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.

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.

Freeing the Minds of School Administrators

OK, today I admit I am entering the world of fantasy posts, but I am still going to give this a try.

We have seen lots of Twitter traffic and great blog posts in the last two weeks about how educators are stifled in what they can write on social media by school boards who do not want to read dissenting opinions from their employees.

The best posts are coming from Andrew Campbell. This post is great

So, we know what the problem is – the overarching authority of school board bureaucrats and senior admin to stifle all thoughtful opinion but their own. But is there a solution?

Only if you live in the world of fantasy!

I think this is really an issue of governance. Education in Ontario is really controlled by a small number of senior administrators who are in no way overseen by anyone else in the province. Yes, there are lots of ministry directives, but there is no oversight on the overbearing behavior of board admin.

I write board admin because I don’t mean school administrators – principals and vice-principals.

These are the people who have trained for years to become administrators and put everything on the line every day to keep things going in their schools. It is a tough job and there is little or no support for the hard work that they do. There is also little protection given to them in they run into conflict with parents and even worse, board officials.

Many believe that they are agents of their school board first and that the decisions made by the board, decisions they have no say in, must be supported without question.

This is the incredible thing. School administrators are seldom asked for their opinion about how things should be done at a district level. These decisions are made by superintendents and program coordinators who have little connection to the schools they oversee.

School administrators need to have a voice. They need to be consulted in a meaningful way and they need to know that if they speak out they will be protected by a higher authority than their own school board.

If this were to happen we might actually read some interesting and useful comments on how schools can become more effective. Right now, the best we can expect from a school administrator on Twitter is cheerleading – the useless tweets that are designed to make the school look good without conveying any useful information.

So, again firmly in fantasy land, this is my solution. Free up school administrators from the heavy drag of district officials. Let them speak on the record so we can hear from a very effective group of front-line workers who may actually have some ideas on how to bring about effective change to our schools.

This shouldn’t be a fantasy.

 

 

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.