Friday, December 21, 2012

A tribute to #idlenomore

I was delighted to be able to attend one of the many drumming and dancing events today to support the Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence and justice for all the indigenous people of the lands on which we live. I was delighted to be able to attend as a teacher, a trade union member and a representative of others in our community who want to stand with our First Nations to combat the injustices of the Federal government and the disregard for natural world.

The First Nations of what is now called Canada have been subject to centuries of injustice, beginning with the theft of their land, the genocidal obliteration of some of their peoples, the interference with their culture and ways of being, and the terrible mistreatment of their children in residential schools.

If you are a teacher reading this post, please take the time this holiday to learn more about the history of residential schooling and how we can help to educate about this injustice at the Project of Heart, where you will find history, resources, and community:

Sadly, the legacy of these crimes is still here.

Today, in what ought to be a more enlightened time, the injustices continue with the Highway of Tears, with the failure to live up to treaty obligations, and most recently with the passage of Bill C 45 - yet another theft from aboriginal peoples and their land.

Bill C 45, just passed, was developed without the required consultation with First Nations. It changes the voting procedures for ceding rights for purposes such as pipelines and power transmission. The Bill will make it easier for industrial projects to interfere with traditional lands and territories and waterways.

In October, I was taken aback by the thousands of people on the lawn of legislature who came together to protest the Enbridge pipeline, the tar sands, and the proposal for tankers on our coast. That protest was so amazing because of the solidarity between environmentalists, social justice activists, trade unionists and First Nations. It reminded me of the 1999 "Battle of Seattle" when seemingly disparate groups of people came together to demand justice for the world's citizens.

Idle no more is attracting the same type of solidarity. Read this excellent letter of support from the President of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, as just one example:

Whether it is the Occupy movement's calls for a fair distribution of wealth, the environmental call for the respect of our planet, the First Nations demanding respect and justice and rights, or workers seeking dignity and democracy, we are all, hopefully, idle no more.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

When skills trump content

The BC edplan, along with most incarnations of 21st Century Learning, calls for a reduction in specificity of learning outcomes in favour of more integration of skill based learning. This is part of a world wide push by business and education think tanks. The underlying theme is to repurpose schools into training centres for the workplace by replacing a broad liberal arts education with a much stronger focus on job training.

The recent changes in the US curriculum give us an idea of what this means when it reaches classrooms. The new Common Core standards will mandate that 70% of high school reading is non-fiction, or "informational text". To do this, there will be a significant reduction in literature in the curriculum. As many commentators have pointed out, literature is probably what engages most students in developing a love of reading and books, so why a school system would limit the relative amount of literature to other reading while claiming to want to engage children certainly seems odd. It also minimizes the role of schools in developing appreciation for literature and creative writing and the personal fulfillment that accompanies exposure to our rich literary traditions. Here is how the British newspaper, The Telegraph, reported the change:

" American literature classics are to be replaced by insulation manuals and plant inventories in US classrooms by 2014.

A new school curriculum which will affect 46 out of 50 states will make it compulsory for at least 70 per cent of books studied to be non-fiction, in an effort to ready pupils for the workplace.

Books such as JD Salinger's Catcher in the Rye and Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird will be replaced by "informational texts" approved by the Common Core State Standards.

Suggested non-fiction texts include Recommended Levels of Insulation by the the US Environmental Protection Agency, and the Invasive Plant Inventory, by California's Invasive Plant Council.

The new educational standards have the backing of the influential National Governors' Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, and are being part-funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. "

A closer look at the "skills" agenda reveals some subtle and some not so sublte undertones.

Critical thinking is almost always included in proposed curricular changes, and certainly should be. But what is the definition of critical thinking? Many of the examples in the 21st Century literature apply this term in an entrepreneurial way looking at problem solving and technology, rather than the historical meaning of critical thinking of identifying bias and interests and determining opinions and beliefs.

For example, a lovely video on the Partnership for 21st Century Skills website shows a student thinking outside the box when she takes her premade kit for a toy car and instead creates an airplane. This is meant to demonstrate critical thinking and creativity - two of the four "C"s in the Partnerships list of 21st Century Skills.

In this example, the "critical" part of critical thinking is going beyond the status quo of the kit provided - that is, using the materials for a purpose other than the one originally intended. While this may be a wonderful attribute (and worth teaching), it is not the type of critical thinking that participants in a democracy need. It is the type of critical thinking that entrepreneurs in a growth based, competitive economy need. It is better described as problem solving rather than critical thinking and therefore to call it critical thinking is misleading.

Critical thinking for decision making requires the ability to analyse information to identify points of view and bias, and use this analysis to develop beliefs and opinions. Students need to understand that information is not value neutral and that democratic decision making includes an understanding whose interests are served with a given set of ideas. 

There is danger in promoting a type of critical thinking whose end goal is merely technological advancement or a product that will sell in the marketplace.  Or put another way, there is a danger in confusing problem solving with critical thinking. If we do, we might ignore or omit genuine critical thinking altogether in favour of entrepreneurial problem solving.

A second example of the subtle ideological undertone in the skills agenda relates to "citizenship". The notion of citizenship is contained in the curriculum of many democratic jurisdictions, as it should be. In my opinion, it should include or even prioritize the notion of democratic citizenship.

Yet much of the 21st Century literature is reframing citizenship using the terminology "ethical citizenship" or "social responsibility". Again, these terms really have different meanings.

Democratic citizenship describes the role of an individual within a group or social structure that involves democratic decision making. Both ethical citizenship and social responsibility focus on individual actions in moral terms - am I behaving respectfully or ethically towards another person. Again, teaching social responsibility is important and necessary. But the concern is that by reframing citizenship towards individual ethical behaviour, we lose the focus on democracy and replace it with personal ethics.

The C21 Canada paper "Shifting Minds" contains the word democracy only once. And yet public schooling should have as one of its primary functions the preparation of citizens to be active participants in democratic process. Instead, the words innovation, entrepreneurism, financial and economic appear frequently. The focus is a shift indeed - away from a school system serving our individual and social well being and toward one serving economic interests.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Losing public control of public education

We elect three different governments to look after different parts of our school system. Locally elected School Boards develop budgets, define policy, and manage the day to day running of Districts. Provincial governments set curriculum and most education policy. They create the legal and regulatory framework for schools. The federal government plays a role in Aboriginal education and French education.

But there are others wanting a say in how schools are run and governed, and they were not chosen by you or me. They are the ever growing field of education lobby groups - both non-profit and corporately funded. Sadly, our governments are more and more adopting their ideas rather than those of their electorate.

The earliest and perhaps most influential is the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development), an organization of which Canada is a member. This organization is not neutral - it aims to foster global development through economic growth. It therefore has a focus on skills and training in relation to education. It is the OECD that conducts the international standardized PISA tests that compare students from different countries in reading, writing, math and science. Noticeably absent from the OECD education program is any mention of education beyond training for the workforce or the role of education  in fostering and enhancing democracy.The OECD looks through just one lens - economic development.

There is the Global Education Leaders Partnership. This is a self-styled independent but corporate backed lobby group. GELP was instrumental in fostering and helping develop the BC education plan, behind closed doors.

There is C21 Canada - again, a corporately funded lobby group whose objectives orient around technology integration and radical change to schooling. They describe themselves:

“C21 Canada is a national, not for profit organization that advocates for 21st Century models of learning in education. The goal of C21 Canada is to witness an accelerated pace of 21st competencies, instructional practices, and digital resources and services being integrated into Canada’s learning systems. C21 Canada is a unique blend of national education associations and knowledge sector businesses united in their belief that 21st Century models of learning must be adopted in public education on an urgent basis to position Canadians for economic, social and personal success in the high skills, knowledge and innovation based economy.”

C21 Canada is funded primarily by business: Dell, EF Educational Tours, IBM, McGraw-Hill Ryerson, Microsoft, Nelson Education, Oxford University Press, Pearson, Scholastic Education, Smart Technologies; as well as two non-profit groups: the Canadian School Board Association and the Canadian Education Association.

Their discussion document, Shifting Minds: A 21st Century Vision for Public Education in Canada  provides insight into their values.

Despite the claim that “Canadians would prefer to see a national learning vision founded on Canadian values and principles”  the content is remarkably similar to what has been articulated in both the US and the UK by similar corporately backed non-profit lobby groups.

There is the promotion of 21st Century “competencies” - a shift from content based curriculum to skill based curriculum.

They also promote “radical transformation”, envisioned as “core  elements  of  public  education  that  must  undergo  elements  of transformation. This systemic change must be strategic and focused to be successful.” It includes curriculum overhaul, changes in pedagogy, modifying the learning environment, changing school governance structures and citizen engagement.  There is a heavy focus on technology, including: “anytime, anywhere learning”, “personalized learning opportunities” for “all students”, a commitment that “on-line learning, blended learning and virtual schools must be pursued as viable and relevant options to meeting the needs of many learners”, and “assistive technologies to support the diversified needs of learners must be ubiquitous.”

There are private consultants, to help you transform your education system. One is 21st Century Learning Associates, a private business run by John Kershaw, the former Deputy Minister of Education in New Brunswick. These consultants are ready to step in when governments hire them for “Strategic Planning: Visioning and strategic planning expertise and development services in the field of public education, including policy, legislative and regulatory.

But sometimes governments just go straight to the source: the corporations themselves. Manitoba has just announced their 21st Century Learning initiative:

The Ministry of Education of the Government of Manitoba is set to make a major announcement to encourage youth to pursue careers in technology on December 5.

The Ministry, represented by Deputy Minister Dr. Gerald Farthing, as well as the Information and Communications Technology Council (ICTC), along with Google Canada, Cisco Canada and Canada’s Association of IT Professionals (CIPS) will host a launch event in Winnipeg to kick off a major initiative.

The tsunami of education reform is coming our way, and it is coming not from the needs and wants of parents and students. It is coming from the plethora of individuals, private businesses, non-profit lobby groups and corporations who have something to gain.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Technology in school? How much is too much

When a parent visits a daycare, top of their minds is what kind of activities their children will be doing. A typical visit includes a description of the day, from play time, to nap time, to out door time. Most day cares proudly announce that they have no or very little screen time - be it television or computers.

But suddenly, the "critical thinkers" in the education policy world think we should be infusing and transforming our schools, including our primary classrooms, with endless numbers of screens and gadgets. Class sets of iPads, BYOD (bring your own device), blended learning...there is a never ending push for more technology in teaching.

Just today I had a look at a slideshow from Brian Kuhn, an IT Manager of School District 43. The show is entitled Brittania Elementary Education Technology Ideas ( and displays the so-called wonders of using digital cameras, smart phones, ipads and laptops in elementary school. While no doubt many of the activities presented are fun, engaging, and involve some learning, nowhere was there a critical look at a most basic question: how much technology is appropriate for children? what are the downsides? at what age? and critically, how much is too much?

Or, to put it visually, do we want schools with more of this:


or with more of this:


Far away from the education policy makers, other fields of study - notably pediatrics and child psychology - are making some very relevant critiques of the dangers of screen time, particularly for children and teenagers.

Dr. Larry Rosen, writing for Psychology Today, describes a recent study of students:

"Recently my research team observed nearly 300 middle school, high school and university students studying something important for a mere 15 minutes in their natural environments. We were interested in whether they could maintain focus and, if not, what might be distracting them. Every minute we noted exactly what they were doing, whether they were studying, if they were texting or listening to music or watching television in the background, and if they had a computer screen in front of them and what websites were being visited.

The results were startling. First, these students were only able to focus and stay on task for an average of three minutes at a time and nearly all of their distractions came from technology. [By the way, other researchers have found similar attention spans with computer programmers and medical students.] The major culprit: their smartphone and their laptop were providing constant interruptions. We also looked at whether these distractors might predict who was a better student. Not surprisingly those who stayed on task longer and had study strategies were better students. The worst students were those who consumed more media each day and had a preference for working on several tasks at the same time and switching back and forth between them. One additional result stunned us: If they checked Facebook just once during the 15-minute study period they were worse students. It didn’t matter how many times they looked at Facebook; once was enough." (

Dr. Marilyn Price-Mitchell, a developmental psychologist, writes on her web site about the effects on children of over stimulation from television:

"In 1970, the average age at which children watched television was four years old. Today, the average age is four months. The typical child before the age of five is watching 4 ½ hours of television per day, 40% of their waking hours! Recent studies have linked television to the over-stimulation of an infant’s brain, leading to the development of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in young children."

She is referring to studies by Dr. Dimitri Christakis, MD, on the effect of television viewing on children. Dr. Christakis has produced a TED talk on the topic of media and children, and suggests parents need to ensure their children are on a "media diet".

Interestingly, school is one place where children currently escape from their gadgets and screens. But this could be set to change, without much public discussion.

This theme is also taken up by Dr. Stuart Shankar, a Canadian researcher involved in the study of self-regulation, who talks about the effects of stress and over stimulation:

"What we're seeing is a generation of children whose nervous system is essentially being overstimulated."

Reasons included emotional and physiological stressors such as changing marital patterns, parental stress, changes in extended family involvement, increased use of the television, video games and the internet, and exposure to damaging themes via marketing and the media.

"We're concerned about the dramatic increase in television viewing, which is a physiological stressor because so much of the brain's energy is used on visual processing," Dr Shanker says.

The corporations who stand to make substantial profits from technology in education have spent a decade promoting the "edtech" business. They are single minded - they want as much technology in schools as possible. And they are on the cusp of getting what they want in growing numbers of jurisdictions all over the world. Layers of education policy makers and bureaucrats now mindlessly push technology without any discussion about potential drawbacks or health concerns, but rather just the "more is better" mantra.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Corporate advertising in public schools

I noticed in the news this week that a debate is taking place in Alberta over the consideration of selling naming rights to companies for school facilities and classrooms. The administration at the Calgary Board claims the funds are necessary to create classrooms that provide hands-on learning in technology education. ( Thankfully, the NDP education critic, David Eggan, has opposed this measure - so someone is speaking up to keep corporate ads out of schools.

Advertising in schools is extremely problematic on a number of levels. First, schools are public spaces that should serve the public interest, not corporate interests. Additionally, allowing advertising in schools can pervert a school's primary function - teaching and learning. Choices should always be made based on pedagogy, but when free materials or free equipment is offered, school administrators feel pressured, particularly when budgets are slim.

Already, schools are full of advertising - on score boards in gymnasiums, on the Coke machines in the hallways, in the resources provided free of change to teachers (such as materials on loans and credit from VISA and videos on puberty from KOTEX). But children and teenagers are such a lucrative market that corporations and businesses want more.

Here in BC a crafty entrepreneur has developed "Chatter High". It is a web site where teens answer quiz questions about companies and non-profit institutions and can use points to win prizes. To find the answer, they use a "hint" which tells them how to go to the company web site. So a student might spend ten or twenty minutes searching web sites to find the answers to get the points to win the prizes. Chatter High sells the rights to be on their service to local Victoria businesses. If you go into the Victoria airport, you will see giant billboards advertising to local businesses how they can purchase this service (see photos above). In the schools, daily announcements invite teens to sign on to Chatter High so they don't miss out on the prizes. I signed up for Chatter High, wondering if I would see Camosun College and UVic, but on my first visit the only educational institute was Sprott Shaw College, and the prizes were for local spas. Hardly the kind of thorough and useful information a student might want or need as part of their career development education. In essence, this profit making service is filtering what information is being marketed to students using school property and resources including the announcement system and the computer labs. They are making a business of selling access to students in schools. In an interview with the Saanich News, school Principal Judy Harrison had this to say to defend the use of this commercial product at Spectrum Community School: 'Harrison justifies the inclusion of businesses on the site, most which have no clear connection to education, since they’re merely providing incentives for students, such as gift certificates for gas or ferry travel.“I guess we’re all enticed by prizes,” Harrison said. “The (most) time was spent on answering the questions, so that’s where it was consistent.”' (

Across North America under funded school systems are facing increasing pressure to use advertising and charity to make up budget shortfalls. But these come with a very serious cost. In Seattle, when the Board proposed selling ads in schools, parents reacted strongly:

At a community meeting on the issue, one parent said, "Schools should be all about teaching students to make their own choices, not coercing them to buy things they don't need. Schools should not be selling my child as a consumer to corporations." 
Another said, "We need less materialism in this country, not more. To 'teach' children that they 'need' unnecessary commercial products is morally wrong. That this is done on commercial television is bad enough. But to do it in a public school is reprehensible." 


Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Thoughts on parent advocacy and the Moore decision: guest post

Today's post is from David Komljenovic, in Kamloops:

The Supreme Court of Canada decision in the Moore case creates a framework of advocacy for parents of children with special needs (and I am one). Often parents find school boards obstinate when more support is requested despite good reasons for providing them. I am hopeful that this decision will change the attitude that many boards have towards special education. The views of the courts should change how special education is viewed and in context to the required human rights considerations when Boards make budgetary decisions:

"Adequate special not a dispensable luxury. For those with severe learning disabilities, it is the ramp that provides access to the statutory commitment to education made to all children in British Columbia."

In that vein, there is also now advice provided by the SCC to parents about how to advocate for their children including the requirements on districts to undertake a review that considers impacts on the human rights of children with special needs before changing or taking away programs. Some of the points in the decision related to this were:

"In Jeffrey’s case, the Tribunal accepted that the District faced financial difficulties during the relevant period. Yet it also found that cuts were disproportionately made to special needs programs. Despite their similar cost, the District retained some discretionary programs, such as the Outdoor School — an outdoor campus where students learned about community and the environment — while eliminating the Diagnostic Centre." (para 51)

"More significantly, the Tribunal found, as previously noted, that the District undertook no assessment, financial or otherwise, of what alternatives were or could be reasonably available to accommodate special needs students if the Diagnostic Centre were closed...the failure to consider financial alternatives completely undermines what is, in essence, the District’s argument, namely that it was justified in providing no meaningful access to an education for Jeffrey because it had no economic choice. In order to decide that it had no other choice, it had at least to consider what those other choices were." (para 52)

The SCC makes a harsh commentary on the North Vancouver Board and perhaps warns other Boards that do not complete their analysis before making a decision of potential consequences.  Boards have to do more than just take into consideration budgetary constraints. The SCC has now decreed that human rights considerations must also be made and may exempt the closure of certain facilities or dismantling of programs.

"The Tribunal found that when the decision to close the Diagnostic Centre was made, the District did so without knowing how the needs of students like Jeffrey would be addressed, and without "undertak[ing] a needs-based analysis, consider[ing] what might replace Diagnostic Centre, or assess[ing] the effect of the closure on [Severe Learning Disabilities] students". The Tribunal noted that at the Board meeting on April 26, 1994, when the budget closing the Diagnostic Centre was approved, the Minutes stated that "[a]ll Trustees indicated in this discussion that they were adopting the bylaw as it was required by legislation and not because they believed it met the needs of the students". It concluded that Dr. Robin Brayne, the District’s Superintendent of Schools, and the District in general "did not know how many students would be affected" by the closure. In fact, on the day of the Board vote, the District’s Assistant Superintendent and the Coordinator of Student Services informed Dr. Brayne that it was "too early to know precisely how the needs of high incidence students will be addressed in the absence of the Diagnostic Centre". (para 43)

I would note that the SCC did not completely absolve the province noting that the budgetary crisis was partly created by them:

"This brings us to the Province’s role. The District’s budgetary crisis was created, at least in part, by the Province’s funding shortfalls..."

However, it is logical to understand why the SCC did not expand its decision of discrimination beyond the district. I noted these three quotes that explain how a complaint is centred on the complainant and not on systemic issues that may tangentially be related to the complainant.

"A practice is discriminatory whether it has an unjustifiably adverse impact on a single individual or systemically on several..."

"But the remedy must flow from the claim. In this case, the claim was made on behalf of Jeffrey, and the evidence giving concrete support to the claim all centred on him. While the Tribunal was certainly entitled to consider systemic evidence in order to determine whether Jeffrey had suffered discrimination, it was unnecessary for it to hold an extensive inquiry into the precise format of the provincial funding mechanism or the entire provincial administration of special education in order to determine whether Jeffrey was discriminated against. The Tribunal, with great respect, is an adjudicator of the particular claim that is before it, not a Royal Commission."

"However, she properly noted that "[a]lthough systemic discrimination does not have to be specifically pleaded, it must relate to the complaint as framed by the Complainant" (emphasis added). This, I think, was a clear direction to the Tribunal hearing the merits of the case that while systemic evidence could be helpful, the claim should remain centred on Jeffrey."

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Technology in a 21st Century Learning Inc world

Not surprisingly, technology is almost always identified as a component of 21st Century Learning. But this isn't simply adding new technology to aid in the delivery of curriculum or to allow new teaching methods. It is not a matter of adding a few computer labs or replacing textbooks with eBooks.  In the 21st Century Learning model technology defines the learning methods. It is absolutely backwards - rather than pedagogy defining if and what technologies are used, instead, it is technology driving the choices for learning. As such, it is fundamentally different than the type of technology integration we've seen in the past. It is also, ironically, antithetical to a student-centred or personalized approach because the technology is driving decisions, not student needs.

Whole books have been written on the degree to which technology should or shouldn't be in our schools, but we can consider just a few statistics to get a sense of where 21st Century Learning advocates would like to take us. A paper by CISCO provides a helpful chart documenting what media consumption Dutch teenagers do during an average day (

The question CISCO asks is, “How can traditional modes of classroom instruction engage and inspire students when life outside the classroom has changed so dramatically? In 2007, teens in the United States spent 40 percent of their media time on cell phones, the Internet, and games, up from 16 percent in 1998. For many learners, class is the only time in their day  when they completely ‘disconnect.’” Rather than question how much is too much technology, this technology company wonders how we can increase the screen time of teenagers by filling in the one relatively screen free time - school. Meanwhile the Canadian Pediatric Society recommends a two hour screen time limit for children. Significant social issues related to screen time include obesity, mental health and even changing brain chemistry for younger children.

To sell more IT products, the 21st Century Learning advocates create a need for those products. No longer should schools spend their resource and IT budgets only on textbooks and computer labs. Anytime, anywhere, collaborative, integrated, blended learning requires a massive infusion of new IT products.

Considering just one corporate player, Pearson, we see the objectives identified in this report written by Donald Gutstein for the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation:

“According to investment research firm Sanford Bernstein & Co., Pearson is pursuing three  growth strategies. First, the company is investing in content and technology to increase its  market share of the education industry. Second, the company is restructuring away from the FT  Group and reinvesting the proceeds into the high-growth areas of emerging markets (Brazil,  India, China, South Africa) and consumer—rather than publicly—financed education. The third  strategy is new, and Bernstein predicts it will ‘revolutionize how education is delivered to  students around the world, starting with the United States.’ It is an ambitious attempt to  further commercialize education by claiming its products and services will raise student and  teacher performance while at the same time cutting spending. If successful, Bernstein argues,  ‘it would make every teacher and school student in the United States a potential customer’ by  ‘personalizing education in U.S. schools through technology and best practices.’” (

Pearson appears to have the US government firmly in its corner with the launch of the ‘Digital Promise’ announced in 2011. Digital Promise, “will work with leading researchers, entrepreneurs, and schools to identify and spur breakthrough learning technologies that deliver the best results for students, parents, and teachers.” (

Without doubt there is a place for technology in schools and classrooms. It is also likely that new technological developments can provide useful tools to enhance learning. Online and blended models certainly have a place to address issues such as geographic distance and schooling in small communities with few children.

What is troubling is that rather than a broad discussion about the potential new uses of technology along with the potential risks and pitfalls, the dialogue is one-sided and misleading.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

The slow death of special education

The last decade has been bad for special education - services for those students with identified disabilities (learning, intellectual, or physical).

In response to court victories requiring inclusion - the policy that all children should be integrated as much as possibly into the main stream classroom setting - a framework was developed in most jurisdictions in Canada to define and determine how each student's need would be addressed. Typically this means a team including parents, special education teachers, classroom teachers and administration work together to develop an individual education plan (IEP). In some cases the actual content of the student's education is modified - they complete different learning outcomes. In others, different learning strategies are used to help a student reach the same learning outcomes. These strategies are identified in the plan along with how they will be accomplished.

Prior to 2002, students with a designation (a disability identified through testing and/or diagnosis) in BC received targeted funding. This funding paid for various resources in the school such as special education teachers, educational assistants, special equipment, and so forth. The targeting meant that the funding had to be directed to resources for a particular child.

In addition, prior to 2002, teachers in BC had limits on how many students in each class was a student requiring an IEP. If this number was exceeded (usually 2 or 3), the teacher was assigned additional preparation time. This recognized that in order to carry out a modified program in the classroom, a teacher needed time to plan and prepare additional lessons and materials. It also recognized that a teacher could only feasibly do this for so many children before all the hours in the day were gone. Finally it ensured that children with disabilities really were integrated - they could not be bunched up into one or two classes within a school.

Today's world is very different. There is now very limited targeted funding, and it is usually inadequate. Non-targeted funds have been used for a whole variety of other expenses, including carbon offsets, un-funded salary increases, technology purchases.

Today, a child with autism may only have enough funding for an educational assistant half time, rather than full time (of course their autism doesn't magically go away for the other half of the day). Children with learning disabilities do not receive any targeted funding at all. It is not unusual for a class to have 3 - 12 students with an IEP. BC has lost over 700 special education teachers. They have more and more been replaced with an increase in education assistants, who have typically 6 months training, in comparison to five years of university plus a special education specialization.

Teachers cannot manage and students' needs are not being met. It is now common place for teachers to refuse to sign off on an IEP - they simply don't believe that adequate resources are available to actually meet the plans identified.

Classroom teachers struggle to cope with large numbers of students with widely varying needs. There are fewer and fewer "pull out" programs to help with reading and numeracy, so this is left to the classroom teacher. One teacher told me a few years ago she was delivering 18 different reading programs in her primary classroom.  In my school district, in a five year period, one in ten teachers is off on a stress related illness.

Teachers are told to use teaching techniques to solve these problems. First, the answer was "differentiated learning". Simply create a lesson with variations for many different ability levels.

Now teachers are being told to teach children to "self regulate". Simply ensure that your teaching includes self-regulation methods and children will be able to develop the skills to concentrate and function in a classroom setting.

And the latest? Personalization. In the new 21st century learning world, as all teaching will be personalized to fit each individual student's needs, a student with a disability is no different than any other student.

BC's Superintendent of Achievement, Rod Allen, has said there will be: "'no labels and no medical model. In a 21st century personalised world, I’ll tell you what a special education looks like if you can tell me what a ‘normal’ education is." This is meant to rationalize complete de-categorization - the wholesale elimination of the identification and programming for students with a disability.

Rights for students with disabilities originate with the Charter. Educational opportunity must be preserved no matter what disabilities a child has, be it physical or mental. For some children to learn to read, significantly more resources are required. Learning disabilities require specific teaching strategies and often one-on-one instruction for periods of time. Physical disabilities may require additional supervision and equipment. It is more expensive, generally, to provide the same level of educational opportunity to a child with a disability than to a child without a disability, just as there may be costs involved to accommodate a worker with a disability in the workplace. 

In a world obsessed with cost cutting rather than fairness and equity, this means that these children are particularly vulnerable. It is much cheaper to tell teachers to simply use "differentiated learning" than it is to provide adequate numbers of special education teachers. It is much easier to blame teachers for failing to do an impossible job - meet every child's needs in a class with too many learning complexities and too many children - than to ensure an adequate tax base to so that funding is available to actually meet every child's needs.

The result? Only half of all students with special needs complete secondary school. 

Eliminating special education categories would be catastrophic  Not only would we fail more children, we wouldn't even know, because no information would be available to identify which children had disabilities and how they progressed through the school system.

Sadly, we appear to be on this path.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Attacks on public education are working...where is the NDP?

The news this week that BC parents are increasingly turning to private schools was not surprising. For two decades, teachers and trustees have been raising the alarm over the impact of funding cuts to our public schools. Parents notice too, and if they can afford it, they go elsewhere.

One of the biggest differences in private and public schools is class size. Whereas most private schools have classes in the 10 - 15 range for primary and the 15-20 range for secondary, BC public schools now have no class size limits whatsoever above grade 3 and class sizes are often 20 - 24 in primary and 28 - 30 and even larger in secondary. This week a group of students put a video online lamenting their class of 50 and how the only way to reach their teacher was via Facebook ( It is one of the single biggest differentiating factors between the two systems, and almost always a selling point for private schools.

The BC Liberals began the steady  increase in public school class sizes in 2002 when they unilaterally eliminated class size limits from teacher contracts. For a decade since, teachers have been out protesting and striking to try and regain those limits.

Sadly, it now appears that the NDP has no intention to reverse this trend if elected. In an interview with the Globe & Mail, Dix said he is concerned about class composition (the number of students with special needs in a class), but not class size. ( When I raised this point at a recent Victoria Labour Council meeting with MLA Maureen Karagianis, she replied that we shouldn't listen to the right wing media, they get it wrong. Not a very convincing argument without a public statement from Dix. Evidently he has no issue with the Globe's reporting or we would have heard otherwise.

A few short days later, Dix chose to weigh in on private school funding. Currently private schools receive 50% of public school funding amounts per child. Evidently an NDP government would make no change to this (

So is it any wonder that private schools have waitlists? Public schools are underfunded, with large and unmanageable class sizes, and neither party wants to do anything about it.

Some of my friends in the NDP say it is ok, the NDP is just being quiet before the election so they can win and we can't expect much anyway. I find this hard to swallow. First, parties win on a mandate, and if you don't state what your values are and what you want to achieve before the election, it becomes impossible to make change by stealth afterwards. (remember the HST). Second, I think the NDP is completely missing the boat on this one. Even the BC School Trustees Association, hardly a radical left wing group, says public funding should go to public schools, not private schools. I believe there is plenty of public support to redirect funding to the public system and to substantially increase funding to schools. After all, even the Fraser Institute acknowledges that 9 in 10 students are still attending public schools. So for that 90% of parental voters, it is just plain old self interest to want all of that public funding going into public schools.

But even for those without students currently in the school system, the rise of inequality and the loss of a middle income standard of living is intimately linked to the ability to rely on a strong social safety net. As Justin Trudeau pointed out this week in the Toronto Star (, key to combating inequality is the "need for a stable social safety net, essential to the middle class’s standard of living and economic security".Free, quality public education is a critical component of that safety net. Funding private schools with public money and refusing to address class sizes in the public system will lead to a further decline in our public system and drive more parents (who can afford it) into the private one.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

The myth of personalization

Much of the hype of 21st Century Learning centres around “personalization”. Academics such as the UK’s Ken Robinson lament that existing forms of schooling are restrictive and standardized - deadening children’s innate sense of curiosity. At the opening keynote of a recent education conference (ISTE 2012), he said:

“Humanity is essentially based on the principle of diversity. We are hugely different in our talents, our passions, our interests, our motivations, and our aspirations. The irony is, our education systems are predicated on compliance and conformity, not on creativity and diversity. I believe there are opportunities now, with new technologies as well--not only, but including new technologies-- to personalize education for every student in the system. Sometimes I hear people say, 'Well you can't personalize for everybody. We can't afford that.' But I say we can't afford not to.”

Personalization has a long history in the education field and encompasses a wide range of ideas including mastery learning, self-paced learning, and learning through multiple intelligences. It may involve student choice, student pacing, and even student selected learning objectives. However the term has been appropriated, particularly in the UK, to be more closely affiliated with computer mediated personalized learning. This causes considerable confusion in the 21st Century Learning world, as educators would likely provide a very different definition than technology companies.

The term was identified by David Miliband, then Minister of State for School Standards, in a well known speech in 2004 about UK education reform. The idea was further defined by British academic David Hargreaves who coined the nine gateways to personalized learning. But as the Alberta Teachers’ Association points out: “The close association of personalized learning and new technologies has been a central strand since the inception of the idea, and is part of the all-embracing creed of technocrats looking to enter system level educational reform. Of note is that David Hargreaves was a former chair of the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency, which was the UK government’s main partner in the strategic development and delivery of its information and communications technology (ICT) and e-learning strategy.”

What does technology facilitated personalization look like? It is perhaps better described using the term adaptive learning, as it typically consists of a computer program which offers adapted learning pathways based on the student’s test outcomes. Students begin with a test or assessment and the computer then develops a pathway of lessons and future tests according to the student’s current abilities. More sophisticated models will also include different potential outcomes that the student may want to pursue. Nevertheless, to describe this as “personalized” is a misnomer. In any computer learning system, there are a fixed set of outcomes the program can teach, and there are a fixed set of potential pathways a student can traverse.

There are more sophisticated versions that incorporate questions and answers with peers, online discussion groups and other features designed to mimic an in-school experience.  Nevertheless, true personalization begins with the person, not with the tool.

The myth of personalization is used to make the 21st Century Learning model attractive to parents and children. What could be better than a school system designed to accommodate every child’s unique needs? Yet that level of personalization would take many resources and would not necessarily involve any technology. It would require smaller classes, more teachers and a greater range of educational programs in all schools. Adaptive technologies are not personalized learning. Adaptive and online education systems are used to scale instruction to large numbers of children, and although they may provide multiple pathways, they are by their preprogrammed nature restricted in scope.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Schools as charities

With funding cuts across North America, schools and school districts are turning to fundraising more and more as a source of income. There is a long history of parent committees raising funds for extra-curricular activities, but the type of fundraising now gaining traction goes beyond paying for some extras. Is public education gradually moving towards a charity rather than a public service? Here are a few of the fundraising developments taking place...

Some BC School Districts have put a "donate" page or button directly on their web sites. For example, here is the link to the Delta School District "Charitable Giving" page:

The District describes their program: "The Delta School District is a registered charitable trust through the Canadian Customs and Revenue Agency. Although the Provincial Government provides funding for the district's core education programs and services, there are additional programs and services that greatly benefit from donor support! Donations received help us to deliver the best possible education to our 16,000 students."  Of note is that the donations are for "programs and services".

Langley School District has set up a Foundation: The web site indicates the type of items that are funded: 

"Funding Interests Include:
  • Literacy in all its forms
  • Enriched performing and visual arts initiatives
  • Special education programs and needs
  • Purchase library books and technology equipment
  • Developing learning enhancement projects"
They also describe the purpose of the Foundation, "The Foundation was established in May 2003 to enhance and enrich educational opportunities for 19,952 students in the Langley School District. We support the Langley School District in providing programs of excellence not funded by the Ministry."

In the US, charitable giving to schools has taken an even more aggressive and pervasive turn. The web site allows donations to hundreds of classrooms across the US. The site is supported by a variety of large corporations and private interests, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Disneyland, Facebook, Starbucks and Chevron, to name just a few. Donors can choose particular projects and types of schools, such as Charters. Donors can also choose which type of teacher they want to support, such as screening for only "Teach for America" teachers.

The irony is that while the web site claims to "ensure integrity" with an aim of "giving people a simple, accountable and personal way to address educational inequity", the entire project actually undermines the inequity they claim to want to address.

Only taxation and fair distribution of tax revenues can provide genuinely equitable funding for schools across communities. Any system of charity will be rife with inequity and also lack stability. It is simply no way to pay for schooling. It is tragic that public education is eroding to the point where such charity is so widespread. Now more than ever we need to reverse the trend by forcing our governments to provide full and stable funding through our taxes.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Corporate ethics? A tale of two choices...

It is a disturbing juxtaposition: in the same week that Facebook refused to remove hundreds of bullying comments about teenager Amanda Todd, who recently took her own life, another Internet company, ServerBeach, shut down, with almost no notice, 1.4 million blogs of teachers and students due to a copyright infringement issue.

The Amanda Todd situation is tragic. A young woman took her life at least in part due to cyber-bullying. Even after her death, harassing comments and pictures continued to appear on Facebook. Those who reported these violations which were not removed received a message:

Thanks for your recent report of a potential violation on Facebook. After reviewing your report, we were not able to confirm that the specific page you reported violates Facebook's Statement of Rights and Responsibilities.

The reality is that the online harassment continues, and Facebook is failing to take action that could potentially prevent further harm to Amanda's family and other teens impacted by this cyber-bullying. (see:

In contrast, when Pearson discovered that a blog entry contained a few paragraphs (a set of 20 test questions) of a book published in 1974, the disabling of copyrighted content was swift and comprehensive. The blog owner had failed to pay Pearson the $120 licensing fee for using the content. Even though the content was removed from that blog, there was a "cached" version somewhere on the server (but it could not actually be viewed by anyone). Within 12 hours of receiving an automated warning message, was disabled by the hosting company ServerBeach, in response to complaints from Pearson. This had the effect of taking 1.4 million blogs offline - blogs mostly used by students and teachers during the school day. (see:

I don't believe corporations have any place in our schools, and this is a perfect case in point. Corporations have one primary interest - their own profits. When human interests compete, the playing field is not even. When corporations say they want to help students or help schools, we need to remember that they want that only so long as it is profitable for them. When interests collide, corporations will choose profits over people most of the time.

Textbook stunt no substitute for proper funding

In the latest bizarre policy measure by Premier Christy Clark, the BC government will provide free online textbooks for 40 post secondary courses.

It reminds me of the time they sent a book home to every household in BC with a child. I imagine this will be just about as effective at addressing debt for post secondary students as that stunt was for improving literacy rates and school readiness.

That the government would propose such a measly and inequitable policy shows a real lack of understanding about this issue. Post secondary education is no longer affordable for many students, particularly those from low income families.

This issue was described in a recent study by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives

"...skyrocketing tuition fees do play a significant role in deciding whether or not to pursue a degree, particularly among students from low-income families. The extra costs (more than $5,000) associated with attending a university away from home tend to reduce enrolment among lower-income students who would have had to relocate to attend.

According to research from Statistics Canada, “slightly more than one half (50.2%) of youth from families in the top quartile of the income distribution attend university by age 19, compared to less than a third of youth from families in the bottom quartile (31.0%).” (

Sadly, BC is not alone in failing to address the equity issues that come with higher tuition fees - it is a pan-Canadian phenomenon. Tuition rates have risen far faster than inflation, putting many students in dire economic straights with heavy debt loads.

Similar forces are creeping into K - 12 schooling as well. One little noticed change to BC's school system this spring was a change to the School Act that allows Districts to charge fees for International Baccalaureate programs. Despite "hardship" policies, fees are a deterrent for low income families. This may impact hundreds of IB programs offered at schools across the province. It is in addition to fees already charged for specialty and Academy programs, as well as the significant fundraising parents do.

All public education programs, not just a few textbooks, should be tuition free and fully funded. This is the only way to provide equitable access to these programs.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Origins of the #bcedplan - Updated

Note: This blog entry was picked up by Tyee writer Katie Hyslop, who did an excellent story available here:

It is easy to think that we are immune here in Canada from the influence of the global "education reformers" who claim to want to improve schooling. What they really want is to reduce government expenditures, reduce public service delivery, reduce the levels of service publicly funded, and at the same time create a massive opportunity for private providers in the long sought after K-12 "market".

In fact, BC is a case study in how these ideas have been purposely propagated as part of a global strategy.

Take a look at GELP, otherwise knows as the Global Education Leaders' Program. If you are familiar with ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council - a right wing organization that is propagating reactionary legislation through all the US states), GELP will look frighteningly familiar. It is a global group of "leaders" with a vision - transform public services so they do less with less, with private partners. Kind of like Charter schools or vouchers. Except with the appearance of making things better. More 21st century.

GELP describes themselves: "GELP is a community of system leaders, policy-makers and thought-leaders collaborating to transform education at local, national and international levels, to equip every learner with the knowledge and skills to thrive in the 21st century."

They acknowledge their "partners": Promethean, a "global education company that supports teaching and learning through integrated technology and training."; the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; Cicso Systems Inc; the Ellen Koshlan Family Fund; and Innovation Unit, a "not-for-profit social enterprise which supports innovation in public services."

One of GELP's "Jurisdictions" is none other than BC. There is a proud link to the bcedplan video here: And a little more digging finds a GELP case study report on, yes, you guessed it, the bcedplan. You can find the whole thing here (, but interestingly, the report identifies the origins of the plan:"At an international conference held in Vancouver in 2009, a team from the Ministry connected with Valerie Hannon, a director of Innovation Unit and a consultant in the Global Education Leaders’ Program (GELP). Her presentation, ‘Only Connect’, struck a chord with the BC Ministry and under the leadership of Gordon Campbell, then Premier in the Province, a series of high level meetings took place which resulted in a radical vision for transforming education in British Columbia."

So what is Hannon's view of a "radical vision"? Some insight can be found in a paper she co-authored for Cisco Systems. In "Developing an Innovation Ecosystem for Education", the radical vision is described clearly: "how to design public services that deliver different and better outcomes at a lower cost." (page 7)  This is done through "radical efficiencies", such as "a reduction in the number of interventions made by professionals", "decommissioning of space", "looking to alternative providers", and having "users of services frequently assume a more active role in their delivery, which serves to enhance the benefits of the service for these and other users and to reduce the costs of provision".

And how will the bceplan do less for less with this radical vision? Well, just one example is special education - perhaps one of the most expensive areas of our current school system. This process began back in 2002 with the elimination of targeted funding for most students with special needs. It has progressed through the decade with the elimination of class composition rules (placing a limit on the number of students with special needs in any one class to ensure integration not segregation, as well as adequate teacher time) and the loss of over 700 special education teachers.

But here is how GELP's case study describes the "next wave of reform": "Decategorisation of special needs education. In the words of Rod Allen, there will be 'no labels and no medical model. In a 21st century personalised world, I’ll tell you what a special education looks like if you can tell me what a ‘normal’ education is.'”

It is not surprising that Gordon Campbell was struck with Valerie Hannon's ideas. The past decade has been all about the same type of "savings" she describes. As the BC Education Coalition pointed out back in 2010, these "savings" took place even before the Ministry was in love with Hannon's ideas:

Between 2000/01 and 2009/10, the Education Ministry reports that BC has seen a net loss of 148 schools ("decommisioning of space")

Net loss since 2001-02 of public school teachers: 9% ("reduction in the number of interventions made by professionals")

Students with Special Needs: grad rates for most districts have declined in recent years, some by double digits (perhaps a consequence of an unrealistic expectation that "users of services" will be able to "assume a more active role in their delivery" because we apparently no longer need "labels" or a "medical model" for students with disabilities)

(Note: I wrote a related blog post a year ago...different company, same message:

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Numbers that count

Most of the education world is filled with numbers that shouldn't count. A book by John Hattie is making the rounds in BC and Canada. The book is used to develop a theme: that there is data-based evidence that class size and other working conditions don't matter that much, but teaching methods do. It is the usual message from the top - fix the teacher, not the conditions in which they work, or the conditions our children find themselves learning in.

Hattie's book is a meta-analysis - a complicated set of edubabble statistics to apparently show what is effective and not by reducing hundreds of studies on factors that influence student outcomes down to a single number. Finances: .12 (small). Peer tutoring: .5 (medium). Instructional quality: 1.0 (huge).

Just one small problem - what is he actually measuring, and should it be measured in the first place? What is a good student outcome? What did these studies measure? Our data-obsessed world produces an awful lot of questionable data, based on questionable assumptions. First and foremost in the education world is that "school quality" or good "outcomes" are measured by standardized test results.

This goes to the very heart of what schooling and education are about. Are they about doing an algebra problem correctly? Or are they about the broad range of knowledge, skills and abilities that enrich our lives and our society.

Professor Alfie Kohn has written on this subject at length and provides some healthy skepticism to the world of edu-statistics. In "Schooling Beyond Measure", he notes:

The habit of looking for numerical answers to just about any question can probably be traced back to overlapping academic traditions like behaviorism and scientism (the belief that all true knowledge is scientific), as well as the arrogance of economists or statisticians who think their methods can be applied to everything in life.  The resulting overreliance on numbers is, ironically, based more on faith than on reason.  And the results can be disturbing.
In education, the question “How do we assess (kids, teachers, schools)?” has morphed over the years into “How do we measure…?”  We’ve forgotten that assessment doesn’t require measurement -- and, moreover, that the most valuable forms of assessment are often qualitative (say, a narrative account of a child’s progress by an observant teacher who knows the child well) rather than quantitative (a standardized test score).  Yet the former may well be brushed aside in favor of the latter -- by people who don’t even bother to ask what was on the test.  It’s a number, so we sit up and pay attention.  Over time, the more data we accumulate, the less we really know.
All that said, I am of the belief there are a few numbers that we should pay attention to. Here are some.
1. The graduation rate in BC is 80%. This compares to 96% in Denmark. (see: Clearly we can do better at getting most students through high school and to a diploma. A little breakdown of BC's graduation rates is also instructive: for both special education students and aboriginal students the number is around 50%. Just this little bit of information is plenty for some policy decisions - we need to seriously re-invest in special and aboriginal education. And by re-invest I don't mean test more, for more data, but teach more, for more learning.
2. Class sizes. It seems to me it is the most basic and obvious thing that the amount of teacher time any student has access to will directly impact their learning. The same obvious fact holds true of group homes, foster homes and day cares, where adult/child ratios are mandated. At the extreme, hundreds of children with a few adults can result in serious physical and psychological damage (remember those Romanian orphanages ). But more back to our world, as every parent knows, a class of twenty is better than a class of thirty. More teacher time. More one-on-one instruction. More ability for the teacher to ensure pro-social behaviours. More time to address individual learning needs. It may be that a teacher can produce high standardized test scores with classes of thirty, forty or more, but is that what parents want when they send their children to school? A simple answer to this question came to my door last week. The Globe & Mail included in the paper a glossy magazine, "Our Kids: Canada's Private School Guide". For each school in the directory, they list basic information: Grades, Gender, Boarding options, Cost, Contact Information and just one other thing: Average Class Size. 
Here is a little "data" regarding class size averages in Victoria, where I live:
Glenlyon Norfork: 18 - 20
St. Margaret's School: 14 - 20
St. Michael's University School: 18 - 20
Queen Margaret's School: 18
Shawnigan Lake School: 14 -15
Public schools: 18 - 27

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Chicago teachers push back "reform" agenda

Chicago teachers ended their strike and returned to classrooms this week. The strike was particularly significant - this was the first teacher union in the US to make a significant push against the corporate reform agenda. It was the first teachers strike in Chicago in decades.

The Chicago board was seeking a number of concessions that have been introduced in other US cities including merit pay and reducing teachers' rights to recall when they lose work due to a school closure. While merit pay was dropped from the table, the recall provisions were scaled back, a concession on the part of the union.

But the success in fighting merit pay is important. Many US teacher unions have accepted forms of merit pay. Not only is this detrimental to the strength of their organization, by pitting their members against each other over salary, it also legitimizes the concept of merit pay when a teacher union agrees to it. (I have written before on the issue of merit pay, or see Alfie Kohn's excellent: The Folly of Merit Pay).

Moreover, although the school day and year was extended, there was a pay increase for teachers when the city faces a deficit situation. This is also important, as it represents a successful push back from making working people pay for deficits created by lowering corporate taxes and bailing out banks.

Perhaps a most important factor in the Chicago teachers strike was how it ended. A tentative agreement was reached early in the weekend. A Sunday meeting was then held with the "House of Delegates", who represent teachers in schools. At this meeting, the delegates voted to extend the strike until teachers themselves had the opportunity to look at the deal and give feedback to their delegates about whether to accept it. Thus, the strike did not end until every teacher in every school had the opportunity for democratic input. This is the outcome of a transformation in the Chicago Teachers Union after several years of rank and file organizing by teachers in schools against a bureaucratic union leadership that was not responsive to teachers. So while some certainly will question and disagree with ending the strike with concessions still in place, there was more involvement of the membership in the decision than just the leaders.

The corporate reform agenda represents an unprecedented attack on unions, on public education, and is emblematic of the drive to privatize. Other teachers unions have mistakenly lent this agenda credibility by accepting moderated versions of the "reforms", including merit pay, vouchers, charter schools, trigger laws, evaluation based on testing, to name a few.

The significance of the Chicago Teachers strike is that this time, ordinary teachers insisted that their union take a position opposed to these measures and instead in favour of public education, quality schooling, smaller class sizes and the rights of teachers to fair and reasonable pay and working conditions.

Hopefully, this will be a model for other teacher unions to build on.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Public school teachers or corporate online learning...

The wholesale elimination of public schools would be a political impossibility. So too would be the wholesale replacement of brick and mortar schools with online learning. As a result, those who seek to make profits from education by replacing teachers with machines typically do so in small steps. Privatizing creeps in slowly, as does the use of computers where a teacher used to work.

The recent announcement of contracts to Dynaread Special Education Corporation is a case in point. Crawford Bay School, in the Kootenay Lake District, has just signed up. (see:

Dynaread offers an online reading program for struggling readers. Like "Rosetta Stone", the program modifies the path a student takes based on answers to questions. The Dynaread web site acknowledges that no studies to date have determined its effectiveness nor compared it with traditional, teacher based reading programs.

It is not surprising a school would turn to such a program. BC has lost over 700 special education teachers. Students who are struggling with reading, math or in other areas, typically have just minutes per week with a specialist teacher to address their learning needs. Without any targeted funding for students with disabilities such as dyslexia, the inadequate funding will often end up in the form of a single educational assistant in a classroom who is meant to work with multiple children with highly variable needs, such as autism, behaviour problems, low IQ, and so forth. Teachers consistently have to address individual learning needs of many of their students without adequate time to plan or work with the students one-on-one. In the face of a serious shortage of special education teachers to address student learning needs, online programs are cheap alternative. As the Dynaread Corporation describes it, they are less staff intensive.

Where resources are adequate, struggling readers are assisted in a variety of ways. They can receive one-on-one instruction, using diagnostic tools and specific materials designed to ensure that the program meets the individual learners' needs. Many teachers also use small reading groups to ensure students are working at the appropriate level for their current ability or they have older students act as guides or mentors to younger students. This can be combined with large group instruction and reading activities that provide rich and varied experiences that encompass a wide variety of ways of talking about reading and exploring reading comprehension. All of these methods are social - they involve learning in an environment with other adults and children. They also involve learning beyond the nitty gritty specifics of verbal language skills. Students are learning a wide range of social skills, often discussions will break out, differences of opinion will be encountered and explored. Every learning activity also builds relationships - key to motivation and engagement.

While I have no doubt a computer can probably provide training in the most narrow meaning of reading and reading comprehension, this pales in comparison to the breadth of experiences teachers create in classrooms. This inadequacy is compounded with growing concerns over the amount of screen time children are exposed to. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than two hours of screen time per day, for all screen activities - TV, video games, computers. In many households, this limit is met without any screen time at all in school.

It can be difficult to contest any given introduction of technology in schools. Some do have genuine benefits as tools in a classroom. But the relentless push to use more technology and particularly to replace teaching time with computer time should be a warning. There is a bigger process at work, and decisions are not being made based on what's best for children. Rather, consistent underfunding is driving school boards into the hands of corporations waiting to reap profits from the K-12 sector.

Monday, September 17, 2012

On facts versus skills...

Today's 24 Hours posted a "debate" about the new curriculum proposal by the BC Ministry of Education. Unfortunately, both participants got it wrong (see:

The "facts versus skills" debate is a false dichotomy. Children need to learn some facts and children need to learn some skills. The most important question is not how many facts and how many skills, but rather which facts and which skills.

David Eby correctly points out that learning by rote for the purpose of ranking children using standardized tests in not a good use of our education system. But replacing that with rote repetition of skills for the workplace is equally problematic.

As with any educational change, it has to be considered in context: who is proposing this change and for what reason?

In this case, the change comes as part of the "BC Education Plan" - a plan devised in response to pressures from technology companies who want to take over more of what they view as the "business" of education, in response to funding pressures from a reduced tax base, and in response to an artificial attack on a free, publicly administered, comprehensive education system (otherwise known as "21st century learning").

In this context, the push to reduce the curricular requirements could be problematic. For example, rather than free teachers and students from the artificially narrow constraints of standardized tests, such as the Foundation Skills Assessment and the provincial exams, a lack of curriculum with the tests still in place is likely to encourage more teaching to the test, not less. The tests will replace the curriculum if test outcomes replace adherence to mandated curriculum as a form of "accountability".

In addition, during the tenure of this government, we have seen an attempt to marginalize progressive curriculum, rather than mandate it. In response to concerns about teaching about same sex families, for example, the government agreed to a new course, called Social Justice 12, but this course is optional. Most schools don't even offer it. Similarly, recent statistics on the enrollment in the optional First Nations courses show that only a tiny fraction of our students are choosing these courses. This means we are failing if the goal is to ensure a cultural and political understanding of First Nations among the whole population.

School curriculum functions as a mechanism to let us democratically choose what our children learn in order to be full participants in a democratic society. Thus, any given proposal has a political component to it.

Reducing curriculum while maintaining testing schemes and promoting technology and work skills over the liberal arts is reactionary, not progressive. It is part of a broader scheme to turn schools into workplace training centres rather than incubators for democratic citizens.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Chicago teachers strike over class size, wages

It all sounds so familiar. Under the false guise of "austerity" and "student's first" the Chicago public school board wants to eliminate teacher pay increases, increase class sizes and lengthen the school day.

After a summer of failed bargaining, Chicago teachers are today on strike for the first time since 1987. That also struck a familiar ring - the recent one day strike by BC government workers was also the first strike since 1987.

I have a feeling of cautious optimism. Optimism because after a very long time, and after many years fighting school closures (also sound familiar?), privatization through charter schools, and deteriorating working conditions, Chicago teachers are saying enough is enough. Cautious because as in so many so-called democracies these days, I am worried that there will be government intervention used to try and end the strike.

The changes that the Chicago Board wants to impose indeed mirror changes brought in by government's all over the planet. As Lois Weiner, a professor at New Jersey State University writes:

Though the titles and acronyms of policies differ from one country to another, the basics of the assault are the same: undercut the publicly- supported, publicly-controlled system of education, teachers' professionalism, and teacher unions as organizations. The very nature of education is being contested: the Fourth World Congress of the international organization of teacher unions, Education International (EI), held in Brazil, explored the theme "Education: Public Service or Commodity?" (see

The Chicago situation has all the tell tale signs:

* attempt to demote the profession by reducing pay and increasing working hours
* introduce a competitive (rather than collaborative) model for teachers using merit pay
* reduce the level of service and the quality of learning by increasing class sizes

To support Chicago teachers, you can find information on the Facebook page:

Here is a good backgrounder on the issues in this strikc:

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

More educational change? Really?

On the first day back at school, just after former Education Minister George Abbott announced his intention to resign from politics, and just before a cabinet shuffle, the BC Government decided to announce they are overhauling BC's curriculum.

The proposed curriculum changes were developed last year, during a protracted labour dispute with teachers. As a result, there has been no input from teachers' union and profession body, the BC Teachers Federation. It is a bit like changing the procedures for surgery in a hospital without asking the doctors. Crazy.

The changes are focused on so-called "21st century learning" - a euphemism for needing change that doesn't explain why change is needed. The basic idea is that somehow because the century changed from 20 to 21 we now need skill and technology oriented learning as opposed to content oriented learning. The rationale for the changes erroneously assume that education in the 20th century was one monolithic factory model. Nothing could be further from the truth. Very few classrooms today have desks in a row, there is very little rote learning of facts, much schooling is project and team oriented, and schools and Districts offer a plethora of locally developed courses on a wide variety of subject areas including the environment, psychology, social justice, to name a few.

One of the features of the proposal is to reduce the amount of prescribed content. I generally support this idea, as I believe teachers then have the freedom to develop lessons and units based on the particular students they are teaching and the local community in which they teach. However, I also believe it is important that we, as a society, democratically determine the content that schooling includes.

The proposal seems to take the idea of curriculum reform a bit far. Critical thinking, for example, must be embedded in a context - there is the subject matter about which students are thinking critically. Moreover, schooling provides us with factual information necessary to be informed democratic citizens. The First Nations curriculum and the Declaration of Human Rights are just two examples of specific curricular content I would not want to see removed.

Finally there is a danger in changing curriculum without changing the mandated testing that has invaded schools and teaching over the past two decades. Without specific curriculum, but with mandated testing, the tests themselves will more and more drive the teaching content.

But despite all these concerns, one has to wonder why a government so low in the polls, with cabinet Ministers leaving almost daily, would try and continue with a multi-year agenda developed without the input of the professionals who are in our classrooms every day.