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White Elephant School Boards

November 21, 2014 by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) at 08:05 AM

Sometimes things created for an earlier reality, for example cabooses, outlast their usefulness. School boards are a case in point. When they were created 150 years ago, there was only one school board per school, usually in a rural area, and it served as a democratic way to ensure that each school reflected the wishes of its community. But in the 150 years since then, the balance between rural urban schools has dramatically tipped in favour of urban schools, and a series of amalgamations have resulted in school boards that try to oversee up to 600 schools. This has proved to be mission impossible for school boards, and as a result bit by bit the province has stripped away the school boards' powers - to the point that virtually their only function is to get blamed by the provincial government when things (inevitably) go wrong.

These days, most school boards are non-democratic, powerless, and a waste of money. For a thorough treatment of this development, see this column by Konrad Yakabuski about school boards in general and the Toronto District School Board in particular. 

With modern telecommunication abilities, it would be quite feasible to abolish school boards and make every school in the province autonomous and governed by its own democratically-elected school board. 

Closing small rural communities

November 20, 2014 by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) at 06:32 AM


The Ontario government is in deep financial trouble - after all, getting elected is expensive - and one of its proposed cost-saving measures is to close schools. more  

Closing small rural schools don't save much on paper. There is a small amount of building maintenance. Two or three fewer admin staff. Maybe a chance to consolidate classrooms and cut some teachers, but that's not a sure thing since you can't take two 15-student classes and make a 30-student class. Against that, transportation costs go up as you bus students around the region, and the combined school needs more administration

Students carry the brunt of the pain, sitting on a bus for hours each day. But eventually the community starts to close down. Young parents stop moving in and houses drop in value. We talked about that here.

But from the province's point of view, the savings are huge. Parents withdraw their kids and homeschool them. Or find private schools. Or maybe older kids simply drop out of school. And for each student who drops out, the province can hold back $12,000 from the school board each year. You can save money pretty quickly that way if you don't mind the unfairness....

A Competitive Advantage

November 19, 2014 by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) at 05:38 AM

Yesterday we launched this study by Professor David Johnson of Wilfrid Laurier University.Dr. Johnson was interested in the question of why Edmonton students do significantly better on the provincial tests than do Calgary students. After adjusting for the students' backgrounds, Dr. Johnson confirmed that Edmonton students score much higher than Calgary students and, what's more, the gap increases the longer the students stay in school.

Dr. Johnson reports that the public school systems have a very different history in the two cities. For many years, Edmonton public schools have competed with one another for students. For many years, Edmonton public schools have been granted considerable leeway in deciding how they can best operate. As a result, the Edmonton school board has been willing to open specialized and charter-style programs as requested by parents.

These choices offered by Edmonton schools and the associated competition among schools have had some unexpected side effects. Not only do Edmonton students learn more, but also Edmonton parents are more satisfied with their children’s schools. Results in Edmonton are better at all types of schools, not just public schools. And – bonus – there is more diversity in Edmonton public schools!

Critical Thinking, Within Limits

November 18, 2014 by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) at 05:13 AM

  I'm all in favour of critical thinking as long as it's not critical of me.... H/T

School for Thought

November 17, 2014 by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) at 08:48 AM

Click here for a pretty interesting CBC article about the conundrum of how much power we should give the state to over-rule parents in deciding their children's best interests. 

In the news is the First Nations aboriginal girl whose parents are refusing chemo treatments, despite their probable 90%-95% chance of success (and the almost 100% chance that the girl will die without chemo). Should the state over-rule these parents?

Then there's the sex education controversy, including the kerfuffle over Ontario's new sex ed curriculum. Some 17,500 people have now signed a petition against it and rising fast. Should the state over-rule these parents?

And the list goes on, including whether the state should forbid parents to spank their kids and whether the state should fund religious schools.

These are not easy questions. I go one way on some and another way on others. I would be very interested in our readers' point of view, especially if they could advance an over-arching principle.

Sunday at the Movies (People for Education)

November 16, 2014 by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) at 08:09 AM

In case you haven't heard of them, People for Education is an Ontario organization dedicated to protecting the status quo. This video is a fine example, and there are others - especially their latest one on Special Education. According to these videos, if your child is struggling in school you shouldn't actually do anything about it other than ask the teacher nicely to help. In my opinion, parents would be nuts to listen to them. And I have to point out that Annie Kidder, the People for Education spokesperson in the videos, didn't follow her own advice. When one of her own children was struggling in school, Ms Kidder transferred her child to Rosedale Heights, a special charter-like school for the arts.

Reading Intervention Model

November 15, 2014 by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) at 08:27 AM


I have been in Wisconsin a lot this fall, where my research study on reading intervention is occurring. In Wisconsin, they take this Casey Foundation study very seriously. According to the Casey Foundation Study, if you don't read by grade 3, there is a 74% chance you will never learn to read. It's all about catching kids early. 

Here is what Wisconsin school districts must do.

  • They must honour the five prongs of research-based instruction recommended by the National Reading Panel.
  • They must use a curriculum that will assist in reducing reading failure in grade 1.
  • They must use a universal screener (my school district uses Star Assessment). By October, they are testing the kids in grades1, 2, and 3.  Because they now teach beginning reading using systematic phonics, they have fewer grade 1 casualties than before.
  • At-risk readers are pulled out for 30 minutes a day of intervention. Yes, all three grades - 1, 2, and 3.
  • Kids with more severe problems continue to receive intervention the following year as well. 

The atmosphere in schools is very different than in Canada. The teachers know they are accountable and they work with a different attitude.

In Canada, our teachers are equally professional and caring, but they are confused and there is no real strategy in place. With zero leadership, there is zero accountability. I find it so sad, so senseless, so frustrating.

Reflections on Lesson Study

November 14, 2014 by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) at 05:53 AM

"From the US perspective, it is difficult to believe that a process as narrowly focused as lesson study could really be the driving force behind Japan's educational success. "One year on a single lesson? We could never do that here," mused one of our colleagues....On reflection, we can identify a number of interesting aspects of lessons study that might contribute to its success....

"Lesson Study is Based on a Long-term Continuous Improvement Model
Lesson study is a process of improvement that is expected to produce small, incremental improvements in teaching over long periods of time. It is emphatically not a reformlike process.

"Lesson Study Maintains a Constant Focus on Student Learning
All efforts to improve lessons are evaluated with respect to clearly specified learning goals, and revisions are always justified with respect to student thinking and learning.

"Lesson Study Focuses on the Direct Improvement of Teaching in Context
By attending to teaching as it occurs, lesson study respects teaching's complex and systemic nature, and so generates knowledge that is immediately usable. This is in marked distinction to teacher-development programs in the United States, which seek to take knowledge gained in one context (for example, knowledge produced by educational researchers) and translate it into the messy and complex world of the classroom. As useful as educational research might be, it is notoriously difficult to bridge the gap separating researchers and practitioners. Japanese teachers function both as teachers and researchers, making it unnecessary to translate one into the other....
"Because Japan has a centralized educational system and a national curriculum, division of the content into lessons is done in a similar way for all teachers of a given grade level and subject. This means that knowledge developed about a specific eighth-grade mathematics lesson or sequence of lessons, for example, is highly sharable with teachers all over Japan who must teach the same lessons. Reports published by lesson-study groups describing their work and its consequences have an instant audience among their colleagues throughout Japan. Many such reports, in fact, can be purchased in neighborhood bookstores.

"Lesson Study is Collaborative
"The often-described isolation of US teachers has greatly hindered our discussions about teaching and hence our ability to improve it. US teachers rarely have the opportunity to observe other teachers in action and are rarely observed by other teachers. For whatever reason, teaching in the US is considered a private, not a public activity. The consequences of this isolation are severe. Teachers might agree in discussion, for example, that 'problem solving' should be a central focus of the mathematics classroom. But in practice, different teachers might have completely different understandings of what 'problem solving' entails....
"Another important benefit of the collaborative nature of lesson study is that it provides a benchmarking process that teachers can use to gauge their own skills. Collaboration includes continuing interactions about effective teaching methods plus observations of one another's classrooms. These activities help teachers reflect on their own practice and identify things that can be improved....The collaborative nature of lesson study balances the self-critiquing of individual teachers with the idea that improved teaching is a joint process, not the province or responsibility of any individual. 

"Teachers Who Participate in Lesson Study See Themselves as Contributing to the Development of Knowledge About Teaching as Well as to Their Own Professional Development
"Teachers in Japan see themselves as developing the profession as well as themselves. Few US teachers would feel this way. When US teachers go to workshops and training seminars, they go to learn about a new activity or technique; most wouldn't conceive it possible that they might be making a contribution to the knowledge base of the teaching profession. The reason they feel this way is that, given our current system, they are right - they are not making such a contribution. In the US system, it is researchers who are supposed to discover and recommend new teaching practices. Teachers are supposed to implement these practices in their classrooms, but alas, they usually fail to do so, much to the chagrin and disappointment of the educational research community."

Lesson Study, Japanese Style

November 13, 2014 by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) at 06:13 AM

Today, I will try to give you the flavour of the Japanese lesson study process, and tomorrow I will wrap up with a discussion of how gradual long-term improvements add up to real change. The excerpt is from a description of one session during which a group of lower primary teachers were planning the introductory lesson for a grade 1 unit on simple subtraction with the minuend larger than 10. This planning process went on for many many weeks.

"During one of the early sessions, the Japanese teachers decided to use this problem at the beginning of the lesson: "___________ (student's name) collected ______ ginkgo leaves. Then he/she drew _____ pictures of his/her family on the leaves, one member on each leaf. How many leaves did not have pictures?

"The teachers agreed that it would be good to use one of the students' names in the problem, though they hadn't determined which student. Also still unresolved was the question of what numbers to use in the problem. This question led to great deal of discussion. Ms Tsukuda, the teacher who had proposed the problem, began with the following comments, as related by Yoshida:

"Not long ago, the Vice-Principal (Ms Furumoto) showed me several textbooks. All of those textbooks used 12 and 9 (i.e., 12-9=) and 13 and 9. What most of the textbooks said was, they started out by introducing the Subtraction-Addition Method. In the case of 13-9, first subtract the nine from ten (10-9=1), then add what is left over in the 1s position (which is 3) to the number (1+3=4). I thought if you narrow it down like that (introducing subtraction with borrowing by teaching the Subtraction-Addition Method), it's not very interesting. So on Saturday I suggested using 15-8 or 15-7. I thought that these are a little harder than 12-9 and 13-9. Using these numbers will bring out a lot more ideas or ways to solve the problem. But after reading a lot of different books on the subject, because kids can conceptualize in their heads about up to the number 6 at this age, I thought we should go with numbers like 11-6.

"The teachers agreed that the choice of numbers would influence which strategies the students would try when solving the problem. But they had other concerns as well. For example, one teacher wanted to use 12-7, because one of her students, who was a low achiever, happened to have seven family members. Everyone agreed that this was a good idea. They also liked the number 12 because, since none of the students had fewer than three people in their families, subtracting the number of family members from 12 would involve decomposing ten, which was, of course, the point of the lesson. They briefly considered the number 13 instead of 12, but decided against it, as shown in the following dialogue.

  • "Tsukuda:  Well, I was thinking. I also thought of using 13 minus 7, but it's really hard to break down 7 into 3 and 4.
  • Maejima:    I see, you mean conceptually.
  • Tsukuda:    Right, conceptually it's easy to break 6 down into 5 and 1, and it's easy to break down 7 into 2 and 5, but it's really hard for first-grade students to break 7 down into 3 and 4.

"Once the numbers were agreed on, they wondered how they could make it seem natural that students should start with the number 12. They decided to begin the problem by asking students to select their 12 favorites from among the leaves they had collected. These would be the leaves students would use to work on the problem.

"From there the discussion turned to the different strategies that students might be expected to generate. The teachers consulted some of the teachers' manuals and found five common ways of solving simple subtraction problems with borrowing. Each method was labeled with technical terminology that seemed quite familiar to the teachers. Ms Furumoto, who was the vice principal and who had been in the school for only one year, named a particular student who appeared to use only the subtraction-addition method. She said this concerned her, because she found it difficult to move students from this particular method into using more sophisticated methods.

"And so the discussion continued, for weeks, touching on all the topics listed above [the problem, the materials, the anticipated solutions, the questions to ask, the kinds of guidance to give, how to use the space on the chalkboard, how to apportion the fixed time of the lesson, how to handle students' individual differences, and how to end the lesson, considered a key moment] at a level of detail similar to that manifested in this example. This kind of planning is decidedly intellectual in nature; these teachers are thinking deeply about the options available to them and the way the experiences they structure in their classrooms will facilitate students' understanding of mathematics. There is real excitement as this process unfolds, an excitement that is obvious to those who observe the weekly meetings of a lesson-study group."

Why has Japan been able to change its teaching practices markedly over the past 50 years?

November 12, 2014 by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) at 10:24 AM


When teachers were asked whether they had implemented the reforms advocated by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), reforms designed to increase students' higher-order thinking skills and problem solving, "70% of US teachers we asked responded in the affirmative. The teachers even pointed us to specific places in the videos where we could see examples of their implementation of reform. But this is where the good news ends.

"When we looked at the videos, we found little evidence of reform, at least as intended by those who had proposed the reforms. Looking at the situation as a whole, one might even argue that Japanese lessons better exemplify current US reform ideas than do US lessons. Japanese lessons, for example, emphasized student thinking and problem solving, multiple solution methods, and the kinds of discourse described in US reform documents to a greater extent than US lessons did. And this is not the worst of it. When we examined the places in the video that teachers referred to as examples of reform, we saw a disturbing confirmation of the suspicion...that reform teaching, as interpreted by some teachers, might actually be worse than what they were doing previously in their classrooms....

Here's a story told by Albert Shanker, the late leader of the American Federation of Teachers, about his tour of a housing project for recently-arrived Jews from African and Arabic countries. "As we were touring this housing project, we were told that most of these people had lived in tents or in very primitive housing and that most of them had not eaten on tables. There was this concerted effort to convince them to use tables. As we went through the development, our guides said, 'Let's visit one of these families; let's take a look at an apartment.' And they knocked at a door and said, 'We have Mr. and Mrs. Shanker here from New York; can they come in?' We walked in, and there was a family from Yemen, and they were eating from the table. But the table was upside down with the top on the floor and the legs standing up.

"Shanker understood that teaching, like eating, is a cultural activity and that it is governed by powerful forces that function largely outside of conscious awareness, forces that change slowly over time - if they change at all. Like the Yemeni immigrants, teachers can misinterpret the intentions of reformers, engaging in practices that verge on the bizarre. As we noted earlier, reform documents that focus teachers' attention on features of 'good teaching' in the absence of supporting contexts might actually divert attention away from the more important goals of student learning. They may inadvertently cause teachers to substitute the means for the ends - to define success in terms of specific features or activities instead of long-term improvements in learning. To the extent that this occurs, the best-laid plans of reformers will backfire. Far from being benign or simply ignored, reform recommendations might even worsen the quality of instruction....

"Despite years of reform, research suggests that classroom teaching has changed little in the United States. In Japan, by contrast, teaching practices appear to have changed markedly over the past fifty years. What accounts for this difference? Japan, too, has sought to reform its educational practices. But the assumptions about how reform must work, and the mechanisms established to enact reform, are quite distinct from those in the United States. Whereas US educators have sought major changes over relatively short time periods - indeed, the very word reform connotes sudden and wholesale change - Japanese educators have instituted a system that leads to gradual, incremental improvements in teaching over time."  STAYED TUNED FOR TOMORROW'S VERY EXCITING INSTALLMENT

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