Tag Archives: Education

The Future of Education in Ontario: G2Echat…So Far

13 Oct

Next Phase

Over the past 3 weeks I’ve been moderating a Saturday morning twitter chat to provide an online forum for Ontarians to participate in “From Great To Excellent“, the Ontario government’s public consultation into education in the province. The consultation challenges Ontarians to consider 7 Questions and give the government feedback on the about the future of education.

The format of the chat is fairly simply. We consider 2 questions each week. After the question is introduced we discuss it for 25 minutes and then participants submit a response to the question, all via the 140-character magic of the tweet box.

After three weeks it felt like it was time to draw some of these discussion together in some sort of format to share with other interested folks. Below are the questions, as posed, and clicking on those questions will take you to a storify of the entire G2Echat on that topic.

My hope is that presenting them this way might cause other to think more deeply about questions, to find their own way to respond to the public consultation or to join us for our final #G2EChat on Saturday October 19th at 9 am. Twitter chats are fun, fast moving and fairly informal, so no need to be shy 🙂

#G2EChat One

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In our first chat we discussed Question 1: “What are the skills, knowledge and characteristics students need to succeed after they have completed school, and how do we better support all learners in their development?” and Question 2: “What does student well-being mean to you, and what is the role of the school in supporting it?”. I clearly had some time on my hands because I separately storified the submission statements to Question 1 and Question 2.

#G2EChat Two

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In our second chat we discussed Question 3: “From your perspective, what further opportunities exist to close gaps and increase equity to support all children and students in reaching their full potential?” and Question 4: “How does the education system need to evolve as a result of changes to child care and the implementation of full-day kindergarten?”. The answers to the questions were separately storified.

#G2EChat 3

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In the first half of our third chat we considered Question 5: “What more can we all do to keep students engaged, foster their curiosity and creativity, and help them develop a love of life-long learning?”.

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We then went on to consider Question 6: “How can we use technology more effectively in teaching and learning?”.

What’s Next?

The final #G2EChat is scheduled for October 19th at 9 am and we will discuss Question 7: “In summary, what are the various opportunities for partnership that can enhance the student experience, and how can they benefit parents, educators and our partners too?” and also take some time to reflect on the consultation process and add any new thoughts to the previous questions. After that the discussions and statement will be submitted to the Ministry for consideration.

It’s been a great experience for me, seeing Ontarians willing to freely give up a portion of the Saturday morning to discuss these questions and contribute. The response to the chats has been fantastic and we’ve had over 200 participants in the first 3 chats in spite of some busy weekends.

I think even a cursory glance at the chat transcripts will show that these are very insightful and thoughtful people who care a lot about education in Ontario. I’m proud to be one of them, and no matter what the future holds education in Ontario is in excellent hands.

#G2EChat Question 1: Recap

29 Sep

On September 28th I invited anyone interested to join me online and participate in the Ministry of Education’s “From Great to Excellent” public consultation process. Over 4 weeks we’ll consider all seven questions, discuss them and prepare something for submission to The Ministry. This is my effort at capturing some of that discussion:

We started our first G2EChat with a restated version of the first question:

The first response identified that learning skills are what students need to be successful, not content knowledge, a thread that was supported throughout the discussion:

We also recognized that there’s a tension between meeting the needs of students now and preparing them for their future:

And that this ‘future’ is increasingly uncertain:

We acknowledged that curriculum needs to support the view that content is really just a vehicle for learning these important learning skills and in Ontario, this change is starting to happen:

But the curriculum needs to continue to evolve to a point where traditional subject divisions are less important than student passion:

After 30 minutes of discussion these were the responses submitted to Question 1.  Here is the complete discussion in its entirety.

Teaching Lessons From The Wire

16 Jul

The Wire may be the greatest TV show of all time. It’s included in most “top five”  lists and  was anointed number one by Entertainment Weekly when they published their list of  The Greatest TV Shows of All Time in June of 2013.

The irony of this popular acclaim isn’t lost on long-time fans of The Wire because for years it seemed that this amazing show was destined to be ignored by most TV viewers. When the show aired (2002-2008 on HBO) it had famously low ratings and despite being critically lauded never won an Emmy award. Creator and “show runner” David Simon attributed this to “…the complexity of the plot; a poor time slot; heavy use of esoteric slang, particularly among the gangster characters; and a predominantly black cast”.

The Wire differs from many TV shows by having a complex, multi-layered plot that makes comment on modern society.  TV critics compare it to the best works of Dickens or Dostoyevsky in the way it uses narrative to explore social problems, especially the problems of urban poor in North America. One of the issues explored at length (mostly in season 4) is the role of schools and the education system in perpetuating many of  these problems.

I’ve watched The Wire multiple times and feel it has a lot to say about education and teaching. Here are five lessons I’ve spotted:

  1. Juking The Stats: One of the themes through all 60 episodes is the how politicians and bureaucrats rely on statistics to justify policy decisions. The Baltimore police department is concerned not with solving crimes, but rather with making sure that crime statistics show they’re doing their job. The emphasis on statistics changes how they approach their job. In season 4 Roland Pryzbylewski, a detective who becomes a teacher (as The Wire co-creator Ed Burns did) discovers that things are much the same in public schools. I’m always a little surprised by how accurate a depiction this scene is of what happens in schools.

The Lesson: Test scores aren’t about learning, they’re about politics, and as such they make learning in our schools worse.

  1. The King Stay The King: Despite our efforts the hierarchy of societies doesn’t change much. Drug dealer D’Angelo Barksdale teaches ‘corner boys’ Bodie and Wallace how to play chess. They want to know how a pawn can become a king and win. D’Angelo explains that no matter what, a pawn can never become a king, just like in real life.

The Lesson: We may see education as a path for students to move out of poverty, but the opportunities are few and the chances are slim. Often in society “…the king stay the king” no matter what we do or how hard we try.

  1. It’s All In The Game– The drug trade subculture, as depicted in The Wire, is referred to as “the game”. People do horrible, awful things to each other in pursuit of their goals but justify it as being ‘all in the game’. It makes sense within the rules and codes of the subculture. Similarly schools are subcultures, and there are many things in schools that don’t make sense outside that subculture.

The Lesson: Schools are separate places with separate rules. Sometimes there’s a disconnect for students between the world of their school and the world outside. They might be from different ethnic culture or economic circumstances. We need to recognize and allow for the fact that for many students schools don’t make sense and are disconnected from the ‘real world’ they and their families live in.

  1. Caring When It Isn’t Your Turn (paraphrased): Police detective and anti-hero Jimmy McNulty points out in the first episode of The Wire the dangers in taking on a challenge when you don’t have to. Detectives who try to ‘change the world’ end up feeling frustrated and ineffective. Addressing complex problems is difficult and requires a collective effort.

The Lesson: There’s a long list of outside factors that affect a child’s learning (poverty, family circumstances, previous learning, etc.). If we try to ‘fix’ all of them we end up spread too thin and unable to do focus on where we’re most effective. We need to accept students as they are and do our best to help them move them forward, and not get distracted by the multiplicity of things we can’t control. Care deeply about the things that really matter.

  1. “The game is rigged, but you cannot lose if you do not play”: Police lieutenant Cedric Daniels has been assigned to investigate a crime neither he nor his superiors want investigated. He feels he’s in a ‘no win’ situation when his wife points out to him that this is only true if he accepts success as others have defined it. If he thinks ‘outside the box’ and redefines the situation there’s a way forward.

The Lesson: Many outside the system try to define what success means in education. Politicians define it in terms of test scores and graduations rates. Some educators find themselves in difficult situations with inadequate resources to meet those external definitions of success. When faced with this educators should redefine what success in the classroom means to them. Perhaps it’s progress or maybe it’s making a difference to a student in a non-academic way. Whatever it is, it’s important to make sure that “success” is defined in ways that are personally meaningful.

The Use of ADHD Drugs in Schools

11 Jul

An article in the Wall Street Journal has re-started public discussion on why so many students are taking medication to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). It’s a thorny issue with implications for the kind of schools we have, the kind of schools we want and how we view students and their learning.

New research, conducted by the National Bureau of Economic Research and published in June, studied how taking Ritalin, a medication commonly prescribed for ADHD, affected students in Quebec. According to the study, taking Ritalin caused “…increases in emotional problems among girls, and reductions in educational attainment among boys…”. This is disturbing news for students, parents and educators.

There has been an explosion in the use of medication to treat ADHD in children in recent years. In March, 2013 the Center for Disease Control reported “…a 16 percent increase since 2007 and a 41 percent rise in the past decade…” in the number of US children diagnosed with ADHD. Currently nearly one in five high school boys and 11% of all school age children are diagnosed with ADHD. In the wake of these revelations some critics are suggesting that prescribing ADHD medication (and the resultant side effects) to children, without gains in learning constitutes “malpractice”.

I can’t find Canadian stats, but my own classroom experience suggests a similar pattern of use. My class last year, which was typical, had 16% of students taking ADHD medication. All of these students were boys. In fact, the majority of students diagnosed with ADHD are boys. Boys are five to nine times more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD, leading some to suggest that this is evidence of a ‘war on boys’ in our schools.

The high rates of ADHD, and the resultant medication use, says a lot about the culture in schools. Students who don’t progress are pathologized, and schools only accept or allow for deviation if it’s supported by a label. There used to be an understanding that schools can’t meet every student’s needs, but no longer. We devote extensive resources to finding out why a student isn’t learning and ensuring they have every chance to be successful. This process, along with the need for labels, leads to higher rates of diagnosis.

Learning is a complex process and it’s difficult to determine whether it occurred.  Standardized tests are unreliable indicators of the many ways learning happens. Further, just because a student can sit still and pay attention doesn’t mean they have the skills to learn. Students struggle with ADHD for years causing a skills deficit and layers of coping strategies that interfere with learning. Prescribing and using medication is merely the first of several steps in helping a student with ADHD to learn.

The presence of a student with ADHD often impacts on the learning of the whole class. Students with ADHD can be disruptive, making learning more difficult for other students. Teachers devote time to managing and supporting students with ADHD, meaning less time and support is available for other students. It’s likely that the learning of the class improves when a student with ADHD is successfully treated with medication, even though their individual learning may not.

The value of ADHD medication is not exclusively in improving academic learning. Students with ADHD  struggle daily to meet basic expectations leading to lower self-esteem. Medication helps students with ADHD to improve their quality of life, with more friendships and a more positive attitude about school and life. That may, in the long run, be more important than a gain in academic learning.

I prefer using methods other than medication to support students with ADHD whenever possible. A classroom environment where students work in collaborative small groups and have the freedom to move around if needed can be helpful. A well constructed and implemented IEP (Individual Education Plan) with useful accommodations and strategies is also recommended.

The decision of whether or not to use medication to treat ADHD is a difficult one for parents. There are multiple factors to consider and every case is different. It is especially complicated for parents without the resources to provide the extensive support a child with ADHD may need. Constantly taking time off work to deal with problems at school isn’t a viable option for most parents. Sometimes it isn’t a matter of choosing the best solution, but rather finding the right option given the many constraints. And sometimes, that’s medication.

What Are Schools For?

8 Jul

In her “Education Memo” Simona Choise asks “Do Employers Belong in High School?“. Canada introduces students to vocational education much later than others and countries such as “Germany, Austria, Poland and Slovenia” have partnerships that allow students to begin vocational or apprenticeship training before leaving school.

It’s a pressing issue as the recent economic downturn has left millions of young people unemployed or underemployed and left politicians and policy makers scrambling for solutions. But it raises the bigger question of whether it’s schools’ role in our society to train students for employment?

Ask someone why we send kids to school and their answer will accurately predict their position on most other educational issues. Education and schooling are often seen as synonymous, but they are not the same. Education begins at birth (and maybe before) and persists until we die. Teachers may express frustration that students can’t or won’t learn, when what they mean is that students aren’t learning what they want them to. What they mean is that some students won’t or can’t “school”.

Schooling is different from education. It’s process of formal education designed to achieve a specific purpose. In “The End of Education” Neil Postman argues that the main purpose of schools is to create a cohesive society by communicating a shared narrative. He argues that  schools no longer do this and schools and society are poorer because of it.

Mortimer Adler suggests that there are three main objectives of modern schooling:

  1. Citizenship: To equip students with the skills and knowledge needed to participate fully as members of society. Since all citizens can participate in decisions we should try to equip them with what they need to make good decisions. Citizens should be able to think critically and effectively express their opinions. This is what Postman suggests was the original ‘narrative’ of schooling. 
  2. Self-Actualization: To equip students to follow their dreams and achieve their potential. Learning is a life long process and schools should give students the skills and opportunities they need to pursue their hopes and dreams.
  3. Preparation for Work: To prepare students for their economic future. Students should emerge from school with a clear career path and skills that allow them to support themselves and their family and contribute economically to society.

These objectives aren’t exclusive. A student can be educated to be a good citizen, self-actualized and ready for work. Conflict arises, however, when we must choose which objective is most important. If we have to choose which of them to emphasize, which one comes first? Teaching cursive writing may be useful, but if it isn’t required for employment should schools continue teaching it? Should schools take from developing language and math skills and instead devote it to civics or discussing current issues?

The gap between those who think schools’ main function is to prepare students for work and those who have other, “loftier” goals is the great divide in educational discourse. Many educators are attracted to the profession by the thought that they are making the world a better place. They see schools as places for students to better themselves, maximize their potential and go out to make the world better. Other are dumbfounded by this “wooly headed idealism”. What the point of being self-actualized if you can’t feed yourself?

The balance between these objectives shifts over time and responds to changing conditions. During times of economic prosperity we don’t worry about job preparation as much. As unemployment rises there are calls for schools to do a better job in preparing students for work by teaching the basics.

The focus of our school system is increasingly preparing students for work. In early July the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada (CMEC) met in Nunavut. Their statement after their meeting began:

The best way to address Canada’s growing need for an educated and skilled labour force and ensure a sustained economic recovery is to expand education opportunities and improve learning outcomes in early childhood learning and development, elementary and secondary education, postsecondary education, adult learning and skills development.

No mention about improving citizenship or self-actualization. Increasingly, non-essential “employment” skills are marginalized or removed from the curriculum. Less arts and physical education and more language and math. Students aren’t taught cursive writing because it’s not required by the curriculum.

Most of the discussion about education policies and practices for the last 20 years (and perhaps before that) has been about this central issue. What are schools for? Rather than discussing the relative merits of standardized testing or various instructional methods or the many other proxy debates let’s begin to address the real issue. It’s time to open up the debate and talk about what schools are for and why we have them. It’s a debate that should include everyone, because our views will have a huge impact on our collective future.

How To Make Schools Matter To Students

4 Jul

“Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.” John Dewey

Schools are supposed to be about learning. They are supposed to be about inspiring students and supporting them so they can develop the skills and knowledge they need to live their best life.

But the world has changed, quickly, and schools and teachers are struggling to keep up. Learning, like many aspects of our lives, is becoming democratized and decentralized. Students are increasingly finding schools irrelevant when it comes to learning and are using cheap and easy technology to take matters into their own hands.

Here’s three stories to illustrate:

  1. marthaPayne858_2249344bMartha Payne: On April 30th, 2012, Martha Payne was a nine-year old school girl in Lochgilphead, Scotland. She thought the food provided to students at her school wasn’t very good so she decided to blog about it. Her first entry on May 8th, 2012 included a picture of her pizza lunch with the comment “The good thing about this blog is Dad understands why I am hungry when I get home”.  The blog quickly got local and national headlines, a comment from food advocate Jamie Oliver, and by June 15th Martha had three million hits. The story developed a few twists and turns along the way (the school board tried to shut her down) but as a result of Martha’s blog the quality and quantity of food at her school (and others) has improved, and along the way she’s raised over $150,000 to improve the quality of food at schools in Africa.
  2. o-ANN-MAKOSINSKIAnn Makosinski: Since grade 6 Ann Makosinski, of Victoria, British Columbia, has had an interest in harvesting surplus energy. She started exploring this interest in independent science projects in grade 7 and continued to refine her ideas. In 2013 (she’s now in grade 10) Makosinski produced a flashlight that can be powered by the heat from the user’s hand. Her $26 prototype uses Peltier tiles (which she bought on Ebay) to turn heat into electricity. Makosinski is one of fifteen students in the world, and the only Canadian, presenting at the 2013 Google Science Fair in California. Makinowski did this, not in class, but independently, on her own time, between her part-time job and rehearsing for the school play.
  3. Ebony Oshunrinde (aka WondaGurl): When Ebony Oshunrinde was nine years old she saw a video of rap artist Jay-Z wondagurl_2and producer Timbaland working in the studio together. She decided it looked cool and she wanted to learn how to do it, so she downloaded music software and taught herself how to use it by watching YouTube videos. Oshunrinde is now a grade 11 student in Brampton, Ontario and made a piece of music she liked. She sent it off to a producer she’d recently met for some feedback. Her ‘beat’ was so good he shared it with Jay-Z and they decided to use it on the song “Crown” which is on Jay-Z’s just released album Magna Carta Holy Grail. Oshunrinde worked on the beat after she finished her homework.

These are just three of thousands of stories of students that are increasingly taking learning into their own hands. They’re not getting what they need in school and so are using technology to ‘go around’ school.

Schools need to facilitate and support more of this kind of independent learning, to provide a space for students to follow their passions. If we don’t, formal schooling will become increasingly irrelevant to students. Instead of a place of learning and inspiration ‘school learning’ will be another chore that students HAVE to do. Another thing on the to-do list before they live their real life.

Free Ways To Encourage Summer Learning

23 Jun

As parents and students anticipate and plan for summer vacation there’s a lot of buzz about Summer Learning Loss. Businesses selling academic camps, learning services, books, etc. are turning fear about Summer Learning Loss into profits. It’s a good strategy, because fear is a powerful motivator, and parents want to be sure that their children don’t lose hard-won learning and end up starting the next school year on the wrong foot. However a lot of what people believe about Summer Learning Loss isn’t true.

Summer Learning Loss is not a problem for most children. Research shows that some low-income students lose reading test scores over the summer but most other students actually gain in reading. There is some generalized loss in math, but that’s as measured by standardized tests which focus on rote fact retention rather than understanding concepts. A child may forget the answer to a multiplication question, but that doesn’t mean they can’t multiply. If learning is lost in 2 months, was it really “learning” in the first place?

These nuances in Summer Learning Loss are glossed over by those selling camps, study guides and learning services. They’re trying to scare middle-income families (the ones with the money) so they’ll buy what they’re selling.

Children never stop learning, whether in school or at home. Families can do a few easy things to tap into this and improve their child’s learning over the summer. The best news is they’re all free:.

  1. Talk To Your Kids– In his 2012 study “Summer Learning Inequality in Canada” McMaster University sociology professor Scott Davies discovered that middle-income children don’t gain in reading because they go to camp or take vacations, but because their parents talk to them. Dr. Davies said “It’s the daily conversations that are sophisticated and expand children’s vocabularies, and being read to regularly by seasoned readers, one-on-one,” that make a difference. Adults should engage with children, ask them questions, share opinions and expose them to advanced vocabulary.

  2. Let Them Get Bored– The first few days of summer vacation are fun, as children enjoy the freedom, but the novelty quickly wears off and parents start to hear “I’m bored”. The temptation is to step in with a programmed activity or turn on a screen, but research says parents should hold off. Dr. Teresa Belton found that boredom is an essential part of the creative process. She writes that “when children have nothing to do now, they immediately switch on the TV, the computer, the phone or some kind of screen. But children need to have stand-and-stare time, time imagining and pursuing their own thinking processes or assimilating their experiences through play or just observing the world around them”.

  3. Visit The Library– In 2010 Dr. Richard Allington at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville reported the results of a three-year study where five self-selected books were given to low-income students. This simple practice, allowing children to choose 5 books over the summer, eliminated summer reading loss in those children. According to Dr. Allington, letting children choose books is “less expensive and less extensive than either providing summer school or engaging in comprehensive school reform, (but) the effect was equal to the effect of summer school”. The local library is a terrific place to let children take their time, browse and choose some summer books.

  4. Let Them Sleep In– Sleep deprivation in Canada has been called a “National Epidemic” and the effect of sleep deprivation on children and learning is well established. In 2013 Chad Minnich, of the TIMSS and PIRLS International Study Centre said that “…children who have more sleep achieve higher in maths, science and reading. That is exactly what our data show”. Making sure children get enough sleep and recharge themselves after a long school year is key to good learning. Help children establish good sleep habits over the summer so they can enter the new school year rested and refreshed.

  5. Take Them To The Park– One of the hottest trends in Canadian education is “Forest Schools” where students learn outdoors. These schools build on research which indicates that children learn better when they spend time in outdoor, natural spaces. “Nature can buffer children from stress and improve their cognitive ability. Outdoor spaces also give children the opportunity to have space away from adults, allowing them to develop friendships and social interactions”. Allowing children to play outside, in natural surroundings makes them smarter, happier and helps them develop independence and autonomy. There’s even a growing movement touting the benefits of leaving your kids at the park for a while.

Does Liz Sandals Hate Twitter?

9 Jun

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” spoken by Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

On June 6-8 the Ontario Public School Boards Association held their annual general meeting in Muskoka. As a taxpayer and an educator it was enlightening to be able to follow the twitter stream of the conference, monitored by the excellent OPSBA staff, and see what delegates were doing, thinking and saying. Trustees are increasingly using twitter and it gives a layer of transparency and accountability to what they do and allows others to engage with them. In the course of the conference I agreed, disagreed and asked questions about what was going on, all through twitter.

One of the highlights of the conference was an address to the OPSBA by the Minister of Education, Liz Sandals. Minister Sandals is a past president of OPSBA (1998 – 2002) and so understands the organization well. She was there, however, as the representative of a government that had significantly undermined the role of school boards in Ontario through it’s handling of collective bargaining in 2012 and Bill 115.

Unfortunately the Minister was not a contributor to the #OPSBAAGM twitter feed in any way because, unlike her predecessor Laurel Broten and a long list of other liberal MPPs (including leader Kathleen Wynne) Liz Sandals isn’t on twitter. This in itself may not be a big deal. Most people recognize that while a politician may have a twitter account it is often a political aide who is doing the tweeting. However, when it comes to using twitter the lack of an @LizSandals account may be just the tip of the iceberg.

Anyone who followed Laurel Broten quickly learned that it was also a good idea to follow Paris Meilleur, her Director of Communications, for other education related tweets. Paris often explained issues, provided other contexts and engaged with Ontarians about education. I don’t know whether Minister Sandals has a director of communications (I assume she does) but whoever it is, they, or any other members of her staff, don’t use twitter in a professional capacity.

(Correction: Found out through Caroline Alphonso at The Globe & Mail that the Minister of Education’s press secretary is Lauren Ramey and she is on twitter. Lauren says she is trying to be more active on twitter)

Another layer to this is to look at what has happened to the official twitter account of the Ontario Ministry of Education (@OntarioEDU) since Liz Sandals became the Minister in mid-February. It seemed that since then there haven’t been as many @OntarioEDU tweets in my timeline. My quick and dirty research revealed that there are about half as many tweets on the @OntarioEDU account as under the previous minister (an average of 9.7 tweets/week vs 19.5/week). There are innocent explanations for this. Maybe it’s taking them a while to get organized. Perhaps, because of the “Bill 115 Crisis”, the previous staff were tweeting more.

Nevertheless the combination of a minister and staff with no twitter presence and a ministry that’s tweeting less suggests a change in attitudes towards twitter. So what? Does it really matter if the minister and ministry uses twitter? I think it does.

Education issues in Ontario are increasingly discussed and ideas are shared on twitter. It’s an incredibly meritocratic space where ‘who you are’ doesn’t matter as much as the quality of your ideas. That’s why trustees, directors, principals, parents, students and educators are increasingly connecting on twitter. If the minister and the ministry have a reduced or no presence they’ll miss out on that discussion and exchange of ideas.

That’s a critical error and a missed opportunity to engage with Ontarians about education. When the minister says she “…wants to hear from education stakeholders, parents, students and members of the business, research and innovation, not-for-profit and Aboriginal communities…” about education in Ontario, that’s exactly the people who are discussing education on twitter. A refusal to engage with people where the discussion is should make us question her interest in hearing what Ontarians really think.

Over 90% of high school students, and an increasing number of elementary students, use social media daily. When the minister says she want to discuss  with Ontarians “How can we use technology more effectively in teaching and learning?” mobile devices and social media must be a big part of that. How can the minister effectively administer Ontario’s education system and discuss student use of technology if she isn’t conversant in how social media works? She can’t really understand how social media changes the way you think about things unless she’s actually used it.

In an effort to help I extend an open invitation to meet with the minister and help to get her up and running on twitter. I’ll pay my way to wherever she is and I’m sure that within an hour or two I can get her tweeting. I know she probably has people on staff who can help her, but it can be embarrassing to reveal your ignorance to someone you work with (believe me, I know).

I encourage the minister to do something we ask our students to do every day. Step into the unknown, take a chance and try something new. It would serve as a great example to all Ontarians of how we all, no matter who we are, have to take chances and try new things. It would also signal a genuine willingness to engage with Ontarians about education.


Shhhhh!! Ontario’s “Secret” Public Consultation into Education

4 Jun

Next Phase

June 30th 2013 marks the end of the most turbulent year in Ontario Education in over a decade. The imposition of Bill 115 has, for better or worse, politicized education in Ontario. Parents, students, educators and members of the general public are discussing education issues with passion and conviction.

Now would be a perfect time to tap into that engagement and open a dialogue about what Ontarians really want from their education system. What do we value? How should it be working? Coincidentally there WILL be a public consultation about Ontario education, but if the Ministry of Education really wants to hear from all Ontarians they have a funny way of showing it.

On May 30th Liz Sandals, The Minister of Education, “announced” that there will be a consultation into ‘building the next phase in Ontario’s education strategy’. Announced is an overstatement, because news of this ‘public consultation’ wasn’t widely shared. Whispered is more apt. There was no press conference and no press release. A search on the Ministry of Education’s website will not uncover any mention. However some Ontarians got personal invitations to participate (hint: not me).

On June 1st I got the digital equivalent of a brown manilla envelope stuffed into my e-mail box directing me to a dusty page on the Ministry of Education’s website that lists ministry policy memos. Posted there is a letter from the minister to ‘education stakeholders’ and a document titled “Building The Next Phase in Ontario’s Education Strategy” that explains what a great job the government is doing with the education system, how the public consultation process will take place and giving seven ‘key questions’ to guide the discussion. Stakeholders are encouraged to ponder these questions over the summer and be ready to discuss in the Fall.

I was confused. As an educator, a parent of three children in the education system and a writer about education don’t I count as a ‘stakeholder’? If not me, who does count and why?

After reading the document a few questions and reflections coalesced:

  • Why The Secrecy? If the ministry is truly interested in “…feedback from a broad range of individuals and groups…” why wasn’t the process publicly announced? I understand the document was sent to trustees and directors of education. Why? What about everybody else?

  • What is an “education stakeholder”? I see everyone as an education stakeholder. Our collective future depends on our public education system so isn’t it in everyone’s best interest to have the best possible system? Apparently the ministry sees education stakeholders as a few select people on their mailing list. If only there was some sort of mass information system they could use to inform everyone about the consultation process. Hmmm…

  • Why Do We Have EQAO? For anyone who asked me this question over the past month, you need wonder no more. The main function of EQAO is to allow the ministry to make statements like this:

“Ten years ago, only 68% of our students were graduating, and only 54% of children in grades 3 and 6 were achieving at the provincial standard in literacy and numeracy. Today, those numbers stand at 83% and 70% respectively, and they continue to climb.”

  • Any discussions about using EQAO to improve learning is merely window dressing. EQAO is a tool that allows the government to show how well (or in the case of the Mike Harris government how badly) public education is doing. EQAO scores are the primary evidence of how Ontario’s public education system has improved. And we know how accurate and reliable EQAO scores are.
  • The Process: The document discusses wanting to hear from “…education stakeholders, parents, students and members of the business, research and innovation, not-for-profit and Aboriginal communities…” and mentions “groups and individuals”. However later it mentions the minister will be holding consultations in Toronto for provincially focussed groups and regionally for regionally focussed groups. It also mentions that there will be some ‘digital only’ sessions and an opportunity to participate via e-mail. It seems as if the minister is really only interested in meeting with groups. That’s too bad. Groups homogenize opinion and reduce the breadth of possible input. There’s many individuals who want to make their voice heard and not have to funnel it through an organization to give it legitimacy.

The Seven Questions:

Here are the seven guiding questions for the public consultation with my initial reflections:

1) What are the skills, knowledge and characteristics students need to succeed after they have completed school, and how do we better support all learners in their development?

The first question in our education strategy is about preparing students to be workers. It could be reworded as “Are we producing good future employees?”. Is this really where we should be starting? Is this the first thing we should be considering about our education system? Not maximizing students’ potential or helping them to fulfill their dreams but will they meet the province’s economic needs. I’m disappointed.

2) What does student well-being mean to you, and what is the role of the school in supporting it?

I’m glad to see this as part of the discussion. We need to better address student’s mental and physical health needs and understand their impact on learning. We don’t educate children in isolation and an unhealthy child is not able to learn well.

 3) From your perspective, what further opportunities exist to close gaps and increase equity to support all children and students in reaching their full potential?

 Another critical discussion we need to be having. We must move away from a system of equality to one of equity. In an education system where resources are limited, why are we directing the same resources to all students regardless of need? Students aren’t equal so why do we fund them that way? A student from a middle or high income family doesn’t need the same level of support as one from a low-income family. We need to address this on a provincial, systemic basis. I’d like to see the introduction of a weighted funding formula for education in Ontario.

4) How does the education system need to evolve as a result of changes to child care and the implementation of full-day kindergarten?

This confuses me. I assumed that given the commitment and money spent on Full Day Kindergarten there was some sort of long-term plan in place. This suggests a sort of “Oh, we’ve got FDK, now what?” approach. That’s concerning.

5) What more can we all do to keep students engaged, foster their curiosity and creativity, and help them develop a love of life-long learning?

This should be the first question, not the fifth. This is the mission statement of a progressive education system. A foundational idea. If we can accomplish this, everything else will fall into place. Bravo!!

6) How can we use technology more effectively in teaching and learning?

This is the mandatory Ed Tech question. It is now illegal to discuss education unless you mention technology once. I suspect this is something The OPSBA pushed hard for at the round table seeing as they’d spent money on their new report. I support the vision presented but ask the same question as when the report was published. Who is going to pay for it? Digital technology should be an essential part of our education system but it requires an investment and nobody seems willing to make that investment. If you want to put tech in schools you’ve got to show me the money.

7) What are the various opportunities for partnership that can enhance the student experience, and how can they benefit parents, educators and our partners too?

Not sure what this really is but it feels like a discussion of how can we involve private enterprise more in public education. The reason we seek partnerships is that we want to do things but don’t have the necessary resources. We must remember that, as the old saying goes, “There’s no free lunch”. Enterprises we enter into partnership with aren’t primarily interested in students or their learning. They’re interested in making money. Effective partnerships result from an exchange of value. Let’s be clear and aware of what we’re giving up and what we’re getting in return and remember it’s our job to put students first.

What’s Missing?

Some questions I’m surprised not to see there:

  • What is the role of standardized testing in Ontario’s education system?
  • What is the role of school boards and trustees in Ontario’s education system?
  • What is a fair and effective system of collective bargaining in Ontario’s education system?
  • What role should faith play in Ontario’s public education system?

Those are my first, off the cuff, reactions and responses. I’ll keep discussing and pontificating and prepare myself to participate fully in the government’s “public consultation”. I urge all Ontarians to do likewise. It’s time for an “Education Spring” in Ontario. This may be our opening.