Some Suggestions and more responses on what to do with Education in Ontario – a rolling blog

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This image has been updated from July 7th. This wordl includes some of the key words in the 148 responses to our survey.

This past week a very interesting article was published in the Hamilton Spectator by a retired teacher, Ken Durkacz –  An open letter to Premier Ford on education

So, I have to say I find all of his suggestions appealing and it would be interesting to see what others think. Here are the author’s main ideas, I will paraphrase, but you can click on the link above to get the details:

1. Eliminate standardized testing. It would save tens of millions per year, which could be reinvested.

2. Move to one publicly funded school system. It would save millions in the duplication of services.

3. If you must cut from boards, cut from the top. There is a widespread feeling among front-line workers in schools that boards are bloated with people in positions that have little to nothing to do with the day to day education of students.

4. Reintroduce principals and vice-principals back into teacher unions.

We tried to survey people interested in issues during the election and it did work a little. You can read how people responded to an open-ended survey I wrote here. Thanks to Google, the 44 responses to the survey are summarized here. If you ignore the obvious overrepresentation on Regulation 274, there is no clear consensus on what the major issue in Ontario education is. So, I think Dan is heading in the right direction by making some very practical suggestions on how to improve education in this province. People who took the survey certainly echoed what he wrote.

Rather than giving my opinion on what might be the most popular ideas, let’s open this up to others who have an interest in public policy and education in particular.

Here are some ideas:

  • a survey (who doesn’t like a good survey) on what are the best ideas to pass on to Mr. Ford
  • a series of podcasts on some of the key ideas in the article. We will take care of that using our series – First Hand Stories on VoicEd Radio.
  • (a postscript – here is the first of our podcasts  and here is our second podcast
  • our third is here
  • a summer panel discussion – what are the key ideas that the new government should be considered in education? I think this would be a great discussion for VoicEd Radio. Maybe one episode per idea?

Summer is a great time for wondering about new ideas and initiatives. Maybe the new Minister of Education, Lisa Thompson could be a special guest on one of these shows? I will certainly share the survey with her.

We will start with number 1 – a survey for all of you. How would you rank the four suggestions? Do you have your own suggestion? Let’s see if we can generate some interest in education issues here in Ontario for the summer.

Postscript:

After 59 responses in less than a day, the results can be seen here

It is a little hard to interpret the results except to say all four issues seems to be important to respondents. What is most interesting so far are the comments at the end of the survey.

It is unfortunate that most are dominated by the Regulation 274 robots. This is to be expected, but what is a bit disappointing is that other educators in the Twittersphere are not all that willing to enter the debate, retweet or even like this discussion. I do hope this changes, the debate on the future of education deserves to be joined by more education opinion-makers.

We have completed our first podcast on our response to the article – you can listen here

A follow-up podcast is now out here

Our third in the series is here

Facilitating Student Voice in the Classroom

 

finishing a podcasting session with Heather Swail’s Grade 7-8 class

I started out today watching a conversation between Sarah Huckabee Sanders and the Washington press corps. I shouldn’t really call it a conversation. The reporters asked on three separate occasions about the current US policy on separating children from their parents when they cross the border. There was no response, just a lot of avoidance and some pretty insulting retorts.

Nothing was resolved, no questions were answered, no problem was even acknowledged. Both sides scored points, but an injustice is still being done.

In contrast, I have spent the last week listening to grade 7-8 students talk about social justice. What a difference!

I  got involved at the end of a month-long process that saw students choose a social justice issue, research the issue, debate the issue with peers then finally develop a persuasive piece that they then blogged about.

Their blog posts are all attached to their teacher Heather Swail’s blog and can be found here.

I really encourage you to read a few of these great pieces. The topics range from residential schools in Canada to water issues in South Africa, child labour, gun violence and racial profiling.

Little did I know that Residential schools were a lot deeper of an issue than just boarding schools that were wrongful to a misjudged people. They literally destroyed Indigenous culture for generations to come, and what really surprised me was that even after everything we did them, Indigenous people are still being treated unfairly today.

excerpt from student blog Residential Schools Revisited

All the posts are well-considered and intelligent. What makes the real difference is that this was a facilitated process. Students did not simply strike off on an issue, they had to go through a deliberate process with identifiable steps.

This is a well-known process that starts with the head moves to the heart and finishes with the hands. What is the issue, how does it make you feel, what are you going to do about it? A version of Heather’s methodology can be found here.

We took one final step by doing a series of five podcasts where the students talked about their issues. You can hear one of these podcasts here more will be coming out on VoicEd Radio soon.

It is at times like these that I really wish I was back in the classroom! My visits to Room 201 and to the student blog posts were a refreshing break from the media wars that are going on everywhere right now. Well considered opinion, well expressed, backed by evidence and part of an intelligent thought process.

When I see the faces of these children and when I read their words, I do think there is hope for the future. When students learn how to think, research and write well thought out pieces I know there is still room for intelligent debate and discussion.

My hope for all of these students is that they carry these valuable lessons into the future.

 

 

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.

What Brings you Joy?

Driving back from Montreal on a beautiful afternoon. What brings you Joy?

It is important to always reflect on what brings you Joy. This was a particularly challenging work week, we all have them and these are the times to reflect on the positive. This may sound a bit trite, but that is how things need to go. Staying mired in the negativity engendered by some organizations doesn’t help you at all.

Look for the things in your work and life that give you joy. For me, this was a particularly wonderful interview we did for a radio broadcast we do on a regular basis. The show is called First Hand Stories and this interview was done with Chris Nihmey, a mental health advocate here in Ottawa.

Chris has an important message for all of us and he displays the courage to talk about his story to school children and the general public whenever he can. Radio is a great way to communicate ideas, sometimes stilted by email, Twitter, blogs and Facebook. It is a great creative endeavour that brings lots of joy. Our time with Chris was magical and we feel so privileged to have had some time with him to discuss such an important topic.

Here is the interview.

If you want to learn more about the work Chris is doing, you can check out his website here.

The interview is a very small part of the wonderful burst of creativity that comes out daily from Voiced Radio. I have written about Stephen Hurley and the wonderful collection of broadcasters he continues to collect under his banner. Stephen really has something going. He really gets Joy. We are totally dedicated to Voiced Radio, not just because it is an incredibly creative project, but because it is always such a positive experience.

There is no bureaucratic malaise here, no negativity, no limiting hand that slaps you down, just a positive creative pulse that sustains and provides inspiration.

What brings Joy?

Working with accepting people who appreciate your work and the time devoted to creative projects.

There are so many other organizations that really could learn a lesson from this. Do those you work with create Joy?

A photo with Chris Nihmey after our First Hand Stories interview.

 

The Stigma Surrounding Mental Health in the World of Education

There is a stigma attached to posts on mental health. People are afraid to deal with mental health issues. On Twitter, there will be lots of ‘likes’ and maybe a few retweets, but seldom is there anything else.

So I don’t expend much attention will be paid to this post – too bad.

The stigma surrounding mental illness is a big problem especially for principals and superintendents who actually witness many people suffering from mental health issues – teachers, students, parents. They have no training in this area and I think, tend to be less than empathetic. As a principal, I know we seldom discussed these topics and any form of distress was easily seen as a sign of weakness.

As a principal, I had an advantage. I have first-hand experience of the impact mental illness can have on an individual. I also had nine years of experience working as a guidance counsellor before I became an administrator. I easily saw more people in distress as an administrator than I ever saw as a counsellor. At least I knew what these people were going through. Most administrators do not and that is not a good situation.

I witnessed this deficit at all levels of senior administration with one notable exception.

The work being done in the  campaign is really important and I am looking forward to participating in the #Ontedchat twitter chat next Wednesday, January 24th, at 8:30 PM. This would also be a great topic for a Voiced Radio podcast!

I hope other people, the people who are in positions of responsibility listen to this podcast – they really should. The stigma surrounding mental illness needs to disappear. The fear needs to disappear. People need to step up and do much more to support those who suffer.

The Proust Questionnaire for Educators

Last night we tried something a little different for our Voiced Radio broadcast – First Hand Stories. Heather had the idea of doing the Proust Questionnaire for educators. You may have heard of the Proust Questionnaire on CBC Radio. The real questions are below and are certainly more meaningful and weighty than ours. But, our last broadcast was a bit heavy so we wanted to do something light.

The idea behind the original questionnaire was to reveal your true nature. Could our edition reveal the true nature of the educator? I’m not sure, but I have included our 15-minute broadcast below so you can decide.

Our Proust Questionnaire for Educators 
  1. Indoor or outdoor duty
  2. Keurig or drip coffee maker
  3. Online or paper assessments
  4. Whole summer or stretched out in increments
  5. Mr. D – funny or not funny?
  6. Hockey or soccer?
  7. Blogging or podcasting?
  8. Bluegrass or jazz?
  9. Staff meetings in the morning or after school?
  10. Favourite month of the school year?
  11. If you were a school mascot what would you be?
  12. Muffins or doughnuts at a staff meeting?
  13. What superhero would make the best teacher?
  14. Snow days – good or bad?

If you want to see the originals you can see them here.

31 Days of Posting – So, How’s it Going?

So, how is it going?

I wrote a few days ago that I was going to post 31 times, probably in 31 days, but I was a bit vague about that.

I figured the posts would be all be about Discovery Education, and I can do that, there is so much to write about. But why limit oneself, there is so much to talk and write about.

Let’s see how things are going so far on January 5th and look into the near future for some inspiration.

I started out OK with a post to this blog and to my Discovery Education blog – 31 Days of Posting – This Time all about Discovery Education – so I don’t know if there is an arbiter for things like this, but does this count for two?

Right now I need to say this post has nothing to do with boasting, the chances of me getting all 31 posts done are not great. This is sort of a public declaration that can act as a bit of a motivator or maybe even a prompt for further posts.

Glad we got that out of the way!

I have been able to get one post off about the Social Studies Techbook by Discovery Education and STEM Connect, a new initiative by Discovery. These were fun to do because I am learning something, actually learning and writing at the same time.

I was able to get one more post in all about yoga – a deeply personal post about exploring my deeper side. The illustration below gives you some sense of the tone on that one.

So, I’m stalling now, I don’t think I have made the grade. Today is January 5th and even if I count this one I think I am a tad short. The judgement is in, no you can’t count double posting as two separate posts.

So, maybe I can make it up to you. What can I do for the rest of the month?

I would love to write a post for my friends at Innovate My School. These are lovely people and I really like them. They are always so encouraging and that means the world to someone who plugs away at writing.

I can write something for Voiced Radio. These folks, very much like Innovate My School are my muse simply by being positive and encouraging.

I will certainly continue to write about Discovery Education for the same reasons. These people are creative, positive and empowering – how could I not write for them?

There are other topics I want to look at in January. My partner sent me an article called The Power of Apology published in Psychology Today. I want to read this and write about this topic. It is really important and this is something I have been thinking about for a long time. More later, I hope.

Other topics are bound to come up. Writing about photography would be interesting as I have so much to learn on how to really take good pictures – this is something I aspire to do better at.

taking photos is a wonderfully creative process, I want to learn more about how to do this well

The best thing about pushing yourself to write is that you never know what you will come up with but everything takes on a special note because there may be something to write about.

Writing is a gift and I have a whole community of people who appreciate what I do. You are all my muse and ultimately during this challenge, I write for you.

What Do We Really Value in Education?

Sometimes the hardest questions in education get danced around and never answered.

Like all institutions, the education system is imperfect and the biggest problems never really get looked at. Right now in Ontario, there is a very worthwhile consultation taking place on assessment. Voiced Radio and other commentators are doing an excellent job at promoting and participating in this on-going discussion. This is really good news.

We look at portions of the system because we can’t look at the whole thing.

Recently I have listened to former colleagues talk about the situations in their schools. These conversations are not uncommon and they make up the ‘war stories’ that all educators share.

While we despair when we hear about poor and sometimes unethical management in our schools, nothing is ever done about these situations. We never ask the question – what do we really value in education? If we really asked this uncomfortable question would we continue to protect adults who clearly have no idea how to manage schools and the people in them?

There are a whole set of rules, conventions and practices that exist to protect individuals, especially those in privileged positions of power in the education system. A huge amount of energy is put into sustaining these rules and conventions.

Not everyone deserves this type of misguided practice. When we protect these people, we certainly put students, staff and parents in the back seat.

Our lack of action displays a lack of concern for the people we are supposed to serve. Maybe we think incompetence is OK, or maybe it is just too hard to swim against the bureaucratic tide that protects those who are simply not up to the job.

The best we can say is ‘wait them out’. But what does this do to the mental strain staff members have to put up with every day? If we really want to take mental health seriously in our schools we really need to get our own house in order and call to task those individuals who are really not up to the responsibility of properly managing a school.

I write out of anger and frustration about what I hear. It is very frustrating that some school administrators are allowed to act with impunity, secure in the knowledge that their authority will not be questioned and that they will always be supported by school board staff who really do not want to rock the boat.

Our students, staff and parents deserve better. We will never have an excellent system while we continue to look the other way and support poor governance of some of our schools.

Good for Ontario to take on the EQAO while elephant, but let’s broaden our scope and take a really serious look at how our schools are managed.

Conversations on Assessment in Ontario – Should We Start Again?

By Graeme MacKay, The Hamilton Spectator – Tuesday, September 3, 2013

So, we are finally talking about EQAO and possibly how we can do better.

Last week we started some interesting conversations on Voiced Radio spurred on by the call to get involved in the provincial consultation on assessment. The first conversation was a great panel discussion and you can listen to it here.

Next, Derek Rhodenizer added to the conversation with another podcast on Sunday Night. Because of the varied nature of this conversation I have been really interested in following the evolving discussions. These are really useful broadcasts. A good panel discussion captures so much. Real radio makes a big difference.

Twitter does too. I have Storified a portion of the conversation using the hashtag #ontedassessment. You can see the conversation here.

While it is not part of the mandate to get rid of EQAO, I am most interested in comments like the one above. While we may want to discuss how we can arrange the provincial deck chairs on the Titanic, I like the comments that challenge the entire testing system.

Andrew Campbell may have said it best when he suggested we look at the reality of EQAO’s role in our education system:

EQAO isn’t an assessment tool. It’s an accountability tool.

People have used some interesting words and phrases over the past week – ancient, industrial era, what EQAO doesn’t know, invasive, ranking, wicked problem. Pretty strong words for a test we are not even considering getting rid of!

The Twitter conversation is really worth reading through. It is impossible to summarize here but there are is a great deal to consider.

One theme has to do with diverting some of the vast resources assigned to EQAO into teacher research:

This point has been made very well over the past few weeks. While we do get a static report on how the student has done, we only get the results the following year. How does this actually do anything useful? How do students and teachers learn anything from results that take months to get back to the school?

The tweet above speaks volumes to me. I think we are sowing a huge amount of distrust in the province. The test discriminates against poor schools, ELL learners, students in the Far North. It pits urban schools against suburban schools. It gives some schools a false sense of security while it blames others.

Why not start over? Why not do as Lynne Hollingshead suggests?

Let’s be a global leader, let’s begin again.

 

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!