Monday, September 28, 2015

The new curriculum

BC is part way through a "transformation of the education system" which has, at its heart, curriculum revisions throughout K-12.  Having sat through a number of "new curriculum" sessions in the last year, and even delivered a few, I find it interesting how teachers and other educators talk about it.

"The new curriculum is about _______ (fill in the blank)." It seems to have become all things to all people, even if ________ has little basis in the actual new curriculum. It is a tabula rasa on which educators are placing all of their dreams, goals, and fears about the future of education and all of the justifications for the way they conduct their practice, or wish to.  I know I have done this at times, perhaps influenced by dozens of examples from others in BC. The version I like the best is where teachers (with cause) cite the infinite Choice that the New Curriculum offers. Basically we can now do absolutely anything we want whenever we want, as long as we reference inquiry and/or personalized learning. The curriculum will "allow" more depth, more authenticity, more PBL, more inclusion of Aboriginal learners, more time to follow passions. The teachers that say these things are awesome teachers who do this stuff anyways, so maybe the "NC" just affirms that they will continue to be supported. The open-endedness is reinforced by a curriculum process (e.g. the Ministry process) that has been sufficiently vague along the way about how it will all work, and is still vague regarding where it will end up (the grad plan).

I suppose this speaks to latent hope, and a legitimate need for new approaches to teaching and learning, but is also a bit disturbing as it gives the "new curriculum" a mysterious lustre and the function of an oft-quoted (or alluded) but poorly understood religious text within the milieu of education change. This metaphysical approach shifts curriculum from a guide or a track that has been laid down to a series of interconnected, fluid, and subjective feelings. This work is done by the priests of the new curriculum who are involved in conversion experiences -- from the "old" way of teaching and learning (whatever the heck that is) to the Transformed Way. The conversion is considered to be successful when the inducted teacher can use "21st Century" jargon convincingly and with effect.

I mock it a bit, but I am also intrigued to see where it all ends up. After all, "fervour" is hard to manufacture, and is often a necessary step on the path towards "transformation" in all its forms.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Whither SPSS

Once again the school year dawns and we hear about the elusive School Plan for Student Success (SPSS) -- the annual document that the school submits to the school board office about goals and objectives. My understanding was that our SPSS was not supposed to be a compliance document but should invite and reflect willing, authentic involvement, a "reflection of the conversations that occur in the school" (to quote a former Director of Instruction). Having seen a draft of this year's SPSS, it appears that we are moving away from the SPSS having site-based goals/objectives or local conversations and replacing these with ones from the school district accompanied with statements about 21st Century educators and so on. The examples and data may come from the school, but the overarching goals and questions do not.

In theory the SPSS is a document submitted by the School Planning Council and principal to the Board on behalf of the school. There are a variety of formats and processes behind the SPSS, and they differ substantially from elementary to secondary. Some secondary schools use the SPSS to develop department goals, some have select-area goals, some have school-wide goals, some SPSS documents are made primarily by principals based on data available from the Ministry of Education. We've had all four kinds in our school, and there is no act or policy that governs how this goes, although the district has supplied a variety of suggested templates over the years. The School Planning Council and SPSS are School Act requirements, at least for now, and the requirements listed mention nothing about department goals and so on, although they do contain rules that have fallen out of practice at most schools. Perhaps because of this, the BC Liberal government's Bill 11 actually does away with much of the reporting requirements and mechanisms, including School Planning Councils which have not met for many years.

In the past, department and school involvement came with time in the form of department leadership blocks, "Special Responsibility" blocks, or the use of the administrator's non-instructional day. The time required to build a plan was acknowledged and funded. In the past 11 years, with one or (arguably) two exceptions, we have not had board feedback for staff on the school's SPSS -- these plans have been largely shelved and forgotten. An analysis of past SPSS documents from secondary schools has shown a plethora of problems, including invalid use of data, confusing correlation with causality, statements or data that do not reconcile with parent goals and objectives. I also note that we have not, as a staff, rigorously discussed or reviewed a SPSS in many years.

In short, the SPSS process is broken. There should not be any obligation downloaded on teachers to fix it. We should also be careful not to confuse the SPSS with other successful processes, plans, and discussions we've had at in school over the years, nor does this take away from individual teachers or departments that have found some use in developing plans for the SPSS as a way of focusing their collective intentions for students.

How then to proceed? What's the vision? First, a staff discussion on the value of collective planning and goal-setting is needed. Staff meetings would be one appropriate place to have this discussion, but our staff meetings have avoided having real discussions or decisions and focus instead on information items. Second, time or supplementary pay should be offered for those that want to develop reports based on school or department goals -- keep in mind that this is voluntary work up to the point where the SPSS becomes the mandatory responsibility of the principal. The current leadership group that meets in exchange for a few lieu days does not have an adequate structure or time for facilitating, implementing, and reviewing the planning process. We only have to look at the last job action to remind ourselves that teachers should not be volunteering to fix broken systems or fill the gap left by underfunding. Remember that teachers were locked out from, and then lost 10% of their pay for voluntary duties such as meetings and planning. I for one am not eager to put my own time during lunch and before/after school into a SPSS; there are far more valuable uses of my time including marking, planning, professional development, and collaboration with a diverse learning network in and outside of the school. There are many other ways to move forward, many ways to produce a SPSS or something like it, but I have written and talked about this so many times in the past for staff that I should stop now and leave this theme for others to pick up.