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

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

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

Public Schools in Ontario: Myth and Reality

There are a series of articles and opinion pieces this week in the Globe and Mail by Caroline Alphonso and Konrad Yakabuski.

The articles started with this statement:

Catholic school boards in Ontario are increasingly enrolling non-Catholic children and siphoning elementary students from the public stream as the two systems vie for provincial funding, a Globe and Mail analysis has found.

The series continues today with an opinion piece by Konrad Yakabuski. In continuing the debate, he calls for arguments based on fact, not the empty pronouncements that usually characterize these conversations in Ontario. Some of the questions he asks need to be addressed. He writes that Catholic schools tend to do better on EQAO tests and wonders why this might be happening:

…is it because parents who send their children to Catholic Schools are more engaged in their children’s education? Is it the combination of more discipline and the community spirit that Catholic schools purport to provide that persuades parents that their kids can develop more fully in the Catholic system? Are Catholic teachers better trained or more dedicated than their public counterparts?

Globe and Mail February 15, 2018

It is fair to ask all these questions. It is also true that the publically-funded Catholic system is siphoning off students from public schools. However, I don’t think it is because Catholic schools are any better than their public school counterparts. Many in Catholic school management would have you believe that and have said this for years, but it really comes down to the individual school, not the overall system.

My partner is a public school teacher. She has taught grade 7/8 for seventeen years in a very challenging neighbourhood. Most of my best ideas on character education, discipline and school improvement have actually come from her school. Her school is excellent, it has dedicated teachers, solid connections to the community and a reputation for innovative programming.

I have to say that in my years as an administrator, I took many of their ideas because they are a real centre of excellence.

These centres exist throughout the province. Sometimes the determining factor is the school leadership. Often it has to do with a strong core of committed teachers. It also has to do with socioeconomic factors. I have to say that after 31 years working in the Catholic system it has little to do with a generalized system of belief.

I say that because it is really hard to define what a true Catholic is and why a Catholic is in any way ‘better’ at doing things than a non-Catholic. There is something very unsettling about holding such an opinion. It lacks any sort of critical analysis and tends to enter into the realm of myth – we are just better.

Teachers in both systems are trained by the province. Higher test scores have much more to do with socioeconomic factors that all school boards struggle to deal with. Discipline comes down to the collective efforts of teachers and administration.

When debating about school systems in Ontario we need to keep away from dearly-held myths. We need to stay in the real world. As long as there are competing systems in Ontario based on language and religion, schools boards will continue to siphon off students from competing boards and school boards will continue to spend millions on marketing.

Maybe this is OK. Maybe competition encourages school boards to try harder?

It is great that the Globe and Mail is leading this debate and that they are dedicated to basing it on the facts. Maybe their efforts will provoke a more extensive conversation in the political realm and this will become an issue in the upcoming election.

Education and how it is governed is one of the most important public issues in this province. It deserves an intelligent conversation, well beyond the realm of myth. Let’s discuss these issues, let’s all get involved in the conversation.

The Education Corporation

For me, one of the most interesting books has been The Corporation. I read it years ago and it still sticks with me. The Youtube version of chapter one gives a good summary of some of the main ideas behind the book. A synopsis of the book includes the following:

One hundred and fifty years ago, the corporation was a relatively insignificant entity. Today, it is a vivid, dramatic and pervasive presence in all our lives. Like the Church, the Monarchy and the Communist Party in other times and places, the corporation is today’s dominant institution.

The Corporation website

This is a really interesting study and I have thought for a long time that its analysis needs to go beyond businesses and should be extended to the traditional school system.

It is interesting when you take a look at their website that they are working hard to get their film into 1000 schools. I think it should be shown in schools, it is a great social commentary on how our society is currently structured.

Will any educator make the connection that apart from the pursuit of profit, there is little that separates the modern corporation from the traditional school board?

Probably not. We like to judge corporations as somehow a bit impure because they are motivated by profit and the wishes of their stockholders. I would argue that traditional school boards are motivated very much the same way as the corporation. It is simpler to call school boards what they are – education corporations.

The main motivator for the corporation is always to act in its own interests, to ensure its own survival. All actions are then justified because the corporation answers only to its shareholders.

The education corporation is in some ways worse – it likes to believe that it serves a higher purpose. This is especially true for Catholic school boards in Ontario where I live. Somehow saying that you are a Catholic school board gives license to all sorts of hypocritical actions.

Can we say we apply these great principles to the people who work in our schools?

Education corporations can be just as cruel and unfeeling as any modern-day corporation. It is very easy to find examples where people in powerful positions have treated others with less power in truly shameful ways. Generally speaking, the people who are being cruel justify their actions in the only way that makes sense to them – what they do they do in the best interests of the school board. They may give other justifications, but it comes down to their need to demand compliance and stay in power.

Unlike the business corporation, however, the education corporation does not answer to anyone. It could be said that there are public trustees who can call them to account, but at least in Ontario, trustees are underpaid officials who are totally captured by the senior staff that they depend on for information. They do not have the time or the resources to act as a counterbalance to superintendents and directors who really hold the power in the education corporation.

This allows for all sorts of abuse to happen. At the school level, poor administrators are simply moved to a new and sometimes bigger school when their actions become intolerable to a local community of teachers and parents. At the school board level, when senior administrators act poorly, there is no consequence, they are free to act with impunity.

There is the beginning of a climate change in our society. Only a few months ago it was acceptable for men (mainly) to use their power to oppress and abuse the women who worked for them. This bevaviour is no longer acceptable and this is a very good thing.

Will we ever get to a point in our society when those who abuse their power in other ways will be called to account? I hope so. Abuse of power in any form for any reason should always be seen as unacceptable.

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!

Teaching as Resisting

There once was a note
Pure and easy
Playing so free, like a breath rippling by

Pure and Easy, The Who

What’s wrong with this picture?

I saw this photo on Twitter today and it made me wonder – what has happened to the art and gift of teaching? When did we forget that one of the roles of the teacher should be to resist the dominant culture of the day?

I read Neil Postman’s Teaching as a Conserving Activity while I was in teacher’s college. There are all sorts of interpretations of this book, but one thing that I took away from this was that educators need to stand in resistance to the dominant ideology. At the very least, we should question the status quo.

Is this still true? Was this ever true? Are we instead here to support the dominant culture and as in the case above, support a political leader who has a very questionable opinion of public education (think Betsy DeVos).

Why are we now afraid to be critics of the system? I have read so often how teachers are satisfied to ‘innovate’ in their own classroom and leave the big questions to others.

Some may say – easy for you  – you are retired now, but there have been times when I questioned the status quo while being actively involved in the education system.

Many years ago, as head of student services at a suburban high school, I was quoted in the city newspaper saying that the schools were the source of drugs for teenagers. Everyone knew this was true, we even knew who the dealers were. I probably should have kept my mouth shut but as a counsellor I saw on a daily basis the negative impact drugs were having on our students. At the time, we as a school board were doing nothing to combat the problem.

The day the article came out the wrath of the school board descended on me. My superintendent was furious and demanded to know if I had been misquoted. I had to explain, no these were my exact words. This did not go over very well with anyone at the school board. The issue of the ravaging impact of drugs on our youth was not something that entered the conversation.

Years later, I was again admonished for being critical of the Canadian Catholic Bishops. I was actually agreeing with a letter that was critical of some stand they were taking (or more likely not taking).

My post had been found on a Facebook Page that had no connection to our school board. A very conservative pressure group found the post and was trying to use it to embarrass the Catholic school board. Again, and not for the last time, I found myself in huge trouble for speaking my mind. The issue of the Canadian Bishops’ lack of leadership in commenting on social injustice was again not part of the discussion.

I bring up these stories in this post not to brag about being a ‘resistor’ but to make the point that I believe it is the role of educators to speak the truth and that in doing so they should not find themselves in the institutional ‘doghouse’.

All educators know they need to keep their opinions to themselves. Resistance and even criticism can be seen as dangerous and even a career stopper.

Is it that we don’t want to offend? Is it that it is seen as our job not to criticize the system? Is it that we simply do not have political opinions?

I really don’t know. I do think we have relegated an important role to others in society.

I don’t think this is good for education and I am sure it is not a sign of a healthy democracy. All I can say now is that in retrospect I am glad I got in trouble and I  hope I would do it again.

Those in the upper echelons of the education system should take pause and consider the importance of resistance as a key role for the educator.

 

 

What are the Key Arguments that keep Ontario Catholic Schools Going?

Are religion and politics really topics that lead to discord and bad blogging? That is hard to say, but it is interesting to read what people say about public schools in Ontario. These are not new arguments, but are these the key points in the debate? Can we take this to a higher level? I have been monitoring a healthy debate on my Facebook page and some key points are coming out. I won’t copy all the comments here, but some of what has been written illustrate some key points in the debate.
I will comment on most of these points, but I don’t profess to have any definitive answers. The debate is sure to continue.

The only way it could save money is to close one system and not educate the kids who are in that system. Funding is on a per pupil basis so the funding would remain the same. It would cost millions extra to do all the administrative changes. So spend millions to save nothing?

 I don’t think this should exclusively be a debate about dollars, but I believe there is a case for rationalizing systems. Here in Ottawa, we have already amalgamated our transportation system and we share resources when it comes to serving some of our neediest students along with the Children’s Hospital of Ontario and the public board. However, we operate parallel systems when it comes to upper management and trustees.
It’s not always about money. There is a message being sent that we are a society divided on religious differences. That message needs to end.
We have to see the truth in this statement. This is a secular society. We are trying to become a more inclusive society in a world that seems to be growing in intolerance for the other. How then can we justify funding a system that keeps us separate as a society?
And it can be about the money… let’s take Stratford as an example. There are 2 public high schools and one Catholic high school. The student population dictates the need for 2 schools. The public board cannot accommodate all its students in one school. If there was only 1 school board, money could be saved by closing one school.
Back to economics. Some schools could be closed if there was one public board. There are many examples now, especially in rural areas of the province where it is no longer feasible to fund schools for more than one system. In my neighbourhood, there are two schools both at 30% capacity – how can we justify this expense?
Parents want choice. Amalgamating boards panders to the lowest common denominator. In Ottawa the public school board has been mismanaged, schools are being closed, kids bused long distances to other schools… Poor management on the part of the public board.
This is the worst type of argument for Catholic schools, but I have heard this for years. There is an underlying bias within the Catholic school system that these schools are simply ‘better’. Somehow, the Catholic system was better managed. I don’t see this. I have been an administrator in the Catholic system and have seen many examples of very poor management. Both systems have their faults. To say that one is inherently better managed than the other shows an embarrassing bias and should not be part of this debate.
Catholic education is protected by the Constitution. We have fought for 150 years for the right to have our schools. We built our own schools, funded them, paid our own teachers, paid to have our students attend, and on top of that, paid public school taxes too. We are not better, just smarter, perhaps because Catholic education was just so important to us. 
The Constitution argument will also not hold water. You can go back to 1791 to find protections for Catholic minorities. Things change a great deal over 200 years. Policies enacted centuries ago do not necessarily have any bearing on what goes on in our society today. Special provisions protecting a Catholic system were designed to sustain minorities in pre-Confederation societies. If we follow along with this logic, we would need to protect a whole host of minorities that did not exist in 1791 or 1867.
Such an important issue to learn and talk about. It is time to look away from the past – what was owed/what used to happen – and look at our schools right now. There is no longer a need for any type of publicly-funded, denominational school. Catholics, formally named, are in decline; active, practicing Catholics even fewer. Our money and our energy should be directed at giving the best, equitable education to all children.
I think this comment speaks for itself.
The conversation is coming to an election soon….. as soon as a party sees it as a winning strategy, they will buy in. I teach in the Catholic system and it has been a positive part of my life for many years – but I have always feared that the end of the system would come from within and not from the outside. Building walls and presenting a message that is not inclusive and welcoming could spell the end….
This is an important point. Every year we witness another story where Catholic schools fail to be inclusive. The most recent example is happening right now in Niagara where Catholic schools are canceling a play designed for elementary students because it explores issues surrounding gender identity. (Niagara Catholic schools nixed play on gender for being ‘not age-appropriate’)

The Silent Topic: Time to Merge School Boards in Ontario?

I listened to a great noon-time discussion on CBC Radio Ottawa on the merger of school boards in Ontario.

Currently, in Ottawa we have four different, publically funded school boards. Two are Catholic, two are public. The origins of this system goes back to 1759 and 1867. The question was brought up during the program why we need to have a system that allows for a faith-based school system?

Originally in Ontario, all education was based on faith. There were Protestant and Catholic school systems. Over time, the Protestant system became public and non-denominational.  I would argue that the same process is happening in the Catholic system that is gradually losing its Catholic character.

Catholic schools now admit students of all faiths – something that I have seen as a very positive step. However, Catholic schools are still allowed to discriminate against teachers who must be Catholic to get a permanent job in this system.

David King, a former Alberta minister of education was the guest during the afternoon show. He made the strong argument that Catholic schools were no longer necessary as the Catholic minority is no longer in a position where their identity is threatened. As I have mentioned in earlier posts, decisions made in 1791, 1846 or 1967 should not guide policy in the 21st Century.

It was interesting to listen to some of the callers during the program. The argument was made by some that Catholics have a right to be taught in a Catholic atmosphere. I am not sure anymore why one group has a special right to an education based on their particular faith. In a secular society, we need to consider how we can combine the strengths of all systems to develop a unified strong public system that caters equally to all families.

In the last school I worked at as a principal, very few students were Catholic. We prided ourselves in being inclusive to all cultures and faiths. We worked hard to support families new to the country. At the same time, another school, also excellent in our neighbourhood supports the same population. Both schools are at approximately at 30% capacity. Why not bring the resources of both schools together to better serve the community?

I hope we in Ontario will have the courage to take on this debate. Public education dollars are scarce, and we have a responsibility to offer our children the best education possible. How are we doing this when so many services in education – especially at the management level are redundant?

Why does this remain – apart from the CBC – the silent topic in Ontario?

 

Should we still have School Boards? A Public Challenge

In today’s education system, in which budgets, curriculum and teaching credentials are handled at the provincial level, school boards are an an anachronism and have few substantive responsibilities. Most of what they do could be transferred to individual school principals, parents’ committees or the province.

Konrad Yakabuski, Globe and Mail, Monday, April 24. The Jig is up for Canada’s school boards

Truer words could not be spoken when it comes to the archaic governance system that controls education in Ontario and I would guess, the rest of the country.

I have worked in the Catholic School system in Ontario as a teacher and administrator for 31 years. I have learned a great deal over these years, but one thing I am now clear on is that we need to totally rework  the governance of schools in Ontario.

The system we have now have is governed by trustees who have little public accountability and in the Catholic system, church leaders who have absolutely no role to play in our children’s education.

Let me be very clear. I worked in this system for 31 years. I also worked at a management level at a Catholic development agency for 6 years. I understand what it is like to work inside Catholic institutions. I understand how they are not agents for innovation and change and should therefore  play no role in the education system.

Yakabuski does not address the urgent need to get rid of the  Catholic School Boards of Ontario. He rightfully goes further and calls for the abolishment of all boards. I believe that one of the greatest impediments to quality education in this province is the needless splitting up of resources between Catholic and Public Boards. This is certainly a taboo subject in Ontario, incredibly taboo, but it must be addressed in a very public forum.

We have schools in the Ottawa area that are at 30% capacity. The two lowest capacity schools are located within 2 kilometres from each other. How is this useful, how does this serve the public?

I have lots of friends in the Catholic system, it has been my home for 31 years. But if we believe in true excellence and the best for our children we really do have to sweep away some of the debilitating bureaucracy that gets in the way. There are other sacred cows that also must fall in Ontario, but better to go one at a time.