brains, school closings and parents – the people for education conference

People for Education’s 14th Annual Conference is coming up on November 13th and 14th.

The conference brings together about 250 people from across Ontario – they are mostly parents, but there are also lots of educators, school trustees, academics, settlement workers, early childhood specialists and others who spend the day making connections, getting hands-on training, solving problems and wrestling with some of the big issues in education.

Personally, I’m  looking forward to hearing Stuart Shanker, the keynote speaker. He’s a fabulous combination of philosopher, psychologist and educator – but he’s also really down to earth. He’s going to tell us about how scientists were able to use marshmallows to predict which kids were going to be successful – in school and life. Stuart is wonderfully human (for a world-renowned expert); he’s a parent as well as a scientist. Every time I’ve heard him speak, I’ve learned amazing (and easy-to-understand) things every parent should know – things that help with bringing up children and things that make a difference in school.

There will be lots of other workshops during the day, and lots of expert presenters – from those experienced parents who can help you make your school council work better, to academics from B.C. and Ontario who will talk about principals, parents and special education.

We’re particualry excited about the new format for this year, because we’ll have all the workshops and speeches on the first day, and then on the second day, we’ll take what we’ve learned and have an “un-conference,” where participants will take the lead.

TVO is going to help facilitate the session and we’re all going to work together to come up with some concrete ideas about where we need to go from here: What are the two or three things we should be working on over the next year? What’s working well and what needs to change in our schools? For example, in one of the sessions on the first day, participants are going to come up with a better process for closing schools. On the second day maybe we’ll decide to take their new design to the policy-makers.

Both days will be covered by TVOParents, our media sponsor, and we’re going to use every form of technology we can to ensure that lots of voices are heard.

It’s easy to register, and you can come for one or both days.   There are travel, accommodation and fee subsidies available for parents, to make sure that everyone can come, from wherever they live in the province.

I’m looking forward to seeing everyone there, and I know from experience, not only will we learn a lot, but we’ll have fun too.

Here are the details:

DAY ONE: Saturday, NOVEMBER 13

The Keynote:

  • Dr. Stuart Shanker what parents and educators should know about new brain research. What attributes do kids really need to succeed – in school and in life?

The workshops:

  • The Principle of Good Principals: What makes a great principal? How can we find them, train them and support them?
  • Special Education: Practical ideas to properly support your special needs child
  • Parents as Partners—a debate: Are parents really partners in the education system? Should they be?
  • Food, Sex and Health: Whose values should we teach?
  • Spreading the News: Using technology to reach out to your school community—a hands-on workshop
  • Online Etiquette: How can schools manage the new world of Facebook and YouTube? Should teachers “friend” their students?
  • Building a better ARC: Join with others to design a new process for making decisions about school closings
  • Parent Involvement Committees and Parent Engagement: New rules, new policy and some old realities
  • School Council Challenges: Share problems and solutions
  • Community Schools: How can we get community schools in Ontario? Find out what they’re doing in Quebec and Nova Scotia.



THE “UN-CONFERENCE”: HAVE YOUR SAY! Facilitated by experts from TVO, the participants will set the agenda! Based on the hot issues emerging from Day 1, the group will decide on the most important next steps for the coming year. 

Conference Fees Day 1 – includes lunch – $60;  Day 1 – with lunch and dinner – $85; Day 1 and 2 with meals – $ 115; Day 2 only – $30

Subsidies are available for parents upon request, for travel, accommodations and conference fees.

Online registration at:

Contact: People for Education at 416-534-0100 or

This conference is sponsored by: The Ontario Ministry of Education; TVO Parents; York University and People for Education

EQAO Testing, Finland, objectivity and vision

A number of people have been questioning People for Education’s stand on EQAO testing. We have lately been accuses of lacking objectivity and ignoring the dire state of education in the province. This conversation will just heat up more when Waiting for Superman is released in Canada.

I think for us, what we’re talking about now, is just a natural extension of our conversations about the importance of having a vision for education in Ontario that goes beyond targets for test scores. When I’ve talked about testing in the media, I’ve tried to be clear that it is not testing in and of itself that is bad – obviously many forms of assessment are important – the problems come when test scores begin to drive education policy, or when the pressure to achieve certain targets begins to skew what we do in the education system.

Sometimes when the test scores are talked about, we hear that a substantial proportion of our children are struggling to meet fundamental learning expectations in reading, writing and math. But EQAO results do not show that. They show that well over 80% of students achieve 60% or better on the tests, and have been doing that for the last five years.

Last week was Premier McGuinty’s Building Blocks for Education Conference. At the conference, one of the interesting things that Andreas Schleicher from the OECD talked about was that there were things that were relatively easy to teach and to test, but that they were not necessarily the things that were the strongest indicators of ongoing long term success. We heard from Timo Lankinen, the Finnish Minister of Education as well. He explained that the Finns do not do census testing in only two subjects as we do in Ontario; instead they focus on a very broad core curriculum, and students stay in one school from ages 7 to 15 or 16. Then students choose from an array of secondary school choices. (This is definitely a form of streaming and one could and should look hard at  problems in streaming kids.) But from 7 to 15, the emphasis in every school, for every student, is on strong teacher-student relationships, individual support for students, and what the Finns are calling, 21st Century Citizen Skills. The year before they start official school, the vast majority of Finnish 6-year-olds are enrolled in pre-school and before that, there are strong government-supported child care programs and substantial support for parents who wish to stay home with their children.

Some have said that our interest in the Finnish system contradicts our support for the Pascal vision for early learning because the Pascal vision is partly about starting school younger. But for us, the visionary part of the early learning plan is the integration of programs, policy and resources for families and children, so that kids from birth to 12 have access to all of the supports they needed to be successful, not just in school, but in their lives. The vision is for an early learning program to provide seamless full-day, full-year programs for 4 and 5 year olds, focused on early childhood development. All-day kindergarten is only one component of the vision, and cherry-picking it out from the rest of the plan, is seriously problematic.

Maybe what’s hardest to talk about is objectivity. We are trying to be as objective as possible by looking at many points of view and forming our own. So we read about and listen to, not only Michael Fullan and Michael Barber, but also people like Andy Hargreaves and Diane Ravitch – both former supporters of testing and targets regimes who now question what those policies have done to overall strong education. People like Andreas Schleicher and the Minister of Education from Singapore are talking these days about the importance of relationships between teachers and students and of the foundational competences provided by the arts and physical education. They are also strong believers in assessment, at the local and international level.

At People for Education, we are thinking a lot about the attributes of an educated citizen and wishing that our policy-makers were thinking harder about those things too.

I did not hear the speakers from Ontario at the Premier’s conference describe a strong 21st century vision for education – they remained focused on literacy and numeracy alone, and on improving test scores. Even Arne Duncan, the U.S. Secretary of Education who is a strong advocate for charters, test targets and shutting so-called underperforming schools, spoke at the conference about the importance of broad education and warned of the danger of testing narrowing  the very definition of education.

So, I guess the question becomes, what is true objectivity? My daughter Katie was talking to me the other day about the problems that ensue when we only watch the news we agree with (in the states, Fox news versus people like John Stewart or the online news at the New Left media) – she worried that we just keep re-enforcing our own already set opinions. Maybe we end up defining objectivity as whatever supports our own views (e.g. I think the CBC is objective, Stephen Harper thinks it’s horribly left wing).

At People for Education, we really do try to be objective, and I really do try, when talking to the media, to say “on the one hand this, and on the other hand that”. The media doesn’t always like that sort of thing. They like their arguments black and white.  Politics, too likes things in black and white. Test score targets are a nice simple political promise and go with the black and whiteness of much of our political landscape. The discussion becomes a simple one, of “up good, down bad.”

SO – where do we go from here? Let’s encourage more talk, more open evaluation of our pre-conceived ideas. This year, at our annual conference we’re going to take the time to collectively work on goals for next year. I hope that the session includes lots of different voices and gives us all great hopes for the future of public education.

Waiting for Superman – the movie

There’s a new movie coming to town. It’s about education in the United States. Some are saying the stories and ideas in the film apply to Canada too and that we should heed the warnings in it.

Having attended the screening of Waiting for Superman at the Toronto Film Festival, I can attest to the fact that the movie should be in no way a “warning to Canada.” If anything, the film is an indictment of a society without a social safety net, without a public health care system, without support for public education and one that has allowed the gap between rich and poor to grow at an astronomical rate. The film provides not so much a warning to Canada, as an opportunity to reflect on how lucky we are to live in a country that values social responsibility and believes in (with the usual amount of kvetching) our public institutions like health care and education.

I found the film extraordinarily naïve and simplistic. Like reality TV, which it resembles, it had a competition to provide some sense of suspense, “ordinary” people being followed by film crews who always just happened to be there at moments of high drama, and an endless stretching out of the denouement. The bad guys (the teachers’ unions) were simplistically bad, and the good guys (charter schools and corporate saviours) unimpeachably good.  The movie blames schools for all of America’s ills. It makes no mention of the lack of societal supports for poor families nor does it address the fallout of years of tax cuts and the largest public debt on the planet. The film acts as if schools exist in isolation from the realities of American life.

The producer said, in the Q & A after the film, that Canada was “starting to slide.” She didn’t explain her comment, but it is important to note that when compared to 57 other OECD countries, Canadian students rank in the top ten in science, reading and math. Canada has more post secondary graduates than any other country in the world, and we have one of the narrowest gaps between our highest and our lowest performing students.

There is always work to be done to improve education. It is untenable that some students continue to struggle in our education system, and we are not doing enough to help them. But the solution is not to move to the model proposed in this film – bringing in more corporate donors and creating a system of charter schools. The solutions lie in addressing the societal issues that often put kids at risk for failure in school. The solutions lie in strong early childhood supports – good child care, strong before- and after-school programs, and integrated systems of support for children and their families. We must do more to ensure that our schools are full of great teachers and that all children, rich and poor, have access to all the supports they need to succeed in school and in life.

In his book, the Unconscious Civilization, John Ralston Saul says we must beware of emotion bereft of content. He says that emotional aspect can obscure reality. Let’s make sure that our ideas about education are not driven by things like films which play to our emotions. Instead, we must scrutinize our public education system constantly and relentlessly because it is not only a key to a bright future for all of our children, but it is, as Saul says, “the key to a democracy where legitimacy lies with the citizen.”

Following up on the fundraising debates

It’s been interesting watching the press coverage of the fundraising story. Some people have raised concerns that we are condemning fundraising altogether. But the intention was not to judge fundraising nor the fundraisers. Fundraising events are often a great way to get parents and the community engaged in the school. It’s a simple-to-understand way to support your neighbourhood school and sometimes it’s even fun: flipping those burgers, eating all those chocolate covered almonds, reading those magazines you never in a million years actually needed etc. 

The hard part then, is taking it back to the beginning to identify what is the problem. To People for Education, the problem is that the province has not articulated a vision for education beyond targets for test scores. They have not laid out a full set of goals or provided leadership for a conversation about what kinds of kids we’re trying to graduate from our schools. 

So here’s what we need: 

Step 1 – The vision. 

Step 2 – An outline of what it is that all students should have access to, in every school, no matter what kind of community they’re in, in order to support that vision. And a funding model that supports the provision of those services, supplies, resources etc.

Step 3 – A policy that outlines how we can ensure fairness across communities and across the province.  

Step 4 – A provincial policy that outlines, among other things: what kinds of things are good to fundraise for; in what cases fees are appropriate, and the process schools must take to ensure that no family and no student ever feels that they are outsiders because they can’t afford the activity, the fee, the trip etc.

After we take those steps we’ll be far on the road to equity and greatness. Won’t that be grand!

Fees and fundraising

Many parents are looking forward to the first day of school next week, but it may bring with it requests for money. Ontario schools rely on fundraising, donations, user fees and other charges to augment provincial funding. In fact, school boards in this province report their schools raise over half a billion dollars in “school-generated funds,” a combination of fundraising, fees, corporate donations, and things like vending machines and cafeterias.

Despite this reliance, Ontario currently has no provincial policy over things like what schools and boards may fundraise for, which fees are acceptable, and which resources must be provided free of charge.

Alongside regular fundraising, and charges for things like field trips, parents across the province pay for everything from student activities to science classes in their children’s schools.

In high school, students not only pay student activity fees, but in many cases they must pay fees for labs and materials and for after-school sports. Our research shows that the average student activity fee is $37, a 55% increase since 2001.  Participating in athletics costs even more.

Increased reliance on fees and fundraising inevitably leads to a system of “have” and “have not” schools, as evidenced by the wide range in school fundraising totals – from $0 to $200,000. For some parents, the combination of fees and the pressure to participate in fundraising can be experienced as a form of exclusion or built-in inequity. People for Education is once again calling on the province to articulate a vision for education that outlines what things should be available to all students in every school, at no extra charge. Once the overall vision has been established, then it will be possible to identify the “extras” that might be funded by fees, fundraising and corporate partnerships.

You can read our report on fundraing and fees here.


New food policy for schools

Change those chocolate bars to apples!

To address ever-increasing concerns about children’s health, the province has introduced a new healthy food policy that will be implemented in every school starting in September, 2011. The policy will have an impact on the types of food that can be offered in school cafeterias and vending machines, and will also affect hot lunch programs and school events where food is sold (eg. bake sales, fun fairs).

Under the new food policy, there are three categories of food products:

Healthiest (Sell Most) – foods with higher levels of nutrients and lower amounts of fat, sugar, and sodium. They must make up at least 80 per cent of all food that is for sale.

Healthy (Sell Less) – foods with slightly higher amounts of fat, sugar, and sodium than the “healthiest” category. They cannot make up more than 20 per cent of all food available for sale.

Not Permitted – foods that contain few or no essential nutrients and/or contain high amounts of fat, sugar, or sodium (e.g., deep-fried and other fried foods, candy). These products cannot be sold in schools.

As an illustration, the ministry suggests that a hamburger may be considered a “Sell Most” choice if it is made with extra-lean ground meat, whole grain bun, fresh lettuce and tomato. However, it may not be “permitted for sale” if it is prepared with regular ground meat, white bun and processed cheese.

The policy allows a principal, in consultation with the school council, to designate up to ten days each year as ‘special-event days’. On these occasions, food and beverages sold in schools will be exempt from the nutrition standards. School boards will be responsible for enforcing the new policy standards.

Get advice from the experts!

Jennifer Cowie Bonne, Director of Marketing and Development, OPHEA
Lucy Valleau RD, MHSc., Public Health Nutritionist, York Region Community and Health Services
Nina Robitaille, Coordinator, Healthy Initiatives, YMCA Healthy Active Schools (Simcoe/Muskoka)

Watch our webinar at

Join the discussion about the policy in our online community at

Controversy over sex education

There has been a lot of talk recently about the sex education component of the new elementary Health and Physical Education Curriculum.

Ontario elementary schools have included sex education in the curriculum for many decades, but the new curriculum is longer, contains more details and examples, and includes “prompts” for teachers. It was the examples that seem to have caused the controversy.

Sexual health is taught along with things like healthy eating, personal safety, and substance abuse. There are sometimes challenges teaching these topics because of their connection to family, religious and cultural values, but currently many schools have found ways to ensure that they take those factors into account when they teach kids about their bodies and relationships.

After hearing some complaints about the sex education section of the new curriculum, the province has decided to keep it back for now. The Ministry says it will hold discussions about implementing it at a later date.

The new curriculum by grade:

Grades 1 – 3Students learn how to take responsibility for their own safety, stand up for themselves, and get help in situations of abuse.  They learn the names of body parts, begin to understand how their bodies work and develop, and learn factors that contribute to healthy physical and emotional development.

Grades 4 – 6
Students learn how to assess risk, respond to dangerous situations, and protect themselves from a variety of social dangers, including bullying, abuse, and technology-related risks. Students at this age are entering puberty and they learn to understand the physical, emotional, and social changes that they are experiencing.

Grades 7-8
Students learn about physical, emotional, social and psychological factors to consider when making decisions about their emotional and sexual health. At this age, students may think some things “aren’t really sex”, and they’re dealing with a lot of social pressure. The curriculum teaches them about listening to their own feelings, and respecting others. They learn about sexually transmitted diseases, healthy attitudes, and that it’s okay to say no.

To read the new curriculum, go to:
The old curriculum is available at:

Champions of standardized testing change their tunes

“School reform today is like a freight train, and I’m out on the tracks saying, ‘You’re going the wrong way!’”

“Our single-minded focus on achievement gains has not improved the lives of our children.”

A former architect of school reform in Ontario, and a former Undersecretary of Education under George Bush are among those warning that current education policies are driving us in the wrong direction.

Andy Hargreaves, formerly of OISE, and American education historian Dr. Diane Ravitch have both raised concerns that a focus on test scores and narrow achievement goals has resulted in students who are less educated in history, literature, geography, the arts, civics, foreign languages, physical education and even in science.

Both Hargreaves and Ravitch agree that this narrow focus does little to improve the lives of children, and little to prepare students for their 21st century world. In a UNICEF survey of child well-being, the United States and the United Kingdom rank dead last. Both countries have focused their education policies primarily on test score targets, increased accountability measures and more school choice. Canada ranks 12th out of 21.

The United States, under President Obama, is now moving even farther into standardization. There are now federal standards for reading, writing and math and there is a new “Race to the Top” fund. To access the billions of dollars in the fund, states must remove restrictions on the number of privately-managed charter schools receiving public dollars and they must use test results to evaluate teachers.

Dean of Business school calls for greater focus on social intelligence

Even business leaders are now raising concerns about government policy that drives schools to concentrate on math and reading scores, while leaving out broader education. At a recent conference, Roger Martin, Dean of the Rotman School of Management, said it is young people’s social intelligence skills that will allow them to succeed in the 21st century. He says we should be looking at ways to ensure we graduate students who are confident, motivated, capable of collaborating and using deductive reasoning, and with great oral and writing skills.

Provincial conference to focus on targets

The province of Ontario has announced it is holding an education conference this fall. It appears to be focused on continuing down the testing track. One of the speakers is Arne Duncan, Obama’s Education Secretary.

Two of the main topics of the conference are “Standards and targets and “Assessments and use of data.”

In England and in the United States, students are spending more time on math, reading and writing and less time on the arts or the social sciences, but there is little evidence that this drive is actually improving students’ education. It may be possible to increase test scores (though in England, even those have plateaued), but the question remains, are the trade-offs worth it? If, as research from Roger Martin’s Centre for Prosperity shows, social intelligence skills are the most important attributes for success in the 21st century, perhaps Ontario should be re-thinking its use of test scores in two subjects as the measure of success of our education system.

Public Attitudes Towards Education

65% of the public and 73% of parents, give Ontario schools an “A” or “B” grade.

“The 17th OISE Survey shows public views of Ontario schools have markedly improved since the years of discord in the late 1990s and early years of the 21st century,” said Doug Hart, co-author of the survey with D. W. Livingstone.

Education road trip goes to Thunder Bay!

Enrolment is declining, school boards are getting new rules, and we’re changing the way we assess students.  But is there an overall plan for education in the 21st century? Jacqui in Thunder Bay

Across Ontario, parents, citizens and teachers are excited about building a new vision for education in the 21st century.

Watch this short clip about our public meeting in Thunder Bay in February!

Then imagine what we can do together…

Quotes from participants

Participating in the Schools at the Centre Dialogue made me feel:

Group discussions!“involved, engaged and interested”

“empowered. I felt that my opinions were valued.”


“excited! hopeful! empowered!”

“energized. hopeful. engaged”
To date, People for Education has held discussions like these in Kingston, Toronto, and Sudbury.

A special thanks to Sheila for organizing everything in Thunder Bay.