Saturday, November 28, 2009

Schools and Censorship II

So, I spent about two hours this morning doing something that would have been useful and educational for my Computer Technology students, except that the school board will not let them do it at school.

My Technology students are working on Power Point type presentations about various topics in the Society and Technology strand of their course. The topics are quite relevant and potentially interesting, such as Internet Safety, Privacy Issues, Assistive Technology, Health Issues and Computers. This assignment was given out before I arrived and one of the expectations is that the students will embed a video into their presentation. The best way I know to embed a video is to have the video file on hand and insert it in the presentation. This means that the students need to be able to get to relevant video files. No problem there, YouTube is full of great videos on the topics they need, and you can easily use Mozilla Firefox's Download Helper to get the movies onto a drive. Unfortunately, school computers do not have Firefox, it cannot be installed, and students' access to YouTube is blocked. There are reasons for all of these choices by the school board but the net effect is that a potentially interesting and educational trip through relevant YouTube videos was impossible for my students to do in class.

In the end, I spent a couple of hours finding and downloading videos that my students can use. What makes me sad is that had been students been able to do this work at school I probably would have been able to get at least an hour of looking, learning and thinking out of each student in the class. But, they were not allowed to do this work in class because of the board's decisions, so we have to be satisfied with my two person-hours of work versus the 15-20 or more hours that the students would have put in as a group.

This is not meant as a diatribe against the school board or anyone who works for it. I understand that YouTube is blocked because it is usually a huge distraction. I am told that Firefox is a security risk for a network. There are valid reasons for each individual decision that was made. It is just that the cumulative effect is a loss of learning, and that always makes me sad.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Time to get past the reputations of high schools.

The Ottawa Citizen printed an editorial about a week ago that I felt pandered to the prejudices of parents in terms of high school choice.

The Citizen seems to have chosen not to print my letter to the editor disagreeing with the editorial, so I will do so here:

I would like to comment on the “Transferring Blame” editorial of November 18. The editorial talked about how the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board is planning to make it more difficult for students to transfer from one school to another. The article's main point rests on two ideas, first that “ there is in this city a perception that some public high schools are better than others”, and secondly that “It's important to be honest, and admit that parents' perceptions are often true.”

I must disagree forcefully with the second statement. The reputations of schools as good vs bad and smart vs tough are all out of proportion to the actual teaching and learning being accomplished at local high schools. Recent research shows that individual teachers affect student results far more than any effect that can be attributed to the school or the school environment. Students will have great educational experiences when they are in the classes of great teachers.

Some would suggest based on my previous statements that Lisgar's superior test results, for example, must come from superior teaching. Again, I must forcefully disagree. I taught at Lisgar several years ago and I worked with many excellent teachers. But the three best I worked with at Lisgar also all taught at Rideau at some point in their careers. My colleagues at Lisgar have worked at many other high schools including Brookfield, Glebe, Rideau, Ridgemont, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, and West Carleton, just to name a few. Recently, as a supply teacher I have worked at eleven OCDSB High Schools and I have found excellent, innovative, creative, caring, and passionate teachers at every one.

There are fantastic teachers who can give Ottawa's students great learning experiences at every high school in the city. We need to get past the reputations and prejudices that exist and let students learn together at their local high schools.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Lisgar, school transfers, community schools, and school choice

You are almost guaranteed to get a post from me when the Ottawa Citizen publishes stuff about Lisgar Collegiate Institute, Ottawa's oldest high school. I taught at Lisgar for three years and, while I worked with many excellent teachers and students there, I did not find that the school lived up to its self-image as the be-all and end-all of high school education in Ottawa. The story today talks about how cross-boundary transfers affect schools. Just to clarify, in Ottawa each student is supposed to go to the high school in whose area they live. However, for various reasons (I remember my friend needing to transfer so that he could take Typing in French) some students are allowed to attend a different school instead.

The problem with this particular approach is that schools with a good reputation disproportionately attract more good students. Schools with poor reputations disproportionately lose good students. Reputations and standardized tests results are maintained even though the quality of teaching, and the actual student improvements, may well be better in the "bad" school.

But the transfers hurt more than just the "bad" schools. For example Lisgar, which accepted 80 transfers this last year, is over-crowded. Many Science classes are not held in Science labs and it is extremely difficult to get computer time for non-Computer classes. Every student at Lisgar has his or her learning opportunities reduced because of the overcrowding.

The brouhaha of the Citizen article is that the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB) is planning to make it more difficult to transfer away from the "home " school. In particular, some parents are worried that this will make it harder to get their kids into Lisgar. The change to transfers makes sense in line with the fact that the OCDSB uses a community schools model where each school serves the needs of its community, and so transfers should not really be required. However, what the board seems to have missed is that having specialized arts programs and gifted programs at only some schools takes away from the community model. Once you start putting special students in only some schools, the rest of the schools are left with the less-special students. Not exactly true community schooling.

Even if the board allowed no transfers at all there would always be wealthy parents who move so that their children can attend the school of choice. Given that the OCDSB does not fully abide by the community school model and that some parents already can choose schools, I feel that the smartest thing to do would be for the OCDSB to move to a model where everyone can choose which school they go to and each school can choose which segment of the population will be its specialty.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Censorship in schools

I had an interesting conversation at dinner on Friday night that turned to the topic of censorship in schools. Unfortunately, the conversation was cut short by a need to get home to our sick daughter, so I thought that I would explore the issue a little bit here.

First, I have to say that in general I am against censorship. From a moral viewpoint, I feel that governments should not be allowed to block access to information. From a practical viewpoint, censorship almost never works in the long run, and mostly serves to draw attention to the information being censored. With the flattening world and the proliferation of information technologies, censorship is becoming even more difficult.

Now, the question arises of whether censorship of a mild kind can or should be practised in schools. From a legal perspective, students are mostly under the age of 18 and so are not considered full citizens under the law. As well, teachers and schools have de facto parental roles for the students and so can reasonably be allowed control over what the students may see and hear. From a moral perspective it makes sense to protect students, younger students especially, from information and images that they can not be expected to understand or process in a useful way. Various kinds of propaganda, pornography, and advertising come to mind (although sometimes it is hard to tell the difference between those three). From an educational perspective it seems reasonable to try and limit distractions so that students are more likely to concentrate on learning.

So, having said that some censorship is reasonable, the million dollar question is "how much?". This is where my answers get a lot fuzzier. When I am teaching, I feel that I have a legitimate role in asking students to avoid distractions when they are meant to be learning. As such, listening to iPods during a lesson, texting on cell phones instead of working, playing computer games instead of doing research are all activities that I feel I can rightfully work to curtail. Still, I do not believe that it is useful for me to try to ban iPods, cell phones, and laptops from the classroom because these can all be tools for learning when used properly.

A trickier question is whether school boards should prevent YouTube, Facebook, and similar web sites from being viewed from school computers. Ideally, I feel that those sites should not be blocked. But, from a practical point of view as a teacher, I know that trying to police computer use if everybody can be checking their Facebook page and watching the latest viral YouTube video would be close to insane. I wonder if it is feasible to block access to only those students who have abused it. That would be a good solution, in my opinion.

Censorship and schools is an area where there are no easy answers. I can only hope that as technology evolves schools can stay on the side of using technology to teach, rather than trying to ban technology as a distraction.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Fitting Education reform into real life

I came across this story today about problems with a reform effort in North Carolina. The idea is to find some time for teachers to talk to each other about students and teaching. Typically, teachers have their prep time at different times from other teachers in the same department so opportunities to communicate and share information and knowledge are very limited. Promoting more and better communication is a good thing.

There are a couple problems with what is happening in Wake County. The first is that the school day has been disrupted every Wednesday to make time for the teachers to do this. So every family with a school age child has to change their routine on Wednesdays to adapt to the teachers. Not a good way to get community support. The second problem is that there are teachers who are not using the time to best advantage. Once the community hears that at least some teachers are the wasting the time created by inconveniencing the community, you know people are going to be very unhappy.

This program sounds like a good idea to me but my take is that it needs to be set up and executed in a way that minimizes disruption to life in the community. Perhaps different departments could have their scheduled communication times on different days while the remaining teachers supervise students. That way, there would not need to be any disruptions of the school day. Also, the program might work best on some kind of opt-in model where it would be used only in schools where the administration supports it. That would minimize the amount of wasted time.

In the end, when looking at education reforms, the practicalities of life and the school's place in the community have to be considered. Otherwise, the reforms fail and then there is a backlash against reform, which is the last thing we need.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

More thoughts from Edreformer

In personal news, I managed to get a Long-Term Occasional job teaching Computer Technology and Math at Smiths Falls District Collegiate Institute. It means I have less time to read and blog but I will see what I can do.

I was just reading Tom Vander Ark and Edreformer and he has a post that resonated with some of my thoughts.

Vander Ark says:
Today I spent an hour with a defense contractor that probably runs the biggest simulation and training business in the world. I found the conversation about creating ‘rapid pathways to mastery’ at a whole different level than most K-12 conversations. They get paid on outcomes (like certification to fly expensive jets) and use the most efficient mixture of classroom, simulation, and flight experience possible to get to mastery.

To me, the key idea is that the contractor gets paid on outcomes of the students actually learning what they need to learn. I think that possibly THE biggest challenge for the public education system will be to determine relevant, useful, measurable outcomes that can be used to gauge the efficiency of our school system. If we can nail down these outcomes and measure them, then school boards, administrators, and teachers can all start to make choices that make best use of resources to support those outcomes. Until we have something like that, everything is a political mess that is not going to get better in a hurry.