Archive for May, 2022

HigherEdCOVIDStudentsUniversity campuses were eerily quiet in early April when the academic year was winding down. Weathering the sixth wave of COVID-19 on the heels of two years of disruption and hybrid learning experiments, a sense of war-weariness hung in the air.  Students, faculty and senior administration were confronting the sticky business of returning to normal with F2F (face-to-face) in-person instruction.

            The Class of 2022 approached graduation after a bifurcated university experience, marked by a normal first year or two, followed by masking-up, toggling back-and-forth to online learning, and persevering through periodic outbreaks.  Presidents, deans and administrators breathed a sigh of relief wondering, in the back of their minds, when will this all end?

A year ago, New Brunswick Minister of Post-Secondary Education, Training and Labour Trevor Holder had sounded a hopeful note. On April 7, 2021, he announced on Global News that he anticipated all universities and colleges would return to in-person learning in the fall. Following the usual laissez-faire approach, when and how it is accomplished was left up to individual post-secondary institutions. That is common in the PSE sector from province-to-province right across Canada.

With the latest variant ripping through Canada in the spring of 2022, no one was making confident public predictions for the coming school year.  Canadian higher education soothsayer Ken Steele, CEO of Eduvation, chose a bizarre metaphor of “chewing on nutty fudge” to capture the situation facing most universities and colleges in N.B. and elsewhere.

“The transition from pandemic to endemic is proving to be sticky, slow-moving and prone to unexpected crunches!” he wrote in his May 12 Eduvation Blog post. “Compared to the quick, clean ‘pivot’ in early 2020, the way OUT of pandemic is proving far more confusing.”

Managing university faculty is often likened to herding cats and, after two years of adapting to new routines, something unexpected was happening, again.  Getting everyone back to in-person teaching was now a sticking point.  University and college leaders, including the deans of education, were facing what Steele aptly described as “the challenges of encouraging (or, alternatively, resisting) a full return to campus this spring, and small wonder – the risks remain nebulous and unclear to most of us.”


Working from home, either within commuting distance or out of the country, has its attractions for surprising numbers of university and college instructors.  That was one of the big take-aways from a May 15 Zoom session with faculty of education deans at the 2022 Canadian Society for the Study of Education (CSSE) conference. Speaking for Atlantic Canadian education deans, Mount Saint Vincent’s Antony Card was quite candid about the exhausting work of bringing everyone back into the fold. Interim Dean of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, Normand Labrie, explained, in some detail, how challenging it was to lead an education school when faculty were geographically scattered and teaching in various modalities.

Surveys of PSE faculty conducted by individual institutions have identified a pattern. According to Ken Steele, about a quarter of employees never want to return to the office, and two-thirds want flexibility and choice. Many institutions have their own internal polls and they tend to confirm the stickiness of the situation.  Commuting daily over long distances with gasoline topping $2 dollars-a-litre is now very unpopular. Finding a consensus on a mandated return to in-person instruction is getting harder not easier.

Universities and colleges are beginning, gradually, to hold more hybrid and in-person events, starting with the current round of convocations.  New Brunswick’s Mount Allison University was typical of many PSE institutions. A buoyant mood returned to Mount A from May 13 to 16 as the university celebrated a multiple-year graduation for the classes of 2020, 2021, and 2022. Most of the festivities were actually live and in-person, and everyone was expected to be fully vaccinated and masked.

Graduation celebrations never fail to raise the spirits and this year more so than ever.  “We are excited to welcome our students, recent graduates, faculty, staff, and honoured guests back to Convocation Hall,” Mount Allison University President and Vice-Chancellor Dr. Jean-Paul Boudreau said in a media release. “Over the past two years, the University community has come together to support one another through the pandemic, and we are pleased to be able to recognize and celebrate this year’s graduates as well as the Classes of 2020 and 2021 in traditional Mount Allison fashion.”

Mount Allison student valedictorian Hanna Fuzesi, hailing from Campbellton, NB, found a sense of community at Mount A that helped students through tough COVID-19 times.  Like her peers, half of her university years, were interrupted by the pandemic. She fared far better than many students attending universities who were robbed of a normal university experience.

The March 2020 shutdown proved to be “a turning point” in Hanna’s university career. “The isolation pushed me to become more involved where I could and connect with other students and community members,” she said in the Mount Allison newsletter. “Knowing others were experiencing the same challenges and were working towards common goals really strengthened the sense of community.”

Every university produces exemplary student graduates, many of whom shine in academics and interscholastic sports. It is somehow fitting at the 2022 Mount Allison graduation that a community-service oriented student like Fuzesi was honoured by the university.

Surviving let alone thriving under COVID-19 conditions is worth celebrating. The Class of 2022 will always be remembered for completing their degrees during the pandemic and demonstrating not only flexibility and adaptability, but a new-found resilience that may prove beneficial in their post-graduation years.

Why is returning to normal on Canadian university campuses such a sticky business?  Should cabinet ministers, university presidents and deans step-up to ensure that all classes return to in-person instruction in the coming year? What can university students expect when they return in September 2022?

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Asking “Who is, in fact, in charge here?” is a fair question, but it is now a “no-no” judging from a recent regular public meeting of an elected Ontario school board.  You may find yourself cut-off in mid-sentence, told to “stay positive,” then sanctioned by a Board Chair acting on behalf of elected trustees. That is exactly what happened on April 26, 2022 to Zorra Mayor Marcus Ryan when he attempted to address the Thames Valley District School Board (TVDSB) raising the serious matter of glaring irregularities in recent governance practices.

The TVDSB’s handling of two recent issues – the disbanding of a Rural Education Task Force and the Director of Education overruling elected trustees on the mandating of masks – brought matters to a head.  Speaking up as a local Mayor and concerned citizen, Ryan got more specific: “Who makes the decisions about how one billion dollars of our tax money is spent on our children’s education in our communities? The board passes resolutions, but then the senior administration seems to do whatever they want.”

TVDSB Board Chair Lori-Ann Pizzolato interrupted Ryan to request he keep his remarks positive, then Trustee Corrine Rahman raised a point of order warning Ryan to be respectful of staff and trustees and consider the stress everyone has been under over the past two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was abundantly clear, watching the TVDSB meeting on video, that Mayor Ryan was being silenced for having the temerity to “criticize the board” in public. Acting upon the advice of an in-house “parliamentary advisor,” the elected trustees no longer feel bound to listen to criticism, let alone respond to delegations challenging their decisions.


Why do elected regional school boards exist if not to listen to and act on behalf of parents, taxpayers and local communities?  That is a pretty fundamental question worth pondering in the months leading up to the Ontario school board elections in October 2022.  What’s gone terribly wrong with elected regional boards? Whose interests do they represent?  Are any of the trustee candidates committed to re-engineering the system? If not, what should replace our top-down, senior administration dominated and unaccountable school boards?

Elected school boards always seem to be in crisis or threatened with extinction somewhere in Canada.  Close observers of Ontario education would be well aware of the troubled boards with a recent history of governance problems, including Limestone District School Board, Rainbow District School Board, York Region District School Board, and, most recently, Waterloo District School Board. Currently, Greater Victoria District School Board (BC District 61) is in turmoil and New Brunswick’s week sister imitation of regional boards, known as District Education Councils (DECs) are on notice.

Over the past two decades, New Brunswick’s hollowed-out version of elected regional boards has been in a gradual cycle of decline. Acclamation disease, plummeting voter participation, role confusion, and aversion to public engagement have all conspired to render the DECs largely irrelevant to most New Brunswickers. The DECs are on life support and that province’s activist Education Minister Dominic Cardy is looking seriously at decentralizing education governance.

Followers of Educhatter Blog will be familiar with my proposals to re-engineer education governance. My 2020 book, The State of the System, provides a detailed prescription, but it’s rather lengthy and a hard slog to get through.  So here is my “Coles Notes” version:

Adopt a “Community-School Governance Model”

Copying and pasting in an education model from elsewhere in Canada simply won’t work because each province is unique in its own way.  Most provinces still have conventional elected regional boards so New Brunswick is something of an anomaly.  Stepping back and taking stock of the differing local contexts, I still believe Ministers and their departments would be best advised to design and build what I term a “Community-School Governance Model” combining school-based governance/management with, in a second stage, completely re-engineered regional education development councils.

School-based management supported by school governing councils holds out exciting possibilities for creating a new education governance culture and revitalizing local school-level democracy. In designing the framework, the province would be well-advised to look first to the Edmonton Public Schools model of school-based management (SBM) and budget development process.  It is the best and most proven strategy for transitioning to a more decentralized form of educational decision-making.

The Edmonton model of SBM, adopted in 1976, and developed by Superintendent Dr. Michael Strembitsky in the 1980s, has stood the test of time. Alberta Education published a School-Based Decision-Making Guide in 1997 and opened the door to other boards adopting school-based budgeting. In 2003, when the World Bank started championing SBM in developed countries across the globe, a feature story in Time Magazine described Edmonton’s public schools as “the most imitated public school system in North America.”

Superintendent Darrel Robertson, in an August 2016 Edmonton Journal news story, reported that school-based decision-making was still going strong in the district. It remained the core philosophy because it successfully “empowers and engages staff, students and parents.”


Governance Lessons – from New Zealand

New Zealand’s transformation to a decentralized governance under David Lange’s 1984-89 Labour government provides many valuable lessons for policy-makers. Faced with a tug-of-war with ten different education boards, Lange sought to reinvent government with his 1988 Tomorrow’s Schools initiative. It provided a blueprint for transformative education reform based upon the model of self-governing schools. Each school’s parents were authorized to elect their own board of trustees, the new legal entity entrusted with the educational and financial well-being of the school.

The N.Z. structural reform embraced school choice for parents and generated plenty of upheaval in its first decade before it solidified and gained acceptance. Twenty-five years after its inception, Cathy Wylie, lead researcher at NZCER, judged it a success overall, urging the NZ government to look at a system refresh rather than a return to “archaic” regional boards in any shape or form.

Creating a New Education Leadership Culture

Educational restructuring would not be deemed a success unless and until the top-down school system was turned right side up, building from the school level up.  School community-based decision-making will not happen on its own. It does require structural change to foster a new culture of more flexible, responsive educational leadership.  Simply put, we need to reprogram district administration to ensure that the system exists to serve the needs of children, teachers, parents, and local communities.

Regional school boards, as presently constituted, are far too bureaucratic, too big and unresponsive to be effective. Those who continue to argue for their retention on the grounds that they represent the people are, in the words of veteran Ontario educator Peter Hennessy, “missing the point” that “elective parent councils” have been established precisely because “the boards were and are out of touch with the grassroots.”

A Proposed Cure for the Local Democratic Deficit  

With school boards staggering from crisis-to-crisis, now is the time to transform the education governance system to cure the now-visible deficit in public accountability and local democratic engagement. The best course of action would be to announce a gradual, planned transition, replacing the existing regional education bodies with autonomous, elected, self-governing school councils. That sets a clear direction. It vests far more authority where it belongs, in school-level councils, and paves the way for the construction of a new community-based model of education.

Re-engineering local education governance will take time to get it right, so plan on implementing the change over 3 to 5 years. Invest heavily in public engagement and democratic education programming to attract and prepare a new cohort of school-level council members. Phase-out the existing regional boards and DECs and prepare for a roll-over in decision-making responsibility in two-to-three years’ time. While the school governing councils are under construction, plan for the re-establishment of regional coordination and planning bodies with membership drawn from the elected school governing councils.

Community-School Based Governance operates better when it is properly integrated into a broader regional and provincial governance system. Regional coordination is essential and that could come from newly-constituted regional coordinating bodies (i.e., District Education Development Councils).  Unlike the current unaccountable boards, they would have the political legitimacy that comes from being first elected at the school-level and be clearly accountable to the school communities.

What can be done to restore local democratic accountability in Canadian K-12 provincial education systems? Can elected regional bodies be saved or is it better to start again, rebuilding from the schools up?  Which provincial government will be first to embrace more decentralized school-level education decision-making?  What democratic accountability benchmarks do we need to assess the effectiveness of such governance reforms?

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Toronto’s first Normal School for teacher training, the former Ryerson University, has a new name — Toronto Metropolitan University. CBC-TV’s The National newscast on April 26, 2022, covered the story with a short piece presented through the eyes of Indigenous social work student Sarah Dennis of Nipissing First Nation who led the campaign to remove Egerton Ryerson’s name from university because of what the CBC termed “concerns” about “his links to Canada’s residential schools.” Removing the Ryerson name from the university was a fait accompli after a band of marauding students defaced and toppled his statue in early June 2021, and the university’s Standing Strong (Mash Koh Wee Kah Pooh Win) Task Force, made it one of their key recommendations.

Since the remains of 215 Indigenous residential school students were uncovered in Kamloops in late May 2021, the urgency of acting upon the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission report’s Calls to Action has affected all of us.  Horrible injustices happened in those Canadian residential schools and it’s high time to make amends. Speaking at Ryerson University in June of 2016, Commission Chair Murray Sinclair laid bare that tragic legacy and warned that “getting to reconciliation was going to be harder” than “getting to the truth.”  He also praised Ryerson University for its “commitment to equity, diversity and inclusion” noting “that is what his namesake now stands for.” No mention was made of changing the university’s name.

Watching that recent CBC-TV newscast upset me greatly as an Ontario-born and educated professor of education with a Doctorate of Education from OISE specializing in the history of Canadian education. What was truly disconcerting about that mainstream news report and most others was that it not only completely ignored Ryerson’s fundamental role in founding and shaping the Ontario public school system and instead perpetuated the questionable claim that he was “one of the primary architects of the residential school system.”

While historical figures move in and out of favour with the tides of popular opinion, the toppling of Egerton Ryerson in such a fashion is an outrage. Simply put, Canadian education history without Ryerson is like Shakespeare without Hamlet. It’s unthinkable that his American counterpart, Horace Mann of Massachusetts, would ever be treated with such disregard. Most surprising of all, none of the ranking academics in the Canadian History of Education Association (CHEA) have breathed a word, leaving his defense up to a courageous band of prominent history scholars, high school history teachers, public policy experts, and progressive reformers, many steeped in the Methodist ‘social gospel’ tradition.

Reverend Adolphus Egerton Ryerson was the undisputed founder of public schooling in Canada West (Ontario) and an unlikely candidate for vilification.  Two of his greatest defenders, Ryerson University professors Ronald Stagg and Patrice Dutil, provided an assessment starkly different than that of the Standing Strong Task Force report.  Ryerson, they pointed out in April 2021, was “one of the most influential figures in the history of Upper Canada and was in his day considered the very paragon of the forward-looking, progressive, inclusive, worldly intellectual. He was a beacon of educational reform, a fighter against injustice of all sorts, and a kind and generous man. A Methodist minister, he pushed for religious equality and has long been celebrated as the founder of Ontario’s public school system.”

As Superintendent of Education, the newly appointed Ryerson drafted the Common School Act in 1846 that established universal free access for children to schooling in Ontario. As a devout Protestant Methodist reformer, Ryerson campaigned fiercely against the Church of England (Anglican) as the state church and in favour of a more populist brand of social gospel Christianity and a broader form of democratic citizenship. Common schools, in his view, had a socializing task and should be built upon a Christian moral foundation, especially given the precarious nature of the colony, labour unrest, and divisive Christian sectarianism. Among his contemporaries, he exhibited “a spirit of egalitarianism” and openness to including the labouring classes and the poor in the public schools, in stark contrast to the more elitist Anglican thinkers of the time.

Ryerson fell short of being the “mythical hero” presented in the seminal education histories of Charles Phillips and C.B. Sissons, and later Canadian revisionist scholars such as Alison Prentice, J.D. Wilson, Robert Gidney, and Bruce Curtis revealed that his educational philosophy sought, in some ways, to implant “middle class values and attitudes” and to impart the virtues of industriousness, cleanliness, obedience, discipline and control. By the standards of his time, he still did not fit the label “conservative” because of his distaste for upper crust Anglican elitism and his Methodist reform instincts.


Canada’s Indigenous residential schools were horrible institutions and, especially since the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, anyone painted with the brush of association is tainted and bound to suffer consequences.  While Ryerson is blamed for instigating residential schools, that’s not quite accurate, to say the least. He did not invent the residential school because it was British colonial policy long before he took office. His views were shaped during 1826-1827 while he was missionary to the Mississaugas of Credit River and unlike many white settlers, he was neither ignorant or disrespectful of Indigenous people.

Working with the Mississaugas, Ryerson met and became a close friend of Methodist Ojibwe minister Peter Jones (Kahkewaquonaby) and supported their claim to a land base at the mouth of the Credit River.  For a decade after he left the mission, notably during an 1836-37 trip to England, Ryerson continued to press from the British Colonial Office protection for the Anishinaabeg’s remaining land base in Upper Canada.  Furthermore, Reverend Egerton Ryerson (1803-1882) died before “Indian boarding schools” became federal government policy (in 1883) and it’s those compulsory institutions which stand accused of being vile instruments of cultural genocide.

Ryerson’s involvement with what came to be federal Indian residential schools was limited to providing the Indian Department of the United Canadas with a 3000-word 1847 letter containing recommendations. The oft-cited recommendation read as follows: “It is a fact established by numerous experiments, that the North American Indian cannot be civilized or preserved in a state of civilization (including habits of industry and sobriety) except in connection with, if not by the influence of, not only religious instruction and sentiment but of religious feelings. Indians should be schooled in separate, denominational, boarding, English-only and agriculturally-oriented (industrial) institutions.”  While his proposed framework may have carried some influence, Ryerson was not involved in the formulation of the policy.

Much like Peter Jones, he was concerned about the potential for cultural and economic displacement and favoured agricultural training schools, or “industrial schools” to prepare young men for changes in agriculture. Such thinking was popular at the time, especially among those familiar with the American Methodist Shawnee school considered “a progressive venture” possibly worthy of imitation. Two Methodist Indian schools established under his watch, Mount Elgin at Munceytown and Alnwick at Alderville were voluntary and entirely church-run institutions. It must be noted, in fairness, that Ryerson, like most of his contemporaries, permitted segregated schools to be established in Canada West and accepted the fact that, in many places, “prejudices and feelings are stronger than the law.”

Removing Ryerson’s name and expunging his legacy would have caused my dear old OISE professor, the late Willard Brehaut, author of  the lead essay in the 1984 book “The House that Ryerson Built,” to roll in his grave. As a former PEI School Inspector and founding OISE faculty member, Brehaut would have been shocked to learn that the enabling report made only passing reference to a “claim” that he founded the Ontario school system and made no mention whatsoever of a few of the enduring educational legacies of his 32 years in office:

  • A universal, free elementary education for all children
  • Authorized standard textbooks, the “Ontario Readers”
  • Establishment of Normal Schools (teacher’s colleges)
  • Professional certification of teachers
  • Teacher regulations – duties and responsibilities
  • Creation of local school boards and school districts
  • Compulsory school attendance law
  • Recognition for Roman Catholic separate schools
  • Established school divisions: elementary, secondary and collegiate levels

The facts speak for themselves: Superintendent Egerton Ryerson set in motion the creation of a modern, progressive public school system, and his masterful defense of common schools was utilized by chief superintendents in other provinces. In Brehaut’s words, the “main forces and trends that shaped Ontario public education” could all be traced back to the architect of the system, Egerton Ryerson.

Confronting grave injustices should not make matters worse by committing further injustices.  Without inflating or glorifying Ryerson’s role, it’s hard to ignore the significance of his 1846 report and his profound impact on the shaping of the system. Removing his name from Ryerson University and Toronto’s first Normal School simply does not pass the test of fairness.  Street justice, justified by a commissioned and one-sided university report, was administered swiftly without sober second thought.  It’s up to historians to call out glaring examples of presentism which fail the test of historical accuracy and violate the fundamental principles of sound historical thinking, for the sake of future generations.

Was erasing Egerton Ryerson’s legacy as founder of the Ontario school system and removing his name from the Toronto university justified – and, if so, on what grounds? How much weight should we put on a singular act in a career at Superintendent of Education spanning 32-years?  Where’s the evidence to support the allegation that Ryerson was a “racist” by the standards of his time? What lessons can be learned from the Ryerson University administration’s handling of this crisis? 

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