Responses to Education Election Issues: Are we creating the optimum learning environment for our students?

Over the past two weeks, I have been collecting ideas and suggestions on what needs to change in Ontario’s education system. Clearly, there are lots of issues that are on the minds of voters and it would be great to see some of these important ideas debated during the current campaign.

Obviously, some issues are overrepresented by people who really have a bone to pick – Regulation 274 being one – but we can still get a sense of what some of the major concerns are, none have to do with returning to a ‘kill and drill’ math curriculum.

So what are some of the big issues?

School safety and mental health are related issues. There are several comments on the need for better mental health supports in schools and for the need to protect students and staff from violent outbursts. The safety of students and current class sizes comes into this. One respondent wrote that they did not feel that having potentially 36 students in a kindergarten class was safe for their child.

I think you could wrap all this into one overall issue – the quality of care in the classroom. Do we have enough support for children in our schools and are we creating the optimum learning environment for our students? Are schools really equipped to adequately deal with mental health challenges and the complex needs of children?

I don’t have a good answer to this question, but it is certainly asked a lot in the survey.

My daughter was supposed to be entering JK in the Fall and we’ve chosen not to enrol her, because 36 kids stuffed into a play-based program with limited resources and objects being thrown at the teacher’s head is not my idea of a good learning environment for ANY child. It fills me with sadness that as a public school teacher I don’t feel safe enrolling my own child in my local public school.

This is actually something that can happen. When we had half-day kindergarten, there was a hard cap of 20 students in the classroom. If you went over 20 students, there was a good chance that another class would have to be created. That cap really disappeared once we went to full-day kindergarten. Sometimes you will be able to split a class of 32 to 36 children into two classes, but there is no guarantee that this will happen and if it does take place it is usually a month into the school year.

Yes, there are other issues that need to be addressed based on this survey. EQAO, teacher hiring practices, the overlap caused by funding Catholic and Public schools, EQAO etc. But let’s start with this issue. Are we doing our very best to ensure a high-quality environment inside the classroom? Are we living with less?

If we could be doing better for our students in very concrete ways why are we not doing this? Why are more educators not saying anything? This is the time for debate, let’s hear more from parents and educators in our province.

People Respond: Education Issues in the Ontario 2018 Election

 

We are heading into an election here in Ontario. I am always really interested in election debates, especially how the discussion circles around education issues.

So far, we seem to be talking about sex education and how we need to return to some other time when parents and the church were the arbitars of essential information.

Oh yes, and there is the old rallying cry – back to math basics!!

Can we do better than that? Are there other issues that we should be discussing?

Really, we only get a chance to do this every four years and public education is vital to the maintenance of democracy. Actually, we need democracy to flourish and we have to step up and declare how our schools can best do this. At its heart, that is what education is all about.

So, I am conducting my own little survey. What are the issues that are important to you? Especially if you are an educator, what should we be talking about as we lead up to June 7th?

We only get to do this once every four years so it would be great to weigh in and record your answer.

Let’s let this survey run and see what we come up with. I will summarize the answers in this blog.

Let’s use this time wisely – just so you know, you can fill this survey out as many times as you want!

After five days, people are beginning to respond. Here are some of the issues that people are writing about:

Why are we publically funding Catholic educational schools and no other religious educational schools?
Standardized testing.
Class sizes (especially kindergarten) and resulting violence and behaviour issues.
Mental health support
Violence in the classroom

On Twitter there are more comments

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We need to see this kind of discussion, these are essential issues and it is really important that politicians listen and respond to these comments.

Each of these points deserves to be addressed, no matter how uncomfortable it makes politicians.

Publically funding only one religion in a publically funded school system is blatant discrimination and against the Human Rights Act of the Province of Ontario. Catholicism should not be promoted as the major religion in Ontario, and yet it continues to be provincially funded as such. Why?

The money spent on EQAO from start to finish, as well as release time for staff, could be put to better use in teacher training, lower PTR, resources and engaging families to support learning. There is little research backing the educational benefits of standardized tests. But they have to be replaced with what does work and in an equitable way.

My daughter was supposed to be entering JK in the Fall and we’ve chosen not to enrol her, because 36 kids stuffed into a play-based program with limited resources and objects being thrown at the teacher’s head is not my idea of a good learning environment for ANY child. It fills me with sadness that as a public school teacher I don’t feel safe enrolling my own child in my local public school.

Because students with and without learning disabilities, with and without strong home support, with and without basic math skills and reading skills….everyone may at some point in their school career need mental health support. Our part time counsellor is a former EA with little training. She is trained to support children with small grief issues, or those how need help with social interactions or managing their parent’s divorce. Instead, she is spending all of her time supporting kids with some really big mental health challenges. There isn’t anyone else who can support them at school. We need full time counsellors, even in elementary schools

Many occasions of violence towards other students and staff with no consequences

This is becoming a really long post, but it is important. There is a lot of excellent information here and I hope someone takes a look. All of these are issues that have caught the public’s eye in the past. Collectively, they are a call to take a hard look at our current system and seek out ways to make it better and more responsive to the concerns of parents and educators in our province.

We can do so much better than a few sound bites about ‘new math’.

Update – the responses to the survey continue – you can go to this summary to see what people are writing

Of all the issues what are the most important? You can have your say here

Education Reform – Why are we Rearranging the Deckchairs?

I started off my Twitter reading today with this comment by Matthew Oldridge

One thought about the assessment review Ontario: A Learning Province. It admits in there that we are keeping grades to appease the university industrial complex. Disappointing that the tail continues to wag the dog.

I think this is a great comment. Why do we keep grades? In most classes especially in elementary schools, many of our students are on IEPs modified at or below grade level.

We are getting so much better at assessing the learning levels and aptitudes of students, so much so that grades are becoming irrelevant. Grades were created at a time when it was assumed that everyone learned the same way and at the same pace. Such an idea today would be seen as ridiculous – so why keep grades?

To me, this leads to a bigger question. What else is becoming irrelevant in education?

While it was very encouraging to see the recent review of student assessment take place in Ontario, I was disappointed that the study did not have a wider scope.

We could do so much better than our current system, why stop at system-wide assessment?

Last week on a new show on VoicEd Radio, I made the comment that school boards as organized in Ontario are corrupt. I think this caused a bit of concern, but we didn’t have the time to get into it. By corrupt, I didn’t mean in the financial sense. I meant tainted, decayed, made inferior by errors, that kind of corrupt.

Much in education can then be seen as corrupt and in need of renewal. How can a 19th-century institution developed around the same time as the prison system not be seen as in some ways corrupt and in need of whole-scale change?

How are we served by a trustee system where local representatives are part-time at best and totally dependant on school board staff for the information they need to make decisions that affect thousands of children?

Do the rights of the student really come first in a system where hiring is done based on how many years you have existed on a seniority list?

How are we served by school board superintendents who are not accountable to anyone and have the ultimate authority over everything that matters to children in our schools? In a public school system, why are these people so far removed from public scrutiny?

Why do we still have four types of school boards in Ontario? How is this efficient or necessary? Why can’t we effectively challenge a system that was organized back in the 1840’s?

I think there are a lot more challenges that could be put forward here. I would love to see what other people would add to this short list.

What if there is really a long list of things that need to be reconsidered and debated? What if we really questioned how our education dollars were being spent? What if board officials felt they had to be held accountable, would this affect the decisions they make?

Why can’t we extend the dialogue? Education is not a sacred cow, we should be able to challenge conventional wisdom. We know more, we are very well informed. We deserve the very best education system we can get.

Can we do better than this?

 

Who Gets Hired in Ontario’s Education System?

Most of my friends are teachers. My wife teaches grade 7 and 8. I feel that I am a strong advocate for teachers and I did whatever I could for the teachers I worked with while I was an administrator at four elementary schools over a twelve-year period.

I feel I need to put this right out in front when writing about the topic of hiring and seniority.

I know this is a very thorny issue, especially in Ontario where government regulations have restricted who school boards can hire based on seniority. I am taking part in a debate on Voiced Radio this morning on this topic, so I am using my blog today to prepare for this session.

While I write, I am also checking out a Twitter conversation on seniority and hiring. Here is one comment that gets to the point – a hard thing to do using Twitter!

As an outsider, I can’t help but feel there should be a middle ground. I’m instinctively uncomfortable with the idea that you get hired because it’s your turn. But I also see scope for abuse in a free for all situation

The writer is not an educator, he is a concerned parent and he makes a great point. While the old way of hiring was open to abuse, do we really make things better by putting in place an arbitrary system that blindly imposes limitations on school board when it comes to hiring talented people?

School boards are terrified of teacher unions so there is no way to get around regulations that are negotiated between boards and the government. They know to do so risks legal action. So boards and more specifically principals follow the mandated hiring practices without criticism.

If I was still a principal I wouldn’t be writing this. Criticizing provincially mandated hiring practices, no matter how ill-considered is a really good way to get you sanctioned by your employers.

If you have read my blog, you know that I have a big problem with large public institutions, school boards in particular. Unions are big organizations as well and while they do great things for their members, they are susceptible to the same foibles as school boards.

Unions sometime promote policies that are great for their membership without seeing how these policies do not serve students. In Ontario, they are now using seniority as a blunt instrument to protect their membership. It is blunt and blind. There is no guarantee that you are getting an excellent teacher when you rely on seniority to hire.

Excellence, however, is what we should be demanding from our education system. Our kids deserve it.

The obvious retort that I will be hearing soon will undoubtedly be – well what would you replace it with.

To this, I don’t have a good answer, but that is no reason to make seniority the main factor in deciding who gets to teach our children. Sure there were abuses in the past. People got hired who shouldn’t have. This was because the people who were doing the hiring were abusing the system. It was dishonest and wrong.

But, this is not a good enough reason for developing a policy that is also wrong and protects a particularly privileged group of people.

We need excellent educators and excellent administrators who do not abuse the system. Maybe we get the system we deserve, but I have to argue we could do so much better than this.

 

Are Educators Talking to Themselves?

Every day I start by reading the paper. It is a longtime practice and it grounds me before moving on to other projects. This is not something I started in retirement, I did this almost every day while I was actively involved as an educator.

Now I have more time to check out social media as well and I spend time every day going through my networks on Twitter, Facebook and Discovery Education (The DEN).

There is lots of good stuff going on. An online conference planned for the May 5th weekend, an educators summer book study, a new education news show on Voiced Radio lots of conversations between educators involved in Discovery Education on a variety of edtech (mainly) topics.

There is something unsettling here.

If I contrast what I read each day in the paper with what I see educators writing about there is a very discouraging disconnect.

The world is in crisis. Last week we had the Western Alliance hurtling cruise missiles at targets in Syria with the potential of initiating a world conflict between the West and the Russians. Sea levels continue to rise as the Globe and Mail continues to report in an excellent series on global warming and sea levels. In Ontario, we are heading into a provincial election with stark choices between a populist right-wing party and a corrupt moribund government.

Yet, when I look to comments from educators, I see a group that seems oblivious to what is happening in the world. I see a group that seems comfortable remaining blissfully neutral to what is going on.

Maybe educators on social media need to wake up. Maybe the inclusion of a book like American War recently published by former Globe and Mail writer Omar El Akkad would be a useful inclusion in a summer book study too heavy with technical manuals on teaching.

I am watching the excellent series The Vietnam War by Ken Burns. This would be a great topic for educators to discuss! One of the most compelling characters in this documentary is a man who was a young professor in the early days of the war. He is compelling because he was so committed to protesting against an unjust, wasteful war, years before this became the popular thing to do. Where are these voices today?

Richard Flacks was, in the 1960s, teaching at the University of Chicago and the University of California, Santa Barbara, and was a co-founder of the famous Students for a Democratic Society.

 

Where are we now? Why do we never seem to raise a voice of protest or even criticism of our system? Are we afraid for our jobs? Is it not the right thing to do? Do we even have an opinion?

A few weeks ago I took part in a training in South Carolina with American educators. Not once did we ever talk about politics. The whole world is coming apart because of a rogue president who takes his marching orders from Fox and Friends and we don’t even discuss this over a beer at the end of the day.

This is a problem. I realized this while I was at the training, but it seemed almost impolite to talk about this stuff. It is almost like educators are above this now and we have higher, better things to talk about.

This is distressing. I don’t think this is right. As educators, we have a higher purpose and we can raise the dialogue beyond complaining about testing which seems to be the best that we can do.

Can we do better? Should we do better?

Yes, of course we should.

Fashionable Ideas in Education – suiting other’s agendas?

I read an incredible post today on Twitter – not everything you read is equally useful.

Coordinating a session today about growth mindset… “Allowing yourself to learn from others, not on what you want to learn from them but instead on what they have to teach you is demonstrating a growth mindset!” Do we sometimes sabotage our growth because we want to control it?

I responded with this – ‘I think we need to control our own learning. Learning based on someone else’s agenda is what has always happened. Spent too many years listening to what other people thought I should know.’

How do terms like ‘growth mindset’ get subverted to take on meanings that suit other people’s agenda?

Maybe it has always been this way. How many terms in education do you know that have been subverted to take on a more corporate definition?

Here is one of my favourites – PLC – Professional Learning Community. There was a time when you could go to a three-day conference and hear Richard Dufour and others make really interesting presentations on the importance of personalized learning and collaboration. The books they wrote on PLCs were complex and really useful. Setting up a real PLC was a complex process that followed an outline developed by Dufour over years of trial and error as a high school principal.

PLC’s eventually became something that was used to define any meeting that took place with educators present. There became little distinction between Dufour’s carefully laid out process and a coffee klatch.  Superintendents in an effort to remain current and relevant used the term without any apparent understanding of the research behind the PLC. Recently, I heard a teacher complain (rightly) that her principal had taken all their planning time away by insisting that everyone at their school take part in a PLC.

This is not what should happen. The PLC is a great way to personalize teacher learning and encourage collaboration amongst educators. It should not be something that happens everyday everywhere. It should not be a way to show how ‘current’ you are in your instructional leadership practice.

The implementation of ideas and practices needs to be flexible and intuitive. They need to be pursued in an intelligent manner and they can’t be used to fit every situation.

Maybe this is a problem for all education institutions. Too often we all want to jump on the latest bandwagon – whether this is growth mindset, PLCs, social-emotional learning or half a hundred other fashionable ideas out there that suffer from mass adoption with very little critical consideration.

I am only focusing on two here – what would you add to the list?

Growth Mindset Can Work – But Who Needs to Grow?

I was looking for some inspiration today for a post after listening to my wife debrief after another exasperating day working with a particularly rude and difficult child. It is very frustrating to hear about her bad days because she is a gifted teacher and does wonders with intermediate students. My natural inclination in these situations is to look for ways to mute destructive students like this so that their impact on their school surroundings is minimized.

I can no longer affect the outcome of these challenging situations, I am not longer a principal. So, I write.

I am reflecting on the unfairness of this situation. Why does one child have the ability to disrupt, frustrate and block efforts that are being made to help them get an education?

This is probably one of the most frustrating situations in education. Children who for a wide variety of reasons do their best to oppose those who are committed to helping.

Sometimes Twitter can help with a prompt to help reflect on these exasperating situations. Today I found something by Dr Stuart Shanker

As teachers, this is an imperative reframe:  “I wasn’t trained for this.” To:  “Where can I learn more?” I love hearing about real experiences with the “growth mindset” model – will you share yours?

The growth mindset here has to do with educators, not students. Many children are in no way prepared to change their mindset. Who knows what has caused the blockage that leads to disruptive and destructive behaviour? The change in mindset needs to come from the educator.

The challenges in the poster at the top of the post are instructive. What happens when we open our minds to vastly different ways of doing things to support a student who is really struggling?

Can we be flexible enough as a system to adapt to the needs of a struggling child?

I think in many cases if we are able to start this work early enough we can make a difference. We must be ready to throw out everything in order to do this. Rework the system to fit the child. Design a system that uses the talents and intelligence of committed educators to affect change.

I have seen this work. In my last school, we had a wonderful boy in grade 3 who really challenged the entire school. He started off with us one block a day and even that was a struggle for all of us.

We had to rework things to make things work for this child. He was held accountable, but he also became the focus of a group of very compassionate, talented educators. Gradually, over time, his day lengthened. There were still the outbursts, the anger and the foul words, but we persisted. We adapted. I would like to think that we grew. He flourished.

Unfortunately, we lost touch with the boy when he was moved to another city. I like to think that we had all turned a corner and that given more time he would survive and thrive.

I think at the worst moments, we have to think back to our stories of growth. Even in the most unlikely circumstances, good things can happen.

I am not fooled into believing that positive change happens all the time. It may only happen once in awhile and it may not be longterm. What is important is the belief that we can adapt our mindset to bring about success in some cases and this makes all the difference.

In the case of the student my wife is struggling with there is a long road ahead that will not be completed by the conclusion of this school year. Maybe in another place and time something will spark a difference.

In Ottawa, many of our high-needs schools work with an organization called Christie Lake Kids. Their mission is to transform children through recreation. They call it Transformative Recreation or T-REC.

Through participation in the T-Rec model, the children and youth we serve develop a greater capacity for self-regulation, self-efficacy, social skills, adult monitoring, and positive relationships.

T_REC Model Christie Lake Kids

I mention Christie Lake Kids here because I think that the mindset change we need to employ will involve others outside the education system.

Maybe the counter statement to ‘We don’t have enough resources’ should really be ‘But what resources, especially in the community are we not using to their full potential?’

We certainly can do a better job at thinking outside the box. We also need to take a moment and really applaud the teachers like my wife who go in every day to face the unending challenges of dealing with the students who challenge.

May we learn to support them better.

Climbing to Ausangate: Climb for Kids!

The road to Ausangate covers lots of ground. We are now 16 climbers and we have already raised $10,000 for Christie Lake Kids. So, the climb goes well.

We are into our sixth week of indoor training, hurling big balls full of sand, hauling heavy sledges laden with weights, doing deep knee bends. In a few days, we start training on trails, learning the mountain step and the cowboy walk.

The group will now start to move outside to get used to hiking together. Time to check out equipment too

It is pretty remarkable to see a group of people learn to work together. Last week, we held the first in a series of group fundraisers, this one at Fatboys Southern Smokehouse in the Ottawa Market. After the expenses were covered, the group made over $4200 in one night. Ticket sales were great and we had a terrific silent auction that really boosted the amount raised. Fatboys and The Clocktower came together to offer the best raffle prize – a keg of beer and a $100.00 gift certificate. It always amazes me how generous Ottawa businesses are when it comes to events like this.

We had a great silent auction, all sorts of interesting items from birdhouses, Star Wars original film to park benches!

There is so much that goes into these projects, most long before you ever set foot on the trail.

We have lots of fundraising to go. We will certainly beat our original fundraising goal and I think all the climbers will be able to reach their personal goals. We still have to start stair training and we need to learn how we trek together as a group.

Some people don’t really understand what we are doing. Does fundraising really have to involve so much work? I would argue that the best fundraising usually does. We have 16 committed people. We now have a great filmmaker, Garry Tutte who is going to add so much to this project. We have some sponsorship, but we really need more. We are training and learning to work together as a group. This is a lot of work, but it is so rewarding to meet a new group of people and then gather an even larger group to help you reach your fundraising goals.

A truly rich experience. So glad to have all of you with us!

The Terrible Gift

I am been listening to our latest interview on Voiced Radio. You can find it here.

Heather and I interviewed Marc Lafontaine, a great friend of ours. The title of this episode was Overcoming Adversity and there is lots to listen to carefully here.

Marc has seen his share of adversity. He is a businessman and has had many ups and downs. In the interview, he talks about the failure of one business and what he learned from this experience.

We all go through adversity at some point in our lives. Marc in this podcast does not focus on the failure, but what he learned through the whole experience. It is in the really tough times that we do the learning. You could say that this is the terrible gift.

We suffer and then we learn.

If we do not go through adversity and challenge how can we grow, how do we learn?

I would argue that we really don’t grow unless we challenge ourselves and learn to be in the moment, even the really bad ones. What we gain is the ability to love and the ability to become empathetic. Marc says this in our interview and there is tremendous wisdom in all this.

Marc is a great road biker and less than a year ago was almost killed in a terrible accident with a car. He broke most of the bones in his face and suffered a broken neck.

While he did recover from this, it has left its scars, not only on him but on his family as well.

He is still in recovery and probably will be in this process for a long time to come.

What he learned is that no matter what happens, there are no regrets, no looking back, there is only the renewed passion to live life. This is something hard for us to learn. We live in a society where bad experiences are to be avoided or masked. The dark is not to be visited it is to be hidden.

What we need to do instead is be in the moment. I know that sounds trite, but the dark times build us, they develop a stronger sense of what it means to be human. We just need to accept the bad times and have the patience to be instructed by the moment.

The best interviews we have done have been with people who have faced great adversity, Marc Lafontaine and certainly Chris Nihmey.

We have certainly been blessed that these strong people are out there telling their stories sharing their wisdom and living bravely.

Don’t reject adversity. Take on the terrible gift. Reach in deeply and learn. Then make the world better and your friends and family stronger.

Unwrap and share the terrible gift.