Conversations on Improving Ontario Schools – EQAO, Assessment, Reporting

I want to thank VoicEd Radio and Derek Rhodenizer for alerting me to this very short public consultation on assessment and reporting in Ontario. Huge topics to be considered and a shame the consultation period is so short.

I agreed to take a look at the consultation questions and take part in a VoicEd Radio discussion on this topic. Today, I decided to look at some of the questions, especially because the role of EQAO is being discussed.

Join the province-wide conversation about how best to improve Ontario’s approaches to classroom assessments, large-scale provincial assessments including Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) assessments, and Ontario’s participation in pan-Canadian and international assessment programs.

How can EQAO assessments be improved to realize the provincial goals?

I tried to answer the questions posed, I have included some of my responses below:

The best thing we could do with the EQAO infrastructure would be to get rid of it. Assessment is done best by the classroom teacher using a variety of tools much more sophisticated than the ‘one-shot’ EQAO test. The teacher learns a great deal from classroom assessment that can then become the basis for useful feedback to the parent and of course, the child.

EQAO costs a huge amount each year and this money could be better used if the funds were invested back into the classroom. Maybe we could also look at more sophisticated ways of reporting back to the parent rather than the cumbersome, jargon-filled report card.

EQAO scores are used as ways to rank schools and do little to measure the progress being made by the student. It was brought in at a time where accountability was the main concern of government in Ontario. Surely we have become more sophisticated in our approach to education in Ontario.

What types of EQAO reporting do you consider to be most useful, and why?

The current reporting is not useful. It happens once a year and as a principal, I would put this out to teachers and parents and then get back to the job of learning. The main concern about reporting was the ranking that inevitably happens after the results came out and the associated hand-wringing that would take place when our school didn’t do well in math scores.

I was also very uncomfortable with the crowing that our school board would do every year when our results showed better than the provincial average. We never heard anything about the fact that the majority of students we taught were the middle-class sons and daughters of Ottawa-area professionals. Flag waving in the education world is always a bad thing.

EQAO actually has helped us remain complacent about what we are doing to improve the lives of our students. It also marginalized poor schools who tend to do poorly on EQAO, but leaves the whole question of economic inequality unanswered.

I was surprised by the next series of questions – maybe there is hope! The survey steered off in a new direction by focusing on in-class assessment. To me, this is a very good sign that we are actual beginning to think in Ontario when it comes to EQAO and assessment.

Classroom assessment strategies are developed by teachers to help students move forward in their learning and to determine and inform students and their parents/caregivers on their learning progress. Typical classroom assessment approaches include class work, tests and various other activities and assignments that are assessed based on curriculum expectations. Teachers use a variety of assessment tools, which may include direct observation, portfolios, journals, written assignments, presentations, seminars, group work, tests, projects, and self- and peer assessment.

This section was followed up by a few questions including this one.

What types of reporting of student learning in the classroom do you consider to be most useful, and why?

So I continued to respond:

All these are useful except the Provincial Report Card. This is cumbersome and wastes teachers’ time. Timely reporting is more practical and useful and ways to encourage this should be investigated. Parents need good, practical information. Report cards are not timely but are done because they have to be done. Progress reports are more useful because they are more timely and are quick to assemble. We might do better with more progress reports and fewer report cards. Just in time reporting is more helpful to the student, teacher and parent and this should be encouraged.

My concluding remarks:

Some good questions here -thanks for this opportunity. I think it would be a good idea to go further and look at the current governance model for Ontario that keeps local superintendents in charge of school boards and that continues to support a religion-based education system (Catholic Schools). If we are truly interested in reform, we need to investigate and challenge beyond assessment and reporting.

I would love an opportunity to expand on this section, but this is probably enough for one survey. Maybe we could talk about rotating superintendents back into the classroom – now that would be a sea change! I am happy to see these questions – thanks, Derek and VoicEd Radio!

The End of School Resource Officers in Toronto District Public Schools

Black Lives Matter activists called for an end to the school resource officer program in June, during a meeting at the Toronto Police Services Board. (RICK MADONIK / TORONTO STAR FILE PHOTO)

I have been watching and reading about the surprising decision taken this week by the Toronto District School Board to end the School Resource Officer (SRO) program in all Toronto District School Board (TDSB) schools. I call it surprising because as a school administrator for over ten years here in Ottawa, the SRO program has been nothing but positive, especially in our elementary schools where the SRO was a truly positive presence in the schools I worked in.

I realize that the situation in Toronto is different than that in Ottawa and that the program needed to be reviewed. The article in the Toronto Star notes that a full-year review by Ryerson University was taking place and that SROs had been pulled from schools for the first three months of this year while the review took place.

I would imagine that there is no need for the review to continue as the TDSB Chair noted in an interview that the program will not be returning to schools (see 2:40 of the interview).

It is hard to understand how decisions like this get made. As a vice-principal in a very busy intermediate (Gr. 7-8) school and as a principal in two elementary schools, the SRO was always a key ingredient in our school safety plans. They helped us with our lock-down drills, talked to students in assemblies and in the classroom and even took in recess duty – the kids really loved this.

There is no question that the SRO always did a good job of making the police more visible and more a part of the community for our students. In cases where the school population was mainly made up of students new to Canada, the SRO may have been the first friendly police officer these children would have encountered.

I have written and spoken about this before. For our schools to really do a better job we need to build positive partnerships within the community. Whenever you cut out a partner without first trying to repair a long-standing relationship you are making a mistake.

Last week there was a national debate on violence in the schools. I am not sure how we are making schools safer by taking out the schools’ most significant partner invested in keeping our schools safe.

To me, this seems like a step backwards. While the majority of students said they had no problem with SROs in the schools and while a significant review was taking place, staff, then trustees decided to end a significant community partnership.

While 57 per cent said having police in school made them feel safer, 46 per cent said they weren’t sure they wanted the program to continue. But 1,715 (11 per cent) said the presence of an officer intimidated them and 2,207 — or 14 per cent — said they felt watched and targeted as a result.

Toronto Star – TDSB votes down police presence in high schools

There are certainly problems in Toronto between the police and some local communities. The rhetoric can get heated (note the photo taken from the Toronto Star), but we don’t solve problems by building taller silos. I hope this is an issue that gets further discussion in the near future.

It would be so instructive to hear what teachers and administrators think about this issue. Their opinions should matter on such an important topic.

Talking Nationally About Violence in the Schools and Looking for Solutions

Cross-country Checkup is a good way to measure what issues are of interest to Canadians every week. This CBC show has been on for many years and it has always been a good barometer of public opinion. This week, the topic is violence in the schools and the danger staff face on a regular basis.

This became a public issue last week when an Ottawa teacher went public with a violent incident that ended his teaching career.

One issue that is being brought up this afternoon is the very dangerous situation educational assistants (EAs) find themselves every day. While I don’t know many teachers who have been injured on the job, I regularly witnessed EAs being injured. They were also verbally abused by students and parents and were seldom able to seek any recourse for what happened to them.

Is this a systemic problem? Why are we hearing so much about this now that a floodgate has been opened?

I think it comes down to an overemphasis on individual rights over collective rights. When I suspended students, it was to protect the collective. The individual had lost the right to be part of the school community, therefore they were suspended. I used this line with parents and it (of course) was not appreciated. However, suspension, especially starting in grade 7 was an effective tool and I hope high school vice principals are still able to use it. Our job was to protect staff and students. 

On the other hand, you could say that ejecting a student doesn’t solve anything. Suspension is a necessary sanction, but what is happening that leads to behaviours that lead to a suspension?

Education is an incredibly labour-intensive field. Typically, when governments want to save money on education there is only one way to do this, staff gets cut or the necessary staff are not hired.

From my perspective as an administrator, the best way to assist children, especially those with emotional or mental health issues is to have enough staff in the building to care for these students. This means more EAs, more social workers, and more in-school therapists.

The conversation continued long after the show and it included tweets like this:

Obviously, we didn’t reach any conclusions, but it is an important discussion.

I let this post sit for a few days. It is a sad topic and it is really hard to find the positives. Then last night, I attended the information meeting for a new fundraising program we are starting – Christie Lake Climb for Kids! I have written about this before on this blog. It’s an exciting opportunity and I hope we get 16 participants for this first expedition.

a reason for hope – our Christie Lake Kids meeting last night

What was really refreshing for me last night was the presentation on Christie Lake Kids. This program offers a wide variety of recreational services for low-income kids. They run a terrific summer camp along with programming throughout the year including cooking classes, a fully funded hockey team and a whole variety of after-school programs in some of the most challenging neighbourhoods here in Ottawa.

I think I needed to be reminded that while we have some really challenging problems in our schools, there are some really forward-thinking organizations like Christie Lake that are offering solutions.

More suspensions and more blame will not ease the problems of violence in our schools. Progressive recreational programming like Christie Lake will offer solutions that at least will address some of the challenges we are facing in our schools.

It has been an interesting week. Lots of discussion on how we are facing a crisis in our schools and one really positive way to find a solution that really helps kids.

For my part, I want to focus on some progressive solutions. I hope others do too!

How do We Respond to Violence in our Schools?

This morning I listened to a very disturbing interview on CBC Ottawa. A local Ottawa teacher was being interviewed about a violent incident that ended his teaching career. You can read an article about the incident here.

This is a very brave teacher. He is speaking out about violence in schools, a topic that does not get enough public discussion.

It is hard to read this article. In cases like this, the rights of staff to remain safe in their workplace are not being considered. When a student is suspended, their right to privacy trump the rights of staff to work in a safe environment. Merely moving a violent student to another school does nothing to solve the problem, it simply moves it along to another school where teachers are equally in the dark about the presence of a violent offender in their midst.

The CBC asked teachers to speak out about violence in their school and I hope they respond. The Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association (OECTA) commissioned a study that reported 60 percent of teachers surveyed have personally experienced violence in the school.

I think the actual percentage is much higher than this. I have heard of incidents this year where students have actually tried to break into classes to get at students. Schools seem to be helpless when it comes to dealing with these incidents.

I remember being in a situation where we actually had to physically restrain a student who wanted to get at another pupil who was locked in my office for his own protection. As the incident played out, students in the school had to be rerouted to other parts of the school to keep them safe. While we were able to keep the violent student restrained, the incident was never debriefed and the only feedback we received from our school board was criticism on the methods we used to restrain the student.

These incidents happen every day in our schools. In many cases, educational assistants are the ones who are being injured. While some of these staff members have training working with violent students, teachers and administrators seldom receive this type of training.

The system is skewed in favor of the student and their need for privacy. When a student receives a suspension or some other consequence staff members are rarely informed. There is no procedure to keep staff members safe from a violent offender and their right to privacy comes before the right of school staff to remain safe.

I am not surprised to read that violence is increasing in the schools. Whatever is happening in society is reflected in the school. Andrew Campbell wrote an excellent article on the lack of mental health services in our schools – The Hypocrisy of Student Well-being. In his article Andrew points out that very little is currently being done to provide schools with the resources they need to deal with a growing mental health crisis in the schools.

So during a time of crisis, as students are suffering and educators are getting hurt, the ministry’s new well-being program is more focussed on funding active transportation and breakfast programs than providing front line support to children with mental health needs. In fact the major initiative to address student mental health is a provincial support team that doesn’t work directly with students. Unacceptable.

I hope that this excellent article will get more attention. It is hard to hear about a teacher suffering a career-ending injury and it is troubling to know that these incidents will continue to happen until we begin to take a serious look at the growing mental health crisis that is making our schools an increasingly hazardous place to work.

Move Like a Cat: Challenging the System Every Day.

from George Couros – Only Schools Can End Schools

There are some education writers who always catch my attention. They are provocative and they give me ideas on what I can write about.

Two of these educators are George Couros and Greg Ashman.

In a recent post, George Couros wrote about institutional change and the school. He featured a quote that mentioned businesses like Netflix, Uber, and Airbnb and how these innovators have challenged or replaced institutions that believed they were secure in supporting the status quo.

Greg Ashman seems to come up with something challenging almost daily. Recently he wrote a biting critique of the 6C fad, 21st-century skills and the current belief that teaching collaboration beats out traditional content. I love the title – Can we add ‘move like a cat’ to the list of 21st century skills?

There may not be too much in common in the two articles, but both challenge complacency and that is a really important service that all educators need. Greg Ashman’s article, in particular, would be a wonderful opener at a principal’s meeting at my former school board! Greg, I would have added this video.

Funny, but are there ever workshops at education conferences on reforming the system? Is this a topic that is just a little too uncomfortable?

While these ideas are important for our growth as a profession, George Couros makes the point that the people who really need to hear this message are not even listening.

They are not listening to Greg Ashman’s challenge of the sacred cow that is the 6C’s – maybe better called the silly C’s?

My point is that these and other writers need to hold a central place in our discussions on how the education system needs to evolve. There should be a place for these discussions at education conferences and we need to realize we can do better and we need to challenge more.

We do not have to be slaves to alignment. Maybe we need to move a little like a cat!

The education hierarchy may not be interested in such talk, but neither were the owners of Block Buster.

So, let’s move.

Making Connections – Edcamp Ottawa, Voiced Radio, MADPD

opening workshop on the gradeless classroom at Edcamp Ottawa

To me these days it is all about making connections. This past week has been particularly rich. Starting last Saturday, we took in the latest Ottawa Edcamp where we were able to put together four interviews for our show First Hand Stories.

All four of these are now up on Voiced Radio thanks to Stephen Hurley.

The turnout was great for the Edcamp. There were at least 75 participants and a wonderful collection of workshops scattered over three sessions throughout the morning and early afternoon.

Lots of great sessions at Saturday’s Edcamp Ottawa

All four First Hand Stories conversations were really fun to take part in. One included Derek Rhodenizer who blew in for a few minutes after his kids’ karate lesson. He was there long enough to take part in an on-going discussion about setting up podcasts for students and teachers. He later sent me a Youtube video that he had made on the topic.

The conversations also led to this tweet

This brought Chris Cluff and Stephen Hurley into a great hour-long conversation on Sunday night on Chris’ show Chasing Squirrels. Here we talked about silo busting, something that came up in response to Derek’s tweet on Saturday.

We had a bunch of good conversations at the Edcamp with teachers who had never been on Voiced Radio before. We also covered mental health in schools, the gradeless classroom, creativity in schools and blended classrooms. We also had the chance to interview Laura Wheeler, one of the original organizers of EdCamp Ottawa.

All to say it was a great 48 hours of connecting and meeting new people. All possible because of alternative ways of learning – Twitter, web-based radio and edcamps.

The connecting continues this week as Stephen Hurley and Doug Peterson will be going live at the BIT 2017 Conference in Niagara Falls and the next MADPD begins to take shape including some form of a virtual town hall including a whole host of educators.

This to me is the new learning. It is happening every day and in new and very innovative ways. I think traditional education institutions really need to pick up on this and get more involved. Although we are connecting more and more the circles are still pretty small.

I would love to see some of the big school boards promote MADPD or Voiced Radio on their Twitter feed or take a leading role by encouraging their educators to take part in these new approaches.

This is where the new learning is happening, they should not be left behind.

Taking First Hand Stories to Edcamp Ottawa

So this Saturday we are going to try something a little different. Inspired by Stephen Hurley, the creative force behind Voiced Radio and Doug Peterson of This Week in Ontario Edubloggers fame, we are going to take our Voiced Radio show First Hand Stories to the Ottawa Edcamp.

My partner and the creative soul of our show Heather Swail came up with this idea and fortunately, the organizers of this year’s Edcamp, Amy Bowker and Laura Wheeler liked the idea and are allowing us space to try this out.

Quick aside – it looks a little like I am doing a bit of name dropping here and I guess I am, but these are all great people and I am linking you to their Twitter feeds – if you are not following these folks you really should be!

So, how will this work? We are not sure. But it is a really good idea to give this a try. Radio broadcasting and podcasting are so easy to do now. We are totally caught up with the potential this medium is creating to build community and share ideas.

What I am finding now is that many of my conversations on Twitter involve members of the Voiced Radio community. Now I have talked to many of these educators or we have listened to their broadcasts. We have a closer connection through Stephen Hurley’s great education radio experiment.

One of the great things about this upcoming Edcamp is that many of the participants are ‘new campers’ or teacher candidates at the University of Ottawa.

Hopefully, we will get a chance to interview a few of these TCs. What a great way for us to get a sense of what teacher candidates are thinking this time of year.

Do we have a topic. Do we have questions? Not really. This being an Edcamp we think it is probably best just to let things evolve, unscripted and unstaged. We do really hope that this little experiment will work. It would be great in the future to do some live remotes for Voiced. This one will not be live – still working on the technology.

So, let’s see what happens. Let’s get more interviews done and more listeners for a great radio project.

See you this Saturday!!

To see the full schedule for Edcamp Ottawa please see this link.