Archive for February, 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic shocks have exposed the fragility of the modern, centralized, top-down bureaucratic education state, identified and analyzed in my 2020 book, The State of the System. A year into the pandemic, the massive disruption has also revealed the limitations of system-bound school change theories (conceived as hybrid “pedagogical and political projects”) ill-equipped to address the immediate crisis in K-12 education.


Education visionaries, school change theorists, and their academic allies were quick to offer up familiar ideas dipped in “COVID-19” and accompanied by a beguiling ‘build back better” rhapsody. They saw it as a golden opportunity to dream and to finally realize their long-thwarted plans for systemic transformation. The post-pandemic future, in their imagined world, will be a clash of two mutually-exclusive visions: social equality and student well-being or austerity and academic standards – good versus bad. This is, as you will begin to see, a false dichotomy and a misreading of our current educational predicament.

Canadian education consultant Michael Fullan provides the clearest expression to this rather grandiose aspirational vision. Whole system success in a post-pandemic educational universe will come to those who embrace “deep learning” and adopt the right ‘drivers’ of reform. Embracing the ‘human paradigm’ means pursuing ‘well-being and learning,’ ‘social intelligence,’ ‘equality investments,’ and ‘systemness.’ It also means forsaking the wrong drivers of the ‘bloodless paradigm,’ exemplified by ‘academics obsession,’ ‘machine intelligence,’ ‘austerity,’ and ‘fragmentation.’

Global competencies, according to Fullan and his allies, are the wave of the future. His particular formulation, the “Six Cs” are presented as the path to “deep learning:” Character, Citizenship, Collaboration, Communication, Creativity, and Critical Thinking. It’s a new variation on “21st century skills” with character and citizenship grafted onto the original conception and now touted as ‘foundational skills’ seen as critical to making a difference in the world.

This whole conception is, upon closer scrutiny, built upon a house of cards, sustained by an extended argument delivered mostly from a position of authority and without reference to the latest research on how learning happens. So-called “21st century skills” have been around for some thirty years, and, in spite of its higher echelon champions, the formulation has failed to gain traction anywhere, except perhaps in British Columbia and a few American states such as Maine and North Carolina. Furthermore, the “Six C’s” have proven difficult to measure, so much so that even its advocates concede its better to focus on the more easily measured content of academic and subject-specific knowledge, particularly in reading and mathematics.

Critical thinking remains the holy grail of K-12 education, but it’s hard to envision without a grounding in domain specific knowledge. Equipping students with the content knowledge to think critically about a full range of important issues does not exemplify an ‘academic obsession’ but rather a commitment to seeking deeper understanding. Nor are student well-being and academic success necessarily in

Educators looking for a more effective “catch-up” strategy would be well advised to look elsewhere for two vitally-important reasons: (1) the mistaken assumption that an academic focus and student well-being are somehow incompatible; and (2) the gross underestimation of the realities of the “COVID Slide’ and learning loss compromising the future success of today’s pandemic generation of students.

A far better point of departure is provided in the World Bank’s 2020 report, COVID-19 Pandemic Shocks to Education, surveying the collateral damage affecting school systems around the world. The immediate impacts were easier to spot, such as the economic and social costs, greater inequalities in access, and school-level health and safety concerns. Less so is the longer-term impact of “learning loss” and its worst-case mutation, “learning poverty” marked by the inability to read and understand a simple text by 10 years-of-age.

Shoring up the foundations has become a matter of more urgent necessity. If we are facing a “generational catastrophe,” it’s time to reframe the challenges facing K-12 education. Teaching children how to read and to be functional in mathematics are now fundamental to social justice in pandemic times.

What’s driving the “build back better” agenda being promoted by globalists, school change theorists, and high tech evangelists? Should we be focusing, first, on closing the COVID-19 learning gap? Where are the learning recovery plans and strategies when they are needed the most?

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Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce ended the public confusion on February 11, 2021 by announcing that March break would be postponed to the week of April 12. His public rationale was that such a move was prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic and intended to keep students safe while containing community spread of the virus.

The Minister’s announcement did not come out of nowhere.. One of the province’s top doctors, Dr. Paul Roumeliotis, touched off the frenzied public debate back in late January when he claimed that this year’s March school break should be cancelled, in order to prevent a post-holiday spike in COVID-19 cases.

Calling for the cancellation of March break proved to be anything but popular, but Dr. Roumeliotis brought a vitally important issue to the fore – the need to make better use of the upcoming March break down time. Cancelling the holidays sounded punitive, so postponing them for a few weeks is a bit more palatable. It does, however, stand out as a missed opportunity to use the time to offer ‘Catch-Up Academy’ programs to students struggling mightily to make up for lost learning in our schools.

As Eastern Ontario’s medical officer of health, Roumeliotis’s advice carried considerable weight and it prompted Minister Leece to consider his proposal and its merits. Cancelling March break altogether did not go over well with Ontario teacher unions, most notably the OSSTF’s Harvey Bischof and ETFO’s Sam Hammond. Both quickly dismissed any such plan as an ‘tone deaf’ response that ignored the plight of classroom teachers still reeling from a series of educational upheavals and abrupt schedule changes.

Cancelling or postponing the break is not as outlandish as it first sounded, and especially when one considers an additional rationale. Students in K-12 schools, in Ontario’s major metropolitan school districts, have just missed six more weeks of regular in-school schooling, and some have only been in school for five of the past 11 months.

Missing that much in-person schooling has got to have some impact on student learning, especially for those already struggling to keep up because of learning challenges, socio-cultural disadvantages, or language barriers. Yet, sadly, the extent of the so-called “COVID Slide” goes largely undiagnosed and poorly researched here in Canada,

A McKinsey & Company research summary published in December 2020 provided reasonably reliable estimates of the total potential learning loss to the end of the school year in June 2021. While initial American statistical forecast scenarios of massive learning loss have not materialized, the cumulative impact is still substantial, especially in mathematics, with students, on average, likely to lose 5 to 9 months of learning by year’s end. Among American black students, the learning loss in mathematics averages 6 months to a year. All students are suffering losses, but it’s more acute among those who entered the pandemic with the most disadvantages.

International research corroborates the early American projections and demonstrates conclusively that school closures contributed to an actual COVID slide. Studies conducted in September and November of 2020 in the United Kingdom and Belgium, where students missed 2-3 months of school, confirm that students in the middle grades have suffered learning losses in mathematics and language and writing skills have actually gone backward.

Canadian research on learning loss is hard to unearth. One CBC Radio podcast, posted in November 2020 and billed as “COVID Slide’s Impact on Kids Learning,” presented some evidence of the problem, then defaulted to standard pre-pandemic responses, dismissing learning loss concerns and instead focusing on children’s anxieties, mindfulness exercises, and reducing stress through broader and ‘softer’ student assessments.

Two promising Alberta research studies, cited in passing in the CBC Radio podcast, should not be overlooked. Conducted by University of Alberta educational psychology professor George Georgiou, those studies demonstrate that young readers are lagging behind the learning curve in the wake of the pandemic. School shutdowns and the default to online learning contributed to the problem.

A properly designed and implemented “Catch-Up Academy” program might well be what students, teachers and families need right now. It would also be aligned with the best evidence-based research on what works in closing the knowledge and learning gap after lengthy school disruptions.

Supplementing learning time through ‘catch-up” academies, offered over weekends or during student holiday breaks, is one of three recommended responses to cumulative learning loss. The best option is actually high-dosage one-on-one or small group tutoring tied directly to helping students master subject content in math and reading. When that’s not possible, the next-best thing is catch-up programs during holiday breaks offered by highly trained teachers provide subject specific small class instruction, particularly ‘double dose’ math instruction.

Such remedies need to be considered when students miss so much in-person classroom teaching that it is having a detrimental effect on their learning and well-being. They are, however, essentially patchwork projects for school systems where harried and exhausted teachers are unable to provide the support and upgrading required to get at-risk students back on track or to prepare graduating students for the next stage in their education.

The COVID slide is real and it’s time to consider “Catch Up Academy” programs designed to shore up students’ educational foundations in mathematics, reading and writing. Eleven months into the pandemic, it’s time for some constructive innovation to provide the pandemic generation with more focused learning loss recovery programs.

An earlier version of this post appeared in The Globe and Mail, February 11, 2021. 

Why are traditional school holidays so sacrosanct, even during a global pandemic? Was the Eastern Ontario Medical Officer of Health essentially correct in his assessment of the health risks? Why dis Ontario’s Education Minister opt to postpone rather than cancel the one-week school break? Would the time be better utilized with a “Catch-Up Week” in-school and focused exclusively on closing the ‘COVID Slide’ learning gap?

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