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Archive for the ‘School Rankings’ Category

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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Measuring what matters in education is a vitally important public policy issue fraught with controversy. Since 2000, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has succeeded through the Program of International Student Assessment (PISA) in establishing the global benchmark for student achievement in the fundamentals of reading, mathematics and science. Over sixty countries have come together to support student achievement testing and most participating nations have developed comparable national and state/provincial cyclical assessment programs. That global consensus is now under fire by a revivified movement of  North American educators purporting to be ‘education progressives.’

OntarioStudentVision2014“Measuring What Matters” movement has arisen attempting to “broaden the measures of success,” but essentially committed to either “soften” the standards or banish standardized testing all together.  The Ontario Broader Success project, initiated by Annie Kidder and People for Education, is in the vanguard of the attempt to water down student testing by incorporating “softer” competencies and socially progressive attitudes.  A growing band of North American education progressives, endorsed by education gadfly Alfie Kohn, issued a May 6, 2014 OECD PISA Letter objecting to ” the negative consequences of the PISA rankings” and claiming that “measuring a great diversity of educational traditions and cultures using a single, narrow, biased yardstick could, in the end, do irreparable harm to our schools and our students.”

The real agenda of the Canadian insurgency is to broaden the definition of student success and chip away at the foundation of student testing and public accountability.   In June 2013, People for Education released a Broader Measures of Success report which gave a clearer picture of the end game.  Building upon its long-held skepticism about testing, Kidder and P4E announced a five-year project to “broaden the definition of school success” to encompass more than “literacy and numeracy.”  The report, produced by researcher Kelly Gallagher-Mackay, proposed a new framework of six domains, only one of which was related to “academic achievement.”  Indeed, the P4E model attempted to sublimate academic achievement in the pursuit of five other goals:  physical and mental health, social-emotional development, creativity and innovation, and school climate.

One of the most credible proponents of the Broader Success agenda is Dr. Charles Ungerleider, a UBC professor and former BC Minister of Education.  Much of the substance of the critique comes from Dr. Ungerleider, a well compensated educational consultant committed to empowering teachers and thereby improving instruction.  In a very revealing BC Public Affairs show, Your Education Matters with Dr. Paul Shaffer, Ungerleider laid bare the goals of the  movement. “We should broaden the definition of success on a system-wide basis,” he stated. ” We can assess a student’s moral framework…evaluate the level of social responsibility…and evaluate compassion for fellow human beings.”

Ungerleider claims to support student testing, but he is adamantly opposed to “the misuse of (student performance) information.”  Ranking schools based upon student results qualifies as “a misuse of information”  perpetrated by think tanks like the Fraser Institute and AIMS. Promoting a broader concept of school success is, he advises Shaffer, the best way to “educate the public about what’s wrong with school rankings.”

The Broader Success movement is going all out to win the support of Canadian teachers unions like the Alberta Teachers Association.  On March 27, 2014, the ATA Magazine virtually endorsed their approach by publishing a short column written by Kidder, Gallagher-Mackay and Ungerleider. It appealed to teachers who are generally allergic to student testing and accountability. “By changing what is measured, ” the trio wrote, ” the initiative will support positive change in schools and make more room for the curriculum, programs and resources that support health, creativity, citizenship, social-emotional skills and positive school climate.”   All three of them repeated that message in a May 26, 2013 presentation at the Canadian Society for the Study of Education Conference at Brock University.

The Ontario Government appears to be listening to the Broader Success advocates, judging from the April 2014 policy statement Achieving Excellence: A Renewed Vision for Education in Ontario Consistent with the Dalton McGuinty-Kathleen Wynne policy orientation, the new direction document attempts to move beyond instilling the fundamentals and embraces the pursuit of “soft” competencies and skills. Achieving excellence as measured in PISA  reading and mathematics scores remains first in priority, but the Ministry of Education is now tilting in the direction of “ensuring equity” and “promoting well-being.”

Where is Ontario public education heading?  The Achieving Excellence policy statement provides a few clues. It appears that Ontario, trading in on its claim to be one of “the world’s highest performing school systems,” is now flirting with the Broader Success policy panacea. Annie Kidder and People for Education no longer qualify as “outsiders” and have succeeded in burrowing into the Ontario education establishment.   With Dr. Ben Levin out-of-commission and Dr. Michael Fullan in a 21st Century Learning orbit, the system has lost its moorings and pinning down its future direction is purely a matter of speculation.

Focusing on student educational deficits can become the system-wide raison d’etre in the absence of clear aspirational standards.  That is the focus of  Ungerleider and People for Education. The highly successful Educational Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) is no longer in the forefront, and that is a bad omen.  Recent research by Australian John Guenther pointing out the value of assessing the social capital of school-community partnerships and the effectiveness of alternative special education programs for at-risk children are lost on the Ontario educational insiders. So are legitimate concerns raised about the costs of rebuilding a complete battery of system-wide “soft” measures. Where student assessment standards whither and public accountability falters, mediocrity is not far behind.

Why are North American ‘neo-progressive’ educators abandoning academic standards and looking to broaden or kill the PISA assessments?  What is the real purpose of Ontario’s People for Education initiative promoting Broader Success measures for students and schools?  To what extent is that initiative motivated by the desire to return to an “accountability-free ” school system?  Can moral standards and social responsibility be quantified, and — if so- for what purpose?  Finally, will any of these changes produce students who are better educated, productive, resilient, and prepared to thrive in the 21st century?

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“Which school is the best?” That is one of the questions most commonly asked by today’s parents. Since most parents want what’s best for their children, it is a question which never goes away. Yet it’s also a question that almost always elicits an equivocal response and then a “mini-lecture” from most educators. Ranking schools, we are told, is a dangerous “free market” business concept, it threatens to unleash cut-throat competition, and it unfairly labels as “bad” many schools in lower income neighbourhoods.

Most education departments and school boards have responded to rising parental expectations and now accept the need for provincial testing to assess student performance, normally beginning in Grade 2 and extending to Grade 12 graduating year. Standardized testing is now commonplace and individual school accountability reports are becoming more prevalent, but the idea of rating or ranking schools still meets stiff resistance within the public school system. Educational authorities, strongly supported by teacher unions, continue to hold the line.

The lively public debate over the rankings has now spread to virtually every province. Although school rankings were first introduced in the 1990s by the Vancouver-based Fraser Institute, the Atlantic Institute of Market Studies (AIMS) has now emerged as its chief proponent. Since 2003, AIMS has produced Annual High School Report Cards ranking all schools in Atlantic Canada. In early February 2010, AIMS expanded into Western Canada, releasing their first High School Report Cards for British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan.

Where do the Canadian provinces stand on the question of school rankings? The Fraser Institute high school rankings have gained grudging acceptance in BC, Alberta and Quebec. Ranking public schools remains hotly contested terrain in Ontario. Among the western provinces, BC and Alberta provide the most public disclosure of results. “Manitoba operates in the dark ages,” declared AIMS Report Card authors Bobby O’Keefe and Rick Audas. The recently released AIMS school rankings made news headlines in early February 2010 across the West and earned high editorial praise from the Winnipeg Free Press.

Canadian educational authorities, backed by teacher unions, are dead-set against system-wide rankings of public schools. The vehemence of the response from Canadian educators begs the key question: Why does Ranking Schools remain one of the great “taboos” in the world of education? Join the conversation.

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