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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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Ontario Progressive Conservative leader Doug Ford swept into power at Queen’s Park  on June 7, 2018 with an explicitly populist agenda in K-12 education. Campaigning with the slogan “Ford for the People,” he pledged to reform the school curriculum, defend provincial testing,introduce a moratorium on school closures, and consult more with disaffected communities. Most of these planks in the Ontario PC education “promise package” were presented in plain and simple language that appropriated “back to the basics” philosophy and “common sense” reform.

Presenting these policies in such unvarnished “populist language” made it easy for the Ontario media to caricature “Ford Nation” and earned him the derision of the Ontario education establishment.   On what The Globe and Mail  aptly termed “the mourning after,” the core interests who dominated the 15-year-long Dalton McGuinty- Kathleen Wynne era sounded traumatized and completely disoriented.  Premier Doug Ford clearly scares the Ontario education “elites,” but such straight talk only endears him more to “Ford Nation” supporters committed to “taking back” the public schools.

Doug Ford’s PC Education promises, once dismissed as “bumper sticker” politics, will now get much closer scrutiny.  The fundamental challenge facing Ford and his new Education Minister will be to transform that reform philosophy and list of education promises into sound and defensible education policy.  It not only can be done, but will be done if Ford and his entourage seek proper advice and draw upon the weight of education research supporting the proposed new directions.

The overall Ontario PC education philosophy rests on a complete rejection of the Wynne Liberal Toronto-centric vision and education guru driven brand of “identity politics” in education.  “At one time, Ontario schools focused on teaching the skills that matter: reading, writing and math. This approach helped to prepare our kids for the challenges of work and life. Today, however, more and more of our schools have been turned into social laboratories and our kids into test subjects for whatever special interests and so-called experts that have captured Kathleen Wynne’s ear.”

Premier-elect Ford’s campaign captured well the groundswell of public dissent over top-down decision-making and the tendency to favour “inclusion” in theory but not in practice. It was expressed in this no-nonsense fashion: “By ignoring parents and focusing on narrow agendas or force-feeding our kids experimental curricula like ‘Discovery Math’ the Liberals are leaving our children woefully unprepared to compete with other students from across Canada and around the world. And instead of helping our kids pass their tests, the NDP want to cancel the tests altogether.”

The Ford Nation plan for education appealed to the “little guy” completely fed-up with the 15-year legacy of “progressive education” and its failure to deliver more literate, numerate, capable, and resilient students. Education reform was about ‘undoing the damage’ and getting back on track: “It’s time to get back to basics, respect parents, and work with our teachers to ensure our kids have the skills they need to succeed.”

The specific Ontario PC policy commitments in its 8-point-plan were:

  • Scrap discovery math and inquiry-based learning in our classrooms and restore proven methods of teaching.
  • Ban cell phones in all primary and secondary school classrooms, in order to maximize learning time.
  • Make mathematics mandatory in teachers’ college programs.
  • Fix the current EQAO testing regime that is failing our kids and implement a standardized testing program that works.
  • Restore Ontario’s previous sex-ed curriculum until we can produce one that is age appropriate and broadly supported.
  • Uphold the moratorium on school closures until the closure review process is reformed.
  • Mandate universities to uphold free speech on campuses and in classrooms.
  • Boost funding for children with autism, committing  $100-million more during the mandate.

Most of the Ford Nation proposals are not only sensible, but defensible on the basis of recent education research.  Ontario Liberal Education policy, driven by edu-gurus such as Michael Fullan and Andy Hargreaves and championed by People for Education was out-of-sync with not only public opinion but education research gaining credence though the emergence of researchED in Canada.   The Mathematics curriculum and teacher education reforms, for example, are consistent with research conducted by Anna Stokke, Graham Orpwood, and mathematics education specialists in Quebec.

Provincial testing, school closure reform and addressing autism education needs all enjoy wide public support. Former Ontario Deputy Minister of Education Charles Pascal, architect of EQAO, supports the recommendation to retain provincial testing, starting in Grade 3.  The Ontario Alliance Against School Closures, led by Susan Mackenzie, fully supports the Ontario PC position on fixing the Pupil Accommodation Review process.  Few Ontarians attuned to the enormous challenges of educating autistic children would question the pledge to invest more in support programs.

The Ontario PC proposal to reform sex-education curriculum is what has drawn most of the public criticism and it is a potential minefield. The Thorncliffe Park Public School parent uprising and the voices of dissenting parents cannot be ignored, but finding an acceptable compromise will not be easy.  Separating the sex-education component from the overall health and wellness curriculum may be the best course of action.  Tackling that issue is a likely a “no-win” proposition given the deep differences evident in family values. Forewarned is forearmed.

How will the Doug Ford Ontario PC Government transform its populist electoral nostrums into sound education policy?  How successful with the Ford govenment be in building a new coalition of education advisors and researchers equipped to turn the promises into specific policies? Where are the holes and traps facing Ford and his Education Minister?  Can Doug Ford and his government implement these changes without sparking a return to the “education wars” of the 1990s?  

 

Schools around the globe are entering a new era of electronic surveillance.  Heightened security threats, high tech innovation and personal data profiling are making for a dangerous combination when it comes to civil rights. One American school system, the Lockport City School District near Buffalo, NY, is trumpeting its plan to spend $2.7 million to install high-tech surveillance cameras in its public schools.  Over in China, Hangzhou No. 11 High School, has just attracted world-wide attention for installing cameras to take attendance and track every activity of students, including reading, writing or listening. High tech, it seems, has a solution for most of today’s school problems and challenges.

School shootings are an all-too frequent and tragic phenomenon in American schools.  The Sandy Hook shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, on December 14, 2012, claimed the lives of 20 children and 6 teachers. One American gun safety organization, Everytown Research, has identified at least 315 incidents of gunfire on U.S. school grounds since 2013. When it comes to how American children are exposed to gun violence, gunfire at schools is just the tip of the iceberg–every year, over 2,700 children and teens are shot and killed and nearly 14,500 more are shot and injured.  An estimated 3 million U.S. children are exposed to shootings per year.

School security is definitely a growth industry, right across the United States and increasingly in Canadian urban school districts. In the wake of the recent rash of shootings, educators are asking what more can be done to safeguard students, leading to some rather radical proposals from arming teachers to essentially security-proofing schools.

Shortly after Sandy Hook, Tony Olivo of Corporate Screening and Investigative Group, was invited to Lockport City School District and began conducting school security assessments in the spring of 2013. He and his team sold Superintendent Michelle Bradley on the latest technological solution — SN Tech’s facial recognition software, known as Aegis. The technology was actually developed by SN Tech based in Gananoque, Ontario. In 2016, the company held demonstrations at facilities, including Erie 1- BOCES, in Western New York and those sessions were attended by representatives from some 40 school districts. Lockport City School District became the first to adopt the software and to incorporate it into the district’s $3.8 million security enhancement project.  It is also a real pioneer, since most other Niagara County districts have chosen to invest more in classroom technology than in school surveillance.

HighTechSNTechControlRoomSN Tech’s Aegis software for schools provides heavy duty surveillance, similar to that found in casinos and high security facilities. It includes a facial recognition tool called “Sentry,” a shape recognition tool called “Protector, ” and a forensic search engine called “Mercury.” The Gananoque company claims that “Sentry” can alert school officials if suspended students, fired employees, known sex offenders or gang members  enter a school. “The Protector” is designed to recognize any of “the top ten guns used in school shootings,” including AR-15-style rifles.

While utilizing similar high tech software, the Chinese school is turning it to different purposes. Facial recognition software is used in its cafeteria and library, supposedly for the convenience of students. Several classrooms have been equipped with cameras that can recognize the emotions of students, tapping into artificial intelligence (AI) but raising plenty of concerns about monitoring students for purposes of behavioural compliance. Installed in March of 2018, the Chinese system provides real-time data on students’ outward expressions. tracking whether they look happy, scared, surprised, angry, disgusted, or neutral (disengaged). The whole project is touted as a leading-edge way of ensuring that students are attentive and happy, learning quickly and being prepared well for tests.

Both high tech initiatives raise fundamental issues and deserve to be challenged by educators, parents, and concerned citizens. In China, the Hangzhou High School system has drawn fire from brave citizens and Chinese expatriates. One 23-year-old photographer went online with his critique. “This technology is so twisted, it’s anti-human,” he wrote, likening the students to robots. A Chinese-born Harvard researcher, Jiang Xueqin, saw it as an example of using education as a means of social control. He predicted that it would lead to further “mass experiments” in how to predict and to channel student behaviours.

Installing cameras in Upstate New York schools has not gone unchallenged.  One Niagara County parent and activist, Jim Shultz, put the concerns of many citizens into words.  In April of 2018, he spoke out publicly against the Lockport City School District plan. “The Lockport district,” he wrote in the Lockport Journal, is “making a big mistake” in spending “a huge amount of money” that “could be far better spent on our children’s education and on much wiser security measures at well.”

Three fundamental problems have been raised with the district’s plan.  First, the claim that it is a huge waste of taxpayer’s money that will not necessarily make the schools safer. It was estimated to cost $500 per student and had not been used successfully anywhere else because of glitches.  Second, the project represented an unprecedented invasion of both student and teacher privacy. It could easily be used by administration to conduct investigations for other purposes, including student and staff discipline. Finally, the community of Lockport was never properly consulted about the use of “spy cameras’ until after the initiative was well underway had been made and only a few weeks before the board’s final decision on approving a budget allocation.

Installing cameras and facial recognition software in schools does raise broader concerns. Does the security threat warrant such radical technological  interventions? Should schools use such high tech innovations to monitor and track the activities, movements and expressions of all students and staff in public schools? In establishing limits on electronic surveillance, where might schools draw the line?  At what point do schools begin to resemble high security zones and/or custodial institutions like detention centres? 

A recent CBC News Nova Scotia investigation into school fundraising stirred up a little controversy.  The CBC story, which aired on May 16, 2018, focused on inequities in school fundraising, highlighting some rather predictable findings. One South End Halifax elementary school in an affluent residential district raised $70,000 per year in 2016 and 2017, while another in a lower income North End area averaged $15,000 a year. A retired Halifax principal featured prominently in the story saying she found it “disturbing” that some schools can raise so much more than others.

The decision to fixate on parent fundraising was peculiar, when more telling data is readily available bearing more directly on educational inequities in the classroom.  It also begged the question — does parent fundraising really matter or is it just an issue for those who exhibit an education system version of the ‘tall poppy syndrome.’

Schools in wealthier neighbourhoods, the CBC story line ran, secured further advantages raising tens of thousands of dollars for those ‘extras’, such as smart boards, team jerseys, and choir risers. Fundraising capacity, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) researcher Erika Shaker claimed on a subsequent Maritime Connections phone-in show, was directly related to “the economic status of the community” and that gives “those kids an unfair advantage.”

While the seven-school sample showed quite a discrepancy, school fundraising tends to go to extras and frills that do not really make a fundamental difference in teaching and learning. Not only that, but the proposed solutions completely missed the mark.

The former chair of the Halifax Regional School Board, Gin Yee, responded to the CBC revelations in a sound, sensible and informed fashion. Some schools will always be better at fundraising, he pointed out, and, besides, the monies raised not only go to extras rather than essentials, but matter far less than the quality of teaching, class sizes, and in-class supports.

Tampering with fundraising will do little to address the fundamental inequities demonstrated on recent provincial student assessments. The published School Community Reports for 2015-16 support Yee’s contentions.

The top fundraising schools, Sir Charles Tupper and LeMarchant-St. Thomas, finished first or second among the seven sample schools on Grade 3 and 6 reading and Grade 4 and 6 mathematics, with between 86 and 98 per cent of their students meeting the provincial standards. In the case of the identified disadvantaged school, Joseph Howe Elementary, student results were terribly alarming, ranging from 18 per cent to 45 per cent meeting standards.

Leaving aside these three schools, the fundraising totals for St. Catherine’s Elementary, Westmount Elementary, East St. Margaret’s Consolidated, and Dutch Settlement do not even support the overall argument. Two of the lower fundraising schools produce student results at or above the provincial standard, contrary to the story line.

“Pooling the funds” raised and “sharing them collectively,” suggested in the CBC story, is a bad idea, and it went over with CBC listeners like a lead balloon, judging from the 137 comments generated by the accompanying news report.

While the CBC journalists floated it as a serious proposition, Shaker told the radio audience that she favours the “pooling of resources” through redistributive taxation rather than through the sharing of parent fundraising proceeds.  “I’m a big fan of pooling our collective resources to ensure that all kids and schools have access to the resources they need … but really the most effective way is to do it at the provincial scale … we even have a mechanism in place: it’s taxation.”

Parent engagement is critical to student success in every school and any proposal to “cap fundraising” or slap down parent initiatives would prove to be detrimental.  Sharing the proceeds raised at one so-called “advantaged school” with a “disadvantaged school” only provides a temporary fix and may actually lead to long-term dependency on revenue sharing.

Reallocating funds raised at Sir Charles Tupper or LeMarchant- St. Thomas, the two top fundraisers, also ignores the stark reality that those schools compete with pricey private independent schools to retain students. Clamping down on those parents and denying their students those extras may well drive them right out of the public school system.

The real solution to addressing the inequities lies elsewhere. Differential bloc funding of schools has been telegraphed by the new Deputy Education Minister Cathy Montreuil and, more recently, by Minister Zach Churchill.

If and when Minister Churchill announces the change on school funding formula, he would be wise to leave parent fundraising alone and to focus on what really matters – supporting teachers and greatly enhancing learning supports, particularly in disadvantaged school communities.

The Halifax Regional School Board’s “priority schools” funding supports initiative pointed us in a more productive direction. Designating struggling schools as “education reconstruction zones’ would go one step further, focusing educational policy and resources on “turnaround projects.” It would open the door to intensive reading and math supports, wraparound student support services, and our own provincial version of the highly successful “Pathways to Education” after-school tutoring and homework program.

Engaging in empty ideological disputes over tangential issues such as parent fundraising should not be distracting us from getting to the root of the problem. No one, it seems, is now prepared to publicly defend sharing school fundraising proceeds.

What does fusing over school fundraising have to do with addressing educational inequities? Should we be concerned about school fundraising totals or addressing more fundamental problems?  Why did the proposal to adopt school-based budgeting attract so little attention in the ensuing public discussion? What’s standing in the way of school districts zeroing-in on “education reconstruction zones” with targeted “turnaround” programs? 

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? 

An eye-catching satirical cartoon, “7 Sins in the Digital World,” is now making the rounds on Twitter feeds and it packs quite a punch aimed squarely at today’s somewhat unhealthy social media habits. Seven digital platforms are identified with one of the “sins” or vices.  Facebook is associated with Envy, Instagram with Pride, LinkedIn with Greed, Tinder with Lust, Yelp with Gluttony, Netflix with Sloth, and, last but not least, Twitter with Wrath.

That trenchant cartoon might well have been produced by the Halifax-based Canadian Centre for Ethics in Public Affairs, the sponsors of Dr. Justin Tosi’s April 26 Public Talk on one of the biblical “Seven Deadly Sins,” Wrath. His actual theme, “Moral Grandstanding and Self-Righteous Anger,” also ties in nicely with one of its greatest contemporary sources – the Twitterverse. “Moral grandstanding is the use of moral talk for self-promotion,” Tosi told the CCEPA audience. “ It’s people using moral conversation, making moral claims, to present an impressive image of themselves to others.”

Moral grandstanding is getting easier to spot with so much of our lives spent online. Chest-thumping Facebook posts and pontificating Tweets fill today’s social media. Posts presented as personal observations or short political statements tend to be laden with a much different underlying message: “I’ve got something important to say, worth paying attention to, here on the Internet.”

Joining in on social media seems to feed our innate narcissism. Hours are consumed burnishing an image and seeking approval from our online “friends” or registering our “likes” and favourites, piling on with a certain “tribal abandon.” It’s become a substitute for real-time engagement in morally useful projects and community activities. The allure of social media is hard to resist and, if we are honest, almost everyone has fallen prey to using social media as a platform for moral grandstanding, often to express our moral outrage about one issue or another. Some of us, the real zealots, are more frequent offenders than others.

Moral grandstanding seems to be particularly rampant in the Twitter world of academia. One of North America’s most engaged philosophers, Brian Leiter of the University of Chicago Law School, hit a nerve when he quipped in a blog post that Twitter is revealing in that “otherwise intelligent people” tend to “stake out careers on preposterous-but-shocking arguments.”

Most troubling to Tosi is the way moral grandstanding is foreclosing on free, open and meaningful public discussion. Whether it’s the crisis in health care, the state of public education, or the threat of climate change, the critical issues cannot be reduced to GIFs or 140-character declarations.

Moral grandstanding may provide some outlet for moral outrage or a safety-valve, but it encourages people to stake out radical positions to impress their friends, instead of engaging in civil dialogue and a mutual sharing of ideas. Nuances tend to dissolve when factions are formed and people gravitate to echo chambers, likened to “bizarre partisan camps,” often divided along “progressive” or “neo-traditional” lines. Extreme partisanship, formerly the preserve of card-carrying political party activists, spreads to social action committees, teachers’ unions, and education twitter groups.

When normally intelligent people resort to posting very foolish things on Facebook and Twitter, it is often a prime example of a very real psychological phenomenon, group polarization. Before adding to the pile of “likes,” contributing to the blather, or retweeting an insulting comment, it might be advisable to think first, and decide whether it helps anyone trying to grasp an issue in all its complexity.

The threat to civil discourse posed by the Internet’s most diabolical sub-species, the troll, needs to be confronted. Partisan groups seem to breed trolls and serial re-tweeters (or parakeets) who spew mostly nonsense interspersed with insults or slurs directed against those targeted or marginalized by the faction.

Five common fallacious arguments employed by trolls were ‘outed’ in a recent British Channel 4 News “Fact Check” feature, How to Defeat the Troll (online).  All of them are regularly employed by moral grandstanders on social media  Keep your eye open for examples of these false arguments, aptly described as “rubbish”:

The Straw Man (Person) Attack – Exaggerating or twisting your opponent’s point to make it easier to knock down. Response: You are putting words in my mouth

The Ad Hominem Argument – Attacking the person rather than addressing the point they are making.  Response: That’s an insult, not a counter-argument.

Anecdotal Evidence – Assuming your personal experience trumps more reliable sources of information. Response: That’s one example, can you cite any more?

Whataboutery – Using someone else’s bad behaviour to deflect from your own.  Response: Two wrongs do not make a right.

Shifting the Burden of Proof – Because no one can prove your claim is false… does not mean it’s automatically true. Response: Extraordinary claims need solid supporting evidence.

WrathCCEPATosiCivil dialogue and discourse is under threat in today’s mainstream politics, and especially so on social media. Grandstanding is a major factor and it takes many forms. In their quest to solidify their reputation or impress their in-group, grandstanders tend to trump up moral charges, attempt to silence or marginalize ‘outliers,’ and to pile on in cases of public shaming. Small mistakes or poor choices of words can attract swarms of partisans vilifying the supposed perpetrator. Swarming on social media can also have a chilling effect on others.

Most disturbing of all, grandstanders denounce people who hold contrary views, exaggerate emotional displays, and ramp up discussion until it degenerates into what Toshi calls “a moral arms race.” Today, everyone seems to have their own platform: It’s time to take a hard look in the mirror and to re-assess why and how we engage with one another over political and moral issues.

Whatever happened to civic discourse in the education world? How and why has EduTwitter become such a wild frontier? How prevalent is moral grandstanding?  Is there an alternative to  ‘Echo Chamber Happy Talk” or spectacles of “Twitter Warfare”?  Is there still hope for EduTwitter?

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?