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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?

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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? 

Millions of Facebook users were profiled by Cambridge Analytica without their knowledge and that public disclosure has heightened everyone’s awareness of not only the trend to “personality profiling,’ but the potential for massive invasion of privacy. These controversial actions have exposed the scope of Big Data and the wider aspirations of the data analytics industry to probe into the “hidden depths of people.” It has also, as U.K. expert Ben Williamson has reminded us, tipped us off about the growing trend toward personality measurement in K-12 and post-secondary education.

Williamson’s 2017 book, Big Data in Education, sounded the alert that the collection and analysis of more personal information from schoolchildren will be a defining feature of education in coming years. And just as the Facebook debacle raises public concerns about the use of personal data, a new international test of ten and 15-year-olds is to be introduced by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) – a powerful influence on national education policies at a global scale.  Almost without being detected, it is also emerging as a key component of the current Ontario Student “Well-Being” Assessment, initially piloted from 2014 to 2016 by Ontario People for Education as the core objective of its Measuring What Matters project.

Most data collected about students since the 1990s has came from conventional international, national and provincial examinations of knowledge and cognitive skills. Preparing students for success in the 21st century workplace has been a major driver of most initiatives in testing and accountability.  International test results such as OECD’s Program of International Student Assessment (PISA) have also become surrogate measures of the future economic potential of nations, feeding a global education race among national education systems.

The advent of Big Data is gradually transforming the nature of student assessment. While the initial phase was focused on stimulating competitive instincts and striving for excellence, more recent initiatives are seeking to “broaden the focus of student assessment” to include what is termed “social and emotional learning (SEL).” Much of the motivation is to secure some economic advantage, but that is now being more broadly defined to help mould students committed to more than individual competitiveness.  With the capacity to collect more “intimate” data about social and emotional skills to measure personality, education policymakers are devising curriculum and assessment programmes to improve personality scores. Despite the Cambridge Analytica controversy, personality data is well on the way to being used in education to achieve a variety of competing political objectives.

The ‘Big Five’ of Personality Profiling

The science of the psychographic profiling employed by Cambridge Analytica is hotly contested. It is, however, based on psychological methods that have a long history for measuring and categorizing people by personality. At its core is a psychological model called the “five factor model” of personality – or the “Big Five.” These include “openness”, “conscientiousness”, “extroversion”, “agreeableness” and “neuroticism” (OCEAN). Personality theorists believe these categories are suitable for classifying the full range of human personalities. Psychologists have invented instruments such as the so-called ‘Big Five Inventory’  to capture OCEAN data for personality modelling.

Advent of Stealth Assessment

The upcoming 2018 OECD PISA test will include, for the first time, a battery of questions aimed at assessing “global competencies” with a distinct SEL orientation. In 2019, the OECD plans to launch its international Study of Social and Emotional Learning  Designed as a computer-based self-completion questionnaire, at its core the test is a modified version of the Big Five Inventory. The OECD version maps exactly onto the five factor personality categories with “emotional stability” substituted in place of “neuroticism.” When implemented, the social and emotional skills test will assess students against each of the Big Five categories.

The OECD Education Skills experts, working in collaboration with Pearson International, firmly believe that social and emotional skills are important predictors of educational progress and future workplace performance. Large-scale personality data is clearly seen by the OECD to be predictive of a country’s potential social and economic progress. Although both the OECD and the Ontario Student Well-Being advocates both claim that it is strictly a test of social and emotional skills, Williamson claims such projects employ the same family of methods used in the Cambridge Analytica personality quiz. Upon closer examination, the same psychological assumptions and personality assessment methods underpin most of the latest education ventures.

The OECD is already a powerful influence on the moulding of national education policies. Its PISA testing has reshaped school curricula, assessments and whole systems in the global education race.  It is increasingly likely that its emphasis on personality testing will, once again, reshape education policy and school practices. Just as PISA has influenced a global market in products to support the core skills of literacy, numeracy and science tested by the assessment, the same is now occurring around SEL and personality development.  Canada’s provincial and territorial ministers of education, working under the auspices of the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada (CMEC) have not only endorsed the OECD’s  proposed “global competencies,” but proposed a variation of their own to guide assessment policy.

The Ontario Student Assessment initiative, announced September 6, 2017, deserves closer scrutiny through the lens of datafication and personality profiling. It’s overarching goal bears repeating: “Update provincial assessment and reporting practices, including EQAO, to make sure they are culturally relevant, measure a wider range of learning, and better reflect student well-being and equity.”  Founder of People for Education Annie Kidder hailed the plan for “embedding” the “transferable skills” and positioning Ontario to take “a leading role in the global movement toward broader goals for education and broader measures of success in our schools.”

Critics of large-scale student assessments are quick to identify the underlying influence of “globalization” and the oft-stated goal  of preparing students for the highly competitive “21st century workplace.”  It can be harder to spot currents moving in the opposite direction and heavily influenced by what Kathryn Ecclestone and Denis Hayes aptly termed the “therapeutic education ethos.” Ten years ago, they flagged the rise of  a “therapeutic education” movement exemplified by classroom activities and programs, often branded as promoting ‘mindfulness,’ which pave the way for “coaching appropriate emotions” and transform education into a disguised form of “social engineering” aimed at producing “emotionally literate citizens” who are notably “happy” and experience “emotional well-being.”

Preparing students to be highly competitive human beings or to be creative and cooperative individuals is risking re-framing public education in terms of personality modification, driven by ideological motivations, rather than the pursuit of meaningful knowledge and understanding. It treats children as ‘guinea pigs’ engaged in either market competition preparation or social engineering, and may well stand in the way of classroom teachers pursuing their own evidence-based, knowledge-centred curriculum aims.

Appropriating and misusing personality data by Facebook and Cambridge Analytica led to a significant world-wide public backlash. In education, however, tests and technologies to measure student personality, according to Williamson, are passing unchallenged. It is equally controversial to capture and mine students’ personality data with the goal of shaping students to “fit into” the evolving global marketplace.  Stealth assessment has arrived and being forewarned is forearmed.

Why is education embracing data mining and personality profiling for schoolchildren? What are the connections between Facebook data mining and recent social-and-emotional learning assessment initiatives?  Should students and parents be advised, in advance, when student data is being minded and mapped against personality types?  Why have Canadian assessment projects like the Ontario Measuring What Matters- Student Well-Being initiative escaped close scrutiny?  Should we be more vigilant in tracking and monitoring the use and abuse of Big Data in education? 

A British Columbia poster campaign aimed at starting a conversation around racism within School District No. 74 (Gold Trail) schools has sparked more animated discussion than its initiators — Superintendent Teresa Downs and the District management team — ever imagined. When the posters went up in January 2018, nothing much happened, then in early March the whole issue exploded on social media and in the national press.

WhitePrivilegeBCSD74Indigenous

Three anti-racism posters featuring the formal leaders of the District—Secretary Treasurer Lynda Minnabarriet, District Principal of Aboriginal Education Tammy Mountain, and Superintendent Downs—went up in all SD74 schools. All three feature the speaker’s picture, with Minnabarriet’s poster reading “I lose an opportunity if I don’t confront racism”, and Mountain’s reading “I have felt racism. Have you?”

The poster featuring Downs was the one that attracted by far the most attention. Downs—who is white—is featured beside the words “I have unfairly benefitted from the colour of my skin. White privilege is not acceptable.”

WhitePrivilegeBCSD74Poster

The Downs poster proved to be a lightning-rod. One parent, Kansas Field Allen, whose son attends Grade 9 at Kumsheen Secondary School in Lytton, BC, took great exception to the “Got privilege?” campaign and particularly to the contentious poster. Allen, who is married to a First Nations man, has three children, all of whom carry First Nations status cards. Her prime objection to the campaign was that it ignored mixed race families like her own.  As someone who herself has faced racism and labelled a ‘white mama,’ she was upset to hear one student say he was ‘ashamed to be white’ and the way the whole episode affected her son. When she asked him about it, he fell silent an ‘bent his head down.”

The controversy swirled around the school district for over a week. Many commenters  applauded Downs and the administration for highlighting the often-hidden issue of white privilege, but many others sided with Field and charged that the statement smacked of  reverse racism. Hard questions were asked about whether it went too far or implied that Downs only got where she is because of her skin colour rather than her own efforts.

The “Got Privilege?” posters did not come out of nowhere.  With a sizable indigenous population, BC District 74 has embraced anti-racist education in a very pro-active fashion. The district management team is deeply committed to the cause and has sought to promote a discussion of colonization, discrimination, race, and privilege for more than five years. “Two years ago we interviewed secondary students, and they said they saw racism and prejudice in their schools and their communities,” Downs told a local news outlet. “We knew we needed to be addressing those issues.”

The poster campaign was actually inspired by a similar June to July 2017 venture in Saskatoon that featured giant billboards at the high-traffic bridge crossings. Sponsored by the City of Saskatoon, the campaign “I am the Bridge…to Ending Racism,” featured one billboard where a middle-aged white citizen was quoted as saying “I have to acknowledge my own privilege and racist attitudes.”  Like the B.C. school poster, the billboard provoked quite a reaction, especially on CKOM AM 650, the all news talk station.  It sparked outrage, division, and a horrible rash of hand-made racist telephone pole posters.

Downs and her team considered the Saskatchewan initiative to be “very brave” and knew it might spark controversy. The posters were devised last fall, all the District principals were approached about them and were very supportive. The decision for the posters to feature Downs, Mountain, and Minnabarriet was a conscious one. “As the formal leaders of the District, we wanted to have a message and be a part of the conversation, not be seen as isolated from it. We wanted to be a piece of the puzzle.”

Since the public outcry, Downs has held her ground and expressed appreciation to those who supported the campaign through the turbulence. Given the emotions stirred by the controversy, she has resisted calls for a public meeting and worked to explain it all in  “one-to-one talks with people.” One group of students rallied to the District’s defense and appealed to their principal to resist calls for the posters to be taken down. “A discussion about race and privilege is difficult to have,” Downs says,” “but it’s important.”

 

Privilege

With controversy raging in B.C. in early March 2018, similar posters, headed “Check Your Privilege,appeared at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT).  Branded with the UOIT crest, the Ontario posters promoted “a more just and inclusive world” and encouraged students to “check their privilege” using a list of privileges such as “Able-bodied,” “Christian,” “Heterosexual,” “Male, ” and White.”  After attracting social media criticism, the posters were taken down, but school administration offered up an explanation, claiming that they were not intended to shame people who fell into one of the identified privilege categories.

Racism is a serious public concern and anti-racist education deserves a place in today’s educational world. Having said that, the recent controversies do raise the critical question of how best to combat racism in and around schools. Why did the”white privilege” posters attract criticism, while the others relatively little adverse reaction?  How successful are such campaigns in initiating conversation? Can you see positive or negative long-term effects from such conversations?  

The title of the late Denis John Cassivi‘s 1981 book, Education and the Cult of Modernism, caught my eye.  I spotted it referenced  in my well-worn copy of  Andrew Nikiforuk’s  School’s Out and that’s what first piqued my interest. After obtaining one of the few remaining copies from a local rare bookstore, Dustjacket Books and Treasures, it quickly became apparent that this was not a quick read, but rather a deep, philosophical and probing exploration of the nature and purpose of education itself. Brilliant, incisive, idiosyncratic and sadly forgotten.

“What difference  do elaborate buildings, nifty class schedules and computerized timetables make if the children are not learning?”  That’s a pretty fundamental question and typical of the multitude of insights to be gleaned, even today,  from this little book, published by Cassivi’s research institute and modestly sub-titled, “A Personal Observation.”  We learn, through the book, that such things, the products of “modernism,” are impoverishing education. He sees them as mere ‘bobbles’ or surface preoccupations that exemplify the “destructive impact” of an “educational experiment” he labels “modernism.” No wonder Andrew Nikiforuk (above) was drawn to his ideas.

His extended essay attempts to identify and explain “modernism” as a new ideology and to alert us to its excesses and warn us of its destructive capabilities. Cassivi sees it as “a cult” because in the 1980s, in his view, it was the “dominant force” which had gained “widespread acceptance in the face of countless rational limitations.” It was a form of ideological “theism” which he described as “secular-narcissistic.” Much like radical cults in the Ancient world or the Jonesvile Cult in Guyana, the predominant thinkers were possessed of their vision and viewed everyone else with suspicion (pp, 1-2).  While “modernism” claimed to be a further evolution of Enlightenment ‘liberalism,’ it was not at all — but rather an irrational mutation borne of the present age.

“Modernism” was, in Cassivi’s reading, a false god which had “become an end in itself.”  The purpose and aims of today’s education were being subsumed by it and we were losing our way.  “What we are doing in schools, and why?” was no longer being asked because modernization was an end in itself. One can only imagine what Cassivi would have thought of “globalization” or “21st century skills.”

The “Cult of Modernism” was far from benign because it was corrosive in the world of education.  According to Cassivi, it was destructive of western educational tradition because it exhibited eight rather destructive characteristics: the perversion of democracy, intolerance, relativity of knowledge, realivity of values, rejection of personal responsibility, narcissism, process orientation, and rejection of the old (pp. 7-24).

The aims and purposes of contemporary education were now, in his view, subordinated to modernism.  Leading “education progressives” were completely enraptured with modernism. Instead of steering a steady path and respecting past legacies, they “foster a relativity of knowledge and belief often manifested in the justification of bizarre programs and activities” (p. 39).

Cassivi’s analysis of modernist excesses extended to nearly every corner of education: administration, teaching, teacher education, curriculum priorities, special education and career education (pp. 57-129. Every section of the book contains searing insights and observations.

Educational research did not escape his attention. As a leading education researcher at the time, his critique carried quite a sting. ” Education researchers, ” he observed, ” are that breed of mankind who have made a career out of pursuing senseless questions with a vigor and technical precision that makes the exercise both bizarre and extravagant.”  He thought they only asked questions that had self-evident answers: “How many people in _____ like universities and to what extent?” “Do teachers in _____ use overhead projectors in their classrooms and how often and under what circumstances?”

Today’s researchers can still fall into that trap with rather predictable research questions.  A few possible examples of the mindset: “Does IT assist teachers in ‘personalizing learning?” and “What are schools doing to adversely affect “student well-being”?  Perhaps you can spot real examples.

The author himself could not quite bring himself to conducting such research. His Saint Mary’s University M.A. Thesis on teacher training in Nova Scotia stands out, even today. “What do teachers think about the quality of teachers’ college training?”  The short version of his  answer: “bloody awful.”  It was a worthwhile project, but it depressed him because it was “the stuff of which careers are made.”

Cassivi’s book was simply one small chapter in an incredibly diverse and active professional career in secondary schools, adult education and community development. Ten years ago, on November 11, 2008, Cassivi of Howie Centre, passed away in Sydney, Cape Breton, following a long battle with cancer.  He was a true life-long learner. His early teaching career included various high schools throughout the province, as well as St. Mary’s University, Mount St. Vincent University and McGill University in Montreal. His studies landed him a post as visiting scholar at Cambridge University in England, where he was associated with Clair College and the Cambridge Institute of Education.

Cassivi was a true innovator in adult and career education. In 1979, he was appointed program director of continuing education at the University College of Cape Breton in Sydney, N.S., and completed a 20-year career with the university. During this period he was appointed research assistant for the Royal Commission on Post Secondary Education in Nova Scotia. He became registrar at UCCB in 1994 and founded many lighthouse programs of teacher and leadership development across the Maritimes. In his sixties, he was awarded a doctoral fellowship for study at the University of London, England.

His official obituary is very extensive, but makes no specific reference to his classic work, Education and the Cult of Modernism.  It ends with these lines: “His special interest was in promoting critical thinking for active, mature participation in the community by confronting superstition, bigotry, prejudice and greed. Denis will be sorely missed by the educational and academic community.” Now you know why.

What was Cape Breton educator Denis Cassivi’s sadly forgotten jeremiad getting at?  Why did former Globe and Mail education columnist Andrew Nikiforuk take note of the book? What has changed in Canadian education since the early 1980s?  Is it too late to absorb some of his lessons and apply them to today’s challenges? Or is it all better, left forgotten? 

 

Speaking to the Nova Scotia School Boards Association in Dartmouth in November 2016, Professor Gerald Galway of Memorial University posed the critical question in the starkest terms.  Were Canadian school boards “outworn relics of the past or champions of local democracy?”  That storm warning came too late to save the last school boards still standing in Atlantic Canada.. Today regional school boards are on the verge of extinction and what’s left of local school governance is an endangered species all over eastern Canada, west of Quebec.

The elimination of elected regional school boards was clearly foreshadowed in a synthesis of national research conducted from 2012-13 for the Canadian School Boards Association (CSBA) and later presented in a most revealing September 2013 article in the Canadian Journal of Educational Administration and Policy.  The principal researchers not only rang an alarm bell, but called upon elected board members across Canada to face squarely the choices that lay ahead.  One option, they claimed, was “quiet acquiescence to the centralization of educational governance;” the other was “some form of productive opposition to these forced changes.”  It was “perhaps preferable,” in their words, “to take action to save a sinking ship than to quietly allow nature to take its course in the hope that it (the existing order) will be spared.”

Elected regional boards have passed away, one province at a time, over the past 20 years. The first province to discard regional school boards was New Brunswick.  In February 1996, the Frank McKenna government announced without consultation or any warning that all school boards would be eliminated and elected trustees removed from office, effective March 1, 1996.  The gaping hole in local governance was partially corrected in 2001 with the restoration of District Education Councils (DECSs) populated by well-meaning volunteers serving in elected positions. With real authority still centralized at the provincial level, the DECs have faced an uphill battle to gain public support and confidence.

Next up was Prince Edward Island, when — following a bitter and protracted school closure battle, Minister of Education Doug Currie intervened in January 2011 and fired the entire Eastern District Board, citing the “acrimony among trustees” as his rationale. A single English Language School Board, composed of appointed province-wide trustees, regularly challenged the Education Department’s priorities and questioned its policy directives.. The Wade MacLauchlan government elected in May of 2015 simply absorbed the school board into the Department of Education, Early Learning and Culture and, in September 2016, the Public Schools Branch assumed control of the whole system and English Language school governance was turned over to a three-person Public Schools Branch (PSB) Board, chaired by the Deputy Minister of Education, Susan Willis.  The new model failed its first real test in April 2017 when the Premier MacLauchlan was forced to overturn a PSB recommendation to close two Island schools.

School boards in Newfoundland/Labrador, like those in P.E.I., struggled for public legitimacy and become a regular ‘whipping boy’ for concerns about a myriad of educational issues.  Regional boards, according to Memorial University’s Gerald Galway, bore “the brunt of public dissatisfaction” for “a long list of sins,” including underfunding of schools, busing regulations, and closing or consolidating schools. Within the space of twenty years, the province managed to radically downsize the local governance system three times, reducing the 27 English school districts to 10 in 1997, down to four in 2004, and then to a single district in 2013. The provincial Newfoundland/Labrador English School Board (NLESB) now has 4 sub-districts and 17 elected trustees representing 252 schools. Much like New Brunswick, this restructuring was executed without any public consultation or public debate.

Nova Scotia’s regional school board system remained essentially unchanged in its structure and organization for over twenty years. The N.S. model was established as a result of structural reforms initiated in 1996 by the Liberal government of Dr. John Savage as a critical piece in their education reform agenda.The Nova Scotia government of Stephen McNeil, acting upon Dr. Avis Glaze’s January 2018 report, abolished the English boards and, in their place, vowed to establish a 15-member Provincial Advisory Council on Education, and enhance the authority of School Advisory Councils across the province.

School boards in Nova Scotia, like those elsewhere, demonstrated some glaring and disguised deficiencies:

  • Governance Philosophy and Practice:

Informal and flexible governance practices were gradually supplanted, over time, by more formal guidelines and policies, patterned after John Carver’s “policy governance” model, effectively neutering the elected boards.  School board members were trained to adopt a corporate governance philosophy that significantly weakened their representative role as the “public voice” in the school system.

  • Size and Scale Problem – Too Big to Be Responsive

School district consolidation, from the 1990s onward, has resulted in larger and larger boards where decisions are made further and further away from the schools. One of the early warnings that regional school boards were too big to be effective was issued in 2003 by Queen’s University education professor T.R. Williams:  “Given the present size of boards, the traditional concept of an elected part-time trustee who can fully represent the interests of individual constituents is no longer viable. The current elected district boards are simply too large.”

  • Resistance to School-Level Democratic Accountability

School boards since the mid-1990s, successfully beat back any proposals to significantly restructure Nova Scotia education governance. During the 2006-07 school year, following the firing of two school boards, Charles Cirtwill, then acting president of AIMS, mounted a determined effort to replace existing school boards with “school-based management.” Inspired by the Edmonton Public Schools model and with the support of former Superintendent Angus McBeath, Cirtwill seized the opportunity to rid the province of what were termed “dysfunctional boards” and to devolve more decision-making authority to principals and local school councils. That proposal and other representations fell on deaf ears.

  • Introduction of Strict Board Member Discipline Codes

Following the twin firings of the Halifax Regional School Board and the Strait Regional School Boards in 2006, senior superintendents, with the department’s support, began to enforce stricter “Codes of Conduct” on elected board members and to rein in and effectively muzzle unruly “trustees,” especially during intense periods of school reviews for closure.

  • Public Disengagement and Spread of Acclamation Disease

Elected school boards also suffered from an advanced stage of what might be termed “acclamation disease.”  In the October 2012 municipal election, only three of the province’s eight school boards remained democratically healthy, and two of them were cleansed through previous firings. The problem persisted in October 2016 in spite of an NSSBA campaign to encourage more public participation in school board elections.

  • Inability to Address Declining Student Performance

School boards proved incapable of tackling the problem of lagging student performance.  Nova Scotia’s Auditor General Michael Pickup, in his December 2014 review of the Tri-County Regional School Board (TCRSB) based in Yarmouth, NS, found that board oversight did not stand up under close scrutiny.   While investigating record low scores on math and literacy tests, Pickup uncovered serious lapses in “management oversight” and found that the board did not “spend appropriate effort on the fundamental role of educating students.”

  • Failure to Exercise Effective Oversight over Senior Administration

The N.S. Auditor General was most critical of the lack of oversight exercised by the elected boards in their dealings with their one employee, the Superintendent, and his/her senior staff.  In the case of the Tri-County Regional School Board he found little or no evidence that the elected board properly evaluated or held accountable its own superintendent. The next AG report in November 2015 confirmed that three other “governing boards” were not effectively performing their oversight function.

  • Rigid and Inflexible Responses to School Closures and Hub School Renewal Plans

From 2006 onwards, elected school boards occupied the front-lines in successive waves of school consolidation pitting elected members against communities throughout rural and small-town Nova Scotia. A Nova Scotia Hub School movement gave small communities some reason for hope, but the strict admionistrative guidelines made it next-to-impossible for local parent groups to secure approval for innovative proposes to repurpose their community schools. In the case of Chignecto-Central Regional School Board, the superintendent and staff-imposed requirements that thwarted, at every turn, hub school proposals for three elementary schools, River John, Maitland and Wentworth. When the George D. Lewis Hub School Society plan was rejected in 2017 by the Cape Breton Victoria Regional School Board, the parent group called for the resignation of the entire elected school board. Shooting down hub school plans, on top of closing schools, burned bridges and alienated active parents in a half dozen or more communities.

Regional school boards grew more and more distant and disconnected from local school communities. School boards consolidated and retrenched, and superintendents gradually expanded their authority over not only elected boards, but the whole P-12 school system. The NSSBA and its member boards operated in a peculiar educational bubble. When the decision to dissolve all seven English school boards was announced, it hit the leading members of NSSBA and most regional board chairs like a bolt out of the blue.

What caused the demise of elected school boards in Atlantic Canada? Was it simply a matter of creeping centralization driven by provincial education ministers and senior bureaucrats? How important were school closures in undermining their democratic legitimacy?  Why did alternative school-based governance models vesting more responsibility in school councils fail to materialize? 

 

 

 

 

A sweeping Nova Scotia education reform report, Dr. Avis Glaze’s Raise the Bar, is now attracting an incredible amount of scrutiny in the regional media, among academics, and flocks of tweeting ‘parakeets’ on social media.  As one of Canada’s outstanding educators with impeccable Ontario Institute for Studies in Education credentials, the controversy might strike most Canadian education researchers as downright bizarre. In a field – provincial education policy- not known for stellar, evidence-based research, it is also peculiar and unusual enough to warrant some serious investigation.

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Two external assessors, Greg Thompson and David Rutkowski, have now weighted-in with a 3 1/2 page typed “third party review” commissioned by the Nova Scotia Teachers’ Union (NSTU).  Its arrival was announced in an NSTU News Release (February 20, 2018) with a proposed headline: “Third party review calls into question the validity of the Glaze report.”  The release date is significant because it was timed to arrive as the province’s teachers were about to vote on whether to take “strike action” to slow down or derail the Nova Scotia government’s plan to proceed with legislation to implement most of Glaze’s recommendations.

The “third party review” was presented by the NSTU as not just a critique of Glaze’s research methodology, but as evidence that the whole initiative was somehow based upon “flawed research” and should be paused or perhaps abandoned. Education research conducted by and for teachers unions is not necessarily suspect or bad for that matter — and much that is conducted by the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) stands up well and contributes to informed public policy discussion.

One of the biggest problems confronting education research everywhere is what is termed “bias confirmation.”  Once you are attuned to the logical fallacy, it’s relatively easy to spot.  In this case, the evidence jumps right out in the first paragraph of the short piece. “When embarking on a radical, systematic restructure, we expect policy makers to use the best information available to inform their policy decisions.,” Thompson and Rutkowski state, before adding a qualifier worth examining: “That said, education has become a “marketplace of ideas’ with policy soothsayers plying their trade in a lucrative international market.

Clearly the two academics are framing the work of one of Canada’s leading educators as that of one of those “policy soothsayers” engaged in a “lucrative” international business.  They also describe the proposed reforms, several times, as “radical” rather than “transformative” and summarize the contents of the report in a way that highlights its disruptive-ness.  “Disbanding school boards,””setting up a College of Teachers,” and “removing principals and vice principals” from the NSTU  are the only three of the 22 recommendations actually referenced in their review.  They also happen to be the three major sticking points for the union.

The NSTU commissioned “third party review” focuses rather narrowly on Glaze’s survey research methodology rather than the substance of her documentary research based upon more than 70 written submissions and NSSBA research conducted by David MacKinnon of Acadia for the Nova Scotia School Board’s Association (NSSBA). The researchers are, indirectly, slagging all those who submitted briefs informed by research evidence.  What’s most interesting about the short type-script is that it provides an analysis of the methodology in a short piece with no academic references. Most scholarly reviews at least cite sources and provide parenthetic references to supporting documents.

The two researchers are quite effective at picking-apart the survey research methodology and many of their points are well taken and legitimate, even if such quantitative lapses are quite common in public policy research.  The Glaze Report survey was rather simplistic and the results hard to quantify, but — in fairness– the wording was easy to understand and accessible to most Nova Scotians. You can also argue that open-ended questions are more likely to elicit honest, straightforward answers. It was, keep in mind, just one aspect of Glaze’s primarily research-driven project.

Being parachuted into Nova Scotia for such an assignment is not a problem in and of itself, if the researchers demonstrate some grasp of the total context and larger policy environment.  In this case, Thompson and Rutkowski, approach the report as a document in isolation and not part of a continuum of education policy debate and development.

A few examples demonstrate how imKids&LearningFirstportant it is to properly “read” a policy environment before weighing in to render a judgement on one particular document. If Thompson and Rutkowski  had compared the Glaze Report with the earlier Nova Scotia NDP policy plan, Kids & Learning First (February 2012), they might have reached different conclusions.  That education reform plan came in a glossy, 35-pager with lots of photos and  containing no bibliography. Little or no direct reference was even made to Dr. Ben Levin’s 2011-12 education policy “literature review.”

Looking at the Glaze Report as a continuation of the Myra Freeman Commission of 2013-14 also casts the whole exercise in a different policy context.  The Freeman Report (October 2014) was actually based on a province-wide survey that netted over 19,000 responses and recommended (R 2.6 and R 2.7) that the Government introduce a more robust “performance management system” and “consider” removing “supervisory staff” including principals from the union.  Even though one out of every three teachers (3,167) completed the survey, leading members of the NSTU criticized the Freeman Committee for poor research methodology and the wording of its survey questions.

NSTeacherReformThreeRsThe recent third party review also makes no reference whatsoever to the most critical piece in situating this particular set of proposed reforms. One would expect that the academics might make some reference to the Nova Scotia Education plan known as The Three R’s, the most recent statement of education policy. If they had consulted that document in their research, they would have discovered that the Department publicly declared its intention to negotiate the key points in contention at the bargaining table.  We understand that the NSTU (behind closed doors) refused to discuss the proposals now featured in the Glaze Report.

All of this does raise the larger question about the state of Canadian education policy research and why organizations such as the NSTU might go further afield in search of researchers. Teaching and learning research lags significantly here in Canada where – with few exceptions – faculties of education are simply not producing ground-breaking, evidence-based research on critical curriculum and pedagogical issues. Compared to Britain and the United States, where the education debate has spawned hundreds of government and independent research institutes, Canada continues to show a dearth of research activity, especially outside the University of Toronto orbit of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE). 

The authors might want to do a little more research on Dr. Avis Glaze. If and when they do, they will likely discover that this so-called “policy soothsayer” is revered (outside of Nova Scotia) as an outstanding OISE-trained researcher who, as Ontario Superintendent of Student Achievement, introduced and led the province’s first “What Works” Research-Informed Policy program, producing dozens of research briefs aimed at improving teaching and learning. She will survive a three page type-script note with no supporting references.

Educational research is improving, in part because of Dr. Glaze and a small group of education scholars, but it still has a bad name.  Instead of attacking education issues and problems, conducting evidence-based research, and letting the evidence suggest solutions, many practitioners continually engage in research driven by “bias confirmation.” We all have to guard against it in our work.  One of the most popular topics featured in Educational Leadership is the scourge of “politically-driven” education research.  It’s challenging to rise above it and Dr. Glaze is one education researcher who exemplifies the kind of research that Canadian K-12 education needs more of.

What’s the problem with most Canadian K-12 education policy research?  Should education policy documents be more closely scrutinized and assessed through a research lens?  What constitutes a legitimate “third party peer review”?  Should researchers analyzing documents be well grounded in the evolving education policy world? How can we separate “good” education research from the regular fare of commissioned studies? What needs to be done to clean up the field?