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Archive for the ‘Student Well Being’ Category

The Putting Children First report, produced by the Canadian Association of Social Workers (CASW) and released August 16, 2018, drew attention, once again, to the challenges facing children and youth caught up, province-to-province, in Canada’s crazy quilt child welfare system. Commissioned by professional social workers, it tended to focus on the mounting caseloads and shortage of resource supports. It, quite rightly, highlighted the growing needs and plight of children and youth in care and the ‘battle fatigue’ affecting those entrusted with their care. Where it fell short is in proposing a larger, more pro-active role for engaged parents and provincial child welfare advocates.

“We’re damaging children every single day, ” says Debbie Reimer, Director of the Kids Action Program and a CASW executive board member, based in Kentville, Nova Scotia. “The needs of families and children are more complex and becoming more complex every day, ” she told Star Metro Halifax, “and so there wasn’t any sort of thing that jumped out as particularly surprising.” What is surprising is that, in a Canadian province without a Child and Youth Advocate Office, the depth of these concerns has to be expressed in reports emanating from the Ottawa-based CASW.

Child welfare workers are under stress everywhere, and that is conformed in the recent CASW report.  Some 75 per cent of social workers surveyed nation-wide testify to the existence of “unmanageable workloads” and some 72 per cent claimed administrative responsibilities prevented them from spending adequate time with clients. The report also did a good job outlining how demanding caseloads, the complexity of issues, and the “unsupportive work environment” contributed to various trauma, burnout, and high turnover in the ranks.

The report demonstrates the tremendous value of a report giving voice to professional concerns about the everyday stresses faced by front-line professionals in the child welfare system. Some 3,195 Canadian social workers completed the survey, representing about 10 per cent of the total workforce, so the results are reasonably reliable and to be taken seriously. It also reflects the direct feedback from some 19 members of an expert panel, representing recognized leaders in the field, but including no one from Nova Scotia. 

Surveying the 100-page CASW report, two discoveries jump out at you. First and foremost, the focus is almost exclusively on the crushing demands faced by professionals and the contention that they are “leaving in droves” because of the adverse working conditions. Second, and by no means least, the relative absence of input from Child and Youth Advocacy Offices across the country, with the exception of the former Manitoba Child Advocate, 2011-2017.

The almost total absence of comprehensive, reliable data on the needs of families and children is particularly striking in the report.  It is clearly acknowledged that practitioners have “limited knowledge about the needs of families, of youth and children living with their familiy, or of foster families and kinship caregivers.” More unsettling is the open admission that child welfare authorities have “little information about how youth and children in care are doing in their placements, how they are progressing in school, what are their health needs or their talents, aspirations and accomplishments.” The CASW also conceded that child welfare officials do not actually know “what services and programs are effective and for whom those programs are effective and what conditions are optimal to achieve effectiveness,” (CASW 2018, 78).

The CASW report, Putting Students First, is very effective in voicing the concerns of social workers on the frontlines and strongly suggests that professionals, overburdened with heavy caseloads are too often reduced to policing and enforcing family protection orders. Nowhere in the report is this state of affairs analyzed in terms of its direct impact upon families and children and youth under care. Nova Scotia social worker Reimer provided a more satisfying explanation of the actual impact. If scocial workers are “leaving in droves, ” she claimed, it’s because “their jobs feel less like supporting families and more like disinterested policing. ” What are practitioners actually concerned about, at least in Nova Scotia? In Reimer’s words,  “They are saying that right now the system is reactionary, punitive and under resourced.”

Social work professionals have raised the alarm bells, but the voice of parents and the public is strangely absent from the whole public discussion. It is clearly a big part of the problem in Nova Scotia and perhaps elsewhere in Canada. In the case of Nova Scotia, it is likely compounded by the fact that no one in the provincial government has a clear mandate to oversee the protection and support of children and youth.

The province of Nova Scotia is finally, after five years of lobbying efforts, finally considering the creation of a self-standing Child and Youth Advocacy Office. The current Deputy Minister of Community Services, Lynn Hartwell, is beginning to see the light and told a N.S. Assembly Legislative Committee in January 2018 that something was in the works. While the provincial Ombudsman’s Office currently has responsibility for youth in care, Hartwell sees the need for a more active presence.

Hartwell remains exceedingly cautious and sounds reluctant to open the purse strings:  “That level of interaction has given us some comfort that there’s been a child advocacy-type role, but what I’ve learned and what I’m understanding is that role of child advocate in other jurisdictions goes beyond sort of an ombudsman-type role,” she said. “Someone who’s really advocating for public policy that is child-focused, child-friendly and so on.”

“So we absolutely are looking at it. People will know here that with everything else going on, we’re trying to determine, ” Hartwell told the Committee, “is this the best place for limited resources or is it somewhere else? So I think the onus is on us to finalize that review and then bring it forward.”

The recent CASW report may be just what is needed to light a fire under provincial officials in Nova Scotia and elsewhere.  If “children’s lives are being damaged every day, ” surely one would expect more of a sense of urgency. Perhaps the passive resistance has more to do with the general aversion of governments everywhere to independent bodies mandated to secure the needed supports for children and youth, to oversee the effective use of resources, and to ensure proper public accountability in child welfare services. 

What deeper problems are raised by the recent Canadian Association of Social Workers report on the state of child welfare services? Are the tremendous pressures and stresses experienced by frontline practitioners a symptom of bigger problems? Where is the voice of parents and families in this whole debate?  How can a province, in this day and age, continue to function without a particular office or agency entrusted with the welfare and protection of children? 

 

 

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Hundreds of children in Canada’s Ocean Playground” (aka Nova Scotia) entering school for the first time  in September 2018 will be prevented from using the playground equipment in their own schoolyards.  In Atlantic Canada’s largest school district, Halifax Regional Centre for Education (HRCE), parents were only alerted to the new rules affecting children under 5 years in June 2018 newsletters that advised them about “risk management advice” about the use of playground equipment during the school day. The news provoked quite a reaction and prompted Halifax playground expert Alex Smith to post a stinging July 2018 critique headed “Look- Don’t Play” on his widely-read PlayGroundology Blog.

The Halifax school district, like many across Nova Scotia, used the Canadian Safety Association (CSA) standards for outdoor play as a rationale for barring all Junior Primary and Senior Primary (not only ages 3-4 children , but also those age 5), from using the school playground equipment.  School administration had been alerted to the potential problem back in the fall of 2017 at the time of the announcement of an expanded provincial Pre-Primary program. Instead of introducing kids to the joys of outdoor play, principals and teachers will be occupied trying to keep them off the equipment.

Nova Scotia is not alone in ‘bubble-wrapping kids’ on school playgrounds. It is just far more widespread because most of the province’s schools are only equipped with older, off-the shelf, equipment with CSA safety restrictions. Instead of phasing-in the introduction of Pre-Primary programs with playground upgrades, the N.S. Education Department has plowed full steam ahead without considering the importance of providing purpose-built kindergarten play areas.

Vocal critics of school and recreation officials who restrict child’s play are quick to cite plenty of other Canadian examples. Back in November 2011, a Toronto principal at Earl Beatty Elementary School  sparked a loud parent outcry when she banned balls from school grounds. One Canadian neighbourhood, Artisan Gardens on Vancouver Island, achieved international infamy in a June 2018 Guardian feature claiming that the local council had “declared war on fun” by passing a bylaw banning all outside play from the street, prohibiting children from chalk drawing. bike riding, and street hockey.

Such stories make for attention-grabbing headlines, but they tend to miss the significance of the changing dynamics of play in Canada and elsewhere. Protecting kids at all times has been the dominant practice, but fresh thinking is emerging on the importance of “free play” in child development. Alex Smith of PlayGroundology is in the forefront of the growing movement to replace “fixed equipment play” with “adventure sites” and “loose parts play.” While aware that child safety is a priority, the “free play” advocates point to evidence-based research showing the critical need for kids to learn how to manage risk and to develop personal resilience.

School superintendents advocating for the retention and revitalization of recess can be allies in the cause of ensuring kids have regular play time.  Some school district officials, however, seem to thrive on “over-programming kids” and see recess as another time to be planned and regulated. Typical of the current crop of North American senior administrators is Michael J. Hynes, Ed.D., Superintendent of Schools for the Patchogue-Medford School District (Long Island, NY). Providing a decent school recess, in his view, is just another solution to the “mental health issues” affecting many of today’s schoolchildren. Makes you wonder how ‘liberated’ kids would be on those playgrounds.

Larger Canadian school districts in Ontario have managed to avoid the CSA playground standards debacle.  The five-year Ontario implementation  plan for Full Day Junior Kindergarten, starting in 2010-11, included funding to redevelop playgrounds for children ages 3.8 to 5 years. In the case of the York Region District School Board, outdoor learning spaces in their 160 elementary schools were gradually converted, school-by-school into natural “outdoor learning spaces” with fewer and fewer high risk climbing structures. Outdoor creative play and natural settings were recreated, often in fenced-in junior playground areas. In Canada’s largest school district, the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), targeted funding allowed for similar changes, over 5-years, in some 400 schools.

Converting all elementary school playgrounds can be prohibitively expensive for school districts without the resources of these Ontario boards. Instead of investing heavily in the latest “creative play equipment and facilities,” playground experts like Alex Smith recommend taking a scaled-down, more affordable approach. Many of Halifax’s after school Excel programs adopted loose parts play following a presentation on risk and play by the UK children’s play advocate Tim Gill three years ago.  His message to school officials everywhere: “Loose parts play is doable from a budget, training and implementation perspective. What an opportunity!” 

What message are we sending to children entering school when they are barred from using playground equipment?  Should expanding early learning programs be planned with a program philosophy integrating indoor and outdoor play?  Is there a risk that we are robbing today’s kids of their childhood by over-protecting them in schools? When does ‘bubble-wrapping’ children become a problem? 

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Mindfulness has enjoyed a tremendous boom in the past decade and has recently begun to spring up in Canadian school systems. Two provinces, Ontario and British Columbia, are hotbeds for promoting “student well being” through broad application of ‘mindfulness training’ and its step-child ‘self-regulation ‘ beginning in the earliest grades. Under the former Liberal Government of Kathleen Wynne, the heavily promoted Student Well Being Strategy’ attempted to integrate ‘mindfulness’ through what is known as the MINDUP curriculum.  The recent change in government presents a rare opportunity to critically examine the whole initiative, its assumptions, research base, and actual impact upon schoolchildren.

“Student Well Being” has acquired something of an exalted status in Ontario schools ever since the appearance of a fascinating November 2016 policy paper,’ entitled “Well Being in Our Schools, Strength in Our Society.’ The whole concept of  Student Well Being was rationalized using a popular narrative promoted by its leading Ontario advocates, Dr. Jean Clinton, a McMaster University clinical psychiatrist, and Dr Stuart Shanker, a York University psychologist who doubles as the CEO of the MEHRIT Centre, a Peterborough-based organization holding a patent on the term “Self-Reg” and marketing “self-regulation’ in schools.  While labelled an “engagement paper,” the educators and the public were invited to “provide your insights and considerations on how best to promote and support student well-being throughout Ontario’s education system.

Promoting “Student Well Being” sounds like the educational equivalent of motherhood, so it has, to date, attracted little close scrutiny. That may explain why the whole provincial strategy sailed through the normal process of review and was immediately embraced by educators, particularly in elementary schools. Few Ontario educators, it seemed, were troubled by the initiative and parents were, as usual with curriculum initiatives, presented with a fait accompli.

Growing concerns among leading researchers in the United States, the U.K., and the Netherlands about the widespread adoption of positive psychology, the implementation of the Goldie Hawn Foundation’MINDUP program, and the mindfulness and happiness movement. failed to register.  Judging from Ontario Ministry of Education and school board conferences held in 2016-17 and 2017-18, the provincial school system was totally enamoured with an approach that promised salvation and relief from stress, anxiety, depression, bullying, and today’s frenetic school life.

What could possibly be wrong with making Student Well Being a system-wide priority? It sounded harmless enough until you bore down into what it actually entails and begin to examine the promotional videos and classroom resources generated by the initiative. An early warning was issued by British Columbia teacher Tina Olesen  in November of 2012 on the Scientific American Blog. Her concerns about the potentially harmful effects of Hawn’s MINDUP program were prophetic. Early studies in British Columbia (K.A. Schonert-Reichel 2008 and 2010) extolling the virtues of MINDUP curriculum have now come in for heavy criticism, challenging the validity of the findings.

Mindfulness and meditation recently took a big hit in “Mind the Hype,” a January 2018 peer-reviewed article in Perspectives on Psychological Science. An interdisciplinary team of scholars, led by N.T. Van Dam, found that the benefits of “mindfulness and meditation” have been over-hyped and that the research evidence to support its widespread use is mostly shoddy. They are very critical of the “misinformation and propagation of poor research methodology” that pervade much of the evidence behind the benefits of mindfulness. They focus in particular on the problem of defining the word mindfulness and on how the effects of the practice are studied.

“Mindfulness has become an extremely influential practice for a sizable subset of the general public, constituting part of Google’s business practices, available as a standard psychotherapy via the National Health Service in the United Kingdom and, most recently, part of standard education for approximately 6,000 school children in London,” the authors wrote. They also pinpointed a number of flaws in the supporting research, including  using various definitions for mindfulness, not comparing results to a control group of people who did not meditate and not using good measurements for mindfulness.

“I’ll admit to have drank the Kool-Aid a bit myself. I’m a practicing meditator, and I have been for over 20 years,” David Vago told Newsweek. A research director at the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at Vanderbilt University, he is one of the study’s authors. “A lot of the data that’s out there is still premature,” he said. Educators are not the only ones overstating the benefits of mindfulness.  “You go into Whole Foods today, and there will be three magazines with some beautiful blonde meditating on the cover,” Vago said. “And they’re labeled ‘Mindfulness, the New Science and Benefits’ in some shape or form.”

Mindfulness has spawned a completely new “mental health and happiness” industry. Mindfulness and meditation are a popular practice that brings in around $1 billion US annually, according to Fortune. The booming industry includes apps, classes and medical treatments.  That’s what concerns Canadian mental health researchers such as Dr. Stan Kutcher, the Sun Life Chair of Teen Mental Health, at Dalhousie University. “Being happy all the time without feeling any stress,” he reminds teachers, is not normal.  Contrary to the claims of Mindfulness promoters, Kutcher points out that  “Anxiety Disorder is not the same as being stressed before an exam.  Handling such normal stress is, in fact, essential to being in good mental health.”

Where’s the research to support mass application of Student Well Being training based upon mindfulness?  Two leading University of Wisconsin  researchers , Richard J. Davidson and Alfred W. Kaszniak, addressed the problem squarely in their October 2015 American Psychologist research review.  Mindfulness meditation and mindfulness-based interventions, they found, lack a proper research base. “There are still very few methodologically rigorous studies, ” they concluded,  that demonstrate the efficacy of mindfulness-based interventions in either the treatment of specific diseases or in the promotion of well-being.”

Studying the effectiveness of Canadian social and emotional learning (SEL) school programs is still in its infancy. One of the first such studies, conducted by Dr. John LeBlanc of Dalhousie Medical School and a team of researchers, systematically assessed over a dozen school-based SEL programs, including both “evidence-based” and “non-evidence based” programs. Five evidence-based programs (PATHS, Second Step, Caring School Community, Roots of Empathy, The Fourth R), and 6 non-evidence-based programs (DARE, Lion’s Quests: Skills for Adolescence, Options to Anger, Room 14: A Social Language Program, Stop Now and Plan (SNAP), Tribes) were identified.

A systematic literature search was conducted for all evidence-based programs, and each program underwent qualitative analysis using the Grading of Recommendations, Assessment, Development, and Evaluation (GRADE) approach. Implementation recommendations were then developed for all 13 programs. PATHS and Second Step received the strongest recommendations for school-based implementation, due to high quality empirical evaluations of the positive outcomes of these programs. Caring School Community, Roots of Empathy, and The Fourth R showed promise and received provisional recommendations for implementation. Those five programs were recommended for use in Nova Scotia public schools. Eight other noteworthy programs were discussed. but deemed to require empirical evaluation before evidence-based recommendations can be made. Based upon the evidence gathered in subsequent Dalhousie Medical School studies, MINDUP would also fall into that category – not yet suitable for school implementation. The research study or toolkit for educators underlined the critical need for proper program evaluation to ensure that such SEL programs are “cost effective and yield maximal benefits for students’ behaviour.”

Why did the Ontario Ministry of Education adopt Social Well-Being in January 2017 as a system-wide priority?  Where is the evidence to support the implementation of a mindfulness-based initiative in schools across Ontario? Were Ontario parents ever properly consulted on this provincial curriculum initiative?  Given the recent research findings, is it time to halt the Student Well Being Strategy and to seriously look at the wisdom of proceeding on the current set of assumptions? 

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Today’s public school teachers are expected to serve a number of masters — provincial education authorities, regional school boards, students and parents, and teachers’ federations. Traditionally, under Canadian education law,they have been seen to stand in loco parentisto have within the area of their responsibility the same authority over students as would a reasonable, kind and judicious (careful) parent and to be expected to act, at a minimum, in that manner.  Today, Canadian education law expert Dawn C. Wallin has noted that teachers act more and more as “educational state agents.”

The initial expectation of teachers acting in loco parentis has been substantially supplemented and, in some cases supplanted, by legal duties and requirements of teachers acting as agents of the state. The role of parents has also changed, as governments have come to play a more active role in shaping the framework and terms of engagement in family-school relations. The raging controversy over Ontario sex education curriculum reform in June and July of 2018 has, once again, brought the struggle for dominance in this “contested terrain” to a head.

Fundamental questions supposedly laid to rest with the 2015 Ontario sex education curriculum have resurfaced, much to the chagrin of former Queen’s Park education insiders, politically-active teachers, and allied health professionals.  Who speaks for the majority of today’s parents? For which parents, in urban school settings –and rural/small town school settings?  And in which of Ontario’s diverse range of etho-cultural communities?  Do “teachers know best” what today’s children and teens need to know about sex, gender identities, and leading healthy lives? 

The Doug Ford PC Government, judging from Education Minister Lisa Thompson‘s latest statement, is preparing to review the 2015 health curriculum and to maintain the 2014 status quo until the Ministry of Education has conducted a new round of parent consultations. That’s a watering down of its 2018 “For the People” election promise to revert back to the 1998 curriculum, but still honours a commitment made to the public. The revised policy position makes considerable sense, since only some 10 per cent of the curriculum deals specifically with sex education and is really in contention.

Much of the populist opposition to the 2015 Ontario sex education curriculum is rooted in the deep distrust engendered by the final term Kathleen Wynne Liberal Government. For those swept up in Ford Nation, it was a glaring example of Ms Wynne’s ideological adherence to costly progressive solutions, close connections with well-healed downtown Toronto do-gooders, condescending manner in telling parents what was good for their children, and preference for moving forward without listening enough to everyday concerns. 

Ontario’s 2015 sex education curriculum was always based upon what might accurately be termed a ‘forged consensus,” patched-together after Premier Dalton McGuinty ditched the proposed 2010 reforms in the face of fierce opposition from Catholic parents and boards as well as vocal social conservatives. Current claims that the Wynne round of consultation was all-inclusive does not stand up to close scrutiny. Her government relied heavily upon the usual OISE-Toronto insiders and appendages, well-known progressive education experts, 2,400 teachers, and some 4,000 parents drawn from the notably friendly confines of elementary school PACs.

Manufacturing consent can work to block populist educational ventures, as it did in staving-off British Columbia traditional schools, but it relies upon marginalizing opposing forces and can unravel after achieving the target objective. Shaming old-fashioned “moral traditionalists” and labelling “Christian fundamentalists,” and hidden “homophobes” might have worked again. It was the groundswell of new Canadians, mainly Asian, Middle Eastern, and East Indian, families with more conservative values in Toronto’s suburbs like Thorncliffe Park and the GTA, that upset the best-laid plans of the Liberal-dominated Ministry of Education.

‘Common sense’ seems to be is short supply, possibly because the term bears the stigma of the earlier incarnation of Ontario conservatism during the wrenching and divisive Mike Harris years. That’s a shame because it’s exactly what Ontario needs right now to resolve the sex education conundrum.

With respect to sex education, finding a more stable, common sense resolution starts with a different assumption – that parents are every child’s first educators and have to be meaningfully engaged because they are sill primary responsible for raising and rearing children, albeit in close partnership their child’s teachers. Acknowledging the critical role of parents and families is the first step to winning over skeptical traditional and ethnic minority parents and setting Ontario on the road to a more satisfactory resolution.  It’s also a good reminder that the teacher is, after all, still expected to act in loco parentis and, where possible, with the consent of parents and families.

Any new Sex Education task force should be composed of a new set of players, as much as possible independent of the ideologues and activists on both sides. It should be carefully constructed so as to achieve a legitimate balance, involving liberal and conservative-minded parents, recognized scientific authorities, and respected members of religious communities. Sorting out the differences will not be easy, but will only happen if proponents of more conservative views, rooted in character education, morality, and modesty in sexual matters have a legitimate place at the table.

Reforming the sex education curriculum now means listening harder and working to resolve the fundamental objections over a few critical pieces of the sex education program and applying an more nuanced “age-appropriate” lens to the contentious components.  Imposing a state-mandated curriculum without further consultation is out-of-the question. That’s why there’s so little consistency in what is taught and when, from province-to-province across Canada.

Without a consistent federal presence in education, assessing the state of sex education province-to-province can be quite a challenge.  The best we have is a fairly reliable survey conducted in 2015 for Global TVNews , illustrating the full spectrum of variations in ages when the key topics are introduced:

Proper Names of Body Parts: British Columbia and Manitoba required children know in kindergarten, while PEI and New Brunswick wait until Grade 6.

Sexual Orientation:  It was taught in Ontario, Saskatchewan, and Nova Scotia in Grade 3, but Newfoundland only taught LGBT awareness in grade 9 (Manitoba had no clear agenda.)

. Sexual Consent: Nova Scotia introduced the topic in 2011, in advance of Ontario. It is also part of the Quebec curriculum, but it makes only a passing reference to reproductive rights, described as the risk of “going through an unwanted pregnancy.”

Sexually Transmitted infections (STis) and Prevention: Taught in Nova Scotia starting in Grade 5 but New Brunswick avoided the topic until Grade 10.

Birth Control:  Taught in Grade 6 in BC and in Grade 9 in Nova Scotia and Saskatchewan. While N.S. taught STI prevention in Grade 5, it waits until high school to introduce birth control.

When Ontario introduced Gender Identities and LGBT concerns in 2015, they were in the vanguard with Nova Scotia and Quebec, but  in some provinces like Saskatchewan it was still not mentioned at all. Alberta followed Ontario with sex ed curriculum changes that included sexual consent, sexual orientation, and cyberbullying/ sexting.

Love and Intimacy: The only province to teach love, attraction and intimacy is Quebec. Its curriculum is closely aligned with teaching human biology and makes a clear distinction between love and the purely physical aspects of puberty and reproduction.

Central to the newly-announced Ford sex education curriculum review will be a careful study of the readiness of children to learn certain topics in the early grades, Children can and should be taught the biological facts in the early grades, but it’s hard to justify teaching sexual preferences before children understand the nature of sexual desire. Warning young children about sexual pornography, internet porn, and sexting cannot be postponed, nor can teaching about same-sex couples when children see that for themselves among parents in their own school.

A Ford Government sex education curriculum will, in all likelihood, leave teaching more contentious and contested topics until the later elementary and junior high years. Exploring the full range of sexual desire in all its diversity is still best left to adolescence. Newly created teaching resources such as the “Genderbread Person Charts” fall into that category and should not be employed when students are simply too young to fully understand the complexities of gender identity, sexual preference, and biological sex types.

Teaching about sexual fluidity remains a radioactive topic, especially when the biological science is so contested and there is still a risk of doing harm by exposing young children to unproven, possibly harmful theories. In the case of one Sacramento, California, charter school kindergarten, a teacher’s well-intended strategy to demonstrate transgenderism backfired badly when children came home in distress, with some five-year-old boys left “afraid they were turning into girls.” Children can be taught to accept and respect peers who are different without applying labels at such an early age.

Parent knowledge, wisdom and counsel are critical in finding a better way forward and one, as Calgary professor Yan Guo reminds us, that respects the very real diversity among families in contemporary Canadian society. It presents a fresh opportunity to find a more flexible approach, making reasonable accommodations consistent with differing community and family values. State-mandated sex education without accommodating differences does not accord so well with the time-tested “Canadian way” of finding a workable consensus.

Should sex education curriculum be essentially family-centred or state-mandated on the basis of changing child rearing theories and practices? What’s wrong with an “age-appropriate revision” postponing certain topics to the later grades? Is it still possible for Ontario to proceed with most of the 2015 curriculum revision, with the exception of a few hotly-contested topics? How prepared are we to take the time to get it right by accommodating more of the unresolved concerns, and especially those expressed by new Canadian families from other religious, cultural and family traditions? 

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Smoking in and around high schools has become ‘cool, once again. Over the past year, vaping has overtaken cigarette smoking as the surreptitious habit of choice among teens as well as undergraduate university students. While smoking e-cigarettes is officially outlawed on school property, that has not stopped a dramatic rise in the popularity of vaping among high schoolers. In the case of Ontario, a 2017 provincial survey revealed that more students in Grades 7 to 12 self-reported vaping (18 per cent) than smoking tobacco cigarettes (12 per cent).

The latest vape innovation, the Juul, now dominates the United States teen market and is beginning to spread into Canada. Inhaling multi-flavoured vapors with nicotine is now much harder for school administrators and teachers to detect. The small, sleek device, or juul, which can be easily mistaken for a portable USB drive has cornered the market for e-cigarettes and vaping products, particularly in affluent school districts where students can afford the latest gadgets and stimulants. Concealing bulging vaporizers was tough, but these low-profile, sleek designs allow students to easily conceal their habit and to escape detection not only in in the usual spots (bathrooms, back hallways, and under stairwells), but even in classrooms.

Like most teen crazes, vaping and ‘julling’ caught on far faster than school officials realized and became well established before authorities saw the scale of the problem. School principals are scrambling to contain the practice and trying to stamp it out.  “I think it’s everywhere, and my school is no different, ” Connecticut principal Francis Thompson recently told Education Week. Then he added, “I think it’s the next health epidemic..”

Vaping with the stealth devices, while less prevalent, is reportedly rising in and around Canadian high schools. “Everybody’s doing it, ” a Grade 9 student in Windsor-Essex County told Windsor CBC News in early April 2018.  Teens in Ottawa high schools featured in a May 2018 Canadian Press news story confirmed that it was now “cool” to smoke again, albeit with vaporizers and in well-known hiding spots. In Sydney, Cape Breton, students at Sydney Academy were well-aware of students vaping in class undetected, and fellow students suspended for smoking who were actually vaping on school grounds.

The new federal legislation, the Tobacco and Vaping Products Act, passed in May 2015, may help to clarify the legal position of school principals trying to cope with the latest craze. Bill S-5 (2018) may improve the quality and regulation of  vaping products and it does restrict use to adults. Federal regulations, expected within six months, will reduce the number of flavours used in e-cigarettes, banning those designed to mimic ‘confectionary,’ cannabis, or energy drinks, and designed to hook young people on these devices.

Defenders of e-cigarettes continue to maintain that they are a safer alternative to tar-producing tobacco cigarettes. Tobacco experts at Public Health England tend to support such claims, as confirmed in a February 2018 UK government report. Whether vaping is effective in promoting smoking cessation is far from clear in studies to date.

School policies banning smoking have been updated to include vaping, but the new stealth devices are making it harder than ever to enforce, especially when the juul looks so much like a USB stick and can be easily concealed by student users. The latest fear expressed by school principals and teachers is the prospect of vaporizers being used to deliver cannabis, circumventing school detection and regulations. When cannabis is legalized across Canada, October 17, 2018, we shall see whether it further complicates the job of policing and eliminating vaping on school grounds.

Why is vaping replacing tobacco smoking as the nicotine product of choice in and around schools?  Will the American juul craze become more widely accepted and entrenched among teens here in Canada? Should we be focusing so much on stamping out vaping or on convincing students to stop smoking, whatever the substance? Will the legalization of marijuana only compound this problem for teachers and school administrators? 

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The latest student achievement results, featured in the April 30, 2018 Pan-Canadian Assessment Program (PCAP) 2016 report, prove, once again, how system-critical testing is for K-12 education. Students in every Canadian province except Ontario saw gains in Grade 8 student scores from 2010 to 2016 and we are now much the wiser. That educational reality check simply confirms that it’s no time to be jettisoning Ontario’s Grade 3 provincial tests and chipping away at the reputation of the province’s independent testing agency, the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO).

The plan to end Grade 3 provincial testing arrived with the final report of Ontario: A Learning Province, produced by OISE professor Carol Campbell and her team of six supposedly independent advisors, including well-known change theorists Michael Fullan, Andy Hargreaves and Jean Clinton. Targeting of the EQAO was telegraphed in an earlier discussion paper, but the consultation phase focused ostensibly more on “broadening measures of student success” beyond achievement and into the largely uncharted realm of “social and emotional learning” (SEL).

The final report stunned many close observers in Ontario who expected much more from the review, and, in particular, an SEL framework for assessment and a new set of “student well- being” reports for the 2018-19 school year.  Tampering with Grade 3 testing made former Ontario Deputy Minister Charles Pascal uncomfortable because it interfered with diagnosis for early interventions.

It also attracted a stiff rebuke from the world’s leading authority on formative assessment, British assessment specialist Dylan Wiliam. He was not impressed at all with the Campbell review committee report. While it was billed as a student assessment review, Wiliam noted that none of the committee members is known for expertise in assessment, testing or evaluation.

Education insiders were betting that the Kathleen Wynne Liberal-friendly review team would simply unveil the plan for “broader student success” developed by Annie Kidder and her People for Education lobby group since 2012 and known as the “Measuring What Matters” project. It is now clear that something happened to disrupt the delivery of that carefully nurtured policy baby. Perhaps the impending Ontario provincial election was a factor.

Social and emotional learning is now at the very core of Ontario’s Achieving Excellence and Equity agenda and it fully embraces “supporting all students” and enabling them to achieve “a positive sense of well-being – the sense of self, identity, and belonging in the world that will help them to learn, grow and thrive.”

The Ontario model, hatched by the Education Ministry in collaboration with People for Education, is based upon a psycho-social theory that “well-being” has “four interconnected elements” critical to student development, with self/spirit at the centre. The whole formulation reflects the biases of the architects, since grit, growth mindset, respect and responsibility are nowhere to be found in the preferred set of social values inculcated in the system. Whatever the rationale, proceeding to integrate SEL into student reports and province-wide assessments is premature when recognized American experts Angela Duckworth and David Scott Yeager warn that the ‘generic skills’ are ill- defined and possibly unmeasureable.

Evidence-informed researchers such as Daisy Christodoulou, author of Making Good Progress (2017), do not support the proposed change in Ontario student assessment focus. Generic or transferable skills approaches such as Ontario is considering generate generic feedback of limited value to students in the classroom. Relying too heavily on teacher assessments is unwise because, as Christodoulou reminds us, disadvantaged students tend to fare better on larger-scale, objective tests. The proposed prose descriptors will, in all likelihood, be jargon-ridden, unintelligible to students and parents, and prove particularly inaccessible to students struggling in school.

One of the reasons Ontario has been recognized as a leading education system is because of its success over the past 20 years in establishing an independent EQAO with an established and professionally-sound provincial testing program in Grades 3, 6, and 9 and a Grade 10 literacy test that needs improvement. Legitimate teacher concerns about changes that increase marking loads do need to be addressed in any new student assessment plan and so do objections over the fuzzy, labour-intensive SEL student reports.

The proposal to phase out Ontario provincial testing may already be dead in the water.  If it is, you can guess that the April 30, 2018 editorial in The Toronto Star was definitely a contributing factor.  If the Wynne Liberals go down to defeat in the June 2018 election, the whole plan will likely be shelved or completely revamped by a new government.

Whether you support the EQAO or not, the agency has succeeded in establishing reliable quality standards for student performance in literacy and mathematics. Abandoning Grade 3 testing and gutting the EQAO is not only ill-conceived, but ill advised. Without the PCAP and provincial achievement benchmarks we would be flying blind into the future.

What can possibly be gained from eliminating system-wide Grade 3 provincial assessments?  How does that square with research suggesting early assessments are critical in addressing reading and numeracy difficulties?  Without Ontario, would it be possible to conduct comprehensive Grade 3 bench-marking across Canada?  If staff workload is the problem, then aren’t there other ways to address that matter?  And whatever happened to the proposed Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) assessments and reports? 

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Ontario now aspires to global education leadership in the realm of student evaluation and reporting. The latest Ontario student assessment initiative, A Learning Province, announced in September 2017 and guided by OISE education  professor Dr. Carol Campbell, cast a wide net encompassing classroom assessments, large scale provincial tests, and national/international assessment programs.  That vision for “student-centred assessments” worked from the assumption that future assessments would capture the totality of “students’ experiences — their needs, learning, progress and well-being.”

The sheer scope whole project not only deserves much closer scrutiny, but needs to be carefully assessed for its potential impact on frontline teachers. A pithy statement by British teacher-researcher Daisy Christodoulou in January 2017 is germane to the point: “When government get their hands on anything involving the word ‘assessment’, they want it to be about high stakes monitoring and tracking, not about low-stakes diagnosis.”  In the case of  Ontario, pursuing the datafication of social-emotional-learning and the mining of data to produce personality profiles is clearly taking precedence over the creation of teacher-friendly assessment policy and practices.

One of the reasons Ontario has been recognized as a leading education system is because of its success over the past 20 years in establishing an independent Education Quality and Accountability Office  (EQAO) with an established and professionally-sound provincial testing program in Grades 3, 6, 9 and 10.  Whether you support the EQAO or not, most agree that is has succeeded in establishing reliable benchmark standards for student performance in literacy and mathematics.

The entire focus of Ontario student assessment is now changing. Heavily influenced by the Ontario People for Education Measuring What Matters project, the province is plunging ahead with Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) assessment embracing what Ben Williamson aptly describes as “stealth assessment” – a set of contested personality criteria utilizing SEL ‘datafication’ to measure “student well-being.” Proceeding to integrate SEL into student reports and province-wide assessments is also foolhardy when American experts Angela Duckworth and David Scott Yeager warn that the ‘generic skills’ are ill- defined and possibly unmeasureable.

Social and emotional learning is now at the very core of Ontario’s Achieving Excellence and Equity agenda and it fully embraces “supporting all students” and enabling them to achieve “a positive sense of well-being – the sense of self, identity, and belonging in the world that will help them to learn, grow and thrive.” The Ontario model is based upon a psycho-social theory that “well-being” has “four interconnected elements” critical to student development, with self/spirit at the centre. Promoting student well-being is about fostering learning environments exhibiting these elements:

Cognitive: Development of abilities and skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, creativity, and the ability to be flexible and innovative.

Emotional: Learning about experiencing emotions, and understanding how to recognize, manage, and cope with them.

Social: Development of self-awareness, including the sense of belonging, collaboration, relationships with others, and communication skills.

Physical: Development of the body, impacted by physical activity, sleep patterns, healthy eating, and healthy life choices.

Self/Spirit:  Recognizing the core of identity whieh has “different meanings for different people, and can include cultural heritage, language, community, religion or a broader spirituality.”

Ontario’s new student report cards, proposed for 2018-19 implementation, will incorporate an distinct SEL component with teacher evaluations on a set of “transferable skills” shifting the focus from organization and work habits to “well-being” and associated values, while retaining grades or marks for individual classes. The Ontario Education “Big Six” Transferable Skills are: critical thinking, innovation and creativity, self-directed learning, collaboration, communication, and citizenship.  Curiously absent from the Ontario list of preferred skills are those commonly found in American variations on the formula: grit, growth mindset, and character

The emerging Ontario student assessment strategy needs to be evaluated in relation to the latest research and best practice, exemplified in Dylan Wiliam’s student assessment research and Daisy Christodoulou’s 2017 book Making Good Progress: The Future of Assessment for Learning.  Viewed through that lens, the Ontario student assessment philosophy and practice falls short on a number of counts.

  1. The Generic Skills Approach: Adopting this approach reflects a fundamental misunderstanding about how students learn and acquire meaningful skills. Tacking problem-solving at the outset, utilizing Project-Based Learning to “solve-real life problems” is misguided  because knowledge and skills are better acquired  through other means. The “deliberate practice method” has proven more effective. Far more is learned when students break down skills into a ‘progression of understanding’ — acquiring the knowledge and skill to progress on to bigger problems.
  2. Generic Feedback: Generic or transferable skills prove to be unsound when used as a basis for student reporting and feedback on student progress. Skills are not taught in the abstract, so feedback has little meaning for students. Reading a story and making inferences, for example, is not a discrete skill; it is dependent upon knowledge of vocabulary and background context to achieve reading comprehension.
  3. Hidden Bias of Teacher Assessment: Teacher classroom assessments are highly desirable, but do not prove as reliable as standardized measures administered under fair and objective conditions. Disadvantaged students, based upon reliable, peer-reviewed research, do better on tests than of regular teacher assessments. “Teacher assessment is biased not because they are carried out by teachers, but because it is carried out by humans.”
  4. Unhelpful Prose Descriptors: Most verbal used in system-wide assessments and reports are unhelpful — tend to be jargon-ridden, unintelligible to students and parents, and prove particularly inaccessible to students struggling in school. Second generation descriptors are “pupil friendly” but still prove difficult to use in learning how to improve or correct errors.
  5. Work-Generating Assessments: System-wide assessments, poorly constructed, generate unplanned and unexpected marking loads, particularly in the case of qualitative assessments with rubrics or longer marking time. In the U.K., for example, the use of grade descriptors for feedback proved much more time consuming than normal grading of written work Primary teachers who spent 5 hours a week on assessment in 2010, found that, by 2013, they were spending 10 hours a week.AssessmentMarkLoadCrisisWhat’s wrong with the new Ontario Assessment Plan and needs rethinking?
  1. The Generic Skills Approach – Teaching generic skills (SEL) doesn’t work and devalues domain-specific knowledge
  2. Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) models — carry inherent biases and are unmeasurable
  3. Breach of Student Security – Data mining and student surveys generate personality data without consent
  4. Erosion of Teacher Autonomy – Student SEL data generated by algorithms, creates more record-keeping, more marking, cuts into classroom time.

The best evidence-based assessment research, applied in deconstructing the Ontario Assessment initiative, raises red flags.  Bad student assessment practices, as Wiliam and Christodoulou show, can lead to serious workload problems for classroom teachers. No education jurisdiction that lived up to the motto “Learning Province” would plow ahead when the light turns to amber.

A summary of the researchED Ontario presentation delivered April 14, 2018, at the Toronto Airport Westin Hotel. 

Where is the new Ontario student assessment initiative really heading? Is it a thinly-disguised attempt to create a counterweight to current large-scale student achievement assessments? Is it feasible to proceed with SEL assessment when leading researchers question its legitimacy and validity? Are we running the risk of opening the door to the wholesale mining of student personal information without consent and for questionable purposes? 

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