What the Globe didn’t print

I guess it was too much to expect that the Globe and Mail would print something that was critical of their recent crazy editorials, and they didn’t, so I’m publishing the letter I sent them yesterday here.

To the Editor,

Re the June 4  editorial, “The Ontario NDP is stuck in a groove” https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/editorials/article-globe-editorial-the-ontario-ndp-is-stuck-in-a-old-groove/, may I respectfully say the groove is mutual – the dismissal of Andrea Horwath’s reason for scrapping the EQAO because it is “a wish-list item of the teachers’ unions” reinforces the stereotype of the greedy union. Unions are made up of their members, and in this case, when teachers want to reduce standardized testing, it is because they know its negative effects on children and learning, and they know that the most successful education systems have minimal testing. It is not because they have anything to gain materially from it. Horwath is refreshing and fairly unique among politicians in that she has consulted with the experts on education, the teachers, through their unions, and is using evidence to promote good policy.

Yours sincerely,  Molly Hurd

Of course, this letter only tackled one tiny aspect of the article, and there is so much more I could have said. The Globe will always defend the business interests of the elite, even to the point, as in today’s editorial, https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/editorials/article-globe-editorial-for-ontario-voters-leadership-and-vision-are-not-on/ of encouraging people to vote for a party led by a “populist chancer”  who is incompetent, a drug dealer (in high school) and a liar. “It defies recent experience to believe that a person like that will be moderated by high office. Mr. Ford has furthermore failed to explain how he will pay for his many promised tax cuts. He is no fiscal conservative.” In spite of that, and in spite of actually giving the NDP platform faint praise yesterday, they now conclude that “if you are lucky enough to have a local candidate who embodies integrity and principle, we encourage you to support him or her”…which is tacitly telling people to vote conservative in spite of Doug Ford. Sound familiar? Yes, it’s just like they did in the last federal election when they endorsed the conservatives, but not Harper.

Fortunately, I doubt many young people read the Globe and Mail, which is making itself more irrelevant by the day. And hopefully, those young ones, the ones under 35, will get out and vote in droves tomorrow.

20180605_131209Photo from Barcelona, where they have amazing separated bike lanes everywhere. Here there is a special lane for bikes, and then taxis and motorcycles, with the main traffic in the middle. Can’t wait to get out on a bike tomorrow!

Dear Kathleen Wynne,

Dear Kathleen Wynne,

You have already conceded defeat in the upcoming Ontario election, a startling and unprecedented event that has left many of your Liberal supporters bewildered and scrambling. In my last blogpost on this topic, (https://progressiveeducationnovascotia.com/2018/05/10/ford-nation-again-never/) I expressed my admiration for you for what you accomplished in education in Ontario. However, your legacy, in my eyes, will be toast if you continue to exhort your followers to vote Liberal regardless, just to prevent a Conservative or NDP majority. Your argument is that the Liberals will need enough seats to hold the balance of power in a minority government situation, no matter who wins.

To hold that an NDP or Conservative majority are equally bad prospects is to equate their platforms – and it is ridiculous to compare the NDP’s 97 page, detailed and fully costed platform with Ford’s uncosted, fuzzy list of vague promises. The only way Ford claims to be able to pay for billions of dollars’ worth of promises is by cutting “waste” in government, starting with the kinds of paper they use. By being vague about what kind of “waste” he’ll get rid of, he leaves the door open to cut things like libraries, teachers and nurses…and his past priorities indicate that this is his agenda. All the major media outlets in Ontario have pilloried Ford’s platform, and for you to promote this false equivalence between the two parties is dangerous and immoral.

Kathleen Wynne, get out there and start encouraging your supporters to vote NDP in ridings where the Liberals don’t have a chance. It’s the only way to stop a Ford government, and make no bones about it, Ford is no “progressive” conservative. He’s a Trump admirer, a bombastic populist who will gaily make life much worse for minorities, women and the poor in Ontario. He’ll decimate your progressive sex education curriculum and undo years of successful progressive educational policies that have made Ontario a global high flyer in education. Just this morning, for example, an article about arts education in Britain noted: “By contrast, in high-performing jurisdictions around the world, including Singapore and Ontario, Canada, pupils are required to study arts subjects to age 17 or 18” (https://culturallearningalliance.org.uk/arts-in-englands-schools-the-current-picture/) Why mess with this?

Yet Ford’s promotional video about education is introduced with the words, “Ontario’s kids are getting failing grades.”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RSNF2Ym6UIc Take a look at the video, narrated by a fake “newscaster”, and hear him in his own words promising to bring education “back to basics” – totally ignorant that Ontario children are already among the best performing students in the world.

A Horwath minority government would be a totally different proposition to work with than a Ford one – let’s face it, you are much more philosophically aligned with the NDP than with the Conservatives. Horwath has promised to build on your successes in education, not rip them apart. We’ve seen in the recent BC election that a small number of seats can hold the balance of power, and wield tremendous influence – but would you seriously consider propping up Doug Ford?

I’ve always been dubious about strategic voting, but unfortunately under this flawed first past the post system we have, it is sometimes necessary. And this is one of those times – the NDP could win the popular vote and still lose the seat count because there are ridings where a Liberal/NDP vote split could result in an extra Conservative seat.

So, Kathleen, wield whatever power you have left wisely and help stop the disaster that a “buck a beer” Ford government would be. Ontario voters deserve better.


Cheeky colonial tells Britain what to do

The Observer is the Sunday edition of the Guardian, so I wrote this letter a week ago, and never expected it to see the light of day. Indeed, I had forgotten all about it, so when I opened the newspaper yesterday morning, I was gobsmacked to see it printed as the lead letter!

I expect there will be a lot of people reading this who will dismiss me outright as  naive and presumptuous – who is this person from Canada telling us what to do? What does she know about us?  I’m hoping it’ll get some reaction, but  I’ll have to wait till next Sunday’s Observer to see.


I was inspired to write it after reading a tweet from the Department for Education wishing high school students “luck” on the GCSE exams that were starting last week. There has been a whole series of articles recently about how stressful these exams are for the 16 year old children who are presently sitting up to 25 1 1/2 hour exams each over a period of a month and a half – how teachers have to manage kids’ anxiety, kids throwing up, threatening suicide (and some succeeding). It’s all made more stressful recently because coursework has been eliminated, and students’ entire grade, and therefore their future prospects, depends on these exams – and they are told that repeatedly. So it seemed rather disingenuous for the people who manufactured this stress to wish the students “luck”.

Here’s the first paragraph that was chopped (rightly so, the letter was way too long):

“What is going on with your education system? Today the DfE is tweeting “good luck” to students writing their GCSEs. Really? What kind of luck is going to help them at this point? Luck that the questions will somehow match what they have revised? Luck that they don’t fall ill in the middle of an exam? If it is that kind of luck that is needed to do well on these exams that determine the course of their lives, then your system has failed them. But I suspect the kind of luck they need has already been doled out at birth – class, socio-economic level, and parents’ education.”

The rest of the letter just seemed to follow.

May 28 2018

And I did get some reaction!  in yesterday’s Observer, this letter: Happy kids, whatever next? from John Filby of Derbyshire.


Can’t have too much happiness! But don’t worry, 30 years of exams, targets, stress, stress, stress – that’s cured it. Thanks John.

Who’s going to fight for arts education?

Last Sunday afternoon, we walked around our neighbourhood in East Oxford, visiting artists in their studios and homes. What a fantastic way to get to know this community, and what a wonderful look into the art world! It is Art Week here, and just like during the studio tours in Nova Scotia, it is a chance to explore the vibrant artistic community we live in. The arts are hugely important to people and to communities.


Arts education is the latest aspect of education threatened in NS since the Glaze report.  McNeil certainly isn’t letting the grass grow under his feet in implementing his neo-liberal agenda for education. Getting rid of elected school boards, traditionally the go-to place for parents with issues, was the first step in a long future of standardization, centralization and cutbacks.  We have already seen the looking glass reality that is the government’s response to the inclusion report – “190 new hires” – which ends up being closer to zero when you count the resource teachers and guidance counsellors being cut at the same time. “The number of learning centre FTEs will go to 221.5 from 197 this year, including 20 that were added in November 2017” – to follow what is going on we’ll need to pay close attention to words like those in italics – note that the 24.5 new FTE’s this year include 20 that were already added last year. http://thechronicleherald.ca/metro/1570559-halifax-regional-centre-for-education-denies-complaint-of-staff-cuts

Much has been written about the importance of arts education – there is overwhelming evidence that it improves academic outcomes, encourages creativity and, like sports, is a way for many children to feel engaged in school. Appreciation of and the ability to create art or music is fundamental to well-being for adults – I know I owe my love of classical music to a Gr. 7 music teacher who had us following along annotated scores of symphonies as we listened (if she had introduced us to opera, it might not have taken me 40 years to appreciate it!).

If you have any doubts about the value of arts education, take a look at the websites of the private schools and see what they offer. By reducing arts education, we are once again widening the gap between those who already have and those who have not. Rich parents will always be able to provide private lessons and classes for their children. Schools in wealthy neighbourhoods will always be able to fundraise for extra artistic opportunities.  Public education, to be truly equitable, needs to provide good arts education for all.

In arts education, as in many other ways, Britain shows us what not to do.  A few years ago, Britain introduced a new qualification, the EBacc, for children finishing the first round of secondary exams, the GCSEs. In order to qualify, students would have to get a passing grade in 5 “core” subjects – English, math, history or geography, a foreign language and science. An arts subject was not a requirement – this narrowing of the curriculum meant that students were less likely to choose an arts course, arts programmes were more likely to be cut when money is tight (as it always is here) and eventually it could disappear altogether from secondary schools. Recently, over 100 artists and another group of musicians wrote an open letter to the government condemning the policy. https://www.theguardian.com/education/2018/may/08/artists-condemn-exclusion-of-arts-subjects-from-english-baccalaureate

Arts education in primary schools in Britain has also been a casualty of the ever-increasing worry about  standardized test results, which only measure the basic subjects. Interestingly, I read this week that the number of primary-aged children in Britain seeking mental health help had risen by a third in the past year alone to almost 10% of the population. Is this a coincidence, or is this related to the lack of a time within the day when children can focus on self-expression and be creative? There is a link between mental health and arts education, and we may find that expanding the arts in school will do more to improve our children’s mental health than all the psychiatrists in China.  As the scientist Charles Darwin said, “the loss of these tastes (appreciation of the arts) is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature.” 

I expect that what is happening in Halifax schools is the beginning of the standardization of arts education across the province – because Halifax voters chose to pay for  supplementary funding for the arts, Halifax has traditionally had good art and music programs. Unfortunately, instead of bringing the province up to the level of metro schools, Doug Hadley “CEO” of HRCE says, “the provincial curriculum calls for visual arts to be integrated into classroom instruction, so starting in September, it will be delivered by the classroom teacher in those schools ‘as it is in all other elementary schools in the HRCE and the province.’“ http://thechronicleherald.ca/metro/1570325-arts-being-expanded-not-cut-says-hrce

I’m afraid, indeed I’m sure, that by “integration into classroom instruction” he means overworked classroom teachers, already burdened by the 101 things they need to be teaching, will struggle to fit in a colouring or pasting activity each week. I’m a huge fan of integration of the arts – indeed I have written extensively about it in “Best School”.  However, it needs to be done with the collaboration of a specialist teacher who can pass on ways of seeing, techniques of expression and skill development methodologies that the regular non-artist classroom teacher just does not know. Children need direct contact with these specialists. The new reality in Halifax schools is that the specialists will be assigned to a family of schools, which could include thousands of children. There will be 9 specialists supporting 40 schools – it’s hard to believe that they will be able to provide meaningful arts education.

Nova Scotia has a detailed curriculum full of outcomes and goals. It should be intended as a baseline of what schools can do, a kind of bare minimum. Schools, left to their own initiative, will always aim higher than the minimum that the curriculum dictates – after all children do not stop learning after the outcomes are met. This government seems intent on making sure that all provincial schools will stick to the bare minimum when it comes to arts education. This will be a boon to private schools and after-school arts education providers and a slap in the face to equity for everyone else.  


Ford Nation again? Never!

Even though Nova Scotia has been home for over 40 years, and I’m presently living in the UK, hearing the news that Doug Ford has become the leading contender to be the next premier of Ontario has shaken me to the core. You see, I grew up in Ottawa, and received most of my formal education there. And my children, although mostly born and brought up in NS, have all left for greener pastures, and I now have 3 daughters and 4 grandchildren living in Ontario. One daughter lived through the nightmare of Rob Ford’s tenure as mayor of Toronto, (and I vicariously through her). I shudder with horror at the idea that his brother/sidekick can do to our largest province what the duo did to Toronto. In particular, having Doug oversee the education system that my 4 young grandchildren will be participating in fills me with fear for the future.

I have written elsewhere about the damage that Mike Harris, the last conservative premier of Ontario, did to education https://progressiveeducationnovascotia.com/2018/02/21/102/. His neoliberal agenda trampled on the collective bargaining rights of teachers, upset the collegial, collaborative way educators interacted, and radically changed the way children are taught.

One of the most harmful things Harris did was bring in universal, high stakes standardized testing throughout the school years. I have written extensively about how high stakes testing creates a “teaching to the test” system where true learning becomes secondary to test scores. But Doug Ford makes Mike Harris look good – at least Harris had a very short stint as a teacher. Doug Ford’s biggest achievement in education was finishing high school, where he seems to have spent most of his time gaining practical business experience running a profitable hash dealing operation. https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/toronto/globe-investigation-the-ford-familys-history-with-drug-dealing/article12153014/  His main education platform consists of ditching the progressive and respectful sex education curriculum introduced by the Wynne government.

I have to admit I was in despair, feeling like I was watching a train wreck in slow motion from afar, as the conservatives capitalized on the public’s desire for change. That changed when I read the latest polls and found that the NDP has moved into second place ahead of the Liberals and only 10 points behind the Conservatives. Suddenly there is hope, and when I read the NDP platform on education, I was immensely cheered. One of Andrea Horwath’s promises is to end standardized testing. “Working collaboratively with educators, we’ll determine how random sampling could support spotting early trends and deciding where we should focus on improvement, without driving teachers to “teach to the test.” That way we can leave individual assessment to the teachers’ professional judgement — they know their students best. We estimate this will save $40 million, which we will reinvest in the classroom.” https://www.ontariondp.ca/sites/default/files/Change-for-the-better.pdf Other items in the education section are “continuing the curriculum review currently underway”, capping kindergarten classes at 26, a “moratorium on school closures until the provincial funding formula is fixed”, and increasing affordable childcare spaces.

Tuesday’s Globe and Mail reports that Ford has fleshed out his platform a little, adding proposals to scrap “discovery” math and to regulate free speech on campuses – both guaranteed dog-whistle  appeals to his base. “Free speech on campus” is code for the idea that groups looking for platforms to perpetuate misogyny, racism, and other dark elements in society should be able to find them on campus.  The discovery math debate dates from recent controversies about math scores in grade 6. The Wynne government has injected money, training and experts to help teachers improve their math teaching; Ford’s solution would be to drop all the gains in math pedagogy of the last few decades designed to improve children’s understanding and problem-solving abilities, and send math teaching back to the “good old days” – i.e. rote learning. (See Chapter 3, Best School in the World)

He has also promised to “improve” standardized testing – how? By making it more like South Korea’s, where kids have to study all hours of the day, and where the youth suicide rate is the highest in the world? Or perhaps he wants to emulate the dismal results of the USA where the “opt-out of tests” movement is gaining steam, and where teachers are so frustrated that they are staging illegal strikes and walkouts over their poor pay and working conditions (including testing)?

I have a lot of respect for Kathleen Wynne. She inherited a huge mess from the previous Liberal government, and she has spearheaded some excellent educational initiatives, including restoring teachers’ bargaining rights and implementing the aforementioned sex ed curriculum. However, the writing is on the wall: life has become much less affordable under the Liberals’ tenure and Ontarians are ready for a change. Andrea Horwath’s detailed, costed platform includes making childcare and hydro more affordable and converting student loans into grants, as well as addressing the poverty issues that affect children’s ability to do well in school. I see the NDP as the only way to prevent  Doug Ford’s victory and a descent backwards into the kind of nastiness we see emanating from south of the border.

Doug Ford, like Donald Trump, claims while he is campaigning that he will “stand up for the little guy” – and we already know how little that matters for Trump now he is in office. For sure, Doug Ford is not “standing up “ for kids – and the damage he can do to their education will last a lifetime.  Andrea Horwath and the Ontario NDP have a positive message that everyone should listen to.

Standardized tests can lead to a 2 tier education system (Part 3)

Part 3: The Academy Boondoggle

In previous posts, I gave some examples of how the profit motive in education has led to a 2- tiered system in Britain – “good” schools for those with the resources to take advantage of them and then, all the rest. Academies, which were meant to address this disparity, have in many cases increased inequality of opportunity and widened the class divide.  In this post, I will underscore the aspects of Canadian culture on which we can build that can prevent this kind of thing from happening at home.

A few weeks ago, during the Oxford Literary Festival, I went to a talk by the romantically named Lord Adonis. The talk was about his and collaborator Will Hutton’s last ditch attempt to reverse Brexit by convincing MPs to hold a second referendum with a clear choice between Remain and whatever deal is on offer. What I didn’t realize at the time was that Andrew Adonis was considered the “architect of academies” – he had been Blair’s Minister of Education right from the beginning of the New Labour government in 1997. I decided to read his book, “Education, Education, Education” (2012). I bitterly regret I didn’t wait around to ask him what he thinks of academies now.


Adonis’ book unapologetically boosts the notion that it was “stark, staringly obvious” that British schools were seriously bad, that Britain would never be able to compete successfully in the world economy, that teachers needed to be held accountable for the state of the nation’s schools, and that there was a “misconceived role of local education authorities as school managers”. He says things like, “weak leadership and discipline, exacerbated in many comprehensives (secondary schools) by a hard Left ideological hostility to ability setting (streaming) or proper systems of rewards and sanctions, reinforced failure with failure.” All this is from a man who has never taught or had any education training.

As an antidote to this unsubstantiated rant I also read a book by the unromantically named Clyde Chitty called Education Policy in Britain (2014). Chitty, a professor of education at University of London, is the author of over 30 books and reports and takes a much more evidence based approach, which demolishes many of the Adonis assertions. As I have written elsewhere, PISA and other studies have shown that education systems that use streaming, or selection based on “ability” do worse academically. “Rewards and sanctions” for teachers (merit pay, firing) have not been proven to improve academic results, but do add to teacher stress, demoralization and, eventually, teacher shortages.

In Part 2 of this series, I talked about “perverse incentives” that have led to unintended consequences. The most perverse incentive of all for an education system is the idea of making a profit from children’s education. In Britain, that motive has led to many unintended consequences such as middle classes navigating the system to their advantage https://progressiveeducationnovascotia.com/2018/03/28/standardized-tests-can-lead-to-a-2-tier-system-part-2/ .  Their government’s overall goal, and that of GERM was always to remake the education system along a hierarchical, market driven model. Britain has quite explicitly done this and is well on the way to gutting their state education system. If “full academization” is allowed to happen (the present government has declared that every school must be an academy by 2022), they will have a genuinely 2-tiered state system of education – one where the gap between the “good” and “bad” schools is widening, and disadvantaged students are again shut out of opportunities.

What happened to Britain? After the second world war, there was a concerted effort by the 1940s Labour government to improve the lot of the working class, to break down class barriers and to create a more egalitarian society. The social safety net was widened, the NHS got its start and education experimented with cooperative, progressive models. The 1970s Labour Government abolished the 11+ exam which decided who could go to the prestigious grammar schools, and there was a will to replace those selective secondary schools with new “comprehensive” schools. But by the end of the 70’s conservative governments started complaining about the lack of standards created by this form of “child-centred” education, and the need for accountability for teachers. Margaret Thatcher set the back to basics movement into motion, and New Labour under Blair and Adonis continued the process.

Adonis was himself a beneficiary of the post war egalitarian ethos. A foster child, his ability to do well on exams secured him a place at an independent boarding school from where he won a place at Oxford. But being the beneficiary of a programme designed to pluck bright students out of the proletariat seemed to reinforce in him a basic belief in social hierarchy, albeit one based on “merit” rather than birth. That belief in hierarchy and the arrogance of the amateur expert on education produced sweeping assertions – when he visited comprehensive schools as Minister, he was adamant that they were so bad that incremental change was not enough – they had to be closed and reinvented. Huge amounts of public money later we have the present academy scheme.

What’s to stop something like this happening in Nova Scotia? The government has taken the first step by dissolving school boards (in Britain, academies are outside local education authority control). It is destroying the collegial interactions between principals and staff by taking principals out of the teachers’ union (this happened long ago in Britain, and has led to huge salary differentials and a teacher shortage).

Canadian society differs in important ways from British society, and that affects our respective education systems. Our class structure is much less ingrained, which has led to less hierarchy and deference to authority than you see in Britain. We are more likely to have democratic models of interaction, and to teach cooperation in schools (in Britain, these are sometimes referred to as “collectivist” attitudes – no doubt to invoke the suggestion of communism). We have a firm, and real commitment to equity in education – doing well in Canadian schools is not as dependent on what strata of society one comes from as it is in many other countries, including Britain.

Our culture also tends to be much less punitive than Britain’s – we are more likely to have an assumption of goodwill on the part of citizens (and children). We still have the idea (sometimes) that we can actually work together to improve our institutions rather than needing top down sanctions and targets to impose it. The ethos of “continuous improvement” as a norm pervades many Nova Scotian schools – without bureaucratic rules and penalties. The British system of League tables that publicise school results, targets that need to be met or else, schools deemed “inadequate”, children excluded from schools because of their difficulties, fines for parents of truants, punishment of teachers for lack of improved standards, etc – all these are the product of a hierarchical society that tends to see its citizens as mostly bad, selfish or lazy (or all three).

Canada’s exam systems have never been as high stakes as Britain’s – we gave up most streaming before secondary school decades ago, and most high school marks tend to be based on some proportion of term work and participation. In provinces where there are mandatory standardized tests, they are less high stakes, and there is a growing awareness that what they are measuring is not always what we want children to learn. In Ontario, a new report, “Leading from the Middle” http://ccsli.ca/downloads/2018-Leading_From_the_Middle_Summary_Final-EN.pdf is calling for the abolishment of EQAO, their testing authority.

Nova Scotia is a relatively equitable, inclusive society. Educators and parents need to embrace their strengths as collaborative partners working for the benefit of children. We all need to uphold the notion that “a good local public school for every child” is a worthwhile aim for an education system, and demand a government that respects this. We need to restore respect and trust to teachers – without it substitute shortages will grow into in serious teacher shortages like they now have in Britain (just yesterday I heard about yet another scheme to recruit more teachers – Troops for Teachers – and yes, it’s just what you might think – https://schoolsweek.co.uk/troops-to-teachers-quarter-of-all-trainees-quit-course-without-qualifying/). Finally, we need to remember that education should have the varied needs of all children at its centre, and there is lots of evidence on how best to do this.

Adonis’ reform manifesto, taken from the back of his book, was “to make teaching the foremost profession in the country and to break down the Berlin Wall between private and state schools”. It has spectacularly failed; the country has spent billions on a reorganization that has led to privatization and all its attendant ills. The conservative government took what Adonis started, and created a monster. Every week brings new horror stories on its failures – a sampling, taken from news items in the last couple of weeks – corruption (https://schoolsweek.co.uk/ministers-urged-to-clamp-down-on-all-powerful-academy-ceos/) , waste, https://schoolsweek.co.uk/government-under-pressure-to-reveal-plans-for-free-teacher-vacancy-service/ , excessive results tracking in the name of “accountability” https://www.tes.com/news/school-news/breaking-news/ofsted-inspectors-accused-creating-unnecessary-workload , vast profits for numerous corporations (including 10 million pounds to a private test developer) https://www.theguardian.com/education/2018/apr/11/government-unveils-controversial-plan-testing-four-year-olds-england   https://www.theguardian.com/education/2017/dec/06/wakefield-city-academies-trust-west-yorkshire-police , huge teacher shortages https://www.theguardian.com/education/2018/apr/10/lesson-battle-why-teachers-lining-up-leave , and increasing inequality of opportunity   https://www.theguardian.com/education/2017/dec/14/poor-primary-school-pupils-increasingly-left-behind-peers-free-meals .

Meanwhile the children? Stressed, demoralized, and often bored. And after all that, the government’s own inspection agency, OFSTED, says, “inspection evidence, research and analysis continues to find that, while becoming an academy can be beneficial for some schools, there is not a clear or substantial difference between the performance of academies and schools maintained by local authorities.” https://fullfact.org/education/academies-and-maintained-schools-what-do-we-know/

But, one of the things that all this reading about academies has done is convince me that “incremental” change, change that comes from within or perhaps “leading from the middle”, is what is needed for us in Nova Scotia. It may take a change in government for this to be allowed to happen, but I think the recent struggles have hardened the resolve of teachers and parents. We need to remember what the British seem to have forgotten, that high scores on tests are only a small part of what makes an excellent education system. Here in Britain, I am convinced that when they can let go of their obsession with test results and get rid of high stakes tests, the rest of the structure will come tumbling down and they can get back to focusing on children. I’ve just started reading about a new breed of academy, co-operative schools, which want to do just that; they are leading from the middle and I am hopeful for them.





Standardized tests can lead to a 2 tier education system (Part 2)

Part 2: Unintended consequences and perverse incentives

In this second of a series of three blogs posts, I want to argue that one of the consequences of an increased reliance on standardized tests can be more privatization of education. That is the way it has played itself out in Britain, and has led to a quasi-privatized 2 tier education system. In Nova Scotia, Bill 72 sets the stage for the same process. Although the Glaze recommendation for a separate office for standardized assessment may have been jettisoned after negotiations with the NSTU, other changes have set the stage for more testing in the future – the demise of school boards, the centralization of authority, and making principals managers.

As Grant Frost says in his latest article, https://frost18.com/a-voice-3/, the privatisation wolves are in the door, and are curled up on the carpet. The passage of Bill 72 has set us on the road to adopting a neoliberal agenda for education which has been in think tank AIMS’ sights for years, and has been implemented in countries all around the world. AIMS promotes market based thinking, just like the Global Educational Reform Movement (GERM) which foists a business model on education. The policy proposals include competition (both between schools and among teachers), choice, test based accountability, performance related rewards and the weakening of teacher unions. The claim is that a smaller role for government will produce “efficiencies” and “innovation” – but the British experience is very different. All of these are invitations for private enterprise to jump in to claim a slice of the pie.

Britain has for a long time had a system of high stakes examinations that decided which children would do academic work in high school (the 11+), which children would have to leave school at 15, O (Ordinary) levels), and which would qualify for higher education A (Advanced) levels). In the 1990s, education reforms resulted in adding a new set of exams for age 7, standardizing them across the country, all the while publishing results in League Tables. Once exam results were available for public view, tests went from being high stakes to stratospheric as parents in larger centres became like consumers, choosing the “best” schools for their children. And because of their traditional reliance on exam results, few outside the education system in Britain questioned their merits.

Once Britain had achieved “test based accountability”, the next step was intended to raise standards, particularly for those children considered “disadvantaged”. A Labour government was in charge, and there was a lot of rhetoric around making sure that every child had “equality of opportunity”.  The poorest performing secondary schools were to be closed and then reopened under the management of “trusts” which would inject new money into them. Sponsors who could invest at least 2 million pounds ($4m) were sought,  and these new “academies” were given autonomy over finances, staffing and admissions. Public funding would continue to flow, but otherwise, these academies were like private schools within the public system, outside the authority of the Local Education Authorities (LEAs). Successful academies were encouraged to expand and take over more schools, thus becoming Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs). When the Conservative coalition took over in 2010, their education policy included expanding MATs to any secondary school that wanted to convert, with special provisions for those schools deemed “outstanding” who could convert without oversight (now called Converter academies). The Labour government had previously given up the idea of requiring sponsors to invest money, as there was a shortage of people willing to do that, and all trusts were now officially charities.

As the population rose, new schools were needed, and in order to continue to supply more choice to parents, the Conservatives borrowed the idea of “free schools” from Sweden. These were basically charter schools, set up by groups of community members and were publicly funded, but with full autonomy, just like academies. They were also free to implement their own curricula, often religiously based.

By 2017, there were over 3000 MATs including some primary schools. The government has decreed that all schools will be academies by 2022.

Julian Astle, researcher with the Royal Society of the Arts, has described the British education system as a game of “whack-a-mole… Our school system, with its focus on tests, targets, league tables and inspections, is full of unintended consequences and perverse incentives. It has become such a game that it is forcing teachers and school leaders to choose between helping pupils and helping themselves.” https://www.teachingtimes.com/articles/cheatingteachersslt84.htm

He was referring to the phenomenon of teachers “cheating” on tests to help their students – something that becomes more and more prevalent as standardized tests become more high stakes. It could, however, refer to the British system as a whole, because every day’s newspaper brings new headlines about scandals in the operation of these “trusts”.

Have the intended consequences have been achieved? Have there been unintended disasters? The key issue is what is the opportunity for profit – “OP” for short:

Have standards been raised? Although results on internal British exams have been steadily rising, with a greater percentage across the board achieving “proficiency” in the core subjects, PISA (international comparisons) results have improved only slightly. See previous post: https://progressiveeducationnovascotia.wordpress.com/2018/02/22/joy-in-learning-good-for-students-and-teachers/ And because of the government’s decision to limit the subjects that will be listed in the League Tables, schools don’t have any incentive to offer a wide range of subjects that will not be “counted”. Thus, the narrowing of the curriculum within subject areas (teaching to the test) that I have referred to elsewhere has now grown to include whole subject areas, especially the arts and foreign languages. (OP – private arts classes, independent schools with enriched arts programs serving affluent families)

Several recent studies have shown no difference in equity between schools managed by Local Education Authorities and those managed by MATs. Other studies show that there is more segregation between advantaged and disadvantaged students in areas with a prevalence of academies, “and this is especially true of the more recent Converter Academies. Converter Academies, on average, take far less than their fair share of disadvantaged pupils.” Gorard,2014  http://dro.dur.ac.uk/12119/

Has “academization” made the U.K. education system more efficient? When there were 152 LEAs, there were 152 leaders, making the top salaries. Now with 3000 MATs, there need to be 3000 leaders, making the cost per pupil for Mats leadership almost 10 times as for LEA leadership. In addition, by leaving it up to MATs to pay head-teachers what they want, head-teacher salaries can also be astronomical. (OP – headhunters employed to find CEOs, “super heads”). “Efficiencies” are instead made at the classroom level, with less money for resources and teachers (recent budget cuts have had enormous impacts on the classroom).  Although there is a recommended salary scale, performance pay (based on pupil scores – again standardized tests) can be used to depress teacher salaries. Just today, the Guardian reported that some of the worst gender pay gap offenders are MATs, with their large proportion of female workers. https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/mar/25/gender-pay-gaps-in-academy-school-chains-among-the-worst-in-uk.  In addition, because each trust is responsible for its own financial accounting, contracts and legal work, there is lots of new work for accountants and lawyers. One trust was reported as paying over $100,000 for 6 months accounting work. (OP – legal, accounting firms, “information management” firms eg SIMS)

20180327_115429 (1).jpg

Britain’s firmly entrenched culture of test–based accountability certainly does set up a competitive dynamic between schools, and the reforms have created lots of “choice” to fuel it, but this has led to the “whack-a-mole” problem of the unintended consequences. Because parents want their children to go to the best secondary schools, they apply for the ones with best average test scores. The new academies are allowed to manage their own “oversubscription” policies, ie choose children most likely to boost their ranking on League Tables. In order to get their children into the “best” secondary schools, parents who can afford it engage tutoring agencies to boost their marks (OP – tutoring agencies, private tutors – perhaps teachers leaving the system?). When the government bans the use of marks and interviews for admissions, academies can become “specialist” schools i.e. claim to focus on STEM subjects, the arts or foreign languages, so they can then devise ways to test for aptitude in those areas.  This leads to the question – what’s the difference between aptitude and parents with money for private lessons? Another quality that schools might look for is well off parents who will be able to contribute to school fundraising…so they start having “parties” for prospective families (thus killing 2 birds with one stone, since they can suss out the students at the same time). So the government bans parties. Sometimes schools even resort to changing the boundaries of their catchment areas to cut out less advantaged neighbourhoods. And so it goes…


To be continued…. Next post: the sorry, 2 tier state of British education today – winners and losers. And what NS can do to prevent a similar fate.

20180322_113912The large number of rough sleepers amidst all the wealth of the colleges is a testament to the inequality which plagues Britain (and its school system) today. This doorway is someone’s home.

Standardized testing can lead to a 2-tier education system (Part 1)

Part 1: The Problem with High Stakes Tests

One of the recommendations in the Glaze report, was for an external office to oversee standardized testing, a “Student Progress Assessment Office”. But what do we mean by standardized tests? How are they different from ones the teacher makes up?

Standardized tests are created outside the classroom, and are used to compare students, classes, programs, and policies. They are often created by departments of education, or by private business interests (textbook publishers are major players in the industry). A useful distinction is based on what happens with the results. High stakes tests are those whose scores are used to assign serious consequences for educators, students or schools. Test scores which are used for “streaming” children into various levels or to determine students’ career prospects at an early age are a prime example of “high stakes”. High stakes tests can also be used to determine consequences for schools. In Britain, where children sit standardized exams known as SATs every 4 years, League Tables publish every school’s results, and those schools at the bottom can be deemed failing, and closed. Teachers can be judged based on their students’ performance on these tests, and sometimes paid accordingly. Children can be denied access to schools and programs based on them – in Britain, SATs are extremely high stakes. More detail on the negative effects of high stakes tests can be found in previous blog posts. (Joy in Learning)

The purpose of low stakes tests is diagnosis – the objective is to assist learning by providing information to administrators, to teachers and to the takers of the tests which can help them improve. The main comparison is between an individual’s or program’s progress over time. For example, a teacher may administer a diagnostic reading assessment to an individual child, looking to assess their strengths, progress since the last assessment and their needs. When these results are acted upon, there is a direct benefit to the student. Sometimes tests are administered to a representative sample of the population to assess how a program or a teaching approach is working. These can be very valuable to educational planning and curriculum development, but the results of individual students or teachers are not singled out.

My criteria for a good assessment tool is simply this: does it help students learn? Most high stakes tests do not help the students who take them improve their own learning – and are not intended to. Either students get results too late to do anything about them, or the results are simply a grade or number, with no explanation of how it was achieved.

Low stakes tests, on the other hand, can help students, teachers and administrators learn. Large scale, randomly sampled tests can give us valuable information about policies and programs that work. The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), administered by the OECD for the past 18 years, is an example of a test that tries to do precisely that. It is given to 15 year olds around the world every 3 years and measures “what students know and can do” in reading, math and science. Because it also gives students and teachers questionnaires to gather data on many other aspects of their lives, such as socio-economic status, attendance records, attitudes towards school etc., PISA data can be used to analyze which factors matter most for learning. And because it is low stakes, and is only administered to a sample of students, there are no adverse repercussions of low scores for the takers of the tests or their teachers – which means that results are not skewed by “teaching to the test” and drilling students in how to maximize test scores.

During my university days, I took courses in test design, and an important thing I learned is how difficult it is to design a test that is truly objective – cultural, class and intellectual biases are inherent in most standardized tests. I was happy to teach at a school for most of my career that did not rely on them, and in fact used a variety of “authentic assessment” measures designed to help students learn from their work. I look at all standardized test results with healthy skepticism – they can be a useful diagnostic when well designed, but even low stakes tests on randomized samples are blunt instruments for measuring a school’s or program’s worth.

Because of these experiences, I am always amazed when I hear government or business people talk about standardized tests as if they were some kind of holy grail of measurement. I find it remarkable when a business leader (who has no personal experience of education within the last forty years) can talk about a “national emergency” because test results drop by 2%. https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/education/canadas-fall-in-math-education-ranking-sets-off-red-flags/article15730663/  Apparently, to some people, these tests are more “objective” than teachers’ feedback – an attitude that has contributed to a lack of trust of teachers. Educators know how unreliable they are; plus, they see the fall-out of high stakes tests in the narrowing of the curriculum, children’s stress, and the sometimes drastic consequences that follow. Educators around the world are leading the charge against high stakes tests.

PISA, on the other hand, is meant to be low stakes and has over the years produced evidence-based, statistically significant connections between policies and academic results. Each round of testing produces about 6 huge volumes of analysis.  For example, they have found that countries where “streaming” (based on high stakes tests) is practiced perform less well on average. Years of early childhood education are positively correlated to PISA results. “PISA 2012 also finds that the highest-performing school systems are those that allocate educational resources more equitably among advantaged and disadvantaged schools and that grant more autonomy over curricula and assessments to individual schools.” https://www.oecd.org/pisa/keyfindings/pisa-2012-results-volume-I.pdf  PISA has even pointed out the positive impact of principals and teachers collaborating – something our government has chosen to ignore.

Sometimes there are problems with the way PISA compares countries, particularly when certain cities in China are considered as separate countries, and then not surprisingly get the highest results in the world (Shanghai for example). Mary Campbell’s article in the Cape Breton Spectator points out some other problems. https://capebretonspectator.com/2018/02/21/pisa-assessment-glaze-ns-schools/  However, PISA has produced some valuable directions for educational policy makers, if they choose to listen, and is a rough barometer of how our schools are doing compared to the rest of the world. Canada does exceptionally well on PISA, and Nova Scotia holds its own within Canada as a small, less well-off province.

Test scores can be seriously misinterpreted – as I have discussed in a previous blog post, “Why a College of Educators?”. We have just seen how the Glaze report has used them to justify its recommendations, and how the government has incorporated them into Bill 72, the Nova Scotia Education Reform Act, which was passed yesterday.  But nothing in Bill 72 will improve standardized test results (nor will it help children learn, which is not the same thing). The biggest impact may well be an increase in the government’s ability to impose more tests on the school system, to try to control teachers and their “managers” in finer detail, to impose new programs on schools and soon to justify more privatization. It has happened in Britain, and it’s not pretty. It will happen here if we do not fight the implementation of this bill.


Oxford lecturers, on strike for several weeks, have now won their battle…the university will keep their pensions the way they were.


No 2-tier Education! Day -1

Today is the last post in this series. Tomorrow, the legislature sits, parents and teachers will demonstrate, there will have hopefully been fruitful talks between the union and the government, and perhaps there will be a way forward that will not involve a teachers’ strike.

In this countdown to Legislature Day, I have tried to flesh out some of the effects that recommendations in the Glaze report will have if adopted. I have focussed on the most contentious ones, because they are contentious for a reason – they will contribute to a more centralized, authoritarian, business oriented system that will have negative impacts on everyone, especially students. Our Canadian ideal of equity in education will go out the window, opening the door to a two-tiered education system, the deficiencies of which are so clearly on display in Britain.

Now to summarize very briefly what I have been trying to say in the series:

  1. a top-down authoritarian approach to teachers tends to be counter-productive because the vast proportion of teachers are in the profession because they want to contribute. They want their students to succeed, and to have “shared responsibility” for school improvement. When teachers are given the autonomy, respect and time to collaborate they will produce the best results. Principals are also part of the teaching team, and should be there to support teachers, not just to monitor them.
  2. Standardized schooling, monitored by standardized tests, results in a narrow, joyless curriculum that will not prepare students for the future. When “raising standards” is interpreted to mean solely “getting good scores on standardized tests” there are all kinds of negative results, particularly for schools labelled as “bad”, and especially for disadvantaged students.
  3. Education should not be seen as a commodity – everyone should be assured that their child will get a good education in the public schools. Parents are not “consumers” and the idea of shopping around for the best schools is a ridiculous one, especially in rural Nova Scotia. Most fundamentally, children are not widgets who should be “produced” in standardized units of “human capital”.
  4. Improvements in equity also improve excellence. Finland discovered this when they started to reform their system. Addressing child poverty and building a strong universal early childhood programme are the starting steps on the path to a truly excellent education system.
  5. Britain is not a model to follow. Decades of ignoring, marginalizing and dictating to teachers has resulted in a huge teacher shortage here, but have not “raised standards” (as shown in international comparisons). Recent cutbacks have only widened the gap between good and failing schools.

Now, where do we go from here? What would I like to see the government do with the Glaze report? What would I like to see the Teachers Union negotiate for?

First, before we go any further, as teachers know well, it is not “flipflopping” to actually learn. Changing your mind when presented with new evidence is what rational people do. Indeed, making mistakes is how we all learn, and the mark of a good leader is one who can listen and absorb new information before deciding on a course of action.

Before accepting any of the 11 first recommendations of the Glaze report, the government needs to share the research and sources the report and recommendations are based on with teachers and the public, and then listen to the experts, teachers, about any new/different evidence they may have. Then they should set up a process for genuine consultation, with teachers, and with the public and a date for implementation that respects the need for consultation. It is ridiculous that there is more public consultation about  putting a bus lane on Gottingen Street than there has been about dissolving school boards, a fundamental piece of our democracy.

Here are the 7 recommendations (out of the first 11) that I feel qualified to comment on, with my thoughts on them, since I won’t be around for public consultations:

1.Unify the system by dissolving the seven elected regional school boards and create one provincial advisory council. The structure of the Conseil scolaire acadien provincial (CSAP) board will not change. 2. Money saved from dissolving elected boards (expenses/stipends) will go back into the education system. 3. A portion of the money saved will go to enhance the role and influence of School Advisory Councils (SACs) for all schools (or families of schools) in the province to strengthen the local voice in schools.

This is a frightening and bad idea, particularly when it is recognized that the cost savings will be minimal. The plan for replacing regional input looks like it’s going to involve appointed, not elected, representatives. We all need to see that a new plan is going to actually be better than what it replaces. How exactly is this going to help students?

4.Ensure voices of Mi’kmaq and African Nova Scotians are heard at senior and ministerial levels.

Great idea, but now that some of those voices have been fired, I’d like to hear the plan.

5.Change the name of superintendents to Regional Executive Directors and enhance their role to focus on student achievement, reporting directly to the Deputy Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development.

What’s in a name? But, more importantly, what is meant by “focus on student achievement”- if standardized test results are going to be the only measure (and the idea of a special office for student assessment tells me that this is the way this is going) then this could lead to test results being used to judge teachers, which will be bad for kids.

6.Move principals, vice principals and other supervisory staff at the board level from the Nova Scotia Teachers Union (NSTU) while protecting salaries, pensions and benefits.

This has caused huge concern on the part of teachers and principals, not because it will weaken the union, (although it’s hard not to think that this is the government’s motivation) but because it will fundamentally affect the way schools collaborate and teachers work together. It will negatively affect students – a BAD idea.

7.Create a provincial College of Educators, a self-regulating professional association, for teachers.

This is a bad idea on so many fronts (see point 1 in the summary). It has caused disruption and a rise in the number of grievances in Ontario, has been tried and abandoned in BC and is the core of an authoritative, top down system as Britain has. It will also cost huge amounts, for something that will not help students.

Let’s look at evidence, and follow good educational examples, not bad ones. We do not have to sacrifice equity on the altar of excellence – Finland focused on equity, and excellence followed. Let’s recognize that we have to start early – establishing universal early childhood education (perhaps by expanding the new pre-primary program) and working to eliminate child poverty have been shown to improve outcomes across the board. Let’s make teaching into a respected profession that people want to join, and then give teachers the autonomy and time to collaborate that will help students (and also help prevent the teacher shortage that will be our lot if we continue down this path). Let’s  wait for the report on inclusion, due out soon, and act on its recommendations, as well as implement firm class size caps.

The Glaze report was a rush job, with no research or consultation with teachers. If it is imposed on Nova Scotians it will send our province down the road to a 2 tiered education system – in which many students will be very poorly served.  The government’s priority should be talking to the teachers right now – not ramming through these hastily commissioned recommendations.



A Downward Spiral – Day -2

Yesterday, I discovered that the local school in my area (St. Gregory the Great Catholic school) has been designated by the school inspections agency (Ofsted) as “needs improvement”. As it turns out, I live on the working class side of Oxford, a now very multicultural area, which used to house the workers at the Morris car factory. Today’s mini is made by BMW in a plant just on the other side of the ring road from us.

I did a little digging about “my” school, which is literally about 3 blocks away. Leaving aside the religious aspect, which I have many reservations about, I discovered that St.Gregory the Great was transformed into an academy around 2012 and taken over by the Domenic Barberi Multi-Academy Trust which is, I think, a charitable trust run under the auspices of the Birmingham Catholic Diocese (note: many of these trusts are for profit). It is fairly unique in that it is a primary/secondary school combined. Last May, it was put under “special measures” after a “section 5 inspection”. It had received a rating of 4 or “inadequate”.


I looked up the school’s latest Ofsted report, which happened on January 17/18 of this year. The report consisted of a one page letter from Her Majesty’s Inspector to the acting Head, a two page summary of the 5 points of difficulty from the last inspection 9 months previously, and a 5 page report of recommendations. You can find it here:  http://stgregory.oxon.sch.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/Ofsted-monitoring-inspection-Jan-2018.pdf

I’m going to summarize, but I encourage you to read the original report, if only to experience some of the punitive tone and corporate language used.

Basically in the very brief letter, there were 3 recommendations, 2 of which are: “The school’s improvement plan is not fit for purpose.”  And, “I strongly recommend that the school does not seek to appoint newly qualified teachers.”

In the second section, there are 5 directives listed from the last inspection, 2 of which are vague exhortations to “do better”: “Improve the effectiveness of leadership and management” and “Raise pupils’ achievement through key stages 1 to 4, by: 
– accelerating pupils’ progress so they make good progress over time”

The final section, the Report, gets to the nitty gritty. In it we learn that since the last inspection ( only 9 months before) no less than 35 staff have left the school, and there have been 22 new appointments made, 16 of them teachers. Staff who have left include the Principal and the vice Principal – was that what the inspector meant by “improve effectiveness of leadership” or had they just had enough?

Now what pops into my head? First, that’s a huge staff turnover in 9 months. Second, there has been a crisis in leadership, and third, there are 13 fewer staff than there were 9 months ago!

And what is the recommendation of the school inspector? That they NOT hire newly qualified teachers. It is well known that there is a huge teacher shortage here, – the Education Secretary has a whole department addressing it. And what is one of their solutions? To allow unqualified university graduates to train while teaching (rather like the Teach for America program which puts unqualified university graduates in schools). So, it sounds like if St. Gregory the Great is not going to hire newly qualified teachers, perhaps unqualified teachers would be a better bet.

The report is not all negative. The inspector itemizes some improvements, and commends the staff that are left for the “resilience, commitment and sheer hard work of all staff who work directly with pupils.” There were many other issues that bear more investigation, such as the suggestion that there has been improper handling of the special funds for poor pupils, problems in the governance of the trust, mention of an “isolation” room, attendance issues and more. But what is absolutely stark is that here is a struggling school in a working class area, understaffed and overworked, with a school improvement plan that is not “fit for purpose” and an unrealistic plan for hiring to fill the gaps. Reading between the lines, I sense a demoralized, exhausted staff, and with their hiring difficulties, I doubt the situation will change any time soon.

When we went past the school this afternoon, we saw that the inspection report is posted on the school gate, so that all the parents and all the students can see that their school has been deemed “inadequate”.

What is that supposed to do to the self-confidence and aspirations of students?

Which bright young new teachers will be attracted to work there?

What middle class families will want their children to go there?

The labelling and shaming of Ofsted is so often here the first instalment on a downward spiral. Middle class parents and the teachers who have other options leave for greener pastures. The best young new teachers go elsewhere. Remaining teachers are demoralized and over-worked, partly because they have to deal with students who cannot see the point of schooling that has been officially labelled “inadequate”.  I wonder how many Nova Scotian teachers would last a year in such a place.