Sunday, March 24, 2013

Administrative Hypocrisy

I came across this letter in The Hamilton Spectator yesterday. I consider the topic of feckless school administrators, operating without integrity, to be quite appropriate for this blog, given how it is yet another example of corruption and decay that undermines all institutions, perhaps most egregiously our political ones. But just as the latter's landscape is littered with those who crave power and influence to the detriment of the collective good, so too, far too often, is education, again to the ultimate detriment of everyone.

The issue revolves around a disciplinary hearing involving Matthew John Chiarot, a science teacher at Bishop Ryan Catholic Secondary School. You can read the details of the allegations against Chiarot here, but the most salient aspect is the assertion that the teacher inaccurately recorded grades following a final exam in January 2007. Hermon Mayers, the school principal, is reported to have earlier said, “It’s just fundamentally wrong to give a mark that’s not correct to a student.”

Given my own personal experience, before I retired, of young teachers being increasingly pressured by administration to raise students' marks so as not to have a high failure rate, I found this letter of particular note:

Artificially high marks are nothing new

Accused teacher’s performance ‘good’ (March 21) The statement, “It’s just fundamentally wrong to give a mark that’s not correct to a student,” caught my attention. The school administrator is admonishing the teacher for this. We don’t know what this teacher is accused of doing with the marks, but in my high school teaching career, teachers were routinely ordered, by school administrators or their board bosses’ directives, to artificially change students marks.

This practice has steadily increased since the 1990s. I can only speak to a public board’s practice. In the race to lower the bar to feed the positive PR machine, we were told we weren’t to fail more than 20 per cent of a class, even deservedly. Marks would have to be artificially raised. Students achieving a failing mark of 46 to 49 per cent would have marks raised to 50 per cent.

Now teachers face disciplinary action and potential loss of career for something previously accepted by principals and boards. Teachers face further castigation by the more recently created, already bloated and blinkered bureaucratic organization, the College of Teachers. For this principal to come out with such a statement without looking in the mirror first is hypocrisy of the highest order, if the Catholic boards follow similar practices to the public.

Don Harrington, Smithville Cross Posted at Politics and its Discontents

Monday, December 31, 2012

Noam Chomsky Reflects on Contemporary Education

Despite the fact that it was fraught with a marking load I would not wish on anyone, my career as an English teacher offered many satisfactions, not the least of which was the opportunity to explore issues that are increasingly considered off-limits in the classroom: contemporary politics, the use and abuse of language for manipulative and sinister purposes, environmental degradation, etc., all within the context of the literature we were studying. However, by the time I retired six years ago, thanks to curriculum changes in Ontario, many disciplines became locked in a race to cover the material at the expense of what I would consider an essential part of learning: an open and informed discussion and the concomitant development of critical thinking skills. Structure began to supplant imagination, and I think students became the poorer for it.

I recently came across a very interesting interview on Alternet with Noam Chomsky, the famed linguist, political commentator, activist, and iconoclast. A man rarely heard these days in the mainstream media thanks to his seemingly endless capacity to challenge what passes for conventional wisdom, Chomsky reflects on his own upbringing and education, and has some very pointed observations about the current overemphasis on test results:

...the great educational innovation of Bush and Obama was 'no child left behind'. I can see the effects in schools from talking to teachers, parents and students. It's training to pass tests and the teachers are evaluated on how well the students do in the test - I've talked to teachers who've told me that a kid will be interested in something that comes up in class and want to pursue it and the teacher has to tell them - ' you can't do that because you have to pass this test next week'. That's the opposite of education.

Chomsky suggests that at its best, education is essentially subversive, in that it challenges the corporate demand for trained but passive and submissive workers. The cultivation of such an education model is regarded dimly by the elite, a fact he demonstrates by reference to a report and book produced in 1975 for the Trilateral Commission called The Crisis of Democracy. Its conclusion? ... the problems of governance "stem from an excess of democracy" and thus advocates "to restore the prestige and authority of central government institutions."

Says Chomsky:

[The] commission that put together this book was concerned with trying to induce what they called 'more moderation in democracy' - turn people back to passivity and obedience so they don't put so many constraints on state power and so on. In particular they were worried about young people. They were concerned about the institutions responsible for the indoctrination of the young (that's their phrase), meaning schools, universities, church and so on - they're not doing their job, [the young are] not being sufficiently indoctrinated. They're too free to pursue their own initiatives and concerns and you've got to control them better.

That an independent-thinking citizenry should be regarded as a threat speaks volumes about the power of a real education. I'm glad I was a part of it for 30 years, and while I ardently hope that a reasonable balance can be struck between the needs of industry and the larger needs of society, I must confess that I am not especially hopeful about education's future.

Cross-posted at Politics and its Discontents

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Education and the Digital World

The other day I wrote a post commenting on an article by Doug Mann, a University of Western Ontario professor who calls into question the wholehearted embrace of all things digital in the classroom, arguing that efforts should be made to curb its distracting potential.

A good letter by David Collins appears in today's Star advancing that discussion. Since it makes eminent sense, expect it to be ignored by educational authorities.

I reproduce it below for your consideration:

Re: Unplug the digital classroom, Opinion, Oct. 7

When many whose level of education should make them know better are towing the party line equating use of the latest technological devices in the classroom with “progress,” professor Doug Mann's straightforward account of the actual effects of this thinking in education is most welcome.

Having been both a TA and a college instructor over the past 10 years, I can confirm there has been a dramatic drop in literacy, numeracy, critical thinking and basic verbal comprehension among college and university students in that time, coinciding with the rise to ubiquity of mobile/digital devices.

While no cause can be definitively proven, the amount and type of use of such devices by students in the last few years is the only real demographic difference between them and students eight to 10 years ago.

More important than proving a cause is the recognition that mediating education through computerized devices is actually less engaging, more passive (students become mere users of programs, while the programs do the work!) and, by reducing education to content delivery, promotes the uncritical acceptance and regurgitation of information far more than traditional approaches.

To say today’s learners learn differently is a cop-out; if students show difficulty understanding via listening, reading and in-person discussion, the answer is surely to give them practice in these skills. Handing them computerized crutches to make up for lack of ability while ignoring the fact they're using them to surf the Internet and “chat” in class is not helping — it's manufacturing artificial disability.

David Collins, Toronto Cross-posted at Politics and Its Discontents

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Psst! What's The Latest On TMZ?

In the latter part of my teaching career, I had the feeling that those in charge of education, especially on the local level, were suffering from a kind of drift that was largely absent when I started my career. More and more, administrators were embracing technology, and the next 'big thing' that it promised on a regular basis, as the solution to student underachievement.

The process started off mildly enough, with the introduction of video (reel-to-reel was actually the first format used in the classroom) as a supplement to instruction, but by the time I had retired, whiteboards, school wi-fi networks, etc. were starting to gain currency. As my last administrator said, we have to hold their interest with new technology, a statement I took as sad evidence of pedogogical bankruptcy.

All the while, I was dubious of each new marvel; any reservations I openly expressed were readily dismissed, the assumption being that I was some kind of Luddite naturally resistant to change. And of course, for those who harboured notions of advancement, objecting to any new 'paradigm' would have been tantamount to career suicide, the institution of education quite Machiavellian in imposing its own brand of control on critical thinking.

It was therefore with some satisfaction that I read a piece in today's Star entitled Let’s unplug the digital classroom. Written by Doug Mann, professor in the sociology department and in the Faculty of Information and Media Studies at the University of Western Ontario, it argues that the ubiquity of digital technology in educational settings is not an unalloyed good, and suggests what some would regard as drastic measures in an effort to curb the distractions students fall prey to whilst in the thrall of that technology.

Cross-posted at Politics and Its Discontents.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

What Do Politics and Education Have In Common?

I cannot escape the conviction that when one considers the seamier side of education, with its sometimes immoral and concealed actions, its use of 'spin' and its willingness to overlook or minimize wrongdoing when it suits its purposes, there are many parallels with the kind of unethical, expedient and corrupt behaviour we often find among those we elect to public office.

The other reason for my preoccupation is that I have always detested the existence of double standards in the meting out of justice.

Two events involving two school boards, one current and one going back several years, suggest that justice is not only not done, but not seen to be done.

In today's Toronto Star, a story about a former Kingsville, Ont., principal, Wendy Lynn Liebing,

admitted misusing school board funds over three years and resigned from the association on June 14, the college said on its website. Her certificate of qualification and registration to teach were then cancelled. The case was detailed in the latest issue of the college’s magazine, Professionally Speaking.

“At the time of the resignation, a professional misconduct investigation was in progress wherein the member was alleged to have mismanaged and misappropriated school and board funds,” the website said.

Despite the College of Teacher's euphemistic reference to Liebling's having 'mismanaged and misappropriated' school money, the fact is that she embezzled over $50,000 from her employer, a crime that in most cases would result in criminal charges. I will offer my opionion on why that did not happen in a few moments.

The next case, which goes back several years, involves a former school principal named Glenn Crawford, who was employed by the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board.

Like Liebling, Crawford 'misused' school funds and assets for personal reasons, as he admitted to during the investigation. Amongst the fraudulent acts he admitted to were the following:

a) receiving unauthorized personal advances;

b) receiving reimbursement for meal and hotel expenses that were personal;

c) falsifying receipts from Ontario Principals’ Council in order to be reimbursed by the

d) billing both the Ontario Principals’ Council and the school for expense claims;

e) using school funds and assets for personal reasons;

f) authorizing payment of expenses by the school for expenses not related to school activities, such as expenses related to events involving his son including the International Children’s Games and the B’nai Brith Sports Dinner;

g) using the school van for personal reasons and submitting the expenses to the school;

h) receiving reimbursement for the purchase of tires claimed but not installed on the school

i)obtaining the personal services of landscaping company, where his son is a landscape contractor, and billing the school; and

j)authorizing landscape expenses for the 2001/2002 fiscal year higher than those for similar size schools.

The penalty for this malfeasance?

Essentially, Crawford was permitted to resign and had his teaching certificate suspended for one year.

You can read the full decision here.

So why were neither Liebling nor Crawford charged with a crime, something that usually happens to those who embezzle from their employers? The most benign explanation is that the board, being heavily influenced by institutional behaviour, wanted to minimize the publicity surrounding these odious deeds, publicity that would both diminish the institution's reputation and seriously damage the career advancement to the many who put their own fortunes above the good of education.

The second possibility, and admittedly a much more sinister one, is that people who commit crimes but are dealt with softly often have knowledge of things within the organization that no one wants exposed to public scrutiny.

While the latter explanation may seem rather paranoid and conspiratorial, my own years in education were witness to some very questionable things which, while I am not prepared to discuss them here, would never have passed 'the smell test'.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

A Retired Administrator Sets The Record Straight

As he tries to appear tough for the upcoming byelections, Ontario's self-proclaimed Education Premier, Dalton McGuinty, has been indulging in the kind of demagoguery that is an affront to critical thinkers everywhere. I was therefore pleased to read this article by Tom Roden, a retired vice-principal, attempting to puncture some of the myths about teaching:

Just don’t tell me teachers are overpaid

Don’t make savings on our backs: End Catholic school funding This opinion article is in response to Ontario’s Liberal government as it attacks public school teachers in an attempt to alleviate some fiscal problems and increase their chances in two byelections. It is also in response to those praising Catholic teachers for accepting unreasonable demands from the provincial government.

It comes from the perspective of a retired teacher who has a reasonable pension because I paid for it my entire career. I believe my teaching career was relatively routine and will use examples from it to illustrate.

Teachers are not well paid given the academic requirements, responsibilities, and stress of the job. They are required, as a bare minimum, to have at least five years of university. Most have more. In addition, any of the considerable numbers of teachers that I know work far more than the standard 2,000 hours per year. Any of their male friends in industry, with comparable responsibilities and academic qualifications, have far greater salaries. This income disparity is not as obvious with women because teaching is one of the few areas in which salaries are not gender-dependent.

I knew salaries in teaching were not great when I entered the profession, so I am not whining about it. Just do not tell me that I was well paid.

After graduating from McMaster University, I worked in the hourly personnel department at Ford Motor Company for nine and a half months. It was not until my fifth year of teaching that my salary equalled my earnings at Ford. This income disparity is the reason that it is very difficult to attract technical teachers. Most tradesmen/women are not willing to accept a decrease in their salary of approximately 50 per cent.

Just as I was retiring, I was kidded by a pick-up hockey teammate, who works in management in industry, with the often-used “overpaid, underworked school teacher” line.

I replied: “I just retired as a vice-principal of a school of 1,600 people (including students, teachers, secretaries, caretakers, cafeteria staff). My salary was $75,000. If I were assistant plant manager of some factory that has 1,600 employees, would I have made $75,000?” He replied that I would have been paid at least double that.

Again, I am not whining because I knew what I was getting into when I started teaching.

Retirement gratuities are common in industry, as are sick leave plans. My golfing buddies who retired from industry have their benefits paid, most until death. The minute I retired, I had to pay for all benefits. Because of cost, I did not pick up a dental plan. Again, I am not whining. However, if teaching is to be compared to industry, make a fair comparison.

It should be noted that teaching is considered more stressful than almost any other job in society.

Also, much of the media mislead the public because, I believe, they are afraid to raise the issue of public funding for separate schools.

It is just plain wrong to fund Roman Catholic schools but deny that funding to all others. The United Nations has twice condemned the Province of Ontario for this discriminatory practice.

As well, the duplication of services squanders billions of dollars annually. William J. Phillips of the Federation of Urban Neighbourhoods of Ontario ( presented a study estimating the duplication of services costs Ontario taxpayers between 1.27 and 1.59 billion extra dollars annually.

In addition, separate school students cost more. Using Ministry of Education figures for 2009-10, Catholic students use 38 per cent of education funding, but comprise only 32 per cent of the total of students in Ontario. Each separate school student costs $12,4440.42 while each public school student costs $9,468.46, a difference of $2,971.96. For the 659,392 separate school students in Ontario, that is an annual $2 billion ($1,959,686,648) more than would be spent if they were public school students.

Combining those two facets, and because some of the extra per pupil cost for separate schools is included in the figures in Phillips’ study, we could save approximately $2.5 billion to $3 billion annually by having one publicly funded, secular school system while maintaining the same quality of education. That saving would negate the need to attack teacher contracts.

Anyone who feels the need to have their child attend a religious school can do it on their own dime, as is done with Christian, Jewish, and Muslim schools, among others.

Is it possible that Catholic teachers are willing to give up so much in order to retain their privileged position?

Tom Roden lives in Grimsby.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Why Retired Teachers Should Not Be Supply-Teaching

The following letter from today's Toronto Star should be read by all retired teachers:

In a recent discussion with a teacher who is considering retirement, he said that he would make more money retiring than staying on. He figures with his pension and supply teaching at $250 a day, he’ll be better off retiring.

In my board, when a teacher retires, they are invited to put their name on the supply list. And yet the supply list has not yet been opened to new young teachers. I don’t bother to go to the retirement functions at the end of the year anymore because they are all back supply teaching the next year. Teachers who retired 10 years ago are still doing supply teaching.

My child has just gone through five years of university education to become a teacher. What will happen to him once he is done? He’ll probably end up working in a bar somewhere or in a local grocery store or, worse, have to take his enthusiasm for teaching overseas, because he can’t get on the supply list to teach here in his own country.

Meanwhile, people like my colleague will be not only collecting a pension and a hefty salary, but taking a job away from someone trying to start their career. And still universities are welcoming thousands of students into their teaching programs every year with the promise of a great career when they are done. Aspiring teachers should be discouraged from this profession as there is no chance of a job right now or in the foreseeable future.

Also these former teachers are not accountable for their performance. There is no reason for them to prove themselves. As someone once said, “what will they do, fire me?” The worst teachers my children have had were retired teachers coming back to fulfil long-term openings (LTOs). This is not fair to the students who have every right to expect that they will receive the best instruction they should have.

We need these bright, young people in our schools. They are keen and they are excited about teaching, but they are not being given the chance because “double-dippers” are taking their spots. These people have retired — they are not forced to retire, they do so freely because they have had enough of teaching so why are they coming back?

In no other profession would someone retire and then be allowed to return to collect both pension and a hefty wage (by the way, I don’t even make as much money as these retired teachers do on the supply list).

Why doesn’t the government stop this practice? Doesn’t it make sense to bring the young would-be teachers into our schools, and at half the cost, so that they can pay back their government loans and bring their enthusiasm into the schools?

Does it make sense that these “retired” teachers are coming back to collect both pension and their supply pay? Stop the greed of these retired teachers and help our young people get a job in the profession they love and give the students the education they deserve.

N.J. Settle, Georgetown