Tag Archives: Globe and Mail

Early learning programs play critical role

 

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A debate now rages over what constitutes a proper grade-school education in Canada. Should it be, for example, a straight, by-the-numbers approach (literally) to teaching math? Or should it be a more flexible, creative, play-based model of problem solving?

It matters, because, until just recently, Canadian children have lagged their counterparts in other developed countries on international tests of basic numeracy and literacy skills. Increasingly, the best jobs in the world are going to European kids, whose educational systems have given them a leg up in the competitive, knowledge-reliant global economy.

So, it should come as no surprise that a recent study on the efficacy of full-day kindergarten in Ontario – introduced four gears ago – is generating ample heat in the pages of the nation’s self-appointed arbiter of social values.

Last week, the Globe and Mail’s education reporter, Caroline Alphonso, bylined a story claiming that a new analysis from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto “is raising questions about the value of full-day kindergarten, showing children attending the program in Ontario are no better in reading, writing and number knowledge at the end if Grade 1 than their half-day peers.”

The piece quoted study leader Janette Pelletier, a professor at OISE, thusly: “I would say the challenge is to improve play-based programs that contribute to lasting change in things like writing and number knowledge. And we want to make sure that learning in Grades 1 and 2 builds on engaging learning in full-day kindergarten.” 

Within a day of the article’s publication, the Globe’s letters page bristled with commentary, both for and against FDK, starting with Professor Pelletier, herself. “Your report on my preliminary research,” she wrote, “did not put enough emphasis on the significant benefits of full-day kindergarten. I stressed that the findings of the study show the strong vocabulary and self-regulation benefits of full-day kindergarten. These are the cornerstones for life-long benefits of early childhood programs, including better education and mental health.”

Moreover, she scolded, “cherry-picking to create a negative impression regarding positive research results is not helpful to the public discourse about something as important as early childhood education.”  

Such are the perils, perhaps, of reporting from the front lines of the great and eternal conflict over human perfectibility. How do we measure achievement, and which achievements are more relevant than others at various stages in a kid’s academic career? What’s more, whose opinions should we heed? 

Doretta Wilson of the Society for Quality Education in Toronto thinks that would be her. In a letter she wrote wrote to the Globe, she insisted that “the best way to ensure that children are prepared to learn is to implement explicit, direct instruction of primary reading and mathematics in Grades 1 to 3.”

But is this actually verifiable? Is the best way to make kids active learners to keep them out of early childhood education programs and away from school until the last, possible minute and only then commence drilling math and language concepts into their supple minds. 

All of which, of course, misses the larger point about play-oriented (yet, also structured) early childhood education: Its true value, as Professor Pelletier and other experts in the field attest, is in its capacity to nurture and encourage certain qualities of character and habits of mind and expression that are foundation stones to later learning.

In her letter to the Globe on March 31, Kerry McCuaig, fellow in early childhood policy at the Atkinson Centre of the University of Toronto, wrote, “all the full-day children (in the OISE study) were significantly ahead of their half-day counterparts in self-regulation, which includes impulse control and the ability to focus on tasks. Research is showing that self-regulation may be far more important than IQ in determining the grades children achieve in school, attendance, time spent on homework, how aggressive they are, and even how vulnerable they are to risky behaviour as teens.” 

In fact, the body of evidence suggests that early childhood learning before and right through full-day kindergarten is not the expensive frill its detractors claim; rather, it is an essential aspect of a student’s entire academic career, and a fundamental predictor of human health and social stability. 

The only debate that now makes sense having is how best to implement these programs universally and publicly across Canada. 

 

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Big Brother wants a blood test

The truth has gone to ground

The truth has gone to ground

The only aspect of Canadian Justice Minister Peter MacKay’s flirtation with the notion of sampling and storing the DNA of suspects to serious crimes is its undue caution. Why stop there, with the merely apprehended? Why not cast that genetic dragnet across the entire country, capturing the guilty and innocent, alike?

Somehow, you suspect, that’s an itch he’s just dying to scratch.

“I know there’s always privacy considerations,” he tells the Globe and Mail this week, though he says they are in the background. “It has to balanced in the bigger picture. But I think that, you know, the timing of the taking of DNA is something that could very well emerge in the future as another issue of importance.”

It’s a crying shame, he seems to be saying, that “right now we’re limited to taking it (DNA) on conviction. It could be expanded to take on arrest, like a fingerprint. . .I maintain that, you know, a genetic fingerprint is no different and could be used in my view as an investigative tool.”

Oh really, Mr. Minister?

Here’s what my fingerprints, on file with the RCMP, can tell the cops: My name and address. With this information, they can find me without too much trouble in the time it takes me to plunder my bank account en route to the car dealership.

On the other hand, according to a source in the Guardian not long ago, here’s what my DNA can tell them: The colour of my hair and eyes, my gender, whether or not I am an insomniac, how long I’m likely to live, whether or not I have a propensity towards obesity, the degree to which I am at risk of developing certain types of cancer, Huntington’s Chorea and Parkinson’s disease.

If I am an unwilling guest at one of Canada’s finer penal institutions, then I should properly expect to lose any right to privacy I might have imagined for myself. But if I have not been convicted of any crime – only arrested on suspicion of having committed an offence – what gives the state the prerogative to profile me in such exquisite detail and keep a record of this information until the sun goes nova?

As William Trudell of the Canadian Council of Criminal Defence told the Globe, “It’s really sort of cataloguing the innocent. Until someone is found guilty, the presumption of innocence really has to mean something.”

In fact, Mr. MacKay is coming somewhat late to Big Brother’s most recent soiree. This summer, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the right of law enforcement officials in 28 states to collect DNA from suspects who have not yet been charged of serious crimes. An item in thinkprogress.org states that “the 5-4 ruling overrules a state court determination that Maryland’s DNA collection law permits unconstitutionally invasive searches. . .Justice Antonin Scalia warns in a dissent joined by three of the court’s more liberal justices that the court’s reasoning would apply equally to someone accused of any crime or violation at all: ‘Make no mistake about it. As an entirely predictable consequence of today’s decision, your DNA can be taken and entered into a national DNA database if you are ever arrested, rightly or wrongly, and for whatever reason.’”

The implications have alarmed more than one American jurist. In a commentary, published by the Chicago Tribune last month, former Las Vegas district court judge Jackie Glass observed, “The Fourth Amendment protects us from unreasonable searches and seizures and requires warrants to be issued based on probable cause. This Maryland v. King decision will allow for warrantless searches to occur based on failed logic. Justice Kennedy and his majority owed American citizens a better justification. Using DNA for standard identification is unnecessary and makes no sense.”

Still, on one level, it makes perfect sense.

In the absence of true leadership, in the presence of failed social policy, politicians are always on the prowl for the enemy within. Now, with a handy DNA test, indiscriminately administered, they can prove that the enemy is us – guilty by association with the code written into our genes.

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Climate science’s vaporous certainties

Ooops! Are my windmills suddenly blowing hot air?

Ooops! Are my windmills suddenly blowing hot air?

 

Mother Nature abhors a pigeon hole. Just when we think we’ve labelled and tagged her and put her to bed for the night, she flies the coop, leaving us with the uneasy feeling that when it comes to the vagaries of creation we don’t actually know as much as we thought we did.

That proposition must be dawning in the minds of several scientists these days as they prepare to receive the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) fifth report on global warming. Conventional wisdom would expect the document to confirm the inexorable, upward rise of global temperature as a result, in large part, to manmade sources of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Conventional wisdom would be wrong.

Instead, according to information leaked to the world’s media, the report will likely observe that the planet’s average surface temperature has held pretty much steadily since the turn of the century and that increases in the near-to-medium-term will probably not be as dramatic as was once predicted back in 2007, when Al Gore and co. snagged a Nobel Peace Prize for playing the environment’s Cassandra.

It is, to say the least, an inconvenient truth. Or, as IPCC member Shang-Ping Xie, a California-based oceanographer, told the Los Angeles Times last week, “It’s contentious. The stakes have been raised by various people, especially the skeptics.”

So, what went wrong? The broad consensus is: Nobody knows.

Some criticize the IPCC for its bloody-minded swagger over the past several years. Judith Curry, a Georgia Institute of Technology climatologist – who was herself a panel assessor – told the LA Times, “All other things being equal, adding more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere will have a warming effect on the planet. However, all things are never equal, and what we are seeing is natural climate variability dominating over human impact.”

Others insist that anthropogenic warming is still extant. It’s just on vacation. Meanwhile, researchers, including Xie, are floating a theory that the Pacific Ocean – the world’s largest body of water – has been sucking the heat out of the atmosphere and storing it presumably until such time as it belches it back out.

Evidence for this phenomenon apparently shows up in average sea levels, which are continuing to rise. Quoting one climate scientist, the LA Times writes that this proves  “that greenhouse gases are continuing to heat the planet. . .(because). . .as ocean water warms, it expands and drives sea levels higher.”

Still, if we can’t reliably predict how the climate will behave, we have no such difficulty anticipating the opprobrium among the world’s chattering skeptics. A virtual tidal wave of “I-told-you-so” now threatens to drown what remains of the science.

“Too many people have too much invested in perpetuating this fiction,” Cal Thomas of the Tribune Content Agency writes, without actually commenting on the latest IPCC report. “Billions of dollars and other currencies have been diverted into ‘green’ projects in a Chicken Little attempt to stop the sky from falling. The BBC reports it as fact in virtually every story it does on the environment. Ditto the American media. Most media ignore evidence that counters climate change proponents.

“Former Vice President Al Gore has made a personal fortune promoting the cult of global warming, a cult being partially defined as a belief system that ignores proof contrary to its beliefs. Perhaps the climate change counter-revolutionaries should adopt the yo-yo as their symbol and send Gore and his apostles a box of them.”

The Globe and Mail’s Margaret Wente comments more circumspectly: “When it comes to the intricacies of climate change, the science is notoriously unsettled. the only consensus that exists is the well-established fact that human activity is contributing to global warming. Beyond that, it’s all hypothesis and speculation.”

What’s more, there’s now less certainty in research circles about the deleterious effects of climate change. Some experts (though, not many) are beginning to suggest that slightly milder temperatures might actually benefit societies, especially those north of the equator.

Again, though, who’s to say?

About the only certain comfort the world’s climatologists can take from all of this is that the renewed uncertainty about the weather is not born of inexpert opinion.

They, the scientists themselves, observe nature’s fickle response to the incontrovertible facts they thought they knew.

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Driven by their distractions

The political process as we know it in Canada

The political process as we know it in Canada

Political commentators are, as a rule, enormously fond of the sound of their own voices, especially when handed the opportunity to contextualize a galloping controversy. I should know. I can’t count the number of times I’ve used the word “distraction” to describe some office holder’s goof-up.

But, I’m beginning to think we who observe-cum-scribble for a living are coming perilously close to spraining our backs for all the bending over we do in our attempt to perceive the bigger pictures in public life.

Yesterday, my esteemed colleague Jeffrey Simpson, the Globe and Mail’s national affairs columnist, deployed the word, “distraction” twice in one paragraph. “For a government already adrift at midterm, the Nigel Wright-Mike Duffy affair, coupled with the resignation from caucus of another Conservative senator, Pamela Wallin, represents an unwelcome distraction,” he wrote. “It’s doubtful that Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s speech to his caucus on Tuesday – in which he declared himself ‘very upset‘ – will quickly end the distraction.”

In this, he may only have parroted Mr. Duffy, himself, who had characterized his contretemps as a “significant distraction” to his Tory caucus colleagues, before resigning to sit as an Independent.

Still, I’m left wondering: From what, exactly, is all this stuff a distraction? A good government? A sound economy? A functioning Senate? A ribbon-cutting ceremony somewhere near Nowhereville, New Brunswick?

Why can’t we see Senategate for what it is? To wit: A damn good news story that cuts to the heart of democracy in Canada, demanding all the remorseless attention to detail for which the Cosa Nostra of our craft is famous.

I might pose the same question to members of Hog Town’s Ford Nation whenever they cluck disapprovingly at the Toronto Star’s coverage of their man, Mayor Rob, whose talent for landing himself in hot water is downright promethean.

How the burgermeister of Canada’s biggest city manages to survive his days and nights at the cutting edge of contention is one of the great mysteries of the modern age. But survive he does, despite headlines that would reduce most in his position to a quivering pool of gelatin.

“Five days after two media outlets published reports on a video that appears to show him smoking crack cocaine, Mayor Rob Ford again offered no explanation on Tuesday,” thestar.com reported this week. “He did not say whether he has smoked crack while in office. He did not say whether he used an anti-gay slur. Despite an expression of concern from the premier and renewed pleas from council allies, he did not say anything at all.”

Meanwhile, American late-night TV was having a ball at hizzoner’s expense. “Both Jimmy Kimmel and The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart discussed the controversy at the tops of their shows,” thestar.com observed. “Jay Leno also mentioned Ford on Monday’s Tonight Show, joking that if the allegations are true, he’d still be qualified to be the mayor of Washington, D.C.”

In her commentary, Star columnist Heather Mallick noted, “There have been 42 low points in Ford’s mayoralty. . .from sexist and racist slurs, to drunken arguments in public, to a chaotic home life, to repeated court hearings on alleged financial wrongdoing, to, oh dozens more, a relentless sordid drip. I’m worried that unless he resigns, he’s going to punch a baby in the face or run himself over. I’m waiting for spontaneous Ford combustion, right there on the sidewalk.”

None of this, it’s safe to say, is a “distraction” from the business of running a major metropolitan area. In fact, in a palpable sense, it is the business of running a major metropolitan area. At least, it is lately.

The comportment of one’s mayor – or Senator – speaks volumes about the condition of one’s public institutions. It also points a fat finger at the electorate who, either directly or indirectly, play a role in selecting those for high public office.

By suggesting otherwise, well. . .the only thing from which we distract ourselves is the truth of our frequently flawed systems of government.

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