Tag Archives: Poverty

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.

Not Everyone Loves Summer Vacation

2 Jul

How Many Day’s ‘Til School Starts?


My car wouldn’t start this morning and I had to get some help (thanks universe). The tow truck driver showed up and his kid (a 10 year old girl) was with him. First day of summer vacation and she’s riding around in a truck doing service calls.

Had a walk through the park and passed two mums yelling at their kids on the playground. First day of summer and their patience is already gone.

Important to remember that for many people summer isn’t a wonderful, let’s travel up to the cottage and swim in the lake, sit around and play board games time of the year.

Many kids had to get up early this morning and head out to programmed, organized activities, just like every other day because their parents are working and there’s no other option.

Those might be the lucky ones. Others are on their own or pushed out of the house or into the basement by adults that aren’t thrilled to have them around the house for 10 weeks. Those might be the same kids who are missing those school snack programs.

And spare a thought for those parents that know this is supposed to be a magical time for their kids but simply don’t have the resources to provide camping trips or can’t take any time off.

Something is never just one thing.

Surefire Ways To Improve Your School’s EQAO Scores

30 Apr

EQAO is coming. Hurray!!!

Late April and early May is a festive time in Ontario’s elementary schools. The whiff of EQAO is in the air (did you get your EQAO tree yet?).

At our recent PD day we had teachers attend workshops to learn how best to administer the test and prepare their students. The rest of us circled the test days in our calendar and were asked to be aware of the serious business afoot. Soon grade 3 & 6 teachers will be stripping classroom walls of student created anchor charts, so that students don’t cheat by looking something up.

Despite the message that no special preparation is needed for EQAO, boards require teachers to administer practice tests and offer after-school ‘booster’ clubs to help students improve their EQAO scores. The official position is that the tests aren’t evaluative, but practice suggests otherwise.

Educators trying to improve EQAO scores might need assistance. Being a helpful sort I scoured the profiles of the top 15 EQAO schools to discover their Score Boosting Secrets!!!

Before sharing, two disclaimers:

  • EQAO doesn’t publish school rankings. They oppose it and claim it is harmful, but still make test data publicly available so that others can rank schools. These are also the tactics of The National Rifle Association, cigarette companies and fast food restaurants. Like EQAO they claim that the harmful effects of their products aren’t their fault, but caused by how people use them. Luckily, the folks at The Fraser Institute produce annual school rankings based on EQAO scores, and it’s their data I used for this analysis.
  • This is not, in any way, a scientific analysis. I am using grade 5 math skills and a little time, not deep data mining. Someone else is welcome to do that.

Here are the surefire ways to improve your school’s EQAO scores from the top 15 EQAO schools:

  • Move To Toronto: Hogtown is home to 60% (9/15) of the top 15 EQAO schools but only 20% of Ontario’s schools. That’s a huge over-achievement. The only non-GTA communities in the top 15 are St Catherines, Sudbury, Guelph and Arnprior. It might be the CN Tower, the excellent public transit, or the fine work of Mayor Rob Ford, but learning in Toronto certainly elevates EQAO scores.
  • Privatize: Independent schools serve just 6% of Ontario students but 20% of the top 15 EQAO schools (3/15) are independent, fee charging schools. Privatizing your school not only improves EQAO scores, but more money means no more teacher griping about having to bring supplies from home. Win-win.
  • Get Rich Quick: Schools teaching students from higher income families score higher on EQAO. The average annual family income of the top 15 EQAO schools is $112, 908.33, almost double the average annual family income in Ontario ($65,500 in 2010). Schools can attract students from high income families with simple strategies such as school uniforms (think grey blazers), a gluten free snack program or changing the school name to something with “Academy” in it. Planting ivy in the front garden won’t hurt.
  • No Specials: Getting rid of special education students boosts EQAO scores. The top 15 EQAO schools average 11.12% special education students, while the provincial average is 19%, almost double. Apply some of the new income from privatization to paying special education students to transfer to neighbouring schools. This will lower your competitors scores, making you look even better.
  • Speak English: The top 15 EQAO schools have only 3% of students that are English Language Learners, less than half of the provincial average of 7%. Surprising given the large number of top 15 schools in the GTA, where the ELL population is reported to be well above the provincial average. Remember this when relocating to Toronto. Location, location, location.

Summary: To transform your school’s EQAO scores become a private school, located in Toronto, with mostly native English speaking students from high income families. Deny admission to special education students.

Related Findings:

  • Faith based instruction doesn’t affect EQAO scores. A third of Ontario schools are faith based and the same proportion are represented in the top 15 EQAO schools.
  • The next 15 schools in the rankings show an even greater GTA bias (13/15). Could it be the sweet waters of Lake Ontario? Further research required.
  • The bottom 15 schools in the Fraser Institute rankings show the following:
    • None are from Toronto and none are private schools
    • About half (7/15) are in First Nations, fly-in communities in Northern Ontario.
    • The seven First Nations schools don’t report family income, but the remaining eight schools in the bottom 15 have an average annual family income of $41,775, almost half the average Ontario annual family income.

Five Critical Education Issues That Need More Consideration

16 Dec

In 1912 The RMS Titanic sank in the north Atlantic causing the death of 1502 people. This was only the 7th deadliest maritime disaster in history, but its’ impact on popular culture goes far beyond that status.

When the “great ship went down” the deck chairs were stowed, but that hasn’t stopped the increasing use of “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic to signify “a pointless effort in the face of impending disaster“.  An excellent example of this phenomenon is found in discussions on improving education.

Current discourse on ‘improving’ education is a lot of “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic”.  We have  important and difficult issues to address but ignore them. Bring up “flipping the class” or “BYOD” and experts flock to tell you why and how wrong you are, but mention the big issues affecting student learning and you’re greeted by silence.

Perhaps we’re overwhelmed by the scale of the challenges we face so we distract ourselves, choosing instead to focus on where we can make an impact. But if we don’t acknowledge the big challenges, efforts to move education forward will be for naught.

These are the biggest ignored challenges affecting education today. Failing to address them resigns us to working in the fringes while allowing students to slowly sink into the frigid waters:

  1. Poverty: The UNICEF Report Card 10: Measuring Child Poverty said that 13% of Canadian children live below the poverty line, 24th out of the 35 industrialized countries studied (the US was 23%, 34th out of 35 countries). Finland has the second lowest child poverty rate at 5% and the best education system in the world. Coincidence? There’s evidence that in  US schools where poverty levels are low student learning is “the best in the world“. The problem for many low performing students probably isn’t an education problem, it’s a poverty problem.
  2. Safety: The work of Abraham Maslow (way back in 1943) said we can’t expect students to be creative problem solvers (self-actualization) if they are feeling unsafe. There’s a laundry list of threats to student safety: bullying, family violence and the fear of intruders, etc. In the wake of the tragedy in Sandy Hook schools are increasing security, adding to locked doors, video cameras, armed security guards, metal detectors and “lockdown drills”. No wonder parents are increasingly deciding that schools are no longer safe and choosing instead to home school their children (31% of homeschooling parents said they do so because of safety concerns).
  3. The Purpose of School: In his 1996 classic “The End of EducationNeil Postman wrote that the initial purpose of public education, to produce “good citizens”, is no longer relevant. Postman asserts that we need a new narrative for why we school. Ask ten educators what the purpose of school is and you’ll either get  confused looks or ten different answers. The lack of agreement on a clear purpose makes progress almost impossible. Are we producing future workers? Effective stewards of the planet? Problem solvers? Critical thinkers?
  4. Teacher Morale: 2012 could be called “The Year of the War on Teachers“. The teacher strikes in Ontario are just the latest battle in an ongoing war fought in British ColumbiaChicago, Australia, and many other locations. Teachers that aren’t striking are under attack  from government officials and religious extremists. In the US, teachers are battling against merit pay and unfair evaluation systems. All of this while research indicates that teachers are the most important in school factor in student achievement. If we want the school system to work we have to start showing ongoing, meaningful support for teachers.
  5. Funding: The global economic slowdown has led to shrinking economies and smaller tax bases. Rather than growing the economy by investing in education, governments chose job layoffs, program cuts and increased tuition in higher education. Unfortunately, this approach doesn’t solve the short-term economic problem or the long-term one. When will we “get it” that public education isn’t a cost, it’s a long-term investment.

Educators work within a bigger context and it’s easy to miss the forest for the trees. We need to step back from time to time, look at the bigger picture and make sure we’re sailing in the right direction.

What is the ‘D’ in BYOD? Discrimination? Divide?…

24 Apr

Is this an iPad or just an empty bag?


BYOD or Bring Your Own Device is the workplace practice where employees bring their own personal devices to work and use them at work for work.

This is an increasingly popular workplace practice for three main reasons:

  1. It saves companies money, as the cost of the devices and for connectivity is shifted to the employee.
  2. Employees are using devices they are more comfortable and familiar with, and so are more productive.
  3. Devices and software that users bring are usually more cutting edge and up to date, again boosting productivity.
It wasn’t long after companies started implementing BYOD policies that  cash strapped schools began discussing using BYOD in educational settings. Schools, like many organizations, are facing huge expenses as the public, educators and students are insisting that technology be an essential tool in education.
Unfortunately many advocates of BYOD in education have forgetten that schools are not workplaces, and the wholesale adoption of BYOD in the classroom may leads to some very nasty consequences.
Shifting the cost of devices and connectivity onto users in a classroom means families and students have to pay. This is an equity issue. Public schools are not selective. Unlike companies they accept any and all students, and some of those families and students don’t have the resources to provide their own devices. Unless we provide technology for those students to have access to devices they’ll be left behind.
BYOD in educational settings also creates further inequity within the classroom and between schools. Some students will use the latest, up to date devices, others will have older, less functional technology, and others will be left with even older, board provided devices or none at all. We already have a huge Digital Divide in society.  BYOD policies bring that divide into the classroom and allow it to further affect student learning.
We need to decide what matters and put our education dollars where our mouths are. If we value equity in education, and believe students need to learn with and use devices, we must provide them for all students in the classroom. Allowing students to bring in their devices may be a way to enhance or add to a student’s learning in special situations, but it can never be allowed to become the norm.
A full-scale implementation of BYOD in classrooms would  significantly  disadvantage large groups of low income students and create a significant gap between schools and between students. A system with have and have not schools and classrooms with have and have not pupils isn’t good for any of us.

The End of Education

8 Feb

“Through the computer, the heralds say, we will make education better, religion better, politics better, our minds better — best of all, ourselves better. This is, of course, nonsense, and only the young or the ignorant or the foolish could believe it. ” ― Neil Postman

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the purpose of schools.

My favourite books on this is Neil Postman’s classic ‘The End of Education‘. Postman is a great thinker and writer and he attempts to redefine the role that education should be filling. Postman argues that the original ‘end’ of education was to educate citizens to participate in a democracy. As society has shifted we no longer need schools to do that and Postman suggests alternative purposes for schools, such as educating the population as environmental stewards.

In this blog post by Anne O’Brien, she points out that too often schools and education systems are expected to solve social problems and derided when they don’t. She writes “Schools very clearly play a key role in our society. But too often, we blame them for society’s ills – and then we place the weight of fixing those ills upon them.” and points to the expectation that schools can solve such deep rooted problems as poverty, drug use and teen pregnancy. O’Brien admits that schools have a role to play, but they can’t do it alone.

In my favourite undergrad. course, Peter Donnelly introduced me to the work of Richard Gruneau on culture and media. In his book ‘Class, Sports and Social Development‘ Gruneau says that culture can function in 3 ways. It can reflect, reinforce and/or resist the dominant society and sometimes does all three.  This model works well for education.

Schools are reflections of the communities they serve. They reinforce the dominant social values (be on time, work hard, respect authority, etc.). There is some limited energy devoted to lifting some kids up and changing our society, but schools, as they are currently organized, are simply not agents of change. It doesn’t matter what the reason, the revolution won’t be started in public schools.