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The global shock of the COVID-19 pandemic proves, once again, the old adage that “it takes a crisis” and especially so in the world of K-12 education. Surveying the fallout from the school shutdown, the six-month hiatus, and the rocky school-start-up in September, everyone from school leaders to students, educators and parents, is absorbing the lessons, rethinking past assumptions and considering what once seemed like unlikely scenarios.

Pandemic distance learning was mostly an educational disaster. The centralized and overly bureaucratic school system described in my new book, The State of the System: A Reality Check on Canada’s Schools, proved to be vulnerable and ill-equipped to respond to the massive COVID-19 pandemic disruption. Students, parents, and teachers have –in many ways – still not recovered from the disruption and subsequent upheaval.

The three-month long school shutdown exposed what German sociologist Max Weber aptly termed the “Iron Cage” – a bureaucratic structure which traps individuals in an invisible web of order, rationality, conformity, and control. We came to see how dependent students, teachers and families were on provincial and school district directives. Little did we realize that it would devolve into a marathon and that possibly the worst was yet to come.

Since the resumption of school in September, the unsettling impact of the massive distance learning experiment, compounded by fears and anxieties over COVID-19 health risks, have destabilized whole school systems. Tens of thousands of Ontario students and parents, particularly in the Greater Toronto Area, abandoned in-person schooling for hastily assembled online learning programs. Some 11,000 parents, in spired by Toronto parent Rachel Marmer, flirted with creating pandemic “learning pods” and hiring teacher/tutors to serve small groups of four or five students.

The initial school schedule combining in-person and online classes proved incredibly complex to manage and, in some cases, unsustainable. Hundreds of teachers were reassigned to centrally managed online instruction and school timetables ended up being reorganized several times. Smaller class cohorts have now been collapsed as school districts, starting with the Dufferin-Peel and York Region Catholic boards, readjust again and resort to offering single stream combined courses utilizing live streamed lessons.

Building back the disrupted and damaged School System will involve confronting squarely the fragility and limitations of top-down, bureaucratic K-12 education. Cage-busting leadership will be required to transform our schools into more autonomous social institutions that, first and foremost, serve students, families and communities. It’s also looking, more and more, like schools will need to be far more responsive to the radically altered health conditions and shifting preferences of students and families.

Community-school based reform
Some forty years after the advent of decentralized democratic governance in the form of school-based management, provincial authorities and regional centres remain wedded to system-wide management of virtually every aspect of educational service. What is needed is a complete rethink of school governance and a commitment to clear away the obstacles to building a more agile, responsive, community of self-governing schools that puts student needs first. Without re-engineering education governance from the schools up, this is not going to happen.

Humanizing education
Flipping the system has emerged as a new COVID-19 era imperative, but decentralizing management and control, by itself, has little or no effect on what really matters—teaching and learning in the schools. It is only the first stage of an overall strategy to make our schools more democratic, responsive and accountable to parents, teachers, students and communities.

Students should come first in our schools, and this is best achieved in smaller schools operating on a human, student scale. Instead of re-inventing the wheel, let’s draw upon the lessons learned through the Human Scale Education (HSE) movement, particularly downsizing high schools, giving students a voice, and building genuine partnerships with parents.

Teaching-centred classrooms
Teachers are clamouring for a much larger role in setting priorities and determining what happens in today’s schools. The recent wave of neo-liberal education reform, driven by large-scale testing and accountability, has chipped away at teacher autonomy in the classroom. That has bred what Gert Biesta has termed “learnification” – a new educational language where students are “learners,” teaching is “facilitating learning,” and the classroom is a “learning environment.” Now promulgated by ministries of education and education faculties, the technocratic language threatens to subvert the real point of education—to learn something, to learn it for a reason, and to learn it from someone.

Teachers know what works in the classroom and are attuned to the spread of unproven theories and practices. Challenging education gurus and the school improvement industry will be essential if we are to base teaching on evidence-based practice and what works with students in the classroom.

Engaging parents in family-centric schools
Parent engagement is now part of the standard educational lexicon, but, in practice, it is incredibly hard to find it exhibited, particularly during the COVID-19 disruption.

One of Canada’s leading researchers on parent-school relations, Debbie Pushor, makes a clear distinction between school-managed parent involvement and genuine parent engagement. School superintendents, consultants and many school principals have a lot to unlearn.
What we need is a completely different model: the family-centric approach, embracing a philosophy of “walking alongside” parents and genuinely supporting the active engagement of the families that make up the school community.

Looking ahead—seize the day
Centralization of school administration has had its day. Eliminating or neutering locally elected school boards has moved us further in the direction of centralizing control over provincial systems. Without access to school-level education governance, concerned parents, educators and the public were left with nowhere to turn to address a host of COVID-19 education problems.

Global learning corporations, exemplified by Pearson International and Google, have achieved dominance through the spread of educational technology and licensed learning resources—and are finally attracting critical scrutiny. The pandemic has also laid bare parental concerns about technology-driven “21st-century learning” and student skill deficits in mathematics and literacy.

A new set of priorities are emerging: put students first, deprogram education ministries and school districts, and listen more to parents and teachers in the schools. Design and build smaller schools at the centre of urban neighbourhoods and rural communities. The pandemic shock has made us more aware of the critical need for meaningful public engagement, rebuilding social capital and revitalizing local communities. Rescuing the system may turn out to be essentially about taking back our schools and charting a more constructive path forward.

What’s happened to our centralized, bureaucratic and stable K-12 school system? Will the pandemic shock lead to a complete rethinking of the current structure and clear the way for systemic reform? Where do we start in building education back from the schools up?

*Adapted from The State of The System: A Reality Check on Canada’s Schools (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2020).

“Canada’s public schools are the envy of the world.” So claim two of Canada’s leading architects and promoters of the current centralized, bureaucratic and learning-focused Canadian K-12 public education system, Michael Fullan and Andy Hargreaves. What’s most surprising and indeed shocking to them is that anyone would question that claim, let alone want to tamper with their creation, especially in Ontario, where the school change theorists first tested and implemented their system-wide reforms.

The global pandemic has not only confounded Canadian school leaders and policy-makers, but thrown Hargreaves and Fullan, the principal players in the school improvement industry, for a loop. Systemic change is derailed when the centralized bureaucratic apparatus becomes discombobulated and top-down directives become impossible to implement in properly functioning schools or to download on teachers in a conventional classroom.

That explains why the leading school change theorists rang a giant alarm bell and pushed the proverbial panic button in a most remarkable Toronto Star guest opinion column on September 23, 2020 with the scary headline “How to ruin a world-class education system.”  Adopting a rather paternalistic and condescending  tone, the two former advisors and confidantes to Ontario Liberal governments mocked today’s Ministers of Education and policy-makers for failing to protect the system during the COVID-19 pandemic crisis and for giving implicit aid and comfort to those who threaten to undermine the status quo in the form of a free, universal and accessible single platform with few if any alternatives for students, parents, and families.

The two systemic reformers sound as if they are running scared in COVID-19 education times. The metaphoric System , in their view, is threatened by dark, shadowy forces with a foothold in Ontario and Alberta, two wayward provinces with Conservative governments committed to dismantling their legacy. Any and all deviations from that formula are now deemed to be not merely threats but the slippery slope leading to ruination.  Lurking behind local initiatives and innovations is the spectre of something almost as lethal as the virus — creeping “privatization” 

Provincial education authorities, particularly in Ontario and Alberta, are now dangerous enough to be enemies of the “public good” and unwitting tools of the “wealthy” forsaking the many while implicitly doing the bidding of the few.  Such diabolical forces are fomenting a “crisis” in education through a variety of ruinous means. Taken together the unseen enemy forces are plotting to 1) Undermine public education; 2) create private alternatives; 3)misuse technology; 4) impose austerity; and 5) mortgage the future. Unmasking the hidden agenda is presented as a clarion call to “see the light,” rise up, and save public education.

The fundamental problem with the Hargreaves-Fullan analysis is that is largely fictional and, quite possibly delusional. The origin, of course, of the now infamous “Best System” claim is the two McKinsey and Company reports (2007 and 2010) purporting to identify and then analyze the success of twenty of the world’s leading education systems. It also echoes the very wording used by the Ontario education reform architect Fullan in a high profile  2012 Atlantic article assessing the success of his own initiatives.

Most of Ontario’s success, as touted in the 2010 report, is attributed to “continuity of leadership” under successive Dalton McGuintyKathleen Wynne Liberal education regimes. It began in 2004 when Fullan teamed up with Ontario Education Minister Gerard Kennedy promising to pump $2.6 -billion more into education over the next four years and to raise math and reading results to 70 per cent meeting provincial standards.

Aside from the 2010 McKinsey & Company report forward, written by Fullan, there is surprisingly little about Ontario initiatives in the actual document, except for one passing reference to Parents Reaching Out grants.  Any true cost-benefit analysis must weigh in the balance the fact that education spending skyrocketed by over 57% from 2003 to 2011 to $22 billion while school enrollment fell by some 6 per cent. Much of that massive infusion poured in to support a series of Poverty Reduction initiatives, enhanced special program supports, and universal full day Kindergarten.

Two years after the triumph of the Doug Ford Conservatives in Ontario, the Ontario Liberal education legacy has lost considerable lustre. A “Back to Basics” education platform helped to bring Ford to power in June of 2018. The lavish education spending of the Liberal years may have helped reduce the equity gap, but it fell short of producing better student results. Staking the claim on rising graduation rates is suspect because, while the graduation rate rose from 68 to 83 per cent, we know that “attainment levels” do not usually reflect higher achievement levels, especially when more objective performance measures, such as student Math scores, stagnated during those years.

The global shock of the COVID-19 pandemic bears most of the responsibility for the current crisis facing public education, in Ontario, Alberta and most other provinces. Three months of emergency home learning was, by most accounts, an unmitigated disaster for student social progress, attendance, and achievement. School reopening in September 2020 posed tremendous challenges, especially in higher population provinces with much more severe virus infection rates. Blaming it all on misguided policy choices or mismanagement of the teacher union front is ill-considered and, at best, a partial explanation of what went wrong.

Substandard pandemic education and complicated or unpredictable school schedules have undermined support for the public system. Some 80,000 students in the Toronto District School Board and tens of thousands more across Ontario have turned the system on end by opting for online learning.  Some 11,000 parents have joined a grassroots parent movement initiating “Learning Pods” for teacher-guided home learning, launched by Greater Toronto Area mother Rachel Marmer in July 2020,  Students and parents may well be harming public education by voting with their feet and aggravating existing inequities.

Public education reformers like Hargreaves and Fullan look and sound to be on the defensive, fighting to maintain hegemony over school reform in COVID-19 times. Close observers of the two school change theorists, going back over four decades, will note that the current “education crisis” has brought the “old team” back together again.

Progressive educators clamouring for a new vision for future education exemplifying “Maslow before Bloom got a real surprise with the reappearance of Hargreaves over Fullan.”  “Transforming education for public good, not for private profit that rewards the wealthy few” are more the words of a staunch British Labourite than the utterance of the global head of Fullan Enterprises Inc. hitherto closely aligned with  Pearson International PLC and Microsoft Corporation. It took a crisis, real or imagined, to produce the latest reunion.

What has actually caused the current education crisis?  Was the upheaval simply the result of a cataclysmic pandemic that turned the K-12 public  system upside down?  How much of the disaster is attributable to provincial policy missteps and troubled education labour relations?  Are today’s fearful and anxious parents to blame for choosing alternative options, including online learning and home learning pods?  With parents looking for something different, shouldn’t the system be broadening its range of school options? 

School systems across Canada, from province to province, are in crisis.  The massive school shutdown during the first phase of COVID-19 was much like a power outage which left students and parents in the dark and educators scrambling to master unfamiliar forms of education technology. Making radical readjustments following lock-step with public health directives upset the normal order in Canadian K-12 education.

EmptyClassTorontoLifeWhat emerged to fill the vacuum was what online learning expert Michael K Barbour aptly termed triage schooling in the education ER aimed at stabilizing the shaken K-12 system. Three months of slapped together home learning produced predictable results—bored and tuned-out students, exhausted parents and exasperated teachers.

Charitable observers described emergency home learning as “Doing Our Best Education” under impossible circumstances. It was so sub-standard that harsh critics applied the label “a failure of pandemic proportions.”

BookCoverSOSFinal

The centralized and overly bureaucratic School System described in my new book, The State of the System: A Reality Check on Canada’s Schools, proved to be vulnerable and ill-equipped to respond to the massive COVID-19 pandemic disruption. Instead of rising to the unexpected challenge, provincial school leaders played for time and eventually took refuge in clinging to comfortable structures and ingrained policy responses, such as delaying e-learning implementation until all students had access to technology and the internet. When it was over, at least one quarter of all students went missing and were unaccounted for in Canadian public education.

Building back the disrupted and damaged School System will involve confronting squarely the fragility and limitations of top-down, bureaucratic K-12 education. The famous German sociologist Max Weber provided us with the very helpful metaphor of the “Iron Cage” capturing well the nature of a bureaucratic structure that traps individuals in a system of order, rationality, predictability, conformity and control.

A1bBureaucracyMaxWeberIronCage

Education’s “Iron Cage” was exposed during the COVID-19 shutdown and we came to see how dependent students, teachers, and families were on provincial and school district directives.  Cage-busting leadership will be required to transform our schools into more autonomous social institutions that, first and foremost, serve students, families, and communities.

Hardening of the Bureaucratic Education State

The modern bureaucratic education state has a fundamental problem and its roots run deep.  Since the rise and expansion of the modern bureaucratic state over the past hundred years, public education in Canada has grown far more distant and much less connected with students, families, teachers, and communities. Our public schools, initially established as the vanguard of universal, accessible, free education, have lost their way and become largely unresponsive to the public they still claim to serve.

Voicing concerns about the state of our public schools can be exceedingly frustrating – and more often than not, an exercise in futility. Parents advocating mathematics or reading curriculum reforms, families seeking improved special needs programs, or communities fighting small school closures regularly hit brick walls and glass ceilings.

Our public schools, initially established as the vanguard of universal, accessible, free education, have lost their way and become largely unresponsive to the public they still claim to serve. During the COVID-19 school shutdown the fragility of the impenetrable fortress was exposed for everyone to see. What my new book provides is a reality check on what’s happened to Canada’s Kindergarten-to-Grade-12 schools and a plan to reclaim them for students, parents, teachers, and communities alike.

Sources of Unease and Stress

Today’s schools have been swallowed up by provincial ministries and regional school authorities. Everywhere you look, the march of urbanized, bureaucratic, centralized K–12 education is nearly complete, marking the triumph of the System over students, parents, teachers, and the engaged public  Putting students first has little meaning in a system that gives priority to management ‘systems,’ exemplifies top-down decision-making, thwarts community-based schools, and processes students like hamburgers in a fast-food operation. Graduation rates have risen so dramatically that high school diplomas are awarded to virtually everyone who meets attendance requirements.

MinistryBuresaucracy

The System, originally conceived as a liberal reform enterprise aimed at expanding mass schooling and broadening access to the populace, largely achieved its goals twenty-five years ago. Having achieved near-universal access, school authorities in the 1980s began to pivot toward introducing bureaucratic managerialism in the form of “instructionally focused education systems.”

In a North American wave of structural reform, the systematizers saw the ‘incoherence’ of instruction from one classroom to another as a problem and teacher autonomy as an obstacle to further modernization. School change came to mean supplanting didactic instruction, knowledge-based curricula, and the teaching of basic skills, while embracing “ambitious instructional experiences and outcomes for all students.” At the school district level, it was reflected in new forms of school consolidation aimed at turning loose aggregations of schools into school systems.

Today’s central administrative offices, layers of administration, big-box elementary schools, and super-sized high schools all testify to the dominance of the trend. Elected school boards, a last vestige of local education democracy, are now considered simply nuisances and fast becoming a threatened species.

The teaching of foundational skills and knowledge was subsumed in a new school system improvement agenda focused on ‘educational excellence and equity.’ The shift also exemplified the logic of standards-and-accountability, resisted by classroom teachers as another encroachment on their prized autonomy as professionals.

Centrally established accountability infrastructure continued to encounter resistance when it came to penetrating what American education analyst Larry Cuban termed the “black box” of classroom practice. That may well explain why growing numbers of classroom teachers are drawing the line in defense of what’s left of teacher autonomy and breathing life into a movement for education on a more human school-level scale.

Education – What Kind and for Whom?

The System, as exposed during the COVID-19 disruption, is not working for students or teachers in the classroom. Educational gurus spawned by the school improvement industry have succeeded not only in commandeering school districts, but in promoting a succession of curricular and pedagogical changes floating on uncontested theories and urban myths. This trend is most visible in the development and provision of resources by commercial purveyors closely aligned with learning corporations, curriculum developers, and faculties of education. Challenging unproven progressive pedagogical theories will be essential if we are to base teaching on evidence-based practice and what works with students in the classroom.

Top-down decision-making, educational managerialism, and rule by the technocrats has run its course. Rebuilding public education needs to begin from the schools up. Putting students first has to become more than a hollow promise and that will require structural reforms, including community school-based governance and management.

A new set of priorities is coming to the fore: put students first, democratize school governance, deprogram education ministries and school districts, and listen more to parents and teachers in the schools. Design and build smaller schools at the centre of urban neighbourhoods and rural communities. It’s not a matter of turning back the clock, but rather one of regaining control over our schools, rebuilding social capital, and revitalizing local communities.

Re-engineering the System in the wake of COVID-19 has never been more urgent. For all that to happen, the walls must come down, and those closest to students must be given more responsibility for student learning and the quality of public education. The time has come for us to take back our schools and chart a more constructive path forward.

*Adapted from The State of The System: A Reality Check on Canada’s Schools (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2020).

‘Balanced Literacy’ enjoys a charmed life in Canadian elementary education. A whole generation of elementary teachers have not only been taught reading with ‘balanced literacy’ approaches and resources, but employ those same methods in teaching our youngest children to read.  The Canadian province of New Brunswick is typical of most North American educational jurisdictions in its adherence to the dominant approach embedded in its provincially-sanctioned text materials and leveled reading books. 

A “literacy crisis” has finally exposed the source of the problem and New Brunswick education authorities are beginning to connect the dots.  Conservative Premier Blaine Higgs, now campaigning for re-election,  described the “literacy rate” as “an embarrassment that we cannot put-up with any longer.”   Literacy was identified as a priority in Education Minister Dominic Cardy’s October 2018 Green Paper on Education, but the plan of action stopped short of committing to remedial changes.

It took a Twitter spat to flush out the province’s actual plans. On August 5, Minister Cardy took great exception to rumors circulating that New Brunswick was sticking with its conventional provincial literacy strategy, based largely upon the Fountas & Pinnell Literacy program.  “@FountasPinnell is ideological gobbledygook,” he tweeted, and then added “We are moving away from it as quickly as possible.” 

Abandoning the Fountas & Pinnell literacy program would constitute a sea change in the 2017 provincial literacy strategy inherited from the Brian Gallant Liberal government.  It would also mean breaking away from the pack because Fountas & Pinnell’s model of Literacy Level Intervention (LLI) and resources are firmly entrenched in Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Manitoba and other provinces.

Early literacy expert Erin Schryer was stunned by Cardy’s Twitter revelation.  With a Ph.D. in Early Literacy from University of New Brunswick, Dr. Schryer has experienced, first hand, the unintended harvest of the existing strategy and curriculum. As Executive Director of Elementary Literacy Inc., from 2014 to 2018, she embraced “structured literacy” and offered two supplementary volunteer-based reading achievement programs aimed at rescuing struggling readers in the early grades.  

“The science of reading is not new,” Schryer says, “and more and more teachers are questioning standard practice and awakening to the need for dramatic change,” in the form of a more systematic, structured approach where ‘phonics’ is not a bad word.  “Not all can read by osmosis, “she adds, “so we are excluding a large segment of the student population.”

Trying to fix students experiencing reading failure proved frustrating.  “I left Elementary Literacy Inc.,” Schryer explains, “because we were not moving the needle. We couldn’t extend what the schools were doing, so it wasn’t really working.”  Instead of banging her head against the wall, she’s taking matters into her own hands, as CEO since July 2018 of Origins Early Learning Childcare and Academy, serving over 400 children and families in Quispamsis and Saint John.

Challenging the dominance of what Cardy described as “ideological gobbledygook” will not be easy and the Minister can expect subterranean resistance.  ‘Balanced literacy’ is a term appropriated by Fountas & Pinnell as a means of preserving whole word reading pedagogy now under intense attack from educators, like Schryer, armed with evidence based-research demonstrating more conclusively how children learn to read and favouring a more structured approach to teaching early reading. 

Fountas & Pinnell has cornered the early literacy market with a patented a system of reading levels developed by Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell and published by Heinemann to support the use of their Levelled Literacy Interventions (LLI) series of student readers and teacher resource products.  It’s also closely aligned with Reading Recovery, a short-term, one-on-one Grade 1 literacy intervention, exemplifying a similar approach.

The program comes with a Benchmark Assessment System (BAS) that is often used as the primary measure of student reading progress.  Despite Fountas & Pinnell’s 2007 cautionary note about using the reading levels as an evaluative measure, employing it for that purpose is commonplace.  Co-founder of the American Right to Read Project Margaret Goldberg found administering BAS to be a time-consuming exercise and a “poorly-constructed assessment” on students for whom it was not designed, using material that limits student choice, and constrains their access to more advanced grade-level content.  

The most popular reading programs in Canada and the United States, including Fountas & Pinnell, are not backed by science. A year ago, the U.S.-based Education Week Research Centre identified the most widely used reading programs and then subjected each of them to closer scrutiny. The Education Week evaluators found many instances in which Fountas & Pinnell and the others diverged from evidence-based practices. 

Today, it’s widely accepted by reading researchers that programs for young children need to include phonics and Fountas & Pinnell purports to teach young pupils about sound-letter correspondence. In spite of such claims, the focus is on word identification and phonics instruction is so intermittent that students may not actually learn or be assessed on certain skills. Students are mostly taught to approach words in ways that undermine what can be gleaned from phonics.

The F &P system works on the assumption that students use multiple sources of information, or “cues,” to solve words. That may be true for some poor readers, but it flies in the face of evidence-based neuroscience research.  Effective readers, we now know, process all of the letters in words when they read them, and that they can read connected text very quickly. Early reading programs based upon the F &P system teach students to make better guesses, under the false assumption that it will make children better readers. The fundamental problem with that “three cue” approach is that it trains children to believe that they don’t always need to look at the letters that make up words in order to read them.

Many early years consultants and teachers do not recognize, or perhaps even know, that cuing strategies are not consistent with the science of reading. That’s not just the view of Dr. Schryer, but of many leading researchers, including University of British Columbia psychology professor Linda Siegel and Mount Saint Vincent University learning disabilities specialist Jamie Metsala. 

One of the reasons for the disconnect is that school system consultants not classroom teachers generally decide on what curriculum is authorized across a province or a school district. Two-thirds of the teachers surveyed in 2019 by Education Week reported that their school district selected the primary reading programs and materials, and the figure is likely higher in New Brunswick.

Back in December 2019, American Education Week reporter Sarah Schwartz made a telling comment about the state of teacher consultation and input when it comes to evaluating reading programs. “Even when teachers want to question their school or district’s approach,” she reported, “they may feel pressured to stay silent.”  Three teachers from different districts who spoke with Education Week requested that their names not be used in the story, for fear of repercussions from within the system.

What Minister Cardy has done, in criticizing the Fountas & Pinnell system, is to demonstrate that tinkering with the existing program is not the answer.  If F & P is on the way out, let’s hope the province leads the way in embracing a more soundly evidence-based approach recognizing the benefits of structured literacy.

*An earlier version of this commentary appeared in the Telegraph-Journal, Provincial Edition and all daily papers in New  Brunswick.  

What explains the continued dominance of ‘balanced literacy’ in the form of Literacy Level Interventions and supporting reading materials? What does the science of reading tell us about how most students succeed in mastering reading?  Where’s the evidence to support the effectiveness of balanced literacy applied in universal fashion?  Why are so many early elementary teachers so reluctant to speak up to effect change? 

 

Slowly but surely the evidence is gathering that the three-month-long 2020 experiment with “emergency home learning” was an “unmitigated disaster.” A recent Toronto Life feature story by investigative journalist Raizel Robin painted an alarming picture of the Toronto District School Board’s rollout of online learning in March and April of 2020. “Teachers flailed, parents lost it, and kids suffered,” the article summary declared. “Chronic squabbling between Queen’s Park (the Ontario Government) and the unions” was “mostly to blame — and that all spells a chaotic school year ahead.”  While the TDSB may be an extreme example, the general pattern was repeated from province to province, school district to school district, right across Canada.

The rapid and unplanned transition to distance learning turned the Canadian school system upside down and disrupted the lives of some 5 million children and families, and their teachers. Our system, reputed to be one of the world’s best, experienced a power outage, leaving educators scrambling to master new technology and the vast majority of children to “do their own thing” in family isolation operating, for the most part, under a vague and changing set of home learning guidelines.

Student surveys, school district reports, and investigative journalism are beginning to reveal where distance learning went off track and what needs to be corrected the next time. What follows is a brief diagnosis of what went wrong and a proposed prescription for getting the most out of the online learning experience.

The School Shutdown and its Impact  — A Diagnosis

Slapped together distance learning was a mass application of the triage system in the educational Emergency Room. Provincial authorities produced hastily assembled Learn at Home programs and posted broad student homework expectations with a dramatically reduced number of “hours of work” per week. In actual practice, these programs took on a crazy-quilt pattern ranging from high tech to low tech to no tech, highly dependent upon a student’s school district, individual school or classroom teacher. Deciding to guarantee students their March grades removed most of the incentive to work until the end of the year. The most vulnerable children and neediest students living in poverty or facing severe learning challenges lost their “system of supports” and, without in-person education, their families were left to fend for themselves.

Normal student attendance and achievement tracking appears to have mostly evaporated. TorontoDSB’s outgoing director John Malloy put such trust in his teachers that he considered it “very inappropriate” to keep track of how much time teachers were spending in direct contact with their students because it would demonstrate a lack of confidence in them as professionals. He and other system leaders, we have learned, did not think it was their job to establish or enforce teacher-led activity guidelines or track student work completion.

Many students, an estimated one out of four in junior and senior high schools, went missing or completely unaccounted for, according to the CBC News Investigation unit in the Maritime provinces.  No school authorities, including the TDSB, have yet produced a reliable, comprehensive report on student participation rates, attendance at scheduled sessions, achievement levels and graduation rates.

Getting it Right the Next Time — A Prescription

Concerned parents and the vast majority of students were so  poorly served that, by June 2020, most clamoured for a full return to in-person school in September 2020. Once school was dismissed for the summer, organized parent groups surfaced demanding full-time school for all grades under safe health conditions. Lobbying for a hybrid model combining in-class and remote learning, popular among teachers, gained little traction and, aside from some implementation in high schools, gradually died down. Seven provinces eventually opted for a full resumption of regular classes, and the remaining three, Ontario, New Brunswick and Manitoba, continued with some form of online learning from Grades 9 to 12. In most provinces, the near exclusive focus of debate was on implementing “COVID-19 health and safety” regulations to address residual parental fears and anxieties.

The biggest lessons , based upon my own “rapid response” analysis, were:

Teacher-guided instruction:  Be far more explicit in setting out teacher expectations when the system defaults to distance learning.

Only two provinces, Alberta and Ontario, attempted to include teacher expectations in the March-April 2020 home learning guidelines.  In Alberta, the student work guidelines specified that the hours of work would be assigned by teachers. Ontario’s guidelines described the work as “teacher-led” activities. Initially, there was no mention whatsoever of any explicit requirement for time commitment on the part of teachers. In the midst of the pandemic, the conventional administrative “span of control” was relaxed and teachers, for the most part, left to exercise their professional judgement, heeding the advice and counsel of their unions.

Synchronous Learning: Focus on maintaining daily contact with students and give a much higher priority to sustaining real time interaction and engagement with students on an individual and small group or class basis. Interacting twice a week in half-hour sessions proved insufficient to securing and maintaining student attention, participation, and meaningful engagement.

Simulating, as much as possible, in-person teaching involves giving a much higher priority to synchronous learning or real time online teaching utilizing video, interactive media, or text messaging. During the initial trial run, most teachers turned to assigning regular homework and continuing, where possible, with their preferred strategies, short posted or e-mailed assignments and project-based learning (PBL). This is known as asynchronous learning because it involves assigning work to be completed later in a day, week, or term. It is not generally interactive or engaging for students, especially after a few weeks of uninterrupted home learning. Ontario’s August 2020 education directive (Regulation 164) addresses the problem with an explicit mandate for utilizing synchronous learning strategies in the online learning environment.  Assuming 300 minutes of instructional time a day, it’s likely unwise to require, in Grade 1 to 12, exactly 75% of the time to be allocated to synchronous learning activities.

Supporting the Neediest and Marginalized:  School systems exist to support everyone and especially those children and teens living in poverty or struggling with learning challenges or complex needs — and that definitely needs to be addressed the next time.

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Inclusive education needs to be factored into future plans during the default to distance education because far too many students, some 15 to 20 per cent in most school districts, are dependent upon either “learning supports” or intensive “special education services.” While congregated classes are not ideal for every special needs child or teen, they tend to be smaller in size and small enough to classify as ‘classroom bubbles’ meeting most public health pandemic guidelines. Some educational jurisdictions, such as British Columbia, for that reason, opened schools in June 2020  for the expressed purpose of supporting both special needs students and the children of essential workers. This policy option should be on the table next time around in the current pandemic cycle.

Student Assessment and Reporting: Establish and maintain a fair, consistent and predictable system of student evaluation irrespective of the mode of curriculum delivery and continue to issue student progress reports with clear, easy to understand marks.

Student marks and grading are ingrained in the system and form a critical part of the terms of engagement. Suspending grading of term tests and assignments affects student motivation and makes it even more challenging to hold and sustain their participation in an online environment. Abandoning grades or reverting to pass-fail marking systems sends out the implicit signal that somehow the work does not count or is of lesser importance to their overall academic performance. It also fuels the widespread phenomenon of grade inflation widening the gap between student performance and rewards for that performance.

Provincial Testing and Accountability:  Commit to maintaining provincial and national student testing systems so students, parents and the public can assess student achievement and have some gauge of how the school shutdown actually impacted the acquisition of knowledge and the development of academic skills.

Three months of school shutdown is bound to have affected student achievement, particularly in the development of fundamental skills in Grades 1 to 6 and in academic preparation for higher education and the modern workplace. Suspending provincial testing, as Ontario has done in 2020-21, is unwise because it will deny educators, parents and the public of one of the most objective and validated forms of student assessment. Shortening the advance preparation time for such tests makes good sense, but not suspending the evaluations altogether. No one expects students to perform as well after a prolonged absence from regular in-person classes. We do need some kind of reliable yardstick to identify learning loss and to provide us with a benchmark for remediation.

Educators everywhere are committed to doing better the next time with their newly acquired knowledge and skills in education technology. Coming out of the first phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, we will all be better prepared and educators have every right to expect enhanced support in terms of training, resources, and ongoing professional support. Instead of focusing almost exclusively on “COVID safety” and health protection, it’s time to give more attention to what ultimately matters — teaching and learning — the core function of K-12 education.

What are the biggest lessons coming out of the COVID-19 school shutdown and that frightening pandemic?  Was the radical and abrupt transition to distance learning a failure of pandemic proportions?  Should we be focusing on the positive and highlighting examples of its “silver linings”? Is it possible that educational conditions could get worse in the coming year? What’s the best way to build back our shaken and fractured K-12 school system? 

Standing in a classroom at University of Toronto Schools in the spring of 2004, global education consultant Dr. Michael Fullan, former Dean at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), uttered one of his most memorable lines. “People only call me a guru, ” he joked, “because they can’t spell charlatan.” Appointed, for a second time, as a Senior Education Advisor to the Ontario government (2004-2018), he was in a buoyant mood after being welcomed back from a a period of exile (1997 to 2004) guiding Tony Blair’s New Labour education reforms.

Today, sixteen years later, the global education consultant still ranks 20th out of the top 30 “Global Education Gurus” as posted annually by All American Entertainment (AAE), the Durham, NC-based speakers’ bureau.  Michael Fullan, O.C., now billed as Global Leadership Director, New Pedagogies for Deep Learning, still commands fees of $10,000 to $20,000 for his North American speaking engagements.

Now considered  “a worldwide authority” on education reform, he occupies considerable territory in Education Guru Land. Preaching system-wide reform, advising ministers of education, and mingling with thought leaders, he’s far removed from the regular teacher’s classroom. He’s also more likely to be found in the company of other members of the pantheon, TED Talk legend Sir Ken Robinson (#8), school leadership expert Andy Hargreaves (#21), and Finnish education promoter Pasi Sahlberg (#28).

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The world’s leading education gurus seem to have had a hypnotic effect on policy-makers and superintendents in the entire K-12 education sector. The profound influence of Fullan and his global reform associates is cemented by an intricate network of alliances which, in the case of Ontario, encompasses the Council of Directors of Education (CODE), the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), the Ontario Principals’ Council (OPC), and a friendly parent organization. People for Education. 

Challenging the hegemony of this entrenched educational change establishment is a formidable undertaking. “Teacher populism” inspired by British teacher Tom Bennett and exemplified in the spontaneous eruption of researchED from 2013 to 2018 made serious inroads, particularly in Britain, Western Europe, and Australia.  It faced stronger headwinds in the United States and Canada, where the progressive education consensus is more all-pervasive. The fear and panic generated by empowered teachers (working around education schools) has sparked not only seismic reactions, but the closing of ranks.

One of the most recent responses, produced by Cambridge University School of Education lecturer Steven Watson, attempted, not altogether successfully, to paint “teacher populism” as a movement of the New Right and offered up a piece of Twitter feed ethnography smacking of contemporary “cancel culture.” That article completely ignored the fundamental underpinning of researchED — the crowds of educators attending Saturday PD conferences, paying your own registration fees, and engaging with teacher-researchers who speak without remuneration.

Curiously absent from Watson’s article was any reference to dozens of top-notch researchED speakers, including British-born student assessment expert Dylan Wiliam (#11 – 2020 – $10,000-$20,000), AFT magazine cognitive psychologist Dan T. Willingham, and How to Learn Mathematics specialist Barbara Oakley, who regularly speak without remuneration at such conferences.

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researchED emerged to fill a gaping hole in K-12 teacher development. The researchED conference Model is decidedly different. Conferences are held on Saturdays in schools rather than hotel conference centres. Two dozen or more teacher researchers or practicing teachers are featured presenting in actual classrooms. researchED events showcase speakers reflecting a wide range of perspectives, spark lively pedagogical debates, and are increasingly diverse in their composition. Many of the short 45-minute presentations by volunteer presenters focus on contested curricular or pedagogical issues, including education myths, explicit instruction, cognitive load, early reading, mathematics skills, and teacher assessment workload.

Over 45,000 teachers on four continents attended dozens of researchED events over the seven years before COVID-19 hit us with full force. The London-based teacher research organization publishes its own bi-annual free magazine and is producing, in collaboration with John Catt Educational Publishing, a series of researchED guides to the latest evidence-based research.  Since April 2020, the movement has continued with free virtual PD conferences under the banner of researchED Home. 

Today’s education world is full of high-priced speakers who are featured at state, provincial and regional professional development conferences, mostly at events where the registration fees are many times higher than that of a researchED conference anywhere in the world. Dr. Fullan’s speaking fees pale in comparison with more messianic gurus such as Harlem Children’s Zone founder Geoffrey Canada ($50,000 – $100,000) and global tech researcher Sugata Mitra (#19 –$30,000 – $50,000), but he still commands fees comparable to American public school champion Diane Ravitch (#1 -2020), OECD Education director Andreas Schleicher, progressive education advocate Alfie Kohn, and Alberta ed tech innovator George Couros.

Almost forty years since the the publication of The Meaning of Educational Change (1983), Fullan’s real influence is reflected in the missionary work of his extensive Educational Change entourage, including Pearson International advisor Sir Michael Barber, Welsh education change professor Alma Harris, former York Region superintendent Lyn Sharratt, and OISE School Leadership professor Carol Campbell. 

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Although Dr. Hargreaves was mentored by Fullan at OISE, he’s branched out and, while at Boston’s Lynch School of Education, generated (with colleague Dennis Shirley) an interconnected  network of his own. The Fullan-Hargreaves educational change constellation sustains two academic journals and is closely aligned with two American educational enterprises, Corwin Educational Publishing and PD resource provider Solution Tree. That alliance has produced a steady stream of books, articles and workshops inspired by the global school change theorists.

The prevailing educational reform consensus has largely gone unchallenged for the past few decades. Reading Steven Watson’s thinly-veiled academic assault on “teacher populism” demonstrates how little it takes to rattle the cage of the ideologues actively resisting teacher-driven research, the science of learning, and challenges to current pedagogical orthodoxy.  Equipping today’s classroom teachers (and learners) with what the late American education reformer Neil Postman once termed “built-in shockproof crap detectors” is as threatening now as it was a few decades ago.

What sustains the hegemony of today’s educational reform establishment?  How much of that controlling influence is perpetuated by education gurus committed to upholding the prevailing consensus and defending a significant number of uncontested theories? Will the recent COVID-19 education shutdown change the terms of engagement?  Should “teacher populism” be dismissed as subversive activity or approached as a fresh opportunity to confront some of the gaps between philosophical theory and actual classroom practice? 

 

Something is stirring among parents in the wake of the three-month-long experience housebound supervising their children’s schooling during a global pandemic. With reopening plans still up in the air and September mere weeks away, a dramatic shift is taking place as COVID-19 distance education impact assessments surface and more and more parents find their public voices. 

After a five-hour-long July 9-10 meeting, the harried and pressured Ottawa-Carleton District School Board voted for all students to return to K-12 schools full-time in September 2020. Ottawa’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Vera Etches supported full-time resumption and elected trustees were deluged with parent concerns about the possible adverse impact of extending distance learning or hybrid part-time scheduling into the Fall Term.

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The Ottawa popular media featured the voices of aroused local parents, including working mothers, desperate for a break from home-supervised schooling.  In defending the decision, Board Chair Lynn Scott claimed that the alternative — a hybrid model combining part-time school and remote learning was “never what anybody wanted.”  The coterminous Ottawa Catholic Separate School Board, reading the same signals, followed suit. 

Listening to the vocal Ottawa parents demanding a return to full-time school was reminiscent of the public outcry sparked by news anchor Howard Beale in that memorable scene from the classic 1975 feature film, Network, “I’m as mad as hell, and not going to take it anymore.”

Such parental concerns and frustrations, mostly expressed in more modest and composed forms, are popping-up from province-to-province across Canada. Alberta parent activist and family physician Dr. Nhung Tran-Davies described remote learning supervised by parents as “a failure of pandemic proportions” and urged school districts to restore in-person teaching for the children’s sake.

A parent uprising moved the needle in Nova Scotia. Halifax School Advisory Council Chair Claire Bilek spoke for many on July 9, 2020  when she called upon the Nova Scotia Education Minister and his Department to come up with some plan, or any plan, for the resumption of regular schooling in a matter of weeks.  A newly-formed parent group including Halifax child psychologist Erica Baker issued an open letter posing questions that required immediate answers and Nova Scotia Education Minister Zach Churchill was compelled to announce that the province was committed to achieving “100 % capacity” by September 2020.     

Advocates for a safe and responsible approach to reopening schools can look to British Columbia for some home-grown lessons.  Reopening school on June 1, albeit on a voluntary basis, brought some 200,000 students safely back to the classroom, with the blessing of Dr. Bonnie Henry, Chief Medical Officer of Health, and Teri Mooring, President of the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation. That “trial run” was executed with relatively few adverse health experiences and produced important information and feedback to aid in preparation for the 2020-21 school year. The goal is to have even more students in class in September utilizing a five-stage approach, allowing schools to respond quickly in the event of a second wave. All five stages are supported by strict health and safety guidelines from the provincial health officer, the BC Centre for Disease Control and WorkSafeBC.

Ontario’s initial plans to open schools in September were announced June 19 and were prepared after consulting with health experts, including those at Toronto’s Sick Kids Hospital. The three proposed scenarios were: a full reopening of schools with enhanced health protection measures; a full schedule of distance learning classes; or a hybrid plan, where students would attend in-person school part-time, possibly two days a week, and receive online instruction for the balance of the time. A Sick Kids report, released June 17, provided the rationale, making the case that reopening was essential to relieve the mental health strains and could be accomplished without unduly risking the physical health of children.  The Toronto pediatric experts recommended rigorous hand hygiene and regular screening, but not strict physical distancing or the wearing of masks.  

Suspending school for three months as a lead in to the summer is having harmful effects on the coronavirus generation. We are beginning to take stock of the full impact in terms of student learning loss. Students surveyed June 1-8 by the Upper Canada District School Board in Brockville, Ontario, confirmed that a majority of high schoolers struggled with at home learning and were clearly shortchanged in their education. As most provinces struggle to make a decision on a definitive back-to-school plan, health experts are coming forward to support the Sick Kids report warning about the mental health risks of keeping kids out of the classroom.

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Without the routine and social connection that school brings, many kids and teens have reported feeling sad, stressed and anxious since the end of in-person classes in mid-March.  Dr. Kiran Pure, a clinical psychologist in Dartmouth, N.S., reports that, even after restrictions have relaxed, her small team of psychologists is still working “basically non-stop and it’s been a lot of mental health support.” She’s been struck by the intensity of the mental health challenges some kids are experiencing, especially those with existing conditions. Her recommendation: Getting students at risk back to school in September is becoming an urgent necessity. 

Bringing students back in September is a hot button issue for educators and, especially so for classroom teachers on the front lines. Drawing comparisons between teachers and other “essential workers” labouring outside their homes throughout the pandemic rankles teachers. Today’s teachers pride themselves on being professionals more like doctors or dentists than essential workers in the child care, food services, delivery, and restaurant fields, many of whom are already back at work. Many educators, speaking freely on social media, are fearful and angry, especially when politicians advocate bringing back schools to help kick-start the stalled economy. 

Medical science will not likely provide a risk-free option, especially now that we have received conflicting advice from respected pediatricians and epidemiologists. Some well-intentioned health professional prescriptions, such as that of Amy Greer, Nisha Thampi and Ashleigh Tuite, apply sound clinical lessons, but may set benchmarks rendering the September resumption of school next-to-impossible. 

Fears and anxieties still run high because the COVID-19 pandemic is horrible and health protection is everyone’s priority.  Finding the right balance and developing a safe and broadly acceptable school resumption plan is fraught with challenges and potential complications. With the curve flattened and infection rates minimal, it is time to get students back to in-person schooling, particularly K-8 students who require daily adult supervision.

Why are increasing numbers of parents calling for the return of full-time, in-person schooling? Who should be making the call on the resumption of school in September 2020?  Where do education ministers and policy advisors turn when public health officials and medical researchers are not fully aligned?  How important is the resumption of school to the full restoration of essential services and a productive economy?  Most importantly, do students, parents and taxpayers have a right to expect a much more effective model of educational delivery in the upcoming 2020-21 school year?  

Ontario’s Mathematics program for Kindergarten to Grade 12 has just undergone a significant revision in the wake of the continuing decline in student performance in recent years. On June 24, 2020, Education Minister Stephen Lecce unveiled the new mathematics curriculum for elementary school students with a promised emphasis on the development of basic concepts and fundamental skills. In a seemingly contradictory move, the Minister also announced that the government was cancelling next year’s EQAO testing in Grades 3 and 6 to give students and teachers a chance to get used to the new curriculum.

While the Doug Ford Government was elected in June 2018 on a “Back to the Basics” education pledge, the new mathematics curriculum falls considerably short of that commitment. While the phrase “back to the basics” adorned the media release, the actual public message to parents and the public put more emphasis on providing children with practical skills. Financial literacy will be taught at every grade level and all students will learn coding or computer programming skills, starting in Grade 1 in Ontario schools. A more detailed analysis of the actual math curriculum changes reveals a few modest steps toward reaffirming fundamental computation skills, but all cast within a framework emphasizing the teaching of “social-emotional learning skills.” 

The prevailing “Discovery Math” philosophy enshrined in the 2005 Ontario curriculum may no longer be officially sanctioned, but it remains entrenched in current teaching practice. Simply issuing provincial curriculum mandates will not change that unless teachers themselves take ownership of the curriculum changes. Cutting the number of learning outcomes for Grades 1 to 8 down to 465 “expectations” of learning, some 150 fewer than back in 2005, will be welcomed, especially if it leads to greater mastery of fewer outcomes in the early grades.

The parents’ guide to the new math curriculum, released with the policy document, undercuts the “back to basics” commitment and tilts in a different direction. The most significant revamp is not the reintroduction of times tables, teaching fractions earlier on, or emphasizing the mastery of standard algorithms. It is the introduction of a completely new “strand” with the descriptor “social-emotional learning skills.” That new piece is supposedly designed to help students “develop confidence, cope with challenges, and think critically.” It also embodies the ‘discovery learning‘ approach of encouraging students to “use strategies” and “be resourceful” in “working through challenging problems.”

Ontario’s most influential mathematics curriculum consultants, bracing for the worst, were quick to seize upon the unexpected gift.  Assistant professor of math education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), Mary Reid, widely known for supporting the 2005 curriculum philosophy, identified the “social-emotional learning” component as “critically important” because it would “help kids tremendously.” That reaction was to be expected because Reid’s research focuses on “math anxiety” and building student confidence through social-emotional learning skills development.

Long-time advocates for higher math standards such as Math teacher Barry Garelick and Ottawa parent Clive Packer saw the recommended approach echoing the prevailing ‘discovery math’ ideology.  Expecting to see a clear statement endorsing mastering the fundamentals and building confidence through enhanced competencies, they encountered documents guiding teachers, once again, toward “making math engaging, fun and interesting for kids.” The whole notion that today’s math teachers utilizing traditional methods stress “rote memorization” and teach kids to “follow procedure without understanding why” is completely bogus. Such caricatures essentially foreclose on serious discussion about what works in the math classroom.

How does the new Ontario math curriculum compare with the former 2005 curriculum?  Identifying a few key components allows us to spot the similarities and differences:

Structure and Content:

  • New curriculum: “clear connections show how math skills build from year to year,” consistent for English-language and french-language learners.
  • Former 2005 curriculum: Difficult to make connections from year-to-year, and inconsistencies in expectations for English-speaking and French-speaking learners.

Multiplication and division:

  • Grade 3, new curriculum: “recall and demonstrate multiplication facts of 2, 5, and 10, and related division facts.” In graduated steps, students learn multiplication facts, starting with 0 X 0 to 12 X 12 to “enhance problem solving and mental math.”
  • Grade 3, 2005 curriculum: “multiply to 7 x 7 and divide to 49 ÷ 7, using a variety of mental strategies (e.g., doubles, doubles plus another set, skip counting) No explicit requirement to teach multiplication tables.

Fractions:

  • Grade 1, new curriculum: “introduced to the idea of fractions, through the context of sharing things equally.”
  • Grade 1, 2005 curriculum: Vague reference – “introducing the concept of equality using only concrete materials.”

Measurement of angles:

  • Grade 6, new curriculum: “use a protractor to measure and construct angles up to 360°, and state the relationship between angles that are measured clockwise and those that are measured counterclockwise.”
  • Grade 6, 2005 curriculum: “measure and construct angles up to 180° using a protractor, and classify them as acute, right, obtuse, or straight angles.”

Graphing data:

  • Grade 8, new curriculum: “select from among a variety of graphs, including scatter plots, the type of graph best suited to represent various sets of data; display the data in the graphs with proper sources, titles, and labels, and appropriate scales; and justify their choice of graphs “
  • Grade 8, 2005 curriculum: “select an appropriate type of graph to represent a set of data, graph the data using technology, and justify the choice of graph”

Improvements in the 2020 Math curriculum are incremental at best likely insufficient to make a significant difference. Providing students with effective instruction in mathematics is, after all, what ultimately leads to confidence, motivation, engagement, and critical thinking. Starting with confidence-building exercises gets it all backwards. Elementary mathematics teachers will be guided, first, to developing social and emotional learning (SEL) skills:  (1) identify and manage emotions; (2) recognize sources of stress  and cope with challenges; (3) maintain positive motivation and perseverance; (4) build relationships and communicate effectively; (5) develop self-awareness and sense of identity; (6) think critically and creatively. Upon closer scrutiny these are generic skills which are not only problematic but also entirely unmeasurable.

The fundamental question raised by the new Ontario math curriculum reform is whether it is equal to the task of improving stagnating student test scores. Student results in English-language schools in Grade 3 and Grade 6 mathematics, on EQAO tests, slid consistently from 2012 to 2018. Back in 2012, 68 % of Grade 3 students met provincial standards; in 2018, the mean score dropped to 58 %.  In Grade 6 mathematics, it was worse, plummeting from 58 % to 48% meeting provincial standards. On international tests, Ontario’s Program of International Student Assessment (PISA) Math scores peaked in 2003 at 530 and dropped in 2013 to 509, then recovered slightly in 2018 to 514, consistent with the provincial slide (See Graph – Greg Ashman). Tinkering with math outcomes and clinging to ineffective “mathematical processes” will likely not be enough to change that trajectory.

Building self-esteem and investing resources in more social and emotional learning (SEL) is not enough to turn-around student math achievement. Yet reviewing the new mathematics curriculum, the Ontario curriculum designers seem to have lost their way. It all looks strangely disconnected from the supposed goal of the reform — to raise provincial math standards and improve student performance on provincial, national, and international assessments.

What’s the real purpose of the new Ontario mathematics curriculum reform?  Does the latest curriculum revision reflect the 2018 commitment to move forward with fundamentals or is it a thinly-disguised attempt to integrate social and emotional learning into the program?  Where is the evidence, in the proposed curriculum, that Ontario education authorities are laser focused on improving math standards? Will this latest reform make much of a difference for students looking for a bigger challenge or struggling in math? 

‘Everyone is doing their best’ was the prevailing narrative during the COVID-19 school disruption.  That may explain why school authorities either suspended system-wide student tracking or chose to conceal data collected relating to student progress and engagement.  A June 2020 CBC Investigation into this issue in four Atlantic Canadian provinces came up almost empty  and revealed that no one was able to provide any credible information on how many students went missing during pandemic distance learning.

“Doing Our Best” education may well have lasting consequences for students. Coming out of a three-month suspension of in-person, face-to-face teaching and learning, we are beginning to confront the hard realities: the coronavirus generation has fallen months behind, most housebound children were bored and disengaged, and struggling students have lost the most ground.

What we know about the real COVID-19 impact on children and teens did not emanate from education officialdom. With senior education leaders and school districts remaining tight-lipped, public opinion survey pollsters stepped up to fill the vacuum and assist intrepid education reporters trying to penetrate the wall of silence. Back on May 10, over a month ago, the Angus Reid Institute broke the code: “Canadian children are done with school from home, fear falling behind, and miss their friends.” The kids, it turned out, were not alright.

What actually happened during the COVID-19 crisis is coming into clearer focus with the benefit of hindsight. For the first month,  ministries of education, school districts, and educators scrambled to fill the learning gap with “emergency distance learning,” building upon patchy online infrastructure and cobbled together together curriculum combining e-learning and hastily-assembled ‘learning packages.” With few exceptions, Canadian K-12 education was completely unprepared for the system-wide shutdowns.

Thrown completely off-kilter, educational leadership was left fumbling around in the dark looking for the proverbial light switch. Perpetually optimistic technology-driven educators found ‘silver linings amidst the dark clouds, progressive educators focused on responding to children’s “fears, anxieties and trauma,” and global thought leaders rhapsodized about a “better normal where Maslow (finally triumphed) over Bloom. With little warning, parents were expected to guide “Home Learning” with their housebound children.  It looked ominous, but most educators sounded upbeat, made the best of an unsatisfactory situation, and retained some hope that it would all work out somehow.

Taking a closer look at the May 2020 Angus Reid survey, it’s now clear that, despite everyone’s efforts, the COVID-19 educational experience was decidedly substandard for the vast majority of Canada’s five million K-12 students, and possibly damaging for those from disadvantaged and racialized communities. Here’s a succinct summary of the worrisome findings:

  • The biggest worry for over half of all children (ages 10-17) surveyed was “missing out on  work” this school year and next, roughly equal the proportion who feared getting sick themselves.
  • A clear majority of children “attending” school online (60 per cent) were bored or  unmotivated, not very busy with the work, but still “keeping up” with the reduced academic expectations.
  • Children and teens, outside of homework, spent the vast majority of their time glued to small screens, dominated by watching TV/Netflicks, You Tube (88 per cent), and playing video games (74 per cent).
  • Parents may have been doing their best, but it was not good enough, because over half of teens ages 13 to 17 reported needing more help with their work.
  • Some 70 per cent of children and teens reported missing seeing friends and participating in extra-curricular activities, but fewer than 1 in 10 (8 per cent) were willing to concede that they missed going to school.

Missing so much regular schooling, after two of the three months, was already having adverse effects. Most of the students reported that they were “missing out” on school work and were struggling to remain positive, mainly because of deteriorating friendships and relationships.  The so-called “home education blues” were real and, for the most part, went unacknowledged and unreported by Canadian school authorities.

Close education observers and inquisitive parents seeking straight talk about the actual impact of the COVID-19 school shutdown invariably come up empty when seeking answers to questions or any evidence to support periodic accounts of heroic individual efforts or hopeful reports of ‘silver linings.” Education reports out of the United States provided us with a much-needed wake-up call when it came to getting the straight goods on what was really happening to students and parents during the school shutdown.

Two key U.S. education stories exposed the harsh realities of COVID-19 education for students, parents and teachers and raised serious questions about the veil of silence shrouding Canadian K-12 education. New York Times education reporter Dana Goldstein blew the lid off the real story on June 5, 2020 with a feature demonstrating the impact in terms of learning loss.  By September 2020, she reported, most students would be “months behind” with “some losing the equivalent of a full year’s worth of academic gains.” Furthermore, “racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps” would “most likely widen because of disparities in access to computers, home internet connections and direct instruction from teachers.”

A Boston Globe feature on May 23 confirmed that the COVID-19 disruption exposed the reality of digital divide. One in five Boston Public Schools children were found to be “unplugged” from Google Classroom and disengaged to the point where they were essentially “virtual dropouts.” Significant education technology challenges and language difficulties were keeping children from continuing school online. That finding was confirmed in a large-scale study of some 800,000 students conducted by a team of Harvard and Brown university researchers. Mining academic research into student use of Zearn, an online math program, they reported that student progress in math between March 15 and April 30 decreased by some 48 per cent in classrooms located in low-income ZIP codes, and by one-third in classrooms in middle-income ZIP codes.

The COVID-19 crisis has demonstrated, in microcosm, the extent of the public disclosure deficit in our provincial public education systems. Without American investigative education reporting, we would probably know little or nothing about the stubborn COVID-19 problems of getting students to engage in distance learning or the incredible proportion of children and teens who skipped out on home learning or lacked proper access to the alternative programs.  Knowing that the kids are not alright should spark some needed public discussion about working together on developing and acting upon a comprehensive, evidence-based learning recovery plan.

What happened to the initial plans for COVID-19 Home Learning in Canadian K-12 education? How did most children and teens fare in terms of “continuous learning” during the COVID-19 school disruption? Why were provincial and district education authorities so tight-lipped about the state of distance learning?  Should ministries of education and school districts be responsible for monitoring, collecting and reporting on alternative distance learning programs?  Does the public have a right to know how many children logged-in, remained engaged, and met the expected curricular standards? 

Laptops, tablets, and SMART boards were all hailed in the early 2000s as the harbingers of a new era of technology-driven educational transformation. It was just the latest in successive waves of technological innovation forecast to improve K-12 education. Billions of education dollars were invested in education technology in recent decades and yet a 2015 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) report has demonstrated that such investments have led to “no appreciable improvements” in educational achievement.

As a new high school English teacher in London, UK, back in 2007-08, Daisy Christodoulou was typical of most educators at the time. She was wowed by whiteboard technology and committed to taking advantage of the latest ed tech gadget to facilitate interactive student learning.  Once in the classroom, in spite of her best intentions, Daisy turned it into a regular classroom projector and rarely used the more sophisticated features. She was not alone because that’s exactly what  most of us did in those years,

Optimistic forecasts of the transformative power of classroom computes and Internet access never materialized.  Spending on IT in U.K. schools quadrupled during the SMART Board phase, but it was a bust and dismissed in 2018 as another example of “imposing unwanted technology on schools.” A $1.3-billion 2013 Los Angeles Unified School Board deal with Apple and Pearson Learning to supply iPads was jettisoned a year later because of security vulnerabilities, incomplete curricula, and inadequate teacher training. Many onlookers wondered, if the giants can’t make it work, can anyone?

The promised ed-tech revolution that never seems to arrive is the central focus of Daisy Christodoulou‘s latest book, Teachers vs. Tech?, released just as the COVID-19 school shutdown thrust millions of teachers into the largely uncharted territory of e-learning on the fly.  It also raises the vitally important, but discomforting question: Why has education technology failed in the past, and is it destined to fail in the future? We may well find out with the biggest global experiment in ed-tech e-learning now underway.

Christodoulou’s Teachers vs. Tech? tackles what has become the central issue in the unsettling and crisis-ridden  COVID-19 education era.  It’s an instantly engaging, highly original, and soundly researched guide to identifying the obstacles to harnessing ed-tech in schools, a deadly-accurate assessment of why teachers retain a healthy skepticism about the marvels of ed tech, and a constructive prescription for re-purposing those 21st century machines.

What’s absolutely refreshing about Teachers vs Tech? is the author’s consistent commitment to reasonably objective, evidence-based analysis in a field dominated by tech evangelists and tech fear mongers. Common claims that teachers are conservative and change-averse, by nature, or that education is a “human” enterprise immune to technology do not completely explain the resistance to ed tech interventions. New technologies come with embedded educational pedagogy, she contends, that embraces pseudoscience theory and cuts against the grain of most classroom teachers.

Christodoulou effectively challenges ed tech innovations free riding on unfounded educational theories. Over the past 70 years or so, she correctly reports, cognitive science and psychology have discovered much about how the human mind works and learning happens.  Many of these discoveries came out of scientific investigations associated with Artificial Intelligence (AI) and information technology. What’s peculiar about this is , in Christodoulou’s words, the gap between what we know about human cognition and what often gets recommended in education technology.”

Education technology is rife with fancy gadgets and fads, most of which are promoted by ed tech evangelists,  school change theorists, or learning corporations. The author finds it very odd that “the faddiest part of education” is the aspect supposedly rooted in scientific research. “Far from establishing sound research-based principles,” she writes, “technology has been used to introduce yet more pseudoscience into the education profession.”  There’s still hope, in her view, that the evidence- based research underpinning learning will eventually find its way into the new technologies.

She does not shy away from tackling the most significant and disputed issues in the integration of education technology into teaching and learning. What are the biggest lessons from the science of learning?  Can technology be effectively used to personalize learning? What’s wrong with saying ‘Just Google It’?  How can technology be used to create active learning? Do mobile smart devices have any place in the classroom? Can technology be employed to build upon the expertise of teachers? How can technology improve student assessment for teachers? All of these questions are answered with remarkably clear, well-supported answers.

The book makes a strong and persuasive case for incorporating the science of learning into technology-assisted classroom teaching.  Drawing upon her first book, Seven Myths about Education (2013), Christodoulou explains how cognitive science has shed new light of the efficacy of explicit instruction for improving student learning.  Direct instruction is judged to be more effective in developing long-term memory to overcome the limitations of short-term memory. Her plea is for ed tech and its associated software to tap more into that form of pedagogy.

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Teachers will be drawn to her thought-provoking chapter on the use and misuse of smart devices in today’s classrooms. Jumping right into the public debate, Christodoulou demonstrates how today’s mobile phones interfere with learning because they are “designed to be distracting” and absorb too much time inside and outside of school. Citing a 2017 meta-review of the research produced by Paul A. Kirschner and Pedro De Bruyckere, she points out the “negative relationship” between academic achievement and social network activity among young people. Popular claims that adolescents are better at “multi-taking” are judged to be completely unfounded. She favours, on balance, either strictly limiting smart devices or convincing the tech giants to produce devices better suited to teaching and learning environments.

Christodoulou identifies, with remarkable precision, what technology can bring to teaching and student assessment.  Teachers, she shows, have real expertise in what works with students, but they also have blind spots. While there is no substitute for human interaction, ed tech can help teachers to develop more consistency in their delivery and to tap into students’ long term memory,

One of the authors greatest strengths is her uncanny ability to discover, hone-in on, and apply technological solutions that make teaching more meaningful, fulfilling and less onerous when it comes to workload and paperwork. Spaced repetition algorithms, are highlighted as a specific example of how technology can aid teachers in helping students to retain knowledge.  As Education Director of No More Marking, she makes a compelling case for utilizing online comparative judgement technology to improve the process and reliability of student grading.

Christodoulou’s Teachers vs Tech? provides a master class on how to clear away the obstacles to improving K-12 education through the effective and teacher-guided use of technology. Popular and mostly fanciful ed tech myths are shredded, one at a time, and summarized succinctly in this marvelous concluding passage:

Personalization is too often interpreted as being about learning styles and student choice. The existence of powerful search engines is assumed to render long-term memory  irrelevant. Active learning is about faddish and trivial projects. Connected devices are seen as a panacea for all of education’s ills, when they may just make it easier for students to get distracted.”

Implementing ed tech that flies in the face of, or discounts, teacher expertise lies at the heart of the problem. “Successful disruptive innovation solves a problem better than the existing solution,” Christodoulou claims. “Too many education technology innovations just create new problems.” ‘Looking it up on Google,’ she points out, is actually just “a manifestation of discovery learning, an idea which has a long history of failure.”

Technology skeptics expecting another critique of the dominance of the technology giants will be disappointed. The title, Teachers vs. Tech?, ends with a well-placed question mark.  While most of the current ed tech innovations perpetuate an “online life” that is “not on the side of the evidence,” Daisy Christodoulou shows conclusively that we (educators) have only ourselves to blame. “If they’re promoting bad ideas,” she notes, ” it’s at least partly because we’ve made it easy for them to do so.”

What’s the source of the underlying tension between teachers and education technology?  What has contributed to teachers’ skepticism about the marvels of ed-tech innovation?  How was the teachers vs tech tension played out during the COVID-19 school shutdown?  If the latest ed-tech toys and software were programmed with educationally sound, evidence-based pedagogy, would the response of educators be any different?