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Posts Tagged ‘Parent Engagement’

The global shock of the COVID-19 pandemic proves, once again, the old adage that “it takes a crisis” and especially so in the world of K-12 education. Surveying the fallout from the school shutdown, the six-month hiatus, and the rocky school-start-up in September, everyone from school leaders to students, educators and parents, is absorbing the lessons, rethinking past assumptions and considering what once seemed like unlikely scenarios.

Pandemic distance learning was mostly an educational disaster. The centralized and overly bureaucratic school system described in my new book, The State of the System: A Reality Check on Canada’s Schools, proved to be vulnerable and ill-equipped to respond to the massive COVID-19 pandemic disruption. Students, parents, and teachers have –in many ways – still not recovered from the disruption and subsequent upheaval.

The three-month long school shutdown exposed what German sociologist Max Weber aptly termed the “Iron Cage” – a bureaucratic structure which traps individuals in an invisible web of order, rationality, conformity, and control. We came to see how dependent students, teachers and families were on provincial and school district directives. Little did we realize that it would devolve into a marathon and that possibly the worst was yet to come.

Since the resumption of school in September, the unsettling impact of the massive distance learning experiment, compounded by fears and anxieties over COVID-19 health risks, have destabilized whole school systems. Tens of thousands of Ontario students and parents, particularly in the Greater Toronto Area, abandoned in-person schooling for hastily assembled online learning programs. Some 11,000 parents, in spired by Toronto parent Rachel Marmer, flirted with creating pandemic “learning pods” and hiring teacher/tutors to serve small groups of four or five students.

The initial school schedule combining in-person and online classes proved incredibly complex to manage and, in some cases, unsustainable. Hundreds of teachers were reassigned to centrally managed online instruction and school timetables ended up being reorganized several times. Smaller class cohorts have now been collapsed as school districts, starting with the Dufferin-Peel and York Region Catholic boards, readjust again and resort to offering single stream combined courses utilizing live streamed lessons.

Building back the disrupted and damaged School System will involve confronting squarely the fragility and limitations of top-down, bureaucratic K-12 education. Cage-busting leadership will be required to transform our schools into more autonomous social institutions that, first and foremost, serve students, families and communities. It’s also looking, more and more, like schools will need to be far more responsive to the radically altered health conditions and shifting preferences of students and families.

Community-school based reform
Some forty years after the advent of decentralized democratic governance in the form of school-based management, provincial authorities and regional centres remain wedded to system-wide management of virtually every aspect of educational service. What is needed is a complete rethink of school governance and a commitment to clear away the obstacles to building a more agile, responsive, community of self-governing schools that puts student needs first. Without re-engineering education governance from the schools up, this is not going to happen.

Humanizing education
Flipping the system has emerged as a new COVID-19 era imperative, but decentralizing management and control, by itself, has little or no effect on what really matters—teaching and learning in the schools. It is only the first stage of an overall strategy to make our schools more democratic, responsive and accountable to parents, teachers, students and communities.

Students should come first in our schools, and this is best achieved in smaller schools operating on a human, student scale. Instead of re-inventing the wheel, let’s draw upon the lessons learned through the Human Scale Education (HSE) movement, particularly downsizing high schools, giving students a voice, and building genuine partnerships with parents.

Teaching-centred classrooms
Teachers are clamouring for a much larger role in setting priorities and determining what happens in today’s schools. The recent wave of neo-liberal education reform, driven by large-scale testing and accountability, has chipped away at teacher autonomy in the classroom. That has bred what Gert Biesta has termed “learnification” – a new educational language where students are “learners,” teaching is “facilitating learning,” and the classroom is a “learning environment.” Now promulgated by ministries of education and education faculties, the technocratic language threatens to subvert the real point of education—to learn something, to learn it for a reason, and to learn it from someone.

Teachers know what works in the classroom and are attuned to the spread of unproven theories and practices. Challenging education gurus and the school improvement industry will be essential if we are to base teaching on evidence-based practice and what works with students in the classroom.

Engaging parents in family-centric schools
Parent engagement is now part of the standard educational lexicon, but, in practice, it is incredibly hard to find it exhibited, particularly during the COVID-19 disruption.

One of Canada’s leading researchers on parent-school relations, Debbie Pushor, makes a clear distinction between school-managed parent involvement and genuine parent engagement. School superintendents, consultants and many school principals have a lot to unlearn.
What we need is a completely different model: the family-centric approach, embracing a philosophy of “walking alongside” parents and genuinely supporting the active engagement of the families that make up the school community.

Looking ahead—seize the day
Centralization of school administration has had its day. Eliminating or neutering locally elected school boards has moved us further in the direction of centralizing control over provincial systems. Without access to school-level education governance, concerned parents, educators and the public were left with nowhere to turn to address a host of COVID-19 education problems.

Global learning corporations, exemplified by Pearson International and Google, have achieved dominance through the spread of educational technology and licensed learning resources—and are finally attracting critical scrutiny. The pandemic has also laid bare parental concerns about technology-driven “21st-century learning” and student skill deficits in mathematics and literacy.

A new set of priorities are emerging: put students first, deprogram education ministries and school districts, and listen more to parents and teachers in the schools. Design and build smaller schools at the centre of urban neighbourhoods and rural communities. The pandemic shock has made us more aware of the critical need for meaningful public engagement, rebuilding social capital and revitalizing local communities. Rescuing the system may turn out to be essentially about taking back our schools and charting a more constructive path forward.

What’s happened to our centralized, bureaucratic and stable K-12 school system? Will the pandemic shock lead to a complete rethinking of the current structure and clear the way for systemic reform? Where do we start in building education back from the schools up?

*Adapted from The State of The System: A Reality Check on Canada’s Schools (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2020).

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School Advisory Councils (SACs) have been around since the mid-1990s in most Canadian provincial school systems. A 2012 Ontario People for Education review of their equivalent, Parent Advisory Councils (PACS) found that most lack clarity and show signs of confusion when it comes to fulfilling their role, particularly with respect to providing local input into school decision-making.  In the case of two provinces, Ontario and Nova Scotia, they exhibit the same glaring deficiency – they are given little to do and simply revert back to their natural inclinations, to run bake sales and support school fundraising.

ParentAdvocacyOshawaActive parents supportive of their local public school are drawn to serve on SACs, only to discover that they are ‘creatures’ of the principal and totally dependent upon his/her support. Concerned parents with “agendas” are considered dangerous and discouraged from applying for SAC positions. Created originally to promote parent involvement in policy matters, they normally end up doing nothing of the sort and hosting ice cream socials.

Far too many SACs provide cover for school principals, keeping a core of parents in the inner circle, shielding them from “parent power” types, and generating extra funds for school supplies.  Where Home and School Association groups exist, principals generally favour the group that is the most inclined toward fundraising and the most politically inert of the two groups.

No survey has ever been published in Nova Scotia on the effectiveness of SACs, as presently constituted. In the case of Ontario, People for Education found that their PACs spend over 70% of their time either raising money or organizing school events, but only 10 per cent of their time on their assigned function – helping to shape School Improvement Plans.  That is also clearly the case here in Nova Scotia.

Nova Scotia has just abolished its eight elected English school boards and that has threatened to further erode democratic accountability in the school system. Replacing elected school boards with an appointed Provincial Council for Education (PACE) without any public transparency or accountability sent out that signal. “Enhanced School Advisory Councils” sounded fuzzy and now we know why. Any hope that SACs would fill the void left by the abolition of elected school boards has been dashed, for now.

NSedZachCurchillEducation Minister Zach Churchill and his officials recently confirmed that SAC’s will get more of a voice in advising on policy, but little or no substantial change in their powers. Genuine school-governing councils and expanded school-based management are not in the cards.

Planning for, and consultation to, strengthen “parent engagement” was carefully managed to steer participants in a pre-determined direction. It was all decided by education staff, working with small regional “focus groups” and vetted by principals through a Principal’s Forum held in early May of 2018.

The School Advisory Council consultation broke many of the accepted rules for genuine parent engagement. Embracing new ways calls for a complete “rethinking of the conventional approach” in what leading Canadian expert Debbie Pushor aptly describes as   a “gentle revolution” better attuned to responding to the needs and aspirations of parents and communities. “We need to do a better job,” Pushor recently said, “of talking with parents rather than for them or at them.”

Instead of truly engaging parents in rebuilding the whole N.S. model, the Department reverted to past practice in consulting with small, carefully selected “focus groups” and leaving it to the Principal’s Forum to settle unresolved issues.  Limit the consultation parameters, carefully select consultation group participants, and ensure that educators, in this case principals, settle the unresolved issues.

Contradictions abound in the Department’s summary of the focus group consultation. Invited participants identified two major problems with existing SACs: “low parent involvement and difficulty recruiting members,” especially independent community representatives. They also demonstrated how SACs are kept completely in the dark when it comes to province-wide issues, policy matters, or future policy directions.

Why will SAC powers continue to be limited and contained?  Several times we are assured that “participants did not want to see the responsibilities of SACs greatly increased” because they were “volunteers” and it was a lot to expect more from them.

The Department report paints a rather skewed picture of parent attitudes. ‘Participants expressed degrees of anxiety around the potential new role of SACs.” That sounds, to me, more like the voice of principals and parents surprisingly comfortable with the status quo.

The Nova Scotia report demonstrates that at least one of our eight regional school districts, Annapolis Valley RSB, merged the SACs with existing Home and School Associations contributing further to the confusion of roles.

“Supporting student learning” is a mandate fraught with potential confusion. Principals and teachers bear that primary responsibility, so SACs are reduced to junior partners in that enterprise. Most principals, for their part, resist parent involvement in curriculum and teaching, so discussion of “student learning” is very limited and constrained.

Existing SACs provide a wobbly basis for true parent engagement. Run under the thumb of many principals, they serve, for the most part, to muffle parent dissent and to channel active parents into school support activities. The “ground rules” established in March 2010 by the Nova Scotia Teachers Union make it clear that parents are expected to “contribute to the academic success of their children.”

Nova Scotia’s School Advisory Councils are strictly advisory. Two decades after their creation, some of the province’s 400 public schools still do not have functioning “school advisory councils.” Former HRSB board member Linda MacKay discovered that upon her election to office. Nor do they have a web presence and most remain all but invisible to community members.

Re-engineering School Advisory Councils will require more substantive changes. School-based budgeting would give SACs a significant role. Providing a base budget of $5,000 per council plus $1 per student is a pittance and far short of what is required to compensate SAC chairs for participating at local, regional, and provincial levels.

Today’s School Advisory Councils are, we have learned, totally in the dark when it comes to engagement in initial policy discussion, school improvement initiatives, and community accountability reporting. There is currently little or no two-way communication on most school-related issues.

Parent advocates get turned off when they discover that School Advisory Councils are weak and without any real influence. Defenders of SACs support the neutering of parent activism, then fret about why so few want to serve on such bodies.

Perhaps it’s all just a façade. While announcing enhanced roles for the SACs, Nova Scotia’s Education Department issued a new notice advising parents and the public with school concerns to raise them with the teacher, principal, and district administration. There’s no mention whatsoever of taking it up with your local school council.

Whatever happened to the critical policy advisory mandate of School Advisory Councils? Do active, informed, and policy-attuned parents shy away from joining today’s school councils?  Who rules the roost on most SACs — the school principal, a small clique of parents, or no one because it exists only on paper?  Are we missing out on an opportunity to engage parents in the challenge of school and system improvement? 

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The raging Ontario controversy over Sex Education has, once again, raised the whole issue of what constitutes meaningful parent engagement.  Vocal supporters of the 2015 Ontario Health Education Curriculum maintain that the public consultation process was extensive, broadly representative, and ticked off the boxes in terms of  recognized “stakeholder groups.” Following the traditional, well-practiced model, a “group consensus” was forged and, in that respect, it might be considered exemplary.

 

On a critical matter like sexual health affecting family life, it may simply not be good enough. Far too many Ontario parents were marginalized and it’s hard to find evidence of anyone embracing what Dr. Debbie Pushor has termed a “family-centric school” philosophy or “meaningful parent engagement.” Instead of defending the results of the consultation, it may be time to look at how the next round can be conducted to answer those deficiencies.

The 2015 Ontario sex education curriculum changes may well have been timely, professionally-validated, and reasonably neutral in terms of language. That’s not really what’s in question — it is the process and the means used to forge that document touching on issues central to healthy adolescent development and family life. Given the nature of the curriculum, it would seem to be a situation tailor-made for “family-centric” consultation. 

Critics of the 2015 sex education curriculum continue to maintain that the public consultation was structured to marginalize the vast majority of parents as well as certain parent advocacy groups, rural and small town communities, and urban immigrant families.  Four thousand parents were consulted, but the vast majority were parents serving in official capacities on local school councils. Indeed, the consultations were, for the most part, conducted on school grounds. Public input was weighed, but it came mostly from “friendlies” vetted by principals who served on their school councils.

The Ontario health education model of consultation appears to violate the criteria set out by Dr, Peshor in her proposed “family-centric school” framework demonstrating “meaningful parent engagement.” Her recent keynote address to the Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation (June 2018), part of a three-day, “Walk Along with Parents” forum, drives that point home. In it, she called upon educators to rethink their conventional approach and to embrace a “gentle revolution” better attuned to responding to the needs and aspirations of parents and communities.

We need that voice at the table, and it’s important to understand that expertise is a critical piece. We need to do a better job of talking with parents rather than for them or at them. That’s what I’m hoping we can achieve,” Pushor said in an interview prior to her keynote, which elicited a standing ovation.

As a mother of three sons, as well as a teacher and principal in Pre-K – 12 education, Pushor sees the school-parent relationship through both lenses. Since embarking on her PhD. in Education, it has been the focus of much of her research.

Walking into her son’s school on his first day had a profound effect upon her, even though she was herself an experienced teacher and principal. It struck immediately “how schools were not necessarily inviting places for parents” and sent powerful signals that they “did not encourage their participation.”  She describes this as the “colonialism” of schools in their dealings with parents.

Her key message: “We need to move from school centric to family centric. Teachers need to remember it is not your classroom; it is a public building. Most parents place their trust in the teacher and they aren’t looking to push the boundaries that exist, but we need to make some fundamental changes and unpack the story. Teachers claim the space at school and then we tell families how it is going to work.”

“By having authentic family involvement,” Pushor told the Saskatchewan teachers,”we can have the best of both worlds. As teachers, we don’t have to give one up to get the other.” 

Most provincial education authorities, school districts and schools fall far short of genuine parent engagement. “We just keep doing the same thing and we don’t see that as problematic, but our world has changed and in education we’re not changing at the same pace,” she said in calling for that “gentle revolution.”

Two important building blocks, as Pushor sees it, involve doing a better job of preparing teachers at education faculties and then later incorporating home visits into a teachers’ regular routine. “This comes right back to what we do in this building [Saskatchewan College of Education]. We are sending teachers out there without the required background in terms of this type of engagement.” Then she added: “I’m a big proponent of home visits because too often in the current model, we–teachers and family members–sit around and are scared of each other. We need to build trust, and we need to do this in a different, more meaningful way.”

What Pushor has done to demystify engaging regular parents, Hong Kong born Calgary professors  Shibao and Yan Guo are doing for Asian, Middle Eastern, and East Indian parents sidelined in most education consultations. Respecting parent knowledge, seeking to understand differing religious values, and respecting stricter codes of morality would go a long way to engaging the Thorncliffe Park schools scattered throughout contemporary urban Canada.

High sounding speeches are commonplace in education, but Peshor’s vision now comes with plenty of evidence-based research conducted over the past decade. It’s all neatly summarized in her splendid article in the Winter 2017 issue of Education Canada.  Instead of managing parent consultation, she proposes the kind of engagement that breaks down barriers, particularly in marginalized communities: When schools and school bodies work in culturally responsive ways, parents do not have to have the words of the school or of unfamiliar governance structures to participate. They are able to join the circle, to speak from their own knowing, to share their own wisdom and insights, and to positively influence outcomes for their children and their families.”

Do conventional education public consultations measure up as legitimate parent community engagement exercises? With the prevailing model of working with recognized interest groups and selected parents ever bring us closer to “family-centric schools”? Does the much celebrated 2014-15 Ontario consultation on sex education bear close scrutiny? What lessons can be learned about getting it right, the next time? 

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