Thursday, March 31, 2011

Last post from Massey College / Upcoming hiatus

The view from my Massey College suite, in more verdant times this past fall.
This will be the last post I'll write from my perch at Massey College, as pictured above. The past few weeks has been a flurry of activity as we wrap the academic term and prepare for the last Canadian Journalism Fellowship activity, a two-week stint in Finland and Denmark (to which I'm adding a week split between London, U.K. and St. Petersburg). This past Monday the selection committee met to shortlist the applications received from Canadian journalists for the 2011-12 edition of the program. After the committee meeting its members were joined by various funders of the program (including the Fisher family, who funded my fellowship) and this year's fellows. We had an opportunity to speak to the assembled crowd for five minutes or so, reflecting on the past seven months, the courses we'd taken and the experience as a whole.
I will be forever indebted to this college-- the past seven months have been exactly the personal and professional refresher and readjuster that I was seeking when I applied for the program. I doubt any words I could say or type would ever truly explain this experience and the impact that it will have on my career in time. 
The seven months have just flown by and though very excited for the travel that lies ahead, I am moving out of the college before leaving for our European adventures. Will split my time between various locations upon returning to this continent and I'm due back at work on May 2, just in time to cast my vote and then cover the results as they come in that evening.
I am particularly delighted the fellows will be visiting an elementary school in Finland, so I can see first-hand what the school culture looks and feels like in that most-revered of countries (at least when it comes to their educational system). I'm going to be particularly curious to see what elements look and feel the same as some of the classrooms I've been fortunate enough to observe in this country.
Sadly for this space, it means an extended hiatus. So the issues that I've been touching on -- particularly with the grants scheduled imminently for release -- won't be updated in this space until at least April 24 if not beyond then and into early May.
Please come back after that date so we can continue the conversation.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Budget: +4.5% for Ministry of Education

Having perused the full budget documents, the details (such as they are available in a budget) are always found in the nether regions of the full budget papers. Specifically, the pages I always enjoy perusing are the independent sections dealing with each subject matter such as education (duh), municipalities and any new revenue sources. Then I always take a look at the budget charts that have the actual detail-- in particular the overall budget lines for each ministry. I've extracted the pages and put them on GoogleDocs, however they're also helpfully here, here and here.
So what do they show for the Ministry of Education? Let's keep in mind these figures include all grants for student needs and ministry spending on things such as the Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat and related agencies such as the Education Quality and Accountability Office.
The actual numbers for 2008-09 are $20.471 billion and in 2009-10 $21.177 billion. That's a 3.4% increase for the years before implementation of the full-day kindergarten program.
The expected number for 2010-11 is $22.2086 billion -- a 4.8% increase in the first year of FDK implementation.
The budget figure for 2011-12 is $23.2203 billion -- a 4.5% increase.
That may look like a lot of money, and it is. However, you need to subtract 3% of that increase right away as all wages across the sector are rising by that amount for 2011-12 (even for the public elementary teachers whose provincial union botched the first two years' wage increases). Add to that a smaller number of schools coming into FDK this fall, but it's another chunk of money. That leaves very little behind for operational needs next year. The grants for student needs are being released at the end of the week, so some more detail should be forthcoming, but I completely expect several school boards will be net-zero increases once you take wage increases into account.
Capital (the third page on GoogleDocs or here) is separate and shows an increase from 2010-11 projected of $1.822 billion to a 2011-12 budget of $2.121 billion -- a 16% increase. So the overall increase when the GSNs are released will be padded by this capital figure.
My one regret is I'm going on hiatus towards the end of the week as my transition from Massey College to a working reality means I'll be away for the grants and all that follows.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Fraser mumblings

The Frasier Institute rankings (possibly the only thing hated by educators more than media coverage of Education Quality and Accountability Office results) were released on the weekend, with exclusive day one coverage by the Toronto Sunday Sun. The Sun's copy was picked up by most of the other Ontario papers in the chain for Monday editions, as the province's two Suns in Toronto and Ottawa are the only papers in the chain that have Sunday editions.
The writers over at Our Kids Blog also took a stab at the coverage, in a piece that scratched a little deeper below the surface than the lead article in the Sun coverage did.
The Sun's take on the results is that despite billions more in K-12 education-sector spending the EQAO results upon which the rankings are based haven't seen a corollary increase.
But with all the extra money that has gone into schools under Premier Dalton McGuinty — he's ramped up spending to $20.2 billion in 2009-10 from $14.4 billion in 2002-03 in his quest to be the Education Premier — the results are thin, (the Institute's Michael) Thomas said.
"If that's going on, we would expect to see more than a slow steady increase," he said.
"I can't make any sense of the extra money that's going into education, where it's going, what initiatives. It seems to be a little bit more unfocused, than spending before."
The Sun coverage drew a quick response from the minister, whose office sent out an open letter to the Frasier Institute by e-mail on Monday. I've tossed the e-mail up on my GoogleDocs.
I remember the days I used to write Frasier Institute report articles. Then I got busy with other beats and, armed with the knowledge no local school officials would comment meaningfully on the results, was happy to let the provincial coverage take the day.
Just as there are in EQAO results and the Society for Quality Education's Sunshine on Schools, there is value in the Frasier Institute data. It's what's done with the data that matters-- FI uses it to rank schools, fairly or not.
The ministry and boards use EQAO data to help make decisions on programming and resources.
As to the Sun's point -- billions more for little results -- given most of the increases went to wages and benefits, I'm OK with that for the moment. It'll be a different conversation when an increasing number of teachers are in the $100K club (coming soon to every school board near you thanks to agreements currently in place) but given their role I'm OK with that for now as well.

Quick fee follow

As expected and referenced below, the Ministry of Education released its fee guidelines (still in draft!) on its website Friday. I am disappointed the document the news release pointed to Friday isn't dramatically different (or really that different at all) from the draft guidelines released and posted by the London Free Press at the conclusion of its 2009-10 'Classroom Cash' series written by Kelly Pedro and Jennifer O'Brien.
So despite all the kerfuffle inspired by Toronto Star coverage and the recent People for Education report, the guidelines pushed out by the ministry really haven't changed, and are still in draft form.
Having said all that, I do like they state that no fee should be charged for any resource needed to complete a credit needed for graduation. Rightly so, those should be covered by grants and as PFE showed last week there are plenty of schools charging fees for these credit courses.
I also like the reporting mechanism in place here, but that's because I'm generally a fan of anything that pushes more data out into the public realm.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Mini capital update

The latest in capital-related coverage that's crossed the desk.
  • The Hanover Post on a new option presented to a review in the Chesley / Hanover area;
  • The St. Catharines Standard on the District School Board of Niagara's continuing need to look at enrolment and capacity;
  • The Dunnville Chronicle on how a school-closure decision rests in the hands of trustees; and,
  • The Simcoe Reformer on a pending discussion and potential review of Norfolk County's five high schools.
All of which, in response to the occasional comment here and elsewhere, goes to show that the school-review and school-closure decisions won't be suspended during the pending provincial election campaign. Without a dramatic turnaround in fertility and birth rates these are conversations that will continue to happen, particularly as the stock of school buildings continues to age.

Friday, March 25, 2011

What you won't hear in the next 36 days

A quick thought on what you'll never hear during the pending federal election campaign that should end in early May (I'm betting election day will be my first day back in an office). You won't hear any of the federal parties speaking about K-12 education.
It's easy to understand why-- education is a provincial responsibility, and the K-12 component of it is something that federal governments have never really -- or at least publicly -- shown an eagerness to wade into. Right back to the original British North America Act of 1867 education has been a responsibility of the provinces.
Which is not to suggest there are zero federal dollars in our schools. There are pots of federal funding that dribble through the provinces to schools for things such as French-immersion programs and resources, not to mention the investment by several federal departments in content and programming clearly aimed at the K-12 set in scope and destination.
It's interesting to ponder this particular division of responsibilities because when you look at post-secondary education, the line hasn't been as clearly established. Yes, colleges and universities are provincial animals, but remove federal funding from this sector and you decimate it. Being here at Massey has broadened my awareness of the granting councils and how much money they pour into (usually) graduate and faculty research. The country's largest universities, its most research-intensive ones, would be shells of themselves in many respects if the federal taps stopped flowing.
The federal Liberal government at the turn of the last decade took the most offensive step into provincial education, if you give any weight to the provinces who complained about it, when it established the Millenium Scholarships. Even so, the provinces were mostly pissy because the money went straight to students from the feds.
Could you imagine a federal government that would dare such a thing for K-12 schools?
We are a unique beast in that sense. Many if not most other federal states around the world have some sort of federal presence in K-12 either through curriculum, policy, funding or all of the above. Even in the good ol' U.S. of A., probably the most local school system I've been directly exposed to, the federal government's education department plays a huge role.
Is it time to consider this? Well, as much as I might dream it (think: federal education reporter? *sigh* I can only keep rubbing that oil lamp...) I don't think any party would come within 100 metres of this and I also don't think any province would let them.

Out the nose

Lots of hits today on the People for Education report released Thursday morning on fees levied on high school students across the province. Shock and outrage ensued as we read the things students and their families pay out the nose to do at school. I agree with the broader points of the recommendations in the report, which are:
1. Articulate and fund a vision for education beyond targets for test scores and graduation rates that outlines what materials, activities and programs should be available at no extra charge to all students in every school in Ontario. This should include:
• appropriate learning materials for all courses, including hands-on technology, arts, health and physical education and computer courses
• access to extracurricular activities
• participation in arts and sports programs
2. Require all schools and school boards to provide detailed accounts of all school generated funds, including funds raised through fees, and provide provincial reports on the total amounts.
3. Establish provincial fee guidelines that:
• clearly state which fees are not allowed
• close current loopholes that allow schools to charge fees for courses leading to graduation, and
• mandate that all school fees are to be voluntary.
4. Provide funding to school boards to replace all revenue lost from disallowed fees and revenue lost when fees become voluntary.
I'd quibble with some things, such as the inclusion of all extra-curricular activities in the first recommendation. Some extra-curricular activities are costly and for those who choose to participate, contributing to the cost is fair. That's doesn't mean imposing a barrier to participation if the appropriate policies are in place, such as group fundraising to support an extra-curricular that all students participate in as opposed to a fee levied that some students pay and others have to ask for subsidy.
I'm a huge fan of the second and third recommendations. We get lost in the school-generated funds conversation precisely because we don't have the detail referred to in the second recommendation. With no easy breakdown of what schools and boards are reporting, it too easily all gets lumped in as fundraising for school or classroom purposes, which it's not.
The examples coming out Thursday of some of the fees students have paid in Ontario high schools that go against legislation and regulation are also easy fixes. Get rid of them, period.
Being picky, quibbly at times, I did struggle with the sample size of the survey that led to these results. With some further reflection and after trading tweets with a few people, what makes me uncomfortable with the sample size is more what people like me do with the resulting percentages than the survey itself.
The examples illustrated and the recommendations are still important and due consideration, but I cringe when we start saying "X percentage of all high schools" and similar all-encompassing language when the survey can't reach that conclusion based on what we know about the data. Particularly when the reader can't see whether the sample size was statistically relevant-- ex: was it adjusted to proportionally represent the body of all high schools as happens with population surveys? I don't know. I'm left assuming the sample size is just the schools that responded, which happen to come from 53 of the province's boards and hold 20% of the secondary student body.
Looking at the fine print, PFE received surveys back from 19% of the province's (approximately 2,000) high schools. That encapsulates schools from 53 of the 72 (74%) publicly funded school boards. Those are important to keep in mind when it comes to verifiable statements in the rest of the report.
Saying, as the report does and as was repeated by many of my colleagues, that "92% of secondary schools charge a Student Activity Fee" requires a leap of logic this percentage can be extended from 92% of the 19% of schools that responded to 92% of all Ontario high schools. Ninety-two percent of 19% is actually 17%.
As the quibbler, having said 92% of schools that participated in our survey would be more correct in my eyes. However, it doesn't make as big of an impact.
Yeah, a lot of fuss over something that at the end of the day doesn't lessen the overall point: Many schools charge fees for things they shouldn't. The new fee guidelines were expected Friday (the day this post was written) but I haven't come across them yet.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Bil 177's first test?

The Star's Kristin Rushowy had a piece move Wednesday evening in regards to what I think may be the first real test of the changes brought about by the omnibus Bill 177 passed in the last legislative session in Ontario. It's a kerfuffle at Queen's Park over advice given to York Region District School Board trustees.
“He (YRDSB trustee) was told that (such) meetings have to be organized through board staff, and board staff have to be present,” said (MPP Frank) Klees, who did not identify the trustee. “The implication was, not so subtly, that this was grounded in legislation.”
Klees said he’s frustrated that unelected board staff “who have no accountability to the electorate are running the show, and elected trustees are sidelined.”
Education Minister Leona Dombrowsky said trustees are accountable to their constituents — not board staff — adding there’s no reason why they can’t meet with parents.
Ross Virgo, spokesperson for the York Region District School Board, said trustees are free to speak to anyone they wish. But the advice given was “to avoid situations in which trustees may feel compelled to support parent positions on specific incidents or operational matters without the benefit of a staff member to provide information and context.”
I've been expecting this since the passage of Bill 177, particularly with the provincial-interest regulations that were posted late in 2010. Some trustees recognized the way the bill and regulations would change their jobs and decided they wanted no part of it and didn't run for re-election. Others understand their newly defined roles, and still others don't but ran anyway.
The biggest governance measures implemented by the legislation is that trustees are more like corporate governors than they've ever been in the past. So, in theory, per the new rules, the memo is not off base. It's not the trustees' direct responsibility to interfere, involve themselves or resolve operational issues at a school level. The only person trustees as a group can provide any direction to is their director of education. That leaves trustees directly responsible for setting board policies and budgets. It's far more hands-off governance than is the tradition and history in this province, particularly given how many trustees put their name forward for the position because they have a history with local schools.
So advice to not meet with their constituents solo on school-level operational matters is actually not bad advice based on the current Education Act and its regulations. Is it bad politics? Well, that's an entirely separate question. Does it overreach? Well, it depends on what the trustee does with the information given by the constituent. If the trustee tries to fix the problem him/herself, then they're overreaching their legislated role. Plus, the trustee is not allowed to give direction to a principal, a superintendent or a teacher.
However, if the trustee received the complaint and then, through the board of trustees, brought it to the attention of the director of education for a resolution, that's kosher. If the board of trustees told (through a recommendation or motion) the director of education to do something about it and nothing was done, then trustees would be fully within their rights to decide on a consequence for the director (or for the director to implement).
Dombrowsky's right in her comments too-- trustees are accountable to their constituents. But the only person they can tell what to do is the director of education.

Snowy day capital roundup

As the snow falls in southern Ontario, here's what's crossed the desk in capital-related matters over the past few days. There was a browser-tab-history related crash that has produced a gap since the last capital update-- I had a number of things I wanted to link here that I had tabbed and then disappeared into the ether.
Anyway, here they are:
The Barrie stuff is interesting. I'd be curious to see if trustees bite on a timeframe-style recommendation. It appears strikingly similar to the Niagara District Secondary School proposal where the community was given time to increase student population, but it's not when you scratch beneath the surface. There's explicit instruction to seek partnerships under the relatively new partnerships guidelines to both become a part of the school facility and contribute to renos or a rebuild. The partnership language appears again when it comes to the south-Barrie high school meant to bring a school closer to that booming part of the city and region.
Will trustees go for it? If they do, will it work? A lot rides on how Barrie's city council responds and if council lives up to the chatter of wanting to preserve a high-school presence in the core then here's the opportunity to put some dollars behind that.
On a related sidenote, I lunched with Annie Kidder this week and we touched on accommodation reviews. We may have disagreed on whether the process is ultimately flawed at its core, though we agreed on its biggest problem: A misunderstanding of what the school-review process is supposed to accomplish. It's not meant to find *the* solution, it's meant to provide a recommendation that is different than what the board comes up with and, most importantly, different than the status quo.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Outsourcing or just being flexible?

The Toronto Star ran an op-ed piece today from U of T chair of early child development and education Jennifer Jenkins and Atkinson Foundation executive director Olivia Nuamah on the regulation change that would extend the current rules on who runs before- and after-school care from temporary to permanent. The piece says this change would come as a result of imminently pending legislation, but I can't find a bill on the books about this that's been introduced since Bill 242. That bill allows boards to run the extended-day program, but the fine details on how are covered in regulations-- one on the program itself and one specifically for extended-day programs. So, despite Premier Dalton McGuinty's December statements the program would change to allow boards to continue offering the extended-day program through third-party providers, I don't see a bill or regulation online that extends the provisions already in place for the first two years of implementation. I'd love for someone to point me in the right direction, since I've read the standing orders and committee schedules for the week and don't see anything there either.
Regardless, the authors of the op-ed are scaremongering.
Originally, the government had appeared to accept the idea that extended-day programming should be part of the education system. By opening up a part of the system to third-party providers, however, it has raised the spectre of cheaply run services delivered by low-paid workers incapable of ensuring either quality learning or child care.
This approach would fail to maximize the anticipated benefits of an integrated system and simply recreate the kind of fragmentation we are trying to leave behind.
Instead, the ministry should mandate that all services be public, that a system for managing consistency and quality be established, and that schools be available for holiday programs, reinforcing the year-round component of the original report.
Let's do a very quick reality check to temper some of the authors' concerns.
How many for-profit childcare operators are there in Ontario?
Huzzah to the boards singled out in the piece, but how many of those boards (and others) have existing arrangements with childcare agencies to run programs in their schools?
How many boards run their own before- and after-school programs?
Before the welcome introduction of full-day kindergarten, how many boards even employed early childhood educators for childcare services?
If I were to guess, since I don't know all the answers to these questions concretely, I'd say: Few if any, virtually all, a minority and almost none.
Ontario's childcare and children's services agencies are already in our schools. They're already licensed by the provincial government -- usually under the Day Nurseries Act. The education ministry has been consistent in saying the extended-day kindergarten program has to follow the provincial curriculum regardless of who runs it-- a bigger requirement than existing childcare curriculum, which is not regulated. The YMCA (full disclosure, I've worked part-time at Ys for over 10 years), a registered non-profit, is the province's largest childcare operator-- and its Ontario associations are already in many schools. It's followed, I would suspect, as a collective group, by municipally run childcare services, and then by other community based non-profits or not-for-profits.
I highly doubt this is the case of some greedy, for-profit devil waiting behind the door to pounce on a money making opportunity in extended-day kindergarten programs. If there were piles of money to be made in this sector the private sector would already be all over it and it's not. Certainly the boards and children's services agencies already active in the sector would tell anyone this is at best a revenue-neutral sector, even with the comparatively poorer wages and benefits paid to non-school board ECEs.
If a board already has a partnership with a children's agency to run an extended-day program in its school buildings, why couldn't that agency continue to run its programs for six-to-13-year-olds and the related and provincial-curriculum compliant kindergarten program? At the same time, if a board finds a suitable agency in the area that can take on these programs with its own resources rather than bringing in more board-rate ECEs and bureaucracy, why shouldn't they be allowed to do so? I haven't even gotten into fees, which boards are not eager to get involved in and existing children's services agencies are already accustomed to working out with the different municipalities through which childcare subsidies flow. The key, and there's nothing to suggest this won't happen, is to keep the boards in control of what happens in their schools (as they are today) and the programs compliant with the overall ministry curriculum.
The only less-than-positive thing I see here is that the extended-day staff members don't have a routine and regular presence in the classroom, as they would if they were board employees with one staffing the before-school hours and the other the after-school hours. That's minor when compared to looking at the bigger picture of implementing this program in a full-day format.

Changes coming, slowly

In a day or two, this blog will switch addresses, to Or failing that (my techie skills could be better),
The registration is still working its way through the internet's DNS universe, so the blog lives on here for the time being until that communication is completed.
After the URL switch, I will continue to use the Blogger platform for some time to come, so cosmetically the site won't change overnight. However, with my own registered domain I now have the flexibility to do a lot more with this site in the years to come.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Catholic quandary

Been quite a bit of noise late last week and this after a Catholic high school in Thunder Bay sent a student home who, on a pro-life kind of day at school (what day isn't at a Catholic school?), wore the word 'choice' on her clothing.
The Globe and Mail picked up the issue this week, though I believe Thunder Bay's Dougall Media news site broke the issue last week with a pair of articles here and here.
Of course, we're all suitably outraged at how a publicly funded school could be so discriminatory. It's the same concern and anger that was seen in the fall as the Halton Catholic District School Board fumbled the issue of how it handles gay-straight alliances at its high schools. It had prohibited them and now doesn't, not that this has led to an explosion of new gay-straight alliances at Halton Catholic schools or any others around the province. At the time a commenter here was insistent I was passing on the only important story in education in Ontario at the time.
I did pass. And with few exceptions I will, but more on that in a few paragraphs.
Of course, I'm aware the province required schools boards to pass their own equity and inclusive education policies, even punching out a guide on how to do so. One that would, in theory, allow for the sorts of student-, staff- and community led initiatives such as gay-straight alliances to exist in every school and help establish that school and community as a safe space for all.
Yes, it's patently unfair that both these things have happened in Halton and now in Thunder Bay. It does conflict with the larger goals of a mostly-secular, mostly urban province.
And yes, I, on a number of occasions in this space, have disclosed that while I graduated from a Catholic high school, I support the establishment of a single publicly funded system demarcated only by whether the school is English-language or French-language.
So here's the deal. As the guide itself states fairly early on:
For Roman Catholic and French-language boards, development and implementation of equity and inclusive education policies will take place within the context of the denominational rights of Roman Catholic schools as set out in section 93 of the Constitution Act, 1867 and the Education Act, and the language rights of French language rights-holders as set out in section 23 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Education Act. (8)
So there you have it. Legislated equity and inclusion, but only so far as the legislated ability for Catholic schools to be Catholic.
Last time I checked, the Catholic faith was far from inclusive when it came to the question of any sexuality that doesn't lead to heterosexual marriage and the subsequent and frequently repeated pitter-patter of little feet. Changing that is a matter for those within the faith and their faith leaders.
Last time I checked, particularly since it was a disastrous issue in the 2007 provincial campaign, no political party in this province is ready to do what's been done in Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador-- abolish the separate (Catholic in Ontario's case) school system.
So until one of the two things above happens, it's never going to be a surprise that a Catholic school will discriminate and promote pro-life initiatives over pro-choice ones. Duh. Also not surprising that a Catholic system would be less-than-welcoming towards any person who's not heterosexual. Again, duh.
Upset these are happening at your local Catholic school? Don't enroll. Go to a public school.
Until Catholics are ready to tackle these issues within their faith or the province is ready to move towards a single publicly funded system, these disagreements and discriminatory practices will continue because they're permitted. You can't have your cake and eat it too on this one. You can't allow a faith-based system to receive public dollars and practise its dogma in publicly built and operated spaces and then turn around and ask them to go against their beliefs.
Until that question is solved or a move to do either of the two resolutions above gains any real traction, these news items may be worth a few days' attention and then, really, not much more.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Will we remember Japan next year?

Been thinking of this as we've come to learn and realize the legacy of earthquakes, tsunamis and all the related damage to Japan.
It's quite logical to expect that Ontario's schools will be front-and-centre when it comes to raising significant amounts of money to aid in the relief efforts. They did last year for Haiti. They did for the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004.
Responding to these tragic events provides a unique and important opportunity to teach social-justice issues and the value of compassion and service to the global community. I would estimate that, despite the March break this week, schools across the province could easily raise around $1 million in aid for Japan.
Given the expected, routine kerfuffle over school-generated funding that seems to happen like clockwork every year, will we remember that these dollar amounts include every penny raised for this latest relief effort? We need to-- because every penny raised that flows through a school and is then donated to the Red Cross or any other organization on the ground in Japan will be reported as school-generated funds. The same moniker that repeatedly gets labelled simply as fundraising and then confused with the portions of school-generated funds that go to support the extras that some school communities fund for themselves.
Those who are keen amongst us might take note of dollar-amount totals for the relief funds this year, and remember to take those figures into account when 2010-11 school-board audited figures spit out the school-generated funds number some time next year. Just the same way the results we've pondered this year include Haiti fundraising from the last school year.
One could hope, anyway.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Graduated improvement

The release of the latest high-school graduation statistics were fodder for some coverage and opinion last week. The latest numbers released by the Ministry of Education on March 8 show an overall high school graduation rate of 81%.
Like all numbers and stats, it's frought with being oversimplified and lacking context. The figure applies to the percentage of Ontario students who started Grade 9 and completed their Ontario Secondary School Diploma within five years. This despite the high-school curriculum being a four-year program -- the ministry justifies its use of the five-year figure because it's a more complete figure.
Given approximately 30% of students take a fifth year of high school, until that figure changes there will always be a gap between four-year completion rates and five-year completion rates.
Of course, critics of the government, or the ministry, or boards, or 'schools today' will gripe that use of the five-year figure is hiding the failure of a four-year program. Get over it-- the curriculum changed a while ago and a majority of students who finish high school do it in four years. Others will gripe these rates and the accompanying statements of success are only because the curriculum has been dumbed down to ensure more students pass-- not to mention that old 'no-fail policy' chestnut that ... well ... is hard to prove as reality at pretty much every high school I've interacted with in this job.
So here's what I think is going well-- we've moved away from this insistence that everyone needs a university degree to be successful (and given my current post I'm in no way speaking against the value of a university degree). The programs that were in place until the 1970s and 1980s that allowed for more technical and apprentice education have returned as specialist high-skills majors. For those who know they're not headed to college or university, there appear to be more programs that will help them get the skills to be job-ready and obtain their OSSD.
I also applaud the introduction of student-success teachers. Every Ontario high school has one, focused on the Grade 9 and 10 students. Over and over the presence of a caring adult, one that a student makes a connection with and can lean on if need be, is proven to make a difference in education. Student-success teachers can fill that role.
One thing that did pop out of the fray in the coverage this week was one article out of the Sault Star on the provincial rates and the lack of local figures. School board officials in that area fluffed off questions about what local grad rates are saying it's too difficult to track them at a local level.
"Provincially, they can do it through what are called Ontario Education Numbers, and they've got those stats in a database," said John Stadnyk, director of education for the Huron-Superior Catholic District School Board. "Individually, in our boards, because kids move from board to board and we lose kids along the way, we can't track them, so it's hard for us to measure the graduates, compared to the number of Grade 9s."
That, to a certain degree, is bumpf. I say this because I've seen a board-level report on graduation rates. When a student transfers schools, the receiving school doesn't just create the record out of thin air. That's why OENs were created, in part. The record is usually transferred with the student. Plus, students don't magically appear out of thin air. Those Grade 12 students came from somewhere, and with some effort it's not impossible to see where they came from. Similarly, when someone drops out, it's not impossible to monitor whether or not they re-engage with a high school at a later time.
As a supporter of open data initiatives, I think this is important information that should be available at a school level. It's doesn't require re-inventing the wheel or creating some new system to track it either. The OEN allows for it, boards just need to start using it the same way the province has to compile these latest rates.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

FDK roundup

The past week has been a big week for full-day kindergarten in Ontario, with the province's announcement of another 900 schools that will host the program starting in the third year of its implementation in September 2012.
The coverage has been virtually provincewide, as every media outlet reported on the schools in their coverage area that would host the program's third phase. The running total on the number of schools that will have the program by September 2012 is approximately half of all publicly funded elementary schools in the province.
Some notable coverage that jumped out at me-- likely because it went beyond just listing school names and a program description:
There are still questions. While some capital has been committed to help boards cope with creating the needed space (most of which will be renovating existing vacant classrooms, I would suspect, or tacking on classrooms to planned new construction), the most challenging schools in this respect are many of the ones that have been left in year four and five of the implementation. The QMI editorial glosses over this without a competent understanding that boards won't spend this money unless they get it from the province in some form or other.
Probably the biggest element is that the government can't be flamed every time it makes an adjustment to its original plan during this five-year implementation. Giving flexibility to address existing children's services agencies' offerings in schools and the reality of program implementation in remote regions shouldn't equal getting tarred and feathered for 'flip-flopping.'
That said, I did think it rich that Progressive Conservative education critic (and the party's last education minister) Elizabeth Witmer was trying to get mileage out of slamming the Liberal line that Conservatives would kill off implementing the rest of the program. For a party that has only made vehicular references ("Cadillac program") to the full-day kindergarten program it was a bit much to critique the Liberals' attempts to paint Tory policy. Especially when, to its credit, the government was talking full-day kindergarten consistently last Wednesday while the opposition was moaning about hydro. I guess they didn't get the memo, so the response could only come the following day.
Leaving  the program at 50% implementation would be a disaster. Let's see what alternatives, if any, arise in the coming months.
With all the coverage, I'm still not seeing anything substantial that comes back to the families who spoke to the media in September when the kiddies started school. I'm also not seeing anything that attempts to describe play-based learning.
Somewhat related, I started working on something fun related to this yesterday. I'll unveil it here when it's done.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Investing in coverage

Been raptly following the Peterborough Examiner's five-day "In the classroom" series this past week. The paper dedicated approximately a half-page a day plus video as reporter Elizabeth Bower shadowed King George Public School for the week. Unfortunately, the only part I can find on the Examiner's website is day one. That's disappointing for you, since there were even some video teasers on the printed pages for days two and beyond. I've searched every section of the website as well as using the search function and cannot find the other four parts on the website.
Regardless, I commend the Examiner and Bower for this five-part series. The Examiner is not that large of a newsroom (it was about 20 people when I interned there 12 years ago and has only gotten smaller since then) so the decision to spring one reporter, with support from a photographer/videographer, for five full school days is a large commitment.
The articles are comparative ('back when I was in school...') but also explanatory in nature. We all tend to fall back on our own experiences when we were in school, so writing of this nature on an occasional time frame helps remind us of how the practices in schools change.
We all win when we have a better understanding of what happens in our classrooms and readers of the Examiner have that this week.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Capital mega-roundup

Time to close a bunch of capital-related browser tabs that have been open since the last roundup.
Loved reading the northern article -- Hearst and Smooth Rock are 160 kilometres down Highway 11 from each other (with Kapuskasing and other settlements in between) -- so the realities on the ground of an accommodation review there are very different than in many parts of rural southern Ontario, where the next school is usually within 10 to 20k and schools considered as part of the same review are usually within 30k of each other.
Was disappointed however, given some recent stellar reporting from St. Catharines on the DSBN Academy, to see a bad headline and confusing copy on the municipal consultation. The way the article is written leads one to believe that municipal partnerships will solve declining enrolment. Partnerships help take vacant space off board pupil-place rolls that reduces the financial impact of declining enrolment. Partnerships don't -- at least between municipalities and school boards -- actually lead to the increase in birth and fertility rates and/or migration rates needed to boost school-aged populations within the region.

Academy roundup, with video

Coverage of the District School Board of Niagara Academy continues, with TVO's The Agenda dedicating a large chunk of its 1000th broadcast to the concept of the school within the broader discussion of a one-size-fits-all public schooling system or one that provides for the flexibility to create models like this one.
First, the roundup:
  • The Standard on an community forum (sans DSBN) on the Academy and other education alternatives;
  • Coverage of the forum from later in the week; and,
  • The link to the episode page of The Agenda. (The relevant chunk is embedded below, with apologies that it doesn't quite fit in this column).

I wasn't able to watch the episode live, but highly recommend that anyone interested in public schooling in Ontario watch this episode. It was bereft of any platitudes, fireworks or gamesmanship by the participants. I was impressed how, despite the easy temptation to do so, each of the panelists addressed their perspectives. I was surprised they shared more opinions and perspectives on allowing flexibility within public school systems than points they disagreed on. Annie Kidder was the only one strongly in the 'no' camp on the DSBN Academy, with the others essentially reserving judgment on the concept due to a variety of factors.
What also came through clearly (which is obvious to all who know -- or know of -- them) was each person's passion for education and a vision that is able to give each student the best chance at success in life.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

School-generated $$ coverage

Today marked the conclusion of the Toronto Star's two-day coverage on school-generated funds. Monday's paper featured two articles (including a front-pager!) and Tuesday we got one article in the GT section. The online component (a little disorganized in the layout) also featured downloadable PDF files with the school-by-school details for the Toronto, Toronto Catholic, Dufferin-Peel Catholic and Peel DSBs. That's less than the seven boards the Star said complied with freedom-of-information requests for this data, although I can't seem to find the other three online.
The school-by-school data is handily broken out into "school-based" and "school council" numbers, which helps my continual pet peeve. School boards are only obligated -- right now -- to report these school-based revenues as one figure, leading to the wide assumption all that money fundraising is destined for the classroom. Breaking out council-based funds from school-generated funds will help make the distinction, but to me it was only clear in downloading the PDFs, not in the articles themselves.
In Star fashion, the paper threw its education reporter, a Queen's Park reporter, a third reporter and a researcher on this two-day series. While I appreciated the coverage did on several occasions make the distinction between the kinds of money that flow through these schools, that was the only thing I felt this series did differently than most of the reporting on this in the past. For example, several of the top-dollar schools have International Baccalaureate programs that come with exam fees that students must pay. So is highlighting that meant to suggest those dollars are a reasonable part of the school total? Or is it meant to suggest education grants should cover these exam fees? I wasn't left with a decisive feeling either way (though my personal opinion is the status quo on these fees is perfectly acceptable).
We had a volley of coverage on school-generated funding in the fall (which may have prompted the FOI requests behind this Star coverage), but the Star is far from the first to tackle this question. Even the minister's references to guidelines and a solution from the Tuesday article wasn't prompted by the Star, but rather coverage from last school year.
The London Free Press' "Classroom Cash" series, completed by tag-team education reporters Kelly Pedro and Jennifer O'Brien, made the mold on this issue and was the first to do an in-depth interview with the minister and the first to report on the pending fundraising guidelines-- the draft of which was posted online in June 2010.
While the readership of the Star is higher than the Free Press and its impact rating definitely higher in Liberal Ontario government, I do hope the newspaper doesn't take all the credit for any changes heading our way on this issue.
Lastly, to the issue itself, regular readers here already know what my thoughts on school-generated revenues are. We can get outraged until we're purple in the face, but we can also just say no. Parents want to provide the best for their kids-- understandable! Who would want less? Is throwing money around the best way to do it? Hardly.