Tag Archives: education

What an amazing two days!

There was a lot of talk aboutPasi Sahlberg success at People for Education’s 15th annual conference on November 5th and 6th. And there was a lot of talk about Finland.

Pasi is a teacher, a researcher and an advisor to many governments, the World Bank and the OECD. Among the “Finnish facts” he shared with us:

  • In Finland there is no word for accountability and there are no standardized tests.
  • By the time kids graduate from basic education (our grade 10) approximately half of them have had some kind of special education support – but the Finnish definition of special education includes any form of extra support.
  • Finnish students and teachers spend fewer hours in class than students in any other OECD country.
  • The Finnish government recommends that students spend 33% of their weekly lesson hours on Arts and Health & Physical Education, compared to 27% on Math and Science.
  • Finnish students outperform students from nearly every other OECD country in math, language and science

Other highlights of the conference included the “face-off” between former education Ministers Janet Ecker and Gerard Kennedy, and NDP researcher Michael Polanyi. Just click here to watch it online. They talked a lot about the College of Teachers – so maybe that should be one of our topics for next year’s conference.

In the plenary panel, Ben Levin explained to us that there weren’t magical attributes that made a “good teacher” – but there are definitely skills involved in “good teaching.” He said that the danger inherent in talking about “good teachers” was that it implied good teaching was more about a type of personality and less about teaching skills. He also shared some great insights about our misguided love of innovation.

Journalist Rick Salutin and Edmonton education specialist Jim Gibbons debated the merits of specialty schools. Rick thought they undermined public education; Jim thought they were an important answer to parents’ desire for choice.

The new Minister of Education Laurel Broten, in one of her first speeches,  talked about how her experiences as a parent looking for speech language support for her child had helped her understand how important it is that all of our systems work together. She said, rightly, that parents don’t care which arm of government is delivering the service – they just want to have access to it when it’s needed. She also outlined new plans for children and youth mental health that will bring nurses into schools and make it easier to find support.

One of my favourite parts of the conference every year is when everyone in the room introduces him or herself. This year, there were parents, school council and PIC members, trustees, teachers, principals, academics, government officials and community members from Terrace Bay, Timmins, and Toronto; Windsor, Wasaga Beach, and Wallaceburg; Nepean, Newcastle and North Bay, and everywhere in between. Along with guest speakers from New Brunswick, Alberta and Finland, it was a pretty impressive roll call. Even the new Minister was impressed.

There was a debate about fundraising and a facilitated discussion about the role of PICs; attendees learned to make their own e-newsletters, navigate the special education system and understand the role of school trustees.

There are lots of pictures of Day 1, both the speakers, and the people.  And we are posting notes from all the sessions, on our website, as they come in.

Day 2 of the conference started with an early morning (too early!) meeting of the People for Education Network. The Network now includes representatives from school councils and PICs from 50 of our 72 school boards and representatives from community agencies. That meeting focussed on developing recommendations about school councils, based in part on People for Education’s recent report on school councils, Beyond Fundraising.    

After the Network meeting on Sunday, attendees buckled down and got to work. The questions: If you were in charge of the education system, how would you define success? And how would you measure it? With facilitation from TVOParents, participants broke into groups to begin the amazing (and hard) process of coming up with new goals for education that go beyond targets for test scores. They did that, then they settled on a list of “indicators” (things that could be used as indications that either the kids or the system was meeting the goals) that could be used. All the notes from the session will be posted soon but suffice it to say groups came up with a range of responses – everything from goals for happy kids, to indicators that include lower crime rates.

Dan Shaw was a great addition to Day 2. He “animated” all the work, and soon you’ll be able to access the video of the day and of Dan’s work. For now, you can see the pictures by clicking here.

And someday, I’ll tell the story of what happened when one network member ran over another network member’s foot in the parking lot.


What can we learn from Finland?

Kids sitting at desks in classDiane Ravitch, an internationally recognized expert on education, has been expressing dismay about current education reforms in the United States. In this blog, she describes her trip to Finland and her amazement at how different Finnish educational goals are from American ones. Diane contrasts the guiding principles of the American education system: “competition, accountability, and choice,” with those of Finland: “equity, creativity, and prosperity.”

On November 5th at the People for Education Conference,  we’ll hear about Finland from the horse’s mouth (so to speak). Pasi Sahlberg will be at the conference to talk about why Finland is so different, and so successful. Pasi speaks around the world about education issues. He’s wonderfully articulate about what true success looks like, about the purpose of great education, and about how to lay the groundwork for good reform. He advises governments around the world (though it’s hard to believe right now that many are listening) and he’s currently helping the Alberta government “de-clutter” their K to 12 curriculum. We have a lot to learn from Finland, but we seem resistant.

Read Diane Ravitch’s blog. You can read Pasi Salhberg’s blog too. Come to the conference. Let’s see if we can change our collective thinking about education.

If you’ve been following this blog, you’ll probably want to check out my new space!            >> Our news and views
It’s shorter than a blog and updated several times a week.

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.

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.

Energized by the conference!

The day was packed – with people, information, networking, ideas, questions and plans. Over 250 people came from around the province – from places as far afield as New Liskeard and Thunder Bay, Port Elgin and Windsor, London and Kitchener, Hamilton, Toronto, Kingston, Cornwall, and Ottawa, and everywhere in between. Here are just a few of the comments from conference participants:

“Very informative and great use of different learning methods – panels, workshops, lectures etc.”
“The workshop topics were wonderful – just too many to choose from. I wish there were more sessions.”
“Thank you so much for an energizing day. I appreciate the open and welcoming climate in which disparate ideas can be exchanged.”

Dennis Shirley, an international expert on education, told attendees about “The Fourth Way,” a new road map for education in the 21st century. You can see and hear it too:

Participants listened to a debate about testing, and discussed other ways of measuring success and ensuring accountability. (Could we do random sample testing of smaller groups of students – saving time and money? Could we add more things to our measurement arsenal: Attendance, for example? Or student engagement? Student and parent surveys?)

We learned how school councils can set up their own websites and use technology to communicate with parents and about how to navigate the world of special education.

There is lots of information about the conference on the People for Education website and there are many discussions going on about the topics raised in our online community. So please join in, because together we can be part of developing new policy and engaging more people in thinking about how our schools could work best for students in the 21st century.

We’re already working on next year’s conference. So stay in touch.

Watch this video to get a taste of what the day was like!