Sunday, July 24, 2011

Tory op-ed piece on education

I have no idea if this is just one of many salvos the Ontario Progressive Conservatives are preparing to launch in the coming months on education, but it definitely caught my eye. In this case, it was Haldimand-Norfolk MPP Toby Barrett's name under the headline in the Tillsonburg News.
While the education budget increased 35 per cent over the past eight years, salaries and benefits for Ministry of Education bureaucrats went up 62 per cent. The number of education administrators who earn more than $100,000 a year increased by 181 per cent over the same period. This is unacceptable and robs resources from the classroom.
Another concern is every year parents are paying over half a billion dollars for essential learning tools, such as textbooks and science equipment. This means parents with two children in school are paying an additional $570 annually.
Apart from yearly funding increases, there are other measures required to make our public education system better than it is now. Education is not a one-size-fits-all system. Schools in different parts of Ontario have different and unique needs.
The column also quotes from a 2008 People for Education report on schools regarding the funding formula review that never really quite happened as promised. It also speaks to giving teachers more freedom and a restoration of the fall report card that is now a fall "progress report."
Some of this op-ed doesn't really read as though Barrett wrote it himself— and I've met the man a few times so I think I can tell. The question I'm left with is whether this is something sent from PC head office for all MPPs that have op-ed columns in papers across the province or is more of a runoff.
The part that excites me is that it also starts to present what a Tory platform on education could look like. Since it's received nary a mention in the PC Changebook— well, except for a bullet point that's identical to the headline on the column above. That's exciting because the Liberals are showing all the signs that while they are developing counterpoints to the higher-traction items such as hydro, they're going to want to lead on education.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Capital priorities

This article by Nathan Taylor at the Orillia Packet and Times (though the link is from the Barrie Examiner) does a good job of explaining the current fiscal and approval realities for capital construction in this day and age in Ontario.
Boards are routinely submitting and updating their capital priorities 'template' where they make business cases for particular capital projects-- be they new schools, school renovations or school expansions.
As Taylor's work shows, the ranking submitted by boards isn't always that given priority by the province.
While local trustees would like to see the government fund the Orillia priority — a new high school to amalgamate Orillia District Collegiate and Vocational Institute and Park Street Collegiate Institute — it's not surprising that a new Bradford school has been approved.
"There's a huge growth occurring, which isn't the case in Orillia," Edwards said of enrolment.
But it is an election year, and "interesting things can happen," she said.
"Let the games begin."
Jodi Lloyd, trustee for Ramara, Severn and Tay townships, said the funding for Bradford "is great," but she is still waiting on the Ministry of Education to provide an explanation as to why the Orillia project has not been funded.
"If it wasn't selected in this round, why not? And what is required to get the funding?" she wondered. 
This is where board politics and ministry / provincial politics may be colliding. Are there more votes in Bradford? Maybe. Or, as has been mentioned in the past when the Simcoe County DSB missed out on an entire round of capital funding, do the board's priorities simply contain more politics than reason?

Tell us something we didn't know

I some times wonder at what point an issue is newsworthy and when it's passed its prime. Take for example the current realities of the job market in southern Ontario for recent teacher-education graduates.
It's been known for some time that the hiring spree ended long ago. Retirement bulges have mostly passed and with the exception of those areas continually searching for new talent (French-language, technical studies, math, sciences) and those temporarily experiencing growth due to government investment (full-day kindergarten), there aren't really any permanent jobs for new teachers.
So then I saw this article from the Chatham Daily News this week.
Getting a full-time job as a teacher is tough these days.
Teachers can languish on supply lists for months or years before getting a chance for a permanent position.
As the last of the baby-boom generation approaches retirement, teachers are leaving. However, this is being offset by annual declining enrolment.
Stop the press.
No disrespect meant for the journalist who wrote this article, but as he himself notes, the factors contributing to this are not new. So what makes it newsworthy? Is it a chance interview with local board officials? Is it an annual update to the issue for the local readership?
But hey, that hasn't stopped thousands from applying to teachers' college for this fall. Thousands more than could ever hope to find full-time, permanent employment at a school in southern Ontario when they're done.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Mapping out Full-day Kindergarten

I finally get a great sense of accomplishment in being able to publish and embed this map. It's been somewhat of a labour of love since March. That was shortly after the year three school locations were announced by the Ontario Ministry of Education. Not knowing as much as I do now, I started, manually, mapping all the schools where FDK had been announced using Google Maps.That was a pain in my behind and several other body parts as it required a lot of cutting and pasting and manual correction as each address was searched. Google Maps also appears to have a limit of only a few hundred pins visible at a time for those entered manually.
Part of this frustration is a bigger conversation over open data-- specifically the lack thereof in the Ontario government. Instead of say, offering this information in an easily downloadable format, the ministry forces us to look up schools by municipality, school board or school name on the School Information Finder.
Things changed, and accelerated somewhat, when I participated in some social-media training at work and was introduced to Google Fusion Tables. Anyone with a Google account (and these can be setup for any email address) can use Fusion Tables, which is an incredibly powerful little website. So a few weeks ago, using the SIF, I started cutting and pasting all the information on the web into one large Excel spreadsheet (see its GoogleDocs version here). The bonus being that by this point in time, the ministry had announced implementation dates for all Ontario elementary schools, so the map went from including only the first three years of sites to all of them. Had I known about Google Refine at the time, this too would have been easier as I was manually moving cells around in Excel for over 3,500 schools and with the proper scripting I might have gotten Google Refine to do all that hard work for me.
Even once I uploaded the table to Google Fusion Tables there was still a lot of work to do. For example, it didn't like trying to map addresses with postal codes that weren't imported correctly-- which was all of them. Then, it insisted on plotting some schools in places such as California and the U.S. midwest, which required some manual dot-placing. The last challenge was to get them to show up in the five pretty colours they do now.
So other than that wild sense of accomplishment, what else?
As best I can tell, no one outside the Ministry of Education has ever plotted the location of the over 3,500 elementary schools in Ontario that would have kindergarten grades in them. As a result, the map does have caveats. First, it's only as good as the data provided. The ministry website doesn't include any address or FDK information for 19 schools, so they're not on the map (although they are on the spreadsheet). It also goes based on the address information provided therein, which may not be accurate in some cases where school addresses are not specific street or road numbers.
Perhaps most importantly, any information for a school that's recently been involved in a school-closure review or is currently in one is subject to some error. I checked schools I know for accuracy and in one case the location of the future schools was correct and the to-be-closed schools are not listed. In another, where trustees didn't vote on an outcome until late April, all three schools involved are listed and plotted, even though by 2013 when the program starts only one of the three will remain.
Please load it in your full browser, poke around, play and investigate. I will be doing some further analysis and mapping on the site (for this blog and hopefully my newspaper chain depending on what the data shows me), but for now here you go.

A campaign briefly centred on education

A week ago today, it seemed as though the front was opening for a 2011 Ontario campaign defined by education. Ministers Leona Dombrowsky (Education) and John Milloy (Training, Colleges and Universities), took to the podium at the legislature's media studio to tout progress in education over the past two terms of the Liberal government. This as the provincial government released the first in a series of progress report cards on how it sees itself doing in key areas. The education progress report is here, with the PDF here.
Overall it's a lot of high-fiving and back-patting amongst the government and its Liberal Party for a job well done. It points out measures such as 68% of students meeting the provincial standard — defined as a "B average" for the first time I've noticed it in print —in the Grade 3/6 standardized tests, along with pointing out that 50,000 more students are meeting the standard than when the Liberals took office in 2003. It has several nods to the first years of implementing the full-day kindergarten program, as well as the completed primary class size initiative that has reduced student teacher ratios in 90% of the province's classrooms to 20:1. Not to mention the increased graduation rates, which the Liberals are attributing to their portfolio of 'Learning to 18' programs and initiatives. High school grad rates sat at 81% as of the the 2009-10 school year.
It was no doubt a calculated move to kickstart this series of progress reports with education. Especially given the opportunity to poke at the other issues (hydro, the economy) that comes so much easier. With a few small exceptions here and there over the past seven years, the opposition parties have been pretty much silent when it comes to education. The Progressive Conservatives, burnt by this platform in both 2003 and 2007 have not appeared eager to engage the Liberals on this. The NDP haven't touched it substantially either.
The challenge though, as indicated by People for Education's Annie Kidder on the day of in a CBC Radio report (and likely elsewhere) by Mike Crawley (sorry, can't seem to find a link) is that when things are going OK in education, it's not a sexy issue. They're preaching to the choir on that one, considering the reasons this space exists, but it's a valid point. Who's going to come out and, in the midst of a campaign, actually admit they're going to slash the education budget? Or that they're going to cancel one of the programs or initiatives this government has implemented?
The most excitable we might get is the doom-and-gloom scenarios coming from the Liberals trying to scare people into not voting for someone else. Dombrowsky gave a taste of that in the media conference on July 4, and it's not good campaigning (yet).
The Liberals' lead plank in both their 2003 and 2007 platforms was education, so it's no surprise they're leading with it again in 2011. However in both elections I don't think it was the ballot-box question— despite the impact of John Tory's faith-based plank on his campaign.
As much as I'd like it to, I don't see it being the ballot-box question in 2011 either.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Finally tackling the Finland thing

It's been three months since I was in Finland and this is a post I've been meaning to scribe since I arrived back in Canada after the trip. The fellowship ended, work resumed, and here I am now scribbling out some thoughts.
The Grade 5 class (our third concert of the school visit)
The Canadian Journalism Fellows had the opportunity (at my request and insistence) to visit Oulunkylän ala-aste in the City of Helsinki on April 14, 2011. Apologies for the link in Finnish, it was the one we were provided with. The school is home to approximately 600 students in Grades 1-9, who attend one of three campuses. The campus we visited hosts the younger students as well as the school's musical option. Once students start attending this school they can qualify for an instrumental and voice music program starting in Grade 4, upon completion of an aptitude test.

We were spoiled on this visit, given our musical tastes, as three separate classes played various pieces for us and displayed a musical talent far beyond my own (this isn't very hard to accomplish). We also toured the entire school, met with a gaggle of teachers over recess to have a Q&A and even had lunch in the school cafeteria (wiener soup-- or a vegetable-based soup with cut up hotdogs). I felt so fortunate to have a full morning in this building, soaking up everything that my little mind could absorb. We do like to tout how well Finland does on international rankings and depending on which side of the spectrum you hang your hat you salivate over the no-standardized-testing reality in that country. Or you realize that Finland is an extremely homogenous country (five million people total, only five percent are not of Finnish origin, one of the highest standards of living in the world, etc.) where the other foundational societal investments do much more than the specific what's and how's of classroom management to determine how well children there are learning.
Anyway. Things that struck me, in no particular order:
  • This school of 600 has a full-time principal and part-time teaching vice-principal over three campuses. In this case, that teacher was the school's special-education resource teacher. Most schools of this size in Ontario would have full-time principal and vice-principal. We also don't do the multi-campus thing, for the most part.
  • As we observed classrooms (and we visited every grade), the physical spaces looked and felt like many, many other classrooms I've been in.
  • Teachers in Finland must have a graduate degree (ex: Masters) in order to even qualify for teacher training. The training program itself lasts longer than eight months.
  • Curriculum guidelines are set by the federal department of education (which we don't have in Canada), what teachers actually teach is, in some cases up to them, in others has the additional input from their local city school board or principal. On the face of it, this isn't that different than in Ontario-- the province sets curriculum expectations. How the curriculum is taught is still, essentially, up to the individual teacher-- though Ontario's Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat, Ministry of Education, school board program departments, teachers' federations and principals also shape much of how a teacher chooses to teach in her/his classroom.
  • There are no standardized tests, but teachers and schools still use the same variety of assessments that are used in our classrooms. Students still get grades. Interestingly, given how standardized-testing opponents latch on to this, Finland still participates in the PISA testing regime, which I would note is a form of standardized test.
  • Finland is an extremely literate culture. It has among the highest newspaper readership / media engagement in the world. Due to the uniqueness of the language (its closest linguistic cousins are Hungarian and Japanese), Finns read a lot in their own words. We asked different people for their thoughts on this literacy rate and received a variety of answers. One that stuck out for me was that the language is written very phonetically-- ex: what the word sounds like when spoken is what it's spelt like in Finnish. Another was that due to its small population, many of the TV programs are still subtitled, so in order to understand their Saturday morning cartoons they have to read well (this one I don't buy as much, given there are other nations where plenty of TV is subtitled that don't have the literacy rates the Finns do).
Now admittedly we were shown a school chosen by the Finnish foreign ministry. Given the competing wide array of interests we were trying to touch in a short five-day visit in Helsinki a morning was a massive amount of time and I was able to get a lot of information in my little head as mentioned above. I did ask about school financing and I know I was told how it works but for the life of me and without notes I don't remember the details.
Just like my visit to the school in Berlin, I was happy to leave the school with the feeling that there was no magic at work. There was no visible "one thing" or group of things even, that could tell me in a morning why this school system is so admired. Like in Berlin, I was reassured, assuaged, etc., in seeing a lot of the practices I've witnessed in many of the schools in Ontario that I've visited.

Roundup of browser tabs

I've been a delinquent blogger. This has happened before and no doubt will happen again. Life has gotten busy since I was selected president of the Canadian Association of Journalists, packing those volunteer tasks onto what is already usually a pretty busy schedule. Enough of that whining however. Here's the browser tabs that I've opened over the last two weeks, meaning to post but never quite getting to the point where I hit the 'new post' button and do it.
  • The Peterborough Examiner on the vote to close Thomas A. Stewart Secondary School (TASSS), the outcome of a school-closure review that included the historic and very popular (if not necessarily as well attended or modern) Peterborough Collegiate and Vocational School.
  • Two items from the Owen Sound Sun Times as the Bluewater DSB struggled with finalizing its 2011-12 budget. The first was as the budget was in progress, the second on the decision to delay meeting with Minister Leona Dombrowsky as the budget was passed.
  • Owen Sound again with a petition by students to keep a teacher given a layoff notice. Not sure if there was a followup article on this piece, but I doubt the layoff situation changed given collective agreements.
  • Cornwall Standard-Freeholder on a new national panel that will 'identify gaps' in First Nations education. Finding them shouldn't be that difficult, should it?
  • Peterborough again on an apparently nasty meeting between parents opposed to WiFi in elementary schools and the school board which proposes to use the technology. This article spawned some national coverage in the Sun chain.
  • An interesting take from the Dunnville Chronicle on who really 'wins' or 'loses' after a school-closure decision by the Grand Erie DSB.
  • St. Catherines Standard, doing what good local media does well-- hitting what was a high-profile debate earlier this year and getting an update on the DSBN Academy well before the out-of-town media remember that the school will open its doors in September.
Of course, with one exception I missed a lot of budget coverage-- which isn't to suggest there was a plethora since there wasn't. Most school boards that I'm aware of did not struggle with their 2011-12 budgets, even with continued declining enrolment. As mentioned previously and below, it's pretty clear that outside of provincial priorities like full-day kindergarten and sticking to the commitments in the big-budget fourth year of collective agreements, very little money is left for anything else.