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.

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People Respond: Education Issues in the Ontario 2018 Election

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Twitter there are more comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!

Poor Math Scores – Should We Really Blame the Teacher?

I am listening to a rebroadcast of a CBC Ottawa interview on the Ontario Math curriculum with Mary Reid from OISE. This is one of a series of interviews and articles seeking to understand why students, especially in elementary school, are doing so poorly in math. You can hear the full interview here.

The interview was really nothing new until around the 5-minute mark when Mary Reid makes the classic argument that I always find misses the mark. At this point, Dr Reid dismisses any problem with EQAO and squarely puts the blame on teachers and their training for low math scores in Ontario.

Teachers, she says are not ready for inquiry-based learning. Teachers have high anxiety and low content knowledge when it comes to the inquiry approach. Professional development takes a ‘one size fits all approach’ whatever that means. So, because of the teacher’s high anxiety levels, we are failing at the inquiry-based approach.

These ‘highly anxious’ math teachers then pass this anxiety on to their students.

Then the argument takes on a bizarre note – research shows, according to Dr Reid that it really is the female teachers who are to blame. Female teachers especially pass on this anxiety to their female students, not the male students. This is what the ‘research’ shows. How do you even test for that?

We have been doing inquiry-based math in Ontario for a long time. Over the years, math results in grade 3 and 6 EQAO tests have steadily gone down. During this same period of time, teachers have been continually blamed for not being strong and skilled enough to effectively teach math.

The human factor always comes out – if you are really skilled and somehow ‘get’ the inquiry approach, your kids will do well. If not, your kids will do poorly. I only thank my lucky stars that I never had to teach math in such a poisoned atmosphere. How do elementary teachers do this when they are continually blamed by OISE professors and senior administrators for failing their students?

Why do we not look at the tests? Why do we not examine the curriculum or the inquiry approach?

As long as we see our teachers as lacking something we will continue to have problems when it comes to the math curriculum. It is now time to stop this fruitless blaming and look critically at EQAO and the curriculum.

We certainly need to look at how we assess learning in our schools. Today in the Globe and Mail, Sir Ken Robinson was interviewed and came much closer to a true assessment of our current system.

We need to recognize that children have a huge range of natural abilities and they all have them differently. Our education systems are designed to focus on a small band of those. If you have a narrow conception of ability, you end up with a very big conception of disability.

Sir Ken Robinson, Globe & Mail, September 8, 2017

The sooner we take a really creative approach to how we do education in Ontario the sooner we will be able to liberate our teachers and students to learn, live and grow in our schools. We really need to learn to stop blaming our frontline educators and move on to something much better.

 

School Boards in Ontario – Rethinking Governance in Education

Egerton Ryerson, education reformer from Ontario’s past

I think there is lots to write about on the topic of governance in education in Ontario. Recently, the Globe and Mail has tackled this topic, questioning the need for elected boards. It is a really good read and asks important questions on how we organize education in Canada.

The topic has been covered several times by Sheila Stewart in her blog. Her posts are very thought provoking and are important to read if we are interested in this topic. She rightly notes that this is a complex issue with no easy solutions:

There has been a fair bit of discussion about the role and relevancy of education trustees in Ontario lately.  There are many questions, if not confusion, about their role and purpose.  The topic can get quite complex and it is not an easy discussion.  I suspect there is something unique about the culture of every single board of trustees that is in place at each of Ontario’s 72 school boards.  I don’t know the answers regarding what they should be doing, or if they should exist or not.  How can an unbiased discussion about alternatives occur? How can the discussion be kept to be about the role, and not personalities and politics?

The trustee – parent connection in #onted

 

I think we all should be interested in how our education system is organized. We have a system that has been in place going back to the 19th century. Local control of education was established as far back as 1816. Much of our current governance structure hails from this time. The 1816 legislation was, at the time a boon to a growing community. It provided for local control and the appointment of trustees:

The law provided that the people of any village, town, or township might meet together and arrange to establish one or more schools, at each of which the attendance must be not less than twenty. Three suitable trustees were to be chosen to conduct the school, appoint teachers, and select textbooks from a list prescribed by a District Board of Education.

Egerton Ryerson and Education in Upper Canada, Putman, John Harold (1866-1940)

If you follow the story of education in Ontario the name Egerton Ryerson will come up. In 1846, he reorganized the system of education in Ontario, establishing District Superintendents, Normal Schools (later teacher colleges), property taxes for the support of schools, standards for texts and a whole host of regulations establishing a system of education in the new province.

The last review of education governance took place in 2009. It’s a little shocking when you look at the people who were responsible for this review. All were trustees, former school board directors or university professors. From what I can see, this was a group very interested in maintaining the status quo in Ontario. The recommendations from the review do not upset the apple cart, but strongly support the structure first envisioned back in 1846.

Calls for education reform in Ontario and other jurisdictions rarely call for an overall review of governance. Instead, we focus on adjusting teaching methods, exhorting educators to become more ‘connected’ or more innovative within the current box that exists and improving our EQAO scores.

It seems like the greatest call for education reform, especially in Ontario comes in the form of opposition to EQAO. Peter Cameron writes in his post Test Time…stress time?

Perhaps it’s not that teachers need to change; in fact I’d argue that we are always innovating and evolving for the good of our students. Perhaps it’s EQAO that needs to be innovative in how they assess our kids . WHAT IF students could submit ePortfolios, podcasts, videos and screencasts to demonstrate their learning? Better yet, WHAT IF EQAO could send PEOPLE to our schools, to spend time, sitting and listening to our students?

Writing like this is so important – we need educators to challenge a system that seems to have lost its ability to be self critical. I agree with Peter, what would happen, for example, if superintendents became primarily responsible for the success of a small collection of schools and their current ‘busy’ portfolios like ‘student success’ and ‘safe schools’ be turned over to education officials actually trained to deal with these portfolios?

We do not write about what trustees do in the current system apart from vague declarations that education must remain ‘in public hands’. What does that actually mean? Education is highly technical these days. It is unlikely that most trustees even understand what is going on in education. This means they are totally at the mercy of board officials – superintendents and directors that really are not accountable to anyone. These officials have the real power in the system, they can be very good and use their authority responsibly, but there are others who abuse this power and do little to improve the system for our students.

One observation – we have an excellent medical system here in Ontario and no equivalent of local elected boards. How does a system, rooted in reforms over 150 years old actually serve the children in our province? Governance is a topic long overdue for discussion in Ontario.