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Steps to Effective and Sustainable Public Education in Nova ScotiaReport to Nova Scotia Department of Education Ben Levin, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of TorontoApril 2011

Steps to Effective and Sustainable Public Education in Nova Scotia

Website References Website References contained within this document are provided solely as a convenience and do not constitute an endorsement by the Department of Education of the content, policies, or products of the referenced website. The department does not control the referenced websites and subsequent links, and is not responsible for the accuracy, legality, or content of those websites. Referenced website content may change without notice.

Steps to effective and sustainable public education in Nova Scotia: Report to Nova Scotia Department of Education Crown copyright, Province of Nova Scotia, 2011 Prepared by the Department of Education The contents of this publication may be reproduced in whole or in part provided the intended use is for non-commercial purposes and full acknowledgment is given to Ben Levin and the Nova Scotia Department of Education.

Cataloguing-in-Publication Data Levin, Ben Steps to effective and sustainable public education in Nova Scotia: Report to Nova Scotia Department of Education / written by Ben Levin, OISE, University of Toronto. Includes bibliographical references. ISBN 978-1-55457-420-9 1. Educational changeNova Scotia. 2. School improvement programsNova Scotia. 3. Effective teachingNova Scotia. I. Nova Scotia. Department of Education II. Title. 379.158ddc22 2011


Executive SummaryThe challenge for education in Nova Scotia today is to educate many more students to much higher levels of accomplishment, in a broad variety of areas, than ever before. We have increasing evidence from many sources that this is indeed possible. The ideas in this report are intended to provide options and opportunities for the system to develop in positive ways, have a good base of evidence, and could be implemented across the whole system within a few years. Good outcomes do not come from money alone but from the thoughtful application of resources to proven methods of good education. Whatever the level of resourcing, it is usually possible to increase effectiveness by improving the way that resources are used. The report defines five key areas of focus for the province. 1. Reducing Failure Throughout the System. A reasonable estimate would be that even excluding special education, about 10 percent of total system spending is devoted to remedying the effects of initial failure, when it would be cheaper and better to prevent failure in the first place. The idea of failure as necessary to maintain standards is deeply engrained in our thinking about education. However a very large amount of research shows clearly that failure tends to depress, not increase, future effort, whether in education or in other areas of life. 2. Improving Daily Teaching, Learning and Assessment Practices. Working to improve daily teaching practices in line with evidence has great potential to yield better outcomes. There are more and more areas where we have good reliable evidence on effective practices. The task is to help people use those practices consistently. 3. Allowing More Things to Count as Learning for Purposes of Earning School Credentials. Finding ways to encourage and recognize more forms of learning is both efficient and effective, and can be very motivating for students. Embracing some version of any time learning has the potential to be efficient, effective, and highly motivating. 4. Building Public Support and Engagement. One of the lessons of education reform in recent years is that school improvement can only happen when all partners in educationstudents, parents, staff, educators and governmentswork together in a spirit of mutual respect and sincere effort. An honest and open process of communication, grounded on good access to information, will support improvement while it also creates more public support for the system. 5. Making Better Use of Existing Facilities and Resources. All organizations should be involved in continuing efforts to increase productivity by replacing less effective practices with more effective ones. The vast bulk of money for education is spent on salaries so improvement depends on making better use of people or in being able to generate the same or better results with fewer people, or some combination thereof.



Specific ProposalsNova Scotia as a system should examine how much retention in grade exists in the elementary schools and how much this could be reduced. A specific, and very low, target should be set for the proportion of students being retained and systems should be developed to ensure that students get additional support quickly to allow them to catch up. One important way to reduce the pressure for retention in elementary schools is to build stronger connections between local elementary schools and preschools or day cares. A second approach to connecting schools and preschool is the use of an instrument to assess the capacities of four- and five-year-olds. The point is not just to collect data, but to act on the data in ways that decrease failure and increase equity of outcomes. The most important area for reducing failure is in high schools, as this is where most repeated courses or additional years of schooling take place. This is highly wasteful in all ways. Real increases in high school graduation rates require a comprehensive strategy that focuses on four pillars: knowing all the students and intervening early when problems arise; programs that give every student the opportunity of a good outcome; strong connections with parents and communities; and improving daily teaching and learning practices. Every high school should have an organized system for knowing the progress of all students and for intervening early, before students fail, to increase the proportion of students who successfully meet all their course requirements each year. An education system that was able to reduce the number of children requiring special education services would improve efficiency significantly. The highest performing countries tend to have very low rates of special education placement. This report makes three recommendations in this area. First, every effort should be made to reduce paperwork requirements related to the special education system and to ensure that such requirements do have clear benefits for students. Second, the province should assess the academic progress of students identified with learning disabilities or behavioural issues to see if they are making reasonable progress. Third, given the weak evidence on benefits, Nova Scotia should consider reducing the number of teaching assistants in special education in favour of more training for classroom teachers to support a wider range of students and intensive interventions that allow struggling students return to regular programs and expectations in a short period of time.

Increasing Effective TeachingOver the next few years, Nova Scotia should, through a collaborative process, set out good teaching and learning practices in those areas where there is sufficient research evidence, and should seek to make those practices close to universal in schools, just as is the case in other professions. The active engagement of the teaching profession is central to this effort. Good practice is not something that professionals are ordered to do; it is something that they own and embrace as part of their professional identity. Also essential is helping principals and other leaders learn how to be better leaders of instructional development. iv


One of the very highest yield strategies is to use assessment for learning practices. Assessment for learning, or formative assessment, should become a normal expectation for all Nova Scotia classrooms. In all work on instructional improvement, the voices of students are important. The Nova Scotia system should ensure that students play a significant role in the formulation of education policy and in the assessment of the state and needs of the system but even more to provide feedback on their learning experiences and needs. Information technology is changing the way people learn and work. However technology use in schools should begin from good teaching and learning practice, not from a desire to use technology. We should not be afraid in any way of efforts to use IT in new ways, but information technology alone is not a starting point for improvement.

Opening Up Modes of Recognized LearningThe province should encourage more independent learning by students. Independent learning is an essential skill today for every adult yet one that is not much supported in schools. Students should be encouraged to enroll in courses or programs that do not require physical attendance at a school, or require it only some of the time. This would include online learning, arrangements negotiated with teachers to include independent learning into regular courses, and appropriate recognition for real knowledge and skills developed outside the school, such as learning a language or an art. Standards and processes need to be set to make sure that independent learning is meaningful, but also that the process is not excessively bureaucratic or difficult. It is entirely reasonable to think that every high school graduate should have at least one significant independent learning accomplishment. Principals should have discretion to substitute two or three compulsory courses with roughly equivalent external learning. The province should develop an ac