal of Arne Duncan as U.S. secretary of education.

A copycat “Badass Teacher” movement has sprouted up in a few Canadian provincial systems, but it has, so far, failed to catch fire or spread from one province to another. A small band of teacher union militants, such as Green of the Montreal Teachers Association, Ben Sichel of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union, and Tobey Steeves of the BC Teachers Federation, have been churning out commentaries, tweeting-up a storm, and appealing to their base of followers. Out in Red Deer, Alberta, Special Ed teacher Joe Bower, host of for the love of learning Blog, is famous for his serial retweets of Alfie Kohn pronouncements. It hasn’t worked because the school system they imagine and the corporate reform they fear don’t really exist here in Canada.

In the upside down world of Canadian education, the real “Badasses” are populist reformers of a completely different stripe attempting to penetrate and re-engineer a reasonably well-funded, mostly unaccountable liberal bureaucratic education state.  It’s next -to-impossible to whip up Canadian teachers when the system is so well preserved and protected by “Guardian Angels” and “Pussycats” — and “Fortress Education” serves so well in safeguarding teachers’ rights, prerogatives, and entitlements. After all, look what happens to “Bad Ass” policy advocates like economist Don Drummond, PC Leader Tim Hudak, and BC Education Minister Peter Fastbender who dare to propose structural reforms.

Today’s Canadian teachers’ union advocates profess to be true education reformers but they have little in common with ordinary blue collar workers, Arab Spring freedom fighters, or “Idle No More” activists.  Drawn from what Karl Marx would have termed the 21st century bourgeoisie, they see the education world with a somewhat false sense of class consciousness.  Like fellow members of the public sector, white collar professions, secure and comfortable with teacher tenure, step salary increases, and guaranteed retirement benefits, they certainly have a lot to defend in a changing global and fiercely competitive world.  The three major policy preoccupations, identified by Green — defending collective bargaining rights, curtailing and ending student and teacher assessments, and fighting (non-union) charter schools — reflect that siege mentality and a protective impulse rather than a desire to “change the world.”

BadAssGatesTransplanting American panaceas and political linguistics into Canadian education simply does not work, whether it’s parental “freedom of choice” or “badass teacherism.” None of Canada’s provinces, including British Columbia and Alberta, have really adopted the full “corporate education reform” agenda. Provincial testing regimes like the Ontario Education Quality and Accountablity (EQAO) program are focused on student improvement at school level and bear little resemblance (in intent or form) to the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) or Race to the Top initiatives in the United States.  Here all public schools are treated as “equally good” and none are publicly labelled “failing” enterprises. Protesting salary freezes or  back-to-work legislation is a far cry from fighting massive layoffs and the imposition of student results- based teacher evaluation systems.

Most of Canada’s educational austerity and school choice initiatives turn out to be paper tigers. Nova Scotia’s Back to Balance public policy from 2009 to 2012 hit a major educational roadblock: the NSTU’s well-financed KidsNotCuts/Cut to the Core counter insurgency. Embracing Don Drummond’s February 2012 Ontario Austerity program and teacher salary freezes cost “Education Premier” Dalton McGuinty his job and proved disastrous as the foundation for former Ontario PC Leader Tim Hudak’s June 2014 election campaign. Only two Canadian provinces, Quebec and BC, provide any significant funding for independent, alternative schools and Alberta’s legislative commitment to charter schools imposes strict limits on the numbers of schools and then student enrollments.

The Canadian educational kingdom is inhabited by a completely different variety of tribes. The “Guardian Angels”,  epitomized by Michael Fullan, Nina Bascia, Penny Milton, Charles Pascal and Charles Ungerleider,  are unabashed public school promoters with an unshakable faith in universal programs and spending more to educate fewer. They provide the visionary ideas, champion the holy grail of educational equity, and enjoy the, at times, fawning support of an influential band of “Pussycats” ( aka “teacher’s pets’) based at OISE and the faculties of education and avidly supported by Annie Kidder and her People for Education political action committee. Recently, the Vancouver Board of Education Chair Patti Bacchus has joined the cheerleading section in support of teachers, waving placards at BCTF protests.

If Canada has a truly “Badass” reform movement, it’s not to be found inside the teachers’ unions but rather spearheaded by a pesky band of populist school reformers, best exemplified by Malkin Dare, Doretta Wilson and the Society for Quality Education.  Operating in collaboration with autonomous parent reform groups such as WISE Math and the Nova Scotia Small Schools Initiative, they are the ones carrying the torch for better schools, structural innovation, higher teaching standards, and significant curriculum reform. School reform is not driven by education school research, but instead by policy studies produced by the C.D. Howe Institute and three independent think tanks in Vancouver, Winnipeg, and Halifax.  Most of Canada’s true education reformers are not educators at all, but rather “crossovers” with a fierce commitment to raising standards, restoring fundamental student skills, and securing (without excuses) the best possible education for our children.

Who’s Who in the upside down world of Canadian education reform? Why are the Canadian and American school systems so different when it comes to educational tribes and their commitment to genuine school reform?  Would a “Badass Teachers” movement gain any traction, between labour contract disruptions, in Canada’s provincial education systems?  In short, with apologies to the old TV Quiz Show, will the real school reformers please stand up and be counted?

 

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The latest report on the state of School Choice in Canada dropped out of thin air on February 27, 2014 and hit with barely a thud. Produced for the Vancouver-based Fraser Institute, the report entitled Measuring Choice and Competition in Canadian Education generated a predictable media response. “Alberta leads the nation in offering parents and kids more school options compared to its provincial counterparts,” The Calgary Herald chirped.  “In terms of choice, it’s very clear that Alberta goes out of its way purposefully, strategically, to provide parents with choice not only within the public system but outside the public system,” stated Jason Clemens, executive vice-president of the Fraser Institute and co-author of the report. So, you might ask, what else is new?

SchoolChoiceRallyThe Fraser Institute study  provided a very useful comparative analysis of the range of school choices available from most (Alberta and BC) to least (all of Atlantic Canada, except for New Brunswick).  Like most previous North American reports, it turned to free market economic theory to make its case. Increasing school choice and competition, Clemens and his co-authors argue,  spurs “quality, lower prices and innovation,” which in turn leads to improved student performance and an enhanced education system.

School choice in Canada, according to the Fraser Institute, now encompasses having parallel public and separate school systems (both in French and English) and so Canada is, by virtue of this factor, supposedly more open to choice than might be thought, given the relative uniformity of bureaucratic structures and provincial curricula.  Once again, Alberta is the exemplary province, the only one to authorize charter schools and provide some funding to students who are homeschooled.

“The presence of charter schools in Alberta provides an additional source of choice, which provides parents with additional options outside of traditional linguistic and religious alternatives offered by public school boards,” reads the report. Conversely, the Atlantic Provinces offer “comparatively little parental choice and competition among schools.”

“It’s pretty hard to look at any metric in the independent school sector, public or home-schooling where Alberta is not at the top of the list in terms of trying to proactively provide parents with more choice,” Clemens said. He also pointed to a growing body of research in Europe and the U.S. that suggest a “clear link” between parental choice and student performance.   Then, he attempted to apply that to Canada, arguing that it explained, in many ways, why BC and Alberta tend to ” do pretty well on education testing and education performance generally.”

The School Choice report is disappointing, especially for those who favour expanding the range of choice available in Canada’s provincial school systems. Parents and students in the 21st century are so accustomed to having and making choices in life that the public school systems are completely out of sync with the rest of society. Instead of relying on the tired old arguments of Milton Friedman and the free market theorists, the case would have had far more bite if it had been based upon the rights of students and parents as “‘consumers of education’ to better schools more attuned to student needs.

Students and parents in all Canadian provinces, including Alberta, would benefit from more school choices inside the public school system. There is only one choice for the vast majority of Atlantic Canadians living in Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, and Prince Edward Island. Over 95% of all K-12 students in these three provinces are offered only one brand of school, the standard English Public School model. In New Brunswick, some 28% of all students attend Francophone schools, but their curriculum and program are, with a few exceptions, a French mirror image of the Anglophone version.

Atlantic Canada is, putting it bluntly, a “take it or leave it” public system where only more affluent families have an alternative, the odd private independent school and homeschooling, enrolling only 1 to 2.5% of the total student population. Out of 430 total schools in Nova Scotia, only 30 are private or independent (without public funding) and they only enroll 2,949 students or 2.2 % of the total provincial enrollment.  About 2,600 First Nations students (2.1%) do attend very small Mi’kmaw Education Authority schools in 13 different native communities. Fewer than 250 Nova Scotia students receive tax support to attend special schools for kids with severe learning disabilities.

Alberta, upon closer examination, is not quite the nirvana painted by the Fraser Institute.  Some 70.4 % of Alberta students attend the “one big system” ( Public/English), 22.9% the Catholic/French systems, 4.6% private/independent, 1.3% charter schools, and 1.6% are home schooled, receiving some $1650 per year for resources. Under the Alberta Charter School law, the numbers of publicly-funded charters are limited (to 15) and enrollments are capped, leaving 8,000 students on waiting lists in Calgary alone.  Introducing charter schools in the mid-1990s hardly proved destabilizing because the flow was restricted and only 1% of the student population were able choose them.

Public fears about charter schools are fueled by defenders of the existing educational order — and appear to be not only irrational but unfounded. Giving parents and students more school choices and more variety in terms of alternative programs would not be ‘the end of the world.’  Students and parents in Canada’s largest urban school systems like Toronto, Edmonton and Vancouver, already have many school choice options and have “open school boundaries” allowing students to attend schools of their own choice.  School district “boundary reviews” provoke an intense public outcry for good reason – the school board is dictating where your children are going to attend school.

School choice is gradually emerging as a fundamental human right for students and families. Choosing the best school for your child should not be so difficult or next-to-impossible without significant financial means. School systems would benefit from being more open and responsive to a wider range of student needs and aspirations. The only challenge is to build in safeguards to prevent a mass exodus and to ensure that actions are taken to improve under-performing schools. That is the kind of “transition planning” that will make a real difference in the lives and educational outcomes of students.

Why is the School Choice Debate in Canada so theory-ridden and ideologically stilted?  Why do School Choice advocates rely so heavily on Milton Friedman and the free market theorists? Why, on the other hand, do Canada’s so-called ‘educational progressives’ cling to the established system and respond with cliche-ridden critiques of creeping “neo-liberalism” and “privatization”?  What if we simply gave students and parents a wider array of public school options and stopped worrying about limiting their choices?

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The ‘Achievement Gap’ is, by most accounts, growing in most major urban public school systems.  One of the feature stories in The Globe and Mail’s Wealth Paradox series, written by Caroline Alphonso and Tavia Grant, demonstrated how income and educational achievement are correlated within Canada’s largest school system, the Toronto District School Board (TDSB).  While the important article was only a snapshot in time, it did raise serious concern about the dominant trend. As Canadian neighbourhoods become increasingly polarized along income lines, the promise of education giving every child an equal shot at a better life is getting harder to fulfill.

TDSMMathL2The Globe and Mail analysis confirmed the conventional wisdom about the so-called ‘iron law’ of income and achievement in public schools. Using standardized test scores and Statistics Canada income data for the TDSB, Alphonso and Grant painted quite a clear picture of inequality in Toronto’s public elementary schools: High-income areas are primarily home to high-achieving schools while lower-income areas have a higher number of lower-scoring schools.

The TDSB student results, school-by-school, mapped against income levels  confirmed the initial assumptions: Schools in lower-income neighbourhoods have a higher proportion of students failing the provincial standardized tests, achieving at Level 1 or 2, the data reveal (Level 3 is a pass). And a 2010 TDSB study showed that the majority of students identified as gifted were from the most affluent neighbourhoods of the city, while those kids identified with a language impairment or a developmental disability were more likely to come from lower-income neighbourhoods.

Two markedly different schools, Courcelette Public School in the affluent Beaches district, and Edgewood Public School in the heart of working class Scarborough, were identified as representative types signifying the most highly successful and the struggling schools. A third school, John A. Leslie Public School, again in a lower income Scarborough area, but with a predominantly immigrant student population, was chosen as a school where kids outperformed the expectations based upon socio-economic status (SES) factors.

Two different approaches to allieviating the achievement gap were briefly introduced – the open attendance zone model and the targeted resource support option, but the article tilted heavily in the direction of explaining the later approach, currently favoured by the TDSB.  Passing reference was made to the Vancouver and Edmonton school choice models before noting Ontario Education Minister Liz Sandals’ fears that “introducing school choice could exacerbate educational inequality” because “low-income families don’t necessarily have the means to drive their kid across town to a higher-ranking school.”

When it came to fairly examining the policy options, the otherwise fine article came up decidedly short.  Closing the educational gap by pouring more resources into under-performing schools, essentially the TDSB Special Student Supports model, was the only option really presented in any detail.  In that respect, John A. Leslie Public School, one of the 150 schools in that program, provided a convenient exemplar of the preferred approach.  This was also problematic because that school’s strong and effective principal, Greg McLeod, may well have been a bigger factor than the enhanced funding and resources.

Toronto elementary kids are required to attend their local neighbourhood school., unlike those in Edmonton and Vancouver, where parents and kids have a choice in the matter.  Opening up boundaries, according to TDSB operations director Carla Kisko, would be “a nightmare when it comes to planning.”  Really?  Then how have they managed to successfully implement it in Edmonton Public Schools since the 1970s?  Why has the Vancouver School Board (VSB) also moved in that direction?

School choice is protected by law in B.C., so, provided there’s space, parents are free to send their children to any school within the Vancouver School Board.  Competition to secure a place in the higher preforming schools is helping to fill once emptying schools and driving school improvement plans. According to statistics recently compiled by the VSB, including French immersion, nearly 50 % of all students currently attend school outside their local catchment area, and the vast majority are heading to the western parts of the city. While it poses a challenge for administrators, it does meet the growing parental appetite for choice.

In Alberta, where Alberta Education  supports parent choice, Edmonton Public Schools offers more choice programs than probably any other school board in North America. It has also been a school system with students who for decades have performed extraordinarily well on national and international assessments of student performance, particularly in mathematics and science.

Why does Ontario and its lead board, the TDSB, still have an aversion to open boundaries and parent choice in the elementary grades?  What’s the real purpose of maintaining strict school attendance boundaries?  What impact would introducing “open boundaries” have on student engagement and performance?  How and why has it worked in Edmonton Public Schools?  Is it possible to introduce more parental choice, while at the same time limiting its impact on social and educational inequalities?

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In September 2010. Atlantic Canada’s largest school board, the Halifax Regional School Board moved its Central Administrative Office from downtown Dartmouth to a Corporate Industrial Park in Burnside, on the city’s outskirts.   The decision to expand the central office to 73,000 square feet for some $1 million more in annual leasing costs was justified on the grounds that the board had, it was only then revealed, accumulated a $4.3 million surplus for this purpose. Few, at the time, questioned the move or what it signified as a concrete example of the so-called “controlling politics” of the “new managerialism” in public education.

MakingSchoolsWorkCentralizing the administration was assumed to be necessary to advance  what OISE’s Dr. Ben Levin champions as “macro-directions” and presumably to minimize the dissonance and local resistance emanating from “micropolitics” in the schools.  The then Chair of the Board Irvine Carvery  defended the move as sound financially and claimed that the then Chief Superintendent Carole Olsen saw the need for a much bigger central headquarters to facilitate large scale professional developmemt activities.   Some 30 years after the advent of School-Based Management (SBM), this school board, like many across North America, remained wedded to system-wide management of virtually every aspect of educational service.

School-Based Management arrived in Canada in the early 1970s when an American educator, Dr. Rolland Jones, began experimenting with the concept as Superintendent of the Edmonton Public School Board.  Described as “a visionary 20 years ahead of his times,” he favoured local decision-making and espoused “site-based budgeting.”  From 1976 until 1995, his successor Michael Strembitsky  and school planner Alan Parry  effectively dismantled a centrally-managed school system  and operationalized school-based decision-masking.

A determined team of administrators led by Strembitsky  implemented a robust plan shifting more responsibility to local schools, increasing local budget allocations to schools from 2% to 82% of provincial education dollars.  While not entirely perfected,  the decentralized approach, in the words of Board Chair Joan Cowling, was “a dramatic improvement in the way schools were administered” and more attuned to school-level needs. 

The Edmonton Model was further developed by Strembitsky’s successor, Superintendent Angus McBeath.  School choice was introduced and implemented along with site-based budgeting.  Students and parents were offered their choice of schools within the city and, by 2003, 62% of high schoolers and 54% of junior high students attended schools outside their attendance zones.  A depopulating decaying high school was transformed into an arts academy and its enrolment rebounded, largely at the expense of competing private schools.  An energy conservation initiative, entrusted to local schools, netted $2 million at year in savings.  Publishing school-by-school student achievement results improved overall test scores.  While it was a top-down reform initiative, the key to its success, according to McBeath, lay in the strong support it engendered among “allies outside the educational system.”

After a flurry of school-based management initiatives in the mid-1990s, including some school districts in Ontario and Nova Scotia, school administrators pulled back from the whole approach.   Centralization and administrative build-up proved to be powerful forces, strengthened by the consolidation of  school boards, the introduction of system-wide testing, the proliferation of special programs, and the spread of program consultants.  Student loads per teacher, known as Total Student Loads (TSLs), according to William G. Ouchi, actually rose in junior and senior high schools.  Superintendents acquired more power by increasing the size of their headquarters staffs, created more non-teaching positions, and this, in turn, led teachers to abandon the classroom.  A 1997 American research study revealed that only 43% of district employees were regularly engaged in classroom teaching.

The Edmonton Education Model attracted many public accolades but few followers in the ranks of North American educational administration.  In his 2008 book Making Schools Work , Ouchi, a leading UCLA management professor,  reported that Edmonton had “the best-run schools” compared to those of many other North American cities. He credited Edmonton’s educational leadership in school-based management with engineering a “revolution” and charting the way for other school systems to escape educational mediocrity and under-performance.

While North American educational leaders still shy away from School-Based Management, it is now undergoing a renaissance  in the developing world where school systems are seeking immediate “turnaround” educational reforms.   Since 2003, The World Bank has been particularly active in supporting and funding SBM initiatives in  countries like Kenya, Indonesia, Nepal, and Senegal. A recent international study, commissioned by the World Bank (2011) , claimed that “education is too complex to be efficiently produced and distributed in a centralized fashion.” (p. 87). In spite of some successes, the study found “ambiguous results” in countries where “elite capture” was a problem and “teachers and unions” resisted ceding more control to “parents and community members.”

Senior administrators who promote the latest educational panacea known as ”distributed leadership” remain surprisingly resistant to a more democratic, school-level, decision-making model.  Yet more open minded educators like New Yorker Thomas Whitby, initiator of #Edchat, and Australian researcher Bruce Johnson continue to muse about the unsettling impact of centralizing administration on the quality and tone of teaching and learning in schools.

Sympathetic observers like Whitby express concern over teacher -administrators who get swept up in the “Education Center world” and managerial matters and lose touch with the classroom,  In Australia, Johnson contends that ”bureaucratic managerialism” has been used to “construct a seemingly irresistible top-down juggernaut of reform that largely excludes the possibility or desirability of local agency.”  School-based management has considerable appeal because it fosters a ”positive politics” of negotiation, collaboration, and conflict resolution to address issues of local concern in schools.”  He longs for the day when teachers, as well as parents, could enjoy a more “positive framework” with ongoing opportunities to participate in the “school improvement journey.” (p. 23)

What’s feeding the continued growth of central administration in K-12 public education?  Why has the Edmonton Model of school-based management won so few converts among senior educational administrators?  Can “distributed leadership” ever be achieved without ceding some control and responsibilities to school-level principals and parent-community councils?  What stands in the way of achieving a more locally-accountable, school-based system?

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Public education systems tend to provide a ‘one-size-fits-all’ model that does not fit everyone.  Children who are highly gifted, severely challenged, or being raised in devout Christian homes often do not fit easily into the standard model, particularly in rural and small town Canada where few school alternatives exist for families. An estimated 100,000 Canadian children from 6 to 16 years of age are being educated outside the system in a variety of home education settings.  Most are being educated in traditional homeschool  fashion, and about 10% by parents committed to the philosophy of “unschooling” or deprogramming their children.

HomeschoolingChildOne of the best known parents who chose another option – homeschooling – is Quinn Cummings, author of The Year of Living Dangerously: Adventures in Homeschooling (2012). Her motivation, in homeschooling her 8-year old, grade 4 daughter, four years ago, was more mainstream. Like a growing number of home education families, she wanted her child “to work hard and be challenged without it meaning two to three hours of homework every night.”  “I wanted our daughter,” she says, “to learn how to learn. I suspect this is a skill school should give you, but i didn’t want her to look back on her childhood as an extended meditation on worksheets.”

Parents in the 21st century are becoming more adventuresome in finding new ways to educate their children. Traditional homeschooling is evolving from one-on-one home tutoring to online learning tapping into resources like Khan Academy and the latest electronic educational games.  It’s now possible to offer blended learning combining home instruction, online learning, and community-based programs. It’s a combination that allows parents to “custom build a curriculum” for each student using  “a mix-and-match approach” best suited to the individual child.   Cummings calls it “made to order education” for the 21st century.

Not every Canadian province “gets it” when it comes to home education. Wide variations exist across Canada in how school authorities respond to, and support, parents and families seeking to homeschool their children. Canada’s leading education province, Alberta, is officially committed to “school  choice” and the most receptive to homeschooling. Provincial funding is available, through a transfer of fees, and varies according to the program of studies you are offering. If you choose basic/traditional you usually get about $700. Blended is anywhere from $900-1200 and fully aligned you can receive as much $1500.00 per child.  Some variations do exist between the various school boards.  Provincial authorities in British Columbia and Ontario are open to homeschooling, albeit without such generous financial supports.

The most restrictive province may well be Nova Scotia, especially after a November 2012 Auditor General’s report proposing tighter regulation and more rigorous supervision. While only 850 out of 124,000 school age children are registered for homeschooling, AG Jacques Lapointe reported a “lack of adequate systems” to ensure a minimum of supervision, including proper registration records. Out of 120 files reviewed, he found 102 did not specify what a child was expected to learn and five had no information on the study program. It was a major embarrassment for the Education Department and may precipitate a backlash against homeschoolers.

Supporters of homeschooling in Canada were quick to react to the Nova Scotia Auditor General’s report.  Paul Faris, president of the Home School Legal Defense Association, charged that the AG’s proposed changes would make Nova Scotia “the worst place in Canada” to home-school children.  Nova Scotia, he pointed out, already has plenty of regulations, albeit some that are not currently being enforced.  The Auditor General, according to Faris, was “completely ignorant” of the research on homeschooling and was “trying to fit it into a public school model.”  Caught off-guard by the AG’s report, Education Minister Ramona Jennex responded by saying she was “open” to looking at changes.

A former New York State Teacher of the Year, John Taylor Gatto created a sensation when he quit his decades-long teaching career and announced it in a 1991 Wall Street Journal column entitled, “I Quit, I Think.” Until encountering recent health problems, Gatto has been a major education critic and a proponent of homeschooling and unschooling children.  His two best known books, Dumbing Us Down (1992) and Weapons of Mass Instruction (2008), provide the most searing radical critique of the impact of “compulsory schooling” on the creativity and imagination of children.

In a Homeschooling Magazine interview a few years ago, Gatto praised homeschoolers for showing “courage and determination” on “the front lines”  and for “making the right choice.”  “You’ve made a choice to free your children to be the best people they can be, the best citizens they can be, and to be their personal best, ” he said. ” But had you allowed those kids to remain in the grip of institutional schooling, the kids would have become instruments of a different purpose.”

Why do increasing numbers of Canadian parents choose to homeschool their own children?  Are home-schooled children more likely to be independent trailblazers or are they at risk of becoming ‘free floaters’ in life? What’s the secret of successfully homeschooling children?  And what is the real purpose of imposing tighter regulations on Canada’s home education families?

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