There Are No “Throw Away” Children

Making change in the education system seems to be a difficult thing to accomplish! I get that. And I also get that it can be incredibly frustrating when it doesn’t seem to be happening.

So often, I hear things like “What’s the matter with teachers – they have to change…”

Well, anyone who works in the system or works with human/systems change knows that there are many barriers.

I’ve been pondering change in education quite a lot – for many years. I’ve been a parent of three wonderful (and non-neurotypical) kids in the public system for twelve years now. I was DPAC president for almost six years. I’ve been on Ministry and District advisory committees. And I’ve worked with Districts as an ed-tech consultant for many years as well.

Something isn’t sitting well with me – it gets me quite upset, actually!

From my IT project management experience, there are two ways to make large, transformational change:

  1. Start Fresh: This is when you plan, design and implement a new system, but there is nothing of value to save from the old system, nothing to transition over. No archival data. No users. The old system is a “throw away.”
  2. Transition From Old to New: This is when the data is too important (or too expensive to recreate) and you need to migrate in a conscious, planned method from the old system to the new one.

 

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Here’s the thing, when we’re talking about changing the education system and schools, we’re not talking about critical data – we’re talking about children’s lives! The stakes are incredibly high and we need to be constantly, painfully aware of what happens to kids if we aren’t thoughtful and incredibly careful! Not a single child, in my opinion, is a “throw away” or not worth planning for! And that needs to shape our approach to educational change – this is a project with NO acceptable losses.

I don’t think that the BC Liberal government is keeping this central enough in their planning and actions right now.

I used to work for the BC Government, in the IT department of the Ministry of Attorney General. I worked there under the NDP, and during the transition to the BC Liberals. And I have to say, the Liberals made many positive changes – they definitely knew how to run the business aspects of government better than I saw under the NDP. And, in the beginning, they put pressure on Ministries to save money – with great success! There were so many things we saw, at the ground level, that weren’t being done efficiently and savings could be had.

But let’s be honest, we’re way past that now in the BC education system. The “low hanging fruit” of easy savings and simple changes were “picked” long ago. The changes left are complex and cost money to successfully implement.

I feel strongly that the BC Liberal government is underfunding our education system, with a devastating impact on kids, families and communities. Districts are told to “figure it out” and (how many times have I heard??) “the money is the money” – so Districts are supposed to identify savings that will fund changes. However, I realize that feeling of mine is because I have a base assumption that none of our children should pay the price for systemic change!

Looping back up to the two types of change I identified above, only the first kind (throw away the old system and start fresh) would allow this approach to funding to work – and it would. But only if we are willing to accept that the kids who are currently going through the system will have to fail or lose services they would have otherwise received (and still need.) Only if we accept that some kids just won’t make it can we also accept funding levels from government that require Districts to make change “off the side of their desks.”

For example, if we believe that every child deserves the equivalent of an IEP (individualized education plan), not just kids labelled by psycho-educational (or other) testing as having an identified learning disability or challenge, then how do we make that change?

The first way is we stop funding school psychologists, stop identifying kids, therefore stop providing services and programs to meet the specific needs of those labelled groupings, and instead redirect that money/resources into training classroom teachers how to teach in more differentiated ways, in order to better meet the needs of diverse learners on a daily basis.

But think about it – there’s a gap. In this scenario, we have to stop funding the old system, in order to “ramp up” the new system. How much time would it take to form committees, hire or second a project team, plan what “personalize” means, what it would need to include, seek out relevant research, focus and prioritize, design school wide and District wide strategies, design assessments, communicate changes, provide training, research resources, pilot at some locations, and ultimately implement changes? I’d say years – more than one or two. In a District the size of my children’s (30k+ students and something like 60 schools), I’d say more like 4 – 6 years to full implementation.

In the meantime, kids don’t just wait. They grow up, they move through the system that is failing them, and damage is done. Life changing, devastating, and long reaching damage. Let’s be honest – lives are lost, either figuratively or literally. This is simply unacceptable!

(Not to mention that all students getting their needs met within even a perfectly differentiated classroom is impossible – but that’s another post.)

So, what is the alternative? We take the second approach – plan and fund change so that our “critical data” (aka our precious children) successfully transitions from the old system to the new.

Change has to be planned. And while I appreciate that the complex change projects needed in education can’t be “top down” – I also know that successful change has focus. Andy Hargreaves, in The Fourth Way, talks about the need for leadership of successful systems to set the overall “direction” and for the organization to “have a dream.” The details of how you get there can vary according to the needs of individual communities, socio-economic circumstances, even personalities. But where we’re headed has to be the same!

That takes me back to my previous post: Understanding our Priorities and the triple constraints of education that I proposed:

triple constraint of education

As I also said in that post, you can’t have all three. You can’t have cheap, relevant AND inclusive. Something drops. And since the budget isn’t increasing, we lose either relevance or inclusion.

What I’ve seen again and again is that Districts focus projects on engaging students, making learning more relevant and interesting. And yet, we have kids who can’t read. Or there are significant increases in mental illness (particularly anxiety and depression). And Ross Greene hits a painful nail on the head in his book “Lost at School,” talking about executive function, lagging skills and behaviour challenges.

Why is it then that, again and again, we invest energy into starting/running pro-d, projects and specialized programs (Mandarin Immersion, Reggio Inspired, hockey academy, elite athletes, etc…) that focus on relevant learning, not on inclusion? These actions certainly work to increase student engagement and make learning more interesting, but they often do little to serve the most vulnerable students.

For one thing, there is this false (and dangerous) belief that if only we could sufficiently engage/interest/motivate students, then nothing would stand in the way of their learning. This simply isn’t true for all learners! 

Some students need psycho-educational assessments, extra supports, specialized resources and intensive interventions in order to be able to participate in their learning. And these things all cost money!

I think we (as communities) see this – we know it. We see that both relevant and inclusive programs cost money – they aren’t cheap and certainly aren’t free! We see (and are frustrated by) the fact that we just can’t meet the needs of all learners without additional resources – no matter how hard we try. We see the kids who struggle, don’t fit in, bully or get bullied, don’t attend school, aren’t allowed to attend full days at school, etc…

But I also think that we seem to be suffering from some version of an organizational Stockholm Syndrome. Budgets have been reduced and cut and not enough for so long, that we don’t even ask for or suggest programs that would cost money anymore. We seek to “do what we can” – putting together proposals that are cost neutral compared to regular classrooms, so that we can maybe meet the needs of learners by doing things just a little differently. But we don’t ask for smaller class sizes for special situations, or for additional counsellors or specially trained teachers or for collaboration time or suspension of Provincial exams, etc… We seem to have accepted the government line that there is no more money, and adjust accordingly. Like children of poverty, we’ve stopped asking because we know the answer will always be no…

The current labour dispute, that includes issues around class size and composition, resides deeply in this concern – the loss of truly inclusive education for ALL students.

Unfortunately, more money isn’t the only part of a successful solution! Simply moving to smaller class sizes or hiring more specialist teachers won’t suddenly make our school system truly inclusive – it won’t necessarily meet the needs of our most complex and vulnerable learners. That’s the part of the BCTF’s approach that worries me the most – it lacks strategy and, I fear, threatens to entrench our system further into dysfunctional paradigms. More of what we used to have isn’t necessarily what we need now.

We need to see both an investment in education AND we need thoughtful, focused strategies for using that money to meet the needs of all students! How would we do that?

We need a clear focus and commitment (or we need to demand this) from government on a transition that doesn’t “throw away” kids who need more help in the meantime. We need leadership in setting our “direction” as inclusive (first and foremost) AND personalized/relevant – and the planning/funding to match.

We need clarity of and a drastically narrowed focus. For example, the fact is that if a student can’t read and communicate at grade level, it matters very little whether the topic is interesting or whether they are engaged and motivated. There are very real barriers that need to be removed or mitigated (preferably in an early and proactive way) – whether those barriers are intellectual, physical, emotional or behavioural. Take that ONE core focus and get good at it. The use of educational technology, self regulation, Genius Hour, inquiry learning, critical thinking, social-emotional learning and all sorts of other strategies or approaches can be part of the delivery of that core focus – they just aren’t THE focus.

We need meaningful dialogue as communities (not JUST teachers and government, or teachers and District leadership – but including consultation and collaboration with parents, special needs groups, researchers, teachers, principals, CUPE, students, etc…) We truly need to work together and “be the villages” who raise our children together, which requires understanding and communication. Kids and communities benefit when we work together. Period.

And we need data. Yes, I said data. Not as a way of holding teachers “accountable” (which I read as policing and wanting to punish those who don’t meet the “standard”) – but as a part of effective feedback loops and continuous improvement. As a system, we need to put into practice the ideas we embrace around student assessment – formative, assessment as, for and of learning/change.

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I know our system needs more money and resources – that’s easy. That’s why I find it easy to advocate for more funding from government for our education system.

And if the BCTF were suggesting ways to address class size and composition issues, within a framework for governance that includes clarity of purpose and focus, required data collection, measurable improvements towards inclusion and relevance, and collaborative decision making, I could get behind that much more fully too!

Really, this moves beyond this specific labour dispute. This needs to be something we discuss and explore as communities – whether as classrooms, schools, Districts or even Provincially.

We have an incredible responsibility to “catch” all of our children. None of them deserve to be thrown away. No amount of “loss” is acceptable – so need to strive to do better!

So let’s get it together and do this!

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Understanding Our Priorities

Like all parents and educators and citizens of BC, I’ve been thinking a lot about the current labour dispute between the BCTF and the government. My kids, along with about a half million others, are home today – not in school.

Watching the news and the back and forth, I’ve noticed how often polls are going up about “whose side are you on?” or “who do you support?” The overall approach is, most often, who should win?

And that bothers me. Not that I want everyone to get along – sometimes agreeing on certain issues just isn’t possible. It bothers me because there is no “win” in this situation if anyone else “loses.” As long as we dwell in this adversarial paradigm, our students and children are the ones who are hurt.

Just as I was thinking this, I came across Kristi Blakeway’s post “I Am Not On A Side: We Are In This Together” – and I found myself reading and nodding my head:

We are humans first and for that reason alone, ‘sides’ should not exist. We are in this together. May we take care of one another and keep sight of better days to come when the joy of learning will return.

Win-win situations happen within relationships, when both sides involved are looking for the best for everyone. And to look for solutions that everyone benefits from, you have to understand and respect what everyone needs/wants!

We can go on trying to make people choose sides – which is a very ego-driven strategy (needing to be right, needing to be chosen). Or we can acknowledge that there are multiple valid viewpoints that need to be prioritized or balanced.

My next thought, though, was “How do we resolve this, if it’s not about sides?”

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I started thinking about my training and work world. As a project manager, something core to everything we do is the “triple constraint.”

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There is always a balancing of these three factors – time/schedule (how quickly do we have to get this done), scope (what do we need to get done in order to be successful) and cost (how much will it cost).

One oft quoted statement about these constraints says “you can have it cheap, fast, or good – choose any two!” Which is so true! If you want something fast and done well, then it will be expensive (because you have to hire lots of people). Conversely, if you want it cheap and good, it will be slow. Etc…

What this also speaks to is the need to prioritize – you usually can’t have it all, but you have to consider them all. As a project manager, one of the things you have to do in order to be successful, is to understand what is most important, what is non-negotiable, or how (in general) decisions should balance needs/wants.

It’s important to know where there is flexibility and where there isn’t. Or, when an unexpected change arises, how will we adjust?
- Can the schedule be flexible or do we have a fixed completion date? (eg a law/regulation is changing on a specific date)
- Does the budget have some contingency built in?
- Can we adjust the scope/deliverables to do less (eg use phases of work over a longer time period) and still complete on time and on budget?

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So, tying this back to education in BC: What are our priorities for schools?

Cost is obviously one factor. There is not now, nor will there ever be, an unlimited budget to do everything we want to or could do with/for kids. At the same time, cost is not the ONLY factor – we can’t decide how much money education can have with no consideration of what is needed to educate children from Kindergarten to graduation. It does children great harm to see education as an expense that needs to be minimized, when it actually needs to be approached as an investment in the future (both theirs and our whole society’s!)

When it comes to scope, I believe the bottom line is that we need an inclusive education system and that every child has an equal opportunity to learn. This comes down to a human right. It’s not “charity” to try to include students with special needs in the classroom. It is no more acceptable to segregate (or exclude) children with special needs than it is to segregate children based on their race or gender (or any other characteristic).

This right has been laid out in the UN Declaration of the Rights of the Child.
Take note of: Articles 23 (children with disabilities), 28 (Right to education) and 29 (Goals of education).

It has also been upheld by the precedent set by the Moore case, which sets the stage for other parents to take the BC Government to court for failing to provide needed services for their children to learn. I suspect the only reason that hasn’t happened yet is that individual families supporting children with disabilities are so wrapped up in caregiving and every day advocacy, the immense amount of time and resources needed to pursue a court case hasn’t been the necessary priority. Regardless, the Supreme Court clearly laid out that inclusive and accessible education is a RIGHT for all children!

And, it’s perhaps important to note, “inclusive” doesn’t just mean “in the classroom with everyone else.” It means that every student has the tools, skills and supports available to them to successfully participate, to learn and grow to the best of their ability! Meaningful inclusion includes times when groups of students may receive intensive (and specifically targeted) assistance out of the classroom, too!

Which leaves me with time – and that doesn’t seem as relevant in the context of education. What does need to be included, though, is the relevance of learning. Memorization and what my teenager calls the “bulimia” style of learning (remember it just long enough to regurgitate it onto a test, then it’s gone) could be considered “fast” education. As opposed to “slow” education, which is what I’d call true learning that is relevant and meaningful to kids.

Movement toward inquiry or project based learning provides students the opportunities to bridge new concepts, ideas, tools and skills to their lives and passions. When we can make connections between what we’re learning and its relevance/use in the “real” world – then learning tends to “stick” more.

More and more, what we’re realizing we don’t want for our kids is the K-12 equivalent of Father Sarducci’s Five Minute University. We want kids to be curious and interested and to wonder and ask questions. And there are systemic changes (schedules, class organization, curriculum redesign, etc…) that are needed to support those changes!

That leaves me with a new triangle:

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So, what does all that mean?

When we discuss proposals regarding educational change, projects, or even collective agreements, our discussion has to include how successfully we are moving towards accomplishing all three of these factors: relevant learning, inclusive education for all, and affordability.

By using this triple constraint as our framework for discussion, we could more effectively question results or effects.

We can never have just one of these, or we are failing the children and the future of this Province.

If I look at what the BC Liberals call an affordable agreement between the BCTF and the government, does it allow Districts and schools to provide inclusive education for all? Right now, there are many Districts that are cutting essential services for students in order to balance their budgets – so without additional funds added to education, the answer to this question is inevitably no.

And conversely, if I look at what the BCTF is asking for in terms of restoring language regarding class size and composition, specialist teachers or funds to support release time, professional development, etc… – the government says it will be unaffordable.

I may not know all the details, but here’s what I see:

Break down the issues to discuss them separately – and, very important, discuss them separately in the media and in updates. Different issues can and do have different priorities. Discussion of wages will be mostly about affordability, while anything about class size or composition has to consider all three aspects. Even then, class size (since it involves capital projects, available classrooms, need for portables, etc…) needs to be considered separately from specialist teachers (who may be working in existing spaces or inside classrooms).

As parents, we have less understanding of the best “how” of these situations. By that, I mean that we don’t have the training or expertise to comment on whether early learning is a better investment than educational technology. Or we don’t necessarily know why learning support teachers change so often. Or when an educational assistant is a good option vs when a trained special education teacher needs to work with a complex learner. What parents need to do is ask questions and push all parties to keep the triple constraints of education (and the needs of our children) at the center of all discussions.

When the government is talking only about affordability, some important questions are:

- How successfully are student needs being met? How are students with identified special needs being thoughtfully included? Show me the data!

How many students are reading at grade level at Grade 2? At Grade 3? Since research shows that students who aren’t reading at grade level at this point most often never will, this is a critical measure!

How many students are reading at grade level at every other grade?

How many students with identified special needs have meaningful IEP/learning goals? Are those IEP/learning goals being met? Are modifications/adaptations identified in the IEP being implemented in the classroom? If not, why?

How many students with identified special needs are unable to attend their schools for full days? If not, why?

- How many students are struggling, but receiving no assistance?

How many students are waiting for psycho-educational assessments? How long are they waiting?

How many students are NOT on any waiting list but are not meeting grade level expectations (in any area – reading, math, behaviour, attendance, etc…)?

How many families feel their children are not learning to their potential, having difficulties, can’t go to school, etc… and are not receiving the support they need?

What assistance, interventions, counselling or other services are needed (but unavailable)?

- How many students are learning in relevant and lasting ways?

What percentage of projects/homework requires remembering, understanding and applying (lower order thinking skills) vs creating, evaluating and analysing (higher order thinking skills)?

What balance of formative vs summative assessment is being used?

And so on…

I’m sure there are more and better questions that others can think of, but that should give you an idea of what I’m talking about. If we don’t know this data, then how can we know whether our school system is successfully educating our students, regardless of whether it is affordable or not?

This data (and these types of questions) seems an important first step to me.

The next steps aren’t easy either – somehow, we have to work through what to DO about it, when the data tells us there are gaps. And, considering a limited budget, what to do that will have the GREATEST effect towards achieving our goals? After all, almost anything we do could have some effect on student learning, but how do we choose what to do first or how to measure its success – those are tricky questions too.

Then, the conversation will get more complex and push teachers to evaluate their practices as well. That’s not always easy, since teachers are under so much pressure in the current situation. But maybe if the evaluation and data collection results in resources being applied to support change in classrooms, it won’t feel so threatening. That’s my hope.

But I also know it’s critical to create a supportive and trusting culture that enables change! Not the easiest thing to do in the current climate in this Province…

To begin, though, parents must be a part of changing the discourse and culture – by asking better questions. By forcing all parties to consider the needs of students at the center, but also the perspectives of the other parties – in order to work together towards our common goals.

The best education (cost effective, relevant and inclusive) can only be achieved for students by working together and understanding/respecting each others’ needs – not by choosing one side over another.

I don’t know what will happen with this labour dispute, but I do know that parents must speak up. And we need to do that in a way that makes everyone think. And remember the reason we’re here – to raise the next generation of children into healthy, curious, productive, joyful citizens. Our priorities are greater than “affordability.” And the solutions are greater than “more money.”

Our kids are worth it!

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Teen-Enforced Honesty

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Me: I’m doing laundry today. Gonna help?
Teen: Naw…
Me: Yeah?
Teen: Naw.
Me: Seriously? Of course you can help.
Teen: Then why did you ask?
Me: To give you the illusion of choice? (shame-faced grin)
Teen: (unimpressed look)

My kids keep me honest. Most times, I know that’s a good thing!

Note to self: don’t beat around the bush, say what I mean, directly and clearly. No need for games…

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Stepping Out of my Shell

I’ve been telling myself that I’m digging deeper these days. That I’ve worked through the outside layers of the “onion” that is “me” and all the things I believe. Which ones are true? Which ones are the assumptions and expectations that I’ve taken on from society or somewhere else “outside”? Which ones help me and which ones no longer serve me in this journey we call “life”?

As I walked this morning, something occurred to me…

I’m not working my way in – I’ve been at the heart all along! In reality, this struggle has been about “coming out” so much more than “going in”…

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Northern Voice ’09  session with Barbara Ganley, Laura Blankenship & Nancy White about “the space in between”.

We talked there about this struggle many of us are feeling to bridge between our on-line and offline lives – how to stay connected in both? How to find meaning in both?

I feel the same conflict that David Truss has talked about between the on-line taking him away from meaningful in-person interactions (with his kids, with his wife, with his co-workers) and, on the other hand, the feeling that the interactions and learning that happens with his on-line network are much deeper and more meaningful, somehow.

So as I thought about my own struggle, it struck me (and I literally mean it was a physical realization – that “OMG” kind of moment). This isn’t really about the boundary of on-line to offline for me – it shows up there at times, but that’s not the core of my struggle. It’s about how I negotiate and bridge the boundary between “me” and the rest of the world.

I have a strong visual of being inside my shell, my bubble. I’ve built it over many years – starting in childhood, as I learned to think, to judge, to fear…  It’s almost like I’m in one of those hamster balls, but that’s too transparent. A “shell” makes more sense to me. Or a costume. Or a mask.

It is that outer image that I’ve patched together from all of the messages I’ve absorbed about who I “should” be, what people expect of me, what I have to be in order to be accepted and loved. And it’s a hard shell! For a long time, it served me – it protected me from feeling. I let it make my decisions for me (Nope, can’t do that. What would people think? Yup, have to do this. I have no choice because otherwise people won’t like me anymore… )

But I’ve experienced something else. There are moments when I lose those stories about myself and the world – and I just “am”! I find that space where I lose all judgement all sense of time (and the day just flies by!) and all uncertainty. It’s a space I walk into when I’m engaged in an exciting project, when I’m problem solving complex issues, when I’m playing music, when I’m looking with my “inner” eyes in order to create (art, photography, ideas, etc…). I’m there when I play and learn with my children.

And over the last couple of years, I started noticing those spaces, those moments. I get curious (and often frustrated) that I can be so inconsistent – in one moment, completely immersed and powerful, fearful and doubting in the next. I want to live in that space more often – all of the time, really!

So that is when I started searching, going deeper, introducing myself to my self. I’ve courted that self. I’ve gotten curious, asked questions, spent time sitting silently & just listening for the feelings that can’t be put into words without losing their meaning.

Now I sit at this new boundary – struggling and trying to learn how to “be” that authentic person in interaction with this world. With one hand, I hold tight to the hand of that inner self – with the other hand, I’m grasping. I’m reaching, struggling, sometimes grabbing impatiently. And, so often, it hurts – it doesn’t work, I’m uncertain, I’m afraid, and I pull back into my shell again.

If I let go of my “self” and then reach out to the world, I know how to interact – I have learned well how to mold myself, to anticipate what people want from me, to be what others need. But I pay a price for that letting go – I can’t look in the mirror, I get stomach aches, I get headaches, I can’t sleep at night, I obsess about whether what I did was right or if it offended or if I should have done it better…

This is the bridge I don’t know how to build yet – the one that touches both of these shores.

I know I want to be me now, all of the time! I know I want to look in the mirror every day and see myself looking back without judgement. I know I want to be loved unconditionally – just for being me, as I am. I know I have to love myself unconditionally before I’ll ever be able to accept that kind of love from another. I know I want to love my children, significant other, friends, family (and everyone) that way. And the best way to learn to do that is to learn how to love myself that way.

I think many of us are struggling on this boundary right now. Being anything other than my “self” is no longer personally acceptable.

I can’t give up…

Posted in Live, Love and Learn | 4 Comments