Archive for the ‘Teacher Quality/Evaluation’ Category

A new Canadian study, “Teacher Incentive Pay That Works,” produced by Vicki Alger for the Fraser Institute, contends that performance bonuses and other incentives  for teachers would improve teaching and ultimately student achievement standards.  Since performance-based rewards are common in other professions, Alger makes the case that they should be adopted in education, as a means of ensuring that our students remain “competitive” on the world stage.

HattieBookCoverMaking the case for Teacher Merit Pay is popular in certain circles outside of education.  It may be a noble idea, designed to reward the high performers, but it tends to fall apart when we turn to the formidable challenge of implementation in the schools.

Two critical questions arise:  Would teachers respond to Teacher Pay Incentives by improving their teaching and focusing more on the performance of their students?  And, if so, should we tie teacher evaluation and salary increases, in part,  to student performance levels?  The Fraser Institute says “Yes,” but the current research on improving teacher quality indicates otherwise.

Most of the proposed and implemented schemes linking teacher evaluation/compensation with student performance levels are, in the words of leading Australian researcher Stephen Dinham, “half-baked plans.”  While the Fraser Institute researchers review ten global case studies, they are only able to identify three or four that are working effectively, namely those in Washington (DC), Dallas (TX), Chile, and the United Kingdom.  The Washington, DC, IMPACT Program, for example, was born out of a well-publicized “student performance crisis” during Commissioner Michelle Rhee’s short-lived tenure and the jury is still out on its ultimate effectiveness.

Teaching matters – and far more than North American ‘progressive” educators were ever prepared to admit. The prevailing notion, widely held since the 1960s, was that socio-economic status disadvantage (SES) was the main determinant of student performance. For students from disadvantages backgrounds and communities, SES and family background were like “life sentences.”  Recent research over the past 20 years, synthesized by New Zealander John Hattie, has essentially rejected that presumption. Poor student achievement, we know know, is far more spread out across the full SES spectrum.

HattieAchievementVarianceWhat really matters in influencing and determining student achievement?  Since the 2008 book Visible Learning by John Hattie, we can answer that question with far more certainty. Based upon a synthesis of hundreds of studies, Hattie has demonstrated that teachers and teaching really do matter. Although about 50 per cent of student performance is closely related to SES, prior learning, and home expectations, about 30 per cent of the achievement variance is determined by the quality of teaching.  School leadership, resources, and supports represent  about 20 % of the variance.

Teacher incentive and rewards programs may well work, but not the kind proposed by the Fraser Institute.  Indeed, leading Teacher Quality researchers Hattie and Dinham have both set out teacher improvement plans with a more convincing rationale, based upon actual in-school research. That’s why it’s a bit shocking not to find either Hattie or Dinham even referenced in the Fraser Institute study.

The Australian “Career Ladder” Teacher Performance plan and salary scale, initiated by Dr. Stephen Dinham, in 2009, is far superior to any referenced in the Fraser Institute study. Like the preferred Fraser Institute models, it is aimed at raising teaching standards  and tied, in part, to student performance data.  Where it differs is in its far more sophisticated and nuanced approach to fostering both higher quality teaching and professional growth. Instead of  jettisoning established salary scales, the Australian model builds in a more flexible, competency-based ladder to minimize the role of seniority in the career progression.

Here’s how it works.  Clear national performance standards are established for Australian teachers, with five levels reflecting stages of  professional competence and development. The teaching categories are: C1: Graduate/Certified; C2: Proficient (Regular); c3: Highly Proficient (Growth-Oriented); C4: Lead Teacher; and C5: School Leader.  You progress up the salary scale by achieving higher levels of competency, but are not rewarded unless and until you meet higher level teaching standards.  Standardized test results documenting student performance levels are used, in moderation, as one indicator among several of teacher quality and effectiveness.

The Australian plan may retain the familiar grid, but it also provides a pay-for-performance incentive. Salaries are calibrated according to professional performance levels akin to the professorial career ladder.  In the model, C1 teachers at $30,000 = 1.0; C2 teachers are 1.25 ($37,500); C3 teachers are 2.0 ($60,000); C4 teachers are 2.5 ($75.000); and C5 lead teachers are 3.0 ($9o,000). Teachers who demonstrate excellence and professional growth can be accelerated to higher levels; those who simply conform or stagnate are plateaued or assigned to a lower salary level.  Extremely talented teachers rise rapidly and stagnant teachers are, over a number of years, counselled out of the profession.

Improving the quality of teaching is now finally rising to the top of the Canadian education policy agenda.  Adopting “half-baked” schemes such as those currently being piloted or implemented in numerous American states is definitely not the way to go for our provincial systems.  In most of the best programs, student performance results are factored in, so the testing systems are critical to establishing benchmarks in a wider array of subjects, from elementary literacy and numeracy to high school subject exit exams.  Phasing out standardized tests makes little sense if you are serious about eventually factoring student performance into teacher assessment and compensation.

What might actually work to improve the quality of teaching in the schools?  Should we start by establishing professional teaching standards along the career ladder?  If the teacher salary grid was retained, but re-engineered around teacher competencies and performance levels, would teachers embrace that opportunity?  How long might it take to establish a set of student performance benchmarks that could reliably be integrated into teacher performance/compensation programs?


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The state of  the teaching profession is a critical public policy issue — and one that rarely gets addressed unless, and until, periodic revelations surface of “professional misconduct” involving a small minority of so-called “bad apples” who besmirch the reputation of committed, caring and upstanding teachers everywhere.

TeachingProfessionDozens of Canadian teachers in Nova Scotia were recently revealed to have been boosting their salaries by thousands of dollars, acquiring additional credentials by taking “bird courses” offered through a distance learning program at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa.

The Drake course debacle became a full-blown controversy when Shelley Morse, president of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union, spoke up defending the teachers who took the easy route to secure hefty salary increases. Over the previous three years, some 41 teachers were discovered to have taken Drake courses, mostly in sports coaching and not acceptable for admission as graduate credits, to secure teacher salary upgrades of from $6,000 to $8,000 a year, and 505 teachers, in total, had initiated similar plans, representing two out of every three registered to take out-of-province courses.

Even after Education Minister Karen Casey called for a full investigation of the Drake courses, Morse remained undeterred. To the union president and her provincial executive, it was not a question of professionalism, but rather an unprovoked assault on teachers and another episode in the education “blame game.”

My latest AIMS research report, co-authored with Karen Mitchell, a Nova Scotian who served as a member of the Ontario College of Teachers Governing Board from 1997 to 2005, pointed out that this seemingly isolated episode revealed deeper problems besetting the teaching profession.

Establishing and maintaining professional standards in Canada has, in practice, been delegated to provincial teachers’ unions and federations. Nova Scotia demonstrates how that approach turns professional matters over to the employers (school boards) and results in professional bodies like the NSTU propping up particularly loose regulations, virtually guaranteeing “spotless records” for teachers.

The province has about 9,400 P-12 public school teachers, all of whom are members of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union. Today the Nova Scotia government has abrogated its responsibility to uphold teaching standards by leaving matters to the province’s school boards. Under the Teaching Profession Act , the province essentially delegates to the union its responsibility for both professional development and upholding teaching standards. The province also has five university faculties of education, each offering B.Ed. and graduate programs leading to a teaching certificate and advanced degrees.

While Nova Scotia conducts periodic reviews of teacher education, the universities operate in an autonomous fashion. No independent body exists either to oversee or to accredit the province’s university teacher education programs or out-of-province added qualification programs.

Utilizing Nova Scotia as a test case, our AIMS policy paper makes the case for adopting a more robust provincial policy regimen to ensure the highest teaching standards as well as to “weed out” under-performing teachers and so-called “bad apples” who pose risks to students.

The four-year-long battle (2009-13) to remove New Germany school teacher Peter Speight in the wake of his sexual offence case drove the point home. It cost taxpayers well over $250,000 in settlement fees and revealed, albeit in exaggerated form, the damage inflicted by failing to set and uphold professional ethics and standards in Nova Scotia schools.

Promoting, maintaining and enforcing professional standards now falls between various horses — the Education Department’s certification branch, the school boards, and the professional committee of the NSTU, the teachers’ union also entrusted with protecting its members from moral and “criminal allegations.”

The NSTU staff manual does contain a “code of ethics,” but it is not a public declaration, nor does it appear to be applied when cases are before the courts or arbitration tribunals. The professional committee operates in a closed and private fashion, shielded by a regimen of publicly displayed “privacy principles.” That committee, overseeing all matters of “professional misconduct” and behaviour “unbecoming a teacher,” publishes no minutes and is not required to disclose any data with respect to any and all teacher resignations, retirements or dismissals.

We are left completely unaware of cases such as that of Peter Speight until parents mount local school board protests or the criminal case goes to court and appears in public proceedings.

One reform option is to establish a fully independent College of Teachers with a clear provincial mandate to ensure Teacher Quality (TQ) and identify, establish, and enforce professional standards of practice. In the report, we reconstruct the rise and fall of the B.C. College of Teachers from 1988 until its demise in 2011 amid controversy over  internal conflicts and public revelations of keeping “bad teaching records spotless.”

After assessing the recognized strengths and critical shortcomings of two earlier College of Teachers ventures in Ontario and British Columbia, we proposed a better model for Nova Scotia and its neighbouring Atlantic provinces – the establishment of a teacher regulation branch with an independent board capable of upholding and enforcing professional performance and conduct standards.

The AIMS report really set the cat among the pigeons in Nova Scotia’s rather inward looking provincial school system.  When the NSTU refused to comment and went into hiding, the Minister of Education finally responded with the explanation that disciplining teachers was the role of school boards, implying that the union was not a professional body at all. The Halifax Regional School Board was then compelled to make public its disciplinary practices and record, reporting that only 1 teacher out of 4,000 was disciplined for performance issues each year.

The teaching profession is facing a crisis of confidence and the situation now calls for a major reform of teacher certification and regulation. Starting in Nova Scotia and following the lead of B.C., we called for the establishment of a new, more independent teacher regulation branch with a clear mandate to raise professional teaching standards, rebuild public trust, properly vet teacher education programs, and safeguard students in the schools.

Whatever happened to Teaching Standards upheld by members of the profession themselves?  Are teachers’ unions like the NSTU (focusing primarily on “protective services”) capable of  honouring their commitments under the Teaching Profession Act to deal with “conduct unbecoming a teacher”? In view of the collapse of the B.C. College of Teachers, has the potential for a truly self-governing profession been lost here in Canada?


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An 18-year old Texas student at Duncanville High School, Jeff Bliss, simply had enough — and could not take it anymore.  After being dismissed from class for asking a question and being told to “quit bitching” in Grade 12 World History class on May 6, 2013, he launched into a ninety second condemnation of his teacher’s uninspired attitude and habit of “packet teaching” depriving students of the opportunity to actually engage in learning.

JeffBlissRantAs the son of a teacher, and a student who returned to high school after having dropped-out, he expected more from teachers in his school.  Caught on video by an “undercover” student, his outburst went viral and discussions broke out over both the appropriateness of  his behaviour and the critical education reform issue he raised in the classroom rant. When the teacher, Julie Phung , was placed on leave with pay, a fierce public furor erupted over whether the outspoken Bliss may have a point.

Whether intended or not, Jeff Bliss happened to hit on many of the hot button issues in the American Education War.  “If you would just get up and teach ‘em instead of handing them a frickin packet, yo, there’s kids in here who don’t learn like that,” he said. “They need to learn face to face.”  When Phong, sitting at her desk, repeatedly admonishes him to leave and says he’s “wasting” her time, Bliss unloads with his own lesson about teaching:

“You want kids to come into your class, you want them to get excited for this? You gotta come in here and you gotta make them excited,” the tall student with flowing blond hair and red high tops says in the video, standing at the front of the class and gesticulating to further emphasize his point. “You want a kid to change and start doing better? You gotta touch his freakin heart. You can’t expect a kid to change if all you do is just tell them.” His closer: “This is my country’s future and my education.”

Local Dallas TV news affiliates quickly picked up the video, and by May 14, it  exceeded 1.8 million views and had gleaned international attention. The Innovative Educator, Lisa Neilsen, a strong advocate of “student voice” defended the student’s right to voice his opinion in a school where that was not normally encouraged or even permitted.   But public commenters were quick to point out the disrespectful nature of the outburst in an environment where teachers are supposed to be respected. They also warned this video doesn’t show us the full story.

The official response from the Duncanville Independent School District  was rather instructive.  “As a district with a motto of Engaging Hearts and Minds we focus on building positive relationships with students and designing engaging work that is meaningful,” the district said in a media statement. “We want our students and teachers to be engaged, but the method by which the student expressed his concern could have been handled in a more appropriate way. We are and will continue to be open to listening to students.”

Many educators were upset because it fed public perceptions of the “bad teacher.” One well-known American educational blogger, high school English teacher Tom Panarese, expressed his profound discouragement in a post entitled Why the Jeff Bliss story makes me want to quit.

” I’m probably just seeing end-of-the-school-year exhaustion manifest itself “, Panarese  wrote, noting that stressful June testing was about to begin.  Then he added: ” But it seems that the conversation about education as it is via social media has been happening this way for years and as noble as Jeff Bliss’s champions might think his “I Am Spartacus” moment might be, it won’t really change anything except get a black mark on his history teacher’s record.”

Was Texas high school student Jeff Bliss justified in speaking out against mediocrity in teaching?  Do we know enough about conditions in the school or that class to pass judgement on the teacher’s approach or the student’s behaviour?  Should students have more of a voice in shaping what is learned and how they are taught, especially in senior high school?  Are educators expressing legitimate concerns about the dangers of “trial by underground You Tube clip”?

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A truly weird little You Tube video, Education And Accountability, was posted on February 7, 2013 in an attempt to arouse support for a resurgent Canadian anti -student testing movement. Inspired by the appeal of the polished RSA animated videos, the amateurish Canadian version is a thinly veiled effort to discredit Ontario’s Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) and its well-established system of standardized student testing.  The broadside did not come from out-of-the-blue but rather sprang from the  team of Action Canada researchers who produced the 2012 policy paper, Real Accountability or Illusion of Success?, a call to review standardized testing in Ontario.

TestingIllusionCoverAsking ‘How Much Testing is Too Much Testing?‘ is a very legitimate and reasonable question to ask.  Since 1995, and the creation of EQAO, student testing has expanded in direct response to growing public demand for accountability in Canadian K-12 public education.  What the Action Canada team of Sebastien Despres, Steven Kuhn, Pauline Ngirumpatse, and Marie Josee Parent have done is to call for a review of the entire public accountability structure in the system. That video lays bare their hidden agenda which is to undermine hard-won public accountability in a system with a chronic aversion to responding to parent, student, or citizen concerns.

Reviewing the Action Canada report is painful for those familiar with the struggle in the early 1990s to bring back a semblance of public accountability to a runaway public education system.  The Ontario Royal Commission on Learning, for example, is identified as the point of origin of student testing, completely ignoring the public advocacy of the Coalition for Education Reform (1992-1995).  That’s a forgivable sin, but to ignore the rising public demand, even the role of Dr. Dennis Raphael in the Ministry of Education and Paul Cappon at the Council of Ministers of Education(CMEC) is truly amazing.  It is clear that the authors have no idea whatsoever about how alien the concept of accountability for student performance was in the Ontario public system.

The Action Canada author’s research is not only narrowly circumscribed, it’s incredibly selective.  Studying student assessment policies and considering only the work of anti-testers is what gives “education research” a bad name.  It’s actually entertaining to see the OISE “progressive” faction. most notably David Livingston and Kari Delhi, cited approvingly, while the true assessment experts, Mark Holmes and Stephen Lawton, warrant not a mention.  In places, the report shows that the young authors have not done their homework. Even the spin that the report puts on the Commission on Learning’s recommendation sounds like the later repentant thoughts of Co-Chair Gerald Caplan.

The Action Canada team has taken a run at the entire public accountability system in Ontario public education.  Their “Task Force” recommendations call upon the Ontario government to review: A. The Structure of the Tests relative to Objectives; B. The Impact of Testing within the Classroom; C. The Validity of Test Results; and D. Public Reporting and Use of Test Results.  Simply put, the little band of neo-progressives are asking whether, not how much, testing is good for student learning.

The report bears the unmistakable fingerprints of Canada’s leading foe of standardized testing, New York-born University of Ottawa education professor Dr. Joel Westheimer.  While the young researchers did hold a panel and hear other viewpoints, it’s obvious that they have swallowed whole Dr. Westheimer’s lively commentaries and inspirational talks.  Westheimer’s take on the excesses of No Child Left Behind, entitled  “No Child Left Thinking,” should have been referenced because it definitely contributed significantly to their thinking.

The Action Canada report is clearly aimed at bringing Ontario’s public accountability system to the ground.  It’s a clumsy, ill-considered attempt to turn-back-the-clock to a time when no one had to be accountable for much of anything in or out of the classroom.  The Canadian Education Association and the Ontario Principals’ Council were, of course, among the first to “like” the report on Facebook. Thoughtful critics of standardized testing, like Dr. Diane Ravitch and the American Common Core research group are rightly concerned about two impacts: the steady erosion of  Social Sciences teaching time and the potential for misuse in teacher evaluation.  It’s a little too obvious that the young researchers are out to “kill testing” instead of simply stopping student test results from being factored into value-added teacher evaluation programs.

What’s driving the recent move to review and limit standardized student testing in Canadian schools?  Does the Action Canada research report hold any water, let alone suggest a way forward?  Why did the organized voices of Canadian teachers and principals jump so quickly in endorsing this thin little policy paper?  What in the world makes educators so afraid of testing when they spend much of their careers testing and grading kids?

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“Mr. D “ (aka Mr. Gerry Duncan) may look like just another zany caricature of a real life teacher. http://www.facebook.com/CBCMrD  Watching the popular CBC-TV sitcom, it’s hilarious to see him struggling to keep one page ahead of the students in the textbook and relying on tricks to bluff his way through another day.  Yet that under-qualified and , at times bumbling, teacher depicted in the show is more common than publicly acknowledged in Canada’s junior and senior high schools.

The CBC-TV sitcom, Mr. D, starring actor Gerry Dee and filmed last summer at Halifax’s Citadel High School, is marketed as a comedic take on a rather dopey, totally ‘uncool’  junior high school Social Studies teacher. http://thechronicleherald.ca/artslife/49955-gerry-dee-turns-teaching-antics-sitcom   It’s loosely based upon the actor’s ten years of teaching, mostly gym class, at Toronto’s De La Salle College, and that gives the show an unmistakable ring of authenticity.  After attracting 1.23 million viewers in its first week, it drew audiences of 630,000 or so on a regular basis in its first season.

Interviewed in January 2012 on the Late Night with George Stromboulopoulis, Gerry Dee let the cat out-of-the bag.  http://www.cbc.ca/strombo/videos.html?id=2184159076  He was, in fact, quite a bluffer as a teacher, and very much like the character he plays.  When asked how common that was in today’s schools, he replied “There’s a lot of truth to it, unfortunately.”

There are far more “Mr. Ds” inhabiting  junior and senior high than is ever publicly in Canadian and American schools. Virtually everyone knows a “Mr. D” and many have experienced an excruciatingly long year as a captive audience for such teachers.

Far too many teachers are out of their depth teaching in the higher grades.  The problem of “out-of-field” teaching is a long-standing and seemingly chronic one.  Back in September 2003, an American research study, produced by the University of Pennsylvania’s Richard M. Ingersoll identified “the failure” to staff classrooms with “qualified teachers” as “one of the most important problems in American education.” That study accurately forecast that the problem of underqualified teachers in Grades 7-17 core subjects would constitute a major obstacle to achieving No Child Left Behind student performance goals. http://depts.washington.edu/ctpmail/PDFs/LimitsPolicy-RI-09-2003.pdf

Teachers in Canada are, for the most part, far better educated and prepared than is the case in the United States.  In Canada’s provincial school systems, the whole issue takes on a different dimension and likely stems from different sources. In the case of Nova Scotia, where Mr. D is actually filmed the problem was flagged over a decade ago.  Before 2004-05, an alarmingly high number of Nova Scotia teachers were “teaching out of field.” Since then, the misalignment between subject specialty and teaching assignments generated much angst in the Teacher Certification Branch, but little in the way of sustained corrective action. http://www.ednet.ns.ca/pdfdocs/reports/AuditofTeachingAssignments_en.pdf

Mr. Gerry Duncan is not unusual at all when it comes to his subject background and teaching credentials.  In the Halifax Regional School Board, some 57% of the Junior High Math courses in October 2007 ( i.e., the most recent data) were taught by teachers without a related background, and the comparable figures were 42% for English, and 39% for Science.  It’s far worse in a few other Nova Scotia school boards and most acute in rural school districts.

In Mr. D’s fictional “Xavier Academy,” art does imitate real life. http://www.cbc.ca/mrd/#visit-the=xavier-gazette&to-read=issue-101   Only 6% of junior high Social Studies courses in Nova Scotia are actually taught by “Mr. Ds” with little or no background in their teaching subject, but many secondary school History courses are assigned to non-specialists.  As in the sitcom, Physical Education was and still is one of the few subjects actually taught by subject specialists.

The problem is not one that extends down into the early grades, except perhaps in the case of Mathematics and French where it is widespread. It is caused, in large part, by local hiring policies and practices which favour teacher pedagogy over subject mastery – and tend to devalue educators committed to teaching sound subject matter.   http://www.societyforqualityeducation.org/index.php/blog/read/out-of-field-teaching-assignments/

The CBC-TV show “Mr D” somewhat accidentally rips the lid off a long concealed issue – the quality of teaching in junior and senior high schools. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eJ_T6J_ZcQw&feature=related    That may explain why the Nova Scotia government’s Kids & Learning First reform agenda contains a commitment to “improve the match between what teachers are asked to teach and their training, background, or experience” and “ ensure that training leading to teacher certification upgrades is based on the needs of the classroom.” . http://novascotia.ca/kidsandlearning/pub/KL-en.pdf

A rather off-beat CBC-TV sitcom may be guilty of exaggerating the extent of the problem, but it may also shine a little public light on a well-kept secret and help nudge education authorities further in the direction of corrective action.

Do you know any “Mr. D’s” faking their mastery of subject content in our schools?  Do School Systems vary in the extent of out-of-field teaching? Why is it such a widespread and chronic problem?  And what can be done to turn the situation around in our junior and senior high classrooms?   

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The line  is so familiar that it practically rings in my ears: “I’m a teacher and we are not allowed to have opinions.”  Over the past couple of years, bumping into regular teachers while walking down the street,  signing books at Chapters Bookstore, or standing in a check-out line, I hear that same refrain.  Our K-12 provincial school systems all purport to encourage students to ask higher-order questions, to act creatively (out of the box), and, at times, to think critically.  Why – I wonder — does that not extend to their teachers ?

CBC Radio’s Maritime Magazine series, “Mind the Gap,” hosted by Pauline Dakin, was one recent attempt to discover what teachers really think about the state of the Canadian public education system. A January 29, 2012 segment entitled “Teachers Edition”  provided a rare glimpse into the real, unvarnished opinions of two rather brave Nova Scotia teachers.  The show followed two previous segments, including one featuring top education bureaucrats Carole Olsen (Halifax Regional School Board) and Karen Branscombe (Moncton School District).    http://www.cbc.ca/maritimemagazine/mind-the-gap/2012/01/27/mind-the-gap—teachers-edition/

One of the two teachers, Margaret Coady, a 31-year veteran teaching at Bayview Education Centre, Port Hood, NS,  broke with convention.  When asked to respond to the Chief Superintendents’ session on “Closing the Gap” in student learning, Marg did not mince any words: “Real teachers do not have time for such verbiage.”

Over the next half-hour, Marg Coady and another forthright teacher from the Halifax Regional Board opened-up and began “talking out of school.”   Both teachers confirmed that a serious gap exists between the policy-makers and classroom teachers. New teachers, they reported, feel tremendous pressure to “push them all through and to meet the outcomes.”  Their sage advice: close the door, forget the mandates and “trust yourself as an educator.”

Cutting through the usual “EduSpeak,” Marg Coady offered a few priceless gems: “There’s so much to cover that it’s become watered down.”  “We see a lot of social advancement.” “There is not an inclination to see that children complete their homework.”  “The one-size-fits-all approach won’t work because all kids are different.”  “What I’d like to see is more autonomy(for teachers) in the classroom.”  “We need honest assessments (of how we are performing).”

What can be done to fix the situation?  Believe it or not, Marg was courageous enough to actually answer the question. “We have to erase the degrees of separation between parents, boards, unions, and students.” “Teachers live in hermetically-sealed (environments). Sometimes I feel that they do not even know who is minding the store.”

Such honesty, openness, and candour are all-too-rare in the surprisingly closed world of Canadian public education. Our provincial and territorial K-12 school systems have an estimated 360,000 teachers (2005), certified by faculties of education and entrusted with the education of our nation’s children. Among this class of professionals, it might be reasonable to expect hearing a multitude of different voices on the most critical issues in education.

Stepping outside the box is not without its risks. Most school boards remain very hierarchical and climbing up the ladder, from probationary teacher to principal to superintendent too often means mastering the “edubabble,” looking the other way, and giving up your opinions.  Careerists know that the surest way of plateauing is by speaking your mind outside of the staff room.  Voicing views counter to the teachers’ union is career-ending for most teachers. Over three decades, I can cite dozens of personal examples, many of whom ended-up being outstanding teachers in independent schools.

Sincere, well-intentioned public school educators like Toronto’s Stephen Hurley are to be commended for trying to open a few doors and cross the Hadrian’s Wall of education. His Blog, Teaching Out Loud, is a bright spot on the horizon and Stephen actually talks to education reformers of a different stripe. After 27 years in education, he’s becoming more conscious of the “degrees of separation” and is venturing outside the “echo chamber.”   http://teachingoutloud.org/

Today, while preparing this post, Stephen Hurley’s latest offering appeared and I experienced a kind of epiphany – We were both addressing the same issue, each safely ensconced in our own educational silos. Each of us was reaching across the divide, attempting to incite a little cross-boundary discussion of educational matters.  On his Blog, Teaching Out Loud, he not only acknowledged the existence of the Society for Quality Education, he conceded that jumping into the”shark infested waters” of the SQE Blog might have had some beneficial effects. That’s a start!  Perhaps more voyeuristic, risk-taking educators will follow.

Talking across the divide is absolutely critical to finding solutions to the challenges facing 21st century public education. Looking southward, we can see a tragic example of an “Education War” where the combatants have a take-no-prisoners philosophy to the detriment of students, families, and schools.  Having said that, the policy divide here is significant and we have a tendency to simply paper over the cracks and to pretend that a broad public consensus favours the golden mean or the status quo.

The terms of engagement are critical to pursuing a rapproachement Peter Brimelow’s 2003 book, The Worm in the Apple, might be a good place to start because he actually addresses this issue, pointing out that the core interests of teachers and unions can be radically different than those of parents and students. http://www.harpercollins.com/browseinside/index.aspx?isbn13=9780060096625

When the ice is broken, that discussion will have to tackle the major conundrum that tends to derail such diplomatic initiatives. Simply pouring more money into the system without any checks-and-balances is a non-starter.  Getting down to brass tacks will lead us inevitably to a serious discussion of five fundamental matters: the role of achievement testing in assuring quality; giving parents more freedom in choosing schools; reforming salary scales to recognize meritorious teaching; removing principals (and superintendents) from the teachers’ union; and recognizing teaching as an essential service with free collective bargaining leading to arbitration or “final offer selection”  Getting to Yes will involve a little positional bargaining and actually confronting the familiar stumbling blocks. http://www.aims.ca/site/media/aims/TakeBack.pdf

Why are the vast  majority of Canadian teachers so reluctant to speak out of school ? What explains the “group think” afflicting the official voices of public education?  What has happened to muffle or silence dissenting voices?  Most importantly, how can we seize the opportunity afforded by recent overtures?

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American educational blogger Tom Whitby, initiator of #EdChat, recently posted a thought-provoking commentary (August 17-18, 2011) on the intriguing topic of “Leadership Accountability” in public education. In the immediate aftermath of the Save Our Schools Rally in Washington, D.C., Tom began asking why so many were inclined to blame the perceived “failure” of the whole education system on regular teachers. Without the media attention garnered by “Super Matt” Damon, he suspected the entire event might have gone unnoticed. “Teachers,” he wrote,” are in a no-win situation with targets painted on their backs.” Most significantly, the only recognizable national educational leader visible at the SOS Rally was Diane Ravitch, a recent convert to the cause. http://edupln.ning.com/profiles/blogs/leadership-accountability

Educational progressives like Tom Whitby are beginning to ask the right questions. If the North American educational systems are faltering, the responsibility should not be borne solely by the teachers. Just because the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is now fixated on “Teacher Quality” reform doesn’t mean that improving teacher effectiveness is some kind of silver bullet for what ails the system. Surely the current and past educational leadership had some role in aiding or possibly abetting the slide of public education. http://www.sunypress.edu/p-3730-educational-leadership-in-an-ag.aspx

Who’s raising the critical issue of educational leadership at a time when public education is under fire? American and Canadian teacher union bosses seem to be the only ones defending teachers and their legitimacy. It’s been left to Tom Whitby to ask the critical questions: “Where are our local educational leaders in this? What responsibility are the superintendents, assistant superintendents, directors, principals, and assistant principals taking for the ‘demise’ of our education system?”

Educational leadership has become a perilous venture, but much of the research is self-serving, futuristic in orientation, and reflecting short-term memory. Since the early 2000s, the American education bible Education Week and the ADCD’s magazine Educational Leadership have both reflected the reigning confusion over how to respond to ever-increasing demands for public accountability in education. Craig Jerald’s “Beyond the Rock and a Hard Place” (Educational Leadership, November 2003) recognized the problem and urged aspiring leaders to “stop lamenting the challenges of accountability and start making improvements.” Most educational administrators, on career tracks, safely ignored his early warnings about the dangers inherent in “an unveven hodgepodge of instructional aims,” “a scattershot curriculum,” and “unequal expectations.”

One of the first to clean-up his act was Michael Fullan, the school change theorist, then Dean of the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Education. The renowned School Change wizard and one of his OISE allies, Ken Leithwood, responded to the rising tensions with an ingenious but ultimately diversionary strategy.

A Toronto protege of the Fullanites, former Superintendent Bev Freedman, summarized the essential conundrum in December 2004: “The stakes are high, as schools and school systems are increasingly held responsible for increasing student achievement. Educators face competing interests and competing agendas: accountability, standards, teacher testing, high-stakes assessments as well as decentralization: distributed leadership, relational trust, and the development of learning teams.” http://www.aare.edu.au/04pap/fre041066.pdf

Forward-thinking Canadian educational experts, like Fullan and Freedman, attempted to turn the educational ship around by catching the “accountability wave” and turning it to new purposes. New research from the International Academy of Education confirmed their analysis that “Accountability in Education” would not blow over. Indeed, the whole concept of accountability based upon “compliance with regulations” and “adherence to professional norms” was being challenged by “results-driven” initiatives. Some accountability for “student learning” could no longer be ignored and may have some residual benefits. http://www.iaoed.org/files/Edpol1.pdf

Central to the Fullanite strategy was the friendly takeover of the Ontario student assessment agency, the Education Quality and Accountability Office, (EQAO) created in 1994, originally to restore standardized testing. From 2002 onward, Fullan started preaching a born-again message that “school improvement” now required “accountability and capacity building” and Fullanites sought to “reframe the principal’s role” as an “instructional leader” rather than a “neo-manager.” Millions of public dollars were generated in 2002 and 2003 for comprehensive training and “resource packages” to assist principals in “instructional leadership” focused on preparing students in Ontario K to 3 for the reading, writing, and mathematics tests. http://www.aare.edu.au/04pap/fre041066.pdf

The Ontario Instructional Leadership initiative was, at best, a mixed success, but it did stave-off further calls for genuine public accountability and immunized principals against the appeals of the Society for Quality Education and other smaller school reform groups. In the United States, the initial response was more feeble even though the system was demonstrably in crisis. Much of the school reform drive was focused on introducing charter schools, so public school accountability efforts essentially mimicked the No Child Left Behind agenda. Margaret Grogan and Daniel L. Duke’s 2003 book Educational Leadership in an Age of Accountability focused on the Virginia experience and documented its purported successes and pitfalls.

Public education is still, by and large, not a field that welcomes either public scrutiny or accountability for results. School reformers calling for “Teacher Quality” assessments or an end to LIFO tenure rules are routinely dismissed as “teacher bashers” and anyone like Tom Whitby calling school administrators to account does run the risk of being labelled an “Admin. basher.” That’s a shame because Tom is actually a genuine “reflective practitioner” and an experienced educator well attuned to the major trends in American school reform. Like Roland Barth before him, he recognizes that geniune, meaningful educational change “comes from within.” http://edupln.ning.com/profiles/blogs/leadership-accountability

Most of Canada’s teacher unions remain on a completely different wavelength. While claiming to be educational progressives, they continue to be the spear-carriers for the status quo. Some of the most politically active unionists, based in the BC Teachers Federation, are even attempting to blunt school accountability by totally redefining it. They are promoting an “opportunities to learn” model of accountability focusing instead on the same old message – “maximizing students’ opportunities to learn.” http://bctf.ca/IssuesInEducation.aspx?id=5724 That’s the same song sung by Canada’s official voice for administrative leaders, the Canadian Education Association.

Few of today’s leaders in the public or the private sector are prepared to accept responsibility for the impact of their decisions and actions. What does true leadership accountability look like? American leadership guru, Michael Hyatt, puts it bluntly: ” First and foremost, it means that you accept responsibility for the outcomes expected of you—both good and bad. You don’t blame others. And you don’t blame the external environment. There are always things you could have done—or still can do—to change the outcome. Until you take responsibility, you are a victim….Leaders are active. They take initiative to influence the outcome.” http://michaelhyatt.com/leadership-and-accountability.html

Does today’s public education system face an underlying problem of leadership accountability? When the Canadian and American systems of education are under fire, why does it fall to the most outspoken teacher unionists to defend teachers and fend -off the legion of critics? Where are the school administrators when it comes to accountability? To what extent are the leading administrators playing both sides of the fence? Does careerism and respecting the pecking order still rule in the so-called “age of accountability”?

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