Reaching for consensus: Part 2

If the goal of all these Nova Scotia Parents for Public Education (NSPPE) Town Halls is to reach consensus about what schools need, and as Trish Keeping said, take the information, go to the government with it and “make sure that reforms that are done in the future have some foresight”, there is a challenge awaiting us. As we have seen in other provinces, and in our recent history in Nova Scotia, there are organizations, often funded by business interests, that are advocating for a return to a more standardized form of education that most educators thought was in our past. Sometimes these interests are taken up by small groups of vocal citizens who manage to change the agenda – I’m thinking of Ontario where a few years ago a small group of people started advocating for an end to “discovery” math (something that actually has never existed there). The previous Ontario government conceded that perhaps elementary teachers needed more training, and could put more emphasis on learning basic facts (ie multiplication tables) and some changes were made. Then, the new government jumped wholeheartedly on the bandwagon, and now all teachers in Ontario have to pass a math test – even if they are not math teachers. This measure will have no impact on student learning and will just add to the stress teachers already experience. And all of this is based on the mistaken belief that teachers were allowing children to “discover” math concepts on their own with no guidance, were not teaching basic facts, and did not have any knowledge about teaching math. 

It turns out that some of the comments I heard at that first Town Hall about dyslexic children not getting the help they need have turned up since then, over and over again, in letters to the editor, in Facebook groups (Everyone Reads Nova Scotia), and now in a letter writing campaign to the provincial government. I sympathize with the difficulties these parents have experienced, and I believe we all share similar goals – we would like children’s reading difficulties dealt with within the public school system in a timely manner (so that parents do not have to resort to the private system), and we would like to see more equity between communities, so that academic achievement is not dependent on the community/class you belong to. 

But, on investigating some of the concerns suggested in the letter-writing campaign, I have some questions. First, a final report on the Commission of Inclusive Education has come out, and has not yet been adopted by the NS government. It calls for a three-tier model of support where the first tier is universal, whole class instruction, the second tier is targeted small group instruction and the third tier is intensive, individual instruction. I’ve heard calls for it to be adopted (both at the Town Hall, and from various teacher organizations), yet there is no call for adoption of the report in the list of concerns by this campaign other than “Fully funded individual (Tier 3) interventions for students with the greatest and most persistent reading difficulties” . Does this mean that the group does not advocate for the first and second tier interventions?

It seems that this group does believe in the first tier, universal classroom teaching since their first demand is that “explicit, systematic, code-based reading instruction” be part of the Nova Scotia curriculum, and that it form part of the outcomes. I find that the NS curriculum does include outcomes that deal with “word study”, and as a guideline, I find them quite helpful (as grade specific outcomes, I have reservations, but that’s another discussion). My questions: Does the group advocate for this explicit instruction in every grade for all children in the elementary school? What about the children that have already learned to read – do they need it too? What is wrong with the Tier 2 interventions – targeted, small group instruction – for those who because of their different rates of development did not benefit from it the first time?

Another demand is for “appropriate screenings and assessments for students at risk in Grades Primary and Grade 1”.  My questions: How do you know which students in those very early years are at risk? Educational psychologists and reading experts (and my own experience) tell me that the variability among what is considered normal at those ages is huge, so those assessments have limited validity.  Is there a new assessment (MRIs perhaps?) that can predict those students who will have difficulty with reading in the future better than the teachers that teach them?

Another demand is that “Practices not in line with the science of reading, such as three-cueing system and the widespread use of leveled readers in reading instruction should be phased out”. My questions: What is wrong with asking children to predict new words based on semantic (does that make sense?), syntactic (does that sound right?) or graphophonetic (does that look right?) clues? What is wrong with leveled books so that children can pick out books to read that they can read comfortably and feel confident while doing it?

Again, I have no questions about the second part of the demand for “Resources (in the form of a coherent program) and professional development for teachers in Grades Primary – 3 classrooms”. Teachers are generally eager for more professional development to help them do their job better. But I do have some questions about the “resources in the form of a coherent program” – What is this program? How is it better than what teachers already do? How much will it cost? Will it come with a standardized testing component?

I have written elsewhere on this blog about how a one-size-fits-all education system can kill the joy in learning. I have seen at firsthand (in England) what a school system that teaches systematic phonics at ever earlier ages in a rigid outcomes-based, standardized test-heavy curriculum does to children, and incidentally to equity in education. My big question: The NSPPE can be a powerful voice to lobby the government on its tone-deaf approach to education, so how can we reach a consensus on what to advocate for that will benefit all children, but at the same time is based on both evidence and the experience of those that work in the system?

NSPPE Town Halls – reaching for consensus: Part 1

On a stormy Saturday afternoon in April, around 40 or 50 citizens braved nasty weather to attend the first “Town Hall on Public Education” at Mount Saint Vincent University. It was hosted by the Nova Scotia Parents for Public Education (NSPPE)and chaired by Trish Keeping with a panel consisting of Adam Davies, a former Chignecto School Board member, Paul Wozney, President of the NS Teachers Union, and Angela Gillis, union representative and Gr. 5 teacher. Trish kicked things off by reminding the audience of the events in the education world of the last year since the adoption of the Glaze report and the imposition of a contract on the teachers – the abolition of English school boards, the empty promise of School Advisory Committees and the appointed, non-accountable Provincial Advisory Council on Education. Trish laid out the purpose of the town halls, which the group plans to take to communities around the province: to hear from parents about how their children are faring in the public school system and from educators about their teaching conditions. The hope is that the NSPPE will help create a consensus of views about what schools need and use it to inform the government.

Angela said she sees more and more students falling through the cracks, and more frustrated parents. Paul reminded us that “the best education systems have vibrant relationships between stakeholders” and that the failure of the government to negotiate fairly with teachers has threatened one of the most fundamental relationships in the system. Adam talked of the loss of the community voice with the abolition of school boards, with communication now going in only one direction – from the top down. 

Once the floor was opened to the audience, the level of emotion in the room was palpable. Parents choked up while relating stories about children with learning differences waiting inordinate lengths of time for testing and missing out on crucial learning opportunities in the meantime. A gym teacher’s voice cracked as he told how a 20-year old program that helped children with special needs was cancelled without consultation, supposedly because of the cost, (which was largely due to the inordinate expense of renting buses from Stock). A grandparent talked about the dense bureaucracy at HRCE which resulted in a 2-week search to find the right person to talk to about an open window in a school basement. Other parents talked about the centralization of power, where principals have been turned into site managers, responsible for doing the departments’ bidding rather than their former role as leader teachers. We heard about world class literacy and teen mental health programs, developed here in Nova Scotia, that have been overlooked by the DEEC in favour of imported ones. 

But there was one concern which really caught my attention, largely because it was repeated several times, and because it was very compelling – that of parents of “dyslexic” children. Over and over, we heard about children who had had difficulties learning to read which persisted in spite of various levels of “remedial” help throughout their elementary education until the parents were forced to enrol them in some form of private tutoring or in some cases private schools. We heard how parents’ pleas for testing went unheard, how children struggled and wasted precious years of learning before getting minimal help if any, and how there was exciting new science about reading acquisition that recommends that systematic phonics instruction be taught to all children. The parents speaking had obviously had an incredibly difficult time, and my sympathies were aroused.

There are serious issues with education in this province, as this Town Hall, shows – and the frustration on the part of many parents was obvious. But it’s not just parents who are fed up; teachers too, are frustrated with the lack of trust and respect they have been getting from the government, with their workload and with the lack of student support. A follow up to the Educators for Social Justice Teachers’ Voices survey asked 3 quick questions in early April, and the results were immediate and clear. In one week, the survey, which was distributed to teachers on social media, got 578 responses. Over 98% of the respondents did not agree (88% strongly), as the Education Minister stated earlier this year, that teaching conditions had improved since the imposition of a contract in January 2018. 96% of respondents disagreed (78% strongly) that they are seeing “demonstrable impacts” from “the hiring of nearly 200 support staff”.

I am looking forward to another Town Hall on education in the Halifax area, and other ones in rural communities. I’m also looking forward to a government that takes its promises seriously, treats its employees respectfully and is willing to invest in excellence and equity in education.

Next post: Reaching for consensus: Part 2