Thursday, September 30, 2010

Giving it its due

I was impressed to read in this Owen Sound Sun Times piece about the trustee debate that was specifically setup to provide the forum for issues in the Bluewater District School Board to be discussed.
The one-hour Dave Carr Live phone-in show was the first time the three candidates faced each other in public.
It was scheduled late last week after the three trustee hopefuls -- Gaviller, Miranda Miller and Doug McKee -- lamented being left out of two scheduled public all-candidate meetings focused on the Owen Sound council and mayoralty races.Bullying and drugs in schools, class sizes, student assessment, funding, fundraising and the role of corporate sponsorship were among issues raised by callers and guest host Linda Van Aalst, along with questions about accountability and how parents who approach the board are treated.
Some of you out there may already be yawning, but it's important to understand the turmoil this board of trustees has been through in the past two years. It led to then-minister Kathleen Wynne appointing two advisers to the board, a huge survey and consultation, the resignation of a trustee / chair, several current trustees opting not to run to keep their seats and (though I'm not making any link here), the retirement of the director of education in place as all of this was going on. Along the way, some serious concerns about governance, transparency, responsiveness and accountability were raised. It also led to the (now defunct) Mend Ed, formed by groups of disgruntled former teachers and other interested parties.
With all that history, kudos to the people that brought these two city ward candidates into a studio when the local all-candidates`debate left the trustee hopefuls watching from the pews.
Something similar is happening in Toronto-- the city`s Catholic district school board election has a slate of candidates running to try and restore some faith and some integrity to the board of trustees that has been under supervision by the province for most of this term as three of its trustees faced (or are currently facing) court dates on conflict-of-interest charges.
A comment on an earlier post about the trustee election noted disinterest in the face of increasing centralized control and other changes in legislation. That saddens me-- I`m an oddball, I know, as someone with no children (yet...) who is insanely interested in K-12 education and continually speaking for its importance and relevance. Paying attention to these trustee elections should be important in the public sphere.
Again, kudos to those out there who are giving it its due.

Over to you, Mr. Hudak

Various media were abuzz earlier this week with poll results showing the Progressive Conservative Party, under Tim Hudak, leads Premier Dalton McGuinty's Ontario Liberal Party in the polls.
I'm not normally prone to getting mixed up in the larger world of politics in this space, but given our premier and members of his cabinet kicked off this school year laying out the 2011 vote on their education accomplishments, it's worth a look.
As I pointed out earlier this month, I would welcome a campaign fought over education but doubt that we'll get one truly focused on educational policy and outcomes. The 2007 campaign was defined, in part, by John Tory's insistence on extending public funding to faith-based private schools. The issue was so poorly explained and debated that it turned on Tory's team and ultimately led to Hudak's selection as leader.
During the PC leadership campaign, I wrote a few posts on each candidate's education platform (such as they existed, which several didn't). In a quick perusal of the party's website this morning, I found this reference to apprenticeship training, an early September press release riddled with some interesting accounting, a statement about second-career training and a year-old statement on EQAO.
Now I realize that a year out from the campaign, most if not all parties have no interest in laying out their platform. However, there's enough to comment on now. Where's the Tory party's stance on the pending provincial-interest regulations? Its response to the criticisms of EQAO that have arisen in the past two months? Any sort of policy or idea on school-closure regulations? I thought a few statements on protecting rural Ontario would include something about schools, but nary a word.
To be fair, I don't see heaps of this from the governing party or the third party, but they're not the ones polling in majority government territory now. Hudak has spent his time as leader throwing dirt (justified or not) at the government, with precious little time explaining who he is and what he would stand for -- particularly when it comes to education. If he stands for hard-working Ontario families, then what should that mean for education?
Is it something where he'll be able to use his polling bump to his advantage? Or will he fritter away the lead and let someone else jump in with policies and ideas?

Thursday, September 23, 2010

More EQAO fuss?

This has probably been an interesting week over at the Education Quality and Accountability Office. Earlier this week, the issue broke of a small number of schools (compared to the total number the agency deals with) that had been investigated by the agency after reports of staff members cheating came into the office.
The investigation brought about another opportunity for its detractors to kick the agency and its supporters to rise to its defence. Interestingly however, I found some interesting thoughts in media and the education community on the news of the week, as well as to whether or not it should change anything about the way the EQAO operates.
Its detractors are always looking for another reason to kill the tests, period. The cheating served their purpose since the staff members' actions could be excused as the impact of all that stress they feel over their students' results.
First to support (in opinion) was Moira MacDonald at the Sun, in a piece published Wednesday. From that:
The complaints were the same as every other year: The tests do nothing to improve learning, the testing agency costs too much (despite the EQAO getting accolades from Ontario’s auditor-general in 2009 for cutting spending by 20% over five years, down to $33 million last year) and the tests are driving what happens in the classroom (they’d be useless if they didn’t).
That annual message is so predictable I’ve stopped commenting on it each and every year it comes out. It would only be news if ETFO did not complain about standardized testing.
The idea testing leads to cheating so we should toss the test would be another predictable, though illogical criticism.
Taking this farther, the other illogic to watch out for is if people cheat, it’s the fault of the test, not the cheater (to be fair, the EQAO says some rule-breaking in the current investigations was not intentional).
I’m betting no high school student gets away with that one when they get caught texting the answers to somebody else.
A day later, the Globe and Mail -- which broke this story earlier in the week -- posted its own editorial on the subject. It was tweeted by the Premier's media office later in the day, which is where I had the chance to read it.
What does “teaching to the test” mean in the context of this particular test? It means teaching children to make sense of what they read. It means asking children to draw meaning out of a text, not just regurgitate parts of that text. Pupils need to think creatively and express that thought in grammatical, properly spelled words on a page. There is nothing rote about this test. There are no facts to memorize, no drills that would help here. Teachers should teach to this test. That is their job.
Is it too much pressure when schools are asked to prepare their pupils to read a story and answer questions about it? If it is, we would be asking less of our schools and teachers than we ask of our children. Apparently it is too much pressure for some – like the Toronto principal who prematurely broke the cellophane seal on Grade 3 and 6 tests and photocopied them for teachers. That is the wrong kind of teaching to the test. It is an admission of failure.
The literacy tests that are now done across Canada show where pupils, and teaching practices, need improvement. When provinces and school boards provide the resources to improve those teaching practices, the pupils make gains. The tests have also helped create a welcome focus on reading and writing. At least two hours a day, or roughly 40 per cent of the typical public school day, in every province, are devoted to reading, being read aloud to, discussing books, sharing books, and writing. That is a massive and appropriate amount of teaching to the test.
The week's hubbub even brought out People for Education's Annie Kidder on her blog, which I had up until today been unaware of. It will be added to the blogroll on the right as soon as I finish writing this post.
At People for Education, we really do try to be objective, and I really do try, when talking to the media, to say “on the one hand this, and on the other hand that”. The media doesn’t always like that sort of thing. They like their arguments black and white.  Politics, too likes things in black and white. Test score targets are a nice simple political promise and go with the black and whiteness of much of our political landscape. The discussion becomes a simple one, of “up good, down bad.”
Kidder's wider point is that testing is good, but the simple use of results in larger society neglects how the data can be used, and drives a policy agenda too focused on reading, writing and math instead of a broader assessment of how students are doing on the entire curriculum.
I've written in this space in response to the complaints EQAO dominates the school day and the curriculum in this province, but it's always good to see others agreeing this focus isn't a bad thing. To that, I've always added and argued that good teachers, good schools, recognize how to work on literacy and numeracy in cross-curricular ways, so they don't 'neglect' the rest of the curriculum but rather use it to reinforce those skills. It's tricky-- a class I participated in this week showed students don't automatically transfer communication skills from language arts to math. They have to be taught and explicitly shown that the way they communicate in English can be the same when they speak about mathematical problems.
To Kidder's point, I would love to see the EQAO expand into other curriculum areas, to provide that independent assessment in those subjects as part of the wider assessment toolbox. Probably a pipe dream, but nothing that is that big of a leap -- from SATs to university entrance exams, to high school completion exams, these broader assessments already exist elsewhere.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Is it ignorance? Or poor promotion?

The Ottawa Citizen has an article today coming out of a school board committee meeting Monday night, where a trustee expresses a desire to have every student be exposed to swimming lessons through school before Grade 3. Admirable goal.
Some schools already offer students a chance to take swimming lessons, but (Zone 11 trustee Riley) Brockington says the program should be implemented across the board.
“We should agree that this is a critical life skill that all students should have, and, if we agree that’s the case, then the board should be providing any funds to cover the cost,” Brockington said, adding the program would be of particular benefit to many new Canadians who don’t know how to swim.
This could be happening today in all Ottawa schools, so it's surprising to me that this trustee, and this board, doesn't know that. It's called the Swim to Survive school grant program and it's been around for three or four years. The program centers on doing a forward roll (disorienting entry), treading water for one minute and then swimming 50 metres or yards without stopping. As most drownings occur within 50 metres of a point of safety, the underlying principle is that someone falling into water unexpectedly can right themselves, break the surface of the water, tread water long enough to find the closest point of safety and then be able to swim there.
Full disclosure: I am a lifeguard and swimming instructor, and when in Woodstock work part-time at the Woodstock YMCA. As such, we have taught well over 1,000 Grade 2-4 students from area schools as part of the Swim to Survive program over the past four or five years. It's become my absolute favourite program to teach.
The grant program provides funding (from the Ministry of Education, but flowing through the Lifesaving Society) to school boards to help get their Grade 3 students to area swimming pools during school hours for three hours of swimming lessons. School boards must apply for the grants and in the application show they've partnered with a local swimming pool (municipal, non-profit, YMCA, private, etc.) to work out a fee structure. In many boards, the grants cover the cost of busing to the facility-- which was the cost that caused swimming to be dropped from the roster at many schools.
Three hours doesn't teach a non-swimmer everything s/he needs to know to swim and survive, but it makes a huge difference for those children who would never take formal swimming lessons. Even having a better idea of what they're comfortable doing in and around the water makes a critical difference.
First surprise was already listed above-- that the trustee wasn't aware of this program (especially since I highly suspect there are schools in the board that already receive the StS grant). As you can see from the comment below, Brockington is aware of the program and wants to see it in every school. Second surprise was that the journalist, who took the time to look up the statistics and information from the Lifesaving Society, didn't keep clicking to learn about this program.
To be fair in my final point, it's also the society's issue. This past year the organization held its AGM in Tillsonburg, which is in the southeastern part of the Thames Valley District / London Catholic District school boards' area. Those two boards were the only ones to send 100% of their eligible students to a Swim to Survive swimming lesson in 2009. They even were awarded the Swim to Survive award (page 16) in recognition, yet no one at the society thought to invite someone from the boards to receive the award as it held its own annual meeting in that very district.

Meeting the fellowship

On Monday night, the six journalists who are part of the Massey College community were formally introduced to the fellowship. Massey is a college that prides itself on a number of traditions-- the journalism fellowships being one of the things that has always been a part of the fabric of this corporation.
I'm not offhand sure how long the journalists' reception has been part of the calendar here, but we had ours last night. The master, John Fraser (think Saturday Night), invited a number of prominent members of the journalism and media communities to come have dinner at Massey. Dinner here is a somewhat formal event, with all the members of the college in their gowns (yours truly wears a simple black gown with the red rose on the back-- senior fellows have some additional red stripes along the shoulders of theirs), graces in latin, etc.
Afterwards, the journalists proceeded to the Upper Library where after an elegant introduction from Fraser, each of us was given some time to speak to our background, why we wanted to come to Massey and what we hoped to get out of the year.
We are a very eclectic group with a diverse background. I learned a little bit about each of my colleagues here-- both the other Canadian Journalism Fellows and the two associate fellows who will be sharing large portions of our journey with us.
Given the amazing breadth, depth and accomplishments of the graduate students here at Massey, it was humbling to be put on the same stratosphere as them for part of an evening.
In other fellowship matters, the courses are beginning to narrow down. I've decided to continue auditing the Battles over History Education as well as Issues in Numeracy and Literacy. I still need to find a third (or fourth) course to audit this year-- likely something non-OISE. However I'll be back in the undecided boat come January as the two OISE courses I am following are only fall term.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Election madness? Hardly not.

Since the Sept. 10 deadline for nominations for the upcoming civic election, I've seen precious little in terms of any media coverage on the slates of trustees facing voters this fall. Trustees at 72 publicly funded school boards in this province will be elected on Oct. 25, along with the various members of council at the over 400 municipalities in Ontario.
While most every news alert I've seen in the past week has touched on the slate of municipal candidates and the last-minute filings or changes of heart, I've seen little to nothing of the sort when it comes to the races for trustees. A weekend tweet asked me if I would be doing any coverage of trustee elections through the blog. The harsh reality on my part is that it's far too time consuming for me to review the races in 72 different school boards -- each of which has between half a dozen and several dozen trustees -- and speak to it in any intelligent manner. Before leaving the office, I was up to speed on the races in my coverage area, but even since I've started here at Massey there have been some interesting twists and turns that have gone unreported. Both my local English-language public and Catholic boards will be quite different when the new term of trustees takes their oaths of office in December.
I suspect the same may be true across the province. Outside of the usual cycle of renewal we see in elected bodies, there are a few other things at play.
Many existing trustees were freaked right out by the government's Bill 177. While I've opined in this space several times that I don't think it's as massive of a deal as many trustees believed it to be, combined with the previous elements from Bill 78 there's an impressive power to legislate through regulation. The first draft of the provincial-interest regulations wasn't at all well received in the trustee community, but we've not seen another draft (to my knowledge).
I've also been left wondering what impact, if any, school closures will have on this election. It's this current term of trustees that has made the vast majority of closure decisions. At the beginning of the term the province was still under former minister Gerard Kennedy's requested moratorium on school closures. The new guidelines were released in Oct. 2006, in the last months of the previous term. The development of local policies and procedures consistent with the guidelines (both the 2006 and this past year's) has fallen to this group of trustees to bring into existence. The first school-closure reviews under the guidelines have been completed, with the ensuing closures/consolidations, etc. now a reality for the second or third school year.
Throughout these difficult decisions, trustees from east to west and north to south were derided for their decisions. Many were criticized for ignoring / not listening / not representing their constituents. Again, in my own coverage area, these decisions have drawn at least two candidates out of the woodwork.
Are there plenty of these protest candidates out there?
Needless to say there have also been plenty of acclamations in trustee races across the province-- even in boards whose management abilities were severely criticized (looking at you, Bluewater).
So here's my challenge. Read up on your trustee candidates. Fellow journalists, ask yourselves and your bosses why you've not yet covered your local school-board races (or for the few of you this applies to, pat yourselves on the back for doing so).
We can do better.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Two quick NOTL hits

These popped up Wednesday as the Niagara Advance posted its articles for the week.
First, its coverage of the "gentle" chastising the Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake council got for the closed-door strategy meetings of the town/community save-the-school committee. The lead councillors are dismissing it as nothing much, but the closed-meeting investigator is actually telling council it should have either declared the committee a council committee (in which case it can close the doors to consider advice from its solicitor) or declared it as being not a council committee -- in which case its members could have still freely closed the doors but wouldn't have necessarily had the protection of the Ontario Municipal Act. From the article:
"The failure to apply the intention of Council to the NDSS Strategy Committee . . . resulted in the committee failing to comply with the closed meeting requirements," stated the report. "It is recommended that the town's procedure bylaw be reviewed."
Councillor Gary Zalepa, who chairs the NDSS Strategy Committee, noted Monday night that the committee was "not acting in bad faith" when they had their meeting and that it appeared there was, "more remiss in the town's bylaw" than anything else.
Zalepa said the committee retains the right to discuss legal strategies in-camera before presenting that strategy to the public.
Well, yes and no, as I've stated above. It did draw my curiosity however, given I'd emplored and mused several times earlier this year that if I lived in NOTL I would have been 'that guy' filing a request for the closed-meeting investigator to look into these committee meetings.
The second piece was the Advance touching base with the Friends of NDSS, post-ruling on the group's request for an injunction. The court turned down the request, and offered some opinion on the pending judicial review that doesn't bode well for the Friends' case.
(Teresa) Rive says they hold out hope for a successful resolution of a judicial review by focusing on the judge's assertion that the high school closure has a serious impact on virtually every aspect of the community.
"That reminds us what this judicial review is intended to address," says Rive, adding that his decision refers only to the injunction against the school closure.
"This was just part of the process," says Rive.
"It's disappointing but we respect his decision and will carry on with the review. Hopefully that will go our way."
All of which is swell, but perhaps again demonstrates how a judicial review perhaps differs from what Rive believes it will accomplish. The panel is not going to take the impact of the decision into account-- based on every understanding of this process that I have (and I'm not a lawyer), the judicial review will do just that. Review the process that was followed to determine whether there were any omissions or errors in the process. We already have one justice of the bench saying that based on his review of the evidence, there was no such abuse of process. The impact the decision has on the town appears to fall pretty clearly outside the court's domain, so I'm unsure why, if Friends is getting good advice from its lawyer(s), why a supporter would be saying she hopes the review panel will take the impact on the town into account.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Gutter discourse

Was fairly non-plussed, disappointed, even verging on disgusted with Wednesday's hubbub over the premier's remarks on the use of mobile technology (cellphones, Blackberries, iPhones, etc.) in Ontario's classrooms. The news spread across the wires and twitterverse fairly quickly yesterday, after Dalton McGuinty opined on the use of the devices in our classrooms.
Many if not all school boards in Ontario already have policies on the use of mobile devices in their facilities. Some are outright bans -- don't even pull them out in the building -- whereas others are more nuanced, spelling out where they can or cannot be used. Some boards put wording into their policies restricting certain behaviours using the devices but not outright banning their existence or use within classrooms.
It's not a cut-and-dry issue. While we're apt to think students will be using their cellphones for all sorts of silly purposes in classes (and many certainly have) some parents also enjoy a child's cellphone as a way of reaching them. A phone call can be left unanswered, but parental texts are at least received before they're ignored. Parents have also stated their concern in the past that they want to be able to reach their children in case of an incident or emergency of any kind, either within the family or one that happens at the school.
This last type of policy is the nuanced approach I think the premier was trying to hit with his comments on Wednesday. Certainly that appeared to be the case with his question-period response Thursday morning, which his office e-mailed out to the media, complete with an attached .mp3 of the response. The QP clip from that e-mail:
Let me be very clear with the two statements. First of all, texting or the use of cell phones to socialize during class is distraction and it does not belong in a classroom, period. Secondly, Speaker, we trust teachers and boards and parents to make the right call when it comes to ever changing technologies. If those technologies can help our students learn, that is a good thing, Speaker. If they don't, if they are a distraction, then they should not be in the classroom. It’s as simple as that.
The clip is also embedded above.
What had me shaking my head, however, was when I received this e-mail from the Progressive Conservative's media office just before 2 p.m. Wednesday. It said, in part:
Dalton McGuinty demonstrated yet again today just how out of touch he is with the values and concerns of hard-working Ontario families and parents when he said he is open to the idea of the use of cellphones in the classroom.
With cellphones in the class room and Dalton McGuinty’s sex-ed classes for six year olds, it’s only a matter of time until we have “sexting” in our schools. Shouldn’t our kids be learning math and science instead?
Cellphones in the classroom is an absurd idea. So absurd that Dalton McGuinty will likely backtrack on it within days. Is this an example of McGuinty’s claim that he has a “more intelligent understanding” of the concerns of families? Clearly, Dalton McGuinty has changed and is not the same person Ontarians thought they were electing years ago.
I sorely hope this is not the tone of the discussion and debate we have set before us in a year's time during the next election campaign. We're certainly capable of having a more intelligent discussion than this.

Closing in on the final two...

After a week that felt like "Waiting for Godot," I've begun attending classes this week at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education as part of my Canadian Journalism Fellowship. I had short-listed four and have one remaining this evening before deciding which two I will keep auditing / attending for the remainder of the fall term.
Some details on the courses I've selected to-date.
"The battle over history education in Canada," would involve selected readings, seminars and discussions on how history is taught in Canadian schools.
"Issues in numeracy and literacy," a Masters of Teaching course. It's a cohort from this two-year program with students in the second year of studies. Centres on examining the way math and reading/writing skills are being taught and challenging these teacher candidates on the methods they can use to teach these subjects in innovative ways.
"Cognitive development and learning," an intense study of how changes in children's brains as they age affects learning.
"Historiography and the history of education," which I haven't been to yet, examining the main issues in educational history.
I've also had another meeting with the associate dean and the director of the initial teacher education program. I left the meeting with another small pile of things to read and consider as they're strongly recommending I sit in on some of these courses as well. I agree, given my stated interest in earlier meetings has been to get an opportunity to observe what we're teaching our teachers.
J-fellow activities also chug along, as we gathered for our second lunch today. These lunches will be our off-the-record opportunities to invite guests of our choosing to the college for food, a beverage or two and some discussion with the four of us. We are responsible for booking these every week during term in the fall and spring. We're meeting Friday for lunch to take a stab at some division of labour on this and other tasks that we have to complete to organize the various fellowship program activities. We await confirmation from the German government regarding the trip to Berlin in December, but all signs point to this taking place. The relationship the college's journalism fellowship program has with the Finnish government also continues, and this appears to be confirmed as the destination for the April trip, with potential inclusion of Norway.
The others have also been dropping into a smorgasbord of courses this week, taking them for test drives to see which ones they might stick with through the rest of the term of year. Under the fellowship program, we do have to complete all the course requirements for one of the courses we choose to audit. I'm hoping to borrow one of their courses for my third/fourth course to audit, but we've not yet really shared what each of us has seen and done this week to move forward with that.
Myself, after attending tonight's course (historiography), I'll need to consider which ones I'm going to continue attending and which I might take a pass on. I also need to start thinking of what I may line up for the winter term, as all the OISE courses I've engaged with are only on for the fall term.
In other college life, it's the first high table of the year at Massey College Friday, which from what I understand is a more formal dinner (well, more formal than the existing formal dinners where fellows wear their Massey gowns) where guests of the master sit at the high table, actually elevated, and then are introduced by the master to the fellowship.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Putting it to paper in the Thames Valley

My colleague Debora Van Brenk at the London Free Press tweeted about this earlier in the day and the article was online several hours later. The hubbub was that the Thames Valley District School Board had signed a letter of agreement with the County of Middlesex regarding the inclusions of county municipalities in the school board's capital planning process.
While I couldn't find the letter of agreement online at Middlesex, the County of Elgin was due to consider the same letter of agreement Tuesday evening and its document is here. The school board's own release on the matter is here.
When I first read Deb's tweet, I was somewhat skeptical of what this agreement truly was about. Unlike Deb (or anyone writing about education right now at the Freeps), I was in the TVDSB board room when the presentations, delegations and various different votes on Middlesex County schools took place just about two years ago. That's not meant as a dig at any of the reporters at the Freeps, it's just an acknowledgment that it's difficult to know the context of an issue when your newsroom wasn't present and didn't report on most of the decisions at play.
Once I actually read the letter of agreement, it didn't strike me as that revolutionary. Remember the policy that was released in draft form by former education minister Kathleen Wynne in August 2009 and then released in final form by the current minister in February? Add to that the facility partnerships policy developed by the TVDSB and we're not exactly getting into rocket science. The school board and municipalities are just agreeing that they will abide by the Ministry of Education guideline, which lead to the local policy. For the record, the TVDSB released the list (it's a large file, but the report starts on p. 105) of "appropriate" facilities for partnership back in June and it landed with a thud because no one was paying attention. It put it all onto a section of its website too.
Further context?
This board was one a few across Ontario that maintained a capital planning advisory committee (CPAC). Though always confusing to trustees and its own members, CPAC was created to provide advice to trustees on when/where to proceed with school-closure reviews. After the annual accommodation report was received by trustees, they would forward it to the CPAC for review and comment. When the CPAC report came back to the full board of trustees, they would then take any other steps towards creating reviews. A roundabout way of saying the board already had a mechanism in place to receive opinion and advice on school closures, with representation from all municipalities in the district (including Middlesex and Elgin).
What happened?
Well, trustees didn't follow the advice they received from CPACs on the establishment of school-closure reviews in these contested areas. They voted to set them up. Then the review committee reports (and some of the best I've read with alternative options came from Middlesex) were given to trustees, who read and considered them. At the end of the day, trustees still voted to close those schools.
So, in comes the Community Schools Alliance. In come the guidelines. All of which has led to these letters of agreements. Don't get me wrong-- I think it's always a good idea to put things into agreements, policies and procedures so people are clear on what's expected of certain processes.
But at the end of the day, after much ballyhooing, will anything change? The TVDSB will still likely reach a point where its trustees will have to consider closing schools in all areas of the district (there are five reviews happening, right now, and all have municipal reps on them). I don't mean the ones the new board will vote on early in its term. I mean the next round (round four for this board) after that. The round that will include all of this municipal and community consultation.
Will it stop school closures? Unlikely.
Will it stop municipalities and communities complaining about school closures? Doubtful.
What I would hope it does is that by having these agreements in place, municipalities can respect the process. If they still disagree after the board has made its decisions, they'll be satiated they were part of the process and had their input duly considered. However, given each of these municipalities had that opportunity before (though in a slightly different way) and they're still complaining, how will these agreements change that?

Monday, September 13, 2010

NDSS injunction decision

As promised in a comment earlier today, here's the unedited complete judgment rendered in the Friends of NDSS request for an injunction to Niagara District Secondary School's closure last month.
In it, the judge essentially tells the appellants that he's rejecting their request based on the fact there were two years between when the board of trustees at the District School Board of Niagara made its decision on NDSS and when the request for an injunction came forth. The request came to the court after the effective closure date of the school in June, with the judge noting that to reverse that decision in late August would cause no end of turmoil to the students and staff members who found new homes to learn and teach and work in since June.
From the judgment:
It is readily understandable that the applicants would be reluctant to commence legal proceedings especially in view of the expense or potential expense. That however is not a sufficient explanation for a 2-year delay, especially when possible legal proceedings were mentioned at a board meeting in the fall of 2009...
A Divisional Court Panel, faced with a 'final' ruling and resolution of the board, on an administrative decision, where meticulous procedural fairness has been executed, is most unlikely to intervene. This is especially so because the standard of review is reasonableness. There is a privative provision -- the ruling is 'final.' The decision is an administrative one by board members who are publicly elected to make the very tough decisions they had to make. The board has expertise and knowledge in dealing with such difficult decisions in its region and in balancing all the factors and needs of the community.
These two paragraphs (9 and 48) are particularly damning to any decision by the Friends to continue on with their intent to see this through a judicial review. While this judge dismissed an injunction on the school's closure based on the fact the appellants sat on their heels for two years, he showed no fear of hearing much of the evidence that would likely be presented to the divisional review panel and speaking to it.
This is another opportunity for some sober second thought on whether it's time to accept the decisions that have been made even if you disagree with them and just move on. Dozens of other communities across Ontario have done the same in the past three months as their former schools closed and new ones attended.

Testing the OISE framework

I usually enjoy breaking the mold. It's becoming apparent to me as I navigate through the course-selection process that the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), where I hope to still audit the bulk of the courses I'll be sitting in and observing, isn't used to such things.
I have been working, via e-mail and a few in-person visits, with an associate dean on course selection, but it's been a slow process. Understandably, I show up in August and have all these questions and am well aware that there are other far more important priorities than holding the hand of a journalism fellow (especially when I can find my own way).
The masters' level courses have been fairly easy to navigate and find. It was suggested I also follow a selection of the mandatory initial teacher education courses that a B.Ed. student would take on starting at OISE. There's been a little more difficulty connecting on this course and finding out what sections I might be able to drop in on without freaking out a professor.
Still to be decided are any non-OISE courses I might follow, although I'm willing to follow the lead of some of the other journalism fellows to see what courses they're auditing. Hopefully by the end of next week or shortly thereafter I'll have my selections nailed down for the term.

Duncan's BB4E speech

Here's an embedded player for those who don't wish to navigate the Premier's livestream website.
(The video player was here, I've removed it until/if the Duncan speech is archived and posted)
Afterwards, I'll make sure this links to the archived version of the livestream.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

No surprise in Toronto court

Catching up to a day's worth of news alerts, clippings, etc.
I was not at all surprised to see the St. Catharines Standard article on a judge's decision not to grant an injunction on the closure of Niagara District Secondary School in Niagara-on-the-Lake. The decision is not online yet, however it may be within a matter of days at CanLii. From the article:
The case was heard in a Toronto court Aug. 25, and in a decision handed down Sept. 9 Justice Lee Ferrier said he could find no reason to grant the injunction. Ferrier said the process the District School Board of Niagara used to reach the decision to close the school was "scrupulously fair."
The board closed the school because of low student enrolment.
Saying it was not the job of the courts to function as the chairman of the board and overturn board decisions, Ferrier outlined the history of the decision to close the school, including how members of the Friends of NDSS took part in the process.
The judge said NDSS is already closed and students relocated to other schools. As a result, granting the injunction would cause more harm than good and would not adversely effect a motion for a judicial review.
"If all the students of NDSS were required to return to NDSS, it very well might impact student enrolment at the other six schools," he said.
As the article later states, losing this request for an injunction does nothing to the request by several community members for a judicial review of the District School Board of Niagara's decision to close the school. That closure took effect when exams ended in June, and the former NDSS students are now all attending other schools within that board or other schools in the area.
However, the community members and their lawyers may wish to read the full decision on the injunction very carefully. If this judge could see no merit in a temporary reversal of the DSBN decision, it should provide some insight into how the justices hearing the judicial-review cases may also react. As I've written in this space before, despite a rat's nest of motions on the night the board decided to allow a grace period for the school to grow its student population, the DSBN followed the process from the policies it created flowing from the provincial guidelines. A judicial review of these policies in relation to the decision to close this particular school is unlikely, based on the information that's available to us right now, to show any abuse of that process. If that's not the case, I will eat crow. I have yet to read or see anything that suggests this judicial review will be successful.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Building blocks stream

The province is hosting a two-day education summit here in Toronto on Monday and Tuesday of the coming week. More information on the event itself is available here, but organizers do intend to livestream all the keynote speakers. I hope to be able to embed the player on this site while the livestreams are running, which would then also provide the links for those to go back and view the video archive after the conference has ended.
All of this, of course, is dependent on whatever my schedule ends up being in the coming week-- If I'm not at the laptop to plug in the livestream then obviously my only option is to embed the archive once it's posted.
Given the roster of speakers (I'm most interested in U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan), I'll probably toss up a post or two early in the week as well.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

A real campaign on education? Bring it on!

I've been musing how to approach this since reviewing my regular news alerts and clippings Wednesday. "This" is the statement by Premier Dalton McGuinty at a GTA school Tuesday that he would gladly fight the next election over an education platform, with full implementation of full-day kindergarten as its main plank.
As quoted in the article from The Star:
“I think it is not too soon for us to consider the choice we’ll have next October,” McGuinty told reporters, speaking of the Oct. 6, 2011 vote in which he will seek a third term.
“We are so keen on moving ahead with full-day kindergarten and getting it right,” he added. “We have understood for a long time now that a strong start in school means that our kids are much more likely to graduate from high school and graduate from post-secondary education to get a good job and help us build a strong economy.”
Doing what we do, much of the coverage also noted Ontario PC Tim Hudak's responses.
Hudak acknowledged the kindergarten program will be into its second year if the Conservatives win next fall’s election.
“We’ll have some 50,000 kids across the province in 800 schools in full-day learning. We’ll have to be conscious of that.”
But Hudak suggested he wants to cut the cost of the program, possibly by using more early childhood education workers in place of higher-paid teachers.
“We’re willing to look at all models to make sure we get what’s best for the kids and their parents . . . we’ll have a year to observe.”
Hudak said he wants to make sure that full-day kindergarten attendance is optional if parents prefer to send their children for half days.
“The one-size-fits-all, must-enroll-your-kid-full-day as opposed to giving a choice to parents, I think that Dalton McGuinty has decided that Premier Dad knows best,” he told reporters.
I would be ecstatic to see an election fought over early learning (K-12 education? Even better). Why? The potential is there to have such a deep public discussion on what this province wants to see in terms of the services that are provided to families of young children from Quebec to Manitoba, from Hudson Bay to the Great Lakes. Politics being politics it's unlikely that discussion would live up to the potential, but some discussion (even uninformed, full of hyperbole, etc) is better than no discussion.
I would argue the premier and his education ministers over the past two years have laid out some broad brush strokes and, in the last six months, started providing some relief and definition to what their picture of full-day kindergarten should look like. Whether you agree or not with how the government is implementing it and its cost, it's there for all to see. It's not complete though and there remain many questions the government needs to answer in the next year, or that the Ontario Liberal Party should answer during the 2011 election campaign.
It's high time for Hudak to do the same. He wants to limit expenses in the program due to the province's current and projected fiscal situation. OK. Please tell us how. It's time to start framing your end of this conversation in terms that go beyond saying the government is doing it all wrong. Given the dearth of education-related material during the PC leadership campaign and the fact Hudak was the only one who actually enunciated some clear objectives (see previous posts here and here), it's even more surprising he's not presenting us an alternate vision. So what would it be? Dismissing hundreds of kindergarten teachers and replacing them with early childhood educators? Creating a drop-in kindergarten program, where parents could just drop the kidlets off when they felt like it and pick them up when ready?
Let's get it on.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Taking advantage of the opaque

Though precipitated by a comment here today, my temperature starts to percolate every time people discuss school-generated funds. It was a point I kept raising during the excellent series by London Free Press reporters Kelly Pedro (pre-leave) and Jennifer O'Brien. With last week's release of a two-page People for Education report, I am again smacking my head against the table at how frequently and often "school-generated funds" are misinterpreted.
School-generated funds is a creation of the current provincial government. When it decided to implement the public sector accounting board (pee-sab, as it's not-so-affectionately called), it told school boards they would have to begin accounting for all the money that flows through their hands, regardless of where it comes from. That created the requirement for school boards to report, as part of their annual audits, their "school-generated funds" as a one-line item. Over the years -- prior to it becoming the issue it did this year -- boards have differed on how they report these amounts. Some boards would provide you the copies of the school reports handed to the board, spelling out exactly what share of the funds at each school were collected and spent on specific purposes. So you could, with time, break down how much of the school board's total school-generated funds line was raised and spent on charitable causes, physical enhancements to the building and grounds, program enhancements or field trips.
Others, as many now do, simply report a gross number. That number is picked up, and then based on an incomplete survey of some school councils, is consolidated and reported by PFE and repeated by every media. It even earned the honour of a press release on the first day of school from opposition leader Tim Hudak.
So, what impressions were we left with?
That all school-generated funds are actually fundraising.
That all that money goes to support expansions at schools and equipment needed to teach the Ontario curriculum (most of it doesn't).
That parents are being forced to fork out all this cash when it isn't needed.
That every dollar of school-generated funds comes out of a parent's pocket.
School-generated funds includes every dollar, every penny that goes through the hands of a school. That means the hundreds of thousands of dollars raised for the Terry Fox runs each fall. The countless dollars raised to support third-world schools. The endless amounts that were so quickly raised for catastrophic events around the world such as the southeast Asian tsunami or the Haiti earthquake (I'm sure part of the answer why Pakistani flood relief fundraising is lower than past events is that schools weren't in session when the disaster occurred).
At some schools, it also includes field trips-- the traditional Grade 8 trip to Quebec City, Toronto, Ottawa or some camp some where. Trips to the ROM, to the Science Centre, even to the local pool for swimming lessons (although this last one can be covered by a ministry grant).
At high schools, yes, they include extra-curricular activities-- which to me, by their very nature and name, should not be funded exclusively through government grants. In the cases I've been aware of, the sport with the $50 activity fee sees the kids participate in a weekend tournament with booking, travel and accommodation fees. Or the team members get jerseys or other apparel with their names on it.
These are all things that are an important part of education, but we're not having the conversation as to who should be paying for them. PFE executive director Annie Kidder repeated many of the misconceptions of school-based fundraising in a CBC Radio Here and Now interview I heard on Friday, but she did say the report was written to have that conversation.
Shame on PFE for not actually helping parents understand what school-generated funds are actually about.
And shame on the media out there who didn't bother doing so either.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

First j-fellow fun

After months of anticipation it's finally begun.
We had our first journalism fellow lunch today in the private dining room at Massey College today with the master, John Fraser, and the college administrator Anna Luengo. My fellow fellows (har, har) are Elizabeth Church from the Globe and Mail, who's written most recently about post-secondary education, Susan Mahoney from CBC Radio, a senior producer for Tapestry and Ideas, and Jeff Warren, a freelancer who's written books and was a founding producer for CBC Radio's The Current. We're joined by associate fellow Yong Ho Kim of the Kookje Daily News in Busan, South Korea. In a special treat, Ann Dowsett Johnson, freelancer but formerly of Maclean's (think university rankings, which was her baby if I've understood it correctly), who is this year's Atkinson fellow, has an office here at Massey College and will be joining the j-fellows at our lunches and other events throughout the year.
As the only fellow (aside Yong Ho, who moved to Toronto with his wife and family) who was not working in Toronto, I am the only one living at Massey College for this coming academic year. I've already had my mind blown by some of the amazing graduate students who call Massey home as they're completing their studies and we've only had a few meals and one evening activity to-date.
The task of the moment however is to start wrapping our heads around course selection. EC has narrowed down some interesting polisci and arts courses, JW has a smorgasbord of philosophy and arts, SM has found some neat music stuff and YHK is heavily into climate change. I've had some discussions with the associate dean at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, but today was a big realization that it's been a long time since I last did this. I should have prevented some disappointment by reading the course schedule before the course calendars as some of the descriptions I was most intrigued by are not scheduled for the coming academic year. Three out of four graduate-level courses whose calendar descriptions had me salivating are not on the schedule.
So back into the course calendars I go...

Full-day kindergarten treatment

There certainly has been no lack of media coverage on the launch of full-day kindergarten in Ontario. With most school boards beginning classes today, the coverage has been wall-to-wall. In the past week I've seen plenty of local news alerts from smaller media covering the launch of the program at the schools in their coverage areas who are booting up the school year with the full-day program.
With the recent addition of the Ministry of Education, ministry staff member(s) and even Premier Dalton McGuinty to Twitter, each has attempted their best to get the full-day kindergarten hashtag to be a trending topic by putting it on virtually every tweet. The hashtag was getting good use on Tuesday morning by more than just government, with opposition leader Tim Hudak's name appearing in more than a few tweets as well.
From what I've been able to see today though, it appears the Globe and Mail is leading the way with its coverage. Haven't yet seen it in print (the newspapers are stored at Massey somewhere I haven't been yet, obviously), but online the series that started with some promise today is in three parts (one, two, three). The Globe is committing to following four families through this entire school year -- three whose children are registered in full-day kindergarten and a fourth who is attending a part-time program.
This is the sort of commitment that few Canadian media can make with the resources they have, so big kudos to the Globe for taking this on. I do hope they stick with it-- the newspaper tried something like this with a series of families by Andre Picard around 10 years ago and it quietly disappeared before the actual entire year was completed.
I'm also only mildly disappointed that all four families (only three are profiled today) are from Ontario, when the lead paragraphs point out B.C. and P.E.I. also kicked off full-day kindergarten programs this year. It would have been nice to have followed a child in each of those other provinces, but given today's realities I can understand the Globe may not have been willing to fly Kate Hammer and its videographer out to those two other provinces throughout the next 10 months. Four families within easy commuting distance of Front Street is a far more achievable target to keep pace with.
I'm looking forward to the rest of the series as it unfolds in the coming months, as well as to what other media across the province have to contribute to the discussion. Hopefully, one of the half-year courses I'm pegged to audit comes through, in which case I'll be spending part of the academic year here following early childhood development education as well.