Saturday, March 20, 2010

Duncan coming north

The Toronto Star reported Thursday regarding the plans for a fall educators' conference with quite an interesting lineup. It reported the "Building Blocks for Education: Whole System Reform / Ontario Education Summit" conference would include U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan as a key presenter.
The conference is designed "to stimulate ideas, invoke creativity and foster innovation," according to a letter obtained by the Star that Education Minister Leona Dombrowsky sent to educators on March 8 inviting them to attend.
Dombrowsky said the Ontario Education Summit, which has yet to be officially launched, is a chance to tout some of the province's initiatives and learn what's being done abroad.
"We are very excited. We have an opportunity in Ontario to showcase some of the investments that we've made and some of the results that have come of those investments," she said Wednesday in an interview from Belleville.
"There's no question it is a forum to share best practices."
Dombrowsky said discussion would focus on achievement targets and assessing student performance with measurable data.
Invitations have been sent to Ontario's board of education chairs, directors of education, and education-sector organizations, such as teachers' unions, as well as educators in the U.S., Finland, Singapore, and other countries.
A key presenter will be Duncan, an Obama friend whose aggressive work as superintendent of Chicago's public system led to the creation of 100 new schools, the closure of "underperforming schools," an increase in early childhood education programs, and benchmarks for teachers and students.
Under the "tough love" approach advocated by Duncan, a former professional basketball player who frequently shoots hoops with the president, students and educators alike are expected to perform. 
I've personally only scratched the surface of what's been happening in the U.S. public school reform movement with my attendance in 2009 at two Education Writers Association events in Washington D.C. and San Diego. There are a lot of Duncan fans in the U.S., but at the same time there are many who aren't as enthusiastic. One of the clearest things that's become apparent to me is that while its local-district-charter model allows for a huge variety of schools, schooling and outcomes that produce fantastic settings for teaching and learning-- the top 10% don't appear to consistently bring the bottom 10% any higher. There's no overwhelming drive or system in place that can take practices that work in one school and implement them appropriately in others. If I had the time, there's been plenty coming out of the U.S. lately on where the Obama administration wants to take the No Child Left Behind program as well as its own initiatives to improve the quality of public schools in the U.S. Which isn't to suggest we've got all this figured out in Ontario either.
This conference will no doubt produce its detractors and critics, concerned that any investment in running it is a waste that should be diverted elsewhere. I think the province has done an interesting job of cherry picking some of the elements introduced through reforms elsewhere south of the border and implementing them across the province (one of my key takeaways from San Diego). I've stated here at the time of release that it's possible Ontario's students have plateaued insofar as the numbers of them who can reach a B-level standard in literacy and numeracy skills. Perhaps this conference will provide the boost needed to implement that next series of programs that will see higher assessments and graduation rates. It's ambitious.


Anonymous said...

Ambitious is one thing ER. What that looks like going forward in Ontario is going to be quite another I think.

You said "There's no overwhelming drive or system in place that can take practices that work in one school and implement them appropriately in others."

I believe that is as it should be and that we in Ontario need less of that philosophy that what sounds good in one school or district should work in another because as practice has taught us it's not practical or reflective of the needs of such varied regions, schools, boards etc.

I'm a huge fan of more local decision-making and am absolutely in favour of a hands-off of the glut of central control that was started by Harris but has ramped up considerably under McGuinty.

I once attended a huge conference hosted by the then Education Improvement Committee in Ontario called "Shifting the Balance" which was essentially the first step in working to empower local communities to take hold of their own education needs.

It was an inspiring couple of days and saw all factions working together and looking for the same thing.

The ball of inspiration that this conference began was dropped somewhere down the line - I'm thinking after the 1999 May election, Harris resignation and then provincial election put out that locally motivated fire that had been lit so well by both the Rae government and Harris after him.

In Ontario the lines of all been blurred between local autonomy and the long arm of central control.

I side with local each and every time.


Anonymous said...

ER - for some reason my comment is stuck. The comment counter registers
"0 comments" but when I click on it there seems to be one there, but it's not the one I submitted.

Education Reporter said...


I'm of two minds on this. Local autonomy gives character, flare, allows opportunity for innovation.

However it also hides and allows for small-scale incompetence to survive, for students, parents and families in one corner of the province to be woefully out of touch with what they could be learning and doing because the local people can't see past their end of their own noses.

I don't know where the pendulum needs to sit on this-- but I support a common set of expectations. Call them standards, or results, or criteria or whatever. I also support the ability of a family to be able to move from community B to community M and expect to see some consistency in how and what their children are being taught in publicly funded schools.

One of the challenges I had as the token Canadian at two conferences was that I just couldn't understand a system that would allow a school to succeed so brilliantly while allowing the one in the next neighbourhood to flounder so spectacularly-- with no concerted attempt (that I was able to witness in the short time there) to have one rub off on the other.

Does a more centralized approach in certain areas smother all opportunity for local autonomy? I don't personally think so, but I could be very wrong on that.


Anonymous said...

ER - I simply don't trust that the folks at central command can have as great an understanding of a particular community as can those within that educational community itself. I've seen programs developed and fail as a result, or programs developed by the Ministry that look and feel very different in individual communities.

That a family can move from one region to another and be guaranteed the same standards and curriculum should be being evidenced now. The NDP gov't in its Royal Commission recommended it, Harris implemented it but I'm pretty sure that there hasn't been any sort of follow-up to make sure it's happening.

In the old days my family moved to three different areas of the province in my Grade 13 year. Having to catch up and write the exams of three different boards almost broke me in spirit and pretty much killed the will in me to continue my schooling.

I ended up taking a few years off after I Gr. 13 and ended up going back to post-secondary several years later.

I had the opportunity to travel the province on a gov't tax-force in the winter of 2000-2001. For six months we met with as many school boards, parents, community reps., union reps as possible.

I can say with some certainty as much as we want to homogenize things like the funding formula or standards each and every board spends its money and sees its focus slightly differently. As a result it should be the primary developer of the programs that work best for that community.

I believe that if you were to take any of Ontario's boards you'd see schools within that board which are thriving and those which may not be. Good leadership and managemet would suggest intervention to help the under-achieving school by borrowing from what's working in the other schools and it may work. It also might not because even within boards we see differences in their more localized communities. I'm thinking of those in the far north or in boards the size of small countries.

I hear what you're saying though.
(to anon. - sometimes posts disappear here)