Monday, December 13, 2010

2010 year in review

Ah, the joys of a scheduled post. I'm somewhere in Europe on fellowship and/or personal travel as this post crosses the wire, but I did this in 2009 after seven months of blogging and wanted to do it again this year after a full year of blogging (despite doing it less frequently).
The past year has seen some of the issues from 2009 carry on, as well as others enter into the fray given the fall election.
Some of the constant top issues:
  • School accommodation: School-closure reviews, their committees, reports, discussions, disagreements, impacts, unsuccessful court challenges and moving on. Many of the first reviews completed after the guidelines were reintroduced by the provincial government that led to school closures were acted on this year-- new and expanded schools opened in September and the old schools closed in June. What didn't happen? Coverage of students and families in their new schools-- talking about how they hate it or love it or whatever.
  • Help not wanted: Yet another year where with a startling few exceptions publicly funded school boards barely needed to hire any new teachers. Yet our teachers colleges continue to admit thousands of prospective candidates (it's OK, they're training them to teach the world).
  • Sunshine: Still surprised at how surprised / upset people get when the annual list comes out. The contracts were signed. The dollars were crunched at the time. Simple math tells us exactly how many more people in education will get added to the 100K list based on the jobs they have and the contract their employee association and school board (with financial backing from the province) signed.
Stuff that came of age in 2010?
  • Full-day learning for four- and five-year-olds / early learning program / full-day kindergarten: Whatever the heck you call it, this program saw some meat put on its bones this year. Decisions to staff classrooms with teachers and ECEs, to setup a before- and after-school program component and then later allow boards to exempt themselves from it. Then, finally, the launch of the first classrooms in hundreds of schools across the province. Lots of coverage in early September. Still waiting for the second part of that promised Globe feature that committed to checking in with a handful of families across the country with four- and five-year-old kids. Or anything similar from any other media. With plenty of ECE contracts left to finalize and another round of bargaining for the whole sector just around the corner (sort of), this one should continue its prominence in 2011.
  • Moaning about fundraising: With a h/t to two of my fellow education reporters at the London Free Press, this one makes my list for 2010. People for Education helped as well, with two separate reports that spoke to the amount of school-generated funds in our publicly funded education system. Can't wait, hopefully, in 2011, for people to actually speak about this issue properly and separate fundraising for school items and activities from all that other cash that flows through a school before heading elsewhere outside the system.
  • A new minister: After several years of stability in the portfolio with Kathleen Wynne, a cabinet shakeup moves Leona Dombrowsky into the education slot. A feisty member of cabinet, it doesn't feel as though that talent has really been brought out. However, under her watch we've seen the FDK implementation, as well as another budget year of increases in education in a deficit fiscal climate where overall school enrolment continues to drop. The provincial-interest regulations and a provincial election lie around the corner. I expect to hear and see more of Leona.
  • Bullying: It's always been an unfortunate facet of life and school. It seems despite earlier suicides, etc. this year was a breakout year for everyone to hate bullying and start talking about its presence in the school system. There are few shining lights on this, however encouraging efforts are coming out of the London area as well as in Ottawa.
  • EQAO opposition: This could just as easily go in the 'constant issues' list (really, when have teachers' federations ever liked EQAO?), but the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario ramped up a campaign surrounding its annual meeting on the tests. When are we going to stop talking about this as though the tests might ever go away? They're reality.
  • Now for more of the same: Trustee elections result in changes, but no real sweeps across the province.
  • Community Schools what?: Oh, the Community Schools Alliance and how, despite a few agreements with one school board, it's faded from our consciousness.
In 2011, we'll have to see how some of the issues above continue to play out. With an 'education premier' gearing up for another provincial election in October, it will also be interesting to see how this government faces its opposition on education, and whether that opposition will actually come out of the hole it's been hiding in when it comes to educational issues.
As of the day this post was drafted, the blog has seen just over 18,700 visits since inception -- about 11,800 of those in 2010, with a grand total of just over 28,000 individual page views. With the drop in posting frequency, it's been averaging about 30-40 visitors a day. Small,  but still better than I expected given fewer than half as many posts in 2010 compared to seven months of 2009. I don't IP-snoop, but have been told this page is read across district school boards, in the ministry and among other education reporters in Ontario. As an aside, as I posted last year, here were the top-10 posts measured by unique page visits (metric doesn't include over 6,600 hits to the front page). Which to me is a more interesting measure since it means the hit came from someone searching for the post's topic or arriving at the post because they were led to it.
  1. Bill 177 (Still! Second year! Which just goes to show how it is among the few things out there on this legislation) - 708 views (1,240 since it was posted in May 2009)
  2. Full-day kindergarten = ECE shortage? (another one from 2009) - 686 views
  3. Bill 242 introduction (showing another piece of legislation where there has been little written) - 442 views
  4. A thought on teacher education and the job market - 272 views
  5. ETFO goes after ELP ECEs - 251 views
  6. ELP's impact on childcare providers - 234 views
  7. On teaching - 185 views
  8. Reflections on a week I'll not soon forget - 177 views
  9. CUPE first out of the gate? - 166 views
  10. Busy days in NOTL - 154 views
 Thanks for stopping by. I don't completely know what the next 12 months will bring in terms of my employment situation and the time I have to dedicate to this blog, but it will survive.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Fellowship hiatus No. 1

With a pre-scheduled exception, the blog will be on hiatus as of Dec. 4, until at least Jan. 3, 2011.
Hope you and yours are able to celebrate the season in whatever way is appropriate. I look forward to writing, reading and discussing in this space in 2011.

FOI success at LFP

I was so happy to see this hit the web Friday night, and it fronts today's London Free Press. Education reporter Jen O'Brien submitted a request under the Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act for e-mails relating to an online security breach of the Thames Valley District School Board's student portal earlier this fall. A 15-year-old wunderkid, whose own questions and warnings were apparently ignored by the board, broke the security on the portal and then posted the full list of usernames and passwords on Facebook. The move caused some ruckus at the board as the portal was first taken down and then tens of thousands of students were forced to change their other online passwords to protect themselves. The teen is now facing charges.
Having fought this particular board on previous FOI requests and served in an advisory capacity on at least one other request, this release is fantastic. It appears that in its urge to line up all the public relations and internal ducks before publicly releasing and responding to the security breach, administrators likely didn't think someone outside the board would end up reading those e-mails.
This no doubt will embarrass some at 1250 Dundas St. in London, starting with the public affairs and community relations people (both prominent former journalists from London media) who, per the e-mails, were shaping messages instead of calling the cops.
Given a fairly significant slip by this same department at the very beginning of the Tori Stafford disappearance in 2009 (she was abducted and murdered after leaving a Thames Valley school to walk home) and how this breach was handled, part of me wonders if the new board of trustees might not be left wondering about its communicators.
In the meantime, I'm sure other boards have taken note. School boards, though not subject to investigation by the Ontario ombudsman (that's an entirely different issue) are subject to freedom-of-information requests. They have to comply with the legislation. When you cough up your $5 you need to be prepared for a fight, but your tenacity is often rewarded.
As school boards become aware of this it's a double-edged sword-- the very e-mails that so compellingly form the foundation of the Free Press' article today would start to disappear as people learn they can be requested and must be released. While the ultimate goal of the release might be to change behaviour, it may only end up changing it to the point it moves even further into the shadows.
Already shared my appreciation with O'Brien earlier, but it fully deserves mention in this space as well.

Friday, December 3, 2010

ARC talk

Two quick hits from two different areas on pending accommodation review committee / school-closure committee decisions. Both hit the web Thursday, at the Owen Sound Sun Times and the Barrie Examiner. One editorial (Barrie) one news article, both dealing with school-closure committees created by the previous term of trustees but left to this term of trustees to complete. The Barrie editorial was particularly apt since the Simcoe County District School Board trustees of last term left another hotly contested and divisive school-closure decision in the northwest part of the county to their successors. So not only will this board decide on the fate of Barrie Central, but also on the fates of high schools in Collingwood, Midland, Penetanguishene, Elmvale and Stayner.
Bluewater must also turn its attention to school-closures, committees struck this autumn but not yet populated with representatives or initiated. Given the governance chaos in Bluewater during this last term, it will be interesting to observe whether its opponents believe the board has changed how it considers public input.

Travel sanity in the Sault

The Huron-Superior Catholic DSB's new chair had some interesting ideas earlier this week when the new term of trustees selected its leaders for the coming year. The Sault Star covered the election and the comments on the burden of travel for those in the education sector. From the article:
(Sault Ste. Marie trustee Laurie Aceti) said an issue the board increasingly grapples with is the Ministry of Education's travel demands on senior administrators, who can be required to be in Toronto as often as once a week some months.
She said it is "burning our superintendents out."
"I think it's very difficult on them personally to get everything done," said Aceti. "You quite often find them here on the weekends or in the evenings."
Aceti said she hopes to see the board push for a web seminar solution to the problem.
"The technology they use for distance education, maybe we can look at doing something differently, changing it up a little bit," said the Mount St. Joseph College graduate.
Not that much of a stretch of logic, right? The ministry certainly knows about web-based conferencing-- often on the grants for student needs announcement day there is a webcast for board chairs, directors and treasury employees. The ministry has used the technique for other announcements as well with both boards and media.
It brings to mind a series I worked on several years ago titled "Travelling educators," which focused on mostly itinerant board employees who, due to their specialties or the lack of a critical mass of students for their subject areas in one school, spent an increasing portion of their day in their vehicles instead of working with students. Superintendents aren't that different.
If the most important person in a student's success while at school is the classroom teacher, the school principal's most important role is to support that classroom teacher. By extension, the superintendent's most important role is to support the principals and vice-principals within their families of schools. If they have to travel to Toronto every week, then the links in the chain start to fall apart.

Gideons at play

I'm always keyed into how and when other education reporters / media report on issues that I've reported on in the past for my own employer. For the last few weeks, it's been the Waterloo Region Record's coverage of the Waterloo Region District School Board's discussions regarding the distribution of New Testament Bibles by the Gideons. Record articles by Luisa D'Amato are here and here, with the National Post also running something this past week.
In a nutshell, the Gideons distribute the religious texts through schools, offering them at no cost to parents of students in Grade 5. This is a longstanding practice from what I understand-- having gone to a Catholic school where there was no lack of bibles on the shelves of every classroom, I never lived through being offered one by the Gideons. Many school boards now have procedures or policies in place where this can still happen, but it can come to trustees for approval. This isn't a new topic in this space either, as I posted about it earlier this year.
The reaction in Waterloo Region is no different than where other boards have struggled with the same question. As a secular, publicly funded school board, do you allow faith communities to distribute literature through your schools? In this case, it's a text that many people in this province wouldn't be offended by, as we still predominantly associate with Christianity above other faiths, even though many might lapse or choose atheism or agnosticism as life passes us by. Plus, logistically, usually a letter goes home and if the bible is wanted, it's signed and returned to the school. On distribution day, students pick up the texts on their way out the door at the end of the day.
As far as I'm concerned, we should call this what it is-- evangelism. The Gideons don't hide the fact that one of their priorities is to disseminate the bible. You can dress it up and call it something else, but more bibles in more hands is an attempt to keep a few more Christians around. It's their right to do so-- but I don't agree with using a secular, public school system as the vehicle to accomplish it.
You want to educate your child in faith? Enrol them in a faith-based school -- though in this province only one of them won't cost you more than enrolling them in the public system. Regular readers here would already know I support a single publicly funded system. Faith is best learned in the home and in houses of worship.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Battle over history education ends in a stalemate

This was the witty line I came up with at the conclusion of this course that I've been auditing this term. As per the requirements of our program, I chose this course to be the one where I completed all the course requirements-- which meant doing all the readings (three to five hours a week, a 'graduate' level), leading the discussion in one of the seminars, writing a literature review and completing an end-of-term project.
For the end of term project, as mentioned below, I wrote about the Equestrian Statue of King Edward VII located at Queen's Park, a short walk from Massey College.
The last class of my 'Issues in numeracy and literacy' course of the term -- it continues in January -- is early this afternoon.
The Battle course taught me a few things. First, I'm not an academic. The readings in this course, as previously mentioned, were at times thick. Or 'dense' to use a more academic language. The course centred on the so-called history wars of the late 1990s and how the resulting change in academia hasn't successfully filtered down to history classes in our schools. As we contemplated the end of the course over some beverages Tuesday evening, we came to the question of whether or not the reform that's underway in the teaching of history would be successful. System-wide reform through a standards-setting process was a failure south of the border in the 1990s (one of our readings for this course), and it's met with various levels of success in other countries.
Currently, the Ministry of Education is updating the 2005 history curriculum to include concepts of historical consciousness (alternately called historical thinking), as pioneered by UBC historian Peter Seixas. Teachers have already been advised the updated curriculum will feature the Benchmarks of Historical Thinking that have been slowly developed over the past 15 years.
I thought the revision could meet with some success-- despite the pessimism of some of my classmates. I accept there will always be teachers who will not reform their practice from however they've established it. But most will, if this reform has the support of the ministry, school boards and teachers' federations-- all of whom are supposedly involved. Plus, to this reader, looking at the current curriculum and the benchmarks, there are already a number of common features. There aren't too many bridges between it and the world of academia, which I'm sure based on my takeaways from this course means that academic historians will have plenty to continue complaining about when it comes to how history is taught in our schools.
The funnest reading we had recently was one edited by Christopher Dummit and Michael Dawson. The history wars in Canada are over, they argued, since the 'old guard' has been replaced within the academy. The article, published in 2009 by the Institute for the study of the Americas at the University of London, was deliciously vicious in poking the Canadian academy for what it's forgotten and what it's not doing well. It was a great way to end the term.
Next term
Not all the i's and t's have been dotted and crossed, but I'm hoping to spend all my OISE time in the winter term auditing the courses from the fourth-year of the faculty's concurrent education program. The cohort I've arranged to attach myself to is the first of the new program, so it should be interesting.

Did you feel the earth move? I didn't.

Today marks the official start of a new term for school board trustees across Ontario. Some boards area already having their inaugural meetings this evening to select their new chairs and vice-chairs. Others will happen in the coming week, before boards squeeze in their last meeting before the holiday break at the end of the month. The only coverage I've seen in today's media (cursory sweep) was Moira MacDonald's regular Wednesday column in the Sun.
Any predictions?
I've previously mentioned here how I think this coming term, in some of the largest boards, will be dominated by questions of accommodation and enrolment. But with a provincial election in the offing and, potentially, a new government in power by this time in 2011, it could be a very quiet first year to the term. There's still, overall, a hush in the opposition benches when it comes to tackling anything related to education-- with the brief exception of Tim Hudak's assertion he would bring back the fall report card if elected.
There's some thought that a key portion of the Liberals' election platform will be accelerating the implementation of full-day kindergarten, however that's dependent on money too and some boards (see: Peel) are already coughing up the cost of this program that they tried to choke down for this fiscal year. With many ECE contracts yet to be settled -- and over time I would expect these ECEs to be paid more than educational assistants -- this may determine the ultimate cost pressure on the program. One-time renovation costs can be amortized, just like virtually all of the improvements, renovations, expansions and new construction in the education sector since the Liberals took office in 2003.
Here's to the next four years.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

ECE union checkin

Was reminded of this by an Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario tweet late Wednesday, indicating the federation had just signed its 10th group of early childhood educators (ECEs).
The 10 boards are listed on ETFO's ECE website, where the news releases also provide an idea of who signed into ETFO and when.
Compare that to the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation, which on its ECE site lists 17 school boards. Keep in mind OSSTF already represented some ECEs employed by school boards prior to the introduction of full-day kindergarten.
Surprisingly -- I've always expected it to be the dark horse in this race (if one can call it that) -- CUPE's Ontario website for the school sector lists only five news releases of boards that have signed letters of agreement for ECEs. I'm expecting CUPE would be the union representing the lion's share of ECEs employed within the 72 publicly funded school boards in Ontario. The announcements on the page are for signed letters of agreement (essentially extending the ECE PDT provisions on top of a similar contract already signed with that board, valid until the next round of contract negotiations).
As best as I can tell, the Ontario English Catholic Teachers' Association is not chasing ECEs. I don't know enough about the French-language federations to speak conclusively about them, however would note OSSTF has a good number of French-language boards where it's representing ECEs.
So is it possible only 32 boards have nailed down which union represents their ECEs? There have got to be more out there that I'm not finding. Given the sector's contracts expire on Aug. 31, 2012, people are slowly gearing up for whatever will happen in the next round.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

There are stronger arguments...

I wasn't blown away by this opinion piece in the North Bay Nugget calling for a single publicly funded school system in Ontario. On the larger question of consolidation and an end to faith-based publicly funded schooling in Ontario, I agree with the author of this, Gord Young. His argument simply isn't compelling enough as it's based on recent capital funding announcements for area boards that -- due in part to the public board's less-than-stellar planning -- produced greater riches for French and Catholic boards than it did for the public board.
In the Diocese of Sault Ste. Marie, which stretches from Temagami to Manitouwadge north of Thunder Bay, 18 churches have closed over the past two decades and more will be locked up for good by the end of next month, including Corpus Christi, St. Rita's and Saints- Anges in North Bay and La Resurrection in Sturgeon Falls.
People don't attend services like they once did. And the church no longer has enough priests.This was brought to mind recently when Near North District School Board trustees boycotted a news conference where funding was announced for facilities in Mattawa.
The trustees are upset because the public board received $1 million to address accommodation needs at F.J. McElligott Secondary School while the two separate boards -- Nipissing- Parry Sound Catholic District School Board and Conseil Scolaire Catholique Franco- Nord -- are getting funds to build new facilities.
Both French families and Catholics in Ontario have a constitutionally protected right to attend their own schools.
But should the provincial government continue pouring millions of dollars into the Catholic education system when churches are falling like dominoes?
Despite how many Catholic boards would love the two to be more related than they are, the reality is that regular church attendance and Catholic-school enrolment are not joined at the hip. Many baptized Catholics will send their baptized kids to Catholic schools and never attend services at the nearest parish. (We were one of those families) It also negates how some Catholic boards allow other baptized Christians (or anyone at all) to attend their elementary schools. I specify elementary schools because high schools are under an open-access policy and Catholic boards cannot deny enrolment to non-Catholic students in their schools from Grade 9 onwards. The analysis also ignores the complex reasons for why Catholics choose to enrol their kids in Catholic schools -- for some undoubtedly it's a question of faith, but other reasons include location, physical building, programs, etc.
Is there disparity in capital funding between the boards? Absolutely. Catholic and French boards have undoubtedly been bigger benefactors of government capital than English public boards since 1998, when these allocations shifted to (somewhat) of a per-pupil allocation. Those with knowledge of the past would remember that prior to 1998, when public boards received the dollars from all the commercial and industrial assessment in their catchment areas the equation was vastly different. In essence, after decades of being the much, much poorer cousins Catholic and French boards are playing catchup to public boards in being able to offer equitable facilities, recognizing their enrolment and geographical distribution.
Having said all that, this seems more motivated by sour grapes among public school board trustees and administrators in the area than by the larger question of either faith-based schooling or consolidation. Despite my own educational background, I've never hidden my preference for two school systems in this province within this space-- one English, one French. It's been done in Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador (the latter striking the fear of God into Catholic educators in Ontario) with the requisite constitutional amendments. From what I can tell from this perch however, it hasn't altered the dynamics of aging school buildings, declining enrolment and the need to have a well-prepared capital plan.
With the chances of a constitutional amendment low, perhaps the board in this area should concentrate on getting its ducks in a row for the next round of capital funding, should there be one.
Had there been a single school system the same capital dollars would have likely flowed into the area for renewal and accommodation, so this is not the fiscal argument to stake this position on.

DSBN moves on

Two related pieces about the District School Board of Niagara and its new pupil accommodation rules. The best I can find is the policies page, and the report laying out the recommended changes accepted by trustees Nov. 23 is not online as far as I can see. Niagara-on-the-Lake's Niagara Advance and the St. Catharines Standard took point on the changes.
The biggest one is that public input on school-closure decisions by the board will now be accepted separately from the meeting where trustees would actually vote on the question at hand. This is not an earth-shattering change and I'd be curious to know how other boards deal with this separation, if in fact they do separate the two. The board where I've covered several reviews does have this process in place for public input on proposed school closures-- in fact, trustees there never vote on any public input the night it's received. They can only ask questions of clarification on the presentation. Any votes arising from the presentation must be taken as "business arising from the minutes" in the following board meeting.
This won't separate the emotion of a packed board room from the evening where trustees vote on these difficult questions, but it does allow some breathing room between when people speak to trustees and when trustees then act on all the information they've received-- from administration, from the accommodation review committee report(s) and from the public input. I see this as an improvement in board governance at the DSBN and as stated above would be curious to hear how many other boards across the province follow similar procedure.

What this fellow has been up to

Equestrian Statue of King Edward VII at Queen's Park
It's been some time since I've posted about fellowship activities. Things are puttering away at a somewhat frenetic pace as we approach the end of the fall term. This includes re-writing a paper for one of my courses (seems I wasn't paying close enough attention to what was required) and prepping for the submission of the end-of-term paper in the same couse -- hence the photo of the statue of good ol' King Edward VII. That class (Battle over history education) continues to be a source of some frustration and immense reward as we discuss our readings every week. It has continually reminded me of the reason why I'm here despite how it makes my brain hurt some weeks.
The journalism fellows are about 10 days away from our first international travel. The German foreign ministry and the Goethe Institut are bringing us to Berlin from Dec. 4-11 for a packed itinerary. Some of the highlights:
  • Meeting with architects to discuss city design and planning.
  • Visiting a cultural media festival.
  • Taking in an opera, a philharmonic or both.
  • A better-than-tourist tour of the Reichstag.
  • A visit to, hopefully, Humboldt university.
  • Visits to museums-- history, Jewish and others.
  • Spending some time with a Berlin food critic, as well as at Der Speigel.
After our official itinerary in Berlin is complete, myself and two of the fellows are off to Prague for three nights. Following which, they return to home soil and I travel to visit family in Portugal from Dec. 15-21.
With all this excitement it's very easy to skip over the amazing things that have been happening at Massey in the last month. We had the Feast for the Founding Master this past Saturday, honouring Robertson Davies, one of the three people (with former Gov.-Gen. Vincent Massey and the U of T president of the day) who founded Massey College in 1962-3. The Massey printshop always does a fantastic job with printing keepsakes for the extra-special high tables, and this was no exception with a Davies' quote.
Pretense is wonderfully stimulating to the artistic mind which is why some people lie for fun rather than from necessity! -- A Mixture of Frailties
The dinner was followed by the reading of a Massey College ghost story penned by Davies in his fifth year as master of this college.
As usual, we've had our Thursday guests for lunch with the journalism fellows and selected Massey junior fellows. The lunches are off-the-record chats over good food and beverage and the guests this fall have been:
  • Matt Thompson
  • Charles Pascal
  • Christopher Hedges
  • Stephen Jenkinson
  • Kim Echlin
  • Abraham Rotstein
  • Kevin Stolarick
  • Sabine Sparwasser
  • Michael MacMillan / Alison Loat
  • Austin Clarkson
The past weeks have also been an opportunity to shore up some options for the winter-term courses I hope to audit. I've already lined up a joint-program course on the latest evolutions of urban form, an interdisciplinary course on mobile-phone application design and, of course, thinking about what OISE stuff I'll loiter in.
The blog may be a bit quiet as a result (more so than it already has been) in the next month or so.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Ombudsman'ing it

So wish I had something to link to here -- this is the best I can do -- but the London Free Press had a full-page feature today by education reporter Jen O'Brien on the move by NDP MPP and education critic Rosario Marchese to get school boards included among the agencies the provincial ombudsman's office can investigate. Will link or post once the bill is tabled, as well as if the Freeps posts the article online. The Freeps posted the article online Monday.
Marchese intends to introduce the private-members' bill on Monday.
The Freeps' treatment was nice-- full colour page in its Saturday A section, with a photo of four London-area women involved in parents' groups. Their groups support Marchese's efforts, as it would add an additional outlet for issues parents feel are not resolved by school boards. The article has some pullouts with details about some of the incidents the Freeps has received information on over the years.
Marchese's move got some press earlier this week as well.
The current ombudsman, Andre Marin (who has a son named Hugo... great name!), has long been on the record in saying his office would welcome any additional agencies into its investigative portfolio. It's one element of oversight that's missing-- financial oversight through the ministry and the auditor general already exists. I haven't heard, and the article doesn't speak to this, whether school board and trustee associations would support the bill. One might hope they would as they shouldn't really be worried if they're responding to and dealing with complaints in an equitable manner.

Funding disparity coverage

I've been watching the news coming out of North Bay, courtesy of The Nugget, about a funding announcement Friday for schools in the Mattawa area. The paper had comprehensive coverage in the leadup to the announcement and then good reaction after the announcement -- see, in chronological order, here, here, here and here.
In a nutshell, the Near North DSB only received $1 million from the ministry for capital projects, while the Nipissing-Parry Sound Catholic District School Board and the French-language Conseil Scolaire Catholique Franco-Nord received about $6 million for two capital projects each board has on the go.
From the second piece:
We've been invited, but we've (trustees) declined the invitation, because we didn't get anything to satisfy the needs of this community," said (NNDSB trustee) Kathy Hewitt.
We're very disappointed something wasn't done for this school (F. J. McElligott Secondary School). They put money into two boards and not us. We know we're not getting it and we're disappointed."
In some of the subsequent coverage, we learn that the Catholic boards are a little further ahead in their capital planning on the two projects at hand. The French board's money is to bring the K-8 elementary school into the same building as an already announced and funded high school (the same thing happened just over two years ago in Woodstock). The English Catholic board's funding is also for a project that is already past the design stage. The NNDSB, which is losing students moving out to one of the new schools, is now faced with what to do with an aged, even-emptier building.
The first piece highlighted the difference in funding received by each board, with an explanation from ministry and board sources explaining that operating far-flung schools in this province's second language is costly. The NNDSB was being pushed to consider partnership opportunities-- but then there's no one speaking as to why the boards didn't continue this thought into the next frame. So it becomes a pissing match between boards and communities-- the public board with a history of better facilities (at the time they were built on the graces of commercial and industrial assessments) that are now aging and suffering from declining enrolment vs. Catholic and French-language boards that had always been poorer cousins of the public system prior to the 1998 funding changes. Combined with a government that's been happy to fund separate facilities for these boards -- witness the number of French-language schools moving from shared facilities and portables to new schools -- it creates disparities. It's the cost of ensuring French-language education rights are maintained however, amongst a community that tires of always having the second-hand and lesser facilities.
What's the solution? Is there a simple one?
Public boards need to be smarter about their accommodation-- they need to realize the ministry isn't about to fund upgrades to all their schools in an era of declining enrolment. The boards that have understood this have reaped the benefits of now almost three rounds of capital funding for new facilities and renovations. The ones who didn't get a jump on a solid capital plan suffer.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

School closings on Front

Initially saw this Globe and Mail article online through a news alert, but popped down to the common room today to glance at fronts and noticed Kate Hammer's piece on the change at the Toronto District School Board and its effect on pending school closure was bottom-front.
Nothing earth-shattering in the article (the Toronto Sun's Moira MacDonald expressed similar thoughts, her own, on Oct. 26) as the only board that has successfully avoided the top-to-bottom review of its facilities and accommodation is the TDSB. With a few contentious decisions (I giggled at the midnight meeting remark-- there's a few people outside TO who know all about those) behind it, several trustees attuned to the review process are leaving at the end of the month and are to be replaced by anti-closure candidates.
They launched and completed eight ARCs (accommodation review committees) in 2009/2010 and approved the closing of nine schools, generating almost $50-million in savings on operational and maintenance costs.
That cost-saving consensus may be lost. The new board appears split between pro- and anti-closing candidates, many of whom were backed by the teachers unions, said Scott Harrison, the trustee for Ward 19 (Scarborough Centre) who lost a bid for re-election to David Smith, a candidate who opposed closing schools.
And the proposed closings the new board will consider in coming months will likely face staunch opposition.
“I think this will be very problematic for the board because with fewer and fewer students every year, you can’t maintain your stock hold of properties, i.e. schools, like you have in the past,” he said.
The piece does put a number of (hopefully) misconceptions in play. I particularly loved the trustee saying a 4,000-student-a-year decline is not that big a deal because it's only eight students per school. Awesome. I suppose you'll just bus kids around every September to spread out the demographic changes that equally? Doubtful.
I also found it to rely heavily on financial issues. Closing nine schools = $50 million in savings. Outgoing trustee Josh Matlow noting the new board will have to face financial issues. What about the facility question? Most TO media gushed about the new high school that opened in September, an innovative approach that provides a modern educational facility combined with some private-sector (residential) development.
Another misconception is the description of what school-closure review committees are supposed to accomplish. "ARCs are accommodation review committees: panels of parents, community members and educators charged with identifying schools that are underused and can be closed or consolidated." No. That's not what they do. ARCs don't identify the initial group of schools considered by the committee. Trustees do, on recommendation of their senior staff members. They may make recommendations to close (a) school(s), that agree or disagree with the recommendation(s) already received by trustees from administrators. ARCs provide trustees with opinion and advice based on the committee's examination of the data and the communities' input. It might seem like I'm arguing semantics, but it's phrasing like this that leaves people with the impression ARCs make decisions on school closures. That misconception then amplifies and perpetuates the anger when communities see trustees disagreeing with ARC recommendation(s). Anger that leads to things like the Community Schools Alliance.
Enough about that.
Are there options out there that could lead to fewer school closings in Toronto? I would say yes, but many of them might be reliant on the TDSB squeezing every possible penny out of the Toronto Lands Corp. that it controls. Selling unused vacant properties would net some one-time revenues that could be used to sustain the cost of running under-capacity schools. The bigger revenue -- outside of any continuing pity money trickling down from the ministry -- might be from setting up leasehold agreements at underused facilities. The government created the policy early this year to allow for space to be leased for governmental and non-profit community use. The TLC is an opportunity to develop some leasehold agreements with tenants that could see revenues develop to help modernize school facilities for community use and instruction, as well as cover some costs for the non-instructional space under lease.
The only media I've seen touch the TLC in the past 18 months has been the National Post, which I briefly mentioned in a previous post.
To the larger issue-- as I've continually mentioned, this TDSB process will continue to be instructive for those within the big city and then the rest of us (can I say us when I'm here temporarily?) who've already been through this issue, multiple times.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Grading the new report cards

Many parents across Ontario with kids in elementary schools have either already received or will soon receive the new fall 'progress' reports that replaced the traditional fall report cards that used to include a grade. The Globe and Mail touches on report-card reform in a general sense in this piece, the Toronto Sun and its sister papers included an actual scan of what the progress reports look like. Most other media out there also touched on it in the back end of this week.
When the switch was announced, it brought out the gamut of commentary on the move-- from those critiquing the government for giving into elementary teachers' federations who have long advocated for a no-grade report card in the fall, to those who don't care and those who see a report card that supposedly speaks to bigger-picture comments of progress rather than ranking as a positive.
The troops were out in full force again as the report cards started coming out this week.
I'm left asking myself whether what's on a report card matters as much as what a student and her/his parent(s) are going to do with the information. I realize some parents just want to see that A-grade mark (or C-grade, really, for some parents) and not really concern themselves far more with anything else. An edu-speak comment that just confuses (or perhaps provides useful information) isn't helpful to that parent.
However, as most schools schedule the first round of meet-the-teacher or parent-teacher interviews shortly after these fall reports, that's where my question of what parents do with this assessment information comes in. I would see myself as a parent (I'm not yet a parent) that would attend all of these regardless of the evaluation my child had received to ask the teacher questions about what was behind his/her assessment-- good or bad. It would be interesting to see if these new progress reports bring more parents in to ask teachers what the heck the comments really mean than would have come in under previous years' fall report cards.
At the same time, this could place even greater pressure on teachers and their federations, who've argued six (or eight) weeks isn't enough time to properly assess a child's progress. So now they're assessing and providing comments instead of grades-- which if the comments are at all meaningful may take just as long or longer than grading. Then, when/where parents inquire, it also puts those teachers in position where they need to explain what the comments mean and why they chose to make them. I hope for many teachers this won't be that difficult-- their federations and boards are telling us in the public teachers are always using multiple assessments.
Now that they've been given an opportunity to show the public one of these other forms of assessment, let's see how they do.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Fringe fellowship benefits

One of the many (oh so many) benefits of the Canadian Journalism Fellowship program is that we get the opportunity to do some travel, meet people and have conversations we wouldn't normally be able to do if we were all still working in our newsrooms.
One such opportunity arose earlier this week as the fellowship travelled to Kitchener-Waterloo and spent just over day in the twin cities as guests of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics. The itinerary: Morning welcome and quick introduction to Perimeter (at PI), followed by a roundtable and tour of the Institute for Quantum Computing at the University of Waterloo. Lunch was held at Communitech, where we had the pleasure of meeting officials from Christie Digital Inc., Desire2Learn, the Canadian Digital Media Network and RIM. Following a brief rest, we trekked down to Waterloo Collegiate Institute to hear MIT's Seth Lloyd (I'll link the feed of the lecture once it's posted at PI) speak about quantum physics and photosynthesis. That wonderful lecture was followed by dinner at PI's renowned Black Hole cafeteria, where I had the pleasure of being seated across from Lloyd and one of the physics guys long-associated with PI, Lee Smolin.
This was a light-speed (no pun intended) jaunt through the region, a nice return for me since I started my journalism career there in 2002 and am a frequent return visitor-- though never with the access and experiences we had Wednesday.
The day was a stimulating series of conversations with people about the intellectual conversations and community construction that continues to happen in that region. From the academic and scientific gains being made at the institutes to the work being done at places like Communitech to enhance collaboration and invest in innovation and new-business incubation.  From the mathematical to the physical, technological, digital and intellectual, the day had all of our synapses firing continually. It was an eye opener for some of the fellows as well who had only a passing familiarity with Kitchener-Waterloo and were impressed at how the area has transformed itself. PI was compared, on several occasions and by ourselves, as the sort of meeting place that Massey College is-- although Massey is interdisciplinary and PI is for the brains of physicists.
It sets up our group for the pending travel-- we are off to Berlin for a week in December courtesy of the German government, and to cap off the fellowship in April we are (now confirmed) travelling to Finland and Denmark courtesy of those two countries' governments.
After the past day, even coming back to Massey seems like falling into a slightly lower level of the stratosphere.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Hold your nose and think of England...

Always scintillated by the research and reports that non-governmental organizations in Ontario do regarding K-12 education. In the past several days, we've had the updated version of "Sunshine on Schools" released by the Society for Quality Education as well as a report on Ontario's school councils released Monday by People for Education. One got coverage (read: the Star, the Ottawa Citizen as two examples), the other really didn't.
The coverage I've seen seems to skim over some of the more interesting parts of the PFE report, regarding how school councils communicate with parents, as well as with the mandated parent involvement committees (PICs) that exist at the board level. PICs get cash from the provincial government based on the board's student population, that is supposed to be used for activities that support increased parental involvement in schools. The report also appropriately speaks to the research showing that parental engagement (read: being involved in your child(ren)'s school) has a positive impact on student achievement.
The focus? Fundraising. Again, given PFE released its report on fundraising earlier this year, perhaps it was the easiest thing to write about. School councils report that while they'd like to be doing more of all the other things they're supposed to be doing (check the regulation), they spend most of their time on fundraising. If that's so offensive, then why not just stop? No one -- except perhaps school council members themselves -- is putting pressure on these bodies to fundraise. It's tradition, certainly, in the case that many school-council predecessors existed solely for the purpose of fundraising to support the things parents wanted in their schools.
But I come back to the question-- if fundraising is the 'dirty evil' that's an anathema to these school councils, then why do they keep doing it?
The PFE report offers no insight into this. Perhaps it's a question for next year's study.

What is Our Kids trying to say?

I remain puzzled by this post over at Our Kids that popped across my horizon in a tweet the other day. For the uninitiated, myself included, it's about school closures in Vancouver. I'll admit I'm out of my element when speaking about how school funding and the accommodation processes work in British Columbia. This article though, left me scratching my head. Definitely, the point that school closures are not a simple subject by any means is made and understood. I'm left wanting however-- in the examples cited, what are the student populations? What are the physical conditions of the schools involved? There is a reference to demographics at one point -- that enrolment is up slightly despite the much larger predicited decrease -- but nothing on which direction the overall enrolment trends might be heading, other than a vague reference that it's expected to rebound. Rebound to what? To the same level it was at when?
Here's an example of what I mean.
It’s also a matter of placing more importance on quality than quantity. The provincial government may have to rethink, or be more flexible, with the funding model that provides financial support for each school district in B.C. based on the number of students enrolled. Whenever possible, we urgently need to find ways to tackle budget cuts and financial efficiencies without uprooting school communities.
Still, the issue is not black and white.  School trustees are conserving and using resources in the most productive way in deciding to close certain schools with low enrollment numbers, says Charles Ungerleider, professor of sociology of education at the University of British Columbia and a former deputy minister of education for B.C.. It’s justified to close a school in cases when a school is only filled to partial capacity, devoting pricey heating, lighting and cleaning services to the “surplus” space, he says in an interview with Our Kids Media.
In the wake of the erosion of public school funding, private schools, which have reportedly seen an increase in enrollment in B.C., can be an excellent alternative as they tend to offer smaller classes and high academic standards. But unfortunately not everyone can qualify for financial support or afford to send their children there.
Regardless of the numbers involved with budgets and private school fees, quality education and the ability to keep school communities together should not only be a privilege, but a right for everyone. We need to treat children and schools not just as numbers, but as valuable communities and the key to healthy societies. We need to invest in education, our schools and our children, in every way we can.
This piece, I think, points to an attempt to explain a school-closure process, but without providing all the necessary context. Saying school closures are complicated and can change a community is not cutting-edge-- it's well known and given that change is the one constant in education, should be anything but surprising.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Anti-closure backlash pending?

With this week's (neglected) trustee elections, I've been thinking about whether Ontario will see any sort of dramatic shift on school closures. Moira MacDonald pointed to it in her coverage of the races earlier this week, noting the Toronto District School Board's newer and reelected trustees have the drive to keep putting off the board's accommodation and capacity issues.
Following the candidates who were running in my district (meaning the one I voted in and would have been reporting on were I not on this fellowship), I didn't get the sense that the 'anti-closure' candidates won. They didn't in my ward-- the one public and one Catholic candidates running on more or less of an anti-closure platform weren't elected. Of three trustee spots, two went to longtime incumbents and one went to a newbie, who has never to my knowledge campaigned against school closures.
Within the City of London (same educational district as where I voted), all six incumbent public trustees were reelected on Monday, despite some bitter battles in some city neighbourhoods over the school closures there. Further, the board will look to strike more school-closure reviews within the city proper in this next term than it has in the last three years. In the Catholic board there are many new faces, but it's due to retirements not school-closure related issues.
I haven't looked into the Simcoe County boards, but trustees in the public board put off a heated decision on five high schools in the county's northwest for the new term of trustees and I'd be curious if this was any sort of a defining issue in the campaign.
A comment earlier this week pointed to a belief that school closures would just stop some time in the next year as the Liberal government doesn't want an election campaign while trustees are voting to close more schools. I don't buy it. Here's why:
  • School-aged populations outside of the GTA continue to drop
  • The government isn't about to do an about-face and start funding renovations and technology upgrates at schools with small populations
  • I don't see the Liberals going easy on many boards (OK, perhaps a few) when it comes to budgets, and will force them to consolidate and then use 'savings' to cover FDK expenses.
As it was in the last term, I suspect many eyes will be trained on the Toronto boards. That's how it should be since the TDSB has largely avoided the world that every other Ontario board has been living in for the past term. Despite Monday's election or perhaps in spite of it, these issues are not going away.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Puzzled by TCDSB results

Given what the current term has produced, I was wholeheartedly surprised at the trustee results for the Toronto Catholic District School Board. Catholic voters in T.O. returned a surprisingly high number of incumbents to this board, neutered partway into this term when it refused to pass a balanced budget. That refusal spawned a series of conflict-of-interest court cases, which removed two trustees from office and embroiled at least one more trustee. One of the trustees, booted from office this summer by the court but allowed to keep her candidacy, was reelected to the board.
The T.O. media take? I thought the Toronto Sun's Moira MacDonald had the best take.
Toronto Catholic school board voters chose name recognition and old loyalties over a clean slate, returning six out of eight incumbents running for re-election at the scandal-plagued school board.
“It looks like the Catholic voters of Toronto are in a forgiving mood,” said Robert Dixon, a member of Catholics United for a Responsible Ballot.
The group had worked during the election campaign to get Catholics out to vote and deliver a clean slate at the board.
“As far as CURB is concerned, we’ll certainly be watching them and holding them to account.”
Six incumbents were returned: Angela Kennedy (Ward 11) who was dispatched from her seat by a judge in August in a conflict-of-interest case; Sal Piccininni (Ward 3) who had the highest expense spending of any trustee in a provincially ordered audit, Ann Andrachuk (Ward 2), John Del Grande (Ward 7), Barbara Poplawski (Ward 10) recently exonerated in a conflict-of-interest case, and Maria Rizzo (Ward 5). Apart from Rizzo — who faced a tough fight from Paul Oulahen — all won handily.
Two incumbents went down: Joseph Martino (Ward 1) and Catherine LeBlanc-Miller (Ward 9), the former board chairman who, while admitting she had not been blameless in the board’s problems, had also asked the provincial government and the police to get to the bottom of trustee expense misdeeds. 
The Globe and Mail and the Star also had their takes, but they were smaller in print and largely overshadowed by the municipal coverage. I liked the play, though well back into the paper, the Sun gave MacDonald-- but that's my bias that school board results should get almost-equivalent

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Did the election impact the schools' alliance?

OK. You can't take the newsroom out of the journalist even when you take the journalist out of the newsroom. First election campaign since becoming a journalist that I haven't covered, and sitting on the sidelines tonight was very different.
At this point in the night, I'm left wondering what will happen to those municipal politicos who so eagerly signed up for the Community Schools Alliance two summers ago.
Just out of curiosity, I went looking for results for the Alliance's executive committee.
  • Southwest Middlesex Mayor Doug Reycraft was acclaimed.
  • Niagara-on-the-Lake Lord Mayor Gary Burroughs ran for Niagara Region council and won.
  • Niagara-on-the-Lake Coun. Jim Collard kept his seat.
  • Malahide Mayor John R. Wilson lost.
  • No idea if Hastings Highlands Mayor Ron Emond ran, was elected or not (nothing election related online at township website)
  • Cobalt Coun. Doug Shearer did not run again.
  • Greenstone Mayor Michael Power did not run again.
  • Springwater Mayor Tony Guergis lost.
  • Guelph/Eramosa Mayor Chris White kept his seat.
  • Burlington Mayor Cam Jackson lost.
Only four (perhaps five) of the current Alliance executive members, if they can be called current, were reelected Monday night for the pending municipal term. While I seriously doubt school closures played any part in municipal council elections, does it throw a knife into the back of what's been a pretty tepid Alliance lately?
Reycraft was happier than heck in September as Middlesex signed an agreement with the Thames Valley DSB stating the board would basically do what it did the last time (sort of) and also follow provincial guidelines. See a post about that here. But the website, while updated since my last visit several months ago to include a map (outdated) of municipalities and the September agreement stuff, still has precious little info.
I highly suspect that given the agreement Reycraft now has and those who won't be around come the end of November that the Alliance will slowly wither. That is, as I've already predicted, until the next school-closure review decision by trustees goes against what Reycraft and like-minded munipols want and then they'll be back on the warpath.

Monday, October 25, 2010

History battles

Though my last fellowship update really centred on the "Issues in numeracy and literacy," I didn't want to take away from the fun I've been having in my other course, "Battles over history education."
It's a master's level seminar with only four people (myself included). This past week (Oct. 19) was probably some of our best discussion this term. Our readings, heavy on the Peter Seixas, concentrated on how to bridge the gap between the changes that have happened in the study of history -- I kept calling them "academic historians" -- and those who first teach history to us as students. We've been reading a lot about the history wars in Canada and elsewhere, where on one side you have those who argue for teaching history as part of a national narrative, a set of dates, places, people and events from the past that help define a collective identity. On the other, those who hold the historical process as what should be emphasized-- the ability to research and study primary and secondary source documents, analyse them and then draw conclusions from that analysis that are supported by your evidence. For example, as this class is the class I'm auditing where I have to "complete all the course requirements," on Oct. 12 I led a good portion of the evening's seminar and then had to write an eight-page paper (yikes, it's been a while since I did that) that analysed and critiqued the night's readings. Why, I'm currently stalling on reading this week's assigned readings as I type this post on the very debate.
It's largely a debate that seems to have taken place among Master's and Ph.D's in history, with little input from the very people who are tasked with first teaching history to students. It's an interesting paradox (if that's the best term), where academics complain about the quality of students and how those students have been taught, but don't -- on a large enough scale -- really contribute much towards improving the very instruction they lament. If history teachers in public and secondary schools are the ones that build the foundation upon which we find ensuing generations of historians, then why are they, in many cases, being left out of this discussion? Are they? I've had the privilege of meeting some top-rate high school history teachers, but I don't know if many of them would tackle this sort of existential debate over how they inspire learning about history and historical thinking in their students. This is where our last discussion went as each of us wondered where the emphasis should be placed to improve historical knowledge and thinking.
I must admit, as I have to the instructor, the readings in this course are sometimes, um, dense (poorly written?) -- ex:
Ironically, less than twenty-five years ago, the historian Pierre Nora asserted that the function of the science of history -- and therefore of the historian -- was not to collect memories but to protect people against them through the application of 'instructive reason,' that is, through the analytical and critical activity of the historian, debunker of myth and of all other obstacles to our proper understanding of reality. (Laville, Christian (2004) "Historical consciousness and historical education: What to expect from the first for the second," in Seixas, ed. Theorizing Historical Consciousness, University of Toronto Press, p. 172)
They make my brain hurt. But every week I leave the seminar with my brain abuzz, oft-neglected neurons firing away with the week's discussions. Then I realize-- this is what I came here for. This is the stimulation those neurons don't often get in the day-to-day rhythms of my work. This is what makes it worth it all.

Think of the neglected, the forgotten

As I type this there remains about 80 minutes until the polls close across the province for municipal and school board elections. We've been inundated in the past week (or perhaps just myself) with the pros and cons of electing certain people as mayor (of Toronto) or not.
Forgotten, relegated to maybe a few articles since the close of nominations on Sept. 10 are the votes for trustee. I think, with some wide gaps in my media monitoring this past month, I read maybe a handful of articles on trustee races in Toronto-- with a good half of them written by the Toronto Sun's Moira MacDonald. I know the Star and Globe have touched on local trustees, and through news alerts from my own chain I see that trustees have gotten fairly decent coverage (meaning they got any at all).
Education is the second-largest provincial budget item after health care. While how much of that money is spent is dictated at Queen's Park, your local trustee(s) can still make or break the culture within your local public schools in how they administer those dollars. Dollars that make up between an tenth and a third (depending on where you live in Ontario) of the same bill you pay when you fork over your property taxes for municipal services.
And I won't accept continued moaning over Bill 177 -- given the legacy of 1996's Bill 160 and other related legislation at the time and other bills passed by the Liberals, school boards are now governed like businesses. Where the elected members of the board set policy and pass budgets, leaving the implementation of that policy and budget to the one person who trustees directly hire and supervise (the director of education). This can still be an accountable system for trustees who are able to understand it and work within this structure.
So, I hope we get the school boards we want for the next four years. I certainly put enough thought into my vote (back home in Ingersoll) when I cast it late last week.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Oh, boys

It's our time to lead, a redesigned Globe and Mail has been telling us since Oct. 1, laying out eight themes where it's arguing Canada needs to be a leader. Week three's theme? Boys. Specifically, how Canada is failing its boys. Though the series is only two days in, I have some thoughts.
First, anyone writing, knowing, etc. about education and children's issues knows this concern isn't new. It's been around for years now, to the point there's a smorgasbord of data to validate how boys are doing less well in school and in life in their earliest years. I'm not trying to suggest the Globe is late to the party on this point, as even it admits this concern has some history to it.
The Time to Lead series appears to be fashioned on the newspaper (as an institution, not the tactile paper itself) as an active member of society, as an advocate pushing for improvement in the causes it chooses to support. This is also nothing new as a journalistic concept, but the Globe holds a prominence among the groups of Canadian society who are actually poised in positions to effect change. For a paper that claims to set the political agenda (I don't doubt this on certain levels), the Time to Lead series is a bold move. Will people (the Globe's people, really) care about these eight themes?
To bring it back to boys, will we care enough when shown the data? By pointing fingers to the five top reasons the Globe says boys are falling behind? By the live chats (some of which I wish I was able to sit in on in what's shaping up to be a busy week) with the lead reporter and various others?
It's drawn me in at any rate, to the point I'll be reading the rest of the week to see where the Globe takes this topic.

ETFO platform ready

The Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario has released a 28-page document, it's platform for the 2011 provincial election that lies at our feet-- once the current municipal election is complete next Monday.
Here's its summary of recommendations:
  • Establish a two-year moratorium on EQAO testing to allow for public consultations on the uses, value, and impact of the current provincial testing regime.
  • Consider adopting a random sample model to measure the appropriateness of the curriculum and the effectiveness of teaching strategies.
  • Place more emphasis on the role of ongoing teacher assessment of student progress.
  • Establish more balance between literacy and numeracy and other subjects including science, social studies, the arts, and physical and health education.
  • Increase the elementary foundation grant (EFG) to provide all elementary schools with specialist teachers in the arts, and health and physical education.
  • Increase the EFG to provide all grade 7 and 8 students with access to design and technology programs.
  • Increase the EFG to provide at least one qualified teacher-librarian per elementary school.
  • Increase the EFG to provide at least one qualified guidance counsellor per elementary school.
  • Reduce the number of prescribed student outcomes and identify, instead, a set of core learning goals.
  • Provide all elementary classrooms with resources that support hands-on, experiential learning.
  • Extend the benefits of smaller classes to grades 4 to 8.
  • Reduce the average class size of the full-day early learning kindergarten program to align with other primary grades.
  • Establish a process to better track class size and maintain class size targets throughout the school year.
  • Base the special education grants on the educational needs of students.
  • Increase the funding allocation for educational assistants, counsellors, and child and youth workers.
  • Revise the English as a second language (ESL) grants to more accurately reflect the number of students who don’t speak English when they enrol at school.
  • Revise the ESL grants to increase the capacity of schools to extend ESL programs to students who need the support beyond four years.
  • Provide classroom resources to support the Equity and Inclusive Education Strategy.
  • Provide professional learning that addresses discrimination and oppression of marginalized students.
  • Provide specific compensatory grants for schools in disadvantaged communities to support additional learning materials, field trips, and in-school arts programs.
  • Reaffirm the provincial plan to reduce child and family poverty by 25 percent by 2013.
  • Mandate school boards to provide child care services before and after school and during school breaks.
  • Where space is available, use schools to establish community hubs.
It's an interesting list -- many of the items could be reduced to asking for more money for programs or positions that ultimately benefit ETFO members. There's nothing innately wrong with that since ETFO is ETFO so it can advocate for its members. Readers here will already know I'm not often convinced by student-first veneers painted on federation tactics as really, a union's first job is to advocate for its memebrs, the people who after all pay the bills. There are some good suggestion in there however, which shouldn't just be dismissed because the federation is the one suggesting them.
With party platforms still a few months away at best -- I wouldn't expect the first one to come out until the spring of 2011, so we can spend the summer getting tired of them -- I'm curious to see what the reaction to this document is. Will it land with a thud that no one hears? Should it?
ETFO also appears to be first out of the gate on this-- a quick scan of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation and the Ontario English Catholic Teachers' Association shows no similar document.

Do unions really control school boards?

The folks at the Society for Quality Education posted two items Thursday and Friday, cumulatively questioning whether union endorsement and donations to the campaigns of trustee candidates means those unions end up controlling school boards. From the Friday piece:
Because the average voter is hard-pressed to be well informed about all of the electoral races and issues - mayor, local councillor, regional councillor, referenda, school board trustees - many teachers gratefully accept their union’s recommendations and vote the party line. While lots of people mark their ballot only for mayor and maybe councillor, leaving the school trustee part at the bottom of the ballot blank, most teachers do get all the way down the page and vote for the trustees too. And of course, many retired educators run for office, increasing the chances that their former colleagues will make the effort to vote for them: this is reflected in the fact that a higher percentage of teachers vote in elections than most other occupations. All in all, it’s safe to say that education providers are well represented at the polls.
SQE beleives it's safe to say that these endorsements lead to trustees' successful runs for office being on the backs of the teachers whose very unions endorsed them. It's an interesting extension of logic, but I'm not there yet. Do I believe more teachers vote than other occupations? Probably. Do I believe they all vote for the union-endorsed candidate(s)? I'd hope teachers are better at critically evaluating candidates, regardless of any endorsements. Given those doubts, I wouldn't attempt to say teachers elect trustees who are friendliest to their own interests.
If I extend what I understand to be SQE's logic, does that mean there are council candidates out there in municipalities who owe their elections to police and firefighter associations? Both types of unions also have a very long history of endorsing candidates and making campaign donations to those candidates friendliest to their interests. Given councillors and mayors provide direction for firefighter bargaining (the little that doesn't seem to be settled by private-sector arbitration) and also sit on police service boards that set police budgets, shouldn't we be as outraged over that as SQE is trying to make us over teachers' union endorsements?
Further, so much of the collective agreements (dollars, scales, broader working conditions) are now being negotiated at provincial discussion tables that this only dilutes any one trustee's impact on one particular contract. SQE points out that trustees sit on the management side of the table at negotiations. While technically true, I'm not aware of boards where trustees attend these sessions-- rather they provide direction to their director of education, who then bargains based on that direction.
Despite diverging on opinion (again) with SQE, I would note it's once again using publicly available data to make a point. If you agree or not with their concern, you should be aware that all municipal / school board election candidates must by law declare their expenses and any donations over $100 (I believe, it's been awhile since I looked at the limit) to the municipal clerk. The clerk must then make these results public. I believe the timing is around the end of March or some time in April following a municipal election, so if your interest has been peaked, drop by your township/town/city hall and take a peek.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Guilt by association?

A former blogger sent me this link on the weekend, encouraging me to look into it.
It's a blog setup in opposition to Halton Catholic District School Board trustee (and chair) Bob Van de Vrande's run in this month's municipal election to keep his seat.
The anonymous, unknown blogger seems to take issue with the fact Van de Vrande is running to keep his job as a Catholic trustee when the real estate brokerage he runs has a fundraising arrangement with a local private school, one his school-aged son happens to attend.
There is also information on several charities that Van de Vrande is linked to. The blogger is trying to get readers to connect the dots between two charities, Van de Vrande and contact information for one charity with a phone number that traces back to Van de Vrande's residence.
I'd be more inclined to ask Van de Vrande about the second portion of this blog than I would the first, but that's me. The links are above and on the other blog for those with an interest in spelunking.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Forcing their doors open

This one`s at least a week old, but I wanted to write about it here because open-access and open government is one of my pet projects as a journalist. Though it`s not being maintained while I`m on fellowship, the "Open your doors, Oxford" section of my newspaper's political blog is a good example of some of the work I've done trying to educate people on why they should care about when their councils meet behind closed doors.
The Record was the newspaper excluded from covering a Waterloo Region District School Board committee meeting on Oct. 4. Two days later, it published the article linked above with the director of education and chair's apology to the Record and reporter Luisa D'Amato for kicking her out of the meeting.
“There was no malice, and I really regret that it happened,” Waterloo Region District School Board chair Mike Ramsay said Tuesday.
The meeting at issue was Monday’s agenda development committee, which was deciding when to hear a motion about school bus service for 400 students.
The Record was interested in the meeting because families were anxious to make their case to trustees as soon as possible. There were, however, some concerns that the motion would not be considered high priority and would not be heard by trustees promptly.
On Monday, the Record was denied access to the meeting. Ramsay, who also chairs the committee, had said it was a “management meeting.” Education director Linda Fabi had said that the meetings of this particular committee are not open to the public, and the board has always done its business this way.
I'm curious as to what kind of reaction this has drawn among the chattering classes in the Region of Waterloo. D'Amato explained in the article that much like municipalities, school boards and all their committees are bound by (in this case) the Education Act's section on closed-door meetings. I suspect that like at the WRDSB, boards have a tradition of being very unaware of this. Already struggling to attract any sort of public crowd on a good night to regular board meetings, it's no surprise to me that many committee meetings attract nothing but staff members and/or trustees. That doesn't mean they're closed to the public, as this board had assumed.
I rallied against the continual abuse of closed-door provisions in the district board that I cover, given they'd built a provision into their bylaws (one that contravened the act, by my read) -- Sec. 5.19 on page 11 -- that allows for closed-door "focus groups." The board was holding an average of two of these a year until halfway through this term. As much as I would write about them, no one cared. Which only made my blood boil even more, since these focus groups were being called to discuss things like the budget, school accommodation and other issues where there was actually a public interest.
When I polled trustees, one replied he didn't want the public to see the trustees' "family feud," and that certain trustees wanted a smaller setting to express their views. My reply was that elected office is a challenging responsibility-- if a trustee couldn't respectfully state their opinion and disagree during the discussion of a certain issue then it should cause that person to question why they're an elected official.
Anyway, kudos to the Record for pushing back and getting the apology.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Massey update

It's been a while since I posted about life here at Massey College, so I thought it apropos for a few quick thoughts.
It looks as though this term I'm settled into two courses-- The Battles over History Education and Issues in Literacy and Numeracy -- both at OISE. Some recent attempts to join some interesting courses elsewhere are being met with either erroneous information / incorrect time tables or, in one case, a professor who perhaps rightly stated I shouldn't have waited until week five of a 12-week term.
I am adoring the two courses I'm auditing, and perhaps auditing them with enough vigour (OK, that does sound odd) that any person watching over my shoulder at the college won't get too pissy.
Battles over History Education has become a weekly conversation on why we should be teaching history in schools. Guided by our readings every week (including reading a whole book in a week for this past week's seminar -- what the professor would call a "graduate-level" pace), we hash out what each has to say about why history should be taught in schools and how it should be taught. I've left class on a couple of occasions with my brain just bursting, but have come to realize that's why I'm here. I want my brain to hurt a little (I certainly don't have the academic reading-retention skills I may once have attained) because the reality of my newsroom life right now is that it doesn't get challenged in this manner.
The six-week numeracy section of the literacy and numeracy course has simply been devine. A good portion of this is the professor -- who instructs the class in such a manner I wish I'd had this prof throughout all of my math courses and my entire B.Journ. program. Each Wednesday morning, she keeps pushing this group of teacher candidates to forget all the bad ways we've been taught math and learn how to teach math in a way that keeps students involved and creates / continues a collaborative, conversational culture in classrooms.
Both of these courses are feeding my policy wonk / article I will write before leaving journalism desire to gain a better understanding of what we're teaching our teachers and even providing a tentative first few steps towards evaluating whether we're doing it well.
In the meantime, the journalism program components are just flying by. We've already organized and hosted two lunchtime seminars -- with Mozilla Foundation's Matt Thompson last week and Charles Pascal this week -- and have guests confirmed until the last week of this term and several weeks into the next term. I've volunteered to be the point-person in the group as we organize and liaise with the German consulate for what will undoubtedly be a very fast-paced trip to Berlin from Dec. 5-11.
College life has continued to be superb. The founders of this college and those who have guided it since have created a wonderful environment for interdisciplinary exchange at all levels. I've pretty much decided that should I ever decide to pursue graduate-level education, I will be taking a serious look at the programs here at the U of T and applying to be a fellow at Massey College.

Saddened by Superman

I've just returned from a screening of "Waiting for Superman," the U.S. documentary on public schooling in that country.
I left the movie feeling very sad. Perhaps it was an effective play on my emotions, but I was just floored by how schooling isn't fair-- a prospect this documentary thrusts into the spotlight as it wedges its way into the never-ending discussion on school reform. Prior to heading out to see it this evening, I had read the reaction from People for Education, the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (or its former dean, anyway) and others as covered (mostly) by the Toronto Star.
Being of a certain mind, I wanted to go see the movie for myself rather than rely on the different voices that had spoken out about the movie, such as the groups above (PFE has a 'Superman' page, the Society for Quality Education has also entered the fray).
The documentary does an effective job of painting (admittedly with some broad strokes) the challenges facing the American system of public schools. Despite some of its most pointed criticism, I didn`t walk away from the film with a distaste for teachers`unions (no more than I may already have, anyway) and didn`t feel it was really that harsh towards them. It was equally harsh to the bureaucratic status quo (schools upon districts upon states upon federal) as it was about teacher tenure and a laughable teacher evaluation.
I cringed at the denouement (spoiler alert), watching Bianca as she and her mom missed out on the Harlem School lottery. In 20 seconds, that six-year-old child`s face showed her reaction and acceptance that she`d lost her last shot at having a better life than her mother. The last frames of this child show only acceptance that she, at that age, already knows she won`t get a competent education and ultimately do better. The producers are hoping that sense of hopelessness inspires change, but with battle lines so entrenched I cannot say they might be successful. This debate in the U.S., and to some extents here in Canada, has moved beyond a reasoned conversation and become a shouting match.
That any child, particularly one at that age, should have to realize they are done, educationally, is sad, no matter where it happens. I`m not that naive to think children and families don`t reach the same horrid conclusion on this side of the border, but I`d like to think it happens far less often.
Having said all that, I don`t think this is a carte-blanche endorsement of the charter-school movement. Though I have not delved into the mounds of research that are likely available, my fundamental problem with charter schools is the significant barriers to entry. I have also seen precious little attempts at taking the things that are working in the best charter schools (in and of themselves a minority of all charters) and doing system-wide reform. I have seen how some of the things Ontario has chosen to adopt from the reform movement (ex: teacher advisers / student success teachers) have been implemented system-wide. The untold story of the ministry Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat has had a more positive than negative influence on changing how core subjects are being taught in our schools.
I would agree with the film more than Annie Kidder on the role schools play in society for the underprivileged and improverished. The film stance is that bad schools contribute and are perhaps a foundational reason for why we fail those who are at the bottom in our world. Kidder says:
The solutions lie in addressing the societal issues that often put kids at risk for failure in school. The solutions lie in strong early childhood supports – good child care, strong before- and after-school programs, and integrated systems of support for children and their families.
She goes onto say strong teachers, strong schools are an essential part of that, but it leaves me straining for that vision of the integrated approach that I know Kidder supports because she has spoken about it in the past. I think the reality may be it is easier to move towards that starting with schools. Improve them and then the rest of the supports will follow or, at least, find an amenable home as they are being implemented.
It also gave me another opportunity to note the disparity between K-12 reporting in this country and that in the U.S. The Education Writers Association has a treasure trove of resources for journalists on this movie and the issues it delves into (*sigh*). I only wish we had any Canadian equivalent for any journalists up here who might have wanted to tackle this.
Lastly, if you have any interest in K-12 education, go see this documentary. Watch, ingest, digest, react. We may not agree this Superman solution is the answer, but we need to be having this conversation.

Friday, October 1, 2010

And so it ends. Or does it?

Saw both news alerts on this Thursday and also got an e-mail or two on it. The Friends of NDSS (Niagara District Secondary School) dropped the judicial review of the District School Board of Niagara's decision to close the high school earlier this year. From the Standard, who have provided the most consistent coverage of this entire saga:
The Friends of NDSS issued a statement saying dropping the legal fight doesn't change the fact they believed they were wronged by the DSBN "in the past several years of neglect that led to the closure of Niagara District Secondary School."
"We had seriously hoped that the DSBN would be accountable to someone — if not the taxpayer and not the ministry, then perhaps the court of law," they stated.
Georgina Keller, a spokeswoman for the group who was named on the application for judicial review, said the battle has been emotional and stressful.
"It's been a long battle, but it's time to move on," she said.
"We will continue to be watchdogs of the DSBN. We've done too much to stop now."
I'm happy the group came to a reasonable conclusion that in its battle to prove it was "right" and the school board was "wrong," that a judicial review wouldn't provide the solace the community was seeking. As I'd opined here previously, that's not what a judicial review is meant to accomplish. The comments at the end of the article indicating the fight isn't over just provide a contradiction to the claim the group is moving on and accepting the school's closure. It confuses me when people participate in a process and then get caustic only after the ensuing decision is made and it's one they disagree with.
But what can we learn from this? Well, given that accommodation reviews are not going to stop anytime soon (unless we all start having many, many more babies and money starts growing on trees to update tired school facilities built 50 years ago), communities need to know what can be done and more importantly, what shouldn't be done.
The decision that led to NDSS' closure stands out for its uniqueness. Faced with a community that said it could grow enrolment at its school, trustees provided an opportunity to do so. Was it too short of a time line? Was it destined to fail? No doubt many would answer yes to both those questions since the school's enrolment didn't reach the target set by trustees. When you don't reach a goal, it's easy to use hindsight to claim the challenge was unfair. Only when it became clear that the enrolment target wasn't going to be reached was the board then faced with a steady stream of last-minute, desperate attempts to keep the inevitable from happening. The application for judicial review illustrated this to a tee-- the main reason the related request for an injunction to the school's closure was turned down was because it was filed two years after the board vote and only heard within weeks of the school's official closing date.
Is your community facing the prospect of a pending school-closure review?
If you're in an English-language school in southern Ontario, ask yourselves whether your elementary school is approaching 100 full-time students or your high school is under 400. If the enrolment trend is heading downwards (looking at five to 10 years of data) and population projections for school-aged children aren't showing any type of increase that could erase the history of decline and provide a stable population, don't wait until the trustee vote to form a review committee. Start meeting with trustees, community groups, your local municipal council, etc. This is the best time for the conversation to begin on how to sustainably grow the population of school-aged children in your community. It's also a great time to see where potential partners might exist to help renew the facility (if this is a concern).
When / if the review gets struck, for the love of a duck, participate. Read the information voraciously, ask plenty of questions. Develop comprehensive alternate recommendations and ensure the committee's ability to receive the requisite data it needs to develop these is not ignored. Don't neglect the board's need to serve all its students, across all its schools in all communities. Your community doesn't have an exclusive hold on good teachers, innovative programs, involved families and the sense of community-- this exists in varying shapes, sizes and flavours in every school. Don't aim for the status quo-- if the status quo was working, the review would never have begun.
Remember the review is not taking a trustee's job away from her/him. It's the board of trustees' responsibility to weigh all the information and recommendations received from its staff members and the committee and make what it determines is the best decision.
If they make a decision you don't agree with and you feel there was an abuse of process, petition for an administrative review. Remember these aren't meant to retry the evidence/recommendations, but to determine whether the board was negligent in its duties to conduct a public process and receive public input through the committee and subsequent public presentations.
As NDSS learned, timing is of the essence. I have no doubt, as stated in the article, that if the judicial review and application for an injunction had been launched in 2008 and not in 2010, the justice(s) would have had a more substantial opportunity to frame a different set of decisions.