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Archive for the ‘Student Disengagement’ Category

Beginning teachers like me were totally unprepared to manage a class of students.  Walking into my first class at St. Andrew’s College in September 1974, my exposure to “classroom management” consisted of watching my own teachers in survival mode and a few passing references to ‘the problem’ in my University of Toronto Faculty of Education courses.

ClassMgmtDickGibbAn early and rather unorthodox teacher-mentor, the legendary Geography master Richard (Dick) Gibb (The Gibber) came to my rescue with this sage advice: “Stay one step ahead of the little nippers, and fire questions at them to straighten them up every once in awhile.”  After observing him teaching Grade 10 boys how to make wine during a Unit supposedly on the “Wine Districts of the Paris Basin,” Mr. Gibb stunned me with his Yorkshire-bred honesty: “Blast ’em…Lighten up, my boy. Forget what you learned in that FACULTY of education.”

Dick Gibb was partly right: Catcalls, pranks, and ribbing tend to loosen you up. Throwing a 40-yard touchdown pass during my Under 15 football practice might have saved me. Schoolmaster Roger Allen, Head of the Upper Canada College Mathematics Department, offered more conventional advice: “Be tough and firm at the start, then ease up a little.” That’s known as “don’t smile until second term — or second year.”

Following that advice to be firm meant that many of my students in the early 1980s, such as newspaper editor John Stackhouse and Canadian democracy watchdog Duff Conacher, keep their distance, to this day.  Two future lawyers, Derek Ground and Kirk Baert, saw through my “hard ass” ruse.  It took me a decade to relax and just be myself, and then become nearly as eccentric as the infamous Mr. Gibb.

Practical guidance on how to deal with unruly students is, to my amazement, still hard to find in initial teacher training (ITT) programs. A pivotal British report produced by Sir Andrew Carter in January 2015 identified the chronic problem and recommended that “behaviour management” be core content for all UK ITT programs. Such practical training, UK government teacher-advisor Tom Bennett recently claimed, remains  “a glaring omission” in teacher education. Even a cursory review of American and Canadian education school curriculum reveals that it’s also an “add on ” at best in our programs.

ClasMgmtBoysFightingWhy all the fuss about class management and student behaviour ?  Frontline teachers are struggling to keep students focused and maintain control over their classes.  It is a major public issue in Britain and now being raised by teacher unions around the world.  In the most recent OECD report on Teaching (TALIS 2013), new data (Figure 6.14) was produced documenting “time spent keeping order” in 32 different countries, including  Australia, Canada, England, and Finland, but not the United States.  

A September 2014 report for the UK ‘s Ofsted found that children were losing up to an hour a day of teaching because of a pronounced culture of “low-level disruption and disrespect” in schools. Chatter, calling out, swinging on chairs, play fighting, using mobile phones, and quietly humming was disrupting classes, resulting in lost time equivalent to 38 days of teaching each year.  Most shocking of all — England is not among the top countries in OECD teacher-reported time spent in maintaining class order.

ClassMgmtTomBennettBritain’s chief student behaviour advisor Tom Bennett has done much to voice the real concerns of working teachers and to generate practical, teacher-validated ‘survival’ strategies. His regular TES columns on Student Behaviour Management are loaded with practical, no nonsense advice on how to deal with class disruptions, including the risks of turning your back on an unruly class, coping with wasps flying in the window, and catching boys peeing in buckets in the corner. Some handy stratagems: check notebooks for torn-out projectile pages, tame the lone wolf, seek reinforcements, and reward good output belong in every teacher’s student discipline toolbox.

Bolstering behaviour management content in education school ITT is long overdue in most education systems. Addressing the problem in North America is perhaps more complicated because it will involve dismantling school-wide Positive Behavioural Systems (modelled after PBIS) that provide positive reinforcement “carrots” and spare the “stick” in student discipline.

The Ontario model, championed by Dr. Alan Edmunds of the Behaviour Management Network, is typical  of the PBIS approach which attempts to impose a school-wide regime of rewards for “good behaviour” and aims to reduce suspensions and provide make-up course credits. Under such a system, teachers inclined to “nip misbehaviour in the bud’ think twice before doing so. Top students complain under their breath about the reformed “baddies” collecting so many gold stars.

ClassMgmtUnrulyKidsDeterrence is making a comeback after a couple of decades as an underutilized approach to managing students in schools. Teachers are crying out for help and Tom Bennett is responding with practical, concrete strategies and tips. His proposed Behaviour Management course content is desperately needed by classroom teachers seeking to cope and stay afloat in today’s distraction-ridden classroom.

Teachers – in this day and age — should not be left on their own to fend for themselves. Today’s digital kids are far more challenging to teach than preceding generations. Computer-based Murison classroom mixed-reality simulator training may help, but there’s no substitute for “useful knowledge” taught by skillful veteran teachers.  Establishing classroom routines, developing student relationships, and mastering in-class discipline strategies need to be explicitly taught in B.Ed. ITT programs.

What’s stopping teacher education programs from implementing direct action Student Behaviour Management programs? Will ITT in behaviour management help to reduce the teaching time lost to student behaviour disruptions? Do school-wide Positive Effective Behaviour Intervention Systems (PEBIS) help or hurt the cause of maintaining orderly, purposeful classroom environments? Who will emerge in North America to take up the cause blazed by Britain on this education front?  

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Climate change is becoming the biggest public policy issue — closer to home and in our junior and senior high schools.  A recent CBC News Nova Scotia series, Making the Grade which aired in February 2016, not only looked at the plight of classroom teachers, but ripped the lid off of growing teacher concerns about, and frustration over, the deterioration in academic tone and school climate. It also exposed the leading symptom of the malaise – chronic student absenteeism and “school refusal behaviour” in our high schools.

AbsenteeismEmptyDesksOne Nova Scotia teacher, Christine Emberley of the Bedford Education Centre, finally broke the silence.  Teachers have lost the ability to enforce deadlines while they are being told by school authorities to “teach real-world skills,” Ms. Emberley told CBC News, and that’s a big contradiction. Professional teachers and parent who recognize  deadline importance, she explained, are up against educators who insist, quite wrongly, that “consequences of any kind equals punishment.”  School should be the safe pace to make mistakes — like missing deadlines or skipping classes –and experience consequences.

Student absenteeism is a complex problem because it has multiple causes and is deeply embedded in a contemporary high school culture which can be almost consequence-free for so-called ‘floaters.’  A young woman taught by Ms. Emberley knew there was a problem when she arrived at high school.  “Pushed through with no effort –sometimes missing weeks at a time for behavioural incidents or because she just didn’t feel like going — she knew she lacked the foundational skills to succeed and the work ethic to catch up.” Giving students every opportunity to succeed, she concluded, does not mean “bypassing the lessons that teach work ethic so they can pass grade levels.”

Some 25 to 30 per cent of today’s student population are ‘turned-off’ and disengaged from schools. That was the principal finding of leading UNB social science researcher Dr. J. Douglas Willms in studies conducted five years ago. Interviewed in the Summer 2011 Ontario Education newsletter, in conversation, he pointed out that in a school of 500 students that meant that perhaps 125 teens were disengaged, frequently absent and drifting around the fringes of school life. If engaging the students is “not our job” as principals or teachers, Willms had the temerity to say, “then whose job is it?”

While high school graduation rates are climbing, particularly in Ontario and the Maritimes, one out of four students is still not completing secondary school on time. Entering high school, these struggling students lapse into chronic absenteeism and ‘school refusal behaviour’ that tends to mask their disengagement and alienation. “we don’t call them dropouts anymore,” Willms noted, “we call them ‘fade-outs’ or ‘push-outs.’ ”  In their final school years, few if any fail, but they do ‘check-out’ and are screened-out through course selections and post-secondary admissions selection processes.

VERNONIA, OR - January 9, 2014 - An empty desk here and there can mean many things, but it is a subtle reminder of who isn't in class. School attendance data shows who is winning the battle for student attention. Michael Lloyd/The Oregonian

VERNONIA, OR – January 9, 2014 – An empty desk here and there can mean many things, but it is a subtle reminder of who isn’t in class. School attendance data shows who is winning the battle for student attention. Michael Lloyd/The Oregonian

School absenteeism is a prevalent problem for today’s schools with tremendous long-term social, economic and human costs. While American school data shows that elementary school absenteeism has remained virtually unchanged since 1994, high school attendance rates have significantly deteriorated. A 2003 American study, based upon 230 youths in 4 high schools and 1 middle school found that many students “sometimes” (29.1%) or “often” (9.1%) deliberately or completely miss school. In addition, 54.6% of students sometimes skipped classes and 13.1% often did so.

Skipping school or refusing to attend for days on end is now being described in some U.S. states as a massive but overlooked “absenteeism epidemic.” In 2012, the estimated national rate of chronic absenteeism was pinpointed at 10 per cent, representing the percentage missing 21 or more days of school each year.  In February 2014, a feature story produced by Betsy Hammond for The Oregonian and aptly entitled Empty Desks”  revealed that one in five Orgeon students missed at least 10 per cent of the school year, equivalent to 3.5 weeks of school or more.

One Canadian province that has clearly identified student attendance as a serious problem is Nova Scotia. Five years ago, an NS Education Advisory Commission report, produced by Howard Windsor, Halifax’s former “one-man school board,” recommended extending compulsory school attendance to age 18/Grade 12 and a series of “staged interventions” for chronic “skippers” and truants.  Along with those measures, the committee proposed a range of inducements to keep students in school.  In extending schooling to 18, Nova Scotia would be following the lead of Ontario, New Brunswick, and Nunavut.

By 2009-10, chronic absenteeism, assessed in ten different N.S. high schools, was already rampant. With 7.4% of students missing 20% or more of classes and 45% absent for 10% of their classes, was a deeply entrenched problem.  Permissive discipline approaches such as the elementary level behaviour modification (PEBS) program and high school exam exemptions had contributed to the problem, so the proposed response was compulsion  in the form of compulsory schooling to 18. Extending compulsory school age was ultimately rejected by Education Minister Marilyn More, but a few band-aids were applied, including credit recovery programs and a two-year pilot project to deny course credit for non-attendance with a 20% threshold level.

Five years on, student absenteeism was still so rife that it surfaced again as a major unresolved problem.  An October 2014 Provincial Review of Nova Scotia Education, with the peculiar title Disrupting the Status Quo, found that  “student responsibility” was  sadly lacking, reflected in their laxity in attending classes, meeting deadlines, and making a genuine effort to do their best. Such factors, including disruptive students, warranted “stronger consequences than is currently the case in some classrooms.” Under School Climate, the renewed goal was to create learning environments where “respectful behaviour is an expectation for students, teachers, and parents.”(pp. 47 and 49).  The NS Education Department’s Action Plan for 2016 promises to introduce “a new student attendance policy.”  Another official proclamation is now in the offing.

What’s the fundamental cause of rampant student absenteeism and disengagement, particularly in high schools? How important are the major “risk factors” identified by leading American expert Christopher A. Kearney – poverty and socio-economic status, psycho-social and mental health issues, teen pregnancies, school climate, family structure, and parental involvement? In the case of school climate, what works to develop a higher level of student commitment, belonging and connectedness?  Will a student attendance crackdown be enough to change the current trajectory? 

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Thirty-five years ago Peter McLaren’s memoir Cries from the Corridor not only exposed the gritty underside of Canada’s inner ring suburbs, but disrupted much of the complacency afflicting education authorities everywhere. The young Toronto-born, 32-year-old teacher published his personal diaries describing, in considerable detail, his real life school experiences in “The Jungle,” as North York’s Jane-Finch corridor was labeled in those days.  It was a totally authentic, brutally honest little book that attracted rave popular press reviews and was recognized as a surprise 1980 Canadian bestseller by The Toronto Star and Maclean’s magazine.

PeterMclarenMcLaren was breaking the established rules and telling tales out-of-school. Today, reading the original version, a heavily used 1981 PaperJacks edition, is to marvel at the young teacher’s graphic descriptions, searing insights and honest portrayal of life in the middle school trenches. Sensationalist magazine writers ate it up and, rather predictably, seasoned education faculty members like Gordon West pronounced the book of “limited academic utility” because it portrayed “individualized and isolated students” and stopped short of analyzing the total context of “working class life.”

McLaren’s little diary account did more to raise public consciousness about the plight of inner city schools than any Canadian education book ever written. Yet, as an aspiring academic, McLaren was troubled by the sensational media treatment labeling kids and communities as “losers” and stung by the theoreticians and what amounted to academic carping. Within five years, he had acquired a University of Toronto PhD in Education, been released from a Brock University lecturing position, and disappeared from the Canadian scene.

Writing Cries from the Corridor and pursuing graduate studies radicalized Peter McLaren and he gradually shed his reputation as a ‘hands on’ veteran inner city teacher insufficiently schooled in critical theory, Marxist literature, cultural studies, and feminist research.  He was essentially rescued in 1985 by an American-born radical scholar Dr. Henry Giroux who invited him to Miami University of Ohio to help start a Cultural Studies Center dedicated to advancing “critical pedagogy”and exposing the dangers of global capitalism dressed up in the guise of “neo-liberalism.”

Gradually, McLaren was transformed from a disciple of critical postmodernism into a secular prophet of Marxist-infused revolutionary pedagogy. He renounced his original venture, Cries from the Corridor, saying that he “grew to dislike the book” and went so far as to sate that it now “disgusted” him because it totally lacked “a coherent philosophy of praxis.” For the next thirty years, through six rewrites, as a key component of a larger book, Life in Schools, he managed to expunge the bad parts and generate a radical textbook to prepare teachers for resistance against global capitalism and its attendant problems.

If Giroux was has mentor, then the Brazilian radical scholar Paulo Freire became his North Star.  While at Miami University, Freire invited him to a conference in Cuba and he came into contact with Brazilians and Mexicans that shared his vision and ideas. After several sojourns to Latin America, McLaren grew disenchanted with postmodern theory and was drawn to Marxism. “I was haunted by the realization, ” he recalled in 2003, “that I had not sufficiently engaged the work of Marx and Marxist thinkers.”

Increasingly influenced by Freire and “Marxist anti-colonial projects” in the Americas, McLaren’s Marxism deepened and he saw “the Marxist critique” as the key to confronting “the differentiated totalities of contemporary society and their historical imbrications in the world system of global capitalism.” After eight years at Miami of Ohio, he taught as a Professor of Education at the University of California, Los Angeles from 1993 to 2013 and is now Distinguished Professor and Co-Director of the Paulo Freire Democratic Project at Chapman University, Orange, CA.

LifeinSchoolsCoverProfessor McLaren has lost none of his zeal and is the author of nearly 50 books and his writings have been translated into over 25 languages.  Five of his books have won the Critics Choice Award of the American Educational Studies Association.  His most influential text, Life in Schools: An Approach to Critical Pedagogy in the Foundations of Education, is now in its sixth edition, and contains his revised version of Cries from the Corridor. Among global radical scholars, he is now mentioned and considered alongside Freire, Ivan Illich, Pierre Bourdieu and E.P. Thompson. Much like Freire, he embraces “revolutionary critical pedagogy” and seeks to “create pedagogical spaces and contexts for the oppressed to fashion their own understandings of their shared history of struggle.”

McLaren is what university students would describe as a strange bird with the unmistakable style of an ‘aging sixties radical.’  An April 2006 UCLA News story described him as “a cross between a rock star and a motorbike enthusiast.” When a foolhardy conservative UCLA grad posted a Hit List of the “Dirty Thirty” left-wing faculty, he topped the list and achieved even greater notoriety across the United States.

McLaren is an engaged scholar who devotes his teaching life to awakening students to the potential for radical social change. His faculty office at UCLA was crammed with revolutionary memorabilia and objects of art, including busts of Lenin, Marx and Mao.  His right shoulder bears a tattoo of Cuba revolutionary Che Guevera and Mexico’s Emiliano Zapata is tatooed on his left shoulder. “Both struggled for peasants,” he told a wide-eyed UCLA reporter, and “I will die with them someday.”

What if — Peter McLaren had stayed in Canada and capitalized on the public awakening unleashed by his ground-breaking 1980 book?  No doubt his intellectual journey might have been different and perhaps less consumed by the internal doctrinal battles on the intellectual Left. In the company of critical education theorists Freire and Giroux his focus has shifted from the “real life experiences” of working class youth to more rarified debates over “revolutionary praxis, ” the “Achimedian fulcrum,” and enlisting educators in the “war of position.”   No wonder renowned American education researcher Michael Apple finds the language of McLaren and the “critical theorists” so “abstract and confusing.”

Reading and attempting to fathom Peter McLaren’s recent writings reminded me of a critical issue raised by the late British social historian E.P. Thompson in his famous 1978 essay, The Poverty of Theory. While Thompson was responding, at the time, to Stalinism and the preponderant influence of Louis Althusser on European Marxism, he also exposed the excesses of “mechanical Marxism” and “ideological totalitarianism” that tends to obscure rather than shine light on the real lives lived in working class communities.

Working people and youth, Thompson, claimed “made their own lives” and were not simply the victims of “a series of interlocking events” that amounted to “a post-facto determinism.” Getting absorbed with dialectical materialism, according to Thompson, can become “an excuse for not studying history.” He also reminded us of one of Leon Trotsky’s philosophical gems: “an ignoramous, armed with the materialist dialectic….inevitably makes a fool of himself.”

Try to imagine what the inner city children and youth in McLaren’s Cries from the Corridor would make of some of his recent writings on “critical revolutionary pedagogy” and the “totality” of “neoliberal hegemony.” Speaking the same language might be a good starting point if we are ever to really confront the very real, deeply rooted problems facing youth in today’s inner city and rougher suburban schools.

What really happened to the Peter McLaren who wrote Cries from the Corridor?  Why did he later renounce his role in  producing a brutally honest, unvarnished record of a young teacher’s struggles to reach students in a tough suburban school? What if — McLaren had encountered E.P. Thompson and focused more on exposing and documenting the real lives of struggling students?  Thirty years on, would McLaren have been less inclined toward guarding “proletarian science” and less absorbed the rather esoteric world of “academicism”?

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Luke MacDonald, the leading champion of Sparks Fly,  is in the business of helping people to get active and healthy.  Since 1996, he’s been promoting a series of Youth Run projects and volunteering with Phoenix House as a community outreach dimension of of his own Halifax sports equipment shop, Aerobics First.  After 34 years in business, he’s now turned to promoting  stationary “spin bikes” and “self-regulation” as the way of reaching and re-engaging today’s ‘stressed-out,’ distracted school children.

LukeMacDonaldSparksFlyLuke is in the vanguard of the Canadian ‘self-regulation’ movement. Building on the research connecting improved mental concentration with physical exercise, the Run for Life Foundation (www.runforlife.ca) has developed the Sparks Fly program. With the support of private donors, Sparks Fly has placed child-sized spin bicycles into classrooms across Canada, including more than a dozen within the Halifax Regional School Board.

Here’s how it works: Students are encouraged to hop on the bike if they are having difficulty focusing on their lessons. The idea is that children learn to identify when they are having difficulties with attention, and then use physical activity as a stimulant to engage the parts of the brain that help with this cognitive skill. At Dalhousie University, a research team is also conducting a study to determine the optimal dose of exercise to promote improved cognitive functioning, focusing on university-age students.

The Sparks Fly spin bike project  has a practical, utilitarian objective — to help “stressed-out.’ distracted children focus and perform better in school.  “The ideal situation is that the bikes remain in the classroom,” Luke told The Chronicle Herald  during last year’s Fitness Week. “So when a student is feeling anxious, they just have to get on the bike. A little bit of movement can calm them, and they learn that.”

Halifax healthy living activist MacDonald experienced an epiphany, of sports, when he was awakened to its intellectual origins in the ‘self-regulation’ movement. Inspired by a powerful address by York University’s Dr. Stuart Shanker at “The Collision” conference in Waterloo and Dr. John Ratey’s book, The Spark, he was completely hooked on the initiative that attempted to marry physical activity with ‘self-regulation’ principles in elementary schools.

Self-regulation is the latest manifestation of neuroscience and it’s catching on as the latest panacea to grab the attention of today’s stressed children and high speed screenagers.  In an August 2014 Toronto Globe and Mail feature, social trends reporter Erin Anderssen was drawn to neuroscience as “a subversive solution.” “Cut math class,” she wrote, ” to dance–or walk, skip, play catch — the theory being that whatever gets the heart pumping will get the brain humming as well.”

Aerobic fitness is now touted by RunForLife.ca as one of the best ways to develop a child’s ability to self-regulate.  In simplest terms, self-regulation is the ability to stay calmly focused and alert.  Its research-based origins can be traced back to the famous 1989 “Marshmallow Test”  where only 30 per cent of four-year-olds left alone in a room for a few minutes could resist eating the tasty treat.

EurekaMindfulnessSelf-regulation is now being promoted as an educational alternative to “behaviour management” and is increasingly favoured by so-called progressive, child-centred elementary school educators. “Self-regulation,” in Shanker’s words, “does not involve making an effort to inhibit impulses” but rather “to reduce the stressors affecting the nervous system.”  It’s so widely accepted by Ontario child psychologists that it’s actually enshrined as “a measurement outcome” on the latest provincial school report cards.

Student learning initiatives based upon neuroscience now enjoy a patina of  scientific research respectability. Growing numbers of education observers are beginning to question the legitimacy of “self-regulation” in the context of its actual brain research origins.  A January 2014 Time Magazine feature, written by Kate Pickert, identified the movement as an outgrowth of what is termed “The Mindful Revolution,” the popular science of “finding focus in a stressed-out, multitasking culture.’  She and a number of North American scholars see self-regulation as a recent mutation of “Mindfulness,” a Stress Reduction curriculum (MBSR) developed in 1979by Jon Kabat-Zinn, an MIT-educated scientist heavily influenced by Buddhism.

Much of the rationale for ‘self-regulation’ echoes Kabat-Zinn’s MBSR neuroscience theories and some of its proponents make it sound like a “New Age retread” of previous prescriptions for stress.  Mindfulness is definitely rooted in Eastern philosophy, while it is being presented as “secular” in our schools.  Dr. Catherine Gidney at Fredericton’s St. Thomas University is currently exploring the historical context surrounding the implementation of mindfulness in Canadian classrooms. In doing so she documents some of pedagogical and spiritual concerns and objections that have been raised about this phenomenon.  A few other education scholars have also pointed out the laser-like focus of mindfulness on “the here and now” and its implicit lack of respect for wisdom and learned experience.

American writer and skeptic Dan Hurley, writing in New York Times Magazine (January 14, 2014), has also pointed out a few of its “unwanted side-effects.”  While presented as a virtual cure-all for “split focus’ distractibility, more recent research demonstrates that it sharpens focus , but actually impairs “implict learning,”  making it more difficult to ride a bicycle, speak grammatically, or read people’s facial expressions.  More concerning, it is being shown to inhibit “mind wandering” and the sort of “mind vacations” that often lead to epiphanies and Big Ideas.

Educators are always looking to improve upon current student behaviour management strategies. If Self-Regulation becomes dominant practice,  we may succeed in incorporating more physical activity and securing more attentiveness.  It’s fair to ask whether we will also be producing more placid kids — sacrificing intellectual risk taking, academic learning time, and perhaps a little creativity in our classrooms.

What explains the rise and spread of Self-Regulation as the latest educational panacea for modifying children’s behaviour in the schools?  How is the self-regulation movement connected to Eastern philosophy and should that be a matter of concern in essentially sectarian state schools?  What impact are Sparks Fly and comparable programs having on teaching and learning in elementary schools?  Is there any danger that Self-Regulation may actually curb creativity and historical-mindedness by inculcating “willpower” and stamping out “mind wandering” ?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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School recess remains one of the favourite times of the day for most elementary school students. Until recently, it was also a largely forgotten part of school life. With the advent of the overprotected kid” and the spread of campaigns against bullying, obesity, and boredom, recess has become a hot topic for public discussion.  Many school administrators and psychologists now see ‘free play’ at recess to be dangerous and threatening, especially for marginalized or bullied kids.  A new breed of North American parents, armed with Lenore Skenazy’s 2010 best seller, Free-Range Kids, have risen in defense of  unstructured ‘free play’ as a critical component in the education of healthy, happy and creative children.

RecessBoyRecessSceneThree years ago, in November 2011, a St. Catharines, Ontario, elementary school hit the news by banning balls from recess after a child bystander was hit on the head on the playground. After an enterprising 10-year-old boy, Mathew Taylor, voiced his objections, started a petition, and secured a meeting with the principal, Lockview Public School rescinded the ball ban.  Mathew’s parents, Scott and Angela Taylor, only learned about the protest after the children had booked the meeting with the school principal. Banning balls at recess, in their view, was not only “a bit of an overreaction” but also a symptom of school boards “over-regulating the playground out of fear of lawsuits.”

Today’s school psychologists view the world through a child protection lens and tend to be hyper sensitive to the dangers lurking in and around schools, particularly on the playgrounds.  A recent CBC News report, aired in September 2013, only stoked those fears. “More than 28,000 children are injured every year on playgrounds across Canada, ” CBC reported, “and the rate of hospitalizations has gone up eight per cent between 2007 and 2012.”

Student injuries and accidents are upsetting — and their impact should not be minimized.  Since the 1970s, however, the Safe Playground movement has all but eliminated “Adventure  Playgrounds” and any equipment deemed dangerous, yet the incidence of accidents has remained essentially unchanged. One of Canada’s leading experts on playgrounds, Alex Smith, Founder of PlayGroundology, corroborates this, noting that he cannot recall one serious accident on Halifax’s 400 playgrounds over the past five years.

Public concern about children’s health and safety, according to British child health researcher Tim Gill, does not reflect the real level of risk. In his 2007 book, No Fear: Growing Up in a Risk-Averse Society, Gill points out that children are no more likely to be abducted or murdered than they were 30 years ago.  In 1971, some four out of five British kids aged 7 or 8 years walked or biked to school on their own; today fewer than one in ten do so.  Fear of being sued, he concedes, is a much bigger factor affecting the policies of school districts and providers of facilities for children.

School recess has been significantly eroded in both the United States and the United Kingdom. Since the 1970s and particularly so in the past two decades, school districts in the U.S. and Britain have reduced or eliminated recess time in order to allow for more instructional time.  Children have lost about 12 hours a week of free time, including a 25% reduction in play time and a 50% decrease in unstructured outdoor activities. In 2011, a U.S. study reported that only 57% of  school districts required regularly scheduled recess and some 40% of districts were either eliminating recess or considering such action.

Crusaders for “Free-Range Kids” such as American journalist Hanna Rosin do tend to wear ‘rose-coloured-glasses’ when it comes to minimizing the risks to children in completely unstructured free play environments.  More sensible child’s play advocates, like Megan Rosker, who campaigned to restore recess at her local Redington Shores, Florida school, see the need for some limits on “unstructured play” at elementary schools. “We need to strive for a more balanced parenting approach, ” she wrote  in November 2014, where “kids are receiving … free play, devoid of screen time,” and also “a lot of form and structure in their day” to enable them to go on to inventive, satisfying and  productive lives.

New research initiated by Brock University’s Dr. Lauren McNamara and generated by her “Recess Project” holds promise for breaking the impasse.  Her three year study from 2011 to 2014 demonstrated that most of today’s children have “forgotten how to play,” particularly outdoors.  While McNamara and her research team see the need for “free time” in a world where kids are highly programmed, they claim that there is a critical need to “re-teach kids” how to play, particularly during regular recess times.  Based upon local Niagara Region case studies, they show how activity levels soar and fighting subsides when new playground equipment is added and yard supervisors or junior leaders provide guidance to promote physical exercise, active engagement, and fair play among the kids.

Achieving the right balance is not as easy as outside experts might expect.  The Peel Region recess program, Playground Activity Leaders in Schools Program (PALS), initiated by a Toronto region health authority and touted by McNamara, is an attempt to move in that direction.  With a deft and diplomatic approach, it shows promise for reducing the incidence of bullying and inappropriate behaviour and increasing levels of physical activity, particularly among kids from grades 5 to 8.  Under certain types of administrative direction, it will quickly devolve into adults or their young surrogates “micromanaging recess.”

School recess is now under closer scrutiny and social psychologists are at work to either revamp “free play” or to eliminate the “free break time” altogether.  What is threatening recess in Canadian, British, and American schools?  Is unstructured free play for children endangered in today’s risk-averse society?  Is it possible to reform school recess to strike a balance between freedom and purposeful form?

 

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The latest Canadian Teachers’ Federation (CTF) survey reveals that public education is in a sorry state and it’s impacting upon teacher effectiveness in the regular classroom.  Over 90 per cent of the 8, 096 teachers surveyed online in February and March 2014, identified “class composition” as a source of “work-related stress.” “In general, teachers feel they do not have adequate supports and services to address the broad range of special needs in their classrooms,” CTF President Dianne Woloschuk stated upon release of the ” Work-Life Balance” study.

TeacherStressCTF14Teachers certainly feel “stressed -out” even though public school enrollment, except in a few high growth school districts,  is mostly in decline and more educational tax dollars are being spent to educate fewer school children. Their biggest concern is the changing composition of the regular classroom and, in particular, the constant demands to provide “individualized support” in that classroom for every type of special needs.  Given those broad trends, making the case to spend more money to sustain the “all-inclusive” classroom model, especially after Grade 6, is difficult to fathom.

The CTF findings do point to a “stressed-out” teacher force and this is worrisome for those of us committed to improved education, sounder policies, and better schools. They also raise serious questions about the state of education and effectiveness of current policies. Here are the most glaring examples:

meeting the individual needs of all special needs kids in an inclusive classroom is next to impossible;
– three out of four educators cited interruptions to teaching by students;
– student absenteeism concerns 71 per cent of teachers;
-over six out of ten reported challenges in dealing with students’ personal or health-related issues.

Special Education services have turned regular classroom teaching into a virtual paperwork ordeal. Lack of time to plan assessments with colleagues was reported as a stressor by 86 per cent of teachers surveyed, while 85 per cent indicated marking and grading as a source of stress. Other stressors include increased administrative-related work and outdated technology.

The five policy changes proposed by the CTF all involve pouring more money into the ailing school system.  They appear, once again, in predictable fashion: lower class sizes, improve SE supports, expand prep time, reduce non-teaching tasks, and increase teaching resources.  None of them, except possibly creating smaller classes, really address the fundamental problem – “class composition” under the current inclusive education regime and the undercurrent of resistance to providing alternative special needs programs and expanding the range of specialized intensive support schools.

Given the daily classroom challenges and complex needs of today’s kids, it’s fair to ask “Is more money really the answer?”

The CTF is a national political action organization, representing teachers’ unions, and claiming to speak for nearly 200,000 elementary and secondary educators from 17 organizations (15 Members, one Affiliate Member and one Associate Member), from coast to coast to coast. Most of the constituent union groups produce “Teacher Stress” studies on a regular basis, usually in advance of province-wide bargaining sessions.

Among regular teachers, especially in junior and senior high schools, inclusive education is widely seen as desirable but next to impossible to implement.  It was invented and implemented over the past two decades, but never intended to accommodate the number of children now “coded” or “designated” for special education supports.  Even though class sizes have been declining in most provinces, managing let alone teaching those classes has rarely been more of a challenge.

A recent report produced by the Ontario funding lobby group, People for Education, is not helpful at all.  It’s founder Annie Kidder and core membership support the status quo in the all inclusive classroom, constantly pushing for more money and “more student supports” for every conceivable classroom problem. Appointing a Special Education Ombudsman, as conceived by P4E, would only solidify the existing student supports regime.

The odd teacher union leader breaks the faith and speaks out-of-school. That happened again this week when Shelley Morse, President of the Nova Scotia Teachers’ Union, attempted to explain why more funding and supports were needed, once again. “Years ago, when the inclusion policy was introduced, it was a wonderful concept but it has never been fully funded and that’s where a lot of the issues arise from,” she said.”We don’t have the proper materials and the funding is not there for the human resources that we need.”

Teacher stress, real and perhaps embellished for effect, is a legitimate educational workplace issue. Yet the proposed policy changes advanced by Canadian teacher union advocates don’t really address the “elephant in the schoolhouse.”  If “class composition” is the heart of the problem why beat around the bush? What’s so sacrosanct about the current Special Education model based upon “inclusion for all” in a one-size-fits all classroom system?   It’s time to ask whether inclusive education, implemented as a whole system approach, is either affordable or effective in meeting student needs along the full continuum of service.

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