Thursday, January 30, 2014

Bums in seats means dollars in the bank

An increasing reality across K-12 in Ontario is school boards marketing themselves to potential students.
I've noticed it, not so subtly, in my own district where the public school board has ramped up its promotional budget and materials to tell potential students "they belong" in the public system. All social media accounts are being used to push out marketing statements to enroll more often than push out items to inform.
It's not seen too often for K-8 programs, but at the high school level the competition -- and yes, it's a plain-out competition for bums in seats -- is getting fierce.
Witness the two-step by the Ontario Catholic School Trustees Association on a promotional video for Catholic publicly funded schools featuring Mark Kielburger. He's a Catholic high school graduate, which is why the association had approached him in the first place. For some time now OCSTA has encouraged its member boards to highlight the Catholic graduate expectations, to differentiate its students from those who graduate from other schools. Highlighting Kielburger is a good example of that kind of promotion.
The association was called on the carpet by its public counterpart, whose spokesperson wasted no time in slamming OCSTA for crass marketing when they should be focused on working with their counterpart associations -- a pot/kettle sort of thing given many of the Ontario Public School Boards Association are engaging in the same sort of marketing. President Michael Barrett spoke of wasting time and public dollars on promoting one system over another, neglecting the fact his own members spend dollars doing the same things
The pitches are driven because parents and students can choose which school board to enroll in for grades 9-12 and each student brings with them per-pupil dollars. Post-1998, as per-pupil funding was implemented and Catholic school boards largely benefited from the formula (after, I would note, being forced to live off only residential property taxes from Catholic school supporters for decades) and the new school in most every community was the Catholic one.
In my own community, at one point, 25% of the incoming Grade 9 class at the local Catholic high school had come from public elementary schools. Why? Bigger school, newest facilities, better reputation academically. Despite what gets said in the midst of considering accommodation issues, parents and students tend to consistently vote with their feet to get the programs and facilities they want and need.
Declining enrolment -- and the largest cohort of students is now exiting high school -- has changed all this. Now Catholic school boards are more aggressively marketing themselves to maintain their student populations. Public school boards are responding in kind. It's an all-out battle, leading to another round of questioning the very existence of a publicly funded Catholic school system in Ontario.
For the record and in the interests of full disclosure as I've stated in the past, I am a graduate of a Catholic high school. That being said, I support a single publicly funded system administered according to language as has been successfully accomplished in Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador.
Critics are treating the Catholic-school marketing as another reason why the system shouldn't exist-- but if those critics come from public school boards, then they're the pot calling the kettle black. As mentioned above-- an increasing number of boards are marketing from both sides of the secular barrier.
If we're ready to have a mature conversation about a single publicly funded school system then let's have that conversation, not start throwing spitballs over marketing campaigns.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

A trend afoot on Bill 122?

There was little if any coverage of the step back from Bill 122 taken by the education sector of the Canadian Union of Public Employees Ontario on Jan. 13.
CUPE announced it was pulling its support for the bill due to ongoing frustrations with the manner the 2012-14 Memorandum of Understanding and subsequent contracts are being inconsistently handled across the province. I've seen this frustration first-hand and covered it as it pertained to how the support-staff members' contract was (or rather, wasn't) being implemented at a local Catholic district school board. The school board's response in this case was that it wasn't going to implement something it wasn't being funded to cover.
It's a common error made in covering K-12-- all the focus is on teachers and their unions with comparatively much less attention paid to the support staff members in our schools and the unions representing them. The size of the teaching component ensured MOUs from the disastrous 2012-14 contracts were funded based on what was in each subsequent agreement.
For support staff members, the situation has been a different one. Some boards have found the funding and consistently applied the changes to sick days, payouts of banked days (if any, since few boards offered this to support staff), tapping into short-term disability plans, etc. Others did not apply those items in a consistent way.
CUPE, which represents the vast majority of custodial, administrative, maintenance, classroom-support (EAs, IAs) and specialist positions in Ontario schools, said Monday it's had enough with how an agreement reached provincially is being implemented locally. Per the language it's using, the party it's holding primarily responsible is the government.
It's fearing Bill 122 will only formalize a scenario where this sort of 'provincial agreement doesn't get implemented properly at the local level' experience will happen again, and again. For anyone catching up, Bill 122 is heading into line-by-line review by committee later this year with the government's stated goal of having third reading of the bill reach the floor of the legislature before the March break.
The bill would formalize in law a two-tier setup for bargaining in the education sector-- at a central table with the Crown present alongside reps from unions and school boards, along with the traditional union-and-employer bargaining.
CUPE is urging its members contact MPPs across Ontario to express their concerns and lobby for their member to withdraw her or his support from the bill.
When I grabbed the link Monday, there was some casual social-media chatter other unions might follow CUPE's lead on this front. Doing a tour of their websites before typing this, I couldn't see any similar statements alongside each union's Bill 122-related content. What I did see were commitments to speak before the legislative committee to ensure their concerns would be heard.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Make that a numeracy and literacy secretariat

My feeds were full of math talk today, as Ontario Minister of Education Liz Sandals announced a series of responses to concerns over stagnant and declining assessment results on math.
The angst has been rising since the release of the 2012 PISA results late last year, showing that stagnation in achievement in math. It's existed longer than this however, as anyone paying attention to the full spread of EQAO results has been noticing for a number of years.
The Globe and Mail kicked off a recent spotlight on this angst by highlighting a series of petitions started across Canada to bring attention to the concern over how math is being taught and learned in K-12. I was sent a link to an Ontario petition last week. As of typing this, it still hadn't met's threshold.
It's too easy to go too basic on this. Far too easy to call upon a few curmudgeonly people inside the ed sector and parents on its periphery, griping about how things aren't taught the way they used to be, how kids today are getting dumber, etc. That's low-hanging fruit and I would challenge my journalist colleagues to reach a little higher on this issue.
Unlike Sandals, I would say the curriculum in Ontario does need a refresh. Curriculum review is never a bad thing because we constantly evolve-- we learn more about how people learn, different and new ways of teaching to meet the increasingly varied needs of school-aged kids in our classrooms today (not to mention tomorrow and the year after that). I'm not saying the curriculum is broken, but keeping it current is never a bad thing.
I support the added investment in training teachers how to be better when they teach math-- it's one of the areas where the inadequacy of Ontario's teacher education shines through. I witnessed this first-hand three years ago while on my fellowship and auditing teacher-education classes at OISE. One of the courses I audited was a masters of teaching junior-intermediate cohort's trip through a 12-week course on literacy and numeracy. The first block was all numeracy and of the class of just over 25, only a few had math as their teachable subject.
The professor kept insisting and encouraging the remainder of the students not to tune her out, imploring them to challenge their own biases on math, the poor way they'd been taught and and to realize in today's job market, the first, second and third jobs they might get in a school could very well involve teaching math.
With a move to a two-year program in Ontario, teacher-education programs would serve their candidates and those candidates' future students well by spending far more time on math-teaching strategies for primary, junior and intermediate panel candidates. 
When I was working on my EQAO series in 2008, I also saw first-hand how the emphasis was on literacy and not numeracy. The provincial and local investments in literacy far, far outnumbered (ha!) what was being put into math. If you've had a kid in elementary school since the Liberals took office in 2003, you've likely heard of a literacy coach at your child(ren)'s school. Have they had a math coach? Probably not, since there are few of them.
I've told various Ministry of Education communications staffers over the years the Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat was full of untold stories on how an investment in a particular area generates results over time. How it's done well with targeted investment and support of existing teachers through their school boards.
Despite its dual name, the LNS has been primarily focused on literacy.
The details of today's announcement don't specify whether the LNS will be a conduit for any of the money pledged by the minister. It exists and already has the structure to deploy this training and new resources-- it would be foolish to set up a completely separate body to administer this.
As to results? They won't be visible overnight as it takes time for any changes spurred by this announcement to be seen. If the investment is targeted correctly, those results should show it in the coming years.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Let the ignored races begin

Jan. 2 was the opening of the nomination period for municipal elections in Ontario, as you've no doubt heard by now.
Media across the province have already reported on the first folks who filed their nomination papers when clerks' offices at municipal offices across the province opened for the day yesterday. The nomination period continues until Sept. 12-- clerks will finalize the list of candidates for the Oct. 27 election by 4 p.m. on that day.
What didn't you hear a lick about?
How these are the same elections where voters (municipal elections have a very poor turnout) choose their next crop of trustees for the province's 72 publicly funded public and Catholic district school boards.
Any early filers for these trustee positions across Ontario.
Despite how, in any municipality, these candidates file their paperwork at the exact same desk, often with the exact same people, as you would if running for a seat at the municipal council table.
As an advocate for more and better reporting on the K-12 sector in Ontario (and by extension, Canada), it's always my hope the next election period is the one that includes more information on those running for trustee.
While the role of trustee has changed dramatically since it was first created, it remains an important one. They're the corporate governors of district school boards. Charged with setting policy and passing budgets, serving two masters of the policies and spending rules set by the Ontario Ministry of Education while attempting to address local needs within that same framework.
District school boards are often, in many parts of this province, the largest public-sector employer and owner of real estate. Despite demographic changes, there are still almost two million school-aged children in Ontario, with the vast majority of them attending publicly funded schools.
Regardless of all the changes over the years, trustees remain the only ones who decide on two things that have a huge impact on a child's experience in a K-12 school in Ontario.
No. 1? The budget. Despite how little they can actually move around from line to line thanks to provincial funding formulae and rules, trustees pass the budget. They're the ones who authorize what the funds are spent on within each district.
No. 2? School / facility condition and location. Despite an oft-misunderstood review process, the province has been consistently and exceedingly clear it wants nothing to do with deciding the exact location of schools in Ontario. Its funding and rules often force the need to make a decision on what schools are built, which are closed and moved, etc., but the details of the decision remain exclusively with school board trustees. Not accommodation review committees, not school board staff members. Trustees.
Given the budgetary and accommodation challenges facing each of the 72 Ontario school boards today, not to mention into the next five-to-10 years, a full slate of trustee candidates could be fielded on those two matters alone.
But they won't.
What we'll likely see on Sept. 12 is a slate of acclamations for trustee races across Ontario.
In those places with races, it'll be rare to see a broad spread of candidates in any particular ward.
I'll be keeping an eye out for trustee election-related coverage in the months ahead. It'll be sparse, but let's see what comes along. If you see any, link to it in the comment section.