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Rising children’s reading scores in Ontario may well be an illusion.  Early literacy rates as measured on Ontario standardized test have, we now know, been inflated by the use of Assistive Technology (AT).  That was the biggest revelation contained in a ground-breaking September 2021 report, Lifting the Curtain on EQAO Scores, produced by the Ontario branch of the International Dyslexia Association (IDA/Ontario).

“There are so many students struggling to read whose experiences are being hidden right now,” says Alicia Smith, president of IDA Ontario. “Our goal in producing this report is to bring attention to the depth of the real issues. These are being swept under the carpet.”

Ontario’s provincial student assessment agency, the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO), has produced some problematic data. Between 2005 and 2019, the EQAO reported a steady increase in reading scores for students in grades 3 and 6.  On the Grade 3 test, the proportion of students meeting the provincial standard reportedly jumped from 59 to 74 per cent, a 15-point gain in the prime indicator of literacy.

What the EQAO did not publicly disclose was that increasing numbers of students were being provided with ‘accommodations’ such as AT when writing the test, which most likely inflated the numbers. Nearly one in five students (18 per cent) utilized AT to complete the EQAO assessment in 2019, up from 3 per cent back in 2005.

Assistive technology is now commonplace in Canadian schools, widely used to diagnose reading difficulties and to provide computer-assisted help with reading. During provincial tests, students with diagnosed reading difficulties are now routinely allowed to either listen to an audio version of the text and comprehension questions.  In many cases, they are accommodated by having adults, either a teacher or a volunteer, who is permitted to write down the student’s verbal response.

Gains in Ontario early reading scores shriveled up almost entirely when the use of assistive technology was factored into presenting the actual results. Whereas 56 per cent of students met the standard without the use of assistive technology in 2005, the figure was only marginally higher at 62 per cent in 2019.

Reported pass rates for the Grade 10 Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test (OSSLT) have also been flagged as a cause for concern. While the EQAO reports that the percent of successful ‘first time eligible’ students has hovered between 80 and 82 per cent, the non-participation rate has more than doubled, rising from 8.4 per cent in 2005 to 19 per cent in 2019. Little is known about students who do not write the OSSLT, but Toronto District School Board data reveals that two-thirds (65 per cent) of students who do not participate in the OSSLT do not end up applying for post-secondary education.

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When provided with appropriate early instruction, an estimated 95 per cent of all students are cognitively capable of learning to read. In, Ontario and every other Canadian province, the IDA and many reading experts see a large gap between childrens’ human potential and current reading outcomes.

Experienced literacy experts and tutors have seen it all over the years.  “It’s a complete joke,” says Jo-Anne Gross, founder of Toronto-based Remediation Plus. “Most of the kids diagnosed and coded don’t have learning disabilities. They just don’t know how to read.”  Gross applauds IDA Ontario for exposing the hidden problem. “The authenticity of the reading scores is sadly lacking,” she claims, “and the public has a right to full disclosure.”

Ontario parent David Logan, a Kingston father of a Grade 5 son struggling with reading, told CBC News in October 2021 that assistive technology was little help to his son in mastering reading skills and his local public school had no plan to help him progress beyond needing the device. He’s fairly typical of many concerned parents who have come forward to testify at hearings of the ongoing Ontario Right to Read inquiry into human rights issues affecting students with reading disabilities.

While assistive technology can be very useful in helping educators to diagnose particular reading skills deficits, it is problematic when utilized to ‘read’ to students and produce scripts on standardized literacy tests. There are some unintended consequences.  It’s not just the technology, notes University of Toronto clinical psychologist Todd Cunningham, it’s more about the “accommodations” made in completing the test.  He explains what actually happens: “When there are teachers in the room, it’s natural for them to help out struggling kids.“

The recent Ontario revelations inflated EQAO literacy scores do give us some indication of what to expect when the much-anticipated Right to Read public inquiry report finally lands in the spring of 2022.

Why are so many younger students still struggling with reading?  Is there any substitute for effective instruction in early reading?  Should school systems implement end of grade 1 phonics checks as a matter of policy? What is an appropriate role for the use of Assistive Technology? Should AT be used by students completing provincial assessments? If so, does the public have a right to know the extent of its use and literacy rates unassisted by such technology?

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Mario is the most iconic fictional character in the global video game industry. At the height of his fame in the 1980s, he was the star of the Nintendo Super Mario series of games, capable of ‘powering-up’ to acquire greater abilities and surmount any obstacle in his path.  

            Today, the Canadian education world has, by strange coincidence, its own version of a video game super hero – Dr. Mario Chiasson, a super-charged technology evangelist with a title to match, Director of Research, Innovations and Change Management in New Brunswick’s Francophone South school district, based in Moncton.

            At last week’s virtual Canadian EdTech Summit 2021, sponsored by Toronto-based Mind Share Learning, Chiasson dazzled the audience of educational leaders and ed-techies with his usual high energy presentation. “We are living in COVID times,’ he declared, “and it’s the era of VUCA.” Succeeding in it, he added, means “embracing the three A’s – agility, adjusting, and adapting.”  “Everything is fast and deep and we need to be responsive to shifts in time, space, and technology.” 

            If you missed all that, you are not alone. Chiasson talks fast and speaks in fluent but nearly impenetrable ed-tech jargon. What is VUCA?  It’s short for today’s “volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous” world driven by “the speed of technology” where the educational system is under pressure from a “digital environment” which is “collaborative and malleable” rather than ordered and set in its ways.

            Putting innovation at the centre of education is his mission and that of his latest visionary ed-tech project, Intrappreueur, aimed at transforming schools with digital technology, artificial intelligence, interconnected robotics, and new forms of management. “Shifting the education culture from an Ego-System to an Eco-Community,” is how Chiasson describes it with his usual vivid metaphoric language.  

            While it sounds like a pipe dream, the project is already underway in six pilot high schools in Francophone South. “We’re out to implify rather than implement innovation,” he told me in a recent interview. Some four out of ten students, he claims, are disengaged and to reconnect with them will require “inclusive, personalized learning.” In his vision, “the class will be transformed into the ‘learning lab’ and the school becomes an innovative community learning centre.”

            School leadership is a preoccupation of Chiasson and that may explain why he spends so much of his time ‘managing upwards’ in the K-12 system.  Since the inception of C21 Canada, the high-tech advocacy group of education executives, he has emerged as a darling of Canada’s CEOs and is closely aligned with the leading ed-tech vendors, including Apple Education, CISCO, InkSmith, and Steelcase Education. To no one’s surprise, Mario was honoured as Innovator of the Year in 2020 by the country’s leading ed-tech promoter, Mind Share Learning.

            Chiasson speaks a lot about what students need to thrive in the digital workplace and, more specifically, how to avoid being casualties of technological acceleration and automation. Today’s schools, he believes, need to set aside the old curricula and embrace the ‘recertification’ of students. “The labour force,” he contends, “needs to be recertified” because of workplace dislocations demanding a new set of skills. “Instead of developing workers, we need to develop young entrepreneurs or intrappreneurs.   

            Now entering his fifties, and after teaching for over 25 years, Chiasson has lost none of his zip and vitality. Born and raised near Tracadie-Sheila, N.B., he mastered coding at age 12 while wiling away the hours in the back of his father’s electrical supply store.  He honed his competitive instincts in provincial-level tennis and earned his first degree in Physical Education at Universite de Moncton (2002) before teaching French Immersion and going on to secure a Masters’ degree in School Administration with a specialty in technology (2004).  That Dr. honourific came in 2020 when Chiasson completed his Ed.D. at U de M under the guidance of Faculty of Education ICT professor Viktor Freiman.    

            Like most ed-tech champions, Chiasson strives to be cutting edge and exudes business savvy.  His own consulting firm, My Device, My Space, My Learning Inc., has a website overflowing with the latest high-tech buzz words.  “Personalized learning,” “project based-learning,” and “experiential learning” are among the most popular.  “It’s all about personalized learning,” he told me. “School is part of the journey and it’s important to introduce teachers to digital language, tools and ways of personalizing their teaching.”

            The New Brunswick intrappreneur high school redesign project now being piloted in Francophone South is explicitly designed to disrupt prevailing school culture. With the support of Superintendent Monique Boudreau and a business-education alliance, Chiasson is out to transform high schools with technology-driven ‘21st century learning’ philosophy, constructivist, student-centred pedagogy and the latest digital tools.

            “Digital IT is the new sandbox of innovation,” he says with a flush of exhilaration. Five years ago, his research revealed a “mismatch of leadership” because senior administrators simply could not understand, or see the value of. digital tools.  That is why changing school leadership outlook and attitudes is deemed to be critical. “We call it ‘Operation Leapfrog’,” he told me, because we’re moving from Leadership 2.0 to Leadership 4.0 embracing the Fourth Industrial Revolution.” When it is fully realized, learning spaces will be totally revolutionized. Instead of learning in a six-pack of regular classrooms, high school students may find themselves in large ‘open concept’ spaces looking more like an experimental learning lab with break-out rooms.  

            Chiasson’s futuristic vision pushes at the boundaries with some radical mutations. His Atlantic Institute of Education Summer Institute program July 26 to August 6, 2021, featured a keynote address British high-tech management guru Richard Kelly, the world’s leading proponent of “swarm leadership.”  The core concept was initially conceived by Harvard University T.H. Chan School of Public Health researcher Leonard J. Marcus to explain the massive manhunt following the Boston Marathon bombings. Applying it to educational leadership, Kelly promotes “swarm leadership” inspired by “the ways ants, bees, and termites engage in collective work and decision making.”

            Educational visionaries project a certainty that comes from knowing the answers. Change is the only real constant in the world of the ed-tech evangelist. While leading regional IT initiatives from 2000 to 2004, he saw, first hand, the rise and fall of over-hyped projects such as 1:1 laptops and BYOD (Bring Your Own Devices). “Every two years,” he says now, “there’s a new phase of innovation.”  They didn’t work because “students were not performing” and there was “a gap between the vision and the actual adoption of technology.”

            One of Chiasson’s close allies, Karen Yamada, Chief Learning Officer of C21 Canada and the CEO Academy, cut through the tech-ed bafflegab at last week’s Canadian EdTech Summit. “We were rolling the rock uphill, then COVID-19 hit. It presented us with an opportunity to shake it up,” she said. “People, at all levels, focused on technology for the first time. It breathed new life into moving forward with the OECD Compass for 2030, embracing technology enhanced global competencies.” 

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            New Brunswick’s “Super Mario” of digital innovation is an eternal optimist. Like most true believers, Chiasson remains undeterred by old fossils, skeptics, or the wreckage of jettisoned initiatives. “I’m a positivist and aspirational by nature,” he confessed. Confronted by skeptics or nay-sayers, he powers-up and remains steadfast. “I take the time to explain it, so they can understand it better.”  There is, after all, no turning back.

* Adapted from The Telegraph Journal, Brunswick News, November 5, 2021. 

What motivates ed-tech evangelists like New Brunswick’s Dr. Mario Chiasson?  What role does C21 Canada and the C21 CEO Academy play in seeding “21st century learning” in provincial school systems? How much faith should we place in technology as a source of innovative thinking and the route to educational transformation?  To what extent does the ed-tech industry blur the distinctions between private interests and the public good?  Do education technology designers promote innovations based upon forecasts of the “next big thing” or sound educational practice? 

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Much of the critical fire generated by high school scheduling changes during the COVID-19 pandemic marathon is directed at eliminating the hybrid model and driven by harried and exhausted teachers. “It doesn’t work” is the rallying cry and the obvious short-term solution is to axe what is labelled as an “inferior” model of teaching and learning. Delving more deeply into the raging issue, the source of the trouble is more complicated because it’s precipitated more by reactive pandemic timetable shifts and rooted in broader “design-change” innovations.   

The Pandemic not only turned school systems upside-down, but radically altered its priorities. Toggling back and forth between in-person and online learning became the ‘new normal’ and it has completely up-ended a whole series of ‘design-change’ plans to transform high schools. Regular video-conferencing and remote learning render some of the favoured minimally-guided teaching strategies much less effective, particularly ‘project-based-learning’ and extended group activities. Securing and sustaining student engagement means keeping lessons short and, ideally, no longer than 45 to 60 minutes.  

The more fundamental structural problem facing high schoolers– the length of the instructional periods in minimal guidance spaces—tends to escape close scrutiny. “It’s not just about headsets and webcams. That’s not the problem,” York Region parent  Shameela Shakeel  told The Toronto Star. “The problem is that the children at home are not really connected to the classrooms. There is a big disconnect.”

Two years into the pandemic, the most potentially damaging high school scheduling change has been the so-called ‘quadmester system.’  Introduced in Ontario districts as part of the public health response to COVID-19 in 2020-21, it thrusts students into compressed courses for two long periods each day over half the normal time, while shifting between in-person and online learning. It survived this year in the York public board and a few others with higher-than-average COVID-19 case counts.

School superintendents and high school principals are favourably disposed to ‘block’ schedules with longer and longer class periods. Long before the pandemic hit, they were nudging their school districts, one-by-one, over time, to abandon year-long (linear) courses, offered in 45 to 60 minute slots, normally in packages of 6 or 8 courses over the course of 36 weeks.

Design-change models in Canadian K-12 education have recently been aimed at finishing-off the conventional “Carnegie Unit,” the time-based metric for weighing the value of courses and awarding course credits. Under the Copernican model, pioneered in Canadian high schools in the 1980s, classes were taught for longer periods over the day and over semesters, normally covering one-third or one-half of the year.

The latest iteration, first piloted in Alberta in 2008-09, promoted by the University of Calgary-based Galileo Education Network, and expanded since, removes the standard instructional time requirement and allows students more time, or less time, to complete the course work. According to these Calgary faculty of education professors, the conventional full-year course model exemplifies “assembly line” education and is a “traditional and increasingly irrelevant way to organize student and teacher learning in education systems.”  

The Galileo Education “High School Flexibility Enhancement” project was conceived of as a “high school redesign process” with, it turns out, little or no evidence-based research into its actual affect on student achievement.  “Flexible blocks of learning time, credit recovery options, project-based coursework and teacher advisory groupings” are the priorities, all consistent with what used to be termed “progressive” reform.

Pandemic shifts appear to have advanced the school scheduling change movement. In the summer of 2020, British Columbia secondary school leadership teams seized the opportunity to reorganize around “learning cohorts” and, in five weeks, completely re-designed their school timetables around instructional groups with fewer classes for longer periods of time.

In preparing for the current year, B.C. school boards based their decisions on two documents which echoed Galileo “design-change” theory: a Vancouver school board white paper, prepared in April 2021 by Saskatchewan school change theorist Dean Shareski, and a Canadian education policy research article written by the Galileo Education Network consultants. Student engagement and well-being are prioritized over academic learning and timetable changes justified as a means to the larger end of secondary school transformation. 

The BCSTA “Secondary School Timetable Options” brief, for example, includes a rather skewed “Semester/Linear/Quarter” Model Comparison chart described as “a subjective overview.” Setting aside the one-sided critique of conventional structures, the chart acknowledges that full-year course schedules are still “seen as best meeting the needs of students and programs with an academic focus,” may “provide the best overall quality of learning,” and may be “more effective for intense learning opportunities.”

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The “Quadmester’ model survived an onslaught of opposition in May and June of 2021, mostly emanating from the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), Canada’s largest school district. Students, teachers and parents coalesced around a #No Quads/ No Hybrids” movement to rid the system of a high school schedule deemed detrimental to student learning, achievement and well-being. Excessively long classes, the “crammed curriculum,” and the accelerated pace of learning precipitated its abandonment at the TDSB and limited its forecasted growth in Ontario.

Recent teacher and parent protests against the hybrid model get it half-right. Students were hurt by the imposition of hybrid blended learning last school year and teachers have exposed its glaring flaws: split focus, clunky online platforms, irregular connections, and exhaustion resulting from ‘double duty’ teaching timetables. Deadly long periods and students completely ‘checking-out’ are of much greater concern to students and parents. 

Adopting the Quad System only compounded the problems plainly visible during the hybrid model high school scheduling experiments. Looking longer-term, design-change schedule reforms such as ‘quadmesters’ will likely have greater adverse impact. Let’s hope students and parents will not be wooed into accepting an imperfect and improvised solution introduced under crisis conditions.   

What’s changed since the Pandemic up-ended high school education?  Do previous “design-change” innovations fit the radically changed teaching-learning conditions?  Has the rapid introduction of remote learning alerted us to more of the advantages of shorter, more purposeful teaching strategies?  In the light of the pandemic, is it time to rethink high school redesign based upon experimental super-block schedules?

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Back in June of 2011, Dirk Van Damme, Head of the OECD’s Innovation and Measuring Progress Division (IMEP), stunned a Toronto gathering of prominent international educators at OISE with a rather harsh assessment of the state of education research.  “It’s mostly of low quality,” he said, “and we need to be more hygenic when using the word research.”

While Van Damme recognized that education research was improving, he claimed that much of the “research” lacked credibility because researchers began from “fixed ideological positions” and limited their work to “small scale” projects with limited broader applicability. He warned then, a decade ago, that we were not “preparing students for 21st century challenges.”

The most recent national study, “Children and Schools During COVID-19 and Beyond,” produced for the Royal Society of Canada by University of Ottawa’s Tracy Vaillancourt and a team of researchers, provides us with a rare opportunity to examine the state of the field. Surely, a team of widely-known university researchers could produce evidence of how the massive disruption and school closures have impacted the learning of 5.7 million Canadian students in the “pandemic generation.”

Studying the Royal Society Policy Briefing report does give you a pretty good sense of the current shape and quality of faculty of education-based research. Social and emotional well-being and children’s mental health are the clear priorities of the vast majority of researchers, mostly trained in child psychology and educational sociology. It’s little wonder, then, that the report emphasizes the social and emotional impacts and focuses, to a large extent, on “notable threats to children’s well-being, educational success, and healthy development” in that order.

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Vaillancourt and her research team do convey a sense of urgency. “We are on the cusp of a ‘generational catastrophe’ that requires swift action to mitigate the harm,” they claim, and we now need to keep schools open. “Schools must be the first to open and the last to close” is the mantra repeated throughout the report. Why we need them open seems to revolve mostly around their 21st century mandate to ensure educational equity and provide social and emotional security for children. Judging from the report, the COVID-19 crisis may well have reinforced the commitment of researchers  to transform schools into “therapeutic institutions” for all children.

What’s strange about the report is the absence of official Canadian data on learning impacts and a call for education gatekeepers to collect and disclose mission-critical data on student achievement, absenteeism, behaviour, and graduation standards. Closing the achievement gap and addressing “learning loss” do not figure in the general policy proposals.  Buried among the ten recommendations is this revealing statement: “We need a precise account of who was impacted, how and for how long, so we can take appropriate steps toward providing systems and services that better support them moving forward.”

Lead author Vaillancourt’s cornerstone essay on the COVID-19 impact on children’s mental health, including school closures and social isolation, is original, reliable and evidence-based, and so is Jessica Whitley’s research summary on the impact on vulnerable children. Few would quibble with this assessment: “Many children and youth have experienced disengagement, chronic attendance problems, declines in academic achievement and decreased credit attainment during the pandemic, with the impact far deeper for those already at-risk.” Learning loss, we can infer, is only of real consequence when it applies to struggling students or those from marginalized communities.

One of the nine essay chapters, “Estimates of Student Learning During COVID-19 School Disruptions,” does cut to the heart of the matter. University of Toronto researcher Scott Davies and University of Waterloo professor Janice Aurini confront the problem squarely: “School disruptions over 2020 and 2021 have likely had a significant impact on children’s learning.” We know this from international research documenting significant “learning shortfalls” during March to June 2020 school shutdowns and more recent international studies showing “learning loss” during online instruction in the spring of 2020.

What we do know is worrisome. “Canada lacks high-quality and largescale data that can be used to directly measure any impacts of those disruptions on student achievement,” Davies and Aurini confirm. “Compounding this problem, provinces like Ontario cancelled their planned standardized testing in 2020 and 2021, precluding the possibility of comparing achievement shortly before and after the school closures. Available studies of achievement are limited to single school boards or handfuls of schools, or parent and teacher surveys that can only capture their perceptions of student learning.” (p. 52) With few exceptions, Canadian researchers have also ignored sound research on “the summer slide” which formed the basis for early estimates of COVID-19 school shutdown setbacks.

Forced to rely upon international studies and research data models, Davies and Aurini claim that the spring of 2020 disruptions alone resulted in “enduring 3-month learning shortfalls and gaps growing between the quartiles up to 1.5 years.” “Most Canadian students struggled, as did students elsewhere in the world,” they conclude, “gaining little ground and soon disengaging from schooling partially or fully.” While students resumed more normal patterns of learning during the interrupted 2020-21school year, the problem was compounded when students “reached a threshold of ‘pandemic fatigue’ and grew tired of online learning.” (pp. 59-60).

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The long-term impacts of “learning shortfalls” are now surfacing, again documented first by international research (UNESCO 2021 and UNICEF 2021). The only significant Canadian research, so far, focuses on social and emotional impacts, often to the exclusion of academic achievement. Poor mental health obviously adversely affects student achievement, but – as Davies and Aurini, point out – the reverse is true because “students who feel they are not achieving will have their well-being compromised”

False binaries bedevil Canadian education research and are much in evidence throughout to RSC report.  The whole idea that prioritizing academic achievement is at odds with priorities for student’s well-being is not really defensible. That faulty assumption was nicely laid to rest in 2020 by University of Cambridge researcher Tania Clarke in a research article exposing “the dangerous discourse of ‘trade-offs in education.”  Academic achievement and student well-being are, more often than not, reciprocal and mutually reinforcing. Simply put, doing better academically improves your outlook and sense of well-being.

The COVID-19 school closures have demonstrated the need for better achievement data for guiding evidence-based policy making in Canadian education. That research gap is exemplified, once again, in the RSC report. Some of the RSC chapters, particularly those produced by University of Ottawa professors Andy Hargreaves and Joel Westheimer, attempt to steer public education away from measuring learning and setting clear expectations. Like much of the current school change literature, those essays privilege student-well being over academic achievement, denigrate the term “learning loss,” and seek to limit or eliminate completely system-wide student assessment.

Actual data from parent surveys, school district reports, and quantitative studies suggest a major disconnect between such educational experts and parents and classroom teachers.  Surveys conducted by the Alberta Teachers Association (ATA 2020) Canadian Teachers Federation (CTF 2020) demonstrate the depth of parent and teacher concerns over erosions of children’s skills and mental health. After the first phase of COVID-19 shutdowns, parents in the Hamilton-Wentworth Board also expressed a strong desire for more teacher-led synchronous learning activities during regular school hours. The vast majority of parents, when given the choice, still opt for in-person schooling, with the possible exception of those who live in multigenerational households. Summer learning loss recovery programs have, according to Davies and Aurini, proven popular with parents who choose them for their children.

The identified “learning shortfalls” will not go away. Here again Davies and Aurini caution us not to brush the problem aside because the COVID-19 school disruptions may well “trigger a series of negative consequences” in the coming years. Taken together with the solid evidence of adverse mental health impacts, the soundest RSC essays simply cry out for high quality and timely data that can guide educational policy while also speaking to the legitimate concerns of parents, teachers and the public.

What’s missing in the current approach to combatting the “learning shortfalls” and psycho-social impacts of COVID-19 on children, teachers and families? Consistent, reliable, and evidence-based data.   More specifically, we need a national educational body to support the ongoing creation of seasonal learning data in which sizeable numbers of students are tested biannually in fundamental literacy and numeracy skills, first in September and then again in June. Such research is already conducted in many jurisdictions around the world. Our leading experts, Davies and Aurini, could not identify a Canadian jurisdiction anywhere in Canada that routinely uses seasonal learning designs to generate the kind of data that can assess interventions aimed at developing students’ well-being and learning. The COVID-19 disruption has made such research more critical than ever. It would provide the kind of data that can assess interventions aimed at developing students’ learning and well-being. Seasonal learning designs that test students at the end and beginning of consecutive school years can also identify the kinds of students that need extra support and the times the year in which they need those supports.

The cumulative impact of school disruptions on proficiency in the foundational literacy and numeracy skills is visible for all to see. Focusing on student well-being in isolation is not the answer and an accumulating body of research, mostly generated outside of Canada, is demonstrating why.  Davies and Aurini at least provide some “estimates” as to the likely learning shortfalls.  Today’s short-term losses, they claim, “may amplify as children move up grade levels and fall farther behind their peers.”  Being better prepared for the possibility of future closures is now a systemic priority and that simply won’t happen without better data that can track the challenges and successes of our students.

The August 2021 RSC study reveals both the strengths and weaknesses of faculty of education research, but all research is handicapped by the paucity of student data. “All policy decisions are made by leaping over the data,” Dr. Bernard Shapiro once said, twenty years ago. Now we know that the critical data is actually missing in K-12 education and it’s time to demand better from the gatekeepers.

Where is the data on the impact of COVID-19 shutdowns and disruptions in Canada on student learning and psycho-social development? What does the Royal Society of Canada report reveal about the preoccupations and implicit biases of education researchers?  How many of the RSC research summaries reaffirm school change theories common before the pandemic? Why, in a collection of nine different studies, does only one confront squarely the lack of reliable student performance and well-being data?

Eighteen months ago, the COVID-19 pandemic hit us and turned the K-12 education world upside down. School superintendents responsible for regional districts were left scrambling to find their bearings, like everyone else. School shutdowns sent the vast majority of their employees, teachers, district staff and in-school personnel home for weeks on end. Chief superintendents found it lonelier than usual at the top of regional systems of education. Instead of delivering stirring speeches to captive audiences of educators, many resorted to producing improvised, low-tech inspirational Zoom videos to get the message out to ‘the system.’ Frontline educators, in all likelihood, barely noticed because they were totally absorbed in shifts to “emergency home learning,” hybrid model scheduling, and ministering to the needs of anxious children and parents.

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The conventional structure and routines of school district administration, based upon in-person schooling delivered in bricks-and-mortar schools, gave way to what Michael K. Barbour and Can-eLearn aptly termed “toggling between shutdowns” from March 2020 to June 2021. Such disruptions affected top-down educational leadership by playing havoc with the normal ‘span of control’ extending from central office to principals and teachers in the classroom. An April 2021 Canadian study of “pandemic shifts” in British Columbia secondary schools let the cat out of the bag. Caught off-guard by the massive disruption, schools defaulted to pre-COVID practice focusing on ensuring the “social well-being’ of students, an approach in which “academics took a back seat,” even after the resumption of in-person schooling.

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What were Superintendents actually doing during the pandemic education crisis? It was difficult to determine, until quite recently, when some research evidence materialized in British Columbia. It was produced by West Vancouver superintendent Chris Kennedy, one of B.C.s most networked school leaders and a leading champion of “21st century learning.” His study, “How British Columbia School Superintendents Spend Their Time,” submitted for his PhD in Education dissertation at the University of Kansas, demonstrated how hard regional bureaucrats work, but – far more significantly – what absorbed their time during the COVID-19 interrupted 2020-21 school year.

Some 59 of B.C.’s 60 superintendents participated in Kennedy’s survey of superintendents’ work and so they were very representative of their peer group. The B.C. group of CEOs is top-heavy with men, 39 of 60 or 65 per cent, even though K-12 education is largely a women’s field in that province and right across North America. Since 2012, the BC Ministry of Education has embraced system “transformation” and its main tenets, innovation, personalization, and inquiry, usually packaged as “21st century learning.” “Being a passionate learning leader with a strong background in curriculum and assessment,” Kennedy reports, “is now mandatory for the superintendent position.” Getting ahead, typically involves engaging with C21 Canada’s  CEO Academy, generously funded by learning corporations and purveyors of educational technology for schools.

The Pandemic completely disrupted the B.C. school system and threatened to completely derail the implementation of that massive transformation. While the B.C. Learns initiative was high sounding aspirational, and technology-driven, it was conceived when online and virtual learning enrolled 6 to 8 per cent of all students, not the 100 per cent thrust into e-learning, at various times, during the pandemic. The sheer speed and scale of the transformation overtook curriculum and program innovation plans, leaving superintendents, curriculum consultants, and local principals scrambling to keep up with changes in delivery, cohorting, scheduling, and assessment.

Superintendents are often heralded as visionaries, generating outsized expectations, only to find themselves enmeshed in operational problems and spending much of their time ‘putting out fires.”  During the COVID-19 disruptions, with the education house on fire, the B.C. superintendents were compelled to keep their heads down and focus on the immediate and urgent. Thirteen of the 59 superintendents surveyed revealed that they were caught up in the “tyranny of the urgent’ and fully 20 of them, one-third of the group, made direct reference to “urgent issues” dominating their time and eating into longer-term planning and implementation of systemic transformation. One first year superintendent reported that he/she had “no control over my time” and felt “pulled in many directions.” Putting out fires during the pandemic was widespread. “When something comes up in the district, it takes over everything,” was a common refrain. “Priorities are dictated by emergent situations.”

One prime indicator of the COVID-19 impact was revealed during B.C. administrative planning sessions involving superintendents and senior staff during the 2020-21 school year. Prominent Canadian education consultant Dean Shareski, a super-positive former Moose Jaw principal and author of Embracing a Culture of Joy (2016), was hired as the provincial facilitator and attempted to work his usual magic on the assembled educators. Famous for his “Learning is a Joyful Act” motivational school district presentations, Shareski attempted to seize the opportunity to promote “school improvement,” “21st century skills,” “global citizenship,” and “competency-based assessment.” Superintendents, senior administrators and high school principals defaulted to immediate and practical concerns.

Superintendent Kennedy’s final June 2021 thesis, completed under the guidance of Dr. Yong Zhou, a Chinese-born scholar turned American education progressive, made the case that superintendents worked harder than ever, often over weekends, to stay on-top of their responsibilities. Many and perhaps most regional education leaders experienced the stress of the “tyranny of the urgent” and, perhaps for the first time, “a lack of control.” COVID-19 was, in Kennedy’s words, “all-consuming” and involved working long hours with external partners, including public health and ministry officials.

B.C.’s “Pandemic Shifts” are packaged by Shareski as innovations consistent with OECD prescriptions for the educational future. He’s quite adept at winning over B.C. audiences by referring to Finland as “the world’s best educational system” and citing a New York Times piece claiming that B.C. is essentially ‘the new Finland.’ Pandemic high school schedules such as “quadmesters” are invoked as examples of ‘building back better.’

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That’s quite a stretch, judging from Kennedy’s research findings:  New high school schedules were adopted in response to public health mandates and many chose to view it as “necessity is the mother of invention.” While Shareski and his camp followers waxed philosophical about “silver linings,” only a minority of superintendents saw it that way. The minority who did saw advantages in getting rid of long-standing pre-COVID irritants and accountabilities, and specifically provincial assessments, student grades, and conventional marks-based graduation requirements.

How did COVID-19 impact senior education administration? What challenges to management control were presented by the shift to ‘emergency home learning’?  With regular educators teaching students at home or online, were school administrators sidelined and, if so, for how long during the March 2020 to June 2021 period?  Will the massive shift to online learning during 2020-21 ultimately help or hurt the movement for system transformation?    

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Education technology researcher Audrey Watters has a peculiar fascination with pigeons and their behaviour. The common domestic birds appear regularly in her popular education technology review Blog, Hack Education, and one adorns the flyleaf of her searing and insightful new book, Teaching Machines: The History of Personalized Learning. That affectation is inspired by none other than the infamous Harvard psychology professor B.F. Skinner, his “teaching machine,” and lab experiments with pigeons.

            Skinner and his experiments with pigeons, some of which he trained to play ping-pong, provide Watters with an ingenious way of conveying the hidden dangers associated with early teaching machines and their contemporary successors, personal computers. While at Harvard in the 1950s, Skinner was a leading proponent of behaviorism, a school of psychological thought now in disfavour. The foundation for early forms of education technology, such as Skinner’s mechanical teaching device, she points out, was to give students – just like his pigeons—positive reinforcement so that students, again like pigeons, would learn new skills.  

            Watters provides a very thorough, impeccably researched look at Skinner and his role in the launch of ‘Didak 101’ to teach spelling and his repeated, mostly futile, attempts to promote the widespread adoption of early teaching machines. She is particularly effective in demonstrating how the media shapes people’s perceptions of such inventions and raises public awareness of the psychological theories underpinning the latest ‘tech toys.’ Adopting a broader societal approach, the author analyzes the machines in the context of education reform, particularly the global impact of Sputnik in the 1950s, the explosion of the textbook industry, and the advent of every-student assessment.

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            Skinner claimed that his teaching machines allowed students to learn at their own pace, a cardinal principle of today’s “personalized learning.” Yet Watters’ research and writing demonstrates its unintended effects. By their design and operation, such devices (much like contemporary ed tech) not only limit what students learn but lead to the standardization of the teaching and learning process. More profoundly, while behaviorism (i.e., animal behaviour training and operant conditioning) is considered passe, it continues to inform and influence a new generation of education technology.

            Watters’ much-anticipated and long-in-the- making book fills a gaping hole in our understanding of the origin and implementation of education technology. Her earlier writings, including the four-part “Monsters of Education Technology” series and regular barbed online commentaries earned her a reputation as “ed-tech’s Cassandra.” This major piece of work will establish her as the foremost public intellectual and independent scholar in the field.

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Reviewer Peter Greene hit the nail on the head in his recent Forbes Magazine assessment.  It’s an amazing accomplishment when a single, compact and readable book manages to “connect the dots” as well as “bridge the gaps between history, technology and education.” The book also provides plenty of evidence in support of the recent work of American education technology critic Justin Reich, exemplified in his 2020 book, Failure to Disrupt, excoriating ed-tech hype and demonstrating why more recent technological marvels will not transform education.

            The founder of Khan Academy, Salman Kahn, author of the 2012 best-seller The One World Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined, provides a convenient foil for Watters because he demonstrates a deeply flawed grasp of the evolution of teaching and learning.  Like many others, including the late Sir Ken Robinson, he perpetuates the ingrained mythology that the American and Canadian education system remained “static” or unchanged from the late 1890s onward for over a hundred years. While the invention of the Internet had an impact, the ed-tech and classroom apps of today are more of a continuation of inventions and trends going back as far as the 1920s, to the days of Sidney Pressey and the earliest teaching machine pioneers.

            The prevailing assumptions and fallacies perpetuated by education technology evangelists and high-tech corporate business executives come in for some telling and deadly accurate analysis. Most know little or nothing about history and base their decisions on often faulty perceptions. Whether they fully understand the context or not, they simply proceed to build ed tech products, promulgate policies, and predict the future based upon such “futuristic” visions. They do use history “willy-nilly,” as American education historian David Tyack wisely observed. Watters’ book will go a long way to setting the record straight.

            Teaching machines matter in education and that’s why Watters’ book is such a welcome addition to a field well-stocked with titles extolling the virtues of ed-tech and heralding the imminent arrival of ‘the next big thing.’  Technological innovations from the early teaching machines to now are interwoven into the evolution of modern school systems as well as classroom teaching and learning practices. That’s where the book excels – in helping us to understand the technocratic culture that dominates K-12 education.

            Teaching machines, as Watters amply demonstrates, are not just ‘flashes in the pan’ but harbingers of successive changes in the ‘warp and woof’ of systems and classroom culture. “Their ongoing influence,” she contends, is embedded in the contemporary push for both “personalized technologies and behavioral engineering” in the schools. The real legacy of a succession of machines lies precisely, in her words, in “the technocratic culture that they helped engender in education.” 

Why is the history of teaching machines littered with failed experiments?  What motivated B.F. Skinner and the early inventors of teaching machines?  Why did his early teaching machine take the educational world of the 1950s by storm?  Whatever happened to the curricular mutation known as “programmed learning” popular in the 1970s?  Will machines and apps programmed to provide “personalized learning” ever displace humans in the classroom?  

ZombieIdeasEdASCD

Canada’s schools and the K-12 education system are weathering the most profound crisis and, over the past 18-months, many certainties have dissolved in the face of the seemingly never-ending succession of COVID-19 disruptions. Emerging out of the maelstrom, we are now in a better position to see, grapple with, and set aside a few “zombie ideas” in education.

Prevailing assumptions about mass schooling, ingrained beliefs about ‘minimally-guided’ student learning, and idealized visions of ‘21st century learning’ have been severely tested and found mostly wanting. Entering the school year, our five million students, their teachers and families, are far more attuned to the impact and realities of “learning loss” and the current challenges of tackling the impact upon student achievement and well-being.

What’s most amazing is that a surprising, although diminishing, number of school administrators, education professors, and educators continue to deny the existence of “student learning loss” to the point where it may now qualify as the latest example of a “zombie idea” in K-12 education.

“Zombie ideas,” New York Times commentator Paul Krugman argues are “beliefs about policy that have been repeatedly refuted with evidence and analysis but refuse to die.” Nine years ago, American education historian Larry Cuban, alerted us to their prevalence, especially in relation to popular and inflated claims about “online instruction.”

School closures have cost the ‘pandemic generation,’ from province-to-province, from 8 (Quebec) to 24 (Ontario) weeks of regular, in-class instruction. Prominent Canadian public policy analyst Irvin Studin, president of the Institute for 21st Century Questions, estimates that some 200,000 students, poor and affluent, have been “lost” or excluded from participation in any form of schooling.

Topsy-turvy pandemic education definitely left marginalized and special needs students more vulnerable. That is not in dispute, but there is still a residue of what might be termed ‘learning loss’ denial, perpetuated mostly by education theorists and their allies imbued with romantic ideas once associated with ‘progressivism.’   

A recent examples of this Canadian education school of thought was the response to the “pandemic catastrophe” produced by University of Toronto Schools teacher Josh Fullan, echoing the sentiments of  a vocal group of colleagues at the University of Ottawa faculty of education. Fullan and the University of Ottawa contingent continue to see ‘silver linings’ and urge schools to “honour what students gained amid the pandemic.”  

Learning was disrupted and often imperfect, Fullan contends, but not lost.  “Strong public systems,” “allies at school and home,” and the “adaptability of students” deserve more credit than they are receiving, according to Fullan. That is why he believes that phrases like “catching up” or “closing the gap” should be avoided and, rather remarkably, the term “learning loss” stricken from the lexicon in K-12 education.

Such assertions are simply outlandish on the heals of a global crisis affecting schools, students, teachers and families everywhere. Claiming that “learning loss” either doesn’t exist or is inconsequential (after 18-months of school disruptions) is one “zombie idea” without a shred of supporting evidence and one that “refuses to die.”

A profoundly important recent Ontario study, produced in June 2021 by Kelly Gallagher-Mackay and a team of Ontario Science Table university researchers, documented the extent of system-wide school closures and flagged the problem of “learning loss,” identified and being researched in education jurisdictions around the world.

While the researchers recognized the limitations of the current system-wide student assessment model, they noted the absence of any “learning loss” data in the province and identified the blind spot that compels researchers to utilize and apply research findings from other comparable jurisdictions.  That simply would not be necessary if the “zombie idea” that “learning loss” doesn’t matter was not already heavily influencing the prevailing research agenda in our ministries of education and education faculties. 

 Closing provincial school systems for weeks on end has got to have some academic impact; otherwise, one might ask – if learning is so natural, why do we go to school in the first place?  Without sound, reliable student assessment data, we can only assume that missing huge chucks of schooling, lurching back-and-forth into remote learning, and rapid adjustments to hybrid secondary school schedules, has already produced significant academic and psycho-social consequences for kids and teens.  

            “Zombie ideas” never seem to go disappear in K-12 education. A few months ago, Bryan Goodwin, head of Denver research institute, McREL International, created quite a stir with an ASCD commentary identifying six “zombie ideas” that refuse to die. Learning styles, unguided discovery learning, whole word reading, and teach critical thinking rather than facts made that ignominious list. The peculiar fallacy that “learning loss is of no consequence” never occurred to him, likely because it’s so implausible.

School closures have cost the ‘pandemic generation,’ from province-to-province, from 8 to 24 weeks of regular, in-class instruction and thousands opted-out of any form of schooling. Surely that matters and will have consequences, down the line, for our elementary and secondary school-age students.

Why do “Zombie Ideas” persist in K-12 education?  Is “Learning Loss is of little consequence” the latest “Zombie Idea” to surface and persist 18-months into the massive disruption of regular schooling?  Is it persisting because of educators’ passive and determined resistance to the resumption of system-wide student assessment?  If we keep delaying student testing, how can we possibly know the extent of the “learning loss” in terms of knowledge and skills?

 

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At the end of July 2021, University of New Brunswick president Paul Mazerolle posted a remarkably upbeat and positive COVID-19 community update. “We are approaching September with optimism and excitement,” it read, and, after 18-months of implementing health restrictions, the university would be opening up its campuses and returning, as much as possible, to normal. 

While that communique was being drafted and posted, many North American colleges and universities were announcing strict policies requiring students, staff and faculty to be vaccinated for COVID to come on campus for the coming year. Leading American universities, including UC-Berkeley, Caltech, Harvard, MIT, Princeton, Stanford and Yale led the way. By the first week of August, some 664 U.S. universities and colleges had required students or employees to be vaccinated before returning in September 2021. 

Our universities and colleges were much slower to react to the resurgence of COVID-19 in the form of the much more transmissible Delta variant. First out of the gate in Canada was Toronto’s Seneca College, which announced July 12 students and staff on all campuses would be required to be vaccinated with a Health Canada approved vaccine. A couple of days later, Cape Breton University broke ranks with other Atlantic universities and required vaccinations for all students living in residence. 

Seneca president David Agnew attracted considerable attention and much praise for his stance. “Everything that we’re doing as a country is trying to beat this virus,” he told the National Post. “We know the way we can do that is to get vaccinated and stop the spread. It was just the right thing to do to continue to protect the health and safety of our community.” Exemptions for medical reasons are being respected, with proper documentation, and it does not apply to students studying exclusively online. 

An international debate over vaccinating returning students may have been swirling outside gates, but UNB officialdom remained unmoved for months, much like the vast majority of their counterparts throughout the Maritime region. Halfway down the list of “de-escalation plan” guidelines earlier this month was the simple statement of policy: “COVID vaccinations are not required at UNB, but they are highly recommended to keep you and your community safe.” 

With faculty clamouring for tougher COVID-19 measures, some universities and colleges soon opted to follow Cape Breton University in requiring vaccinations for residence students and others, most notably Brock University, the University of Ottawa and the University of Toronto decided in July to require vaccinations for varsity athletics. 

Civil liberties advocacy groups, including the Constitutional Rights Centre (CRC), which represents Children’s Health Defense Canada, then jumped in, sending a legal notice to Ontario’s Western University claiming that “mandatory vaccines” violate individual rights and “have no place in a constitutional democracy.” Many legal experts dispute this claim, pointing to children’s vaccination requirements in elementary school grades. 

Two law professors, Amit Attaran of the University of Ottawa and Jacob Shelley of Western University, created quite a stir with their comments in the July 2021 issue of Maclean’s magazine. With just 38 per cent of university-aged adults (18-29) fully vaccinated in June, they claimed that Canadian universities were running the risk of being “the dunces of COVID-19” by not requiring vaccinations. 

Such arguments seemed to hold little or no sway in New Brunswick. Inquiries to local universities made in researching this commentary throughout the summer elicited some vague and non-committal replies. “The University is working to have more in-person classes and activities on campus this year, following Public Health guidelines” and is “strongly encouraging” everyone to get vaccinated before returning to campus, Mount Allison University communications officer Laura Dillman assured me. 

Far more cautious than New Brunswick universities in the Atlantic region was Memorial University of Newfoundland. President Vianne Timmons announced that a hybrid model will again be in place for students this coming fall semester. When pressed for the rationale, she said the decision was made a month earlier, based upon medical evidence available at that time. 

Most regional higher education institutions spent weeks talking positively and sounding surprisingly complacent with the Delta variant rising and universities elsewhere tightening their vaccination policies. Inquiries about forecasted enrolments after 18 months of the pandemic went unanswered and were intended to be kept under tight wraps until early October, just like any other year.

 Our universities seemed to be COVID-proof, if we were to believe the official pronouncements, published data, and curated answers to pointed questions.

“Universities are pretty optimistic in terms of applications,” said Peter Halpin, Executive Director of the Association of Atlantic Universities. “You could look at it as a ‘double cohort year,” he added, referring to the expected bump from students who may have deferred university last year to wait out the pandemic. 

Much of the optimism seemed to spring from the favourable reputation for public health management and infectious disease prevention earned over the past 18 months of pandemic conditions. “We developed an international reputation as being a relatively safe place to go to university,” Halpin said.

Higher levels of trust in public health authorities are also helpful. That may explain why New Brunswick universities and colleges thought they could rely upon moral suasion without the clear need for mandating vaccinations as a condition of returning to campuses. 

Higher education expert Ken Steele, CEO of Eduvation, provides weekly updates on COVID-19 announcements and policy changes, covering universities and colleges right across Canada. Since the advent of the pandemic, he found Atlantic universities to be quieter than usual and content to fly below the radar. “Informed optimism” is the phrase he used to capture the general tenor of COVID-19 university communications. 

Policy experts and health professionals outside the Maritime region were more adamant about the need to get university and college students and staff vaccinated as soon as possible. Canadian universities, according to University of Ottawa health law professor Attaran, are underestimating how important it is to get everyone vaccinated and lacking the courage to mandate vaccination certificates.

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“Would they merely ‘encourage’ their students to install smoke alarms in their residences? I think not,” he stated. “There are no legal barriers to requiring vaccination as a condition for attendance.” 

Health law and policy researcher Timothy Caulfield at the University of Alberta put it more gently. There’s evidence of complacency in Canadian universities, he said, and offering carrots to raise the vaccination rate may not work with this age cohort of the population. It’s “crunch time,” he said back in mid-July, “and I think we need to think more seriously about sticks,” especially if we are “going to get to herd immunity” in the wider community. 

Perhaps that explains the sudden change of heart in so many Atlantic universities. Within a matter of days in late August, Mount Allison University, the University of New Brunswick, St. Thomas University and the Université de Moncton announced some combination of mandatory vaccination or rapid tests would be required, after all. With the rapid reversal still sinking in, precise details for most Atlantic schools still need to be worked out.

Making predictions and taking bold actions is risky after what we have learned about the unpredictability of the pandemic. With Delta rising, complacency also carries certain risks. It seems those risks finally had an effect on Maritime Canadian universities’ back-to-school plans – almost too late to be implemented in time.

*An earlier version of this commentary appeared in the Telegraph-Journal and all daily newspapers affiliated with Brunswick News.

 

Why were most Canadian and virtually every Maritime university so slow to react during the Summer of 2021 in response to the pandemic resurgence? What explains the abrupt about-face within a few short weeks of university reopening?  When it came, why was it in a cascade of copy-cat announcements? Are there lessons here about the dynamics of decision-making in Canadian higher education?

 

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Newly awakened citizens are still coming forward in the wake of the June 2021 discovery of buried children at Kamloops Residential School to report that they were never taught during their K-12 education about residential schools and their horrible legacy. That was definitely true twenty-five years ago, but less so today because of gradual, incremental changes in provincial social studies curricula. The massive 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission report made it one of its highest priority calls to action and that did inspire a wave of First Nations, Metis, and Inuit (FNMI) curriculum initiatives. What took so long is worthy of closer scrutiny and Ontario provides insights into what stood in the way of such changes,

Mandating curriculum change does not necessarily lead to effective, consistent or discernable modifications in teaching practice. Implementation challenges can thwart policy guidelines and directives and it’s critical to assess the gaps between the official pronounced curricula, the formally sanctioned teaching resources, compulsory course offerings, and the actual received curricula.

What stood in the way of implementing Indigenous topics and perspectives in our classrooms? Some revealing answers to that troubling question are found in two rather obscure but vitally important pieces of educational research on the fundamental challenges of effecting FNMI curriculum change in two different provinces, Ontario and Alberta. Studying Paul Joseph Andre Chaput’s M.A. thesis, “Native Studies in Ontario High Schools” (Queen’s University, Geography, 2012), demonstrates why Ontario curriculum reform fell short from 1975 to 2012. A more recent July 2018 article, examining Alberta social studies teachers’ resistance to teaching Indigenous perspectives (David Scott and Raphael Gani), provides a few more of the critical pieces needed to provide a more thorough and reliable answer.

Since the TRC, provincial and territorial governments have been entrusted with a very specific mandate — to make the history of residential schools, Treaties, and historical and contemporary contributions of First Nations, Metis and Inuit a mandatory educational requirement for all K-12 students (Call to Action, 62.i). While it emanated from the TRC, the whole idea of teaching self-standing FNMI courses and cross-curricular perspectives was hardly new to most familiar with social studies curricula.

The Ontario Ministry of Education has invested considerable time, energy and resources into the creation and implementation of a “Native Studies” high school curriculum from the early 1970s to the present.  Its initial iteration, the 1975 People of Native Ancestry (PONA) curriculum guide and documents, were, in large part, an outgrowth of the ‘Indigenous cultural revival’ that swept Canada after the fist wave of closures of the residential schools. That curriculum was also generated, especially since the passage of the 1982 Constitutional Act, in periodic collaboration with advisers and educators representing the First Nations, Metis and Inuit peoples.

The fundamental shortcoming of Ontario’s initial PONA Native Studies initiative was that it was entirely focused on creating and implementing a self-standing set of optional social studies courses. By the fall of 1999, the provincial curricula had expanded to a suite of ten individual Native Studies high school courses spanning Grades 9 to 12. Proposals from the Northern Native Language Project (NNLP) to offer up to half the instruction in higher level courses in an Indigenous language were resisted, then shot down by federal authorities in Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) more committed to advancing English literacy and raising graduation rates. While the initial Native Studies courses were innovative at the time, they were only offered in 39 Ontario high schools and in significant number in only four of those schools between 1999 and 2006.

Growing public demand in Ontario for improved Indigenous education, the Ministry of Education responded in 2006-07 with a new, broader strategy known as the Ontario First Nation, Metis and Inuit (FNMI) Policy Framework intended to expand Native Studies content in schools right across the province. It proposed the implementation of “quality Native Studies education,” to Indigenous and non-Indigenous students, with the aspirational goal of raising the awareness of all Ontarians of Indigenous perspectives, histories, and cultures. While educators expressed openness to including such perspectives and teaching about residential schools, Ontario respondents were reportedly “uncertain about what to teach and how.”

Indigenous residential schools began to pop-up in Ontario classroom resources. From 2000 onward, Ontario’s core history textbooks such as The Canadian Challenge (Don Quinlan and others, Oxford 2008) started to include short references to the Indigenous residential schools, and that expanded following Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s 2008 formal apology for the abuses students suffered in Canada’s residential schools. One of the most widely used textbooks, Creating Canada: A History of Canada – 1914 to the Present (Jill Collyer and others, McGraw-Hill-Ryerson 2018), identified the abuses, referenced the 2006 financial compensation package, featured Harper’s apology, and gave expression to rising demands for further initiatives addressing unresolved problems affecting Canada’s Indigenous peoples.

Yet Ontario’s overall 2007 FNMI curriculum initiative fell short of achieving its rather lofty objectives.  No target dates were set for implementation of the curriculum in all schools and critics pounced on the policy’s more explicit commitment to raising Indigenous student outcomes and graduation rates.  Nurturing of the revitalization of Indigenous cultures took a back seat to what were labelled “neo-liberal” educational goals for FNMI students.  The policy’s sated key priority lent credence to such claims. That was to, in the words of the document, “close the gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students in the areas of literacy and numeracy, retention of students in school, graduation rates, and advancement to postsecondary studies” by the year 2016. 

Educating students about Indigenous concerns and fostering cultural sensitivity may have been goals of the FMNI curriculum, but there was no explicit commitment nor benchmarks for assessing progress. Increased funding from 2006-07 to 2010 did grow the number of schools offering Native Studies courses from 51 to 267, courses offerings jumped from 75 to 478, and more school boards offered the courses. Number of students enrolled in the courses rose from 2,216 (2007-08) or 0.31 % of all high school students (716,103) to 1.14% by 2009-10.  That’s still less than the proportion of Ontarians of Indigenous origins estimated to be 2 per cent. Training teachers adept at working collaboratively with Indigenous homes and communities also surfaced as a problem. Small enrolment courses did not prove financially sustainable, so effective 2011-2012, the minimum number of enrolled students per course was doubled from 6 to 12. Even academic allies such as P.J.A. Chaput mused about whether the courses were still too dependent on provincial funding to be sustainable long-term in Ontario.

The pattern of implementation and uptake was remarkably similar in Alberta. The Alberta Education department made the teaching of First Nations, Metis and Inuit perspectives a key pillar of the 2005 social studies curriculum. Introducing a curriculum mandate did not assure its implementation and, according to researchers David Scott and Raphael Gani, met with a combination of ambivalence and passive resistance,  

Over the eighteen years of FNMI curriculum implementation, Alberta educators at various stages of their careers offered up three main explanations as to why they either resisted or dodged taking responsibility for integrating FNMI into their teaching. Scott and Gani neatly summarized those rationales:

  1. No perspectives can be identified because of the highly diverse nature of Indigenous peoples and their communities;
  2. Only educators who are Indigenous can authentically offer insights into or teach Aboriginal perspectives;
  3. Prioritizing Indigenous perspectives is problematic because “all perspectives deserve equal treatment.”

The most common explanations, according to Scott and Gani, actually mask a more all- encompassing explanation. Most social studies educators, they claim, embrace worldviews and apply curricular frameworks that preclude integrating FNMI perspectives. If and when Indigenous residential schools are taught, it is in isolation or simply in passing because it is not central to the theme or prevailing narrative in social studies curricula.

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Ontario’s latest curriculum revision during 2018-19 put renewed focus on implementing the TRC call to action though a revamped First Nations, Metis and Inuit (FNMI) Studies curriculum.  Beginning in 2019, Native Studies (2000) was supplanted by the FNMI curriculum with an emphasis on a broader range of learning outcomes, tilting more to social and emotional well-being. A new youth development framework, Stepping Stones (2012) was adopted that de-emphasized improved academic outcomes. Appropriating such models from modern social psychology and youth development may well prove equally problematic because Indigenous education researchers such as Lindsay Morcom have expressed concern that they are drawn from outside the realm of Indigenous wisdom and experience

Much has improved in the Ontario curriculum when it comes to teaching Indigenous content and perspectives. Teaching units including FNMI topics and perspectives are more common in mainstream courses in latest Ontario curriculum from Grades 1 to 10.  Ontario’s new FNMI curriculum (Grades 9 to 12), revised in 2019, is, in many ways exemplary because it offers a comprehensive, detailed, historically-sound, and fairly challenging set of ten high school Social Studies and English courses. There’s one big problem – none of the new First Nations, Metis and Inuit courses are mandatory for Ontario high school students. While residential schools are in the current curriculum, it is still entirely possible for students to graduate from high school without exposure to a dedicated course allowing for more detailed analysis of the residential school tragedy and its enduring impact. 

What took so long for teaching about Indigenous Residential Schools to find a place in Ontario’s mandatory Canadian history courses? Did the earlier Native Studies elective courses contribute to the problem?  Would it have been better, in hindsight, to put all of those resources into integrating Indigenous content and perspectives throughout the curriculum?

Canada’s K-12 schools are in recovery mode after what is being called a “lost year in education.”  Since the COVID-19 shock in March of 2020, school disruptions and pivots in-and- out of online learning have left our ten provincial systems in a state of disequilibrium with adverse impacts on student learning, achievement and well-being.

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Pandemic calamites have given rise to public calls for a more robust federal presence in Canadian K-12 education. Tackling the COVID-19 crisis has shone more light on the fact education is strictly a provincial responsibility under our constitution and Canada is now the only leading member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) without a federal department of education.

Would a new national education coordinating agency make much of a difference? That depends upon your assessment of what’s needed to tackle the contemporary challenges facing our education systems. Serving the 5.5 million students attending our K-12 schools is the primary responsibility, but the education sector also includes early childhood, post-secondary education, and adult workplace training programs.

Creating a federal department of education with a seat in cabinet would, in all likelihood, merely compound the fundamental problem diagnosed in my latest book, The State of the System: A Reality Check on Canada’s Schools (2020). Based upon past experience, it would add a top-tier of administrative oversight which, in turn, generates more layers of centralized, top-down, bureaucracy. While attractive as a fresh source of federal transfer payments, it’s highly unlikely that the augmented resources would ever ‘trickle down’ to the classroom.

The existing national coordinating body, the Council of Ministers of Education Canada (CMEC), in existence since 1967, is unequal to the challenge. It has evolved, over the years, into a shell of an organization, little more than an exclusive club presided over by the thirteen provincial and territorial ministers of education. While providing a forum for annual discussions and an external place-holder for Canada, it’s scope of activity is circumscribed by the imperative of “fully respecting provincial jurisdiction.”

CMEC played a constructive role in fostering pan-provincial cooperation and nudging the provinces into large-scale student testing. Sparked by uneven student Mathematics performance on the 1988 International Assessment of Educational Progress (IAEP -I), CMEC initiated its own Student Achievement Indicators Program (SAIP) in 1989 and it gradually evolved into a full-blown program from 1991 to 1996, then morphed into the Pan-Canadian Assessment Program (PCAP, 2007-Present)

Under the leadership of Director General Paul Cappon from 1996 to the early 2000s, CMEC raised national standards and guided our engagement in broader international student assessment programs. With tact, diplomacy and determination, Dr. Cappon wooed and then won over the provinces to boarder participation in the global movement for international testing

Preparing Canada’s provinces for international assessments such as the Program of International Student Assessment (PISA), gave CMEC its rationale and sense of purpose. When Canadian 15-year-olds fared well in the first two rounds of PISA, 2000 and 2003, its organizational viability was secure.

As Director General, Cappon challenged provincial ministers and their ministries to up their game in preparing students for regular international and national assessments. With his 2004 departure, CMC was rudderless because it was chaired by the education ministers, serving on two-year rotations. It devolved into a Secretariat, convening meetings, producing short reports of aggregated data, and research briefs amplifying the strengths of K-12 education. Provincial ministers held sway, ensuring that CMEC served the interests and upheld the reputations of the member provinces.

The most recent CMEC reports in the “Measuring Up” series, focusing on OECD PISA 2018, TIMSS 2019, and PCAP 2020, do aggregate student performance data comparing countries and provinces, but they tend to highlight our strengths, minimize the deficits, and generally ‘put a shine on the apple.’

The latest “Assessment Matters” research brief, the 17th in a series, released in March 2021 is typical of most. The cheeky title “Are You Smarter than a Fourth Grader?” is alluring. It’s actually a thinly-veiled rationale for putting more emphasis on “reading literacy” (i.e., communicating in multiple forms) than on reading fluency and comprehension, two critical indicators of reading effectiveness.

Proponents of a more robust national governmental presence, such as former federal bureaucrat Irvin Studin, have correctly identified the vacuum at the centre of Canada’s educational system. Provincial systems, severely damaged by the pandemic, are proving incapable of responding with agility to radically changed circumstances. Particularly concerning is the rise of the so-called “third bucket” cohort of children either totally disengaged or missing from public schools, regarded as the human casualties of two years of disrupted education.

While Canada’s provincially governed school systems are currently in disarray, creating a fourteenth system is not really the answer, unless the hidden agenda is to use the federal agency as a source of social transfers to reduce educational inequities from province-to-province.

More funding, while welcome, may only change how the educational pie is divided up among governments. We also know, from cross-provincial comparisons of per-student expenditures that pouring more money into K-12 systems does not produce better learning or higher student achievement. If that was the case, Manitoba would be a leading education province and Quebec would cease being the undisputed champion in Mathematics.

Judging from the American experience, establishing a national education department is not a panacea. The U.S. Department of Education, elevated in 1979 to a cabinet level agency by President Jimmy Carter and expanded by subsequent administrations, has introduced new accountabilities, such as No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top assessment programs, and run up education expenditures with little to show for all those initiatives. Aside from Title 1 federal grants and the Promise Neighborhood initiative aiming to bridge the achievement gap, it’s hard to fund much evidence of a breakthrough in better student outcomes. Expenditures have certainly ballooned, reaching $70-billion in 2019, representing 13 per cent of total education expenditures.

Canada’s federal role in Indigenous education, managed by Indigenous Affairs and Northern Development, under various names does not inspire much confidence in proposals to further extend federal authority into a provincial jurisdiction. The failure of Bill C-33, the First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act, back in 2013-14, served only to demonstrate the potential for jurisdictional turf wars, territorial imperative, and competing visions about the purposes and future of education.

Most of the substantive criticisms of Canadian education tend to centre around the system’s greatest deficiency – the lack of a national, independent education research bureau and clearing house for the best evidence-based research to inform future planning, policy-making and curriculum reform. The former Canadian Council on Learning, headed by Cappon from 2004 to 2012, demonstrated the critical need for that type of national agency. What CCL lacked was the authority to collect and validate student and system performance and the clout to ensure that the provinces were rewarded for collaborating on national school improvement projects, taping into evidence-based research, and actually tackling persistent and unaddressed problems, including early reading inequities, mathematics competencies, student absenteeism, and grade inflation.

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The Canadian Council on Learning’s final report, “What is the Future of Learning in Canada,” remains as relevant today as it was upon its release in October of 2011. While Canada possessed undoubted strengths, specifically in early learning and post-secondary education participation, our students have, as Cappon predicted, plateaued or slightly declined on international assessments and there’s still little or no coherence in our approach to “improving the learning futures of Canadians of all ages.” Early literacy and mathematics competencies, high school student achievement levels, post-secondary education integration, and adult workplace training programs require improvement, just as they did ten years ago.

Replacing the Council of Ministers of Education has more resonance in the wake of the pandemic shock and its destabilizing effect on K-12 education. Adding another layer of bureaucratic oversight, however, would only compound our existing problem exemplified in the aggregation of provincial authorities inclined to protect their own interests. Nothing much will change unless and until we have a new generation of provincial leaders focused on busting through the bureaucracy and preparing our students with the fundamental knowledge and skills to tackle future twists and turns affecting the life chances of today’s students.

Where was the Canadian Council of Ministers of Education when we needed a robust, coordinated response to the pandemic? Can CMEC be reformed to make it more transparent, effective and responsive to dramatic changes in K-12 education?  Or should we start over with a more purpose-built pan-Canadian research bureau committed to rapid response evidence-based policy?