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Hindsight is 20/20…

Which type are you?  If you are at a movie and it is not what you had hoped or expected do you walk out or stay to the bitter end and ride it out? Which type?  For me, this may be the central metaphor that faces us as educators and leaders in the 21st century. Why? Because, my friends, there is a cacophony of ideas out there, strewn across the educational landscape. Some are good, some are neutral and some present us with the very challenge mentioned in the lead…do we stay to the bitter end or calmly and quietly slip out of the theatre.

As the school leaders, the principal and I have a process that we use to ponder the introduction of new ideas to our school. We seek input from students, staff and families on how things can be improved or changed and we consider these suggestions as a school community, using our School and District Improvement Plans as a filter. The school plan is a great filter as it prompts us to focus upon the important things that benefit students and honour the time and skills of our staff. Even then, there are times when ideas are adopted that, upon reflection, don’t seem to be working out and we have to make the hard decision to abandon the idea~sometimes you just gotta’ leave the theatre. One of the great things about being a school leader is that there are times when you get to be both the little boy and  the Emperor at the same time!

Other times the ideas are given to us to implement from those beyond the walls of our building and we have to make them work. In Ontario, one such idea is the class size cap for the Primary grades. Back in 2003, the Liberal Party of Ontario introduced a comprehensive and ambitious education platform that served as the catalyst for their electoral victory. Among the many proposed reforms were significant investments in teacher professional learning, a pledge to increase and protect funding for elementary and secondary education, and a commitment to cap Kindergarten to grade 3 class sizes at 20 students.

At the time, it seemed like a slam dunk, a great idea and it was universally welcomed by parents and educators. This in spite of the research that teacher instructional and assessment practice, and not class size, was a stronger indicator of student success.  The Liberals won the election and implemented their ideas, for the most part with great success, including the phasing in of the class size cap over a 3 year period. Here’s where the movie analogy comes into play.

In the 3rd full year of implementation it is clear that class size caps are not the panacea many had hoped. In fact, the class size cap often presents more challenges than benefits, for kids and for teachers. At a recent think tank, sponsored by the Ontario Liberal party  Malcolm Gladwell offered his views to the gathering;

“I know that from time to time there is a lot of interest in the power and importance of reducing class size but the data shows class size is the biggest dead end in the world,” Gladwell said.

Dead end? How can this be? Simply put, when working with children and when working within a fluid, multi-dimensional system like education, hard, fast and top-down is not the most effective change mind-set. The cap of 20 creates a hard reality for many Ontario school leaders at this time of the year as they create class organizations that have multiple combined grades in order to meet the requirements of the cap. It is not uncommon now for a school to show combined grades at every grade from JK through to grade 4, and almost every school is required to create at least one (often two) grade 3/4 classes in order to manage the ebb and flow of student enrollment and stay under the cap.  All this because of a well-intentioned idea.

In addition, we see a greater need for schools to re-organize in late September, moving students and collapsing class, once again as a consequence of the hard cap of 20 students in the primary grades. These decisions are not based upon student need, or school demographics, or as a response to a contextual factor in the community; these decisions are based upon a numerical target of 20, averaged across each district. Not personalized but certainly precise!

So, the movie is rolling and I have to say, I’m not enjoying it so much. In hindsight, perhaps a range would have been more effective.  I admire the stoic resolve of most of our teachers as they adapt; the combined grade assignments are spread around and every one knows that they will have to take their turn~ unless, of course one works in a small school where it is likely that almost every class will be combined every year. All this, of course, takes time and energy away from where we need to be focused, on instruction!

At the same think tank, Gladwell went on to point out that; “changing teacher quality has a ‘massive impact’ on student outcome.” This we know to be true.

I want the movie to end.  I don’t want my money back, I’m glad we tried the idea but I’m not thinking that it is working. So, back to my question; when you the movie is not working, do you stay to the end and ride it out, or do you leave and try to find a better movie?

  1. June 14, 2010 at 9:37 pm

    I too used to be on the Capping Bandwagon. Conventional Wisdom, wrong again. You should check out @Aaron_eyler’s always interesting thoughts on this topic http://synthesizingeducation.com/blog/2010/04/27/could-small-class-sizes-hinder-learning/ as well as add Seth Godin’s easy read “The Dip”, a treatise on knowing when to (and not to) quit, to your summer reading list:-)

    • June 14, 2010 at 9:40 pm

      Thanks, yet again my friend. I’ll dig into the the suggested list and carry on the conversation.

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