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SummerSchoolTVDSB

Summer school is no longer just a make-up exercise for high school students short a few credit courses or looking to raise their final grade averages. Over the past two years, it’s gradually been expanded in Ontario and elsewhere into the elementary grades. Students as young as 6 years of age and up to age 13 have been enrolled in “summer school programs” aimed ostensibly at closing the learning gaps from Grades 1 to 8 identified since March 2020 as a result of some 22 to 27 weeks of school closures and disrupted learning.

Studies originating in the United States, Britain and the European Union have alerted us to the damage inflicted in terms of learning loss as well as psycho-social after-affects, especially for those already struggling in school or from marginalized communities.  A University of Alberta study conducted by Dr. George Georgiou found that students in Grades 1 and 2 in the Edmonton area performed, on average, eight months to a full year below grade level on reading tasks by the end of the 2020-21 academic year. Similarly, Grade 6 student assessment results in 2021-22 in Nova Scotia, for example, showed fewer students met expectations in reading, writing and math compared with pre-pandemic assessments.

A recent feature focusing on elementary summer school in the Ontario Thames Valley District School Board (TVDSB), produced by The Globe and Mail’s education reporter, Caroline Alphonso, generated some hope. Based upon Grade 1 to 3 summer school classes at Wilfrid Jury Public School in the City of London, Ontario, she saw first hand evidence that younger students were gaining in basic skills and confidence through exercises focused early reading, writing and mathematics.

Summer school programs in the TVDSB were targeted where they were most needed and would do the most good. Teachers, according to Superintendent Marion Moynihan, connected with families of students who were working at a Level 2 or lower (below provincial standards) and invited them to enroll their children in the program. It was explicitly designed to focus on literacy and numeracy and to counter the effect of the typical 9-week-long summer slide in learning.  

Students in Grades 1 to 3, from province-to-province, have only experienced school during times of pandemic disruption. Three-to-four-week programs may be short, but they are beginning to address the learning shortfalls. Rather than attempting to work miracles, Grade 1 teacher Erica Payne was realistic in her expectations. School readiness for September 2022 was the overriding priority, but little-by-little the gaps were being closed in those critical early grades.

So far, so good, but not every elementary school summer program, it appears, fit that description. Most such programs fly below the radar, but one offered by the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) attracted considerable attention because it tacked completely in another direction. Judging from the Twitter posts of Vanessa Lau, a TDSB LO teacher, the Grade 3 program at Lynnwood Heights Public School, offered “a wonderful 4 weeks of creativity, problem-solving and learning.”

Parents at this TDSB expecting a ‘catch-up’ program in reading, mathematics and science likely got a surprise.  What their children experienced in this TDSB-funded Continuing Education program was a shortened version of the usual pre-pandemic curriculum with considerable emphasis on equity and anti-racism.

Novice teachers like Ms. Lau tend to reflect prevailing education school trends and are often eager to please program supervisors and board consultants. That may explain the program philosophy and pedagogy. In this case, the Grade 3 program began with a lesson on skin colour and where it comes from, and included activities designed to raise awareness of racism and promote social justice. It did, in fairness, also include a rather ingenious and ambitious STEM project where students were expected to design a playground and at least two structures.

Critics on social media seized on Vanessa Lau’s regular Twitter posts and saw her little elementary school program as another example of “woke education” promulgated by the TDSB. While that’s an unfair characterization, and one devaluing her professional choices, the Lynnwood PS program was out-of-sync with broader provincial policy designed to close fundamental knowledge and skill gaps and get pandemic generation children back-on-track.

OntrioPlanCatchUp

Pandemic learning recovery programs are finally beginning to surface.  In late July 2022, Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce announced the Plan to Catch Up. Schools will stay open in 2022-23, if at all possible. The plan not only includes a return to in-person learning, but a commitment to restoring extracurricular activities like sports and field trips. It aligns with previously-announced plans for a large-scale tutoring program, enhanced summer learning, and improved mental health supports for students who are returning to classrooms.

Revamping summer school is a relatively small piece of the overall provincial strategy. While the most vocal leaders of Ontario teacher unions are skeptical of anything coming out of the Ontario PC government of Doug Ford, regional superintendents and researchers specializing in education research and child mental health are reasonably supportive of a broad educational recovery plan.

Lakehead Public Schools director of education Ian MacRae is fairly typical of the general response. “It’s not something new. It’s what we have been suggesting all the way through COVID, that it’s extremely important that kids get back in the classroom, and that supports are in place to provide students with the best opportunities to be successful once they do return to normal learning situations.”

Why did it take so long to prepare and implement Summer School programs for elementary school students adversely affected by pandemic learning loss? What is accomplished if such programs eschew intensive instruction in literacy and numeracy and default to pre-pandemic ‘student well-being’ and ‘social justice’ programs?  Will the emerging learning recovery programs be equal to the challenge?

 

PandemicImpactClass

School’s out and the first reliable reports on pandemic learning loss are appearing in the United States and, far more slowly, from province-to-province across Canada. In some school systems, education leaders and regional superintendents are breathing a sigh of relief and far too many are acting like the disruptions of two-and-a-half years of pandemic learning are over. But the first wave of student assessment scores reveals many students — especially from kindergarten to Grade 6, but all the way to Grade 12 — are behind with school closures, remote learning, and irregular school schedules to blame.

During the COVID-19 pandemic America’s schoolchildren lost out on from 16 to 70 weeks in the classroom. Most pupils received some form of virtual schooling which varied greatly in quality and quantity. While many parents recognized the risk to health posed by keeping schools open, they—and teachers—were concerned that lessons taken at the kitchen table were less effective than those in a classroom. Weathering one wave after another of the pandemic, and particularly Omicron, led to repeated schedule disruptions and reversions to remote/home learning. Early student test results show just how much childrens’ education has suffered during the pandemic.

            Standardized student assessment tracking in the U.S. was far more extensive during the pandemic and the Brookings Institution has reported lower levels of achievement, with younger children hit the hardest. Graduation rates dropped and fewer kids were pursuing post-secondary studies. It’s doubly difficult to identify and assess learning loss in Canada because our education authorities simply suspended provincial testing and, in many cases, final examinations.

Wilfrid Laurier University professor and researcher Kelly Gallagher-Mackay pinpointed the nub of the problem in Ontario and elsewhere: “we don’t have public data on how Ontario students are doing, so we are a lot more in the dark.” That’s problematic because “the risk with educational issues is that they can multiply if they’re not addressed,” she told The Toronto Star. It also has compounded effects: if students’ confidence or sense of preparedness have taken a hit, they may be more inclined to opt for programs they feel are easier, rather than more challenging ones that down the line provide more post-secondary opportunities.

Canada’s largest school district, Toronto District School Board (TDSB), produced Grade 1 Reading data that raised some alarms. TDSB data from 2020-21 for in-person schooling compared with 2018-19, reported students were 3 percentage points behind, while those in virtual schooling were 9 percentage points behind. The board is tracking student well-being and achievement, as part of its COVID-19 Pandemic Recovery Plan, to identify groups most impacted and where interventions are needed

An authoritative November 2021 American study of pandemic education impact, produced by Clare Halloran and a research team for the National Bureau of Educational Research, demonstrated how the shift in schooling mode to home learning adversely affected test scores tracked over 2020-21 across 12 different U.S. states. Student pass rates declined compared to prior years and that these declines were larger in districts with less in-person instruction. Passing rates in math declined by 14.2 percentage points on average, but somewhat less (10.1 percentage points smaller) for districts fully in-person. Reported losses in English language arts scores were smaller, but were significantly larger in districts with larger populations of disadvantaged students who were Black, Hispanic or eligible for free and reduced-price lunch programs.

Studies in Britain also show that the longer kids were in remote learning, the worse they fared. That’s particularly worrying in Canadian provinces like Ontario, where students lost out on about 27 weeks or more of in-person learning from March 2020 to the end of June 2022. Judging from the June 2021 Ontario Science Table study, Canadian provinces lost more days, averaging about 20 weeks, than similar jurisdictions in the U.S., U.K. or the European Union.

            The Canadian province of Nova Scotia is, as usual, a reliable bell-weather for K-12 education. Province-wide assessment was suspended completely in 2020-21 and then reinstituted in 2021-22.  The latest test results were embargoed until the last week of school in June 2022, posted on an obscure Nova Scotia Education website under PLANS, then released without any notice or comment. Putting them out at the tail end of the year all but guarantees that they escape public notice.

            Studying the latest installment of Nova Scotia provincial student results, covering the 2018-19 to 2021-22 period, it is easy to see why they are buried on an obscure public website.  Nothing was reported covering Grade 3, the critical first step in monitoring the acquisition of student competencies in reading, writing and mathematics. Instead, the province released Grade 6 results showing, as predicted, a pronounced achievement decline, most acute in mathematics and writing, but also affecting reading competencies and comprehension. 

NSMathematics2021

            What are education authorities attempting to hide?  Grade 6 Mathematics results (2021-22) dropped to 64% achieving expectations, down 6 % from before the pandemic. In the case of Grade 6 Reading, some 71% of students met the standard, down 4% since 2018-19. Going back ten years to 2012-13, the achievement slide is actually gradual and continuing, perhaps worsened by some 22 weeks of COVID-related school closures from March 2020 to June of 2021.

From school district to district, student achievement in 2021-22 was also highly irregular, ranging in Grade 6 Mathematics from Halifax RCE (67%, down 6%) to TriCounty RCE (50%, down 14%). In Grade 6 Reading, the comparable figures were Halifax RCE (74%, down 3%) to TriCounty RCE (61%, down 6 %).

Some marked progress has been made in addressing the problem of underperformance among marginalized and racialized students. In Grade 6 Mathematics, for example, African Nova Scotian students’ scores have risen from 36% (2013-14) to 55% (2016-17) and then held firm at 54% (2019-20) before the pandemic.  For Indigenous students, Grade 6 Reading has risen from 64% (2013-14) to 65% (2016-17) and then reached 74% (2019-20), just 2% below the provincial mean score. 

            The declines in Grade 6 Mathematics and Reading in Nova Scotia post-pandemic are perhaps predictable. What is more concerning is the longer-term trend toward an “achievement slide,’ revealed starkly on publicly- reported provincial assessment results over the past decade. Grade 6 Mathematics scores, for example, have plummeted from 73% (2012-13) to 71% (2018-19) to 64% (2021-22), a drop of 9 points.  In Grade 6 Reading, the slide is gentler from 76% (2012-13) to 74% (2018-19) to 71% (2021-22).  In short, somewhere between one-quarter to one-third of all students are not functionally literate or numerate at the end of elementary school.

One of Canada’s leading international education experts, Paul Cappon, warned ten years ago that Canada was becoming “a school that does not issue report cards.”  Suspending student assessment during the pandemic, then re-instating tests on a limited basis is bad enough.  Holding-off on releasing student results until everyone is on the way out for the summer holidays suggests that Dr. Cappon’s prophecy has come to pass, even after the biggest educational disruption in our lifetime.

What was the full extent of the learning loss experienced by K-12 students over the past two-and-a-half years? How reliable are the initial assessments coming out of the United States, the UK, and the European Union states?  Why is it next-to-impossible to assess the pandemic impact on Canadian students?  By limiting student assessment, rationing the results, then issuing partial sets of results are Canadian school authorities cushioning the blow or merely deferring the day of reckoning?  

MindsetLockBrian

The concept of a “growth mindset” is so wildly popular these days that it has spread into mass culture and creeps into many supposedly cutting-edge leadership development presentations.  Having a “growth mindset” means believing that you can improve your intelligence through effort and the use of effective strategies, whereas having a “fixed mindset” means accepting your limitations. It is now virtually the ‘New Age’ elixir for the ambitious in 21st century times.

Since the publication of Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck’s 2006 book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, the whole notion gained widespread currency. Her TED Talk attracted 10 million views and the mindset approach spread from elementary and secondary education and was applied in stress and mental health research, in conflict resolution, and in corporate boardrooms. School systems in Canada and around the world began to promote the teaching of growth mindset as a learning technique, and educational companies jumped on the bandwagon, generating sets of mindset materials for teachers and parents.

Millions of dollars went into funding mindset research until the first studies appeared five years ago calling into question the legitimacy of the fashionable psychological theory. Dweck’s claims and those of her research collaborator, David Yeager of the University of Texas at Austin, were challenged in a March 2018 study by Case Western Reserve University researchers. Two meta-analyses, replicating Dweck’s most-cited papers, reported “little or no support for the idea that growth mindsets are beneficial for children’s responses to failure or school attainment.”

Overhyped educational panaceas tend to underdeliver when subjected to evidence-based analysis and mindset theory is no exception. While some mindset-based interventions produced good results, the Case Western Reserve team found others had no effect on student outcomes.  Aside from a few methodological quibbles, the biggest criticism was that mindset research fell well short of its promise.

GrowthMindsetKids

Schools tend to be fertile ground for the latest psychological theories and learning experiments. From Brain Gym to learning styles, a succession of innovations promoted by curriculum and pedagogical consultants have been implemented by classroom teachers, only to be abandoned or simply disappear when shown to be largely a gimmick rather than a genuine breakthrough.

Unlike most educational ‘fads,’ Dweck’s ‘growth mindset’ did emerge out of some sound initial research into brain plasticity and was tested in actual case studies with students in the schools. University College London education researcher Dylan Wiliam, a renowned student assessment expert, even lent his support to the Growth Mindset movement when he embraced Dweck’s findings, codified the approach as  Talent = Hard Work + Persistence, and applied it to building ‘feedback’ into student assessment.

From 2015 to 2017, Dweck and her research associate Susan Mackie alerted researchers and education policy-makers to the spread of what was termed a “false growth mindset”  in schools and classrooms in Australia as well as in the U.S. and the UK. Too many teachers and parents, they pointed out in an influential 2016 article in The Atlantic, had either misinterpreted or debased the whole concept,.

Dweck discovered that in many classrooms it had been reduced to simple axioms like “Praise the effort, not the child (or the outcome).” In most cases, it was educational progressives, or parents, looking for alternatives to “drilling with standardized tests.” “Growth mindset disciples,” Dweck acknowledged, had reverted to praising students rather than taking “the long and difficult journey” and showing “how hard work, good strategies, and good use of resources lead to better learning.”

Defenders of mindset research now concede that the concept was disseminated far too fast. “Any popular idea in education gets spread way ahead of how ready the science is,” David Yeager told Scientific American in August 2019. Much like Dweck, he acknowledges that growth mindset is far more complex and subject to misinterpretation in schools and misapplication in classrooms.

Yeager, Dweck and members of their Mindset Scholars Network have fought back against the skeptics.  A massive study, based upon a randomized control trial of 12,000 students from across the United States, published in August 2019 in Nature demonstrated that mindset interventions can work in certain contexts. In this case, at the grade 9 level, and with lower-achieving students.  Exposure to two short, low cost online programs led to higher grades for lower-achieving Grade 9 students (an average improvement of 0.1 grade point) and many students chose more challenging math courses in the next grade. While showing positive signs, critics questioned whether, given the investment of resources, a 0.1 point boost was meaningful and whether the claims for such programs are inflated by the marketers.

Growth mindset may not have been debunked but the psychological theory has lost its lustre.  Successful implementation of mindset interventions appear to require finesse in the classroom. The national study showed that it could work with Grade 9 students supplied with study materials designed for that purpose. The latest 2022 research study on “Teacher Mindsets” in Psychological Science identifies where and why growth-mindset interventions do and do not work.  At the risk of oversimplifying, it essentially comes down to this: first year high school students supported by mathematics teachers with more highly-developed growth mindsets perform better. That is, to say the least, hardly earth-shaking.

What’s the litmus test for successful educational interventions? The bar, we now know, is set relatively low.  What is clear: Growth mindsets have proven very hard to instill and harder than its inventors ever imagined. It requires a laser-focused growth mindset to persevere and overcome the next set of obstacles. Even modest effects, Yeager confessed in March of 2018 in Wired Magazine, are “somewhat amazing” given the fact that “many, or even most very extensive and expensive educational programs have no effect at all.”

Why are school change theorists and system leaders so susceptible to the latest panacea?  How did “Growth Mindset” achieve its exalted status in North American K-12 education?  What happened to undercut its legitimacy?  How have lead proponents Carol Dweck and David Yeager responded to shore up support for the theory?  What does the whole controversy over “mindset theory:  teach us?

FASDGirlChildbirthMediaCtr2012

Children born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FASD) often go undiagnosed for years because of a persistent and hard to dispel stigma attached to the condition. That stigma is most often borne by mothers, passed along to their offspring, and, all too often, wreaks havoc on normal family life. It’s hidden away and whispered about in all too many households.

What’s it like to raise a child diagnosed with FASD?  Speaking at the opening of the recent Canadian FASD Conference held June 9 in Moncton, New Brunswick mother Nadia Mallet provided a pithy and revealing answer: “It’s like starting a blender without a top.” You can expect a mess and cleaning it up can and does become a mother’s full-time job.

Adoptive mother Alicia Munn of Fredericton, Chair of the N.B. FASD Parent Advisory Committee, went into more graphic detail in a recent exclusive interview and later at the conference. “There’s a lot of stigma, shame and humiliation associated with FASD,” she told me. “Brain damage adversely affects the child’s neurological development, all too often leading to lifelong dependence on social supports and, in some cases, a life marred by criminality.”

MunnAliciaFASDShoes

Advocating for, and supporting her 21-yer-old son Joseph Munn, was an exhausting thirteen-year struggle to get a clinical diagnosis that lasted from age 5 to 18 years of age. She guided, rescued and put him back on track multiple times, as he moved from school to school in Fredericton, five or six times.

Munn’s a nurse by profession and she also speaks with a ton of lived experience. Supporting and encouraging a FASD teen through the ups and downs is particularly stressful and unpredictable. “It’s like dealing with a half-wired house with a short circuit,” she says. “Things go off track and it requires periodic interventions to provide executive function support.”  Not every teen with FASD has a resilient “super mom” like Munn.

Alcohol and drinking are very much a part of our lives and so much so that we do not always recognize its adverse societal consequences. One of the most debilitating and lesser known is FASD affecting at least 4 per cent of all live births, or 250 children out of the province’s 6,200 births each year. That’s more than Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), cerebral palsy, and Down Syndrome combined.

Talking openly about FASD is far more common in Western Canada, particularly in Alberta, where the national organization is most deeply rooted. First diagnosed in 1974, FASD is gradually gaining acceptance as a recognized clinical condition eligible for social supports. Most of the medical research and health reform advocacy stems from the University of Alberta and the Institute for Health Economics.

The Canada FASD Research Network (CanFASD) was established in 2005 and since then has been acting as a catalyst for developing and expanding support programs for families affected by FASD right across Canada. The Executive Director, Audrey McFarlane, founder of the Lakeland Centre for FASD, is based in Cold Lake, Alberta, and has devoted over twenty years of her life to community outreach, prevention, and support program development.

Securing funding for FASD research and advocacy has been a challenge, McFarlane told me in a recent interview. Competition for governmental support in terms of funding is fierce and FASD currently receives a fraction of what is provided to Autism SD research and programs from province-to-province across Canada. “We don’t have any national plan or strategy to focus our resources,” she says. “Most of our efforts are local, offering pre-natal programs to alert mothers to the dangers of drinking and supporting changes in behaviour to reduce the incidence.”

Mothers are most susceptible during the first six weeks of their pregnancy and, as a result, a large proportion of those babies affected are born to women with unplanned pregnancies.  High incidence of FASD was first discovered and documented in Indigenous communities. “We know,” McFarlane says, “it’s related to high rates of alcoholism as a terrible legacy of colonialism affecting larger numbers of Indigenous children.”

Programs and systems of support are gradually emerging to improve life outcomes for impacted children. Without such interventions, FASD children and teens experience high rates of incarceration and suicide, and this is particularly true on Canada’s East Coast. What’s encouraging is that New Brunswick is ahead of Nova Scotia and other Atlantic provinces in tackling the unaddressed problem.

Talking openly about FASD is far more common in Western Canada, particularly in Alberta, where the national organization is most deeply rooted. First diagnosed in 1974, FASD is gradually gaining acceptance as a recognized clinical condition eligible for social supports. Most of the medical research and health reform advocacy stems from the University of Alberta and the Institute for Health Economics.

New Brunswick is definitely the lighthouse province in Atlantic Canada. A real pioneer and powerful advocate for FASD awareness was former Moncton MP, the late Claudette Bradshaw, who cleared the path for pediatrician Dr. Nicole LeBlanc, the leading medical researcher who established the clinical guidelines for diagnosis, putting FASD on the provincial medical and social services agenda. Action central for the provincial effort is the Centre Excellence NB, opened in 2012, managed by Vitalité Health Network and based in Dieppe, N.B.  Health Minister Dorothy Shephard chose the Moncton CanFASD Conference as a convenient event to announce some $800,000 in additional funding for the Centre for Excellence.

One of the most passionate advocates for FASD prevention and support is Mi’kmaw Elder Noel Milliea of Elsipogtog who opened the CanFASD Conference with a plea to “let our humanism shine though today.” He also provided some rather astute guidance to the predominantly white audience of some 200 parent activists, medical professionals and social workers. “Find the spirit in the child,” he said, “It’s about the children, not just increasing your toolbox. Let’s be careful we don’t stop at labelling them.”

Educators in New Brunswick are increasingly aware of the prevalence of FASD affecting children in the schools. Some 250 children affected by FASD enter the provincial school system each year. In the average school, with some 300 students, a dozen or so students are affected by the condition.  It’s visible to those on the front lines of education.

Some of these FASD affected students are diagnosed, but not many, particularly outside of the three major cities. Few, if any, supports are put in place and most are insufficient, so the burden falls back mostly on parents and families, where they are in a position to help their children. A huge FASD support service gap needs to be closed in the province and elsewhere in our region.

*Reprinted from The Telegraph-Journal, Brunswick News, June 17, 2022.

Why do Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Children still go undiagnosed?  Why is it such a challenge to secure support in our social service network? Given the prevalence of FASD among kids and teens why is it so hard to attract funding and research dollars?  Why are some provinces so much more advanced in providing FASD support compared to others?

RestorativeJusticeKidsCircle

Restorative justice is very much in vogue in Canada’s K-12 schools.  Widespread adoption of restorative justice theory and practice, commonly reflected in “circle conversations,” is largely aimed at moderating punitive, and at times harsh, discipline in schools.  Defenders of the new student behaviour management approach, claim that it works to the benefit of ‘labelled students,’ drawn disproportionately from racialized and marginalized communities. Since the recent advent of Black Lives Matter and the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, it has gained fresh currency in public schools everywhere.

Restorative justice flourished first in the criminal justice system as a preferred law reform venture for juvenile offenders and aimed at, in the words of leading expert Dalhousie law professor Jennifer Llewellyn, “repairing or addressing the harm cased to social relationships when wrongdoing happens.” It attempts, not always successfully, to bring together offenders, victims and affected community members to resolve conflict, normally after the judicial system or school disciple committee has rendered its decision.

The whole approach is not really new because it was actually pioneered fifty years ago by American criminologist and devout Mennonite Howard Zehr, a justice system reformer committed to humanizing what he saw as a punitive and harsh  justice system for both offenders and victims.

While popular in law reform circles as a way of promoting ”forgiveness,” it has struggled to gain acceptance, particularly among victims or crime and their families. It’s hard for victims, often suffering from life-altering trauma or witnessing blatant wrongdoing, to see let alone appreciate the harms being done by harsh sentences or punitive measures.  From the beginning, restorative justice resolutions have suffered because of the public perception that offenders or juvenile violators tend to “get off easy” and rarely face meaningful consequences.

Implementing restorative justice is definitely not the panacea envisioned by its ardent proponents. One professional review of School Restorative Justice, published in March 2019 by Mikhail Lyubansky in Psychology Today, identified the nine most common criticisms of the current practice. Restorative justice in schools, according to practitioners in the field, often suffers from a few or many of these shortcomings:

  • Takes too long to implement in busy schools
  • Can be emotionally draining
  • Cuts into actual teaching time
  • Lacks in accountability leaving too much to self-responsibility
  • Little follow-through on agreed remedial actions
  • Perceived as just a gentler way of controlling student behaviour
  • Places unfair expectation on victims/survivors to talk with those who harmed them
  • Victims/survivors unlikely to ever forgive perpetrators of sexual assault or overt racism
  • Elements of compulsion creep into the process, causing victims and community members to harbour substantial resentment and demonstrate resistance.

Its mass application in elementary, middle school and high school classrooms is more about ‘humanizing kids’ through the latest mutation of what American education researcher Daniel Buck has termed “community-building prophylactics.”  It also remains essentially experimental because, until recently, no independent, evidence-based research has been conducted demonstrating its effectiveness.

Two reasonably sound RAND Corporation studies, conducted in Pittsburgh and Maine, have shown mixed results in implementing Restorative Justice in schools.  Twenty-two Pittsburgh public schools’ engaged in a restorative justice program were studied by RAND Corporation researchers over two school years, 2015-16 and 2016-17 in what was reportedly the most comprehensive study utilizing the first randomized trial — the gold standard in social science research.

Suspension rates were reduced somewhat in restorative justice schools, as 12.6 percent of students were suspended at least once, compared to 14.6 percent in regular schools. Fewer Black students received suspensions under to the program, though they were still much more likely to be suspended than white students. Most significantly, restorative justice all but eliminated expulsions and the placement of students in “alternative” schools.

RestorativeJusticeCircle

While schools may have been a little safer, student academic results did suffer under restorative justice conditions. The effect was less pronounced in reading, but math scores for students in grades 3 through 8 did fall significantly. More concerning, it was black students, not white students, whose scores fell. A black student at the 50th percentile dropped to roughly the 44th percentile during the implementation of restorative justice.

The Maine study, published online in March 2019 by the Journal of Youth and Adolescence, found that adopting RJ in middle schools made little or no difference in school climate. While the study didn’t look at academic grades or suspension rates, it showed RJ had little impact on bullying and related school Indicators. It also revealed how hard it is for schools to implement restorative justice even after two years of teacher training, monthly consultations and visits by coaches. Students’ survey answers revealed that it didn’t really impact their behaviour,” teen resistance to “buying-in,” and reluctance to meet face-to-face with classmates seen as ‘enemies’ or threatening figures. It’s a voluntary process and not every kid wanted to talk.

Restorative Justice can also go awry when it drifts into the realm of professional mental health practice. Identifying and treating children and youth with serious mental health disorders should remain the domain of health experts. While most teachers have some background in psychology, social therapy is fraught with risks and best left to those who are trained and licensed psychologists.

Jumping into Restorative Justice is a classic case of “putting the cart before the horse” and jumping over the research.   Giving students personal advice and career guidance is perfectly fine, but restorative justice remains problematic.  We need to recognize that RJ’s effectiveness has not been proven and, if today’s classrooms come to mimic group therapy sessions, it may well cause unintended harms. It’s time to recognize the limitations of restorative justice insofar as they apply to its overuse in schools.

What’s the philosophical rationale for implementing Restorative Justice in schools?  What are some of the most common criticism?  How effective is it, judging from the latest evidence-based research? In adopting RJ in schools what might be the rewards – and the risks?  How might the potential downsides be addressed by schools?  

ChildAbusePHotoUWOPed

Child welfare reformers campaigned for years to secure independent Child and Youth Advocates in province-after-province across Canada. Since Canada ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) in 1991, self-standing government offices have proliferated in Canada’s English-speaking provinces to uphold and protect the “human rights of every child… regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, abilities, birth order or other status.” Nova Scotia, as well as Quebec, were ‘weak sisters’ – outliers without self-standing offices.

Nova Scotia child welfare reformers who campaigned for a Child and Youth Advocate recently got something else – an ill-defined and bureaucratic sounding Child and Youth Commission. On March 28, 2022, Nova Scotia’s Minister of Community Services Karla MacFarlane announced that the province would be adopting a different, more restorative, less adversarial approach. Instead of appointing an independent provincial Advocate, that province would be establishing a Commission with a mandate guided by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and informed by restorative justice principles.

Ten years of periodic crises in children and youth care and protection and a series of reform initiatives had failed to register in Nova Scotia. Governments of all stripes – Progressive Conservative, NDP or Liberal – had, to date, shown a real aversion to giving voice to the voiceless, being proactive in identifying issues, or closing the gaps in services for at-risk children and youth.

When the needle finally moved, the Ministry of Community Services claimed that it was not a response to years of child welfare advocacy, but rather inspired by a recommendation buried deep within the November 2019 final report of the Restorative Inquiry on the Home for Colored Children.

ChildAdvocateIndigenousKids

One of the chief proponents of an independent Child and Youth Advocate, Alex Stratford was loathe to ‘look a gift horse in the mouth,’ but wondered if it passed the sniff test. “Social change” begins with advocacy, he pointed out, and it is adversarial by nature.  “There’s not been an incident in our history in which change has occurred where there hasn’t been some kind of adversarial approach to ensuring that government is accountable to the people that they serve.”

Two neighbouring Maritime provinces, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, have fully embraced Child and Youth Advocates as the means of monitoring child and youth abuse and ensuring high standards of child protection.  Since February 2022, newly-appointed NB CYA Kelly Lamrock has produced three investigative reports on mask mandates for school children, teem mental health services, and enshrining children’s rights in new child welfare legislation.  The latest Child and Youth Advocate legislation in PEI is hailed by experts as the most advanced because it incorporates dispute-resolution processes, including (where appropriate) restorative justice.

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The Nova Scotia Ombudsman Office, founded in response to allegations of institutional abuse in the 1960s, focuses mostly on children in care and proved unequal to the task.  It has laboured on with a very limited mandate and an annual budget of only $1.8 million, a fraction of what is invested elsewhere.  Back in 2015, Nova Scotia spent only $400,000 of its $1.7-million budget investigating child and youth complaints, less than one-quarter of the amount expended in Newfoundland and Labrador.

The current Nova Scotia government wants no part of having to respond to ongoing and unpredictable investigations into gaps in child and youth at-risk services.  “The Commission,” Community Services spokesperson Christina Deveau advised me “will take feedback on an ongoing basis, and monitor system improvement, to illustrate its effectiveness and build trust in the system.”

It sounds well intended, but falls far short of establishing a Child and Youth Advocate, completely independent of the government and reporting to the Legislative Assembly.  So far it looks very much like a potential obstacle to a more robust approach with a full mandate to identify the cracks, investigate serious cases, and take the lead in advocating for changes in child welfare and youth-at-risk policy and services.

Why did the Nova Scotia government opt to create a Child and Youth Commission rather than appoint an independent provincial Advocate?  Is it a step forward or a potential obstacle shielding Community Services from regular, ongoing, independent public scrutiny?  Will the new agency be pro-active or reactive in its orientation?  If the modus operandi is inclusivity, trauma-informed practice, and restorative justice, will we ever succeed in rooting out the worst forms of physical/emotional abuse, cyberbullying, and sexual assault affecting children and teens?   

HigherEdCOVIDStudentsUniversity campuses were eerily quiet in early April when the academic year was winding down. Weathering the sixth wave of COVID-19 on the heels of two years of disruption and hybrid learning experiments, a sense of war-weariness hung in the air.  Students, faculty and senior administration were confronting the sticky business of returning to normal with F2F (face-to-face) in-person instruction.

            The Class of 2022 approached graduation after a bifurcated university experience, marked by a normal first year or two, followed by masking-up, toggling back-and-forth to online learning, and persevering through periodic outbreaks.  Presidents, deans and administrators breathed a sigh of relief wondering, in the back of their minds, when will this all end?

A year ago, New Brunswick Minister of Post-Secondary Education, Training and Labour Trevor Holder had sounded a hopeful note. On April 7, 2021, he announced on Global News that he anticipated all universities and colleges would return to in-person learning in the fall. Following the usual laissez-faire approach, when and how it is accomplished was left up to individual post-secondary institutions. That is common in the PSE sector from province-to-province right across Canada.

With the latest variant ripping through Canada in the spring of 2022, no one was making confident public predictions for the coming school year.  Canadian higher education soothsayer Ken Steele, CEO of Eduvation, chose a bizarre metaphor of “chewing on nutty fudge” to capture the situation facing most universities and colleges in N.B. and elsewhere.

“The transition from pandemic to endemic is proving to be sticky, slow-moving and prone to unexpected crunches!” he wrote in his May 12 Eduvation Blog post. “Compared to the quick, clean ‘pivot’ in early 2020, the way OUT of pandemic is proving far more confusing.”

Managing university faculty is often likened to herding cats and, after two years of adapting to new routines, something unexpected was happening, again.  Getting everyone back to in-person teaching was now a sticking point.  University and college leaders, including the deans of education, were facing what Steele aptly described as “the challenges of encouraging (or, alternatively, resisting) a full return to campus this spring, and small wonder – the risks remain nebulous and unclear to most of us.”

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Working from home, either within commuting distance or out of the country, has its attractions for surprising numbers of university and college instructors.  That was one of the big take-aways from a May 15 Zoom session with faculty of education deans at the 2022 Canadian Society for the Study of Education (CSSE) conference. Speaking for Atlantic Canadian education deans, Mount Saint Vincent’s Antony Card was quite candid about the exhausting work of bringing everyone back into the fold. Interim Dean of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, Normand Labrie, explained, in some detail, how challenging it was to lead an education school when faculty were geographically scattered and teaching in various modalities.

Surveys of PSE faculty conducted by individual institutions have identified a pattern. According to Ken Steele, about a quarter of employees never want to return to the office, and two-thirds want flexibility and choice. Many institutions have their own internal polls and they tend to confirm the stickiness of the situation.  Commuting daily over long distances with gasoline topping $2 dollars-a-litre is now very unpopular. Finding a consensus on a mandated return to in-person instruction is getting harder not easier.

Universities and colleges are beginning, gradually, to hold more hybrid and in-person events, starting with the current round of convocations.  New Brunswick’s Mount Allison University was typical of many PSE institutions. A buoyant mood returned to Mount A from May 13 to 16 as the university celebrated a multiple-year graduation for the classes of 2020, 2021, and 2022. Most of the festivities were actually live and in-person, and everyone was expected to be fully vaccinated and masked.

Graduation celebrations never fail to raise the spirits and this year more so than ever.  “We are excited to welcome our students, recent graduates, faculty, staff, and honoured guests back to Convocation Hall,” Mount Allison University President and Vice-Chancellor Dr. Jean-Paul Boudreau said in a media release. “Over the past two years, the University community has come together to support one another through the pandemic, and we are pleased to be able to recognize and celebrate this year’s graduates as well as the Classes of 2020 and 2021 in traditional Mount Allison fashion.”

Mount Allison student valedictorian Hanna Fuzesi, hailing from Campbellton, NB, found a sense of community at Mount A that helped students through tough COVID-19 times.  Like her peers, half of her university years, were interrupted by the pandemic. She fared far better than many students attending universities who were robbed of a normal university experience.

The March 2020 shutdown proved to be “a turning point” in Hanna’s university career. “The isolation pushed me to become more involved where I could and connect with other students and community members,” she said in the Mount Allison newsletter. “Knowing others were experiencing the same challenges and were working towards common goals really strengthened the sense of community.”

Every university produces exemplary student graduates, many of whom shine in academics and interscholastic sports. It is somehow fitting at the 2022 Mount Allison graduation that a community-service oriented student like Fuzesi was honoured by the university.

Surviving let alone thriving under COVID-19 conditions is worth celebrating. The Class of 2022 will always be remembered for completing their degrees during the pandemic and demonstrating not only flexibility and adaptability, but a new-found resilience that may prove beneficial in their post-graduation years.

Why is returning to normal on Canadian university campuses such a sticky business?  Should cabinet ministers, university presidents and deans step-up to ensure that all classes return to in-person instruction in the coming year? What can university students expect when they return in September 2022?

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Asking “Who is, in fact, in charge here?” is a fair question, but it is now a “no-no” judging from a recent regular public meeting of an elected Ontario school board.  You may find yourself cut-off in mid-sentence, told to “stay positive,” then sanctioned by a Board Chair acting on behalf of elected trustees. That is exactly what happened on April 26, 2022 to Zorra Mayor Marcus Ryan when he attempted to address the Thames Valley District School Board (TVDSB) raising the serious matter of glaring irregularities in recent governance practices.

The TVDSB’s handling of two recent issues – the disbanding of a Rural Education Task Force and the Director of Education overruling elected trustees on the mandating of masks – brought matters to a head.  Speaking up as a local Mayor and concerned citizen, Ryan got more specific: “Who makes the decisions about how one billion dollars of our tax money is spent on our children’s education in our communities? The board passes resolutions, but then the senior administration seems to do whatever they want.”

TVDSB Board Chair Lori-Ann Pizzolato interrupted Ryan to request he keep his remarks positive, then Trustee Corrine Rahman raised a point of order warning Ryan to be respectful of staff and trustees and consider the stress everyone has been under over the past two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was abundantly clear, watching the TVDSB meeting on video, that Mayor Ryan was being silenced for having the temerity to “criticize the board” in public. Acting upon the advice of an in-house “parliamentary advisor,” the elected trustees no longer feel bound to listen to criticism, let alone respond to delegations challenging their decisions.

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Why do elected regional school boards exist if not to listen to and act on behalf of parents, taxpayers and local communities?  That is a pretty fundamental question worth pondering in the months leading up to the Ontario school board elections in October 2022.  What’s gone terribly wrong with elected regional boards? Whose interests do they represent?  Are any of the trustee candidates committed to re-engineering the system? If not, what should replace our top-down, senior administration dominated and unaccountable school boards?

Elected school boards always seem to be in crisis or threatened with extinction somewhere in Canada.  Close observers of Ontario education would be well aware of the troubled boards with a recent history of governance problems, including Limestone District School Board, Rainbow District School Board, York Region District School Board, and, most recently, Waterloo District School Board. Currently, Greater Victoria District School Board (BC District 61) is in turmoil and New Brunswick’s week sister imitation of regional boards, known as District Education Councils (DECs) are on notice.

Over the past two decades, New Brunswick’s hollowed-out version of elected regional boards has been in a gradual cycle of decline. Acclamation disease, plummeting voter participation, role confusion, and aversion to public engagement have all conspired to render the DECs largely irrelevant to most New Brunswickers. The DECs are on life support and that province’s activist Education Minister Dominic Cardy is looking seriously at decentralizing education governance.

Followers of Educhatter Blog will be familiar with my proposals to re-engineer education governance. My 2020 book, The State of the System, provides a detailed prescription, but it’s rather lengthy and a hard slog to get through.  So here is my “Coles Notes” version:

Adopt a “Community-School Governance Model”

Copying and pasting in an education model from elsewhere in Canada simply won’t work because each province is unique in its own way.  Most provinces still have conventional elected regional boards so New Brunswick is something of an anomaly.  Stepping back and taking stock of the differing local contexts, I still believe Ministers and their departments would be best advised to design and build what I term a “Community-School Governance Model” combining school-based governance/management with, in a second stage, completely re-engineered regional education development councils.

School-based management supported by school governing councils holds out exciting possibilities for creating a new education governance culture and revitalizing local school-level democracy. In designing the framework, the province would be well-advised to look first to the Edmonton Public Schools model of school-based management (SBM) and budget development process.  It is the best and most proven strategy for transitioning to a more decentralized form of educational decision-making.

The Edmonton model of SBM, adopted in 1976, and developed by Superintendent Dr. Michael Strembitsky in the 1980s, has stood the test of time. Alberta Education published a School-Based Decision-Making Guide in 1997 and opened the door to other boards adopting school-based budgeting. In 2003, when the World Bank started championing SBM in developed countries across the globe, a feature story in Time Magazine described Edmonton’s public schools as “the most imitated public school system in North America.”

Superintendent Darrel Robertson, in an August 2016 Edmonton Journal news story, reported that school-based decision-making was still going strong in the district. It remained the core philosophy because it successfully “empowers and engages staff, students and parents.”

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Governance Lessons – from New Zealand

New Zealand’s transformation to a decentralized governance under David Lange’s 1984-89 Labour government provides many valuable lessons for policy-makers. Faced with a tug-of-war with ten different education boards, Lange sought to reinvent government with his 1988 Tomorrow’s Schools initiative. It provided a blueprint for transformative education reform based upon the model of self-governing schools. Each school’s parents were authorized to elect their own board of trustees, the new legal entity entrusted with the educational and financial well-being of the school.

The N.Z. structural reform embraced school choice for parents and generated plenty of upheaval in its first decade before it solidified and gained acceptance. Twenty-five years after its inception, Cathy Wylie, lead researcher at NZCER, judged it a success overall, urging the NZ government to look at a system refresh rather than a return to “archaic” regional boards in any shape or form.

Creating a New Education Leadership Culture

Educational restructuring would not be deemed a success unless and until the top-down school system was turned right side up, building from the school level up.  School community-based decision-making will not happen on its own. It does require structural change to foster a new culture of more flexible, responsive educational leadership.  Simply put, we need to reprogram district administration to ensure that the system exists to serve the needs of children, teachers, parents, and local communities.

Regional school boards, as presently constituted, are far too bureaucratic, too big and unresponsive to be effective. Those who continue to argue for their retention on the grounds that they represent the people are, in the words of veteran Ontario educator Peter Hennessy, “missing the point” that “elective parent councils” have been established precisely because “the boards were and are out of touch with the grassroots.”

A Proposed Cure for the Local Democratic Deficit  

With school boards staggering from crisis-to-crisis, now is the time to transform the education governance system to cure the now-visible deficit in public accountability and local democratic engagement. The best course of action would be to announce a gradual, planned transition, replacing the existing regional education bodies with autonomous, elected, self-governing school councils. That sets a clear direction. It vests far more authority where it belongs, in school-level councils, and paves the way for the construction of a new community-based model of education.

Re-engineering local education governance will take time to get it right, so plan on implementing the change over 3 to 5 years. Invest heavily in public engagement and democratic education programming to attract and prepare a new cohort of school-level council members. Phase-out the existing regional boards and DECs and prepare for a roll-over in decision-making responsibility in two-to-three years’ time. While the school governing councils are under construction, plan for the re-establishment of regional coordination and planning bodies with membership drawn from the elected school governing councils.

Community-School Based Governance operates better when it is properly integrated into a broader regional and provincial governance system. Regional coordination is essential and that could come from newly-constituted regional coordinating bodies (i.e., District Education Development Councils).  Unlike the current unaccountable boards, they would have the political legitimacy that comes from being first elected at the school-level and be clearly accountable to the school communities.

What can be done to restore local democratic accountability in Canadian K-12 provincial education systems? Can elected regional bodies be saved or is it better to start again, rebuilding from the schools up?  Which provincial government will be first to embrace more decentralized school-level education decision-making?  What democratic accountability benchmarks do we need to assess the effectiveness of such governance reforms?

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Toronto’s first Normal School for teacher training, the former Ryerson University, has a new name — Toronto Metropolitan University. CBC-TV’s The National newscast on April 26, 2022, covered the story with a short piece presented through the eyes of Indigenous social work student Sarah Dennis of Nipissing First Nation who led the campaign to remove Egerton Ryerson’s name from university because of what the CBC termed “concerns” about “his links to Canada’s residential schools.” Removing the Ryerson name from the university was a fait accompli after a band of marauding students defaced and toppled his statue in early June 2021, and the university’s Standing Strong (Mash Koh Wee Kah Pooh Win) Task Force, made it one of their key recommendations.

Since the remains of 215 Indigenous residential school students were uncovered in Kamloops in late May 2021, the urgency of acting upon the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission report’s Calls to Action has affected all of us.  Horrible injustices happened in those Canadian residential schools and it’s high time to make amends. Speaking at Ryerson University in June of 2016, Commission Chair Murray Sinclair laid bare that tragic legacy and warned that “getting to reconciliation was going to be harder” than “getting to the truth.”  He also praised Ryerson University for its “commitment to equity, diversity and inclusion” noting “that is what his namesake now stands for.” No mention was made of changing the university’s name.

Watching that recent CBC-TV newscast upset me greatly as an Ontario-born and educated professor of education with a Doctorate of Education from OISE specializing in the history of Canadian education. What was truly disconcerting about that mainstream news report and most others was that it not only completely ignored Ryerson’s fundamental role in founding and shaping the Ontario public school system and instead perpetuated the questionable claim that he was “one of the primary architects of the residential school system.”

While historical figures move in and out of favour with the tides of popular opinion, the toppling of Egerton Ryerson in such a fashion is an outrage. Simply put, Canadian education history without Ryerson is like Shakespeare without Hamlet. It’s unthinkable that his American counterpart, Horace Mann of Massachusetts, would ever be treated with such disregard. Most surprising of all, none of the ranking academics in the Canadian History of Education Association (CHEA) have breathed a word, leaving his defense up to a courageous band of prominent history scholars, high school history teachers, public policy experts, and progressive reformers, many steeped in the Methodist ‘social gospel’ tradition.

Reverend Adolphus Egerton Ryerson was the undisputed founder of public schooling in Canada West (Ontario) and an unlikely candidate for vilification.  Two of his greatest defenders, Ryerson University professors Ronald Stagg and Patrice Dutil, provided an assessment starkly different than that of the Standing Strong Task Force report.  Ryerson, they pointed out in April 2021, was “one of the most influential figures in the history of Upper Canada and was in his day considered the very paragon of the forward-looking, progressive, inclusive, worldly intellectual. He was a beacon of educational reform, a fighter against injustice of all sorts, and a kind and generous man. A Methodist minister, he pushed for religious equality and has long been celebrated as the founder of Ontario’s public school system.”

As Superintendent of Education, the newly appointed Ryerson drafted the Common School Act in 1846 that established universal free access for children to schooling in Ontario. As a devout Protestant Methodist reformer, Ryerson campaigned fiercely against the Church of England (Anglican) as the state church and in favour of a more populist brand of social gospel Christianity and a broader form of democratic citizenship. Common schools, in his view, had a socializing task and should be built upon a Christian moral foundation, especially given the precarious nature of the colony, labour unrest, and divisive Christian sectarianism. Among his contemporaries, he exhibited “a spirit of egalitarianism” and openness to including the labouring classes and the poor in the public schools, in stark contrast to the more elitist Anglican thinkers of the time.

Ryerson fell short of being the “mythical hero” presented in the seminal education histories of Charles Phillips and C.B. Sissons, and later Canadian revisionist scholars such as Alison Prentice, J.D. Wilson, Robert Gidney, and Bruce Curtis revealed that his educational philosophy sought, in some ways, to implant “middle class values and attitudes” and to impart the virtues of industriousness, cleanliness, obedience, discipline and control. By the standards of his time, he still did not fit the label “conservative” because of his distaste for upper crust Anglican elitism and his Methodist reform instincts.

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Canada’s Indigenous residential schools were horrible institutions and, especially since the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, anyone painted with the brush of association is tainted and bound to suffer consequences.  While Ryerson is blamed for instigating residential schools, that’s not quite accurate, to say the least. He did not invent the residential school because it was British colonial policy long before he took office. His views were shaped during 1826-1827 while he was missionary to the Mississaugas of Credit River and unlike many white settlers, he was neither ignorant or disrespectful of Indigenous people.

Working with the Mississaugas, Ryerson met and became a close friend of Methodist Ojibwe minister Peter Jones (Kahkewaquonaby) and supported their claim to a land base at the mouth of the Credit River.  For a decade after he left the mission, notably during an 1836-37 trip to England, Ryerson continued to press from the British Colonial Office protection for the Anishinaabeg’s remaining land base in Upper Canada.  Furthermore, Reverend Egerton Ryerson (1803-1882) died before “Indian boarding schools” became federal government policy (in 1883) and it’s those compulsory institutions which stand accused of being vile instruments of cultural genocide.

Ryerson’s involvement with what came to be federal Indian residential schools was limited to providing the Indian Department of the United Canadas with a 3000-word 1847 letter containing recommendations. The oft-cited recommendation read as follows: “It is a fact established by numerous experiments, that the North American Indian cannot be civilized or preserved in a state of civilization (including habits of industry and sobriety) except in connection with, if not by the influence of, not only religious instruction and sentiment but of religious feelings. Indians should be schooled in separate, denominational, boarding, English-only and agriculturally-oriented (industrial) institutions.”  While his proposed framework may have carried some influence, Ryerson was not involved in the formulation of the policy.

Much like Peter Jones, he was concerned about the potential for cultural and economic displacement and favoured agricultural training schools, or “industrial schools” to prepare young men for changes in agriculture. Such thinking was popular at the time, especially among those familiar with the American Methodist Shawnee school considered “a progressive venture” possibly worthy of imitation. Two Methodist Indian schools established under his watch, Mount Elgin at Munceytown and Alnwick at Alderville were voluntary and entirely church-run institutions. It must be noted, in fairness, that Ryerson, like most of his contemporaries, permitted segregated schools to be established in Canada West and accepted the fact that, in many places, “prejudices and feelings are stronger than the law.”

Removing Ryerson’s name and expunging his legacy would have caused my dear old OISE professor, the late Willard Brehaut, author of  the lead essay in the 1984 book “The House that Ryerson Built,” to roll in his grave. As a former PEI School Inspector and founding OISE faculty member, Brehaut would have been shocked to learn that the enabling report made only passing reference to a “claim” that he founded the Ontario school system and made no mention whatsoever of a few of the enduring educational legacies of his 32 years in office:

  • A universal, free elementary education for all children
  • Authorized standard textbooks, the “Ontario Readers”
  • Establishment of Normal Schools (teacher’s colleges)
  • Professional certification of teachers
  • Teacher regulations – duties and responsibilities
  • Creation of local school boards and school districts
  • Compulsory school attendance law
  • Recognition for Roman Catholic separate schools
  • Established school divisions: elementary, secondary and collegiate levels

The facts speak for themselves: Superintendent Egerton Ryerson set in motion the creation of a modern, progressive public school system, and his masterful defense of common schools was utilized by chief superintendents in other provinces. In Brehaut’s words, the “main forces and trends that shaped Ontario public education” could all be traced back to the architect of the system, Egerton Ryerson.

Confronting grave injustices should not make matters worse by committing further injustices.  Without inflating or glorifying Ryerson’s role, it’s hard to ignore the significance of his 1846 report and his profound impact on the shaping of the system. Removing his name from Ryerson University and Toronto’s first Normal School simply does not pass the test of fairness.  Street justice, justified by a commissioned and one-sided university report, was administered swiftly without sober second thought.  It’s up to historians to call out glaring examples of presentism which fail the test of historical accuracy and violate the fundamental principles of sound historical thinking, for the sake of future generations.

Was erasing Egerton Ryerson’s legacy as founder of the Ontario school system and removing his name from the Toronto university justified – and, if so, on what grounds? How much weight should we put on a singular act in a career at Superintendent of Education spanning 32-years?  Where’s the evidence to support the allegation that Ryerson was a “racist” by the standards of his time? What lessons can be learned from the Ryerson University administration’s handling of this crisis? 

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Two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, the Canadian K-12 education system is gradually regaining its consciousness after multiple shocks.  Three years ago, Ontario education occupied a bubble and the architects of its current school system were fond of routinely referring Ontario as “the learning province” with  a “world class system.”  Prominent Canadian school promoters who saw the COVID-19 education crisis as a golden opportunity to “build back better” with a focus on enhancing social and emotional learning are now beginning to confront the post-pandemic realities.

Now an Ontario education research report produced in April 2022 has dared to break with the official line.  “CANADA HAS BEEN A LAGGARD ON EDUCATIONAL RECOVERY” it proclaimed – and in capital letters. That report on “Educational Recovery” produced by the Laurier University Centre for Leading Research in Education spearheaded by Dr. Kelly Gallagher-Mackay confirmed what international education researchers, most notably Western University’s Dr. Prachi Srivastava, have known for some time. Venturing outside the Ontario-centric education world it’s clear that “other countries have invested far more than Canada in learning recovery and started sooner.”

Most of what Canadian educators know about COVID-19 school disruptions and “learning loss” come from evidence-based data research originating the United States, Britain, and the EU. So, it’s no surprise that the United States and the United Kingdom are way ahead of us in producing learning recovery strategies and programs.  The US has already allocated $2741/student (in Canadian dollars) and the UK $531/student, according to Britain’s Educational Policy Institute. Britain made its initial commitment in September 2020 and funding for learning recovery programs was flowing in the US by January 2021.  In comparison, Ontario has only committed $72/student divided up into support for learning recovery, special education and mental health.

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The student data deficit was revealed for all to see in February 2022 in a very useful People for Education  pan-Canadian scan of Canadian K-12 COVID-related education plans conducted after two years of disrupted schooling. While all provinces and territories were found to have public health safety strategies for schools, few were engaged in “data collection” or had   anything approaching a vision or plan to manage, assess or respond to learning loss or the psych-social impact of mass school closures. None had allocated sufficient funding to prepare for post-pandemic recovery.

Why has Canada lagged behind in recognizing learning loss and getting its policy response act together? That’s not even a question raised in the report. The reason is self-evident to those familiar with Ontario’s educational gatekeepers, recognized stakeholders and researchers in that orbit: Most of the key education influencers and interest groups, particularly in Ontario, exhibit “student assessment aversion” and have resisted, for decades, system-wide student assessment aimed at monitoring and addressing learning gaps and shortfalls student achievement.  In normal times, it  passed unnoticed; but not now when we are facing a formidable learning recovery mission.

The Laurier University report is a credible piece of research, but it, too, came wrapped in what amounted to a politically-driven declaration. That “If I had 1.08 billion dollars” media release has to be one of the dumbest ever to accompany an education research report. Instead of addressing the absence of testing, data-gathering, and negligence in preparing recovery plans, it captured the collective “wish-list” funding appeals of the 34 system insiders assembled by Toronto-based People for Education as part of the background research.

Most of the “education leaders” invited to the January 2022 pre-report symposium were invited to “pitch interventions or approaches” – an open invitation to present familiar funding appeals and pet projects. The result was predictable – a panoply of the usual remedies, including more funding for student well-being, learning supports, supply teachers, psycho-social specialists, and equity initiatives. Almost crowded out on that list was the point of the whole exercise – launching “a renewed approach to educational data and evidence.”

The section of the report focusing on addressing the student data deficit is rife with contradiction. While there’s acknowledgement that “educational data” is now critical to addressing COVID-19 learning impacts, the proposed action plan is fuzzy and contradictory.  Collecting data may be desirable, but there was no consensus on which data or for what purpose. The University of Waterloo research of Scott Leatherdale is trotted out because his COMPASS study is “population-level, longitudinal data” youth public health study is conducted at a distance from the system.

What’s missing from the report is any reference whatsoever to the relevant research conducted on “learning loss” produced by OISE researcher Scott Davies and Janice Aurini, a colleague of Professor Leatherdale. When it comes to provincial testing, the report notes that some participants called for a “pause” or complete halt to the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) tests administered in grades 3, 6 and 9 in Ontario. That’s far from an endorsement of the one Ontario student assessment program capable of filling the data deficit identified as a critical policy issue.

Why is student assessment across the system still a bugaboo two years into an educational crisis with recognized adverse impacts upon student learning?  Is it a matter of ideologues opposed to provincial testing refusing to recognize the new realities? If “data collection” and “learning loss” is such a problem, can it be addressed without reinstituting provincial testing? Or is this essentially a smokescreen to stave off a day of reckoning when we actually see what COVID-19 school disruptions have done to the pandemic generation of students?