“What’s Standing in the Way of Educational Change?” is a fundamental question that deserves an answer. On October 21, 2013, it was also the theme of a Canadian Education Association (CEA) Symposium held in Calgary and attended by some 300 educators, including delegates from seven ministries of education, 12 faculties of education, and chief superintendents from 15 different cities. After all the edu-chatter, a clear, unqualified answer still eludes us.
Holding that Symposium was still one of the year’s bright spots. The Canadian student results on the Big Test, the 2012 Program of International Student Assessment (PISA) mathematics supremacy test, proved to be the biggest downer. Surveying Canada’s provincial K-12 education systems brings into sharper relief the most notable ups and downs on the learning curve.
The Best – Hopeful Signs
. Teen Mental Health Initiative
With the Rehtaeh Parsons case capturing the headlines, a Mental Health Pathway to Care program championed by Dalhousie University psychiatrist Dr. Stan Kutcher was implemented in Nova Scotia and other provinces without much fanfare. Adopting an integrated model, training teachers and focusing on Grade 9 students will pay longer-term social dividends. Most of the credit belongs to two Nova Scotia regional school boards, the South Shore and Halifax, for taking it on before “Rehtaeh” became a household word across North America.
• Adoption of Cyberbullying Laws
The continuing controversy swirling around Rehtaeh Parsons teen suicide finally bore fruit in the form of a series of new statutes known as Cyberbullying Acts. In the wake of Rehtaeh’s death, Nova Scotia moved quickly to pass a Cyber-Safety Act, establishing a Cyber Scan police unit to clamp down on cyberbullies. In November 2013, federal Justice Minister Peter MacKay followed-up with legislation aimed at cyberbullying, including a prohibition of the non-consensual distribution of intimate images. Distributing “cyber-porn” was now deemed a criminal offense in Canada.
• Resurgence of C21 School Reform
The resurrection of former New Brunswick deputy education minister John D. Kershaw as CEO of C21 Canada signaled a resurgence in the technology-driven “21st Century Schools” movement. Inspired by American Tony Wagner’s “creativity and innovation” crusade, Kershaw and his hi-tech partner William Kierstead held a February 2013 “Shifting Minds” Summit Conference and then developed an expanding ITC partnership with the Canadian Council of Ministers of Education (CMEC). A well-publicized 2013 research report, entitled Future Tense and produced by the Action Canada program scholars, helped to advance a closely related assault on provincial student testing.
• Community Hub School Revival
A February 2013 policy proposal, presented by the Nova Scotia Small Schools Initiative and based upon Toronto educator Dr. David Clandfield’s international research, succeeded in changing the adversarial, divisive public dialogue around school closures in Maritime rural communities. Community hub school ‘talk’ became de rigeur and then even Nova Scotia Education Minister Ramona Jennex began voicing her support. When the N.S. School Review Process was suspended, in early April 2013, small school advocates celebrated the temporary halt of school consolidation.
• Quebec Math Student Prowess
In the wake of the 2012 PISA student results, Canadian education policy analysts were stunned, once again, by the stellar performance of Quebec students in mathematics. With Quebec ranking first in Canada, among the world’s top ten and far ahead of the English-speaking provinces, experts were at a loss to explain why. Setting higher standards, provincial testing, and more rigorous math curricula are the most plausible explanation, but not what the dominant ‘progressive education’ thinkers like to hear.
The Worst – Troubling Signs
• The 2012 PISA Results Slide
On December 3, 2013, the 2012 Program of International Student Assessment (PISA) student rankings hit Canada with the force of an Asian tsunami. Our 15-year-old students, competing against those of 64 other OECD countries, slid down to 13th place, dropping out of the top ten, and falling further behind students from Shanghai/China, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea, Macau, and Japan. Canada’s former educational leader, Alberta, continued to slide, as did all provinces following the Western and Northern Canada Protocol (WNCP) ‘discovery math’ curriculum. For Prince Edward Island, the dismal PISA student results continued to be nothing short of an educational disaster.
• Tarnishing of the TDSB’s Reputation
The Director of the Toronto District School Board, Chris Spence, abruptly resigned on January 10, 2013, amid a cascade of plagiarism allegations. Parts of Dr. Spence’s dissertation, submitted in 1996 for his Ph.D. from OISE were also copied from unattributed sources. That thesis on “Black Male Student Athletes in Toronto High Schools” had also formed the basis for his black student leadership programs. A year later an Ontario audit of TDSB books during his administration turned up financial irregularities, including evidence that senior administration collected hefty increases during a staff salary freeze.
• Fumbling of the “Rehtaeh File”
With the eyes of the world on Nova Scotia, the Government hired Torontonians Penny Milton and Debra Pepler to conduct a limited, ‘no fault’ review of the Halifax RSB’s policy and procedures in relation to the handling of the case. When Parsons’ mother Leah dismissed the slim 25-page June 2013 report as “fluffy,” the credibility of the exercise was completely shot. Two more external reviews later, the essential questions remain unanswered.
• Bungled Student Testing Initiative
Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall’s government attempted to introduce provincial student testing in an effort to improve that province’s student performance levels. The Saskatchewan standardized testing initiative was rushed and ran into fierce opposition mounted by Dr. Marc Spooner and his supporters at the University of Regina. In August 2013, the province announced a tactical delay in the implementation of testing and a month later Education Minister Russ Marchuk was replaced in the cabinet by a more conciliatory figure, Don Morgan.
• Lightening Up of Standards
British Columbia’s 21st Century Learning project, promoting a student-centred focus and known as “Personalized Learning,” was cruising along until it hit a significant knot in the educational road – the 2012 PISA results. That province’s steady improvement in mathematics (under its old, test-driven curriculum) left many wondering why a “revolutionary change in learning” was being implemented. The Globe and Mail columnist Jeffrey Simpson joined the chorus urging British Columbians to “pitchfork” the lightweight “21st century schools” education reform.
Predictions can be risky in the world of K-12 Canadian education. A prophecy made by Canadian international standards expert Dr. Paul Cappon in December 2010 was actually borne out over the past year. Compared to the world’s leading education states, Canada was “sliding down the learning curve.”
What kind of year was 2013 in the world of Canadian P-12 education? Did we get an answer to the CEA Conference question – What’s Standing in the Way of Educational Change? Is it possible to answer that question given that Canadian educators continue to inhabit 10 little educational silos?