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.