Mike McKay is a retired superintendent of the Surrey County schools district in British Columbia, Canada.
He was a public educator for 35 years. The area he supervised has over 160 languages spoken.
You can imagine it would be difficult to measure the potential problems with language and reading development in such a large and diverse region.
But back in 2008 he attended a conference hosted by Scientific Learning Corporation, where he saw the research behind the Fast ForWord programs.
When he came back, he asked his board to trust him, and give him $300,000 to get started. It was bold pitch. Mike tells the story of how things have panned out in this Learning Capacity podcast episode:
- Learning difficulties
- Speech Language Pathologists in schools
- Reading & literacy delay
- Language & reading
- English language learners
People & organisations mentioned
- Mike McKay
- Surrey County School District, British Columbia, Canada
- Scientific Learning Corporation
- Dr Norman Doidge
Previous podcast episodes on Whooshkaa
If you would like to read the complete podcast transcript, here it is:
Episode 43 of The Learning Capacity Podcast
Retired school superintendent Mike McKay on wide scale Fast ForWord success in British Columbia, Canada
Colin Klupiec: You're listening to "Learning Capacity" with Colin Klupiec. This podcast is brought to you by LearnFast, improving student learning outcomes with neuroscience programs since 1999. For more information about individualised language and reading programs for your child, visit www.learnfasthq.com/parent.
Mike McKay is a now retired superintendent of the Surrey County Schools District in British Columbia. He was a public educator for 35 years. The area he supervised is said to have over 160 languages spoken.
You can imagine it would be extremely difficult, if not nigh on impossible, to measure the potential problems with language and reading development in such a large and diverse region. But back in 2008, he attended a conference hosted by Scientific Learning Corporation, where he was exposed to the research behind the Fast ForWord programs.
When he came back, he asked his Board to trust him and give him $300,000 to get started. It was a bold pitch. In this episode, Mike tells the story of how things have panned out.
Mike, thanks for joining us.
Mike McKay: My pleasure.
Colin: You're a retired superintendent of the Surrey County Schools District of British Columbia, and you were working for 35 years as a public educator. It's a long time to be working in that sort of environment. Over that time, 123 schools supervised, over 70,000 students involved.
The area you supervised is also said to have over 160 languages spoken. So we're talking about, first of all, a long career, many schools, tens of thousands of students, and also, many languages.
In terms of language and reading difficulties, how does one begin to measure, or even get an idea of what the potential problems might be in such a large and diverse region?
Mike: Yeah, well, thank you and it's a great question to start with. And I'll just go back a little bit into my history. So the 123 schools and 70,000 students refer specifically to Surrey School District, which is just outside Vancouver. Surrey is the largest district in the province.
But before I came to Surrey, I worked in a number of other districts as a teacher, principal, a superintendent; anything from a very small district of high school with 120 kids in it when I started teaching, to elementary school. And other high schools with 1500 kids and so on.
All of that culminated in 2005 when I came to Surrey as their new superintendent and CEO. And it was a remarkable, transitional time for me because I had come from the Greater Victoria area on Vancouver Island, which was relatively homogeneous.
Certainly, there was diversity, but nothing like what we see here. And my introduction to Surrey was the 160 languages and the remarkable number of stories, the range of communities, and the life experiences in the educational aspirations and challenges.
When we talk about the measuring issues across such a wide area in this school district, it's a big challenge. There are well-defined structures in schools for identifying kids who are struggling, for school-based teams to make recommendations, to look at assessments and so on. But all of that is very time consuming and it's labour-intensive.
So we know that with young kids, there can be a breakthrough moment as far as literacy, reading, cognition, making meaning of the content they are starting to be exposed to. But we also know that by age six or seven, we're expecting to see, for most kids, the penny drops.
And they get it, and they start to not just learn to read, but read to learn. And that progresses all the way through.
For the kids who have big struggles, yes, there are classroom interventions. There are teachers and teacher education assistants who can make some observations. And there are parents coming and saying, "I'm concerned about my child."
So it's always been a matter of prioritising. But it's also been a matter of recognizing that we have far more demands and far more needs than we have resources to give individual attention to kids, especially labour-intensive.
Colin: Out of the 160 languages, which ones are dominant? I mean they couldn't all be equally distributed over the population.
Mike: Our biggest ethnic populations in this school district are South Asian; people with a background and a connection to India or Pakistan. We are seeing larger numbers of Iraqi immigrants. We're getting significant numbers of Syrian refugees. We have a relatively large Chinese population and a Korean population, and many more. Lots of people from Sudan. The world is our village.
Colin: And I guess presumably, they're all trying to get on with daily life by trying to interact with a predominantly English environment.
Mike: What we find is for many of the kids, the uptake is really quick. Part of the challenge, sometimes, though, is that the children will be in an English environment called "school" for five hours.
For the rest of their time they are in an environment that is fully in their home language. So their grandparents and parents speak their native language, their doctor, the shops they go to and so on.
So the uptake is quick. But sometimes, depending on the circumstances, there's a bit of a lag because of the limited amount of time where there's exposure to English.
Colin: That smaller amount of time in the English spoken environment, does that then lead to delays in being able to pick up language and reading development delays?
Mike: It can. I don't want to over-generalize. For some kids, especially if it's a compound number of variables, the challenge is going to be greater. If they come into school with early language exposure deficiencies, where they've been in an environment where they haven't heard the spoken word very much, that's going to add to the issue.
If they come with un-diagnosed early inner or middle ear infections, so their capacity to hear and to differentiate between sounds is compromised, that's going to make a difference.
And there are a number of things that can stack up, one on top of the other which provide some of these kids a tremendously steep curve to engage and catch up, and assimilate into effective use of the language and making meaning.
Colin: So how well is the district actually equipped at the moment with access to speech language pathology services? Is it a case where the numbers of students presenting with problems is increasing, or are we just becoming more aware of it now? Is it just easier to diagnose? I'm just trying to find out exactly where we think the source of the problem might be.
Mike: Well, I think it's both. There is more attention to diagnosis earlier. We've got better tools for diagnosis. Functional MRIs, audiological equipment. A higher sensitivity; we now recognize the great "breakthrough" — and I say that with air quotes around it — is we realise what we should have realised a long time ago, which was that all kids can learn.
And the question is if they're not learning, what are the barriers? It's not a matter of the child not having the capacity in almost all cases. It's a matter of barriers that we should be able to identify and remediate.
So yes, there's higher...a greater focus on diagnosis, better tools. There is also an increasing number of kids who are dealing with all kinds of issues that are compromising their ability to process. I do a lot of work in self-regulation, and we may talk about that on another time, on another podcast.
But what we know is that the number of stressors that are visiting themselves upon children, even at a very young age, can really compromise their capacity to be calm and focused, and alert, and to absorb the learning environment around them.
Colin: If there are stressors coming from outside the school environment, and then perhaps some problems, I guess, within the school environment like, perhaps, the curriculum, or perhaps the environment that they're in, of the school culture, then you've got this compounding effect, which would have a dramatic effect on a student's development.
More speech & language pathologists needed
Mike: It can, and we say this with deep respect for all of the remarkable work that's being done in schools, and the miraculous stories that we hear on a regular basis. But we also know that parents, to the greatest extent, are doing the best job they can.
So it's not a matter of cavalier disregard for children and their future. But there are more issues today, and we know that the issue of marginalising kids who are struggling, and sending them off into a lower level of education, and lower outcomes, and then into a labour market where they're not equipped to cope, that isn't appropriate. Never was, but now, we know that there are human rights that the child has, and we have to attend to those.
I think the other issue is the speech and language pathologists, and I don't know what the number is. I retired a couple of years ago, and a lot of those numbers have disappeared from my brain. But there aren't enough. There are people who will tell you that they're on waiting lists for speech and language pathologists, testing and diagnosis, and remediation for months and months.
And in some cases, they turn to the private sector. In some cases, it's a developmental issue that remediates. In some cases, there are teachers without the SLP training doing a heroic job to support the kids. But there aren't enough speech and language paths.
And the speech and language paths who are working in the system, in some cases, are embracing some new technologies, and in some cases, aren't. Part of the work I've been doing recently is around the use of Fast ForWord as a resource.
And we see that there are some speech and language pathologists who embrace that as one of the tools in the toolbox, and others who say, "No, this has got to be a face-to-face, one-on-one interactive engagement between me and the client or the child."
And the numbers just won't sustain that. We know that the lineup is far longer than the number of qualified people.
Colin: A simple case of supply and demand. The demand is there, but we just can't provide the services quickly enough. Let's come then, specifically, to your experience then with Fast ForWord. In the district, it was first implemented in 1997, if I understand that to be correct.
Mike: Yes, long before I was here.
Colin: And then expanded in 2008. Now, you had something to do with that expansion. I'm told that you came back from a Scientific Learning conference back in 2008. And then you said to the schools board, "I need you to trust me and give me $300,000 to expand our neuroscience program." And they did.
Colin: Just tell me, what was it like going into that meeting with that pitch in your mind?
Mike: Well, I was pretty inspired because I had been at an executive briefing with Scientific Learning. In 2008, when I was there, the whole issue of our understanding of how the brain works was not as fully developed as it is now. And there were lots of educators and educational leaders who thought that all of that brain stuff should be dealt with by people who specialise in that world.
Well, it's now become far more accessible, and the work around self-regulation and all kinds of other things; the neurophysiology of who we are, is something that we understand so much better.
This was at the early edge of that for me. And I came back from the conference, and I was inspired. I'd heard good scientists talk with excitement. I heard other school district leaders talk about their results.
So I came into that meeting, and I'd been in the school district as superintendent for two and a half or three years, and I came into a meeting that was about a number of issues. And I said, "You know, folks, I just have to tell you. I know that there's a small little application of this resource in the district. I didn't even know about it; it was happening in a very limited way.
I said, "I've heard something that I suspect will change lives of kids as far as their trajectory for the future. So here's what is going to be required to get sufficient licenses, put in the equipment, do the training, and identify a district coordinator to oversee it. And you just trust me, this will work."
And they did, I was grateful for that, and I was never sorry that I'd asked. Because I heard directly, I got letters from parents, I heard from my wife who was a teacher in the school district, and school board trustees heard directly from families where there were life-changing results because of kids' new abilities. As the synapses connected and they began to change their hopefulness around learning, everything changed.
I was talking to someone the other day in another school district who said, "Yes, they've got lots of research and they've got lots of local cases around growth and literacy skills, and reading levels."
But she said, "I know when I see a kid who, six months ago or three months ago, was walking down the hall, head down, not making eye contact. And I go into that school now and I see a kid with confidence, bouncing down the hall with a book under his arm." That's pretty good evidence right there.
Colin: So how long did this take? I'm assuming that when you went into the meeting and said, "I need you to trust me," and they did, they didn't just sort of slide $300,000 across the desk and say, "Off you go.
Mike: What happened is that I was given the authority to put the infrastructure in place, to talk to Scientific Learning about the licenses, to bring up the trainers, to identify the school sites where the Fast ForWord stations would be assigned to identify the district person who would be coordinating on the ground support. So that rolled over a few months.
Colin: You're listening to "Learning Capacity" with Colin Klupiec, brought to you by LearnFast. You can subscribe to this free podcast on your Apple or Android device. Visit player.whooshkaa.com/shows/the-learning-capacity-podcast. Get the app, download the podcasts. Get updates on the latest discussions about building learning capacity.
Now, there's a comment that Scientific Learning makes about their program and they state this. "The Fast ForWord program uses the principles of neuroplasticity, that is, the ability of the brain to rewire and improve, to treat the underlying cause of language and reading difficulties once and for all."
Now, that's a bold claim.
Mike: It is.
Colin: And just a moment ago, you were telling the story, just very briefly, of a student walking down the hall who used to have their head down, but now bouncing down the hallway with a book under their arm, obviously feeling much better about themselves and much more capable.
That's one way of recording the results or seeing the results. How else is it measured, and how else do you see it in real life?
Mike: Confidence begets confidence, success begets success, and failure begets failure. So we know that from our own experiences. We also know going back to the brain plasticity that we have a whole new understanding of how the brain works.
It used to be a certainty...when I was going through school and college and all of that, that the brain was set and fixed, and all that happened in the brain after a certain age...and it was late teenagers or early twenties, was brain cells would die. So you kind of reached the pinnacle, and then, it was all downhill from there.
Well, that's not true. That's an inaccurate depiction. We know that...and I want to reference a couple of books which are just the most inspiring pieces of work and a nice combination of stories and science. They're both by Norman Doidge, D-O-I-D-G-E. He's a Canadian neuroscientist, and he's written two books; one is called "The Brain That Changes Itself", and the other is "The Brain's Way of Healing."
So we've seen kids who go through the Fast ForWord protocol. And by the way, it's not a "reading program". It's not a cure-all and it's not the perfect thing for every child. But we see for large numbers of children, if the protocol is appropriately used, that they have tremendous gains.
These are the kids, typically, the first ones in the door to access Fast ForWord are the kids who are significantly behind. They're very much delayed as far as their literacy levels.
And of course, the gap just gets wider if nothing happens. Everyone else is galloping ahead at a year's growth for a year's time or more. And these kids, if they're at a 0.2 of a year for a calendar year, it's just getting worse and worse.
And what we've seen...and there are lots of studies from Scientific Learning and there are lots of local studies. What we've seen is that kids who were struggling to make any gains are often achieving gains of one year or more than one year during the time...as a result of the time they used the protocol.
Yes, there are always more things that can be done. This doesn't happen in isolation. It happens as one of the tools and a major tool in the toolbox. There's also adjustments in instructional strategies, there's classroom...there's the attitude around learning, the changes. There's the opening up of the wonderful world of reading, and encouragement for kids to read for pleasure and all of those things.
So we see big benefits for lots of kids. And I mentioned my wife who taught at one of the learning centres, which is for high school kids who have not been successful in the regular high school system, secondary school system. And there was a Fast ForWord station at her school.
And she was seeing kids who diligently engaged with the protocol under appropriate supervision, using proper headphones and all of that. Going from not reading, not really being able to read for comprehension at all, to a few months later, walking into the school with a book from the "Twilight" series, a teen series, that wouldn't even have been accessible to that kid earlier.
So we see the anecdotal evidence, we see the attitude, and we also see the growth in reading based on test scores, standardised reading tests.
Colin: Yeah. This relates to other claims I've heard about Fast ForWord, in that it helps to improve engagement and achievement just generally. Are we talking about behaviour then, as in just a person's general way of interacting with other people?
Mike: If you are faced on a daily basis with failure, inability to learn, watching everyone gallop ahead while you're struggling to keep up, one of the strategies you can use is to disengage, either passively or actively.
So we see when kids are given hope and structure; to find out where they are in their cognitive processing; their ability to hear and to see, and the speed at which they hear and see, and are able to respond. Find out where they are and use that as a baseline, and build from there.
Building up from a level of competence and capacity. And then over time, increasing the speed, decreasing the delay time, so that neuroplasticity takes hold. The brain is wiring differently and more strongly, and a well-wired brain is a brain that is going to be more nimble in being able to complete tasks, process information, make meaning.
Every child, every chance, every day
Colin: I'd like to talk a little bit about your vision, your philosophy on education with particular respect to this issue of language and reading, literacy in general. I'm told that your vision as superintendent was every child, every chance, every day. Why is this unique? Wouldn't anybody want that?
Mike: Sure. It is something that we should all want. And sometimes, what we need to do in a brief statement is have a very visible, tangible reminder of that. Because during a school day, a school year, a teacher's day and year, we can lose sight of that sometimes. So it's a belief in the kids' capacity to learn.
It's not mine originally. I stole it and I always give credit when I am asked about it because I was at an educational round table at Oxford University in England. And a principal from a small school in Oklahoma was talking about this being her slogan, if you will.
And she made a little presentation on it, and I said to myself, "That's coming home." This was a summer conference I was at, and when we opened the school year in September and I had 250 administrators in the room for the opening admin meeting in late August before the September school start, I landed on this, and I said, "I need to tell you," and I credited the principal from Oklahoma, that this speaks so powerfully to me about the relentlessness that we have to have, and the belief we have to have in kids.
And what was interesting for me is going around to those 120 schools and just dropping in lots of times to schools. And I started to see the phrase, "Every child, every chance, every day" all over the place.
Colin: That's terrific.
Mike: And they weren't putting it up because I was coming. In some cases, it was written on the blackboard that was rolled out into the entryway of the school every day as parents and young kids came in with announcements on it, and affirmations, and aspirations, and so on.
And "Every child, every chance, every day" just became part of who we were, and part of who we are together.
2 guiding principles: results count & count what counts
Colin: I like that strategy of the board being rolled out. It's a very visible, tangible reminder that yes, we actually really believe this. So at a conference recently, you stated your guiding truths. Two of those, I'll just talk about now.
One is that results matter, and the second one, that you need to count what counts. Now, again, I don't think anyone would disagree with the fact that results matter. In fact, in the current educational climate, I would say that it's almost completely dominated by results through end of school tests or standardised testing, or whatever measure you want to use.
My question is what counts? What actually counts? And then once we figured out what counts, how do we actually count it?
Mike: Well, that's the $1 million question because what's easy to count often shouldn't count, or is misleading, or simply affirms incorrect assumptions. So we have to be really careful that when we're engaging in assessment and monitoring progress, we use professional judgment.
We use valid assessment tools. And we start to unpack and unshackle ourselves from some of those easy to measure and easy to administer assessments that really didn't tell us much at all.
They get politicised. They get used as a whipping stick for schools and for systems, and for, in some cases, neighbourhoods or individual teachers even. So it's about counting what counts, and identifying and having the deep connection with our identification of our purpose, and how we are going to agree that we will assess our achievement of that purpose.
I'll quickly give you an example. I'm working with a school district in BC, a small school district, as they reorganise and create a renewed vision. And I said, "Let's talk about three phases. The first phase..." and this is me up at a whiteboard with a felt pen drawing bad rectangles and terrible handwriting.
But I said, "The first phase is your current realities. Let's gather all of those that have any relevance. And let's not argue about them because your realities are your realities. If you've got a 50% aboriginal graduation rate, that's a reality. You need to put it up there as the current truth."
And there are lots of other...inside the learning dynamic, inside teacher wellness, and teacher engagement, and all kinds of things.
Inside the second rectangle is the expected future, or the anticipated future. And the anticipated future is going to be likely based on the trends that have already been established. Not one data point. But if I say to you, "2, 4, 6, 8, 10," you're going to make a pretty good guess that the next number might be 12.
We can look at our current realities, and we can anticipate what the future will be if we don't change anything.
But it is the third rectangle that is the powerful one, and that is the preferred future. And we identify what counts. We identify our vision, and we connect with our vision around kids and learning. And that vision is informed by that first box, which is the current realities.
And then the question is, "What do we do to intervene? How are we going to monitor and adjust, so that if we believe we're going to make a difference in a particular way, we actually follow through and see that we are making a difference in that way?"
So that's the "counting what counts" piece. Part of it is, as I said, uncoupling or unshackling ourselves from some old, easy, and misleading sources of information. And some of counting what counts means let's listen to the voices. Let's look at the evidence.
And let's confirm that it's evidence that should cause us to either sustain a great practice, or to adjust a practice that isn't delivering as it should, or to abandon a practice that's stale and has no future.
Colin: So 35 years in your position, using a combination of your vision, and of course, the vision that you attributed to that other principal that you were talking about, Fast ForWord has been a massive part of that. The emerging awareness of neuroscience and the neuroplasticity of the brain has been a part of that. Looking back now, do you still see echoes of that reverberating into the future?
Mike: Oh, yes, I do. I think that our understanding...I was an educator, a teacher, and a principal, and all of those jobs through the system over that 35 years. I wish that I knew then what I know now. And I recognise that what I know now is just a sliver of what will be regularly commonly known going into the future.
If we go into the medical field and talk about the challenges that individuals have faced and some of the diagnoses that have been, essentially, a death sentence, and look at what medicine's done over the years to change, to save lives, to extend lives, and to increase the quality of life.
Well, we have every capacity to do the same thing in education. As we get to a place where it's not either abstract science or so technical that we can't engage in it, one of the joys of the work in self-regulation is it makes sense.
One of the joys of the work in seeing the impact of Scientific Learning and Fast ForWord, is it really makes sense once you understand what's blocking kids from being able to learn, and you know there's some ways to remediate that, then you can't not know what you now know.
We have to embrace those breakthroughs and use them to the maximum capacity that we have, and to the maximum benefit for the kids.
Colin: Mike, it's a great story. Thanks so much for your time.
Mike: You're very welcome. Good to talk to you.
Colin: You've been listening to "Learning Capacity" with Colin Klupiec, brought to you by LearnFast. If you'd like to know more about LearnFast and the Fast ForWord programs, visit www.learnfasthq.com.