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Posts Tagged ‘Toronto District School Board’

“Too big, too unwieldy and utterly dysfunctional.” That’s a neat summary of the mounting criticisms leveled against the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) five short years ago. The problems were so acute that former Deputy Education Minister Charles Pascal was urging the Kathleen Wynne Liberal government to consider other models for running school boards, including breaking it up into smaller administrative units.  The Toronto Star‘s Ontario politics columnist Martin Regg Cohn saw the TDSB’s dysfunctional governance as evidence that trustees should be abolished and boards dissolved, once and for all.

Senior educational leadership at Canada’s largest school board is about to change, once again, and it raises anew questions about the viability of the existing order.  Four years after joining the TDSB, Dr. John Malloy, who was set to retire as Director in November 2020, is now leaving August 1 and heading to California to become chief superintendent at San Ramon Valley Unified School District, a small California school district near San Francisco.  He’s jumping ship just before the 2020-21 school year resumes and while educators everywhere are grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic and how to safely reopen schools in September of 2020. 

Malloy’s surprise announcement sparked a wave of social media congratulations, mostly from his close political allies and friends in the upper echelons of K-12 education.  Once the initial stir had subsided, tougher questions came to the fore: Why was Dr. Malloy leaving the TDSB colossus and going to a tiny school district in, of all places, Donald Trump’s America? Who would steer the TDSB though the toughest phase of the COVID-19 crisis — the complex and challenging reopening of regular classes? And, perhaps most significantly, what had Malloy accomplished during his relatively short four-year tenure? 

The mammoth TDSB is a sprawling mega-city school district with a budget of more than $3-billion, encompassing 583 schools, enrolling  247,000 students and employing some 40,000 staff.  The Director is supported by four Associate Directors, and reports to an elected board of 22 public school trustees. In terms of size, it is the fourth largest school district in North America.

The TDSB was founded on January 20, 1953 as the Metropolitan Toronto School Board (MTSB), a “super-ordinate umbrella board” to coordinate activities and to apportion tax revenues equitably across the six anglophone and later a francophone school boards within Metro Toronto. The current TDSB was established on January 1, 1998 when the six anglophone metro school boards and MTSB merged into one massive school district. It was unwieldy from the beginning and top-heavy with layers of administration and empowered trustees. A series of initial talks about de-amalgamation, proposed in 2008 by then Education Minister Wynne, went nowhere. 

During the five years prior to Malloy’s arrival, the TDSB lurched from crisis to crisis, and shed two of its chief superintendents, Chris Spence and Donna Quan, each time in the midst of controversies. Director Spence (2009–2013) resigned in the wake of a plagiarism scandal and subsequently had his teaching license revoked (2016).  Dr. Quan, appointed as Acting Director in 2013, left in December 2015 to work under contract with the York University Faculty of Education and the Ministry of Education.  A provincial investigation during 2014-15 conducted by independent consultant Margaret Wilson provided a scathing review and ample evidence of “a culture of fear” within the TDSB, and a toxic environment unrecognized by either experienced trustees or senior administration. 

Current Director John Malloy was hired on January 4, 2016, as a “healer,” initially on an 18-month interim basis. He was essentially parachuted-in from the Ministry of Education where he was Assistant Deputy Minister and Chief Student Achievement Officer. Prior to his short Ministry stint, he was Director of the Hamilton-Wentworth District Board of Education (HWDSB). Closing eight schools in the HWDSB landed him in controversy and precipitated his departure in 2014 from Hamilton to the Ministry. He was a seasoned career administrator who worked his way up the ladder, moving from board-to-board, starting out as a principal with the Metropolitan Separate School Board at Cardinal Carter and Cardinal Newman high schools.   

Malloy brought peace to the conflict-ravaged Toronto DSB and embraced an explicitly progressive equity agenda in tune with the former Wynne government. From 2016 onward, the school district was largely spared from previous Muslim religious freedom protests and violent racist incidents. As Director, Malloy invested much of his time and energy into a TDSB Enhancing Equity Task Force and in advancing its core mission. 

The TDSB’s policy of offering school choice for students and parents ran counter to Malloy’s agenda for promoting equity of opportunity and outcomes.  In his introductory video, explaining the Equity Task Force, he professed to be a champion of the board’s ” long-standing commitment to equity and inclusion” and expressed concern that it iwas not being fully met, judging from the persisting inequities affecting ‘racialized’ and ‘marginalized’ students.  His lead facilitator, Liz Rykert went further in identifying the supposed source of those inequities: “There are barriers, creating divisions with schools, or between schools. The impact has been more inequitable outcomes.”

Alternative schools for the arts exemplified one of those barriers to equity and targeting them got the Director into hot water with students and parents in those politically-active, upwardly-mobile communities.  On October 24, 2017,  facing a severe public backlash, Malloy distanced himself from a TDSB draft report recommendation calling for the phasing out of the board’s arts-focused schools. Those schools survived the TDSB initiative. 

Malloy fully embraced the recommendations of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission aimed at addressing inequities faced by Indigenous students in the system. It led him to support a plan to remove the use of the word “chief” from all job titles out of respect for Indigenous communities, even though it was not explicitly recommended in the T&R report. It attracted critical fire in some quarters. Toronto Globe and Mail columnist Marcus Gee did not mince any words in describing the move as a “ridiculous” example of political correctness. “It does nothing for the cause of indigenous rights, ” he wrote.  “In fact, by making something out of nothing, it discredits the cause, tainting it with the scent of wild-eyed zealotry.”  

The June 2018 election of Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government put Malloy in a difficult spot, since his elected board, chaired by Robin Pilkey, was aligned more with the NDP opposition at Queen’s Park.  Pilkey’s predecessor Marit Stiles was now NDP Education Critic and fiercely opposed to much of the PC “back to basics” education agenda. It was the TDSB that passed the first of many public board resolutions in the Summer of 2018 condemning the Ford government’s plan to re-instate the 1998 Health and Sex Education curriculum.  This did not endear the Director to the Fordites now inhabiting the Ministry of Education. 

Most Directors of Education spearhead Strategic Planning initiatives aimed at putting their stamp on future directions.  At the TDSB, Malloy’s administration produced an April 2019 “Vision for Learning” embracing a three-point plan for student improvement, enhanced learning culture, and shared leadership. “Equity, well-being and achievement,” in that order, were his priorities, and they were to be embedded in an inclusive school culture. “Shared leadership, productive working relationships, trust, high expectations, and collective efficacy” were the official buzzwords of his administration. It was abundantly clear that they did not really align with the new order in Doug Ford’s Ontario education world. 

Leaving in the first year of a Multi-Year Strategic Plan and during the most challenging phase of the pandemic strikes close observers as odd timing.  After only four years at TDSB, and following a series of leadership changes from 2009 to 2016, Malloy leaves with considerable unfinished business. While his personal legacy will be generally positive, he moved on before he really made a lasting mark on the TDSB educational colossus. In fact. the TDSB remains  “too big” and “too unwieldy” and could easily become just as dysfunctional again.  

Is Toronto’s Super-Board the finest example of a school district that is too big and too distant from the public to be accountable and responsive?  Is it possible to steer the TDSB in a new direction, counter to the dominant professional culture?  Should the TDSB be broken-up into smaller, more governable administrative units? What’s the likelihood that the TDSB bureaucracy would ever accept more decentralized governance, including school-level governance and budgeting, more responsive to local communities?  Most importantly, should these questions be confronted before proceeding to appoint another CEO with a skill set best suited to leading a corporate managerial school system? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Amy Chua, the infamous Asian American “Tiger Mother,” is back with a provocative new book, The Triple Package, that started generating monsoon-high waves even before its publication. Teaming up with her spouse, fellow Yale law professor Jed Rubenfeld, Chua tackles what is considered a taboo subject – why certain “cultural groups” in the United States are “astonishingly successful” and perform particularly well in school.

TriplePackageCoverStudying the more materialistic measures of success — income, occupational, status and test scores — Chua and Rubenfeld  claim that top performers come disproportionately from certain cultural groups, most notably Chinese Americans and Mormons.  While the controversial book focuses on American immigrant student success, it might well apply here in Canada where Asian Canadian students are now academically soaring in the major cities of Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal.

The central thesis of Chua and Rubenfeld’s The Triple Package is not only plausible, but defensible, and that’s what’s driving the legion of critics crazy. According to the authors, three traits breed success: a superiority complex, insecurity, and impulse control.  Only when this “Triple Package” comes together does it “generate drive, grit, and systematic disproportionate group success.”  Lost in the largely hostile initial reviews in The New York Post, The Guardian, and Salon.com is any reference to Chua’s rather forthright analysis of the downsides of “The Triple Package” –the burden of carrying a family’s high expectations, and the deep insecurities instilled in children that may exact a psychological price later in life.

Since the early 2000s, Canadian educational leaders and researchers have begun to conduct demographic studies that yielded some unexpected and perhaps unwanted results.  Driven by the Educational Equity research agenda, they have focused almost exclusively on the deficits, studying under-performing student groups and attempting to close what is known as the “learning gap.”

In the case of the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), Canada’s largest public school system,  the first comprehensive “demographic snapshot” released in June of 2008 was presented as a wake-up call demonstrating how “the system was failing to help students overcome roadblocks of culture, poverty and family background.”  Then Director of Education Gerry Connelly was quoted in The Toronto Star issuing a fateful pledge: “I am bringing an action plan to address the underachievement of marginalized students that will specify targets and actions to break the cycle over the next five years (2008-2013).”  Those five years are now up, and the latest TDSB Demographic Profile for 2011-12 seems to accept the dictates of “socio-economic gravity” when it comes to school success.

Leading researchers like Dr. Bruce Garnett, Research Director in BC District 36 (Surrey),  produces fine immigrant student studies, but is not entirely helpful in explaining why students from some “cultural groups” are far outperforming others.  After just completing his PhD at UBC in 2008, he seemed to rule out the potential of looking at “the minefield” of demographics and student excellence. “This isn’t some kind of horse race, ” he told The Toronto Star, and we do this kind of research in the interest of equity because we know know kids from different countries can come to school with different degrees of preparedness, depending upon the dominant values of the culture.” He then hastened to add that it was “dangerous to use this kind of data to make genetic assumptions.”

TDSBScanRacialProfileMounting evidence is accumulating that Garnett cannot afford, any longer, to avoid turning over that stone. The latest TDSB Environmental Scan for 2010-11 and particularly the Census Portraits for demographic groups has rendered such blinkered approaches almost untenable. Toronto school board research specialist, Maria Yau, and OISE Graduate student Sangeetha Navaratnam, have blown a hole in earlier research assumptions. The most recent Census Portrait of Toronto’s East Asian Students actually confirms the “Triple Package” thesis, and so do the findings of the South Asian demographic analysis.

The TDSB research findings for the East Asian and South Asian students, now representing some 40% of the TDSB student population, are impossible to ignore.  Taken together, they are now the majority group in the system, larger than the “White” population (31%), and clearly driving recent improvements academic achievement and graduation rates.  What explains their recent success?  The three East Asian sub-groups from China, Hong Kong, and Korea, according to Yau, share several “commonalities” (i.e., traits): they achieve well academically, spend far more time per week on homework and studying (14-15 hours, almost double that of”white” students); and have parents more likely to expect them to go to university.

Asian Canadian students in the TDSB are also setting the academic pace, even though they are not drawn from the most economically-favoured, high income communities. Their academic achievement levels of East Asian students are truly outstanding, especially when so many start as “E.S.L” students.  Between 85% and 89% of East Asian students achieve Levels 3 and 4 on the provincial  Grade 6 Math test, some 25 to 30 points higher than the TDSB average., and a higher percentage at Grade 10 (84% to 69%) are on track to earn a high school graduation diploma. South Asian students, originally from Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan, Guyana, and Bangladesh, are also performing well, all (except the Guyanese) with Grade 6 Math scores 2% to 15% above the board average.

Asian Canadian students in the TDSB are beating the socio-economic odds and performing very well in school. While it is true that more East Asian parents, except those from Hong Kong, have university degrees, parents from China are actually most likely to be in the two lowest income groups  (i.e., with annual household incomes of less than $30,000 or between $30,000 and $49,000 per year).  South Asian students tend to come from larger families and their parents , except for the Guyanese, are also mostly university educated. Once again, South Asian students have parents mostly in the lowest two income groups, earning under $50,000 per year.

American immigrant student research is proving to be closer to the mark than comparable work conducted by Canadian researchers.  While Bruce Garnett and OISE researcher Jim Cummins focus on race and language as a disability affecting E.S.L. students, American scholars Grace Kao (University of Pennsylvania) and the late John Ogbu (UC Berkeley) saw great strengths in recently arrived immigrant students. Since 1995, Dr. Kao’s  “model minorities” thesis has gained wide currency. She has made a compelling case that Chinese and Korean Americans are imbued with a strong sense of cultural values attaching great importance to achieving economic success through schooling and higher education.

Nigerian American Ogbu added credence to the “model minority” explanation by documenting the radically differing academic achievement levels achieved by children of “voluntary” immigrants compared to those from refugee or involuntary minority communities.   In short, students from voluntary immigrant groups like the Chinese, Koreans, and East Asians, have higher hopes for school success and apply more effort than the so-called “colonized” and “conquered” immigrants such as Aftrican-American or First Nations children.

The ground-breaking American studies of Kao and Ogbu, buttressed by recent TDSB demographic research, strongly suggest that Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld’s controversial book The Triple Package should not be dismissed as completely off-base and might help to shed more light in the dark corner of North American education.

Why are Canadian Asian students performing so well in Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal public schools?  Do East Asian and South Asian students exhibit what Amy Chua terms “The Triple Package” of a superiority complex, insecurity, and impulse control?  If not, then what else explains their “academic trajectories” and pace-setting achievement levels?  And perhaps most significantly, where would Canadian schools (particularly in Toronto and Vancouver) rank in international student assessments without the presence of these high performing students?

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