OCDSB: Agenda for Change – Together We Can Make It Better

2018-03-01 school board (3)

In a recent blog post, I used a quote from Gene I. Maeroff’s well-known book titled School Boards in America (2010): “all too often school boards get so tangled in thickets of minutiae that they neglect to walk the straight course that they should follow in the pursuit of solid education. And the underpinnings of democracy are weakened when students receive anything less. […] There should be no alternative to governing well.”

It is true that Ontario school boards are constrained by provincial legislation and rules in certain aspects of their operations, such as financial allocations per student, or standard curricula. Yet, nothing should prevent the boards from ensuring long-term and effective planning, performance measurement, and sound accountability practices – many of which are lacking currently. School boards should also have effective and democratic governance structures in place. This includes trustees who set the vision and overall strategy for the boards, and oversee closely their operations.

What the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB) needs, following the 2018 elections, is a new Board of Trustees that is willing to ensure that students, parents and communities are consulted in all key decisions; that Ottawa is willing to push back if provincial policies impact negatively our schools; and that continuous performance measurement of all activities, along with regular reporting to the public, is the norm – rather than the exception. It is the new Trustees’ duty to make evidence-based decisions, and to act as a true accountability body for the Board.

Ottawa students, parents and communities need to see the impact of each OCDSB program; have to be confident that taxpayer dollars are spent as effectively and efficiently as possible and that students’ needs are the core decision-making driver; and should be directly involved – working closely with the Trustees – in keeping Board staff accountable for program results.

As a concrete proposal, OCDSB should consider proven practices that get things done in other public sector organizations. One of these approaches, pioneered in the United Kingdom, called “deliverology,” has had significant impact in a number of countries around the globe, including Canada. The starting point for this model is a set of clear measurable goals which are prioritized; it goes without saying that planning for the delivery of such goals is essential. The approach requires a small but strong “delivery unit” (to keep the system on track even when distractions arise) and a focus on monitoring / performance data. Coherent governance and regular reporting to senior management and stakeholders are also key components of this model.

Again, there should be no alternative to governing well – and to demonstrating this, on a continuous basis, to the citizens. To bring positive change to OCDSB, the Board needs Trustees who are putting the students’ interests first; who are willing to spend all the time and energy required to build a robust performance and accountability culture  at the Board; and who are not afraid to speak up when the results are not satisfactory for students, parents and communities. Ottawa’s English public school board can and should do better.

Dr. Dragos Popa

OCDSB SEAC Member

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February 2018 Updates: Ottawa’s Public School Board

[1] With support from the Learning Disabilities Association of Ottawa-Carleton and the Association for Bright Children of Ontario, I moved a motion at SEAC asking OCDSB staff to provide STEP-BY-STEP GUIDANCE FOR ACCESS TO SPECIAL PROGRAMS, and to support teachers with training in this area. The motion was supported by the Committee and approved by school trustees, and a report from staff is expected in March! Please keep an eye on that upcoming report, as it is expected to have a positive impact on all students, not just those with special needs. Details here.

[2] As you may have heard, there are also IMPORTANT CHANGES COMING TO OCDSB’S GIFTED PROGRAM, at both the elementary and secondary level. A Gifted Program Advisory Group is expected to release a report in March, providing recommendations on how to improve access to learning opportunities in several Ottawa schools, not just for gifted children but potentially for all elementary students. In addition, the Board plans to reduce the number of secondary (high school) gifted sites from four currently to just two in the future; and – once again – this has the potential to affect directly entire school communities in the city. Details here.

[3] Finally, as the start of the municipal elections campaign is just around the corner, just a reminder that I put together a HANDY LIST OF QUALITIES EXPECTED OF PUBLIC SCHOOL TRUSTEES over the next four years (2018-2022). Here are four key questions to ask the candidates and practical issues to explore prior to the upcoming election: (a) How to best meet the needs of students, parents and communities? (b) How to foster innovation and to support teachers’ professional growth? (c) How to fix the inner workings of school boards? (d) [Very importantly!] How to restore public trust in the school boards? Full blog post here.

As always, do not hesitate to get in contact with me should you or anyone you know have any questions, comments or suggestions. Thank you!

Dr. Dragos Popa

OCDSB SEAC Member

The Next Big Thing on the OCDSB Agenda. Let’s Get It Right!

future of ed (2)

In a recent blog post, I argued that Ottawa schools are not as “user-friendly” as they should be – in other words, they are not always serving their target populations in an effective manner. Students and parents often find it difficult to navigate bureaucratic processes, due to a mix of “red tape” and inconsistent application of rules and procedures (e.g., placement in special education programs, access to transportation, Individual Education Plans, etc.). Furthermore, communities are not always meaningfully consulted, even when fundamental decisions such as the closure or relocation of schools or programs are at stake.

To use a concrete example: as recently as last year, the OCDSB closed a large number of schools across the District. See closures at a glance and other changes here. The stated goals were to create more consistent school sizes and to provide fairer access to school programming. However, the decision left students, parents and communities frustrated and deeply upset about both the process and the outcomes. This should have been a wake-up call for the Board, prompting staff and trustees to revisit engagement strategies, communications plans, and the way consultations are designed and conducted.

Nonetheless, we see a similar situation developing now, regarding proposed changes to the OCDSB’s Gifted Program at the secondary (high school) level. In a nutshell, Board staff is proposing the transition of gifted classes to a so-called “geographic model”, the stated intent being to promote attendance at schools with proximity to a student’s community. However, what this means in practice is reducing the number of high schools that offer the Gifted Program, from four currently (Lisgar, Bell, Glebe, and Merivale) to just two sites in the future (locations TBD). One of the proposed sites would be in the Eastern side of the city, the other one in the West.

What is important to note is that the proposed change has implications that go far beyond this particular special education program. The fact is (according to the latest Board statistics) that no fewer than 363 gifted students attend Lisgar Collegiate Institute, followed by 207 at Bell High School, 68 at Glebe Collegiate Institute, and 29 at Merivale High School. Any change to the Gifted Program would have profound implications for the four school communities (particularly Lisgar and Bell), as well as gifted students currently at the elementary level who plan to stay in the program during their high-school years.

Such a fundamental change cannot be made without meaningful and extensive consultations with all the relevant stakeholders. The list includes, but is not limited to, groups such as: gifted students and their parents / guardians; specialized organizations (e.g., the Association for Bright Children of Ontario, the Learning Disabilities Association of Ottawa-Carleton, the Ottawa-Carleton Assembly of School Councils), the four school communities (Lisgar, Bell, Glebe, Merivale), any newly proposed high school(s) offering gifted classes, “feeder” elementary / secondary schools, educational experts, and any other interested parties.

The Board should not only take all the time required to do this right (and push the decision to school year 2018-19 if necessary). But it should also demonstrate policy flexibility, transparency, and openness to all reasonable proposals. The Board’s Special Education Advisory Committee (SEAC) should play a very active role in this process, and school trustees from all implicated OCDSB zones should be allowed to not only inform the  conversation but also vote on the final package. The Board has a real opportunity here to improve an already well-regarded program, and strengthen OCDSB’s reputation as an educational innovator in Ontario.

It would also be sensible to leave such a key important decision to the next batch of school trustees, following the upcoming municipal elections in Fall 2018 – as they will have to oversee the implementation of any proposed changes. This would ensure that the large and growing “democratic deficit” that we are experiencing in Ontario school boards is at least acknowledged in Ottawa. It would also send a signal that small steps are being taken towards restoring the public’s trust in school boards, OCDSB included.

 

Dr. Dragos Popa

OCDSB SEAC Member

 

Resources:

OCDSB Gifted Geographic Model Transition

OCDSB Western Area Review

OCDSB Eastern Secondary Review

OCDSB UPDATE: Motion to Better Support Students with Special Education Needs

Hispanic Down Syndrome boy reaching for toys at daycare center

A motion on interventions supporting students in OCDSB special education programs and teacher / staff professional development carried at the Committee of the Whole (CoW) meeting on Jan. 16, 2017.

The motion had been originally introduced at the Special Education Advisory Committee (SEAC) by the Association for Bright Children of Ontario (Dragos Popa) and the Learning Disabilities Association of Ottawa-Carleton (Michael Bates). SEAC members overwhelmingly supported the initiative.

If implemented by OCDSB, the motion has the potential to have a definite positive impact not just on the lives of OCDSB students with special needs, but of all students in the District. If teachers and support staff are able to recognize the individual needs of each child, and know how to help them reach their full potential, this will be a positive change across schools and programs in OCDSB!

MOTION: “Moved by Trustee Boothby,

(A) THAT staff be directed to consider and provide guidance to the Board on the feasibility of Parts i and ii:

(i) Ensure a culture of equity for OCDSB students by making Professional Development on the topics of tiered interventions, differentiated instruction and placement in special education programs a top priority in 2018-2019 and 2019-2020; and

(ii) Dedicate additional paid Professional Development time over and above the 2017-2018 Professional Development allocation, for developing teacher knowledge and skills regarding tiered interventions, differentiated instruction, and specialized program placement.

The Professional Development should also focus on skills to identify and develop an understanding of specific types of instructional tools and metrics that might be used at each tier to expand the teacher’s toolbox; and

(B) THAT staff be directed to provide by the end of March 2018, a memo that explicitly defines the three tiers of intervention, including specific time frames of review of progress and concrete examples of the classroom interventions and accommodations associated with each tier.”

One section of the original motion was referred back to SEAC for further consideration:

“THAT staff be directed to conduct on-going monitoring, reporting, and evaluation of the effectiveness and outcomes from tiered interventions in OCDSB classrooms. In particular, interventions should be evaluated in terms of their impact on students’ academic achievement, social integration, and overall well-being.”

OCDSB offers a range of special education programs, as follows: Autism Spectrum Disorder Secondary Credit Support Program (ASP); Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD); Behaviour Intervention Program (BIP); Blind/Low Vision – Integrated Program (B/LV); Deaf/Hard of Hearing Program (D/HH); Developmental Disabilities Program (DD); Dual Support Program (DSP); General Learning Program (GLP); Gifted Program (Gifted); Language Learning Disabilities Program (LLD); Learning Disability Program (LD); Physical Support Program (PSP); and Primary Special Needs (PSN).

Four Questions Ottawa Citizens Should Ask Before Voting for Their New School Trustees

ontario votes

As we all know, 2018 is an election year in Ontario. At the municipal level, the citizens of Ottawa will be asked to vote for a Mayor, for a new batch of City Councillors, and for School Trustees in four different districts: Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB), Ottawa Catholic School Board (OCSB), Conseil des écoles publiques de l’Est de l’Ontario (CEPEO), and Conseil des écoles catholiques du Centre-Est (CECCE).

Ottawa residents will need to make electoral decisions and cast votes in 23 councillor wards, and in as many as 37 school zones, from east to west to south (12 English Public – OCDSB; 10 English Catholic – OCSB; 7 French Public – CEPEO; and 8 French Catholic – CECCE).  This may create confusion in the minds of many eligible voters, which typically leads to a situation in which only a relatively small number of citizens cast ballots for School Trustees. Yet, Trustees play a vital role in their school boards’ governance and decision making, and serve as accountable elected officials and community leaders.

Here are four key questions to ask and practical issues to explore prior to the upcoming election [try to assess where your preferred candidate stands on these subjects!]:

  1. How to best meet the needs of students, parents and communities?

Ottawa schools are not always as “user-friendly” as they should be, i.e., not serving their target populations in an effective manner. Students and parents often find it difficult to navigate bureaucratic processes, due to a mix of “red tape” and inconsistent application of rules and procedures (e.g., placement in special education programs, access to transportation, Individual Education Plans, etc.). Communities are not always meaningfully consulted, even when fundamental decisions such as the closure or relocation of schools are at stake. Equity is a handy buzzword, but more often than not decisions are made by pitting one group against another. Within this context, how do the Trustee candidates plan to fix the problem, so everyone’s fundamental needs are met?

  1. How to foster innovation and to support teachers’ professional growth?

I am sure everyone would agree that teachers have a tremendously important role in children’s life and their overall education. Knowledgeable, well-prepared and happy teachers are more likely to have a positive impact on students and to contribute to a productive educational environment. The teachers – as well as all support staff – should be given a “licence to innovate,” appropriate funding for professional development, and the respect they deserve. In too many cases, teachers are asked to implement policies that are unclear, unreasonable or inflexible. What are the strategies and tactics proposed by Trustee candidates to make teachers’ job easier and more purposeful, which ultimately will be beneficial to learners?

  1. How to fix the inner workings of school boards?

To use a quote from Gene I. Maeroff’s well-known book titled School Boards in America (2010), “all too often school boards get so tangled in thickets of minutiae that they neglect to walk the straight course that they should follow in the pursuit of solid education. And the underpinnings of democracy are weakened when students receive anything less. […] There should be no alternative to governing well.” It is true that Ontario school boards are constrained by provincial legislation and rules in certain aspects of their operations, such as financial allocations per student, or standard curricula. Yet, nothing should prevent the boards from ensuring long-term and effective planning, performance measurement, and sound accountability practices – many of which are lacking currently. What do the Trustee candidates propose to increase the relevance, effectiveness, efficiency, and transparency of Ottawa’s school boards?

  1. (Very importantly!) How to restore public trust in the school boards?

It’s no secret that we’re experiencing a large and growing “democratic deficit” in Ontario school boards, and Ottawa is no exception. While it is taxpayers who are supporting financially all public schools, there is a keen sense that decision-making processes suffer from a lack of democracy, and are inaccessible to the regular citizen. Too many critically important decisions for students and communities (e.g., school closures, changes to special education programs, textbook adoption, new curriculum standards, etc.) are either made behind closed doors, or through a process where public input is deliberately restricted. Something has got to change – and the new Trustees have a fundamental duty to rebuild the essential democratic linkages between citizens and board employees, who are in essence public servants. How to do that, is a fundamental question to all those that aspire to elected office.

In the coming months, you will listen to various arguments and positions expressed by Trustee candidates, in all of Ottawa’s school boards. Some of the views and proposals will be well articulated, while others will be mere reactions to their opponents’ statements or to the news cycle. Irrespective of the driving force behind their positions, please ask yourself if the people that seek to represent you answer any of the above questions in a meaningful and satisfactory manner. The future of our children and of our communities depends to a large degree on electing the right people as School Trustees for the next four years.

OCDSB UPDATE: Motion Regarding Support for Students and Teachers’ Professional Development

Digital tablet and apple on the desk

A motion regarding tiered interventions in supporting students, and teachers’ professional development in the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB) passed at the Special Education Advisory Committee (SEAC) meeting on Dec. 13, 2017. The motion was introduced by the Association for Bright Children of Ontario (Dragos Popa) and the Learning Disabilities Association of Ottawa-Carleton (Michael Bates). SEAC members voted and overwhelmingly supported the initiative. The motion (below) is expected to be sent to OCDSB Trustees for discussion in January 2018.

If supported by Trustees and Board staff, it has the potential to make a definite, positive difference not just in the lives of OCDSB students with special needs, but for all students in the Board. If teachers and support staff are able to recognize the individual needs of each child, and know how to help them reach their full potential, this will be a positive change across schools and programs in the District!


MOTION: Whereas the OCDSB uses a tiered approach in supporting students with special education needs. This approach includes assessment followed by more intense instructional support for students requiring special education programs and services. These programs and services include: Regular class with specialized support; Regular class with Learning Support Teacher (LST) or Learning Resource Teacher (LRT) monitoring; Regular class with LST or LRT support; Specialized program; and Self-contained special education classes.

Whereas OCDSB teaching and support staff are expected to meet the varied needs of students across the full spectrum of special education programs using the tiered approach. To implement this approach effectively, staff are expected to demonstrate a high degree of knowledge and skills, requiring ongoing professional development (PD) in this area.

Therefore, be it resolved:

THAT SEAC ask the Board of Trustees to direct staff to cost and include in the budget the funding to deliver on the following:

A. Ensure a culture of equity for OCDSB students by making professional development on the topic of tiered interventions, differentiated instruction and placement in special education programs a top priority in 2018-2019 and 2019-2020;

B. Explicitly define the three tiers of intervention including specific timeframes of review of progress and the classroom accommodations associated with each tier;

C. Dedicate additional paid PD time over and above existing PD time for developing teacher knowledge and skills regarding tiered interventions, differentiated instruction, and specialized program placement. The PD should also identify and develop understanding of specific types of instructional tools and metrics that might be used at each tier to expand the teacher’s toolbox;

D. Support an in-depth understanding in all classroom teachers of how to assist students who require additional supports; and

E. Conduct ongoing monitoring and evaluation of the effectiveness and outcomes from tiered interventions in OCDSB classrooms. In particular, interventions should be evaluated in terms of their impact on students’ academic achievement, social integration, and overall well-being.

Here’s a Basic Idea, Ontario: No. Child. Left. Behind.

boy (4)

Consider this simple (and all too common) scenario: Noah is a smart kid, interested in a range of subjects, and happy to share his passions and newly discovered knowledge with his friends. His main problem is that, every weekday, he goes to his neighbourhood public school and he is bored, feels unengaged, and – occasionally – has trouble understanding the concepts presented by his teacher, the way his teacher does it.

His parents reach out to the teacher and have a subsequent meeting with the school staff. They are told that Noah should try harder, perhaps pay more attention in class, improve his behaviour (as he is “disruptive” from time to time). Parents are also told that they may want to consider private tutoring if Noah’s academic performance doesn’t improve. When asking if the school could do more to help their son, they are told that the teacher has 24 other students, each of them with their own special needs – so, there’s not much the school can do, in fact.

Noah’s parents decide to pay for a private phycho-educational assessment, a rather expensive undertaking (they don’t have much choice, as the board has a years-long waiting list for psychological tests conducted through the school). They discover that Noah is a gifted child (no wonder he gets bored in the regular classroom!) who also has a learning disability (this condition prevents him for focussing on a particular subject for extended periods of time; he also finds it difficult to write down what the teacher says as quickly as other students).

Armed with this newly found information, Noah’s parents contact the school and ask for accommodations for their son (things such as potential enrolment in a special education program, assistive technology, additional support, etc.) They are shocked to discover that the school is trying to delay their son’s access to a specialized program (the formal identification and placement is an uphill battle!) and the resources he receives continue to be inadequate. After years of unsuccessful attempts to find a reasonable solution, they are seriously considering enrolling their son in private school or at least change public school boards.

Now, multiply this situation hundreds, if not thousands, of times across the school district. Substitute the child’s gender (applies equally to boys and girls), the student’s special needs (could be Autism Spectrum Disorder, Down Syndrome, deaf / hard of hearing, or simply special needs that don’t fall in any one particular box). In a more generic sense, approach it as the type of situation where the child’s learning needs are not fully met in school, while the system is shrugging off the concerns as immaterial.

To make things worse, the board is threatening to eliminate the very programs that would constitute the solution to Noah’s problem. To use a couple of concrete examples: in 2016, OCDSB proposed to phase out its gifted program for many of its students. Just a huge public outcry convinced OCDSB to put this decision on hold, initiate broader consultations on the subject, and launch a pilot project to improve approaches to learning in the regular classroom. Then, in late 2017, TDSB proposed to kill programs such as arts-based specialty schools, with little or no consultation. Once again, parents of students potentially affected, and other stakeholders, mobilized quickly and managed to convince TDSB that this would be a terrible decision.

One element that makes the latter examples particularly difficult to take is the fact that the proposed elimination of programs (critically important to the well-being of students with special needs!) is framed as increasing equity in those respective school districts. The argument is flawed on many levels, but the core counter-argument is: you cannot address inequity for some groups by directly causing harm to other groups.

It is our duty, collectively, to make sure that the schools provide the best possible service to all students, in an equitable manner. We know that districts such as OCDSB and TDSB need to do better for students from communities with lower socio-economic status, kids of all racial backgrounds, Indigenous children, newcomers to Canada, etc. This must be done quickly and effectively – no doubt about it! But in the process let’s also make sure that we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater: existing specialized programs such as gifted, learning disabilities, arts-based schools, etc. should be supported *and* should be made more inclusive.

Let’s not force Noah to leave his OCDSB school (or TDSB, or any other public school board). Let’s instead create those conditions where we establish and improve specialized programs and educational approaches; make them appealing to students within and outside the district; and increase equity of access. This way we can truly live and breathe the principle No Child Left Behind.

Thoughts, comments? Please join the discussion on:

Facebook https://www.facebook.com/OttSchools/

Twitter https://twitter.com/OttSchools

Instagram https://www.instagram.com/OttSchools/

Help OCDSB Teachers Get the Training They Need

23231682_1928719717379938_7777431383690045469_nIt is anticipated that, in Winter 2017-2018, the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board’s (OCDSB) Special Education Advisory Committee (SEAC) will debate a motion asking for better funding for professional development (PD) relating to special education programs and services.

There are many great reasons why OCDSB teachers (and by extension students and the community at large) would benefit from more extensive and targeted professional development relating to special education. Several key arguments are presented below.

(1) OCDSB provides a large number of special education programs and services across a range of exceptionalities, as follows: Asperger’s Syndrome; Autism; Behaviour Intervention; Blind / Low Vision; Deaf / Hard of Hearing; Developmental Disabilities; Dual Support; General Learning; Gifted; Language Learning Disabilities; Learning Disabilities; Physical Support; and Primary Special Needs.

(2) All schools in the District use a tiered approach in determining how best to support students with special education needs. This process includes assessment and intervention which is meant to increase the intensity of instructional support for students requiring special education programs and services. These programs and services include: Regular class with specialized support; Regular class with learning support teacher (LST) or learning resource teacher (LRT) monitoring; Regular class with LST or LRT support; Specialized program; and Self-contained special education classes.

(3) Parent feedback to the reviews of special education programs (such as Learning Disabilities and Gifted) has suggested that student assessment, identification and placement in specialized programs is occasionally inconsistent.

(4) OCDSB teaching and support staff are expected to meet the varied needs of students across the full spectrum of special education programs. This includes a multi-disciplinary intervention model (i.e., tiered approach) in working with special education students. To implement this model effectively, staff are expected to demonstrate a high degree of knowledge and complex skills. OCDSB employees’ existing qualifications and skills could be supplemented by continuous learning and professional development in this area.

The motion proposed [precise wording TBD] calls on OCDSB to:

(i) Make early intervention, formal identification and specialized program placement a top priority for the professional development of OCDSB staff for the next several years;

(ii) Establish a comprehensive plan to provide evidence-based and regularly-scheduled professional development on early intervention, identification and placement, particularly the tiered approach;

(iii) Provide training on using a consistent, transparent, equitable and documented approach to recognize students that require more intensive interventions, including placement in specialized programs;

(iv) Conduct ongoing monitoring and evaluation of the effectiveness and the outcomes of the tiered approach for students in OCDSB classrooms. In particular, interventions should be evaluated in terms of their impact on students’ academic achievement, social integration, and overall well-being.

How can you help?

Follow closely the debates at OCDSB’s SEAC and the Committee of the Whole (CoW). Talk with, or write to, the school trustee for your OCDSB zone, expressing your needs and concerns. Become part of the conversation – either online or offline. Remind elected officials (trustees) that proper training for teachers is not a luxury, but one of the necessities to ensure equity of access, and quality of education for all students.

Resources

OCDSB Calendar, where you can find the schedule and agenda for committees, including SEAC and CoW: https://www.ocdsb.ca/calendar

OCDSB Trustees: https://www.ocdsb.ca/board/meet_your_trustees

Engage in online conversations: Twitter https://twitter.com/OttSchools ; Facebook https://www.facebook.com/OttSchools/ ; Instagram https://www.instagram.com/OttSchools/

Top 20 Reasons to Study in Canada

(1) Hundreds of thousands of young people choose Canada as their preferred international study destination each year

(2) Countless academic specializations at world-renowned universities

(3) Internationally recognized degrees and qualifications

(4) World-class quality of education and research

(5) Highly qualified faculty members and access to high-tech facilities

(6) Opportunity to study and work in English, French, and many other languages

(7) Emphasis on student-centered learning and extensive student support services

(8) Diverse, culturally exciting campuses, and dynamic student life

(9) Extensive student exchange programs with countries around the world

(10) Education significantly more affordable than in comparable countries that attract international students

(11) Possibility of financial support for undergraduate and graduate studies

(12) Ability to work on and off campus during one’s academic programs

(13) Wide range of career opportunities from coast to coast

(14) Multicultural, democratic, and peaceful country

(15) Consistently ranked as one of the best places to live in the world

(16) Land of innovation and entrepreneurship

(17) One of the most spectacular natural environments on the planet

(18) Open, welcoming, and friendly communities

(19) Safe cities for students, visitors, and local residents

(20) Possibility of becoming a permanent resident and Canadian citizen

Education as a Driver of Regional Integration: Not in North America

(Re-posted from Parallel 49 Education)

“Education should be the foundation of a North American community,” US academic Robert Pastor argues in his book “The North American Idea” (2011). This is a proposition that he presents in several of his publications: acknowledging that North America is still a loosely structured construct, the educational sector would present the potential of bringing together citizens and institutions from Canada, the United States and Mexico.

Robert Pastor is modelling his plan on the role placed on education in a different regional context – the European Union (EU). In a previous book, “Toward a North American Community” (2001), he pointed out – without providing supporting evidence – that “the consensus among analysts is that the funds [for regional assistance in the EU] were most effectively employed in projects aimed at infrastructure and higher-level education.”

North America could presumably learn from EU realities and replicate on this continent some of Europe’s policies and programs in the area of education. Pastor looks at education – along with other areas of international cooperation – and notices both a disappointing reality in terms of limited levels of student exchanges and the concrete potential for improving this situation. If the latter would happen, it might equally lead to spillover effects and closer regional integration in other sectors – from politics to energy to border issues.

In “The North American Idea,” the US academic notes that Canada ranks only fifth and Mexico seventh “in sending students to the United States – much fewer than from China, India, Taiwan, and South Korea. About one thousand Mexicans study in Canada, and Americans study much less at universities in their two neighbors than in Europe or Asia.” Proximity doesn’t equal curiosity, he concludes in a somewhat disappointed tone.

Critical voices call Robert Pastor the “father of the North American Union” (for observers unfamiliar with the discourse around regional integration, the label “North American Union” carries with it negative connotations, particularly in conservative political circles. Pastor himself prefers the term “community”). He was and largely remains one of the strongest proponents of closer ties, across a variety of sectors (including education), between Canada, the United States and Mexico.

This being the case, it is only natural for him to recommend that the three governments “promote exchanges, research, and studies on North America,” support three-way collaboration between post-secondary institutions, establish “language immersion” programs, streamline standards on credit transfers and professional credentials, and increase their efforts in promoting North American ideals.

These are all excellent ideas and Robert Pastor should be commended for his efforts in promoting a more deeply and broadly integrated higher education sector on this continent. His proposals however face tremendous challenges, mostly of a structural nature. I will just list here three of them and elaborate more in future blog posts:

(i) North America is *not* the European Union. Any student of European history and politics will tell you this. The underlying conditions that contributed to the creation of the EU do not exist in North America. The EU itself may be more of a fluke than a model for other regional entities. Trying to replicate EU approaches elsewhere is an unfeasible scheme. Moreover, European integration is largely stalled – European themselves question the value of some of the existing multi-level arrangements.

(ii) The differences between Canada, the United States and Mexico – looking at political and socio-economic indicators – are so large and so diverse that across-the-board integration between them is virtually impossible for the foreseeable future. The US remains the world’s sole superpower and Mexico suffers from very significant social, economic and law-enforcement crises – all of them strong reasons for Canada to be cautious in promoting further integration with its neighbours.  Simply put, there is no will at a federal level to spend political capital and resources to advance deeper regional cooperation. Furthermore, education is not the most exciting sector to focus on, for both politicians and the citizens.

(iii) Finally, all three countries are federal political systems and education is largely a sub-national (state/province) responsibility. Even if they wanted, in most cases the federal governments would not be able to influence significantly patterns of cooperation between private organizations and professional associations across the continent.

Robert Pastor is right when he points out that education should be the foundation of building a meaningful regional entity. Yet “should” is the key word here – it denotes a normative position more than a realistic suggestion. If North America were to follow the evolution of the European Union (an unlikely course of events), the place to start may need to be sought elsewhere.