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?



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.


“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?



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.


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.


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.


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?  

School boards across Ontario are, one after another, abandoning ‘quadmesters’ for high schools in the coming year. Changing school schedules and is fraught with challenges and the educational administration field is littered with similar failed experiments.


Typical of most education innovations, the introduction of quadmesters was a response to an immediate problem rather than the result of thorough, evidence-based planning. Driven by pandemic health advisories, it was implemented without careful consideration of its impact upon student learning or achievement.

Implementation was rushed, the first sign of trouble ahead. Six weeks before Ontario school reopening in September 2020, Education Minister Steven Lecce finally announced that elementary students would be back full-time, but high school students would be on an ‘adaptive model’ schedule in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Class sizes in the Greater Toronto Area and big city boards would be reduced to 15 students and masks were required, but the biggest change of all was the proposal to implement a scheduling experiment known as the quadmester.

Replacing the existing semester system with its two 90- instructional day cycles, in vogue since the 1980s, would be four 10-week cycles. In this new format, students would attend two class periods a day, each averaging 150 minutes long, for about 45 instructional days, to secure their course credits.

A few weeks after announcing in May 2021 that the quadmester system would continue into 2021-22, fierce public opposition from students and parents, galvanized by a #NoQuadmesters campaign, forced the Toronto District School Board and neighbouring districts to back down with most reverting to a ‘modified semester’ system.

Replacing the existing semester system, in vogue since the 1980s, would be four ten-week cycles. In this new format, students would attend two class periods a day for 10 weeks to secure their course credits.

While the quadmester was presented as a creature of the pandemic, its origins were more complex and longer in duration. High school classes have been getting longer and longer, over time, and it’s actually a further evolution of the trend to block scheduling, more pronounced in Canada than in the United States.

Most Canadian high schools have abandoned the traditional year-long, linear schedule in the rush to embrace what is known as ‘block scheduling.’ School days consisting of six or seven class periods ranging from 45 to 60 minutes in length have been replaced by block schedules composed of four longer periods, averaging 90 to 120 minutes. In place of full-year long courses, students complete courses in 20 weeks.

Block schedules and accompanying semester courses were actually pioneered in Canadian high schools in the 1970s and 1980s. First generation block schedule advocates were school reformers who sought to change the culture of the traditional, factory-like high school.

High schools, particularly in Ontario and British Columbia, saw longer periods as a way of relieving the daily stress of an assembly-line environment, encouraging more interactive learning, reducing time lost (and discipline problems) during period changes, and relieving students and teachers of daily homework/preparation demands.

Student and teacher well-being weighed more heavily in the shift to the semester system than research testifying to its positive effects on student focus, concentration, and achievement. Two of the initial Canadian research studies, comparing full-year, two-semester, students with those on block schedules, documented the possible academic harm done by the shift.

The largest research study, produced in 1990 by David J. Bateson of the University of British Columbia, studied 30,000 Grade 10 students enrolled in science courses in year-long or semester-long blocks. Students in the year-long courses significantly outperformed semestered students in both the first semester and the second semester.

Dr. Bateson’s seminal study also pinpointed the scheme’s biggest weaknesses: the lag or gap of three to thirteen months between consecutive courses, adversely affecting student achievement in cumulative subjects, particularly mathematics and modern languages. A subsequent 1995 large-scale study led by Bateson and another in 1996 by Gordon R. Gore provided further evidence of harm caused by block scheduling.

The B.C. study confirmed the earlier findings in Ontario dating back to 1986 and examining the effect of block scheduling on mathematics courses in 80 different high schools. Drs. Dennis Raphael, Merlin Wahlstrom, and L.D. McLean found that achievement was significantly lower under block scheduling nor did they find much in the way of benefits in students’ attitudes toward mathematics. They also discovered that block scheduling results in fewer hours of actual instruction because of the challenges of making full use of longer periods.

What’s amazing to serious education researchers is that neither the Bateson or Raphael studies are ever mentioned or referenced in school district planning documents issued in support of the prevailing block scheduling system. The same is true of more recent policy statements, briefs and presentations in favour of quadmesters.


Responding to the raging controversy over quadmesters in May 2021on CBC Radio, Ottawa education consultant, Monika Ferenczy hit the nail on the head: “It was not based upon pedagogy at all. There’s no research to support it on pedagogical grounds.”

The “No Quadmesters” campaign pinpointed the adverse impacts of the quadmester model: compressed subject content, hurried or speeded-up pace, heavy burdens borne by students in online settings, neglect of special needs students, derailed school sports programs, and, in all likelihood, further inflicting academic harm on the pandemic generation.

Implementing quadmesters looked attractive because it enabled smaller class cohorts without incurring higher costs and amounted to a further extension of existing block scheduling. It will most likely prove to be one of the most glaring failed experiments in high school planning and administration.

Why did Ontario education policy-makers and school districts latch onto the quadmester system?  To what extent was the scheduling experiment an extension of semestering in high schools? Why did high school students and teachers find the scheduling model so stressful? What did it cost in terms of actual learning time loss? What are the odds that it will resurface again in Canadian 9-12 education?

Most of us can remember stewing in the incredible heat and humidity of those stuffy, aroma-filled egg-crate elementary school classrooms. Years ago, teachers tried to pretend that the heat was not unbearable and let you sweat your way through periodic heat wave days. Window blinds were lowered, lights were dimmed and it was hard to keep from falling to sleep on your arms glued by perspiration to those wooden desktops.

Primary schoolgirl asleep at desk in classroom

Most teachers finally gave-in, installing rotating fans, and allowing you to bring cups and containers with water. My late mother believed in attending school under any circumstances recommended running cold water over your wrists.  Educators knew that June heat makes learning next-to-impossible on certain days, but no one studied its actual effects on learning, until quite recently.

Heat exposure in schools, it turns out, does adversely affect student learning and school air conditioning does make a difference. That’s the key finding of a May 2020 American study published by four recognized experts in quantitative analysis in the education field.

Utilizing student fixed effects models and a sample of 10 million students in Grades 10 and 11 who retook the PSATs (Preliminary Scholastic Assessment Test), the U.S. researchers found that hotter days reduce scores, with extreme heat being particularly damaging to performance.  In short, excessive heat disrupts learning time.

Air conditioning schools can have a positive effect on student learning, the study shows. School-level air conditioning penetration, in effect, offsets the heat’s effects on students. “Without air conditioning, a 1℉ hotter school year reduces the year’s learning by 1 per cent,” the researchers found. Hot school days also tend to have proportionately more adverse effects on minority students, accounting for some 5 per cent of the so-called “racial achievement gap.”

The Pandemic has cost us most of two years of schooling as school systems pivoted to home learning, hybrid models, back and forth, interrupting months of in-person schooling. Health risk reduction strategies are now part of school district facilities planning and maintenance practices. Reopening schools forced education authorities to become more aware of, and responsive to, the critical need to ensure healthy school buildings.

One of the best COVID-19 strategies, produced in June 2020 by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, identified the five critical elements of an effective plan: (1) Healthy Classrooms, (2) Healthy Buildings, (3) Healthy Policies, (4) Healthy Schedules, and (5) Healthy Activities. “Breathing clean air in the school building” was deemed essential to the health and safety of students, teachers, and staff during COVID-19 and in post-pandemic times.

Improving air ventilation was at the centre of the proposed plan of action for Healthy Buildings. School authorities were advised to consider a coordinated and flexible approach tailored to the specific conditions in each school site. Increasing outdoor air ventilation was considered a minimum expectation, and the recommended remedial actions included air quality and filtration assessments, portable air cleaners, filtering of indoor air, and the installation of advanced air quality systems, including central or designated zone air conditioning.


The impact of students’ and teachers’ physical environments on educational outcomes is understudied and deserves far more attention. Excessive heat best exemplified during heat waves does directly interfere with learning. Disparities in physical environments, such as improper or intermittent air ventilation, also seem to contribute to inequality when it comes to serving disadvantaged or racialized communities.

The Pandemic was a wake-up call for educators alerting us to the critical role played by air flows and aerosols in the transmission of deadly viruses. Growing awareness of climate change and global warming has also heightened our sensitivity to rising temperatures and the incidence of heat waves. Median climate change scenarios predict average U.S, warming at 5 ℉ from 2010 to 2050.

Based upon existing estimates of global warming across Canada, we can project, by 2050, how much more heat-disrupted learning we can expect relative to today. It’s safe to predict that there will be more school days in the high 30s with sweltering Humidex readings. Given those climate change prospects and what COVID taught us, investing in improved school ventilation, including air conditioning, looks more like a sensible, longer-term capital improvement in K-12 education.

Putting up with oppressive heat and making-do with existing air ventilation is becoming less defensible in COVID times.  How can students perform up to their potential in steamy classrooms with little or no air ventilation? What is the impact on student attention and learning as measured in test results? Will the COVID-19 pandemic be the deal-breaker in addressing the chronic and unaddressed problem?

The most recent April 2021 Fraser Institute report on Mathematics performance of students across Canada contained very few surprises. Students from Quebec continue to be at the head of the class. On the benchmark Program of International Student Assessment (PISA) from 2003 to 2018, they scored the highest (532 in 2018), 20 points above the Canadian average, and continued to outpace those of any other province. Steep declines have been registered by students from Alberta (- 38 points), British Columbia (-34 points), and Saskatchewan (- 31 points). Students from two Maritime provinces, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, have steadily declined and now hover around the OECD mean score of 494. 


Most interesting to analyze is New Brunswick because it exemplifies why Canadian students produce such mediocre results. With PISA scores dropping from 511 (2003) to 491 (2018),  New Brunswick 15-year-old students perform well below the national mean scores on a “steadily negative ” trajectory over the past fifteen years. On the past three PISA tests, 2012 to 2018, their scores have declined by 2.2 per cent, third worst among the provinces. The national Grade 8 PCAP results for 2010 to 2016 while below the national mean do show slight improvement, albeit on assessments keyed to provincial curriculum standards.  What jumps out at you in the report, however, is the row of blanks for provincial math assessments in New Brunswick and the statement “insufficient data to estimate trends.”

Assessing student capabilities in mathematics should, one would think, be a provincial priority when there’s plenty of evidence that students are still struggling in math. The clearest example of this, confirmed in interviews with math tutors over the past two weeks, is that most N.B. students today are so lacking in basic computational skills that they cannot complete secondary school math placement tests without a calculator.

Calculator dependence is now widespread in New Brunswick schools and its most telling impact is in the lagging Mathematics achievement of students.  The use of calculators in North American math classrooms has been common since the 1980s, but top performing nations, such as Singapore, China and Korea, put far more emphasis on integrating mental computation with conceptual understanding before progressing to higher-level math and problem solving. That approach is also reflected in the most successful after-school math tutoring programs such as Kumon Math and the Toronto-based alternative, the Spirit of Math, widely used in Ontario independent schools.

Provincial school officials do not generally react to periodic reports that students are struggling in mathematics, pointing to rising teacher-assigned student grades and healthy graduation rates. Those in the ‘shadow school system’ of private tutoring and the math assessment offices of universities and colleges have no such inhibitions. Most are alarmed at what they see and learn while conducting intake assessments of prospective students. Most perform one or two grades below expected levels and, moving upwards through the grades, wide variations appear in students’ skill levels and competencies.

‘Discovery Math’ is the prevailing teaching approach in the vast majority of N.B. elementary schools and the tutors insist it’s not working for far too many students. “Most students have gaps in their skills,” says Rhonda Connell, manager of Fredericton’s Kumon Math and Reading operation with 28-years of tutoring experience. “The N.B. curriculum is not skills-based, but rather more exploratory of different methods.”

What’s wrong with that approach?  “Students in public schools without basic skills get taught long and complicated operations and the kids get lost,” Connell tells me. “They don’t know their mental math and that’s why high school students simply cannot do the Kumon placement test without a calculator.”

The mathematics deficits grow as students progress from elementary grades into high school. “There’s a widening gap,” says Connell. She finds that students do not know their fractions, cannot do long division or basic subtraction and borrowing operations. The bottom line: “Students don’t have the skills at hand to engage in problem-solving and higher-level math.”

The founder of Mathnasium in Moncton, Jocelyn Chan, saw through the eyes of her son, now 7-years-of age, that mathematics education was sadly lacking. As a CPA with plenty of corporate finance experience, she decided to do something about it by opening the first Mathnasium franchise operation in Atlantic Canada. Since opening in October 2020, it’s grown from 4 or 5 students to 70 enrolments today with a majority of students in Grades 5 and 6 where the math deficits become more pronounced and visible to parents.

The pandemic shutdowns and default to hybrid learning have set students back, particularly in a more teacher-dependent subject like mathematics. “A lot of Moncton area students were already behind to begin with,” Chan says, ‘so the learning loss is more acute.” “Lots of Grade 9s this year are struggling,” she notes, “because of COVID-19 causing them to lose half of their grade 8 year, leaving them unprepared for the next grade.”

Private tutoring after-school programs such as Kumon and Mathnasium both cater to upwardly, mobile, affluent families with the financial resources to afford such programs. Out of 331 Kumon operations in Canada, there’s only one in New Brunswick.  While the Fredericton Kumon centre run by Connell has grown steadily from some 30 to 40 students in 1993 to 141 students today, that’s still a small fraction of the total student population.

Many of the new clients also turn out to be newcomers, recently arrived in the province. Most local parents, according to Connell and Chan, only become concerned when they see their children falling behind or getting lower grades. “People moving here from elsewhere,” Connell notes, “expect more” and “come to Kumon saying that there’s nothing going on in the schools.”

Unaddressed math problems surface again when students proceed on to university and find themselves in popular programs like management, marketing, or economics where some math skills are required to master the core content.  Many turn to mathematics and language remediation programs.

Senior Math instructor C. Hope Alderson is on the front-lines as coordinator of the UNB- SJ Flora Beckett Mathematics and Science Help Centre. As a mathematics tutor, she spends most of her time building the skills and confidence of students struggling in their university courses. Choosing her words carefully, Dr. Hope Alderson confirms what private after-school tutors say about today’s students. “Student have quite an attachment to the calculator,” is how she puts it. “There’s certainly less emphasis on mental computations in today’s schools. They grab the calculator to do simple calculations.”

The pandemic is not helping the situation. Faced with stay-at-home orders, students and families were left with online remedial programs or strictly-limited in-person, socially-distanced tutoring. Enrollment in Kumon Fredericton peaked in 2019, just before the school shutdown.  Since then, home learning and family stresses have kept families away from Kumon.  “Family stresses ran high,” says Connell, “and it had an effect on students’ abilities to focus on their math.” Separation from their social group was especially hard on teenage students.

Mastery of basic math skills is being sadly neglected in our K-12 schools. Conceptual understanding should not be emphasized to the virtual exclusion of mental computation skills. Getting a calculator to do the mathematics for you contributed to the entrenched problem.

*An earlier version of this commentary appeared in The Telegraph-Journal, provincial edition, In New Brunswick.

Why are Canadian students losing ground in Mathematics on the benchmark PISA tests administered every three years?  What can we learn from a case study looking at the state of math competencies in New Brunswick? Is it a combination of factors?  If so, what needs to be done to address the underperformance of our students on international assessments?  


Fifteen months into the pandemic, alarm bells are ringing from province-to-province right across Canada about the state of student learning, achievement and well-being. Active parents, learning experts, and pediatricians report that “the kids are not alright.” While some provinces are faring worse than others, real concerns are being registered about the “snowball effect” of learning losses in literacy, skill development lags, and the truncated preparation of graduating students. These are all tell-tale signs of a school system turned upside-down.

Shutting schools forces students, teachers and parents to make abrupt ‘pivots’ to hastily imposed online learning or various mutations of hybrid learning, combining some in-person teaching with e-learning activities. What’s most peculiar about ‘Home Learning 2.0’ is that schooling is now in a strange kind of limbo without much in the way of public oversight or accountability, particularly from parents weathering the Third Wave of COVID-19 school disruptions.

Conventional school-home boundaries, both physical and socially constructed, have blurred as home learning becomes more common.  Teacher-student-family relations now exemplify what American human relations expert Pauline Boss termed “family boundary ambiguity.” Under stressful conditions, “schooling has been integrated into the household” where parents are expected to establish regular routines and take on the instructor role. In the case of teachers, it’s meant adapting to radically different, mostly unfamiliar tech-enabled teaching and re-asserting their positional authority on a different terrain. Venturing outside of those comfort zones has also been fraught with dilemmas, tensions, and unexpected discoveries. 

Most of the Canadian public, including a majority of parents, have been left in the dark about the impact of pandemic learning loss, particularly on the development of Canada’s youngest learners. One of the few Canadian literacy impact studies, conducted by University of Alberta researcher George Georgiou is very alarming. Reading deficits among primary-aged students, since March 2020, in grades 1 to 3 amount to about eight to 12 months below their grade levels.

Since the pandemic descended upon us, more and more students are disengaging from school. Spending hours a day online and repeated scheduling changes, particularly in Greater Toronto Area ‘hot spot’ school districts, have contributed to worsening student absenteeism rates. Thousands of students in school districts as far north as Thunder Bay have missed 16 or more days, the benchmark of chronic absenteeism. Record numbers of students are missing attendance checks or not reporting-in at all under the home learning regime.

One year after the Spring 2020 system-wide shutdowns its hard to fathom why school administration is still tying to sort out how to measure student attendance and participation. Without clear, definitive expectations, students can sign-in every day, but keep their camera and microphone off so there’s no way of monitoring their level of engagement.

American research into student participation rates has already flagged the growing incidence of students working in the retail sector while still on the school enrolment books.  Daily behaviour routines are becoming ingrained and do not include logging into or attending classes. Some researchers like Wilfrid Laurier education professor Kelly Gallagher-Mackay express the fear that a whole cohort of students mat well “deeply disengage” to the point that it will prove impossible to bring them back.

            Serious research into the impact of school closures on parents and families does exist, but its limited here in Canada.  One incredibly significant December 2020 study, conducted by Bonnie Stelmach for the Alberta Schools Councils’ Association, unearthed unreported problems associated with the repeated “pivots” to home learning and the incredible burden it shifts to parents. Based upon a survey of 1,067 parents and 566 teachers, plus twenty in-depth interviews, the study demonstrated the profound impact, assessed in terms of “pulse points” in parent-teacher relations.

            Stelmach’s findings identify underlying issues that need further scrutiny and attention, particularly in Ontario and the Maritimes. Widespread confusion was evident in the interpretation of “Ministry directives” when it came to expected time on task (hours per week), real-time online instruction, and student outcomes. Suspending student assessment grading from March to June 2020 was panned by parents, teachers and students. It removed any incentive, especially in high schools, to work through to the end of the year.

Home learning was, and is, an eye-opening experience for parents and teachers.  While more parents clearly appreciate today’s teaching challenges, they are also far more aware of deficiencies in current elementary curriculum, the poor integration of e-learning platforms, the unevenness of teaching, and irregularities in expectations, even from class-to-class in their own local schools.

Canada’s largest school district, the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), has just announced what, a short year ago, might have been unthinkable. Following a similar move by Ottawa education authorities, the TDSB will offer a two-track system again in 2021-2022, allowing parents to choose between in-person and virtual learning for their children. School choice has arrived through the back door.

Lifting the hood on ‘Learning at Home’ and its impact on students is long overdue.  Now that Ontario, Quebec and the Maritime provinces are weeks into home learning again, it’s time to study the prevalence of learning loss, the socio-psychological impacts, and the burdens being borne by the parents of school-age children.

Fifteen months into the pandemic, some fundamental questions need to be asked about what’s happening on a larger scale. Is “Topsy-Turvey Education” the beginning of an epochal social transformation or the end of an era defined by binary and contradictory debates? Is home learning/e-learning here to stay as a permanent feature of schooling?  Will K-12 education ever be the same again?



The seemingly unending battle between ‘traditional’ and ‘progressive’ education thrives on tired old stereotypes, caricatures, and cartoonish images. ‘Old’ versus ‘new,’ ‘knowledge-rich or ‘well-being’ informed, ‘teacher-centred’ versus ‘student-centred,’ ‘rigorous’ or ‘flabby’? Veterans of the Edu-Wars liken it to a “Punch and Judy Show.” As British education guru, Sir Michael Barber once said: “The road to educational hell is paved with false dichotomies.”

So, when a new book comes along, every so often, promising to bridge the chasm or transcend the battle, it is welcomed by those in the educational trenches or watching the ‘sham battle’ from a safe distance.  The latest such offering, Guy Claxton’s The Future of Teaching (April 2021), promises to put an end to the seemingly interminable conflict, but utterly fails to do so. Instead, he serves up a “straw-person” in the form of Direct Instruction (DI) and Knowledge-Rich (KR) curriculum for the singular purpose of shooting it down. That’s most disappointing because Professor Claxton purports to be a conciliator and a proponent of marrying knowledge and skills.

Claxton’s The Future of Learning sets the right tone at the beginning. Renowned student assessment researcher Dylan Wiliam raises our hopes with his trademark balanced and judicious forward and Australian education giant John Hattie provides a ringing cover-jacket endorsement. It promises to make you think, re-examine your assumptions, and consider changing your mind. Most of the initial section of the book covers the competing theories, then it devolves into a very public flogging of the apparent infidels at the gates, identified and labeled as the “DI-KR lobby-bubble.” 

Highly respected educators such as Tom Sherrington, author of The Learning Rainforest, classified as members of the “DIKR” dissidents, are rightly perturbed by a book pretending to be conciliatory, while casting out education researchers, mostly based in schools, who have the temerity to challenge the shibboleths of the education professorate. Working directly with teachers in schools across the U.K., Sherrington disputes Claxton’s assertions. “The ideas embedded in a knowledge-rich curriculum and the use of instructional teaching,” he wrote,” make a massive difference to teachers and children—especially when they are grappling with challenging concepts.” Dismissing DI and KR research out-of-hand, according to Sherrington, does not show an openness to learning from or building upon the latest cognitive science, or a “consensus-building style” but rather a “melodramatic take-down approach.”

The growing acceptance of the Long-Term Memory/Working Memory (LT/WM) model advanced by John Sweller, Paul A. Kirschner, and UK teacher-author Carl Hendrick, clearly gets under Claxton’s skin. He chooses to grossly oversimplify the concept and misinterpret the explanatory schematic as if it depicted “a physical space that fills up” and “the bottleneck effect” as something afflicting each and every student.

Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) should not be so easily dismissed because it addresses one of the biggest inhibitors to student learning. Throwing complex problems at children without the requisite prior knowledge has long been identified as a problem and we now know so much more about “how learning happens” in the minds of students and teachers. Schematics like the LT/WM model are extremely helpful as easy to understand explanatory tools for us. We need to know how much information/knowledge children can handle and what’s their capacity to handle complex abstract things. Knowing this is essential to your teaching/instruction and a key to your effectiveness in the classroom.

Claxton is exceedingly careful in evaluating the cognitive research and writing of one particular academic associated with the so-called “DIKR” camp.  The author and his entourage are unprepared to challenge Daniel T. Willingham. Now that his work is widely recognized and respected in the United Kingdom, as it is in the United States, Claxton has given it a “closer reading” and sees its subtleties. Professor Willingham’s classic work, Why Students Don’t Like School? (2010/2021) and his corpus of cognitive research make him unassailable, even by authors out to discredit those sharing similar views in academe and the classroom.

The popularity of Tom Sherrington’s presentations on “Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction” and the accompanying researchED instructional guide must be wreaking havoc out there with beginning teachers as well as regular practitioners in the schools.  It’s a refreshing change to see a teacher resource spreading like wildfire without the imprimatur of the education schools. Speaking in a teacher’s voice it captures well what real teaching in real classrooms involves – effective questioning, modelling, scaffolding, and independent practice. In other words, it’s not entirely about facilitating programmed activities, facilitating play spaces, and letting kids figure things out in minimally-guided classrooms. 

 Regular working teachers do tire of the sham battle and Claxton’s book will only perpetuate it by denigrating those who challenge the prevailing education school orthodoxy. His recent Book Launch interview with Kath Murdoch made that clear to everyone. A wider range of voices, mostly research-informed, school-based educators, have forced their way into the vital global conversation about improving the quality and effectiveness of teaching. While Claxton applies labels to supposed factions, he seems unwilling to acknowledge that what caused the most recent disruption was a remarkably spontaneous teacher-research movement. It’s clear that the author has yet to grasp the catalytic effect of researchED on research-awakened teachers everywhere.

Leading advocates of Instructional Teaching and a Knowledge-Rich curriculum will not be disbursed or denied because the ideas they have seeded are already influencing teaching and learning in schools. Highly original works like Daisy Christodoulou’s Seven Myths About Education, Martin Robinson’s Trivium 21c, Greg Ashman’s The Truth About Teaching, and Paul A. Kirschner and Carl Hendrick’s How Learning Happens, have filled a vacuum created when Claxton and his education school colleagues became absorbed in promoting school change theories and essentially abandoned the field. Ideas that expose the prevalence of “Zombie Ideas in Education” are threatening to the status quo. That is essentially what Claxton’s book seeks to sustain. The genie is out of the bottle and rank and file teachers are unlikely to return to the cocoon.

Why does Guy Claxton’s The Future of Teaching completely miss the mark?  For a book purporting to chart a middle course, why is it so dismissive of those holding divergent views on the science of learning?  To what extent does it reveal the extent of the educational divide between education school academics and teacher- practitioners? Simply put, is it possible for a mature leopard to change its spots?  

The abrupt departure of an Ontario Director of Education in early April 2021 was a shocker.  That newly-appointed chief superintendent, Robert Hofstatter, lasted only five weeks on the job and may well be the shortest tenure on record. He was also the first ‘top dog’ in the Ontario regional school board system to be hired after the July 2021 adoption of changes in the requirements to hold such executive positions in K-12 education. The firestorm of resistance at the York Catholic District School Board (YCDSB) brought him down.


Chief Financial Officer Carlene Jackson

What happened? On February 1, the YCDSB announced the appointment of a “new tech savvy director of education.” The incoming director, then the program head of computer science and engineering robotics at St. Michael’s College School in Toronto, assumed office at the YCDSB Aurora Education Centre, effective March 1. While he was a member of the Ontario College of Teachers, what drew attention was his 20 years of experience in business, including time as vice-president, global information security operation systems at Scotiabank. On April 7, five weeks after arriving, educators and parents were shocked to receive a system-wide message that he was gone.

Ontario is confronting a massive turnover in its top education ranks and an identified shortage of top candidates prepared to take on the contemporary challenges of COVID-19 era district leadership. In June of 2021, fourteen of the 72 provincial boards were attempting to fill vacancies at the chief superintendent level.  Out of the sitting Directors of Education, fewer than half were women and only 2 or 3 were people of colour. Education Minister Stephen Leece supported a change in the regulations to “diversify the hiring pool” so that boards could seek candidates with wider skills. In the midst of a Pandemic, considerable expertise in technology might qualify as a mission-critical consideration.

Ontario’s teacher unions and their allies were dead-set against broadening the qualifications, fearing that it would open the door to the appointment of Directors without teaching qualifications and experience.  A leading public education funding lobby group, Toronto-based People for Education, sided with the critics, claiming that it would “make Ontario an anomaly across the country.”  An online petition opposing the new regulations attracted 30,000 signatures in its first week and claimed that it was a “substantial change” introduced with “no consultation with experts,” including CODE, the Council of Directors of Education, representing the 72 top ranking educators in the system.  

Teacher union advocates were adamant that Directors of Education should be certified teachers and former members of the unions. A tweet from ETFO president Sam Hammond made their position crystal clear: “The Toronto fire chief is a firefighter. The Police Chief is a police officer. The President & CEO of Sick Kids is a doctor, and the Director of Education should be a teacher.”  Some alleged that it was an attempt to privatize public education. Another rationale then surfaced: “Lack of education experience means that directors will not understand the anti-racist and anti-oppressive considerations necessary to align resources and supports across the organization to support marginalized populations.”

Lost in the furious reaction was the fact that the then interim Director of Canada’s largest school district, Toronto District School Board (TDSB), Carlene Jackson, was a Chief Financial Officer (TCDSB), trained as a chartered accountant with a master’s degree in business administration. Neighbouring Peel Region had also employed an interim Director who was not a teacher, with provincial approval, and barely a ripple of opposition. That suggests other factors must have come into play in the York Catholic District School Board situation.

Internal candidates are rarely happy when school boards go external and educators leapfrog over them into the CEO’s office. We now know that Hofstatter was toppled, in part, by an internal revolt within the top administrative ranks. The local media, led by the Aurora-Newmarket online papers, revealed what actually went on behind the scenes. Senior administration at the Board Office started retiring in protest, including the board’s Chief Financial Officer. Some thought they were more qualified for the job, others murmured quietly to teachers about “a white guy” being the first example of greater diversity.

Few outside the higher echelons of K-12 education know much about how the system of school leadership succession actually works. Supervisory papers are the entry passport and the system is explicitly hierarchical as you move up the ladder step-by-step from principal to assistant district superintendent to central office superintendent to the pinnacle, Director of Education. The term “superintendent” is a relic of the “command-and-control” school of leadership. Someone, anyone, from the outside faces a long odds in that kind of organizational culture.

Greater diversity in that applicant pool would certainly be welcome, especially by regular teachers, active parents, and local employers. Former TDSB trustee Howard Goodman was correct when he advocating opening it up to outstanding educators without SO papers, including Deputy Ministers of Education, Faculty of Education deans, and community college presidents. The reality is that CODE operates like a small, exclusive club of 72 individuals, all drawn from the same milieu with remarkably homogeneous views and experiences.

What can be done to meet the educational leadership challenge going forward?  What harm would it do to break the mold – and introduce new blood representing different life experiences?  What would diversity in the ranks of chief superintendents look like?  How can we ensure that what happened in York Region Catholic School Board does not send out a chill – and deter outstanding and capable future leaders from coming forward?