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Archive for the ‘School Reform’ 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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Striving for the “full inclusion” of all students in the regular classroom may be a worthy goal, but it makes teaching far more challenging and cannot satisfactorily meet the needs of all children.   A few Canadian provincial school systems, following the lead of New Brunswick, have elevated “inclusive education” to an exalted status. For many children and teens with severe learning disabilities or complex needs, it is not the most enabling learning environment. It’s also rendering today’s diverse classes, at certain times, nearly impossible for regular teachers to teach.

spedclasscompositionTeacher surveys identify class management as a fundamental problem and “class composition” as the biggest obstacle to professional satisfaction.  Building upon Canadian school research, it’s clear that special needs policy, designed by theorists, is not working and needs rethinking to achieve a better educational environment for teachers and students alike. That was the theme of my recent researchED presentation, October 29, 2016, in Washington, DC. 

Class size is a well-diagnosed and much studied question with much of the research driven by teacher unions. Back in September 2013, Gordon Thomas of the Alberta Teachers Association (ATA), used a class of 37 students as an example of the challenges facing stressed-out high school teachers. In his worst case scenario, out of the 37 students, four had learning disabilities, five were in transition from other provinces, one exhibited serious behavioural issues, three were repeating the course, seven were functioning below grade level, and one was chronically absent because of a dysfunctional home life.

In such overcrowded classes, Thomas asked, how can we expect teachers to provide constructive and rewarding learning experiences, let alone introduce innovative practices? Coping in such diverse classrooms goes far beyond class size and raises the hidden issue of “class composition.”

Most Special Education researchers concur that “smaller classes have the greatest positive impact on students with the greatest educational needs.” (OISE-UT/CEA, 2010). It is now clear that both class size and diversity matter.

spedintensivesupportspedovercrowdedteacherToday teachers try to adapt their teaching to address the individual needs of the learners in their regular classrooms. As the classroom becomes larger and more diverse, this task becomes increasingly onerous. All of this has obvious implications for inclusive education. The success of “Inclusion” is, in large measure, determined by the extent to which teachers have the necessary supports and services to be able to effectively integrate students with special educational needs into their classrooms and schools.

Class size reductions from K to 3 and possibly beyond can produce student achievement gains (Canadian Council on Learning 2005), provided that the total context is conducive to such improvement. Three critical factors have been identified:

1.Complementary policies and practice supporting higher student achievement (i.e., raised expectations, positive discipline, regular assessment, teacher PD);

2. Contradictory policies and practice that undermines the potential benefit of class size reductions (i.e., full inclusion, social promotion, student competencies gap, language challenges);

3. Rising class sizes at higher grade levels – from grades 7 to 12 (i.e., removal of class size caps, integration of learning disabilities and ELL students).

Class sizes have actually dropped in all Canadian provinces except British Columbia over the past 15 years. At the macro-economic level from 2001-o2 to 2010-11, student enrollment has dropped 6.5%, the number of educators rose 7.5%, the student-teacher ratio declined by 12.9%, and spending per pupil rose by 61.4%. Class size reductions and caps from K to Grade 3 or Grade 6 may explain the overall smaller class sizes.

In the Spring of 2011, the Canadian Teacher’s Federation (CTF) conducted a national teacher survey on the theme of The Teacher Voice on Teaching and Learning to seek input from across Canada on teacher concerns. The CTF survey provided a snapshot of what class size and composition looked like across the country. The survey secured responses from  nearly 3,800 teachers representing 9,894 classes in English and French schools.  The sample teacher pool was drawn from 12 participating CTF member organizations.

Class Size Analysis: Average class size was 21.3 students, ranging from 22.1 students for grades 4-8 to 19 students for junior kindergarten or kindergarten (JK-K). English schools (including French Immersion) had an average class size of nearly 22 students, while French as a first language schools had a slightly smaller average class size of just over 19 students.

spedavpergradelevelctfClass Size by Grade Level: Over a third of the classes for all grade levels combined contained 25 students or more (8.3% contained 30 students or more). For grades 4-8, nearly 39% of classes contained 25 students or more (6.5% contained 30 or more); for grades 9 and over, 40.3% of classes contained 25 students or more (13.5% – over 1 in 7 classrooms – contained 30 or more students); for grades 1-3, just over 14% of classes contained 25 students or more; for JK-K, nearly 12% of classes contained 25 students or more.

Average Number of Special Needs Students: Students with identified exceptionalities (i.e., designated behavioural problems or mental or physical disabilities, as well as other special needs students including gifted students); and English Language Learners and French Language Learners (defined as students whose first language differs from the school’s primary language of instruction, and requiring supports).  The average number of students with identified exceptionalities per class was 3.5, ranging from 3.8 students for grades 4-8 to 1.9 students for junior kindergarten/kindergarten.

Class Composition – Grade 4 and Over: Students with identified exceptionalities accounted for 16.3% of total students in the surveyed classrooms, ranging from respective shares of 17.1% for grades 4-8 to 10% of students for junior kindergarten and kindergarten. Of classes surveyed, over 81% have at least one student with formally identified exceptionalities, and 27.7% contain 5 or more students with identified exceptionalities. In grades 4 and over, not only were class sizes generally larger but almost 1 in 3 (30.6%) classes contained 5 or more students with identified exceptionalities.

Students with Language Learning Challenges: The average number of English Language Learners and French Language Learners (ELL/FLL students) per class was 2.6. The prevalence was higher the lower the grade, ranging from 4.7 students for junior kindergarten/kindergarten to 1.7 students for grades 9 and over. ELL/FLL students accounted for an average 12.2% of total students in the classroom, ranging from respective shares of 24.7% for junior kindergarten / kindergarten to 8.2% for grades 9 and over.

The CTF survey looked at students “identified” as Special Needs, but did not include students who were undiagnosed or those with other glaring needs such as students from low-income families (with poverty-related issues of hunger, illness, instability), students with mental health problems, or immigrant and refugee students.

spednbclassroomMy researchED 2016 Washington  presentation also delved into two Class Composition case studies – Inclusive Education in New Brunswick, 2006 to 2016, and Class Size and Composition in British Columbia, 2012 to 2016. In the case of New Brunswick, a province recently honoured by Zero Project for its “legally-binding policy of inclusion” in Feburary 2016, Guy Arsenault and the NBTA are now demanding a full Special Education review to secure “positive learning environments” and come to the aid of teachers forced to “don Kelvar clothing in the classrooms.”  Out west, in British Columbia, a five-week 2015 BCTF teachers’ strike has produced only meagre gains in containing class sizes, while more and more classes have four or more and seven or more Special Needs students.

The real life classroom is not only far more diverse, it’s increasing challenging to manage let alone teach anything substantive. Class Size based upon Student-Teacher Ratios has long been accepted and used in staffing schools, but its utility is now being questioned by front line teachers. Student diversity, driven by “Inclusion” and the growing numbers of severely learning-challenged and disadvantaged kids is the new normal. The rise of “Coddled Kids” and “Helicopter Parents” has compounded the challenges. Tackling Class Composition is emerging as the top priority in teacher-led school reform.

Why is class composition emerging as the biggest problem facing front line teachers?  Why do we continue to focus so much on simply reducing class sizes? What’s standing in the way of us tackling the ‘elephant in the room’ — class composition in today’s schools? 

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The recognized dean of Canadian education reporters, Louise Brown of The Toronto Star, has just stepped down and will leave a gigantic hole in the field.  Why that is so is worthy of a commentary on the state of the Education Beat in Canada as well as the United States.

EducationBeatLouiseBrownFor over thirty years, Louise not only “covered” education and family life, but produced numerous in-depth pieces demonstrating her formidable enterprise reporting skills and commitment to media accuracy. In her recent August 6, 2016 farewell piece, she identified the abandonment of Ontario Grade 13 as “the biggest mistake” of the past 30 years. It demonstrated, once again, the critical importance of “institutional memory” in education reporting.

Reading Louise’s retrospective piece prompted me to start investigating the state of Education Beat journalism and to look for research on recent trends over the past decade.  A May 2016 report, State of the Education Beat 2016, produced by the Education Writers Association, revealed how different the situation is on the other side of the continental line.

Based upon a survey of 400  American “education journalists,” the average reporter is a woman, 36 years old with 11 years experience and almost four of five (79 %) of the respondents are “very or fairly satisfied with their jobs.”  Optimism oozed from the report and the EWA made a bold declaration: “Education journalism is a field with a future.”

The EWA was, of course, attempting to dispel the myth abroad in the land of journalism that covering education is a “beginner beat” where novice reporters are broken-in and mark time waiting for more prestigious assignments to materialize at the newspaper or local television station.  Surveying local education reporters over the past forty years, most have looked (to me) either totally bored covering school board meetings or so completely out-to-sea as to be easy prey for board communications officers. 

EducationBeatEWACover2016Digging more deeply into the EWA 2016 report, a different, more familiar pattern begins to emerge. Most education journalists (60 per cent) work for newspapers, reporting in print and online. Very few are employed in television (4 %) and today’s education journalists are surprisingly critical of the token, superficial coverage provided on local television. The fastest growing segment, education-focused news outlets, like Ed Surge, Education Next or Chalkbeat, employ 22 per cent of American reporters, a field largely absent in Canada.

When it comes to nagging professional challenges, there is remarkable convergence across the border. Based upon my ongoing conversations with beat reporters, over forty years, the critical issues remain remarkably consistent: 1) being spread far too thin covering K-12 and PSE education or periodically reassigned to general reporting duties; 2) shortage of expertise, particularly among senior editors and regular reporters; 3) the spread of data analytics, skewing coverage to “click bait” topics or reactive reporting.

Two-thirds of American education reporters report having little or no difficulty getting in-person access to schools and campuses. The vast majority of them ( 88 per cent) still report getting their information primarily from school system insiders, via teachers (89%), news releases (89%), local education leaders (82%), or education departments (80%). Most “story leads” (70 %) are “planted” by school district communications officers, and only 41% are generated by academic research and 37% by education think tanks. Only 20 per cent of U.S. reporters admit that they find themselves covering topics they “don’t really understand.”

One-third of American education journalists find it difficult to penetrate the school or university system. Getting in-person access to schools or campuses is difficult for them and almost one-out-of four (23 %) of reporters find educational leaders either “uncooperative or hostile” toward them, effectively denying access. It would be interesting to know why this happens and whether, as one might assume, it is retribution for writing critical pieces on education.

Education reporting in Canada, based upon my experience, is in considerably worse shape. Few of our beat reporters make a career of covering education and those that do achieve legendary status. Over the past thirty years, only a handful have either registered as major players or stayed long enough to make a real impact. The Toronto Star’s Louise Brown belongs in that company, but so does Janet Steffenhagen of the Vancouver Sun, who, for fifteen years broke many stories in British Columbia education, most notably the crisis that tore apart the former BC College of Teachers. Promising education reporters such as Hugo Rodrigues of the Sun News chain and Frances Willick of The Chronicle Herald are more typical — making their mark and then moving on in journalism.

OverdueAssignmentCoverCanada’s national newspaper, The Globe and Mail, has employed an Education Reporter for years, but none better than Jennifer Lewington in the late 1980s and early 1990s.  She is also, to my knowledge, the only one ever to write a book about the state of education. Her 1993 book, co-authored with Graham Orpwood, Overdue Assignment, still offers the most thorough, insightful analysis of the “fortress-like,” self-absorbed school system.  It’s safe to say that educational leaders who dared to take her calls had done their homework.

One Canadian education news outlet that does exert influence inside the school system is the Canadian Education Association. Official education news has found a reliable outlet in the CEA, particularly through the pages of the CEA magazine, Education Canada, and, more recently, the CEA Blog. Provincial education ministries and faculty of education professors find Education Canada most useful in trumpeting new initiatives or disseminating research supporting those initiatives.  Under the guidance of Max Cooke, the CEA Blog has become more interactive, publishing many thoughtful pieces by former teacher Stephen Hurley, the curator of  VoiceED Canada, a truly unique open-ended online venture in a field too often characterized by echo chamber conversations.

Education commentators tend to fill the void in Canadian public education. Of all Canadian daily columnists, Margaret Wente, is — by far – the most influential and the most feared, judging by the rather foolish attempts of a University of Toronto OISE “Facts in Education” truth squad to discredit her opinions.  Manitoba social studies teacher Michael Zwaagstra, a tireless newspaper column writer, and Edmonton Journal online writer-editor, David Staples, regularly bang the drum for higher standards, improved math instruction, and proper teaching of reading.

Over the past month, two feisty and incredibly determined Canadian education reformers, Malkin Dare and Doretta Wilson, have taken a step back from the education battleground.  For over thirty years, “Aunt Malkin” of Waterloo, Ontario, the founder of the Society for Quality Education, churned out hundreds and hundreds of short research summaries and columns championing not only phonics and systematic reading instruction, but school choice and charter schools. As Executive Administrator of SQE, Doretta was the public face of the movement, appearing regularly on Ontario radio and television shows.

Education reform tends to get short-shrift in the Canadian popular press but not so in the United States. A May 2016 American Enterprise Institute (AEI) paper, How the Press Covers Charter Schools, reveals just how vibrant the public discourse is in American newspapers, magazines, and the electronic media. Based upon 2015 coverage in seven major news outlets, Rick Hess and his AEI team found a relatively balanced division of opinion, perhaps reflecting that country’s deeper right-left divisions.

One fascinating finding was the influence of gatekeepers such as Valerie Strauss, Editor of The Answer Sheet, a widely-read  regular feature in The Washington Post.  Of 36 Washington Post stories coded and analyzed, some 17 were from The Answer Sheet and, of those, nine were critical or “negative” on charter schools, eight were neutral, and none judged supportive or “positive” toward the reform.  Her presence, AEI noted, skewed Post coverage against school reform.

Carrying the torch for so-called “progressive education” in Strauss’s fashion would not even raise an eyebrow in Canadian educational circles. That’s why no one even asks why Toronto’s perennial education commentator Annie Kidder, founder of education funding lobby group People for Education, is quoted in a surprising number of  news stories generated by Toronto news media outlets. News biases are invisible in the mainstream Canadian educational echo chamber.

What’s happened to the education beat in Canada and the United States?  Why do so many education reporters simply recycle school district media releases or content themselves reacting to official policy pronouncements? Is there cause for the optimism reflected in the 2016 EWA report on the state of the field?  Who is going to fill the void in Canada left by the departures of veteran reporters like Louise Brown, Janet Steffenhagen, and Jennifer Lewington?

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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MerryGoRoundHangTightSurveying Canadian K-12 education in 2014 conjures up, for some peculiar reason, the image of a carnival Merry-Go-Round. The multi-coloured wooden horses representing Canada’s 10 provincial and three territorial education authorities continue to spin around in predictable circles, but periodic breakdowns not only cause a change in riders, but also unsettle the clientele.

Spinning wheels and running without a steady, consistent ride conductor (Chair, Council of Ministers of Education) does not improve either public enjoyment or satisfaction levels. It does produce a ride with a few notable highs and lows.

High Points – Hopeful Signs

High School Attainment Levels
More Canadians than ever before, Statistics Canada reported, are successfully completing high school. While rising secondary school graduation rates signify improved attainment but not necessarily higher achievement, they are a positive educational indicator. Three out of four students (73%) complete high school in three years, with Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Ontario leading the pack (at 80%+) and Quebec and the Territories still lagging behind, from 66% to only 12%. The rank order raised eyebrows because it runs counter to most student achievement test-based assessments.

Crowd-Sourcing Education Reform
Nova Scotia’s long anticipated October 2014 Education Review report, entitled “Disrupting the Status Quo,” finally gave voice to public concerns. Since half of the population was “dissatisfied with the public school system,” the report claimed changes were in order, stunning most of the system’s ‘insiders.’ Many of the recommended changes, based upon 19,000 survey responses, point to the critical need for a shake-up in teaching the basic skills, special education, teacher evaluation/certification and public accountability.

Big Jump for a Small Province
The Pan-Canadian Assessment 2013 report contained a little surprise. On the Grade 8 level national tests, Quebec students still lead in Math (Mean 527), Alberta students are tops in Science (Mean 521), and Ontario students perform best in Reading (524). Yet among the middle range provincial performers, little PEI was the big gainer. Students from PEI showed the biggest gains, finishing ahead of Nova Scotia in Reading (494 vs. 488), in Math (492 vs. 488), and close in Science (491 vs. 492). Island students also outperformed British Columbia students in Math for the first time.

Resurgence of Math Fundamentals
The teaching of elementary Math continued to be a zone of conflict in most provinces, with the possible exception of Quebec. Concerned parents, supported by Winnipeg Math professors Robert Craigen and Anna Stokke, have challenged “Discovery Math”, urging ministries of education to focus on Math fundamentals before free exploration. After securing Manitoba Math curriculum changes, the WISE Math movement spread to Alberta, Ontario and BC. When tens of thousands of Albertans petitioned Alberta Education, Education Minister Jeff Johnson relented, requiring students to learn their math facts and master standard operations.

Innovation in Joint Use of Schools
Community school planning and partnerships are bubbling up in Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia. Nine new Saskatchewan schools will be designed to be used jointly by Catholic and public boards and built using public-private partnership funding, serving the Regina, Saskatoon, Martensville and Warman communities. In Nova Scotia, the Provincial School Review Committee headed by Bob Fowler succeeded in securing changes in school closure legislation and a new set of regulations enabling the creation of Community Hub Schools. Innovation talk may eventually lead to action at the school level.

Low Points– Troubling Signs

British Columbia Teacher Strike Disruption
A full-blown, year-long “Class War” erupted pitting the militant leadership of the provincial Teachers Federation (BCTF) against the hard line Christy Clark BC Liberal Government. The dispute over salary scales and class size dragged out for months, ending the 2013-14 school year two weeks early and delaying the start of the current one by three weeks, costing teachers up to $10,000 in lost salaries. The BCTF membership eventually accepted a six-year deal including a 7.25 per cent salary increase, added extended health benefits, better teaching-on-call rates, and more specialist teachers.

Toronto School Board Meltdown
Canada’s largest school board, the TDSB, was engulfed in one crisis after another. Chief superintendent Donna Quan, who succeeded the disgraced Dr. Chris Spence, ran into hot water of her own. Controversy erupted over the TDSB’s ‘secret’ deal with the Confucius Institute, forcing Chair Chris Bolton to abruptly resign. Then a sizable faction of the board’s 22 elected trustees, including Howard Goodman, came into direct conflict with Quan, demanding access to personnel files. Trustee Goodman was charged with forcible confinement and criminal harassment of Quan, and Education Minister Liz Sandals finally stepped-in, putting the whole board under review.

Rejection of Chevron Schools Program
A raging controversy arose when the Vancouver School Board, led by Superintendent Steve Cardwell, elected to block the Chevron Fuel Your Schools program, turning down the potential for $400,000 in extra support for student activities. When mayoralty challenger Kirk Lapointe publicly criticized the decision, VSB Chair Patti Bacchus held firm, denouncing Big Oil and its insidious influences on children. Public opinion shifted enough to deny Bacchus’ Vision Team candidates a majority, bringing an end to her colourful 6-year tenure as Chair.

Drake University ‘Bird Course’ Salary Upgrades
Dozens of Nova Scotia teachers were revealed in February 2014 to have been boosting their salaries by thousands of dollars a year, acquiring additional credentials by taking ‘bird courses’ offered through Drake University’s online distance learning program. NSTU president Shelley Morse immediately spoke up defending the teachers who took the easy route to secure hefty salary increases. Even after the Education Minister stopped the practice, the union remained undeterred, calling it an “unprovoked attack” on teachers. .

School Board Video-cam Bans
Closed door school board meetings continue to persist, as demonstrated in two different school jurisdictions. Sudbury parents Dylan and Anita Gibson, banned in 2012 from the Rainbow District School Board office for videotaping meetings, then served with a no trespass order, campaigned unsuccessfully in October 2014 for elected trustee positions. Undaunted, Anita fights on for public transparency with her Facebook group, Parents Paying Attention. On November 18, the North Vancouver board banned school reformers Shane Nelson and Kerry Morris from videotaping a public meeting, eventually pressuring the newly elected board to reverse its stance a month later at its inaugural meeting.

MerryGoRoundOnOffThe Education Carousel went ‘round and round’ in 2014 as the principal riders jumped on and off the carnival ride. Chairmanship of the Council of Education Ministers passed from Alberta’s beleaguered Jeff Johnson to his successor Gordon Dirks, two powerful Board Chairs, Chris Bolton and Patti Bacchus, were toppled in Toronto and Vancouver, and Hamilton Wentworth chief superintendent John Malloy was promoted upward in the wake of school closure protests and a significant election turnover of trustees.

Changes at the top may have altered the faces, but the system continued its familiar spin, albeit at different speeds on at least ten different carousels.

What’s your reaction to my Canadian national Report Card for 2014?  Have the true “highs” and “lows” been identified — and what’s been missed in this year end review? Now that the Report Card is out, it’s over to you.

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American education historian Diane Ravitch once enjoyed a reputation as one of the leading public intellectuals of our time. After four decades of impressive historical research and compelling writing pushing at the boundaries of education reform, she has now emerged almost unrecognizable as the fiercest critic of school reform in the United States. Her two most recent books, The Death and Life of the Great American School System (2010) and the sequel Reign of Error (2013), bear witness to that radical transformation and provide clues to the fundamental question: What in the world has happened to Diane Ravitch?

RavitchDeathCoverHer 2010 national best seller, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, marks a radical break in her reform advocacy. Much of the book is a revisionist interpretation of the previous decade of education reform, but it also represents a startling about-face. The leading advocate of testing and accountability emerges, almost born-again, as a fierce critic of the Barak Obama –Arne Duncan ‘Race to the Top’ reform agenda, especially standardized testing, school choice and the closure of low-performing schools. “I too had fallen for the latest panaceas and miracle cures,” she confesses, but, as time wore on, simply “lost the faith” (pp. 3 and 4).

Always known for her independent, contrarian streak, Ravitch was again swimming against the tide. Under George W. Bush’s NCLB , she contended that the whole standards movement had been “hijacked” by the testing movement. Instead of focusing upon curriculum reform, “standardized test scores” were considered “the primary measure of school quality.” “Good education,” she wrote, “cannot be achieved by a strategy of testing children, shaming educators, and closing schools”(p. 111). Charter schools, according to Ravitch, had strayed from the original concept best articulated in 1988 by then American Federation of Teachers president Albert Shanker. Instead of becoming a vehicle for empowering teachers to initiate innovative methods of reaching disaffected students, it evolved into a means of advancing privatization, producing an “education industry” dominated by entrepreneurs, philanthropists, and venture capitalists (pp. 123-4). Test-based accountability, Ravitch now claimed, narrowed the curriculum and was being used in inappropriate ways to identify ‘failing schools,’ fire educators, determine bonuses, and close schools, distorting the purpose of schooling altogether (p. 167).

Ravitch focuses much of her scathing criticism on what she termed the “Billionaire Boys’ Club.” Since the turn of the millennium, she claims that the traditional educational foundation world had been significantly changed by the emergence of a new breed of venture philanthropists. By 2002, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, and the Eli Broad Foundation had emerged to frame and dominate the school reform agenda. School choice, turnaround schools strategies, and competitive market incentives were all harnessed in mostly failed attempts to leverage improved student test scores. “with so much money and power aligned against the neighbourhood public school and the teaching profession, she bluntly forecast that “public education itself is placed at risk” (p. 222).

Ravitch’s The Fall and Life of the Great American School System harkened back to A Nation at Risk and made a compelling case that American school reform has lost its way. In rejecting the charter school panacea and test-based accountability, she sets out a reasonable, balanced approach to educational improvement. Raising academic standards utilizing the Common Core Curriculum continue to be the centrepiece of her reformist philosophy, but she is more sanguine about the likelihood of reaching a national consensus, settling for a sound balanced curriculum including history, civics, geography, literature, the arts and sciences, foreign languages, and physical/health education. “ If our schools had an excellent curriculum, appropriate assessment and well-educated teachers,” she concludes, “we would be way ahead of where we are now in renewing our school system’ (p. 239).

Swept up in the wave of public reaction to her 2010 book, Ravitch sought to answer the question posed but not fully explored – where should American education be heading? A completely reformed fiery warrior emerges in Reign of Error, a book with an attention grabbing, inflammatory subtitle: “The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools.” Expanding upon her critique of the American venture philanthropists, she restates her strong opposition to blind faith in charters, testing excesses, shuttering ‘failing’ schools, and removing ‘bad’ teachers. Without the same tone of authenticity and humility, Reign of Error descends into polemic and reads, for the most part, like an angry diatribe. Not quite prepared to provide a constructive path forward, she simply sets out to crush her former allies, now seen as enemies, real and imagined.

RavitchSoundBitesIn the opening chapter of Reign of Error, Diane Ravitch stuns the reader by claiming that there is “no crisis” in American education. “Public education is not broken,” she writes. “It is not failing or declining. Our urban schools are in trouble because of concentrated poverty and racial segregation….Public education is in crisis only so far as society is and only so far as this new narrative of crisis has de-stabilized it” (p. 4). In her book introduction, she also states: “ I do not contend that schools are fine just as they are. They are not. American education needs higher standards for those who enter the teaching profession. It needs higher standards for those who become principals and superintendents. It needs stronger and deeper curriculum in every subject…” (p. xii). You will look in vain, as New Jersey teaching expert Grant Wiggins (2013) noted, for any serious discussion of how to tackle that second set of problems.

The “crisis” myth, according to the newly radicalized Diane Ravitch, is only sustained by “orchestrated attacks” on teachers and principals. “These attacks,” she declares,” create a false sense of crisis and serve the interests of those who want to privatize the public schools.” In an attempt to overturn the prevailing narrative, she argues that these ‘outsiders’ represent not reform but the status quo in education. Together, they form a dangerous bipartisan alliance committed to “corporate reform” and encompassing a broad spectrum from Education Secretary Duncan to Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and the Bezos Foundation, from the Hoover Institution to Hollywood, purveyors of films like Waiting for Superman. Since education is not really in crisis, Ravitch contends that all of these interests are destroying the public school system while pursuing an illusion.

Making such claims can win you legions of followers inside the system, but also damage your credibility as a respected scholar purporting to present an “evidence-based” assessment of the state of education. In the chapter entitled “The Facts about the International Test Scores,” Ravitch’s analysis simply does not hold water, especially when it comes to the mathematics scores of U.S. students, compared with other top performing countries. While U.S. grade 4 students do perform reasonably well on basic operations, they are not competitive with the Taiwanese, for example, at higher performance levels. Seventeen-year old Americans, not referenced by Ravitch, have stagnated in reading and mathematics since the first tests in the early 1970s.

In defending teacher autonomy, Ravitch tends to ignore research on the impact of effective teaching on student achievement levels. If New Zealander John Hattie (2008) is correct, teaching may well account for 30 cent or more of student improvement and highly effective teachers can add an extra year or two of growth in achievement level. Without advocating for the firing of teachers on the basis of ‘half-baked’ test-based assessment systems, there is much evidence that poor performance is tolerated for variety of reasons. National estimates from the U.S. Department of Education confirm that, on average, school districts only dismiss 1.4% of tenured teachers and 0.7% of probationary teachers each year.

Instead of focusing so much on the sinister influence of “Billionaire Boys’ Club,” Ravitch might have been more convincing if she had actually produced a coherent reform agenda based upon curriculum improvement and enhancing teacher effectiveness. More vigorous advocacy on her part might have bolstered and possibly salvaged more of the Common Core Curriculum which she campaigned so hard to get on the national policy agenda. Rather than tackling the structural problems, Ravitch may have exerted more impact by venturing into what Larry Cuban (2013) terms the “Black Box” of the classroom. Improving teaching pedagogy, student assessment, and the consistency of teaching, educators like Wiggins insist, would certainly help far more to advance school improvement and student learning, whatever the form or organization of the school.

Over the past five years, Diane Ravitch has become more of an education reform warrior than a credible scholar, especially when she ventures well outside the field of educational history. Since discovering Twitter five years ago, she has become a serial tweeter spewing out snappy 140 character comments and regularly goes ad hominem with those holding opposite views. Standing on the Save Our Schools rally platform on the Ellipse in July 2011, Ravitch spoke for only eight minutes, all in punchy protest sentences. Slogans and sloganeering, as Brian Crittenden reminded us back in 1969, are no substitute for serious thinking and confronting the many contradictions in educational discourse.

American education reform today is a contested terrain occupied by tribalists. Side-stepping critical education reform issues such as teacher quality that might offend camp followers is right out-of-character for Ravitch, the once independently-minded public intellectual. Former reform allies like Frederick Hess, a respected conservative policy analyst, who welcomed The Fall and Life of the Great American School System, now chastise her for becoming a virtual mouthpiece of the teachers’ unions. Whether you think education is in crisis or not, Ravitch’s latest books provide an inventive, perplexing re-interpretation, but will do little to help us overcome the current impasse.

Why is American education reform such a polarized field of public policy?  What happens to respected scholars like Diane Ravitch when they get absorbed into the Manichean world view?  Whatever happened to Ravitch’s deep commitment to putting higher standards and curriculum reform before teacher autonomy and advocacy? Will the tribalism fostered in the School Wars ultimately lead anywhere?

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The Maritime province of Nova Scotia is now fully engaged in a rather unique education reform experiment.  A recent Education Review, headed by former Lieutenant-Governor Myra Freeman, went to the public with a very broad, diffuse agenda and opened the door through online surveys to allow 19,000 Nova Scotians to identify the Primary to Grade 12 system’s strengths and weaknesses and to register their ‘satisfaction level” with the state of curriculum, teaching, and learning.

ClassroomSceneThe Nova Scotia Government got an earful, especially from parents, community members and regular teachers.  It came in the form of an October 30, 2014 report, entitled, Disrupting the Status Quo:  Nova Scotians Demand a Better Future for Every Student. “When 50 per cent of Nova Scotians are not satisfied,” Education Minister Karen Casey declared, “I know it’s time for change.”

The stark reality, unearthed by the Minister’s Panel on Education survey exercise, led by Freeman, is that education “insiders” and “outsiders” inhabit parallel universes. A majority of parents and community members think that, putting it crudely, “the system sucks.” Two out of three school administrators, board staff, and hand-picked high school students are quite satisfied with the world as it is in the schools.

Boring down into the findings of the Freeman panel’s nine-month long study and survey findings, a major shakeup may well be ahead, but it’s still hard to divine a clear set of priorities. The minister and her department appear to be “crowd-sourcing” their educational vision.

While Freeman was introducing her Oct. 30 report, two bulletin boards full of strategic change planning schematics on the wall in the Department of Education briefing room caught my eye. The display board to the left entitled “DoE Strengths & Challenges” was pretty predictable, but the board on the right, under the headline “Change Ed Vision” was more revealing. Under “Managing Change through Communication,” it stated “the Dept. of Ed is a leader in innovative collaboration & learning for the success of every student.” Such formulaic edu-babble seemed totally at odds with Freeman’s well-rehearsed call for “disruptive” change.

The external messaging is, of course, dramatically different than the internal strategizing. With the system’s clients demanding changes, the time for tinkering with the system should be over. The diagnosis may be “patient condition critical,” but the panel’s prescriptions are all over the map, attempting to address seven rather disparate afflictions.

With seven “themes” and 30 guiding recommendations, the broad, “holistic approach” is so scattered that it’s ripe for cherry-picking and instant analysis. Empowering school boards to “fire teachers for sub-standard performance” and “increasing the number of credits needed for graduation from high school” captured the headlines, but hardly constitute an overall turnaround strategy.

A deeper dive reveals evidence of serious deficiencies in the system. While Ben Levin’s  April 2011 education review declared Nova Scotia to be a “good system,” the Freeman panel learned otherwise. “The current system,” they conclude, “is failing our students and the public has sent a strong message that there is an urgent need for change.”

Many parts of the system are deemed to “not be working well” and need major reform. “A one size-fits-all curriculum,” to cite a glaring example, “is not serving students well. The pace is too slow for some, too fast for others.”

NSPrepNextGradeSerious parental concerns have been registered over the quality of teaching and learning. Only 62 per cent of parent respondents felt that students receive “highly effective teaching in their classes.” Most alarmingly, only 49 per cent of parents and some 33 per cent of community members feel students are being “well prepared to move onto the next grade.” Fewer still believe graduates are being “well prepared” for either university or the workforce.

Critical questions have been posed and expectations raised sky-high for system-wide change. Surveying those scattered recommendations, a few possible policy initiatives do present themselves. Teacher quality reform, toyed with in the 2012 Kids & Learning First report, is back on the public agenda. On the heels of our March 2014 AIMS report, “Maintaining Spotless Records,” it’s now morphed into setting higher faculty of education admission standards, more rigorous teacher performance evaluation and removing administrators from the teachers’ union.

The February 2014 public row over Drake University “bird course” teacher salary upgrades obviously struck a chord with the public, if not with the teachers’ union. “Initial teacher classification, advancement in classification levels, and pay increases,” the panel recognizes, “need to be tied to system requirements and strong performance in assigned duties.”

Student conduct and discipline may well finally get addressed. The panel heard, loud and clear, that “punctuality, attendance, organization, and responsibility” were lacking, adversely affecting graduates’ “job and life-related competencies.”

After a decade of promoting higher graduation levels and adopting “no fail” policies, the panel found “social promotion” was causing a whole set of new student performance problems. Openly confronting the “attainment-achievement” gap and aligning grade progression with actual student competency levels will be a massive undertaking.

Inclusion of special education students continues to be a serious concern for teachers as well as parents and student support staff. Fewer than one in three respondents in those categories feel special education services are “meeting the needs of all students.” Instead of confronting the problem head on, the panel reverts to the usual response — add “more learning supports.”

The Freeman report’s rhetoric about “disrupting the status quo” echoes the battle cry of Ray Ivany’s Now or Never Nova Scotia report. It all sounds good, but it’s still hard to imagine two consummate insiders, Freeman and Casey, leading the charge. Winning over those wedded to the status quo will be a formidable challenge.

What does “disruptive change” actually mean in education – and do “insiders” and “outsiders” see it the same way?  Who’s defending the Status Quo in Nova Scotia and elsewhere — and where are they hiding?  Are calls for “disruptive change” just a way of blowing-off stem and intended more as “expressions of sentiment” rather than policy direction?  Will education ‘ insiders’ ever warm to such changes or will it require a wholesale change in school administration at every level?

 

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Today’s North American Education Debate is so circular that it’s getting to be tiresome. Surveying the Education Wars at a distance, it begins to resemble a “merry-go-round.” Recent serious contributions such as David L. Kirp’s New York Times column “Teaching is Not a Business” seem to get it half right. Peeling away the layers to get at its complexity is even posing a challenge for perceptive analysts like Frederick (Rick) Hess, curator of Education Week’s Straight Up blog. Few education observers in Canada have the temerity to even attempt a diagnosis let alone offer a prescription.

EdReformFuturesNorth American school reformers now routinely declare that “schools are broken and need to be fixed.”  Some committed school reform warriors seek to promote charter schools to introduce competition; others embrace “disruptive innovation” to unfreeze a monopolistic education system. Defenders of the status quo in public education respond that students are graduating at ever higher levels and, besides, “education is not a business.” A new breed of futurists wedded to technological transformation are attempting to use machines to implement system-wide “personalized learning.” It’s tempting to say “a pox on all their houses.”

The sad state of the Education Debate is most dramatically revealed in British Columbia public education, where the system is experiencing a protracted ‘crisis’. The gulf separating the Government and the BC Teachers Federation is now a canyon and the total breakdown has all the elements of a “class war” with students as the victims. In this game of brinkmanship, BCTF militants like Tobey Steeves are attempting to depict the conflict as “an encounter” with what Naomi Klein termed the “shock doctrine,” a cruel by-product of world-wide “disaster capitalism.”

It’s time to reclaim the sensible middle ground. More thoughtful educators like Kirp are correct in claiming that “teaching is not a business” and system-wide reforms based upon the business model are bound to fall far short of expectations. Failing to build professional relationships and organizational capacities can and do make or break any —and all –well-intentioned, clearly needed, school reforms.

The real lesson is that system-wide reforms live and die in the classroom.  “It’s impossible to improve education by doing an end run around inherently complicated and messy human relationships,” Kirp wisely points out. “All youngsters need to believe that they have a stake in the future, a goal worth striving for, if they’re going to make it in school. They need a champion, someone who believes in them, and that’s where teachers enter the picture. The most effective approaches foster bonds of caring between teachers and their students.”

Education policy reformers have been very slow to grasp what American educator Robert Evans once termed “the human side” of school change.  Here’s how it works: School reform initiatives come in waves and seasoned teachers do have a built-in “crap detector.”  Most veteran teachers have learned to be skeptical about “faddism” and can often be heard muttering, particularly in secondary school staff rooms , that “it too will pass.”  Change in education is threatening because it always signifies “a loss” of some kind, usually infringing upon teacher freedom or autonomy.

Waves of reform disappear as quickly as they arise at school level.  When provincial testing, or destreaming, or differentiated learning, or one-to-one student laptops fall short of initial expectations, policy-makers and school managers tend to blame it on “confusion” or “implementation problems.”  The severity of the implementation problem, as Rick Hess recently observed, is rarely acknowledged, and even then only when it is too late to turn back.

School reform breaks down and falls apart for a variety of interconnected reasons.  It is determined by how complex and technocratic the measure is (blended learning); whether it’s imposed from the top-down (provincial testing); whether the plan is fully baked (personalized learning); whether incentives exist for effective execution (teacher evaluation); or whether, in Canada, the teacher unions are fully on board with the change.

School leadership is a critical factor, particularly in school systems where superintendents and principals play musical chairs. Block scheduling, destreaming, outcome-based-learning, gradeless schools, and the holistic curriculum were all passing fads that attracted rather opportunistic champions.  Superintendents and principals who embraced them were promoted upwards, leaving others to make it actually work.  More problematic are the “serial champions of reforms” who move from one faddish initiative to another, swinging from student accountability to esteem-building, without missing a beat.

What matters in Canadian education is what happens in our 15,500 schools, spread over 10 provinces and three territories, educating some 5 million children. It is, as Rick Hess reminds us, all about implementation.  “Good policy” is too often stymied by poor implementation because we should be paying more attention, at the outset, to the visible and subterranean implementation challenges.  Introducing charter schools in Canada outside Alberta is perhaps a good example. What if that good, well-intentioned idea is best not pursued because the “winning conditions” are not present and, in any case, broadening parental school choice can be achieved more effectively through other means.

Why have a succession of North American school reform initiatives  since the 1970s come in waves and then disappeared?  In pursuing school reform, are we drawing the right lessons from the business world?  What can be done to find a sensible middle ground in the struggle to improve the performance of both schools and students? Is it possible for us to overcome that hardy perennial – “bad implementation”?  How critical are “organizational capacities” and the teacher-student-parent relationship?

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Teaching all children Mathematics may well be possible. That’s the inspiring lesson delivered by Dr. John Mighton at an April 24 Public Lecture, sponsored by the Mount Saint Vincent Faculty of Education, and attended by 150 curious educators and concerned parents.  He is the founder of JUMP (Junior Undiscovered Math Prodigies), a Toronto-based charitable organization that seeks to “multiply the potential in children” and to instill in them the joy of truly mastering mathematics.

MightonJUMPMathMighton is an incredibly talented mathematician on a mission.  Founded as a kitchen-table tutoring group in 1998, JUMP Math is presently challenging  the prevailing math education “discovery math”  ideology  embraced by North American curriculum consultants and reinforced in textbooks and online resources published by giant learning industry multinationals, Pearson and Oxford/Nelson. Since June of 2013, JUMP Math is breaking out with new adoptions in Manitoba, Calgary, and Vancouver where teachers are looking to significantly improve elementary level student math performance.

The founder of JUMP Math shot to prominence in 2003 with the publication of his book, The Myth of Ability.  Leading mathematicians like Dr. Robert Dawson, Editor of the Canadian Mathematical Society Notes, sat up and took notice.  In the Newsletter, he compared Mighton to the classroom teacher Jaime Escalante in the inspiring feature film, Stand and Deliver.  Both educators, he noted, embraced the idea that mathematics was “something that everybody can learn to do.”  His book, he added, “may be a big step in that direction.”

The Mathematics Education Wars are fought on contested pedagogical terrain and Mighton’s JUMP Math is emerging as a logical and welcome middle ground. In his recent lectures, he makes a persuasive case for a “balanced’ approach, starting with fundamentals and then empowering students to engage in creative problem-solving activities. He’s clear in explaining the limitations of both “drill and fill” traditional teaching and “fuzzy Math” promoted by romantic progressives.

“Students must be empowered to succeed” is his consistent message.  Beginning math instruction is broken down into tiny and carefully-structured chunks, that any student, working with any teacher, can learn thoroughly.  It’s teacher-guided but also exploratory and provides elementary students with the scaffolding needed to possess the knowledge and skills to eventually tackle creative problem-solving.  “Teachers are my heroes,” he says, because they are the ones who have driven the spread of JUMP Math, not the math consultants.

Canadians tend to be slow to embrace their own heroes and seek validation of their talents elsewhere. Mighton holds a Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Toronto, completed NSERC  postdoctoral research in knot and graph theory, teaches Mathematics at U of T, and in 2010 was appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada. He’s also a playwright and script writer, known in Hollywood for his star turn in the feature film Good Will Hunting.

Mighton’s JUMP Math has evolved significantly over the past decade and now boasts supportive classroom effectiveness research, including studies at Toronto Sick Kids Hospital. in Lambeth, UK, and at the Mabin School.  While he was once “the nation’s math conscience,” Manitoba Education Minister James Allum now sees his approach as giving that province an edge over provinces like Alberta, wedded to the standard Western and Northern Canada Protocol (WNCAP) curriculum and continuing with “less successful methods”.

What’s standing in the way of Mathematics education reform?  Two key factors jump out as the obvious explanation – the established “Discovery Learning” ideology and the preponderant influence of its proponents, the late Richard Dunne (1944-2012), creator of Maths Makes Sense, and his Canadian counterpart, Dr. Marian Small, purveyor of Nelson mathematics problem-solving books.  They are a formidable force backed by the Pearson and Oxford/Nelson publishing conglomerates and a small army of textbook author replicators here in Canada.

Richard Dunne and his Canadian camp followers talk about mathematics but their real agenda is to promote a “whole school approach” to discovery learning.   His distinctive teaching style,  initiated at Reading Boys’ Grammar School in the late 1960s, uses concrete “manipulatives” to help kids understand math concepts.  Based upon his theories rather than research, Dunne cut a plastic cup into 10 pieces to demonstrate the meaning of decimals and then developed other dramatic demonstration techniques to introduce children to abstract ideas.

Dunne was a teacher and math consultant rather than a mathematician.  His earlier version of Maths Makes Sense published in the 1980s proved popular with teachers who were non-specialists, but was resisted by many university based mathematicians and then rejected by the British Government in 1989 with the introduction of a more rigorous National Curriculum. Panned in the U.K., his teaching methods enjoyed greater popularity in North America and his version of “Discovery Math”  made a comeback in 2007 with the re-publication of Maths Makes Sense.

Dunne’s “whole school approach” was embraced by North American math consultants education schools seeking to promote “discovery learning” in all subject areas.  Secondary school mathematics specialists remained skeptical and most stayed true to traditional methods, but Discovery Math made deep inroads among regular elementary teachers, often with little or no mathematics training.  It achieved the height of its influence in Canada when the WNCP Math curriculum spread across the provinces, supported by the Pearson Canada Math Makes Sense series of books and online resources.

Declining Mathematics achievement levels from 2003 to 2012, on PISA and Canadian national tests, began to raise red flags.  A WISE Math movement, sparked by Winnipeg math professors Anna Stokke and Robert Craigen, demonstrated the direct relationship between declining scores and the spread of  Dunne-inspired WNCP curricula.  In September 2013, Manitoba re-introduced Math fundamentals and approved JUMP Math for use in the schools.  Over the past year, the number of students studying JUMP Math has jumped from 90,000 to 110,000 as more and more schools are breaking with the entrenched Discovery Math methods and adopting a more systematic, teacher-guided, step-by-step progression in their teaching of early mathematics.

What’s standing in the way of Math correction in North American elementary schools?  Why has the “total school approach” made such inroads in the teaching of Mathematics in the early grades?  Can all or the vast majority of students be taught Mathematics? Will Dr. John Mighton eventually be vindicated for promoting fundamental building blocks?  Which of the Canadian provinces will be next in abandoning the core philosophy of the Discovery Math/WNCP curriculum?

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One of the most stimulating recent ‘think pieces,’  Houman Harouni’s  “What should a School be?has set the cat among the pigeons in the North American education world.  Originally published in The American Reader (Vol. 8, 2013), the Harvard researcher’s article essentially challenges educationists to think more broadly and seek fresh insights from outside their intellectual cocoons.  While many education observers claim that “the school system is broken,”  few actually stop to do what is known as a “deeper dive.”  In our post-modern era of globalization and connectivity, fewer still pause to ask whether the purpose of education should be completely subsumed by“dancing with robots.”

DancingwithRobotsEducation does matter but that is difficult to discern surveying the public debate over the current state and future of schooling.  Harouni, the agent provocateur, captures the  current dialectic in magical prose: “Whether test scores do or don’t measure learning; whether schools should be privatized; whether Wikipedia will replace the teacher; whether we will ever escape Algebra; whether we can measure the ways which kids of color ‘fail’ or ‘succeed’ on exams; whether to teach like a ‘champion,’ a ‘guide.’ or a ‘pirate’; whether the arts are a right or a privilege; all these questions owe their importance to the system of schooling that turned them into questions in the first place.” 

The entire North American education debate, Houman Harouni  contends, “keeps folding back into itself” because it accepts established parameters and is almost entirely based upon “self-referential questions” that perpetuate  “a system that has stagnated for seven generations.”  The promise of grace and salvation, in his view, is not enough to “justify the existence of the modern educational system.”  Leading philosophers of education from John Dewey to today’s ‘pedagodfathers’ , with few exceptions, “do a bang-up job of hiding their complacency behind idealistic cants on the potential of schooling.'”  While it endears them to educators, it is offered up to justify “the existence of schools as distinct spaces”  amid “the absolute dissolution of communities in urban areas.”

What is the purpose of schooling?  Contemporary platitudes are usually served up to answer this question expressing some variation on the theme of ‘preparing students for success in the competitive 21st century global world.’ Such statements are accepted at face value and anyone raising a question about its primacy is invariably ignored or dismissed as a ‘turn-back-the-clocker.’  This state of affairs alone demonstrates why the world needs more education thinkers and fewer technocrats.

Schools are vital civic and social institutions but schooling is never openly discussed unless it’s said to be “in crisis.” Education matters because five hours a day, five days a week, from September to June, children and youth are its captives, up to the age of 16 or 18 years.  At their best, public schools can  inspire student curiosity and instil civic responsibility; at their worst they become what John Taylor Gatto termed “weapons of mass instruction.”  For many education theorists, like Louis Althusser, they essentially serve to “reproduce social relations” and slot young people into jobs suited to their own social class. While schools play a vital societal role, Althusser correctly observed that “hardly anyone lends an ear to its music: it is so silent!”

Since the mid-1970s, Harouni claims that serious discourse about education was abandoned to ‘the educationists.‘ Cultural critics, sociologists, and outside scholars  simply “washed their hands of education.”  Progressive educators came to dominate the field, free to conduct research in pursuit of resources, and seemingly “not bothered by their seclusion.”  Today teachers, faculty of education students, and young researchers learn to show “open disdain for any opinion on education that doesn’t come from inside the field.”  Pointed questions are deflected with a wave of the hand and the dismissive statement, “but has she ever taught?”  Any economist or “crossover” academic is listened to politely, then safely ignored.

Today’s educationists thrive on their own isolationism. Political or sociological critiques that challenge the prevailing “liberal social order” or “progressive pedagogy” are not welcome inside the modern schoolhouse. This does  allow educationists to merely shrug-off the core contradictions of their practice. Student-centred learning and promoting student happiness, we are assured, can coexist with raising standards and expecting more from today’s students. Classes would be so much more creative if only we could rid them of student performance testing. It’s tempting to agree with Harouni that schooling has to be “built up as much as it needs to be torn down brick by brick.”

Progressive education as promoted by John Dewey’s later day disciples has always tended to see mass education as the cure for social inequities and underestimated the impact of the class division of labour.  Now progressive education is essentially ignoring what social critics term “the end of labour” and best represented by the slow disappearance of the eight hour work day.  Promoters of “21st century learning” see technology as the salvation and many now parrot “the rhetoric of international competition.”

Progressivism has spawned a new 21st century mutation. Today’s children must be schooled to survive and perhaps thrive “dancing with robots.”  The future success of North American “middle class children,” Frank Levy and Richard Murnane insist in Dancing with Robots (2013), will be determined by their preparedness for the changing “human labor market.”

Schooling, we are told, must adapt to the changing 21st century workplace. Does this sound familiar? Menial, unskilled job functions will be computerized and labour provided more cheaply in developing countries. Tomorrow’s economy will require three kinds of work: solving unstructured problems, working with new information, and carrying-out non routine tasks. Our educational future now rests upon our collective capacity to “sharply increase” the proportion of North American children with “the foundational skills needed to develop job-relevant knowledge and to learn efficiently over a lifetime.”

Educational futurists appropriating the rhetoric of progressivism and acting at the behest of “big data” and “big technology” are, somehow, preying on our weaknesses.  ‘Fresh thinking’ from “Third Way” researchers like Levy and Murnane, based at MIT and Harvard, seems to be trying to fill “the silence” in contemporary educational discourse. Critical  perspectives informed by Paul Goodman’s Compulsory Mis-Education and Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968) are simply being ignored or marginalized in the public domain.  Where critical, independent thinking perishes, schools do not normally thrive.

Preparing our kids for success is being reduced to “dancing with robots.”  And, for those who see a more noble calling for schooling, it is somehow disconcerting.  It’s time to ask “is that all?”

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