Class Sizes Really Matter

Why is it that conservative-leaning governments always feel the need to go after public education? Is it public education in particular or is it all public institutions?

I really don’t know, but I have seen along with many other educators in Ontario the latest trial balloon put up by the provincial government in an effort to relieve the strain on taxpayers. Lisa Thompson, the Minister of Education is about to start consultations on a variety of education-related issues – class size being one of them. This is what she put out today.

We’ve launched consultations with education partners on many topics including class sizes. Let me be clear, no decisions have been made. We look forward to the sector sharing their experience and perspective so we can ensure tax dollars have the greatest impact in the classroom.

I added in my contribution to the consultation. Not that I was asked, but I am a taxpayer too, so why not.

Smaller class size for kindergarten and primary are certainly a good investment. You obviously could save money with larger class sizes, but you would be responsible for decreasing the quality of education in Ontario. Better idea – hard cap in kindergarten of 25.

This got way more attention than my tweets usually do. I think this is a good thing, there are many educators who are concerned about class size in kindergarten and primary. As a former elementary principal, hard caps in grades 1-3 made a huge difference in the learning environment for children and their teachers.

The not so hard cap of 29 or 30 in kindergarten did make some difference. I would argue that if we were really serious about the learning environment in kindergarten, there would be a hard cap of no more than 25.

Some people, including some education writers, argue that class size does not make a difference. I don’t think these people have ever spent enough time in a primary or kindergarten classroom.

These spaces can be real battlegrounds. Especially in neighbourhoods where kids have never been in group care situations, kindergarten is very challenging. Many of the children may not speak English, many have no idea how to play together and for some families, this will be their first introduction into the formal education system in Ontario.

While ‘battleground’ may seem like a strong word, the world of kindergarten and primary is something really different and very special. It is not something you want to get wrong, and you certainly will not benefit from an overcrowded classroom.

No caps mean you can put any number of children in a classroom. This is actually one of the key issues teachers in Los Angeles are striking about right now. No caps means you can save money on staffing, you may get a few dollars back at income tax time. If you don’t have kids in the system, you will never know the difference.

An important political issue for the taxpayers of Ontario.

Do we not have any primary principles in our society that stop us from making decisions that negatively impact the most vulnerable?

Trick question.

I know we don’t, but we should. The education of our children – and very important decisions affecting our children’s education – should not be treated like other public forum decisions, like extending LCBO hours or charging for tourism signs on provincial highways. No trial balloons to the general public on an issue such as kindergarten class size.  This is not about saving the taxpayer a few dollars.

We must, we deserve to, have higher-quality discussions about significant issues. Bantered taunts on Twitter and angry exchanges between strangers do not constitute informed public debate. And, often that debate should be guided by well-briefed, informed leaders who have spent a day or two with this province’s future voters – the kindergartners.

 

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The Debate Continues – Are We Doing a Good Job at Inclusion in Our Schools?

Over the past week, there has been a good deal of material written about inclusion especially in Ontario. The discussion was reopened by Caroline Alphonso’s article in the Globe and Mail – Educating Grayson: How Do We Make Inclusion Work?

We look at the exceptions and say that inclusion works, at best, this is only partially true.   What happens when a system (inclusion) depends on exceptional teachers and schools? Is inclusion really sustainable when we depend on exceptional practice?

Aviva Dunsiger wrote an excellent article on inclusion as part of this debate. This is a sensitive, reflective piece and it does show that inclusion can work in some circumstances. Aviva made some wholesale changes to her classroom and the learning environment did become more inclusive. The article does bring up an important question. Is this the exception or is this the rule? In the article, Aviva writes that a board team came in and gave its recommendations and then left. It is telling that her first response was to question her own professionalism.

Well, when the team members came in and spoke to me, I left feeling as though I was the worst teacher out there. I totally broke down. Heaving sobs. They wanted me to change my classroom around for one child. Why? 

Aviva was able to put together a plan with her EA, but that does not mean the system is working. Her story may be the exception. The onus is still being put on the classroom teacher to do something truly exceptional with no increase in support apart from a visit from a group of school board experts.

Is this good enough? Are we being reflective enough to bring about significant change or are we hoping that exceptional teachers and schools will simply become the norm and the problem will go away?

One person made an excellent comment on Aviva’s post. She noted some of the things that still need to be in place for inclusion to work better in schools.

 self-reflective, flexible and open teachers, and as you noted:
leadership that creatively considers
-class size and composition (just because they have a dx doesn’t mean they should be in the same class every year),
-teacher training and updating of that training (a lot of parents don’t want ABA style or even punishment-reward style motivation anymore as new research becomes available)
-availability of community members that have knowledge and experience (there is no us v. them, only how can we help?)
-stress levels of families, students and staff & how we can alleviate those!
-lastly to choose staff that are open-minded and flexible and accepting that their way might need updating or that visual/reward/breaks won’t work for everyone, but it will work for more than one!

The comment about the involvement of community partners really strikes me here. Schools generally see themselves as silos and do not invite community agencies to play an active role in solving the problems all schools face. Most educators are unaware of the community resources that surround their schools. This is an area where we could really improve upon.

We need school boards and schools to be much more critical of their own practices. We all love to promote the exceptions and say they are the rule, but that is simply not the case. Who assesses school boards on the effectiveness of their own practice?

There is little oversight, so boards love to say how well they are doing in areas like inclusion. How many times did I hear that our school board was easily one of the best in the province? The more you say that the less critical you become.

I hope this debate continues. There are many great voices out there and it is good to see educators speaking out. The exceptions and innovations need to be celebrated, but the system as a whole needs to get much more responsive to the needs of our children and parents.

 

Has inclusive education gone too far? – The Globe and Mail debate

When I started this series of articles for the Class Struggle Podcast, I wrote that public debate on important public issues is sustained and encouraged through our media. A strong public press is essential in a healthy democracy and we are very fortunate here in Canada to have a vital and responsive media.

On Saturday, the Globe and Mail’s education reporter Caroline Alphonso wrote an important feature on the problems surrounding inclusion in Canada’s schools – Educating Grayson: Are inclusive classrooms failing students?

The article is an intelligent and sensitive report on the problems that take place every day in Canada’s schools surrounding inclusion. As a former elementary principal, I am well aware of these issues. Although I have not been in schools in the last two years, the problem obviously persists and the solutions remain elusive.

The Globe and Mail is sustaining this debate by publishing some of the comments to Saturday’s article. I have included two of them here:

From the comments: Has inclusive education gone too far? Educators and parents share their experiences

In 2018, I retired after 17+ years as an Educational Assistant (EA) in elementary schools. Over those years my job changed dramatically; from helping students (with varying needs) achieve their potential in class, to keeping students with often volatile behaviours from being a threat to others while in a “regular” classroom. Most, if not all, children want to belong and succeed at school. Teachers and EAs also want to make this happen. Too often, I have seen principals and parents put their own interests and opinions ahead of the best interests of the student. It becomes a fight about which adult is right, and the student’s true needs get overlooked. It is a terrible waste, made even greater when “experts” are brought in to observe briefly, and then chime in on what is best.

Please, parents and administration, gather and listen to the student, and the teacher and the Educational Assistant together. Set a few goals, be consistent at home and at school, and be kind and respectful of each other. You will see improvements almost immediately. Unfortunately this rarely happens. – MacKenzie96

Ms. Kahn is not wrong to want better services for Grayson. It is sad that services for children like Grayson are so limited. Underfunding special education programs pits parents against teachers and administrators. This undermines an education system that is the envy of the world (we rank #5 internationally according to the OECD). Please keep in mind that funding for education has been frozen for the last few years and special education in most boards has been cut. There are fewer Educational Assistants in my classroom than ever before. My fear is Mr Ford’s austerity measures aimed at health care system, social assistance and education will only make things worse. – Daysofmiracle

I don’t know if I have anything useful to add to these comments, but I do know that educators need to be part of this discussion.

This Thursday for this week’s Class Struggle on VoicEd Radio we will weigh in on this issue. As I have been saying, educators need to be heard on this issue and it would be great to see more writing from those who are active in the profession. We know there is a lack of resources when it comes to education and there are real human consequences to the underfunding that has been going on for years.

the next Class Struggle podcast will be this Thursday (January 10) at 8:00PM

The problems with inclusion are well known. Principals, especially in elementary school have been excluding special needs students from their buildings for years. These exclusions are hard to trace because they were never documented and were never part of any formal process. I remember many times as an administrator asking parents just to keep their child at home. They weren’t suspended, we just didn’t have the resources to keep them and others safe in our school.

These actions are taken by principals every day. When I excluded I always did this on my own authority. No one above me was willing to take any responsibility for these actions and when things went badly, I was the one who suffered the consequences.

Here is the problem. There are nowhere near the resources in the schools to deal with many special needs cases. As Caroline Alphonso mentions in her article, there are situations where a gifted teacher may be able to accommodate a special needs child, but such a situation is not sustainable, and not all schools have the talent to work successfully with challenging children.

More often the lack of adequate resources leads to disruptions and sometimes violence in the classroom.

In most cases, it is the educational assistant that suffers the direct consequences for the emotional outbursts of the child, but I know the results of poorly thought-out inclusion affects the entire school community, including children and parents.

The solution calls for a rebuilding of the inclusion model. Generally, the practices in Ontario at least are haphazard. Inclusion needs to be rebuilt from the ground up with a sharp focus on how best to accommodate the special needs child, their parents and the wider school community. Inserting the student into a regular classroom with some support and hoping for the best is just not good enough.

Such a rebuild will be expensive and I really don’t think we are there yet as a society to make the financial investment that it will take. Patching is cheap, rebuilding takes lots of resources and intelligent design.

I hope we have a good debate on Thursday. This is a problem that will just get worse until we face it head-on. Again, good for the Globe and Mail for keeping this important issue in the public eye. As educators, we need to do our part to make sure it stays there.

What was Your Political Issue in 2018? #classstruggle

So, what were the big political issues for you in 2018? Why do these matter if this is directed at educators? Do educators have political opinions? Can we express them?

This is a blog post that acts as a run up to our next edition of the Class Struggle podcast – week two of something new.

Tonight, we will be talking about what our big political issues were for 2018. We are still getting our sea legs, so it really hasn’t been determined if we are supposed to stick to political issues that have an impact on educators, or any political issue.

I am going with a wider interpretation here, but that’s just me. I think as educators, our opinion needs to be heard. We have a public role, maybe not the same as journalists, but we still are in the public forum and can contribute to any public discussion.

The concept of the public forum developed from a physical place – the Roman forum where for centuries,  people gathered to discuss important issues

For me, the main political issue continues to be the political turmoil in the United States. Democracies are fragile entities, and what we are witnessing daily in America is an assault on this very public institution by the chief executive, Donald Trump.

Nothing is ever new in the world and this attack has taken place before. The historian Edward J. Watts has just published a new book that chronicles a similar assault against the Roman Republic that eventually led to the rise of autocrats like Augustus Ceasar and the death of Rome’s limited democracy. The book Mortal Republic: How Rome Fell into Tyranny recently reviewed in the New York Times, looks like a really interesting read. In it, Watts argues that ambitious patricians began to build their own base of support amongst an angry populace increasingly enraged by dysfunctional public institutions (What the Fall of the Roman Republic Can Teach Us About America, Yascha Mounk, New York Times Book Review, December 30, 2018)

CreditCreditTyler Comrie; Photo by Paolo Gaetano/Getty Images

This sounds all too familiar, although the destruction of a democracy can be a long process, something really dangerous is happening in the United States right now and it deserves our attention.

I am not saying that we all need to stop what we are doing and focus on the American shutdown, but we do need to acknowledge that something profound is going on. Avoiding making a comment means we are missing an opportunity to speak in the public forum.

Stephen Hurley has contributed his view to our on-going conversation.

Stephen Hurley

For me, one of the most important political issues goes beyond partisanship to the way we interact with each other. We need to learn how to conduct our conversations in a manner that holds open the public square in a different way.

I hope you join us tonight as we continue this conversation.

#classstruggle

 

Christie Lake Climb for Kids 2019 – Our Fundraising Begins!

Hello everyone
Happy New year to all of you!
We are starting our second year of Climb for Kids and this July, we will be trekking around Mont Blanc through three countries over 14 days – a total of 170 km. Again, we are doing this to raise money for Christie Lake Kids, a truly transformational organization that changes the lives of low-income children every day of the year.
a great new graphic showing the reach of CLK programs throughout the year
Last year many of you supported my fundraising efforts and I was able to raise over $2000 for CLK. Again, I would like to thank you for your support. Overall, we raised $28,000 to support CLK programming throughout the year.
Here are a few examples of how your donation would be used:
–  $25.00 buys: a good sleeping bag for a first-time camper who may arrive with their “kit” in a garbage bag; sports equipment like soccer- and basketballs; art supplies for a STAR arts session.
 
– $50.00 enables CLK to purchase: 2 new canoe paddles (all kids learn how to canoe at camp); out-tripping park fees for kids who go long-distance canoeing and camping for the first time in their lives; kitchen equipment for after-school cooking lessons led by people like our daughters, Colleen and Mairi.
 
– $100 purchases: hockey safety equipment (so expensive!); a uniform and supplies for a little girl just starting out in Martial Arts.
 
– $200 leads to: a new mountain bike for the summer camp; supplies and food for a weekend get-away camp for inner-city kids, organized by people like our son, Liam.
This year, my personal goal remains $2000 and as a group, the 14 trekkers will try to pass the $30,000 mark. We need your help to make this a reality and you can do so today by contributing on my Canada Helps Page here.
this is what my Canada Helps Page looks like now – I hope to see this donation amount change starting today!
If you are interested in coming with us we can still take more climbers. here is the booking form – if you fill it in and return it to Karlie Reinberger at Merit Travel we will put you on our waiting list. Once we have four people on the wait list we will open up new spots.
If you want to read more about the trek, there is a great article here – Tour de Mont Blanc.

This is what the Tour de Mont Blanc looks like – want to join us?

Just like last year, we will have fundraisers in March and May – these are great opportunities to get out and support a really important social enterprise.
I hope you will support me again this year. Any contribution is truly appreciated and your donation really encourages others to help out.
We can make a difference in the lives of young people. If you make a contribution you are doing something really positive that certainly will have a direct impact on the lives of others – what a great, positive way to start the new year!
I wish you all a wonderful new year and thank you for your important support for Christie Lake Kids!
Paul McGuire

a small postscript, this post came out yesterday and the first donation – anonymous – for $100 came in today – a great start!

CLK What your donation can do