Archive for July, 2021

Canada’s K-12 schools are in recovery mode after what is being called a “lost year in education.”  Since the COVID-19 shock in March of 2020, school disruptions and pivots in-and- out of online learning have left our ten provincial systems in a state of disequilibrium with adverse impacts on student learning, achievement and well-being.


Pandemic calamites have given rise to public calls for a more robust federal presence in Canadian K-12 education. Tackling the COVID-19 crisis has shone more light on the fact education is strictly a provincial responsibility under our constitution and Canada is now the only leading member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) without a federal department of education.

Would a new national education coordinating agency make much of a difference? That depends upon your assessment of what’s needed to tackle the contemporary challenges facing our education systems. Serving the 5.5 million students attending our K-12 schools is the primary responsibility, but the education sector also includes early childhood, post-secondary education, and adult workplace training programs.

Creating a federal department of education with a seat in cabinet would, in all likelihood, merely compound the fundamental problem diagnosed in my latest book, The State of the System: A Reality Check on Canada’s Schools (2020). Based upon past experience, it would add a top-tier of administrative oversight which, in turn, generates more layers of centralized, top-down, bureaucracy. While attractive as a fresh source of federal transfer payments, it’s highly unlikely that the augmented resources would ever ‘trickle down’ to the classroom.

The existing national coordinating body, the Council of Ministers of Education Canada (CMEC), in existence since 1967, is unequal to the challenge. It has evolved, over the years, into a shell of an organization, little more than an exclusive club presided over by the thirteen provincial and territorial ministers of education. While providing a forum for annual discussions and an external place-holder for Canada, it’s scope of activity is circumscribed by the imperative of “fully respecting provincial jurisdiction.”

CMEC played a constructive role in fostering pan-provincial cooperation and nudging the provinces into large-scale student testing. Sparked by uneven student Mathematics performance on the 1988 International Assessment of Educational Progress (IAEP -I), CMEC initiated its own Student Achievement Indicators Program (SAIP) in 1989 and it gradually evolved into a full-blown program from 1991 to 1996, then morphed into the Pan-Canadian Assessment Program (PCAP, 2007-Present)

Under the leadership of Director General Paul Cappon from 1996 to the early 2000s, CMEC raised national standards and guided our engagement in broader international student assessment programs. With tact, diplomacy and determination, Dr. Cappon wooed and then won over the provinces to boarder participation in the global movement for international testing

Preparing Canada’s provinces for international assessments such as the Program of International Student Assessment (PISA), gave CMEC its rationale and sense of purpose. When Canadian 15-year-olds fared well in the first two rounds of PISA, 2000 and 2003, its organizational viability was secure.

As Director General, Cappon challenged provincial ministers and their ministries to up their game in preparing students for regular international and national assessments. With his 2004 departure, CMC was rudderless because it was chaired by the education ministers, serving on two-year rotations. It devolved into a Secretariat, convening meetings, producing short reports of aggregated data, and research briefs amplifying the strengths of K-12 education. Provincial ministers held sway, ensuring that CMEC served the interests and upheld the reputations of the member provinces.

The most recent CMEC reports in the “Measuring Up” series, focusing on OECD PISA 2018, TIMSS 2019, and PCAP 2020, do aggregate student performance data comparing countries and provinces, but they tend to highlight our strengths, minimize the deficits, and generally ‘put a shine on the apple.’

The latest “Assessment Matters” research brief, the 17th in a series, released in March 2021 is typical of most. The cheeky title “Are You Smarter than a Fourth Grader?” is alluring. It’s actually a thinly-veiled rationale for putting more emphasis on “reading literacy” (i.e., communicating in multiple forms) than on reading fluency and comprehension, two critical indicators of reading effectiveness.

Proponents of a more robust national governmental presence, such as former federal bureaucrat Irvin Studin, have correctly identified the vacuum at the centre of Canada’s educational system. Provincial systems, severely damaged by the pandemic, are proving incapable of responding with agility to radically changed circumstances. Particularly concerning is the rise of the so-called “third bucket” cohort of children either totally disengaged or missing from public schools, regarded as the human casualties of two years of disrupted education.

While Canada’s provincially governed school systems are currently in disarray, creating a fourteenth system is not really the answer, unless the hidden agenda is to use the federal agency as a source of social transfers to reduce educational inequities from province-to-province.

More funding, while welcome, may only change how the educational pie is divided up among governments. We also know, from cross-provincial comparisons of per-student expenditures that pouring more money into K-12 systems does not produce better learning or higher student achievement. If that was the case, Manitoba would be a leading education province and Quebec would cease being the undisputed champion in Mathematics.

Judging from the American experience, establishing a national education department is not a panacea. The U.S. Department of Education, elevated in 1979 to a cabinet level agency by President Jimmy Carter and expanded by subsequent administrations, has introduced new accountabilities, such as No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top assessment programs, and run up education expenditures with little to show for all those initiatives. Aside from Title 1 federal grants and the Promise Neighborhood initiative aiming to bridge the achievement gap, it’s hard to fund much evidence of a breakthrough in better student outcomes. Expenditures have certainly ballooned, reaching $70-billion in 2019, representing 13 per cent of total education expenditures.

Canada’s federal role in Indigenous education, managed by Indigenous Affairs and Northern Development, under various names does not inspire much confidence in proposals to further extend federal authority into a provincial jurisdiction. The failure of Bill C-33, the First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act, back in 2013-14, served only to demonstrate the potential for jurisdictional turf wars, territorial imperative, and competing visions about the purposes and future of education.

Most of the substantive criticisms of Canadian education tend to centre around the system’s greatest deficiency – the lack of a national, independent education research bureau and clearing house for the best evidence-based research to inform future planning, policy-making and curriculum reform. The former Canadian Council on Learning, headed by Cappon from 2004 to 2012, demonstrated the critical need for that type of national agency. What CCL lacked was the authority to collect and validate student and system performance and the clout to ensure that the provinces were rewarded for collaborating on national school improvement projects, taping into evidence-based research, and actually tackling persistent and unaddressed problems, including early reading inequities, mathematics competencies, student absenteeism, and grade inflation.


The Canadian Council on Learning’s final report, “What is the Future of Learning in Canada,” remains as relevant today as it was upon its release in October of 2011. While Canada possessed undoubted strengths, specifically in early learning and post-secondary education participation, our students have, as Cappon predicted, plateaued or slightly declined on international assessments and there’s still little or no coherence in our approach to “improving the learning futures of Canadians of all ages.” Early literacy and mathematics competencies, high school student achievement levels, post-secondary education integration, and adult workplace training programs require improvement, just as they did ten years ago.

Replacing the Council of Ministers of Education has more resonance in the wake of the pandemic shock and its destabilizing effect on K-12 education. Adding another layer of bureaucratic oversight, however, would only compound our existing problem exemplified in the aggregation of provincial authorities inclined to protect their own interests. Nothing much will change unless and until we have a new generation of provincial leaders focused on busting through the bureaucracy and preparing our students with the fundamental knowledge and skills to tackle future twists and turns affecting the life chances of today’s students.

Where was the Canadian Council of Ministers of Education when we needed a robust, coordinated response to the pandemic? Can CMEC be reformed to make it more transparent, effective and responsive to dramatic changes in K-12 education?  Or should we start over with a more purpose-built pan-Canadian research bureau committed to rapid response evidence-based policy?  

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School boards across Ontario are, one after another, abandoning ‘quadmesters’ for high schools in the coming year. Changing school schedules and is fraught with challenges and the educational administration field is littered with similar failed experiments.


Typical of most education innovations, the introduction of quadmesters was a response to an immediate problem rather than the result of thorough, evidence-based planning. Driven by pandemic health advisories, it was implemented without careful consideration of its impact upon student learning or achievement.

Implementation was rushed, the first sign of trouble ahead. Six weeks before Ontario school reopening in September 2020, Education Minister Steven Lecce finally announced that elementary students would be back full-time, but high school students would be on an ‘adaptive model’ schedule in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Class sizes in the Greater Toronto Area and big city boards would be reduced to 15 students and masks were required, but the biggest change of all was the proposal to implement a scheduling experiment known as the quadmester.

Replacing the existing semester system with its two 90- instructional day cycles, in vogue since the 1980s, would be four 10-week cycles. In this new format, students would attend two class periods a day, each averaging 150 minutes long, for about 45 instructional days, to secure their course credits.

A few weeks after announcing in May 2021 that the quadmester system would continue into 2021-22, fierce public opposition from students and parents, galvanized by a #NoQuadmesters campaign, forced the Toronto District School Board and neighbouring districts to back down with most reverting to a ‘modified semester’ system.

Replacing the existing semester system, in vogue since the 1980s, would be four ten-week cycles. In this new format, students would attend two class periods a day for 10 weeks to secure their course credits.

While the quadmester was presented as a creature of the pandemic, its origins were more complex and longer in duration. High school classes have been getting longer and longer, over time, and it’s actually a further evolution of the trend to block scheduling, more pronounced in Canada than in the United States.

Most Canadian high schools have abandoned the traditional year-long, linear schedule in the rush to embrace what is known as ‘block scheduling.’ School days consisting of six or seven class periods ranging from 45 to 60 minutes in length have been replaced by block schedules composed of four longer periods, averaging 90 to 120 minutes. In place of full-year long courses, students complete courses in 20 weeks.

Block schedules and accompanying semester courses were actually pioneered in Canadian high schools in the 1970s and 1980s. First generation block schedule advocates were school reformers who sought to change the culture of the traditional, factory-like high school.

High schools, particularly in Ontario and British Columbia, saw longer periods as a way of relieving the daily stress of an assembly-line environment, encouraging more interactive learning, reducing time lost (and discipline problems) during period changes, and relieving students and teachers of daily homework/preparation demands.

Student and teacher well-being weighed more heavily in the shift to the semester system than research testifying to its positive effects on student focus, concentration, and achievement. Two of the initial Canadian research studies, comparing full-year, two-semester, students with those on block schedules, documented the possible academic harm done by the shift.

The largest research study, produced in 1990 by David J. Bateson of the University of British Columbia, studied 30,000 Grade 10 students enrolled in science courses in year-long or semester-long blocks. Students in the year-long courses significantly outperformed semestered students in both the first semester and the second semester.

Dr. Bateson’s seminal study also pinpointed the scheme’s biggest weaknesses: the lag or gap of three to thirteen months between consecutive courses, adversely affecting student achievement in cumulative subjects, particularly mathematics and modern languages. A subsequent 1995 large-scale study led by Bateson and another in 1996 by Gordon R. Gore provided further evidence of harm caused by block scheduling.

The B.C. study confirmed the earlier findings in Ontario dating back to 1986 and examining the effect of block scheduling on mathematics courses in 80 different high schools. Drs. Dennis Raphael, Merlin Wahlstrom, and L.D. McLean found that achievement was significantly lower under block scheduling nor did they find much in the way of benefits in students’ attitudes toward mathematics. They also discovered that block scheduling results in fewer hours of actual instruction because of the challenges of making full use of longer periods.

What’s amazing to serious education researchers is that neither the Bateson or Raphael studies are ever mentioned or referenced in school district planning documents issued in support of the prevailing block scheduling system. The same is true of more recent policy statements, briefs and presentations in favour of quadmesters.


Responding to the raging controversy over quadmesters in May 2021on CBC Radio, Ottawa education consultant, Monika Ferenczy hit the nail on the head: “It was not based upon pedagogy at all. There’s no research to support it on pedagogical grounds.”

The “No Quadmesters” campaign pinpointed the adverse impacts of the quadmester model: compressed subject content, hurried or speeded-up pace, heavy burdens borne by students in online settings, neglect of special needs students, derailed school sports programs, and, in all likelihood, further inflicting academic harm on the pandemic generation.

Implementing quadmesters looked attractive because it enabled smaller class cohorts without incurring higher costs and amounted to a further extension of existing block scheduling. It will most likely prove to be one of the most glaring failed experiments in high school planning and administration.

Why did Ontario education policy-makers and school districts latch onto the quadmester system?  To what extent was the scheduling experiment an extension of semestering in high schools? Why did high school students and teachers find the scheduling model so stressful? What did it cost in terms of actual learning time loss? What are the odds that it will resurface again in Canadian 9-12 education?

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