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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The impending arrival of the researchED movement in Atlantic Canada is gradually leaking out on social media, in teacher staff rooms, and on school parking lots. Speaking ‘out of school’ is not without its risks, especially if it consists of challenging ‘sacred cows’ or openly discussing ‘elephants in the classroom.’ That is why most of the talk is on social media, in notices and posts circulating among education reformers and research-informed teachers, or quietly shared among parents aware of the impact of researchED conferences.

That researchED event, “Shoring Up the Foundations: Student Behaviour and Learning to Read,” to be held Saturday November 12 at Saint Mary’s University, promises something completely new and different in Primary to Grade 12 education. Some of our brightest minds and live heads, attracted by headliners researchED founder Tom Bennett OBE and Nova Scotia reading specialist Jamie Metsala, are already snapping-up the remaining seats.

Since its inception as a spontaneous Professional Development eruption ten years ago, the grassroots British teacher-research organization, led by British teacher Tom Bennett (no relation) and teams of volunteers, has offered weekend conferences to over 60,000 participants in 13 countries on six continents.  It captures well the independent spirit of its founder and the general appeal of evidence-informed research and practice that challenges prevailing theories, education guru driven changes, and practices sustained by layers of administrators and consultants far removed from the classroom.

Independent educational thinkers, research-informed teachers, and serious education researchers) are attracted to researchED for many different reasons. Few are completely comfortable spouting “positivism,” living in “research bubbles,” or carrying out provincial mandates that are not “research-based” or are demonstrably ineffective in today’s challenging classrooms. Guiding student behaviour and managing our classrooms and ensuring that all students secure the “right to read” are two critical topics crying out for discussion, out in the open, in a professional conference setting.

“Working out what works” for teachers and students in the classroom sounds like common sense. Reaffirming that priority and empowering teachers to challenge cherished theories and largely unproven teaching practices is what gives researchED its raison d’etre and what has sparked hundreds of thousands of teachers and education researchers  to attend its Saturday conferences, including past Canadian events such as researchED Toronto (November 2017), researchED Ontario (April 2019), and researchED Vancouver (May 2019).

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researchED founder Bennett is the author of Running the Room: A Teacher’s Guide to Behaviour, and Senior Advisor on Student Behaviour to the UK Government. He’s a straight-shooter in a field overflowing with ‘happy talk,’ ‘edubabble,’ and obfuscation.  Teachers all over Britain flock to his PD sessions providing sound, practical advice on how to “create a culture” where teachers and their students exhibit mutual respect and effective teaching is, once again, not only possible but central to the whole educational enterprise.

Featured speaker Dr. Metsala, Professor of Education at Mount Saint Vincent University, is one of Canada’s leading authorities on teaching early reading, proves that Nova Scotian’s are sometimes last to acknowledge their heroes in some fields. She is very much in-demand across Canada, especially since serving as Academic Advisor to the Ontario Human Rights Commission Right to Read Public Inquiry from 2020 to 2022.

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With Twitter currently under fire from critics, it’s worth noting that researchED was actually sparked by a single, well-timed tweet by Tom Bennett in the summer of 2013. “I launched researchED,” he said back in 2017, “because I wanted a safe space where people could come together… and have a (frank) conversation.” It has surprised him, to no end, that it was considered “quite radical” at the time. Telling the truth in education, he learned, earned you as reputation as a “radical” among education’s gatekeepers and surprisingly large numbers of teacher education professors.

My first researchED conference, in New York City back in May of 2016, completely enthralled me. Seeing Canadian math wizard, John Mighton, founder of JUMP Math, on that program was a revelation, meeting American cognitive psychologist Daniel T. Willingham, and debating educational research findings with fellow educators and researchers got me completely hooked.  That’s how I ended up as the unofficial “Ambassador” for researchED in Canada.

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researchED is a real breath of fresh air that has proven capable of firing up frontline teachers, attracting leading researchers, and re-energizing education reformers everywhere.  For most, approaching educational change initiatives with a more skeptical eye comes naturally; for others, new to P-12 public education, it’s nothing short of an epiphany.

With the arrival of researchED in the Maritimes, thoughtful, up-and-coming educators see that there are alternatives to running with the herd and sublimating your concerns about the effectiveness of current practice, particularly when it comes to classroom management and learning to read.

Fresh from a researchED experience, educators, active parents, and commentators are more research-informed and less likely to be mesmerized by pet theories, to swallow educational platitudes, or to repeat common buzzwords.  You will never be quite the same again.

What can we learn from researchED now that it has arrived in Maritime Canada? Can researchED bridge the current divide between educators, parents and policy-makers of differing ideological persuasions?  Do prevailing theories of student discipline and learning to read pass the research sniff test?  Will we seize the opportunities afforded by the return of researchED Canada in the wake of the pandemic disruption?

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One of North America’s favourite ice cream chains, Ben & Jerry’s, has intervened in the current cycle of school trustee elections in Canada. The Canadian branch of the Unilever-owned ice cream company, best known for serving up frosty treats with quirky names for children and families, launched a September 2022 campaign to warn Canadians about the dangers of “far-right” school board slates of candidates.

“The Far-Right is Stacking our School Boards,” Ben and Jerrys’ proclaimed on its website. “Many people do not realize what school boards can do, and many people don’t realize that there is a far-right campaign to take over these governing groups.” The campaign was national in scope because it referred specifically to upcoming school board elections in British Columbia (October 15), Ontario (October 25), Manitoba (October 26) and two of the territories.

The multinational corporation applied a broad definition of “far-right” and, in effect, labeled a whole swath of Canadian candidates campaigning for school reform and pledging to “take back the schools.” That label applies to any candidate raising concerns or simply asking questions about board spending priorities, “critical race theory,” the age-appropriateness of sex education, professional teaching standards, or safety in schools.

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Organizing and running “slates” of candidates and announcing “endorsements” of candidates is not really new; nor is attempting to torpedo the campaigns of school trustee candidates who challenge the status quo or the prevailing order of social norms. Everyone who has run for school board office or campaigned for a candidate knows about the pre-election endorsements of favoured candidates by teacher federations, local labour councils, or education worker unions. It was also commonly used to marginalize incumbents with an independent streak or promising new candidates committed to systemic or curricular reform.

Public dissatisfaction with governments, even lower-order school boards, is running high in the wake of two-and-one half years of pandemic disruptions.  Significant student learning losses, mental health stresses, scarcity of resource supports, and unresponsive school systems combined with growing ideological polarization have produced social panic, instability, and a fair share of ‘crackpots.’ School trustee Twitter feeds in Ontario districts like Waterloo Region District School Board (WRDSB) are full of anger and rage.  All of a sudden, local school boards are no longer just boring political backwaters, sanctuaries for retired educators, or low-risk testing grounds for aspiring politicos.

School boards were ripe for structural reform because, over time, they have become larger, more centralized and distant from local citizens.  That process of bureaucratic change and unaddressed public alienation was documented in my 2020 book, The State of the System: A Reality Check on Canada’s Schools (2020).  Pent-up desire for change was gradually building, but it took a pandemic to bring it out into the open in the public square.

What’s really changed is that movements to challenge the status quo, mostly — but not exclusively — leaning to the right, are getting organized and mounting credible campaigns with clearly-articulated policy positions.  Most school trustee incumbents, nominally autonomous but often captive of school administration, were terrified since “acclamation” was normally the route to re-election. Confronting slates of candidates, running under the banner of ABC Vancouver and Parents’ Voice BC, or the Ontario “Blueprint for Canada” platform or endorsed by the “Vote Against Woke” Coalition made it all-to-real and sparked the usual education backlash, closing ranks against outsiders.

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School board wars have arrived in Canada but will not likely mirror what has happened since 2020 in school systems across the United States. Progressive values hold much bigger sway here, especially on social and moral questions, and social equity provision is embedded in human rights legislation – and that explains the fierce backlash. 

Social conservatives have learned, for the most part, to sublimate their inner-most thoughts and tend to conceal their views, for fear of being exposed.  Being “outed” for holding such sentiments can bring consequences.  That’s why many trustee candidates endorsed by the Ontario “Vote Against Woke” Coalition either ran for cover or asked that their names be removed from the list.

The Canadian mainstream media, with a few exceptions, is openly hostile to school trustee candidates daring (or foolish) enough to voice “anti-woke” sentiments with respect to matters of gender identities and rights.  Many education news reporters have also proven to be cool to those questioning the rise of “critical race theory” or advocating diversity and respect for, and acceptance of, one another, regardless of skin colour, race, or creed.

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The Ben and Jerry’s Canada intervention sought to capitalize on prevailing political and social sentiments. But, as Toronto Sun columnist Jamil Juvani pointed out, it could also be evidence of “the bubble that corporations create for themselves.”  That happens when corporate entities engage in political activism instead of encouraging balanced, informed, fair-minded conversations over critical issues, including the present policy positioning and future direction of school boards.

Community organizations, education unions, and even public-spirited corporations are, and should be, free to engage in school board elections within some limits.  It is never acceptable to express racist, misogynist or anti-trans views.  Having said that, those who seek to identify enemies of the “far-right” or “woke-left”, label opponents, or silence half the population are not helpful and do damage to public discourse and responsive, representative local government.

We should ensure that the mainstream Canadian media and participating organizations, whatever their stripe, fairly represent causes, interests and organizations spanning the political spectrum.  When school boards and news outlets are open to all views, it should be applauded as a vital component of a healthy, energetic and functioning local democratic culture.  If the 2022 school trustee elections are any indication, we are a long way from that set of circumstances.

Why are school board elections now a zone of conflict in the “culture war”?  What are the underlying sources and causes of the growing dissent with the prevailing order?  Will the fierce ideological battles seen in U.S. states and school systems materialize here?  How many elected school boards are already ensnared in intractable battles and mired in factionalism? Do institutions that foreclose on meaningful parent engagement and peaceful dissent lose their democratic legitimacy?

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Every time the top education bureaucrat turns over, the accompanying shake-up has profound implications for provincial school systems. Education ministers come and go at the whim of premiers and the electorate, it’s who runs the bureaucracy that really matters.

Few outside the system notice such seismic events. The schools chug-along seemingly unaffected by bureaucratic upheaval. In my home province of Nova Scotia, it’s largely contained within the Education and Early Childhood Development headquarters, aka the “Trade Mart bunker.”

The recent unceremonious departure of Nova Scotia’s latest Deputy Minister, Cathy Montreuil, left most teachers, parents and reporters scratching their heads. Learning that she received a $227,289 severance added to the intrigue. It begged the fundamental question –  did she jump or was she pushed?

Three weeks before the termination announcement, current Minister of Education Becky Druhan ran interference. “We have accomplished so much in one year, and we’re just getting started,” she said in a posted, and remarkably positive, You Tube video. When the news leaked out, she was nowhere in sight.

Montreuil is typical of most DMs in Nova Scotia education. First appointed in March 2018, she served for four years and one year after a change in government. Over the past 20 years, six top officials have held the post, including Dennis Cochrane (1999-2009), Rosalind Penfound (2009-12), Carole Olsen (2012-13) and Sandra McKenzie (2014-17). All lasted four years, except Olsen who served under Darrell Dexter’s NDP and was sacked after 18 months when the Stephen McNeil Liberals took power.

Since 2003, nine elected politicians have served, so far, as Education Minister. Three held office under the Progressive Conservatives, Jamie Muir (2003-06), Karen Casey (2006-08), and Judy Streatch (2009). Two held the post in the Dexter government: Marilyn More (2009-11) and Ramona Jennex (2011-13). Under the Liberals, Minister Casey returned for a second stint (2013-17), then was replaced by Zach Churchill (2017-21), and briefly by Derek Mombourquette (February to August 2021).

How Montreuil performed and what she accomplished is far harder to ascertain, given the veil of secrecy enveloping the department, code-named DEECD. It can, however, be pieced together with a little digging through a mass of disaggregated information.

Deputy Minister Montreuil was hired out of Ontario in March of 2018 with two fundamental responsibilities: (1) to oversee the abolition of elected school boards and centralization of provincial education management; and (2) to implement the 2018 Inclusive Education Commission recommendations.

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She carried out the first task with quietly effective and managerial efficiency. All seven elected English boards were dissolved in favour of Regional Centres of Education, run like duchies by newly elevated Regional Superintendents. Public accountability counterweights – a College of Educators, an Education Ombudsperson, and an arms-length student assessment agency – all proposed by Dr Avis Glaze in her infamous January 2018 report, never saw the light of day.

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A Provincial Council for Education (PACE) was installed, strictly for closed door advisory purposes, composed of a dozen hand-picked members. The contentious and NSTU-dominated Council on Working Conditions was also brought under tight control.  Enhanced authority for School Advisory Councils (SACs) as envisioned by Glaze never materialized.  A CBC News Nova Scotia investigation, conducted by Brittany Wentzell, revealed that most SACs actually atrophied between 2018 and 2020, including many whose web presence and meeting minutes disappeared.

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preliminary research report published in September 2020 by University of Ottawa professor Jess Whitley and her associate Trista Hollweck indicated that Inclusive Education reform stalled in 2019-20. While $30 million had been spent and 364 new positions added, implementation was not going smoothly, even before the massive pandemic disruption.  Shifting of roles caused confusion, new roles lacked clarity, and misalignment presented obstacles to providing effective support for students.

Many regular classroom teachers remained committed to the “pull-out” model of Special Education and continued to rely heavily on resource centre teachers for ongoing support. Psycho-social specialists were still coming to terms with the shift from supporting students to in-servicing classroom teachers.  The final review, focusing mostly on staff engagement rather than impact, was never released to the public or provincial legislators.

The Litmus Test — Student Achievement

Improving academic student learning and well-being are fundamental priorities for all top education bureaucrats. In Nova Scotia, during Montreuil’s tenure, the results were mixed at best. Student performance, measured by standardized test scores, stagnated or declined from 2018 to 2022 for most students, with the possible exception of African Nova Scotians. Two-and-a-half-years into the pandemic, after school had been cancelled for 22 weeks, the results were posted, without official comment, at the end of June 2022.

Studying the latest installment of Nova Scotia provincial student results, covering the 2018-19 to 2021-22 period, it was easy to see why the Minister remained silent. 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.

Conclusion – Musical Chairs in Education

Removing a top bureaucrat sets off a chain reaction in the education bureaucracy. In this case, the Tim Houston PC government simply reverted to past bureaucratic practice. Resurrect a veteran bureaucrat to fill the hole and respect the existing hierarchical pecking-order, booting Halifax Regional Centre for Education (HRCE) Regional Superintendent Elwin LeRoux upstairs to ADM and replacing him at HRCE with his second-in-command, Steve Gallagher. In short, it’s education’s version of musical chairs all over again. All of this raises the question of whether such self-perpetuating bureaucratic systems simply run themselves.

Who knows what Deputy Ministers of Education really do? Why do elected Ministers of Education absorb all the public flack? Is there any way to assess how they actually performed in their roles? Does it even matter in self-perpetuating bureaucratic systems?

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Speaking at the  researchED National Conference on Saturday September 3 in London, UK, New Brunswick’s Minister of Education Dominic Cardy provided the scoop on how it happened. A full-year before the April 2022 release of the Ontario Right to Read Inquiry report his province got the jump on Ontario and pioneered in the adoption of the Science of Reading (SoR) and the shift to “structured literacy.” His presentation, “Literacy in New Brunswick: successes and lessons learned,” filled-in the blanks.

What was truly remarkable about Minister Cardy’s researchED talk was how candid he was about the “literacy crisis” and what he famously described as “the biggest scandal in education over the past fifty years.” While the Minister refrained from repeating his controversial ‘biggest scandal’ declaration, he left no doubt that he continues to hold that view. Challenging the prevailing orthodoxy in the form of “balanced literacy,” he acknowledged raised hackles and was not without its risks. 

            After being appointed Education Minister four years ago, Cardy realized that early reading was a serious and largely unacknowledged problem in the system.  “We didn’t have politicians asking the right questions,” he said. “They left it to the experts and assumed that they knew best how to teach kids to read.” When questions were asked, he found most were posed in relation to what other provinces were doing, and most notably Ontario.

            Digging deeper, Cardy reported that a clearer pattern emerged.  Virtually everyone in the N.B. system was enthralled with “balanced literacy” even though one-third to one-half of all students were unable to read properly by the end of grade 3. School districts were totally dependent upon one particular program, Fountas & Pinnell, for not only resources but assessment tools. While the ‘science of reading’ was gaining ground and being employed in private tutoring centres, evidence-based practices had not penetrated the system. “None of the province’s faculties of education,” he said, “recognized the problem either.” 

            Cardy did not come to this realization himself.  Julia Smith, an early reading specialist based in Fredericton had a major influence upon his thinking.  She joined him in the researchED presentation and tackled some of the technical questions related to the specific reforms.

            “Some 56 per cent of New Brunswickers are at the lowest literacy level,” Cardy stated, and “it starts in the schools.”  “We have public schools,” he added, “that have outsourced the problem to parents.” What that means is that those who are well-off either move their kids to private, alternative schools or enroll their children in after-school tutoring programs. 

            Simply surrounding kids with books may work for some children, but Cardy insists that “most do not magically learn to read.”  Drawing upon his own experience as a flying instructor, he finds it preposterous to think this way. “Few would train pilots by letting them teach themselves,” he told the audience.

After convincing the education department to take the plunge, Cardy turned to winning over the cabinet. He made good use of a few vignettes snapped up from real-life classrooms to illustrate how elementary kids were guessing what words meant and unable to read by sounding-out the words or reading with much comprehension.  Learning that students were routinely guessing “pony” for “horse” did the trick.  

            Cardy’s early literacy reforms were piloted in a small number of elementary schools last year. The initial results, according to Smith, were impressive in terms of improved reading fluency and comprehension. “Literacy rates in the pilot schools went up by 90 per cent,” Cardy reported, and success bred success. “The teachers tried it, it worked, and – much to our amazement – began sharing it amongst themselves.”

            All of this may explain the Minister’s rather peculiar response to the September 2022 release of the latest 2021-22 provincial student assessment results. While the results showed a drop in some English literacy and francophone math success rates, nothing was reported on mathematics so numeracy remains a question mark.

“I’m not horribly disappointed,” he told CBC News, “given that we were expecting pretty steep drops because of the huge interruptions in learning we’ve seen over the last couple of years with months of school cancelled and being online and back and forth.” What he didn’t say was that all was not lost for the early literacy reforms were still awaiting fuller implementation.

            Minister Cardy is truly unique in provincial politics and passionate in his defense of democracy anywhere in the world. His personal campaign to tackle early literacy is really an extension of that fierce commitment.  Right at the outset of his London talk, Cardy provided an insight into what drives him in his recent quest to improve early literacy. “Those who cannot read are at a lifetime disadvantage,” he stated. They are also, he claimed, more susceptible to “social media manipulation’ which, in his estimation, “can be damaging to democracy.”

*Adapted from an earlier version published in the Telegraph-Journal, 23 September 2022.

How did the Maritime province of New Brunswick get the jump on implementing evidence-based early literacy reform? How important is political will in a province/state and determined leadership in the system?  Why were provincial faculties of education so resistant to the Science of Reading (SoR)?  What will it take to successfully implement and embed the changes?

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Schools and classrooms have changed after successive years of educational disruptions, shutdowns, home schooling isolation, and massive experiments in remote teaching. Serious gaps in student learning, psycho-social impacts, and academic achievement setbacks are now more visible from province-to-province in Canadian K-12 education. What’s less recognized and largely unaddressed is the profound impact of students’ near-total fixation with cellphones and complete absorption in cyberworlds.

Reading, in particular, is severely compromised in revved-up multi-task environments. Today’s elementary and secondary school students are essentially immersed in distractions. It’s next-to-impossible to learn or read with comprehension while keeping one eye on a phone, scrolling for videos, and being constantly interrupted, while attempting to pay attention to your teachers.

Promoters of ed tech have sold classroom teachers, parents and policy-makers a bill of goods.  Today’s students may be far more adept at accessing and using tech toys, but they have been profoundly affected by total immersion in constant connectivity, texting, and time-absorbing social media best exemplified by the incursion of Tik-Tok. Multi-tasking has been normalized and it comes with serious side-effects impairing students’ abilities to concentrate with adverse consequences for teaching kids to read.

Multi-tasking is being exposed as a myth. New evidence-based research is emerging which connects the proliferation of advanced cellphones with distractibility in workplaces and schools contributing to more frequent errors, higher levels of stress, reduced cognitive ability, and lower productivity. Focusing exclusively on banning or limiting cellphones sparks much debate, but it often misses the point.  Teachers are now facing an up-hill battle to reclaim the attention of the pandemic generation of students.

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Identifying the impact of mobile phones and social media is not new, as Teach Like a Champion founder Doug Lemov recently reminded us. American research generated by  Jean M. Twenge and others found that teenagers’ media use roughly doubled between 2006 and 2016 across gender, race, and class. In competition against the smartphone, the book, the idea of reading, lost significant ground. By 2016, just 16 percent of 12th-grade students read a book or magazine daily. As recently as 1995, 41 percent did. Meanwhile, social media was on the rise. By 2016, about three-quarters of teenagers reported using social media almost every day

The onslaught completely transformed teen culture with some detrimental side-effects.  Some 47 % of teenagers use the phone whilst on the toilet, double that of adults. Students who perform a task just in sight of their phone (regardless of if they are using it) do about 20% worse as it still distracts them. In addition, students who are on their phone more in class get worse grades, regardless of gender or previous grade average. Some 60 % of male and female U.S, college students, surveyed in long before the pandemic, reported feeling very agitated when they could not access their mobile phone.

The Pandemic has only made matters worse. When COVID-19 hit in March 2020, virtually everything that might have been competed without smartphones suddenly disappeared. A recent Common Sense Media study found that children’s daily entertainment usage of screens grew by 17 percent between 2019 and 2021—more than it had grown during the four previous years. Overall, daily entertainment screen use in 2021 increased to 5.5 hours among tweens ages 8 to 12 and to more than 8.3 hours among teens ages 13 to 18, on average. These trends were even more pronounced for students from low-income families, whose parents were most likely to have to work in person and have fewer resources to spend on alternatives to screens.

Leading researchers like Twenge sounded early warnings that excessive smartphone use would likely have catastrophic consequences for teens’ well-being, and those seemingly alarmist warnings have been borne out in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.  Teenagers’ reported mental health concerns have spiked with only 47 percent of students reported feeling connected to the adults and peers in their schools. Some 44 percent of high-school students reported feeling sad or persistently hopeless in 2021, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

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School disruptions and closures had a big effect.  Students who said they felt “connected to adults and peers” at school were almost 60 percent less likely to report persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness than those who did not—some 35 percent of connected students felt that way, compared with 55 percent who did not feel connected to school. The socio-emotional distress students are experiencing, according to Lemov, is as much a product of the so-called ‘cellphone epidemic’ as it is a product of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The explosion of Tik-Tok fad is not only a prime example of the pervasive impact of mobile phone culture, but demonstrates how today’s kids can get hooked on continuous social media feeds. Peering inside the “Tik-Tok Brain,” neuroscientists have shown that “the dopamine rush of endless short videos” makes it hard for young viewers to switch their focus to slower-moving, teacher-guided activities. “We’ve made kids live in a candy store,” is how it was described a recent issue of the Wall Street Journal.

Screen time is crowding out teaching and learning, most notable in declining reading proficiency. Spending so much time on mobile phones, even without social media, adversely affects attention and concentration skills, making it harder to focus fully on any task and to maintain that focus. When students are simply unable to focus or pay attention, learning to read through systematic literacy programs or tackling more rigorous academic tasks in higher grades becomes doubly difficult for teachers in today’s classrooms.

Banning or severely restricting cellphones in class is more of a quick fix when the problem is far wider in societal culture and runs much deeper in schools.  “If you want kids to pay attention,” Cincinnati pediatrician and literacy specialist John S. Hutton advises us, then students “need to practice paying attention.” Turning the phones off is wise, but only the beginning in the post-pandemic struggle to foster what Teach Like a Champion calls “habits of attention” and to reclaim today’s students.

How have successive disrupted school years made reaching today’s students a bigger problem for classroom teachers?  How much of the change is the result of remote learning and the further proliferation and dominance of mobile devices?  How can today’s teachers compete with “Tik-Tok Brian” to reclaim students?  Why is curtailing cellphone use, by itself, unlikely to make much of a difference?

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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?