Trauma-informed education spread rapidly during the COVID-19 pandemic and it’s now ascendant in Canadian K-12 education. Its origins go back more than two decades and were identified by British sociologist Frank Furedi in his powerful book, Therapy Culture, better known in the UK than here in North America.  Widely viewed as “an unambiguously positive development,” the therapeutic ethos and its offshoot “trauma-informed practice” (TIP) have, according to American policy analyst Robert Pondiscio, extended the reach of education into students’ lives and expanded the role of teachers.  While it’s recognized and openly debated in the United Kingdom and the United States, the phenomenon remains largely unexamined in Canada’s disaggregated provincial school systems.

One of the most trenchant critiques of contemporary social trends, Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff’s 2019 book, The Coddling of the American Mind, tackled the contradictions inherent in education at all levels from pre-school to the universities. What the authors clearly identified was the “coddling of the mind” and the desire to weave a protective web of “safetyism” around today’s generation of students. Fierce critics of the rise of therapy culture in education like Furedi go much further, claiming that therapy culture draws sustenance from “trauma-informed” approaches, implants a culture of fear, and gives credence to claims that most students are vulnerable and need protection.

There’s mounting evidence to support the claim that education is now enveloped in social therapy culture. Over the past five years or more, public concerns about the effects of trauma—especially relative to school-aged students—have increased exponentially.  Fueling much of the discussion is a screening tool that was developed in the mid-1990s, the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) scale. It’s adoption as an early years intervention is a prime example of the priority now assigned to diagnosing and treating “trauma” affected children and introducing elementary school programs incorporating “mindfulness,” “self-regulation,” and suicide prevention.  Few of these initiatives or programs have been properly evaluated and validated as effective in the field of teen mental health, and mass application in congregate settings carries certain identified risks

Overdiagnosis of children and teens with broadly-defined “mental health issues’ may well be an unrecognized problem. More than two-thirds of American students, according to Health and Human Services survey data, reportedly suffer one traumatic event before their sixteenth birthday. In the case of Canada, leading experts like Rosalynn M. Record-Lemon and Maria J. Buchanan, routinely claim that statistics show 76.1% of Canadians will experience at least one traumatic event in their lifetime. Many and perhaps most children and adults, before COVID-19, were said to be facing “psychological trauma” and life situations that “overwhelm the individual’s capacity to cope.” Maltreatment, family violence, bullying, natural disasters, illnesses and personal loss were linked to “pervasive psychological, physical and developments impacts.” All of this is commonly used as a rationale for the widespread adoption of Trauma-Informed Practice (TIP) in publicly-funded schools.

Two recent metadata reviews of trauma-informed approach in schools have damaged its claim to be evidence-based practice. The best-known study, conducted by St. Louis University social work professor Brandy R. Maynard and her research team, under the auspices of Campbell Reviews, examined some 9,102 potential research articles, and identified only 67 of the articles were independent research studies. None of the 67 articles met evidence-based research criteria:  49 articles did not use random controlled trials or quasi-experimental design methods; 12 did not examine the effects of a trauma-informed approach; and the remaining five examined only one aspect of a trauma-informed approach. These authors reached a rather stark conclusion:  no school-based, trauma-informed research studies over the past ten years that were conducted using sound research methodologies such that the programs investigated could be objectively determined to be effective in addressing the trauma-related needs of school-aged students.

An authoritative research March 2019 article in Review of Research in Education reached similar conclusions. When three Kentucky researchers, M. Shelley Thomas, Shantel Crosby and Judi Vanderhaar, studied trauma-informed practices in schools over two decades, they found plenty of initiatives dedicated to reforming teaching practices, school climate, teacher training and ongoing professional development. “Empirical work” was “less established,” little of it came from education researchers, and, again, there was a lack of evidence demonstrating “the effectiveness of school-based supports” or their consistent application in schools.

The theoretical gaps, research deficiencies and questionable effectiveness of social-justice-centred trauma-informed school programs has also been exposed in a literature review in the 2021 International Journal of School Social Work. The three New Mexico University researchers, favourably disposed to such approaches, concluded that “the current theory of impact linking trauma-informed work and social justice work is not supported by evidence.” What was missing was “a socio-ecological model of trauma’ (SAMHSA 2014)” integrating psychological strategies into a broader initiative demonstrating an “understanding of families and staff as well as students.”

The Pandemic education crisis was accompanied by a profound catharsis transforming school systems, over two school years, for months on end, into protective spaces adhering to COVID-19 public health directives, and focused on providing a semblance of rough equity and support for students from disadvantaged or marginalized communities. In Ontario, it’s even spawned a new educational administration venture into “trauma-sensitive school leadership.”

What comes next? As families and schools gradually recover from “learning loss” and the collateral psycho-social effects, the almost exclusive emphasis on trauma-informed practice will likely subside. When it does, let’s hope that we see a revival of the effective schools movement holding out the promise of more focused, meaningful, purposeful and effective teaching and learning.

What explains the proliferation and staying power of “Trauma-Informed Education” in Canada’s provincial school systems?  Will it survive the immediate aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic? Where is the evidence-based research in support of school-wide “trauma-informed” approaches? Should we be targeting such interventions where they will make a difference?

Fists and knives have re-appeared in Canada’s high schools in the wake of the pandemic shutdowns. Back in June of 2022, Ottawa parent Sarah Murray went public after Nepean High School officials left her in the dark, then hushed-up a washroom beating administered to her son by local bullies. What really upset her was the school’s policy of keeping quiet about “traumatic experiences.”

Nor is it safe to be milling around in front of some high schools. A 15-year-old Grade 10 boy made national headlines in February 2023 when he was shot during lunchtime outside Toronto’s Weston Collegiate, ran inside and was comforted by teachers, before being rushed to the nearest trauma centre. Such incidents are no longer isolated events.

While school shootings are still rare, regular and ongoing violence in and around schools is getting worse. Ontario’s  high school teachers’ union president Karen Littlewood finally blew the whistle, calling for help from provincial and local authorities to help insure that schools, and classrooms are safe.

As the advocate for 55,000 educators in hundreds of high schools, Littlewood expressed alarm, not just for the well-being of students, but for the safety of teachers, mental health support personnel, child and youth workers.  While GTA disturbances attract the most attention, she reported that its now widespread in the wake of the COVID-19 school disruptions. “These incidents were happening across the province, she said, and it’s now reached “a crisis level.”

 The Toronto District School Board, Canada’s largest school district, is – as usual- ground zero and the most graphic illustration of how dangerous today’s schools have become for students, teachers, and education support workers.

There’s “no easy fix” to the problem of school violence, according to the hard pressed TDSB communications point man, Ryan Byrd.  That’s likely because, as a TDSB committee heard in December 2022, the prevalence of violence is alarming. School shootings attract cameras, but some 622 young people between the ages of 12 and 29 were reportedly victims of stabbings between January of 2021 and November 2022.

Classroom teachers are alarmed enough to be speaking up out-of-school. A particularly effective, well-articulated Thomas B. Fordham Institute commentary, written by Daniel Buck, a young American teacher with 7-years’ experience, touched a nerve, attracting thousands of Twitter views and retweets. Many of the retweets were sparked by “Teachers Unite,” an outspoken voice for teacher advocacy in Canada.

“Soft-on-consequences discipline” was a critical factor contributing to unruly “student behaviour” diving fellow teachers to quit the classroom and proving to be “terrible for teachers.” “While most discussion about student behaviour…focuses on its impact upon students,” he wrote, “too often the effects on teachers are simply overlooked. They’re collateral damage that rarely gets a mention.”

Amid fears of a national U.S. teacher shortage, the National Education Association now claims that half of all American teachers have reported considering or actively planning to quit because of deteriorating school climate and safety.  So far, it has not reached that crisis point in Canada’s provincial school systems.

Workplace violence is a growing problem in Canada’s schools, judging from a series of credible reports from province-to-province. “Biting, kicking and verbal abuse” are so prevalent in Manitoba schools that the provincial Workplace Safety and Health Department recently classified schools as one of the “high-risk industries” along with foundries, sawmills and demolition sites. CUPE Manitoba president Gina McKay, representing 6,000 school support workers identified the scope of the problem. “We’ve known systemic issues,” she told CTV News Winnipeg, “and they’re building.”

Teachers in British Columbia have also been alerted to the extent of time lost through injuries incurred in school workplaces. A 2021 Work Safe BC online report, entitled “Time-loss claims in public school districts,” documented 16,812 claims registered by teachers, teaching assistants, and administrators between 2011 and 2020. It’s recently emerged as an issue raised by the BCTF in its representations and contract negotiations.

A Nova Scotia Freedom of Information request tore the lid of the hidden problem in that province’s schools. The resulting January 2022 story in the Halifax Chronicle Herald revealed that some 11,240 violent incidents were reported during the 2020-21 school year, at a time when school was closed for several weeks as a result of COVID-19 health measures.

Nova Scotia Education Minister Becky Druhan claimed that the 2020-21 incident numbers were on a par with other years, but that’s not entirely accurate. Violent incidents were twice as common in the aftermath of the spring 2020 COVID-19 shutdown, and most of the incidents affected grades 5 to 9, not primary to grade 6, as reported in the FOIPOP release.

After the initial information leak, Nova Scotia Education has kept school violence rates and student behaviour data under wraps. Bullying incidents are reported as a matter of provincial policy and, over two years, 2020-21 and 2021-22, some 2,072 incidents were recorded from primary to grade 9, confirming that 67 per cent happened in grades 6 to 9, at the junior high level. Violent acts, sexual assaults, sexual harassment, and verbal abuse are not reported to the public.  

In Nova Scotia, as in Manitoba, the education sector accounts for an alarming proportion of workers compensation claims. While the overall number of workplace violence claims in Nova Scotia is highest in the “Health/Social Services” sector, the “Education Services” sector is second highest. Over the past decade, the Workers Compensation Board of Nova Scotia (WCBNS), reported that the “Educational Services” sector had the highest per cent rate of claims due to violence. The 10-year average of violent claims was 11.28 per cent of its employees, peaking at 16.32 per cent in 2019.  

Violence is now commonplace in today’s classrooms, hallways, fields, and parking lots. Regular disturbances, low-level disruptions, and verbal abuse tends to go unreported, in most case out of fear of reprisals or because there are so few disciplinary consequences.

Nowhere is that more evident than in Nova Scotia, a middling province widely regarded as a bell weather for national education trends. A recent blog report posted by Nova Scotia Parents for Public Education (January 25, 2023) rings true. “School staff report being discouraged from documenting incidents of violence,” the advocacy group claimed. When recording cannot be avoided, the post continued “the process is difficult and the mechanism for reporting, featuring drop-down menus, limits a full and accurate reporting of incidents.”

The Nova Scotia violent incident reporting system is also full of holes when it comes to accountability and tracking at the school or system level.  Privacy protocols are strictly upheld and prevent victims from being named in perpetrator’s reports, precluding long-term tracing of patterns incidents over time. Most troubling of all, educators report (off-the-record) that there is no established reporting standard to ensure the consistency of teacher documentation.

Reporting protocols and data collection practices in Nova Scotia are widely varying from school district to school district, and even from school to school. Some school principals discourage teachers from reporting violent incidents (which might reflect badly on a school’s reputation); others insist on filling in the information for their teachers. Educational assistants and child support workers are often victims, but – in most cases — have to rely on regular teachers or administrators to report such incidents.

Hair-raising stories of school violence in schools, once contained and concealed by school principals and education districts, are now quickly and readily shared on social media. Local parent and teacher advocacy groups, such as Nova Scotia Parents for Public Education, provide a conduit for gathering and circulating intelligence gathered by parents and teachers at the school level. Candid student mobile phone photos and videos end up on Facebook and Twitter, some depicting troubling personal attacks, teachers’ verbal abuse, and mistreatment of kids with learning challenges.


Mental health experts and professors have now coalesced around a consistent position on the wisdom of keeping kids in school after the pandemic.  “Schools should be the first to open, and the last to close” is the predominant policy direction, especially since the August 2021 release of the Royal Society of Canada’s research report on “Children and Schools during COVID-19 and Beyond,” published by University of Ottawa education psychologist Tracy Vaillancourt and a team of leading researchers.

Many Canadian parents, health professionals and child psychologists harbour quiet doubts about how safe, secure and healthy schools really are in the wake of the COVID-19 disruption and its aftermath. “While acknowledging the important role that schools can play in students’ access to food and other needs,” NSPPE recently pointed out, “many parents and child experts objected strongly to the portrayal of schools” as ‘safe spaces.’

The recent rash of highly-publicized violent incidents provides us with a much needed reality check on the everyday realities of today’s school culture, especially in middle and senior grades, where violence, bullying, sexual harassment, racial incidents, and negative mental health experiences are far too common for students, teachers and education workers.

 Students do belong in school but not in unsafe and dangerous classrooms. Now that normalcy is slowly returning, it’s incumbent upon us to ensure that those schools and classrooms are safe for the pandemic generation of kids.*

*An earlier version of this commentary appeared in The National Post, Saturday February 25, 2023. 

What’s behind the recent resurgence of violence in Canadian schools? Is it really new or just a return to the turbulent conditions pre-pandemic?  How much of the student-on-student and student-on-teacher violence is attributable to so-called “progressive’ school discipline?  Why is data on dangerous workplaces easier to access than regular reports of student violence and misconduct? Is it time to ask –Who’s running the schools?  

The worst kept educational secret is leaking out: most Canadian K-12 students in all provinces suffered setbacks during the Pandemic.  The latest province to report on the decline in student test scores is Nova Scotia, a middling Canadian province widely considered a bell weather for national trends. Right on forecast, that province’s students performed dismally on the latest 2021-22 battery of results.  Alarming student test score numbers in reading, writing and mathematics generated considerable media attention, but it remains to be seen whether they will light a fire under the gatekeepers of the provincial schoolhouse.

One in three Grade 3 students (32 per cent) cannot read with comprehension, and half of those students cannot write properly. It doesn’t get better by Grade 6 in reading or mathematics.  Two out of five in Grade 10 fail to meet acceptable standards in mathematics. This is not new at all, just worse because of school shutdowns, periodic interruptions, and absenteeism.

Signs of flagging student progress are everywhere in that province’s classrooms. Students are still guessing at words while reading in the early grades. Most elementary kids are rarely asked to write more than a sentence or two. Left on their own to master mathematics, students’ skills have eroded to an alarming degree. Getting kids to turn off their cellphones saps a lot of energy.

Confronting the hard data on the downward spiral, Education Minister Becky Druhan and the Department were quick to blame the pandemic.  Abysmal post-COVID student test scores were posted, the pandemic was offered up as the explanation, and –two days later — a reactive plan materialized out of thin air.

The “education crisis” escape plan was thrown-together in reaction mode. Provincial education officials must have been banking on no one bothering to look any deeper, track student data trends, or question why the department is still entrusted with evaluating its own effectiveness in teaching, learning and curriculum

Reading and writing skills have actually been in steady decline for a decade or more. Some 68 per cent of Grade 3 students in 2021-22 met minimum standards in Reading, down 8 points from 76 per cent in 2012-13. Student writing standards in Grade 3 have deteriorated significantly in all aspects of writing proficiency (Ideas – from 88% to 50%; Organization -from 80% to 38%; Language Use – from 83% to 43%; and Conventions – from 71% to 32%). Two out of three Grade 3s are familiar with Snapchat but exhibit little proficiency in  grammar or spelling and most can barely write a complete sentence.

Student proficiency by Grade 6 is critical because, as the recent October 2022 World Bank report on Pandemic Global Learning Loss claimed, students unable to read by 10 years-of-age are considered to be living in “learning poverty.” Until recently, that problem seemed far removed from the lives of Nova Scotian and Canadian children.

Six out of 10 kids in the world’s low-income and middle-income countries are now classified as “learning poor” putting their future in jeopardy and their lives at risk. In Canada, the World Bank estimates that from 4.3 to 8.3 per cent of 10 year olds in Canada qualify as “learning poor.” It’s much higher in Nova Scotia, where 29 per cent of our 10-year-olds (in Grade 6) lack basic proficiency in reading.

Math standards tend to fly below the radar in Nova Scotia, and the Education Department is culpable. Thirty per cent of Grade 3s lack proficiency in math skills, but it’s impossible to track past trends.  Shifting the tests from Grade 3 to Grade 4 and back again since 2011-12 deprived us of comparable data. It’s not as concealed in Grade 6 where student scores have dropped from 73 per cent (2012-13) to 64 per cent a year ago. One third of Grade 6s fall below provincial math standards.

Buried in the latest batch of published results are “disaggregated” student test results for two groups of students, those of African heritage and Indigenous ancestry.  That reflects the department’s recent focus on supporting students and improving results among those in racialized and marginalized communities.

While it’s been a major priority, the pandemic disruption has wiped out previous gains. Grade 3 Reading scores for African students held firm at 57 per cent meeting standards, some 12 per cent below the provincial average score. Writing remains a serious problem with fewer than half of the cohort of 695 students meeting expectations. A similar sized cohort of Mi’kmaw/Indigenous students in Grade 3 suffered similar setbacks during the pandemic.  In high school, African and Indigenous students at Grade 10 level performed far better in Reading than in Mathematics, where both cohorts of students have lost significant ground in comparison with their peers.

So far, Druhan and her Department have fumbled the ball during the pandemic disruption.  Cancelling school for 22 weeks between March 2020 and June 2021 put students and teachers in a much-weakened position. Since then, provincial authorities have been essentially asleep, waiting – it now appears – for hard evidence that students, at every grade level, are far behind in their progress and poorly prepared to progress to the next level.

Nowhere is the Education department’s ‘muddle-through’ mentality better exemplified than in in its slow-footed, ad hoc response to the deepening literacy crisis. After ignoring the Ontario Human Rights Commission Right to Read report upon its release, Druhan and her officials finally – six months later– produced a “Six Pillars” framework for discussion in June of last school year. The document endorsing ‘structured literacy’ was issued, but implementation was voluntary and earmarked for a number of “pilot schools.”

Provincial literacy experts were taken-aback when the “Six Pillars” framework surfaced again, in the immediate aftermath of the disastrous scores. Conventional reading and writing strategies, including “balanced or levelled literacy” and “Reading Recovery” remain in place, even though they were rejected months ago in Ontario and other provinces. The just-announced “new plan” for Grade 2 literacy is nothing of the sort. After keeping the “Six Pillars” under wraps, it’s just now being introduced to teachers, delaying implementation for another full year.

Establishing a Nova Scotia Student Progress Assessment agency is now mission-critical in Primary to Grade 12 education. Learning erosion has worsened since January 2018 when Dr. Avis Glaze recommended creating such an agency reporting to the public, not the department. Delaying the release of student test data, resisting evidence-based policy making, and denying the pandemic’s impact may be the last straw. The department should not be entrusted with evaluating the success of its own policies, curriculum and practices. It’s high time for more public accountability and action plans informed by the best evidence gathered through student assessment.

Why are education authorities blaming the “learning erosion” on the Pandemic disruption and treating it as an aberration? How representative is Nova Scotia, where literacy and mathematics skills have been in decline for a decade or more?  What is the point of establishing ‘learning outcomes’ without implementing changes which might enable teachers to come closer to meeting those student achievement benchmarks? Is the irregular and uneven response to the Ontario Right to Read inquiry findings symptomatic of broader concerns?


The Program of International Student Assessment (PISA), managed by Andreas Schleicher and the OECD Education Skills Office in Paris, France, is still regarded as the “gold standard” in comparative student assessment and enjoys a rather charmed life. Every three years, educational leaders, commentators, and engaged teachers eagerly await the results of student testing and its so called ‘league tables’ ranking the performance of 15-year-olds from some 79 participating jurisdictions. A new book, Dire Straits: Education Reforms, Ideology, Vested Interests and Evidence, produced by two Spanish researchers, Montserrat Gomendio and José Ignacio Wert, is sure to rock that edifice and punch holes in the credibility of the OECD’s education branch.

Student assessment and accountability are essential and yet elusive in global K-12 education, both within countries and internationally, so school reformers put faith in ILSAs like PISA to provide solid evidence on how students were actually performing in the core skills of reading, mathematics and science. Across the globe, educational leaders and policy-makers looked to PISA to provide evidence and guidance to allow us to form a consensus on what works in different countries, and particularly on what can be learned from student achievement gains in top-performing nations. That has not happened according to one of the book’s authors, Montserrat Gomendio, OECD’s former deputy director for education and head of its Centre for Skills. It’s all spelled out in a devasting critique in the current Winter 2023 edition of Education Next.

PISA is OECD Education’s crown jewel in an organization dedicated to providing reliable data and policy advice, encouraging comparative analysis and learning exchanges worldwide.  From the first cycle of PISA (2000) to the last (2018), the number of participating countries increased from a rather homogeneous group of 32 OECD countries to some 79, owing largely to the addition of many low- and middle-income countries. Flush with its own success, the OECD made a boastful claim: “PISA has become the world’s premier yardstick for evaluating the quality, equity and efficiency of school systems, and an influential force for education reform.”

PISA’s own data tells the tale. “After almost two decades of testing, student outcomes have not improved overall in OECD nations or most other participating countries,” according to Gomendio. She recognizes that, up until 2018, a global recession, the rise of social media, and environmental disasters did present “headwinds for school-improvement efforts.” Failing to achieve its mission, she points out, led to “blame games.” That was precipitated by the dawning realization that student outcomes had flatlined from 2000 to 2018. In response, OECD Education officials pointed fingers at its own member states for not taking advantage of the PISA data and carrying out the recommended policy changes.

Policy recommendations from PISA are built upon two different approaches – quantitative analyses of student outcomes and a range of features of education systems and qualitative analyses of low- and top-performing countries. It is commonly agreed PISA’s quantitative analyses of cross-sectional samples and correlations cannot be used to draw causal inferences. It’s qualitative analyses, particularly with regard to Nordic countries, also suffer from serious drawbacks such as cherry-picking. Other weaknesses, she points out in Education Next, have gone largely unnoticed.  One of the biggest question marks is the reliability of student results on such “low stakes” tests. In the case of Australia, for example, the National Council on Educational Research (NCER) found that a majority of Australian students (73%) may not have taken the PISA test seriously and would have invested more effort if it counted towards their marks.

Quality and Equity – Confronting the Contradictions

PISA seeks to measure two complementary dimensions of education systems: quality and equity. Measuring quality on the basis of average student test scores is far easier than assessing equity. To do so, PISA employs a multidimensional concept using metrics such as the relationship between socioeconomic status and student performance, the degree of differences in student performance within and between schools, and many others. None of these variables, Gomendio points out, “tell the full story” and “each of them leads to different conclusions.” So, ultimately PISA’s prism on equity is ultimately too narrow and somewhat unreliable.

PISA’s analysis of school choice and policy recommendations on that issue draw fire from Gomendio and Wert. Claims that students in private schools do not perform better that those in public schools (after correcting for socioeconomic status), are problematic. Analyses lumping private schools together with government-funded, privately managed charter schools skews the results. It also makes it impossible to disaggregate the data. That explains why PISA analyses are at odds with other international assessments, as well as research studies, which show that “school choice often does lead to better student outcomes without necessarily generating segregation.” In addition, the small number of countries with early tracking (streaming into academic and applied/vocational) show “little (if any) differences in student performance and employability rates for vocational-education students.” It is clear that PISA would benefit from thinking outside the box, paying attention to academic research and looking at the broader picture.

            The new book Dire Straits, written by two Spanish researchers, confronts squarely PISA’s implicit bias in favour of Finland and other Nordic countries. The authors are particularly critical of PISA’s analyses of Finland and Germany. In PISA’s first cycle, they call into question the lionizing of Finland for its “quality and equity” and labelling of Germany as a “heavily tracked system” that promoted inequity and “should be avoided.”  

Nordic societies like Finland do get a free ride with PISA because they were egalitarian long before the inception of PISA. Egalitarian societies like Finland possess natural advantages since teachers work with a more uniform student population and are better positioned to implement inclusive policies across the board to all students. More stratified societies in Europe and Latin America, for example, require more differentiated approaches to meet the needs of the full spectrum of students. More recognition should be accorded to stratified societies with income inequalities that tend to have bigger challenges closing the equity gap. In the case of Canada, for example, it is useful to examine how our country manages to maintain reasonable student achievement standards, while alleviating the equity gap, particularly in relation to the United States.

Identifying Exemplars, Applying the Right Lessons

PISA completely missed the boat on the rise of student outcomes in Singapore and its East Asian neighbours and the relative decline of Finland. A few decades ago, Singapore had an illiterate population and very few natural resources. The country made a decision to invest in human capital as the engine of economic growth and prosperity, and, in a few decades, it became the top performer in all international assessment programs. Part of that improvement can be attributed to implementing tracking in primary school in an effort to decrease its high dropout rate. Once this was achieved, the country delayed tracking until the end of primary school. So far, PISA has not provided a coherent and differentiated analysis of the “Singapore Miracle.”

Teacher quality is more salient than PISA recognizes in its analyses. In the case of Singapore and the East Asian countries only top-performing students can enter education-degree programs, whereas poorer performing Latin American countries tend to have teachers drawn from the weaker academic ranks. Professional recruitment programs are mostly weak and teacher evaluation mechanisms almost non-existent.  Teacher unions are not always helpful in improving the quality of instruction.  In the case of Latin America, teacher unions exercise considerable clout and have succeeded in securing lower class sizes, generating more teaching positions. Top-performing East Asian countries, on the other hand, tend to have weaker unions and there are, consequently, fewer political costs involved in running larger class sizes or in implementing rigorous teacher evaluation systems.  Increases in education spending get invested in reducing class sizes, contrary to the PISA recommendation, and in the face of robust evidence that it does not improve student outcomes.


            Ideology, education governance and conflicts of interest all serve to undermine the overall effectiveness of evidence-based, PISA-informed policy prescriptions. Education authorities tend to be risk-averse when it comes to implementing targeted policy prescriptions and resisting the pressures to increase spending levels, driven by the core interests, most notably local education authorities and teacher unions.

Three key lessons jump out in the latest book on PISA. First, decreases in class size and increases in teacher salaries do not work in improving student achievement but such policy recommendations run headlong into the vested interests of unions and the preference of active parents alert to any diminution in the amount of resources received from public funds. Secondly, some influential factors are “strongly context-dependent” (such as school autonomy and site-based management) and are difficult for policymakers to interpret. In such cases, applying policies universally can yield dire consequences. Finally, attempts to measure equity, including those of PISA analysts, tend to be inconclusive and partial, leading to recommendations more often than not “heavily influenced by ideology.”  This has led to a universal recommendation to apply comprehensive policies and avoid those that are regarded as ‘discriminatory’ (such as ability grouping and early tracking). Such policies lead to the worst outcomes in terms of equity among more stratified societies.

Pointing fingers and apportioning blame has become all-too-common in OECD’s highly influential PISA reports.  What’s clear from the latest critique, levelled by the two former PISA insiders, is that flatlined student outcomes and policy shortcomings have much to do with PISA’s implicit biases (ideology), structural impediments (union advocacy), and conflicts of interest (service provider capture). That is why, according to the critics, PISA is failing in its mission.

Judging from the latest book, PISA has made little difference in improving school systems.  Is PISA failing in its mission? With so much evidence from student testing, why do education systems tend to brush aside the runaway success of top-performing Asian countries and, perhaps most importantly, why do so many systems continue to struggle?



The proposed plan to change French-language education by eliminating French Immersion in New Brunswick’s Anglophone schools is facing a firestorm of resistance.  An initial mid-January 2023 live-streamed media conference announcing ‘public consultations’ was cut-short after 29 minutes. Then tempers and emotions flared up at the first meeting of the four scheduled ‘public consultations’ which hardened into a wall of opposition from January 17 to 25, 2023 in Moncton, Saint John and Fredericton.

Tampering with French Immersion in New Brunswick and elsewhere is a perilous undertaking in K-12 education. It now appears that “touching the third rail” in that province may claim its latest victims.

N.B.’s French Immersion advocacy group, Canadian Parents for French, led by Chris Collins, not only mobilized parents and teachers, but succeeded in disrupting the planned ‘consultation’ management process. It was exposed as a rather ineffective attempt to apply the Delphi Technique strategy of seating in circles, designed to contain and diffuse the dissent.

As a strategy for managing ‘public consultations,’ popularly known as the “World Café,” it essentially crashed and burned. “Manufacturing consent” can and does backfire, especially when utilized in thinly-veiled fashion to ‘ram through’ school reforms or facilitate school facilities changes such as school closures.

Organizers in New Brunswick were totally unprepared for the crowd, unable to answer fundamental questions, and a harried-looking Minister went on the defensive, first threatening to “dismiss” the unruly crowd, then conceding that, if not enough French teachers could be found, it would be started in grade 1 and delayed at the kindergarten level. By the end of the consultations, he was now insisting it was “not cast in stone.”

N.B. Education Minister Bill Hogan has been dealt a bad hand. Appointed in October 2022 to succeed Dominic Cardy, a confident, fluently-bilingual public performer, he finds himself fronting a massively unpopular French language education initiative which is opposed by as many as three out of four New Brunswickers. What’s worse is that a rushed implementation is planned for September 2023 and the initial 22-odd Language Learning Opportunities (LLO) pilot programs were never properly assessed in terms of their effectiveness in improving the fluency and proficiency of students.


Hogan and Deputy Minister John McLaughlin survived the initial skewering on January 17 at the Gowan Brae Golf and Country Club, but the Minister was essentially mobbed at subsequent public meetings. Crowds arrived early, challenged the “world cafe’ format and took to the microphone to denounce the plan.

The Minister and his senior staff were left scrambling under the glare of extensive media coverage. All the signs point to either a full retreat or an impending implementation disaster. After two years of planning and almost two dozen pilot projects, how did to come apart so fast?

The sacking of Cardy deprived Premier Blaine Higgs of his most effective and persuasive communicator and the Department never recovered.  Without Cardy fronting the project, the remaining trust dissolved among French-speaking New Brunswickers as well as the province’s most articulate Anglophone bilingualism advocates, French immersion parents and graduates.

Political skeletons sometimes get released from their closets at the most inopportune times. Few remembered Blaine Higgs’ 1989 Confederation of Regions (CORNB) leadership campaign pledge to eliminate immersion until it resurfaced again in a politically-damaging October 2022 CBC News NB commentary.  From that point on, the fix was in on the high-risk policy proposal.

Education Minister Hogan and his senior officials have broken all the rules in the textbook on how to implement successful education reforms.  It’s all neatly synthesized in one of my favourite sources, David Tyack and Larry Cuban’s 1995 modern classic, Tinkering Toward Utopia. It begins by taking stock of previous initiatives and learning from the past.

In the case of New Brunswick and French immersion, that means asking whether any other Canadian province has ever succeeded in eliminating the program and learning from past mistakes. The prime example would be former Minister Kelly Lamrock’s politically bruising 2008 attempt to delay the entry point to grade 6, then grade 3, eventually abandoned in the face of fierce opposition. Then, as now, it was all based upon the claim that the province was, according to Maclean’s Magazine “failing miserably at graduating bilingual students.”

Education reform initiatives proceed, in stages, from “policy talk” to “policy action” to “implementation.” In the education sector, changes falter mostly during implementation. The key reasons are: short timelines, lack of leadership capacity, or insufficient human or resource support to make it work. Implementation is much slower and more complex and governments tend to move on to other priorities. That explains why evaluation of initiatives, including data-gathering, falls far too often by the wayside.

Overcoming the gravitational pull of the status quo is not easy and, in the words of American education psychologist Robert Evans, most initially embrace “change” with as much enthusiasm as they do “changing a baby.” Inspiring and skillful leadership is required to “overcome the initial sense of loss” and convey a sense of renewed purpose going forward.

Introducing an upgraded universal French language program in place of French immersion is unlikely to work. With an election ahead in the fall of 2024, it all looks to be based upon ‘election cycles’ rather than ‘policy change cycles.’ Even if the change in French language program gets authorized, it will be far too rushed in its implementation, half-baked in conception, and impossible to staff, given the dire shortage of French teachers with the requisite competencies.

Public engagement is quite distinct from ‘public consultation’ and thrives under the right conditions and requires an open approach and a genuine commitment to breaking the mold. Being open, transparent, accountable and responsive does require unique, well calibrated skills. In the education leadership field, it often involves unlearning ingrained practices and habits. Finding a common cause, sizing-up the conditions, leading with questions rather than answers, and meeting groups where they are all critical ingredients.

New Brunswick’s disastrous public consultation taught us a fundamental lesson about engaging citizens and building support for reforms. Canadian ‘public engagement’ specialist Don Lenihan (Middle Ground Engagement, Ottawa) now calls it “deliberative public engagement.”  It may work in New Brunswick if the provincial government realizes that it’s time to start again, from ground zero, to find an acceptable solution to raising the numbers of bilingual graduates from New Brunswick’s Anglophone schools.

Why is French Immersion the “third rail” in Canadian education politics?  What sparked the New Brunswick government to tempt fate by proposing its replacement with a universal upgraded core French program? Why did the “Delphi Technique” attract attention and ultimately provoke a backlash? Will the setback completely stall further reform efforts? Is there a better way of finding a constructive path forward?


The Pandemic upended Canadian provincial systems and school lockdowns at their height affected the lives of some 5 million students and their families. Three years after its onset, the impact of the COVID-19 disruption is beginning to show in terms of student learning loss, foundational skills deficits, and psycho-social after-effects. While initially disoriented and slow to react, education authorities and researchers now recognize that a new set of priorities has come to the fore –‘learning recovery’ and closing the learning gaps in literacy and numeracy, falling heavily on students from racialized and marginalized communities.

Tackling racism with new policy mandates, advocating for the hiring of more diversity, equity and inclusion officers and collecting race-based data have not only lost their urgency, but stalled in their implementation, especially outside the Greater Toronto Area and our more ethnically-diverse cities.  One elementary school principal from Central Ontario surveyed in the spring of 2022 by the Toronto-based funding advocacy organization People for Education put it best: “School closures and COVID interruptions have greatly impacted the depth of learning and conversations around anti-racism. Greater continuity would certainly be beneficial to those efforts.”  Simply stated, priorities have changed at the classroom level in Canada’s schools.

That is why the latest People for Education report (January 2023) surveying anti-racism policy in Ontario and elsewhere is problematic and raises more questions than it really answers. Written by two younger researchers, Robin Liu Hopson, M.A., Director, Policy and Research at People for Education, and  Kaushi Attygalle, Senior Research Associate for YouthREX, it focuses almost exclusively on rates of compliance with federal and provincial anti-racism strategy, legislation and directives. Most of the data is actually derived from two sources – data mined from the official websites of Ontario’s 72 publicly-funded school boards and self-reported survey responses from Ontario-based school principals. The report on “anti-racism’ policy, rather predictably, found “significant inconsistencies in the execution of these strategies.”


With the Pandemic still lingering and its after-effects increasingly visible, the report frames the fundamental problem as one of confronting racism and Indigenous injustices by taking “a closer look” at “discriminatory practices and the role that they play in perpetuating systemic racism.” It pivots off-of the findings of the 2022 Independent Special Interlocutor’s report, Missing Children and Unmarked Graves and Burial Sites associated with Indian Residential Schools.”  Residential school atrocities and isolated acts of overt racism are identified as critical because they “triggered discussions on discrimination and signaled calls for equity in Canada.”

Much of this selective, qualitative, data-limited study is informed by the conception of “anti-racism” and supporting analysis of American academic Ibram X. Kendi, and his 2019 bestseller, How to be an antiracistAnti-racism, according to Kendi is: “Belief in equality among all races, and that racial inequality is an outcome of problematic policies and power imbalances.”  It starts with the assumption that “race and racism” is at the root of inequality rather than class or other disadvantages, racism is harboured in institutions, and “different treatment is necessary for equal outcomes.”

Provincial education authorities, school districts and individual schools are assessed in the 2023 People for Education report solely on the basis of their compliance with government mandates, stemming from the 2019 federal anti-racism plan, funded at $45-million and covering three years, to promote “long-term action towards increasing equitable access to and participation in the economic, cultural, social and political spheres.” Provincial anti-racism policy in Ontario actually dates back to 2017 when it was enacted into law in the final year of the Kathleen Wynne Liberal government. Since then, only two other provinces have followed suit, British Columbia and Nova Scotia, both in 2022. Overall, fewer than half (six) of our 13 provinces and territories have developed policy initiatives ranging from developing strategies and action plans, forming advisory councils or committees, to passing new legislation.

                Provincial anti-racism work (tapping into $30-million in federal funding for community programs and $3.3-million for public education programs) fell far short of its objectives.  A recent Toronto Star news report by Kristin Rushowy (January 15, 2022) parroting the People for Education media release claimed that progress was slowed by the pandemic. That’s only partly true because an earlier November 2020 Parliament of Canada review reported only modest progress, mostly funded by federal monies.

Securing racial profile data for school systems and most other public institutions is now part of the anti-racism policy agenda and figured prominently in the People for Education findings.  Out of some 1,000 Ontario principals surveyed, representing 20 per cent of all schools, 86.7 per cent self-identified as “white,” followed by 5.2 per cent Black, 3 per cent as South Asian, 2.7 per cent East Asian, and 2.3 per cant Indigenous.

“The numbers are so stark,” said Annie Kidder, the group’s executive director. “It definitely points to a problem in the system when you are thinking of all the results where race comes into play and how important it is that we work harder to have a system where the staff, all the staff, are reflective of the students.” That buttressed the report’s key finding: “the homogenous racial profile of school principals is in contrast to Ontario’s population, which comprises more than half of Canada’s ‘visible minority’ population.”

The overwhelmingly “white” Ontario school-level leadership is definitely more geared up for ‘anti-racist work’ than district school boards. Some 94 per cent of principals reported providing staff professional development “specific to anti-racism and equity,” and 73 per cent had included “anti-racism” in their local School Improvement Plans. School districts, guided by elected school boards ostensibly representing the public, were far less compliant. Fewer than two-thirds of school boards (64%) reported collecting “race-based  and/or demographic data,” only 28 per cent had an explicit “anti-racism policy, strategy or approach” and one out of four boards (26%) made no mention of “anti-racism” in their posted equity policies.


None of the survey questions posed by People for Education researchers actually focused on gathering data that really matters: the incidence of racial acts or race-related violence in the schools, the ‘reading failure’ connection, growth in anti-racism staff complements, local resistance to disclosing racial data, and teacher skepticism about the effectiveness of top-down policy initiatives.

Much of the passive resistance may be attributable to a broader awareness of the continuing education crisis. Student literacy is identified by Illuminate Education and many American school authorities as “a social justice issue” especially relevant to Black and minority students. Each year, over four million U.S. grade 4 students are added to the population of non-readers and, according to the World Bank, living in “learning poverty.” A year ago, the Ontario Human Rights Commission Right to Read Inquiry, found reading failure to be an urgent matter  of “social justice,” for children affected by learning disabilities, marginalized or struggling with “intersecting conditions.” What’s most peculiar is that– so far– the literacy crisis disproportionately affecting disadvantaged children has been brushed aside by the very organization now urging compliance with “anti-racism” mandates.

Why have federal anti-racism initiatives in schools been stalled in their tracks, even in Ontario?  Will ‘top-down’ anti-racism policy directives work to root out racism and, more importantly, reduce the incidence of racially-motivated discrimination and violence?  How much of the impetus for collecting race-based data comes from the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) and its GTA board allies?  Is there a danger that racial-profiling will backfire – breeding deeper ‘racial identity’ divisions and providing evidence which only reinforces harmful and debilitating stereotypes? 


Artificial intelligence has finally arrived in a big way in the form of its latest edtech innovation, OpenAI’s ChatGPT.  The intelligent chatbot which surfaced in November 2022 can spin well written essays and even solve mathematical equations in seconds. It could well be what is known as a ‘game changer’ in education, particularly in the higher grades, colleges and universities.

Teachers everywhere are awakening to a new reality: assignments requiring regurgitation are fast becoming obsolete and classroom practitioners will have to up-their-game to stay one step ahead of the robots. That’s a tall order for school systems accustomed to moving at a glacial pace. It’s also a lot to expect of teachers in the wake of the pandemic education setback.

The initial wave of reaction to ChatGBT hit like a tsunami and most of it sounded apocalyptic. San Francisco high school teacher Daniel Herman’s feature article in The Atlantic, “The End of High School English” (December 9, 2022) predicted the worst.  Teenagers, he wrote, have “always found ways around hard work of actual learning,” from Cliff’s Notes in the 1950s, to “No Fear Shakespeare” in the 1990s to You Tube videos and analysis in recent years. For most, writing an essay, at home or in school was the moment of reckoning. You were “on your own with a blank page, staring down a blinking cursor, the essay awaiting to be written.”


The arrival of ChatGPT, a tech marvel that can generate sophisticated written answers to virtually any prompt, customized to various writing styles, will likely further erode school writing programs. It will also, in some cases, signal the end of writing assignments altogether, eliminating writing as a critical skill, a recognized metric for intelligence, and a teachable skill.

One of North America’s leading authorities on literacy and cognitive science, Natalie Wexler, responded to such dire predictions with a short essay in Forbes (December 21, 2022) in defense of continuing to teach writing at all levels. While ChatBGT may be able to produce good essays, she claimed, that did not make writing obsolete.

Millions of students, at all levels, including PSE, continue to struggle with their writing. In the United States, Wexler reminded us, only 27 per cent of Grade 8 and Grade 12 students performed at the proficient level or above in recent national assessments.  In other words, most students lack proficiency in expressing themselves in writing.

Surveying Canadian student writing assessment scores, based upon incomplete data from province-to-province, indicates that our students only perform marginally better.  One April 2019 York University study of Ontario undergraduate university students found that some 41 per cent of 2,230 students self-reported that they were “at risk in academic settings because of limited levels of basic skills” and some 16 per cent indicated that they were totally lacking in the required skills, particularly in writing, test taking, and academic study skills.

Writing involves far more than acquiring a skill. Here Natalie Wexler explains why: “When done well, [writing] isn’t just a matter of displaying what you already know—although it’s crucial to have some pre-existing knowledge of the topic you’re writing about. The process of writing itself can and should deepen that knowledge and possibly spark new insights. So when students use ChatGPT, they’re not just cheating whatever institution is giving them credit for work they haven’t done. They’re also cheating themselves.”


Writing also has significant related benefits. When students write about something they are studying – in any subject – it provides ‘retrieval practice’ and improves their retention of the material. Building their store of knowledge in their long-term memories makes it, in turn, easier to acquire more knowledge. “Prior knowledge about a topic is like mental velcro,” Marilyn Jaeger Adams reminded us. “The relevant knowledge gives the words of the text places to stick and make sense, thereby supporting comprehension…”

Explicit writing instruction, beginning with the sentence, also helps students understand the texts they have been asked to read. “The syntax of written language is more complex than that of spoken language, with constructions like subordinate clauses and the passive voice,” writes Natalie Wexler. “Many students don’t just become familiar with that syntax through reading. But when they learn to use those complex constructions in their writing, they’re in a much better position to understand them when they encounter them in text.”

An initial alarm about ChatGPT was sounded in December 2022 by South Carolina college professor Darren Hick who caught one of his students cheating by using the chatbot to write an essay for his philosophy class.  The essay on David Hume and the paradox of horror was found to be machine generated and Hick imposed a sanction for plagiarism. It was a test case for what is sure to  follow from the Winter Term of 2023 onward.  Reacting to reports of such cases, New York City public schools, America’s largest school system, decided to “block” access to ChatGPT in all of its schools.

The incursion of Chat GPT will likely have disastrous consequences if teachers are now deterred from teaching or assigning writing in their classes. Coming out of the pandemic, we now have a serious literacy crisis, varying in severity from province-to-province, here in Canada. With so much emphasis on correcting reading deficits, student writing does not get the attention it deserves. The last thing we need is a technological innovation that makes it easier for students to progress without actually mastering writing.

Will classroom teachers be up to combating the invasion of the writing bot? Will school systems attempt to block access to the technological marvel? Will we look for technological patches like TurnItIn.com, reprogrammed to detect, identify and counteract plagiarism, the outward expression of breaches in academic integrity? In the initial phase, will it come down to a battle between rival bots?


The recent spike in child respiratory illnesses is worrisome and taking its toll on K-12 classrooms in most school districts. Classrooms with empty desks are easy to spot in December 2022 and a tell-tale sign that the ‘tridemic’ is adversely affecting students, teachers and families. It’s also an ominous sign that the worst may be yet to come, since January and February tend to be the peak months for seaonal flu outbreaks in Canada.  

Among the first to blow the whistle were Nova Scotia public school teachers. For two weeks or more in late November, classroom teachers were reporting record student absenteeism, ranging from 30 to 50 per cent of students in some schools. Newly-elected Nova Scotia Teachers Union (NSTU) president Ryan Lutes voiced public concerns but his plea fell on deaf ears.  

Teachers represented by the Nova Scotia Teachers Union finally took it to the N.S. Legislature’s Human Resources Committee on November 29 decrying rates of absenteeism, working conditions, and the lack of substitute teachers. Once again, Education Minister Becky Druhan remained silent, leaving senior education officials scrambling to explain it all away.  

High rates of student absenteeism are not uncommon during flu season, but this outbreak comes on top of two- and-a-half years of pandemic interrupted education. What’s shocking is that Nova Scotia’s Education Department remained in denial, suspended in some kind of never-never land. It took a media firestorm to attract their attention.

It’s now a serious matter, so where is the actual data and how does it figure in the larger issue of the long-term impact of the prolonged pandemic education crisis on the quality of education in our schools?  Someone, somewhere has to connect the dots.

Student absenteeism since the pandemic hit in March 2020 has set new records and severely tested existing provincial attendance guidelines. Current absentee rates far exceed the levels identified as a concern in September 2017 when the province posted its official “Student Attendance and Engagement Policy.”

Back then, missing 16 or more days a year was identified as “chronic absenteeism” and those who missed 25 per cent of class time were considered at academic risk. It’s fair to ask what proportion of students now miss 16 or more days of school and how many exceed the 25 per cent benchmark identified as being “linked to lower marks.”

The current spike in student illness and absenteeism is not an isolated phenomenon. In January and early February of 2022, the Omicron wave decimated class attendance, especially in Cape Breton. Again, in April 2022, The Chronicle Herald reported a major March 21 to 25 rash of absenteeism, ranging in the Halifax area from 12.2 per cent (P-6) to 18.1 (10-12), exceeding normal averages of less than 10 per cent of all students. 

            Our sister province, New Brunswick, has just released its October 2022 attendance data and the results are not pretty.  Students in that province are missing more school days than ever before since COVID-19 hit. The average N.B. student misses 16 or more school days a year and so most students, statistically speaking, now qualify as examples of “chronic absenteeism.”

            Outbreaks of student absenteeism because of illness are now visible elsewhere. The latest school district to report in is Ontario’s Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board. Up to 20% of that district’s public school students were out with illness on certain days in November 2022 and many are reportedly “falling behind” in their studies.  That’s at least double the absenteeism rate in 2020 (five to 10 per cent). In high schools, absentee rates range from 8% to 14%, compared to 3% to 4 % two years ago. Staff absences for personal illness are also up, to nearly 16 days each, from 13 to 15 before the pandemic.

Students are staying home for lots of reasons. Since COVID-19 hit children and teens were encouraged to stay home if they had symptoms of the virus. Parents of immuno-compromised are essentially home-schooling their kids out of fear that contagion run rampant in local schools. Some students and many teachers are totally frustrated by the constant upheaval and questioning the value of attending classes, best with ongoing interruptions or full of empty desks.  

Education authorities and faculties of education have been, until recently, absent on the subject of absenteeism. Across Canada, from-province-to province, education authorities have been essentially flying blind because absenteeism is a neglected research field. A recent Canadian Journal of Education article (2021), written by University of Ottawa researcher Anton Birioukou, pointed out that “the lack of empirical knowledge” concerning student absenteeism was “a contributing factor to the high levels of absenteeism evident in Canada.”

It all brings to mind the old Japanese proverb of the three wise monkeys: “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.”  In dire circumstances, it’s tempting to turn a blind eye to an entrenched problem.

American research on student absenteeism, much of it generated by Professor Christopher Kearney of the University of Nevada, is instructive and deserves more attention. He is the leading expert on what is known as “school refusal behaviour” exhibited by students who resist or skip school even when they are otherwise healthy.

Specialists in the field like Kearney have identified many, sometimes interrelated root causes. It starts with the student (i.e., boredom/ lack of interest or health issues); the home (familial neglect, lack of support for schooling); the school (poor school climate, unmet educational needs); and society (poverty and the need to supplement family income).

            While occasional absences are expected, especially among teens, regular and recurring absences exceeding three weeks of school time are detrimental to students’ learning, academic progress and social well-being. Yet there’s lots of evidence that since the great pandemic disruption high levels of absenteeism are being normalized in provincial school systems.

Pandemic school disruptions have significantly altered the educational context, largely as a result of massive and mostly unplanned experiments in emergency remote learning. Public faith in school attendance has been shaken. It’s likely that student “seat-time” and conventional grade promotion may not ultimately be the only basis for assessing levels of student engagement in learning.

            Rows of empty desks are impossible to ignore, but we would be unwise to embrace unproven alternatives. While “seat-time” may have its imperfections, alternatives need to pass the ‘sniff-test’ – and provide meaningful student accountability or credible means of assessing academic expectations, securing course credits, and acquiring diplomas.   If we are truly committed to ‘keeping kids in school’ in the post-pandemic era, then we had better make a concerted effort to reduce the numbers of empty desks in those schools.

Why were Canadian schools caught off-guard and so ill-prepared for the most recent surge in student absenteeism?  Why have our education researchers been so “absent on absenteeism” and what does it suggest about their priorities?  Have pre-COVID student attendance/absenteeism benchmarks been abandoned out of necessity?


A critical public debate over student behaviour policy and practice has recently surfaced in the Ontario city of London and surrounding region, sparked by a recent explosion of school violence the its public schools.  Two-and-a-half years into the pandemic disrupted schooling era, tension, turbulence and bullying can no longer be swept under the carpet. Violent incidents in the Thames Valley District School Board (TVDSB)’s 154 elementary schools more than doubled to 900 in October 2022, compared to some 400 in June of last year. That uptick in disruptions may not be an isolated phenomenon but rather a barometer of what’s actually happening inside and outside of classrooms.

What’s most troubling is that many episodes of student-on-student violence go unreported and it’s really a sign of turmoil that runs deeper in school culture. Whole classes are evacuated to isolate and subdue angry or frustrated students acting out in school. Elementary parents complain about rampant violence in younger grades and overwhelmed staff unable to curb the violence or provide support or protection for children.

The local teachers’ union and the odd brave teacher are speaking out-of-school.  One Grade 8 teacher, identified only as “Tom,” blamed a board discipline policy which is not only ‘unclear and confusing,’ but paves the way for students to reoffend. “There is zero accountability,” he told CBC News London Morning, hiding his identity out of fear for possible consequences.

Nor is it confined to elementary schools. For the past two years, a few London city high schools have been in near constant turmoil.  Local police reported making 28 calls to one London high school, Saunders Secondary School, from October 2021 to April 22 to break up fights, respond to mental health issues, or investigate assaults, property damage, thefts and other incidents. Two 16-year-old boys were stabbed in September near A.B. Lucas Secondary School and more recently, in late November, students described a frantic and bloody scene at H.B. Beal SS after a teen girl stabbed another over lunchtime in the cafeteria.

School districts like Ontario’s Thames Valley DSB were unprepared for the rising incidence of violence and the near constant problem of ‘low-level disruptions’ besetting classrooms.  The Ontario school board is typical of most of the 72 districts in the province.  Faced with repeated incidents and intense media scrutiny, TVDSB Director of Education Mark Fisher has declined comment or instructed senior school officials to either defend existing ‘’progressive discipline” policy or assign blame to “what’s happening in communities” following the pandemic.

After having implemented school-wide positive, preventive student behaviour policies over the past fifteen years or so, school principals and classroom teachers have been deprived of traditional deterrents – office reports, suspensions and, in some extreme cases, expulsions. Integrating most students with complex needs into regular classrooms, in the midst of the turmoil and with totally inadequate resource supports, have merely compounded the problems.

Current student behaviour policy dates back to April 2007 in Ontario when former Premier, then Education Minister, Kathleen Wynne (2006-2010), abandoned the ‘zero tolerance’ approach to curbing bullying. Heeding the advice and counsel of her Deputy Minister Ben Levin, Wynne sought to curtail the high incidence of suspensions which were, at that time, found to be disproportionately affecting students from marginalized or disadvantaged communities.

Positive Emotional Behaviour Supports (PEBS or SW-PBS) approaches, introduced since 2007 in Ontario and elsewhere across North America, have dramatically reduced the use of suspensions and resulted in the virtual elimination of expulsions, the last resort in school discipline. Curbing the use of sanctions has meant keeping students in school is now the priority, often through the expanded use of ‘time-out’ rooms, Individual Education Plans (IEPs), restorative justice remedies, and ‘social promotion’ to the next grade.


The official Ontario school suspension data tells the story across the system with some 2 million students. In 2007-08, 94,386 Ontario students were listed as “suspensions” (4.32 per cent of all students) and 996 were reported as “expulsions” (0.05 per cent). By 2019-20, the last year reported, total suspensions were down to 46,990 (2.21 per cent) and only 245 students were recorded as “expulsions” (0.01 per cent).

The reported data for TVDSB has suspensions dropping from 4,918 (5.86 per cent) to 3,275 (3.91 per cent) but looks totally unreliable for “expulsions.” The board reported less than 10 expulsions a year from 2007-08 to 2016-17, then slowly rising each year to 15 in 2019-20 before the pandemic. Those figures for expulsions need to be audited for accuracy.

Speaking truth to power in K-12 education can be exceedingly frustrating because it’s usually met with a wall of silence. TVDSB Grade 8 teacher “Tom” is a brave soul who speaks for many frontline teachers with their heads down, toughing it out and left to deal with the problem on their own, day-in-and day-out, in post-pandemic school closure times.

Progressive student behaviour approaches are now unequal to the challenge, according to classroom teachers and engaged parents. Violent, disruptive and disrespectful students are free, in far too many schools, to do erode learning and sustain the turmoil with impunity.

Local Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (EFTO) president in the TVDSB Craig Smith has lifted the veil. “We have moved from one pendulum of zero tolerance to now one of almost complete latitude,” he says, surveying the current student behaviour landscape. The current approach is anything but ‘progressive’ if it’s scaring schoolchildren and allowing violence and low-level disruptions to flourish in elementary and secondary schools.

How representative is the turmoil besetting Ontario’s Thames Valley regional school district educating the vast majority of London’s public school children and teens? Was adopting “positive behaviour supports” policy and completely abandoning “zero tolerance” for violence a wise decision? Is the current PBIS approach working for students, teachers and families?  Will it survive the current wave of post-pandemic school disruptions?

“Data my ass” is a term of derision that will live on in infamy in New Brunswick education. Uttered by Premier Blaine Higgs in early October 2022, and directed at Anglophone Deputy Minister of Education George Daley, it was seized upon by former Education Minister Dominic Cardy as a clear indication of two things: the premier’s distain for ‘evidence-based’ decision-making and the dismissal of expert advice proffered by a senior civil servant.


That closed door meeting with the Minister and his senior staff proved to be the last straw in a strained and testy relationship. Soon after, Minister Cardy was dropped from cabinet and a few weeks later, on November 9, the object of the premier’s ire followed the Minister out the door.

Pragmatic politicians like New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs focus on the numbers – in public opinion polls and on the latest provincial student assessment tests. Immediate and reactive political responses drive decision-making.  Politicians and far too many education policy-makers, as Canadian education genius Bernard Shapiro once remarked, “jump over the evidence” in making decisions.  That’s relevant in this particular situation.

Educational changes in New Brunswick and across North America come in distinct cycles, often repeated over time.  That may come as quite a revelation to policy-makers from outside education. A surprising number of ambitious and upwardly mobile educators also get taken in.  It’s called ‘riding the wave’ to the next rung on the educational career ladder.

Serious students of school reform, familiar with the research, particularly David Tyack and Larry Cuban’s 1995 American classic Tinkering Toward Utopia, know that supposedly new ideas and innovations tend to be rebranded and recycled, leaving the status quo unchanged.  In the plain-spoken language of New York Yankee catcher Yogi Berra, “it’s déjà vu all over again.”


In the case the New Brunswick school system, big changes come in little bites.  It took N.B.’s former Auditor General Kim MacPherson to point this out back in January 2019, before the pandemic threw us completely off-course. Back then, a fellow named George Daley, then president of the New Brunswick Teachers Association (NBTA), heartily agreed that “many changes” were being made to the system “too often” and “affecting its stability.”

“We’ve had 37 major changes in 35 years in New Brunswick education,” Daley told CTV News Atlantic.  Teachers had, he noted, raised that issue time-and-time again with a succession of governments no matter what their political stripe. “Political parties,” he added, “use us (teachers and students) as a football and opposition parties use us as a way to poke holes in government.” In short, the system is “falling apart” when you are in opposition, but just fine when you are in government.

Such popular analyses tend to muddy the waters.  “Major changes” upon close examination are usually “course correction” initiatives. They also lump-together the three distinct phases of the policy process: (1) policy talk – identifying and framing critical issues; (2) policy action – strategies and innovations to affect change; and (3) policy implementation – making the changes happen in practice in the schools.

Given the fact that it takes 3 to 5 years to bring about enduring system reform, most of the proposed changes either falter or simply peter-out in implementation. That’s particularly true when changes initiated by one education minister are handed-off to their successors, politicians who in many cases, either waiver in their commitment or have their own agendas.

One thing is clear – former Education Minister Cardy was not only cerebral in personal style, but also, to a remarkable degree, committed to evidence-based analysis and ‘following the data.’ It was his personal strength and, in that sense, he was an ‘un-politician.’ What Higgs, the pragmatist saw, after four years, was initiative-overload and what is known as ‘paralysis by analysis.’

Two of the province’s most ‘wicked problems’ were priorities for Higgs when he appointed Cardy to cabinet four years ago: reversing the decline in literacy, starting in elementary schools; and addressing the ineffectiveness of an Anglophone sector French immersion program where, at the end of Grade 12, only 10 per cent of all students achieved the expected language proficiency. While that figure remains low, Canadian Parents for French NB put more stock in the levels of oral proficiency of those in Grade 12 in the FSL program (See 2021-22 data).


Whatever one thinks of Cardy’s public persona, his grasp of what it takes to initiate real change was essentially sound. The pandemic changed everything, turning school systems upside down, derailing every major initiative, inflicting learning losses, and aggravating inequities, especially among poor and disadvantaged children.  Some allowances for the learning recovery challenge and readjusting implementation timelines makes common sense.

When phasing-out French immersion became Higgs PC government policy, it was on the understanding that it would take time to develop an effective, properly staffed and resourced alternative in the form of a more intensive French as a Second Language program for all Anglophone students. Notwithstanding the pandemic upheaval, the Premier simply lost patience and refused to budge on a September 2023 phase-in implementation timetable.

Converting a French immersion system into and intensive universal FSL program model, grade-by-grade is a massive undertaking, and the Department is best positioned to determine the optimal implementation timeline. Bungling implementation is far more likely when it’s rushed and that’s likely to be the real lesson of the education turnover.

A dismissive quip like ‘data my ass’ speaks volumes about government priorities.  Election cycles trump policy implementation planning cycles. Ignoring or brushing aside research evidence may be expedient, but will likely prove to be short-sighted in the long-run.  Rushing policy changes like abandoning French immersion in New Brunswick may well add to the list of initiatives eventually cast aside and filed under “flawed in implementation.”

Why do education policy-makers “jump over the evidence” in making critical decisions like establishing implementation timetables? Which weighs heavier in the balance – opinion polling or policy implementation forecasts? What proportion of provincial or state education policy reforms actually get implemented? What happens to policies en route to implementation?