Archive for November, 2022


A critical public debate over student behaviour policy and practice has recently surfaced in the Ontario city of London and surrounding region, sparked by a recent explosion of school violence the its public schools.  Two-and-a-half years into the pandemic disrupted schooling era, tension, turbulence and bullying can no longer be swept under the carpet. Violent incidents in the Thames Valley District School Board (TVDSB)’s 154 elementary schools more than doubled to 900 in October 2022, compared to some 400 in June of last year. That uptick in disruptions may not be an isolated phenomenon but rather a barometer of what’s actually happening inside and outside of classrooms.

What’s most troubling is that many episodes of student-on-student violence go unreported and it’s really a sign of turmoil that runs deeper in school culture. Whole classes are evacuated to isolate and subdue angry or frustrated students acting out in school. Elementary parents complain about rampant violence in younger grades and overwhelmed staff unable to curb the violence or provide support or protection for children.

The local teachers’ union and the odd brave teacher are speaking out-of-school.  One Grade 8 teacher, identified only as “Tom,” blamed a board discipline policy which is not only ‘unclear and confusing,’ but paves the way for students to reoffend. “There is zero accountability,” he told CBC News London Morning, hiding his identity out of fear for possible consequences.

Nor is it confined to elementary schools. For the past two years, a few London city high schools have been in near constant turmoil.  Local police reported making 28 calls to one London high school, Saunders Secondary School, from October 2021 to April 22 to break up fights, respond to mental health issues, or investigate assaults, property damage, thefts and other incidents. Two 16-year-old boys were stabbed in September near A.B. Lucas Secondary School and more recently, in late November, students described a frantic and bloody scene at H.B. Beal SS after a teen girl stabbed another over lunchtime in the cafeteria.

School districts like Ontario’s Thames Valley DSB were unprepared for the rising incidence of violence and the near constant problem of ‘low-level disruptions’ besetting classrooms.  The Ontario school board is typical of most of the 72 districts in the province.  Faced with repeated incidents and intense media scrutiny, TVDSB Director of Education Mark Fisher has declined comment or instructed senior school officials to either defend existing ‘’progressive discipline” policy or assign blame to “what’s happening in communities” following the pandemic.

After having implemented school-wide positive, preventive student behaviour policies over the past fifteen years or so, school principals and classroom teachers have been deprived of traditional deterrents – office reports, suspensions and, in some extreme cases, expulsions. Integrating most students with complex needs into regular classrooms, in the midst of the turmoil and with totally inadequate resource supports, have merely compounded the problems.

Current student behaviour policy dates back to April 2007 in Ontario when former Premier, then Education Minister, Kathleen Wynne (2006-2010), abandoned the ‘zero tolerance’ approach to curbing bullying. Heeding the advice and counsel of her Deputy Minister Ben Levin, Wynne sought to curtail the high incidence of suspensions which were, at that time, found to be disproportionately affecting students from marginalized or disadvantaged communities.

Positive Emotional Behaviour Supports (PEBS or SW-PBS) approaches, introduced since 2007 in Ontario and elsewhere across North America, have dramatically reduced the use of suspensions and resulted in the virtual elimination of expulsions, the last resort in school discipline. Curbing the use of sanctions has meant keeping students in school is now the priority, often through the expanded use of ‘time-out’ rooms, Individual Education Plans (IEPs), restorative justice remedies, and ‘social promotion’ to the next grade.


The official Ontario school suspension data tells the story across the system with some 2 million students. In 2007-08, 94,386 Ontario students were listed as “suspensions” (4.32 per cent of all students) and 996 were reported as “expulsions” (0.05 per cent). By 2019-20, the last year reported, total suspensions were down to 46,990 (2.21 per cent) and only 245 students were recorded as “expulsions” (0.01 per cent).

The reported data for TVDSB has suspensions dropping from 4,918 (5.86 per cent) to 3,275 (3.91 per cent) but looks totally unreliable for “expulsions.” The board reported less than 10 expulsions a year from 2007-08 to 2016-17, then slowly rising each year to 15 in 2019-20 before the pandemic. Those figures for expulsions need to be audited for accuracy.

Speaking truth to power in K-12 education can be exceedingly frustrating because it’s usually met with a wall of silence. TVDSB Grade 8 teacher “Tom” is a brave soul who speaks for many frontline teachers with their heads down, toughing it out and left to deal with the problem on their own, day-in-and day-out, in post-pandemic school closure times.

Progressive student behaviour approaches are now unequal to the challenge, according to classroom teachers and engaged parents. Violent, disruptive and disrespectful students are free, in far too many schools, to do erode learning and sustain the turmoil with impunity.

Local Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (EFTO) president in the TVDSB Craig Smith has lifted the veil. “We have moved from one pendulum of zero tolerance to now one of almost complete latitude,” he says, surveying the current student behaviour landscape. The current approach is anything but ‘progressive’ if it’s scaring schoolchildren and allowing violence and low-level disruptions to flourish in elementary and secondary schools.

How representative is the turmoil besetting Ontario’s Thames Valley regional school district educating the vast majority of London’s public school children and teens? Was adopting “positive behaviour supports” policy and completely abandoning “zero tolerance” for violence a wise decision? Is the current PBIS approach working for students, teachers and families?  Will it survive the current wave of post-pandemic school disruptions?

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“Data my ass” is a term of derision that will live on in infamy in New Brunswick education. Uttered by Premier Blaine Higgs in early October 2022, and directed at Anglophone Deputy Minister of Education George Daley, it was seized upon by former Education Minister Dominic Cardy as a clear indication of two things: the premier’s distain for ‘evidence-based’ decision-making and the dismissal of expert advice proffered by a senior civil servant.


That closed door meeting with the Minister and his senior staff proved to be the last straw in a strained and testy relationship. Soon after, Minister Cardy was dropped from cabinet and a few weeks later, on November 9, the object of the premier’s ire followed the Minister out the door.

Pragmatic politicians like New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs focus on the numbers – in public opinion polls and on the latest provincial student assessment tests. Immediate and reactive political responses drive decision-making.  Politicians and far too many education policy-makers, as Canadian education genius Bernard Shapiro once remarked, “jump over the evidence” in making decisions.  That’s relevant in this particular situation.

Educational changes in New Brunswick and across North America come in distinct cycles, often repeated over time.  That may come as quite a revelation to policy-makers from outside education. A surprising number of ambitious and upwardly mobile educators also get taken in.  It’s called ‘riding the wave’ to the next rung on the educational career ladder.

Serious students of school reform, familiar with the research, particularly David Tyack and Larry Cuban’s 1995 American classic Tinkering Toward Utopia, know that supposedly new ideas and innovations tend to be rebranded and recycled, leaving the status quo unchanged.  In the plain-spoken language of New York Yankee catcher Yogi Berra, “it’s déjà vu all over again.”


In the case the New Brunswick school system, big changes come in little bites.  It took N.B.’s former Auditor General Kim MacPherson to point this out back in January 2019, before the pandemic threw us completely off-course. Back then, a fellow named George Daley, then president of the New Brunswick Teachers Association (NBTA), heartily agreed that “many changes” were being made to the system “too often” and “affecting its stability.”

“We’ve had 37 major changes in 35 years in New Brunswick education,” Daley told CTV News Atlantic.  Teachers had, he noted, raised that issue time-and-time again with a succession of governments no matter what their political stripe. “Political parties,” he added, “use us (teachers and students) as a football and opposition parties use us as a way to poke holes in government.” In short, the system is “falling apart” when you are in opposition, but just fine when you are in government.

Such popular analyses tend to muddy the waters.  “Major changes” upon close examination are usually “course correction” initiatives. They also lump-together the three distinct phases of the policy process: (1) policy talk – identifying and framing critical issues; (2) policy action – strategies and innovations to affect change; and (3) policy implementation – making the changes happen in practice in the schools.

Given the fact that it takes 3 to 5 years to bring about enduring system reform, most of the proposed changes either falter or simply peter-out in implementation. That’s particularly true when changes initiated by one education minister are handed-off to their successors, politicians who in many cases, either waiver in their commitment or have their own agendas.

One thing is clear – former Education Minister Cardy was not only cerebral in personal style, but also, to a remarkable degree, committed to evidence-based analysis and ‘following the data.’ It was his personal strength and, in that sense, he was an ‘un-politician.’ What Higgs, the pragmatist saw, after four years, was initiative-overload and what is known as ‘paralysis by analysis.’

Two of the province’s most ‘wicked problems’ were priorities for Higgs when he appointed Cardy to cabinet four years ago: reversing the decline in literacy, starting in elementary schools; and addressing the ineffectiveness of an Anglophone sector French immersion program where, at the end of Grade 12, only 10 per cent of all students achieved the expected language proficiency. While that figure remains low, Canadian Parents for French NB put more stock in the levels of oral proficiency of those in Grade 12 in the FSL program (See 2021-22 data).


Whatever one thinks of Cardy’s public persona, his grasp of what it takes to initiate real change was essentially sound. The pandemic changed everything, turning school systems upside down, derailing every major initiative, inflicting learning losses, and aggravating inequities, especially among poor and disadvantaged children.  Some allowances for the learning recovery challenge and readjusting implementation timelines makes common sense.

When phasing-out French immersion became Higgs PC government policy, it was on the understanding that it would take time to develop an effective, properly staffed and resourced alternative in the form of a more intensive French as a Second Language program for all Anglophone students. Notwithstanding the pandemic upheaval, the Premier simply lost patience and refused to budge on a September 2023 phase-in implementation timetable.

Converting a French immersion system into and intensive universal FSL program model, grade-by-grade is a massive undertaking, and the Department is best positioned to determine the optimal implementation timeline. Bungling implementation is far more likely when it’s rushed and that’s likely to be the real lesson of the education turnover.

A dismissive quip like ‘data my ass’ speaks volumes about government priorities.  Election cycles trump policy implementation planning cycles. Ignoring or brushing aside research evidence may be expedient, but will likely prove to be short-sighted in the long-run.  Rushing policy changes like abandoning French immersion in New Brunswick may well add to the list of initiatives eventually cast aside and filed under “flawed in implementation.”

Why do education policy-makers “jump over the evidence” in making critical decisions like establishing implementation timetables? Which weighs heavier in the balance – opinion polling or policy implementation forecasts? What proportion of provincial or state education policy reforms actually get implemented? What happens to policies en route to implementation?

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The impending arrival of the researchED movement in Atlantic Canada is gradually leaking out on social media, in teacher staff rooms, and on school parking lots. Speaking ‘out of school’ is not without its risks, especially if it consists of challenging ‘sacred cows’ or openly discussing ‘elephants in the classroom.’ That is why most of the talk is on social media, in notices and posts circulating among education reformers and research-informed teachers, or quietly shared among parents aware of the impact of researchED conferences.

That researchED event, “Shoring Up the Foundations: Student Behaviour and Learning to Read,” to be held Saturday November 12 at Saint Mary’s University, promises something completely new and different in Primary to Grade 12 education. Some of our brightest minds and live heads, attracted by headliners researchED founder Tom Bennett OBE and Nova Scotia reading specialist Jamie Metsala, are already snapping-up the remaining seats.

Since its inception as a spontaneous Professional Development eruption ten years ago, the grassroots British teacher-research organization, led by British teacher Tom Bennett (no relation) and teams of volunteers, has offered weekend conferences to over 60,000 participants in 13 countries on six continents.  It captures well the independent spirit of its founder and the general appeal of evidence-informed research and practice that challenges prevailing theories, education guru driven changes, and practices sustained by layers of administrators and consultants far removed from the classroom.

Independent educational thinkers, research-informed teachers, and serious education researchers) are attracted to researchED for many different reasons. Few are completely comfortable spouting “positivism,” living in “research bubbles,” or carrying out provincial mandates that are not “research-based” or are demonstrably ineffective in today’s challenging classrooms. Guiding student behaviour and managing our classrooms and ensuring that all students secure the “right to read” are two critical topics crying out for discussion, out in the open, in a professional conference setting.

“Working out what works” for teachers and students in the classroom sounds like common sense. Reaffirming that priority and empowering teachers to challenge cherished theories and largely unproven teaching practices is what gives researchED its raison d’etre and what has sparked hundreds of thousands of teachers and education researchers  to attend its Saturday conferences, including past Canadian events such as researchED Toronto (November 2017), researchED Ontario (April 2019), and researchED Vancouver (May 2019).



researchED founder Bennett is the author of Running the Room: A Teacher’s Guide to Behaviour, and Senior Advisor on Student Behaviour to the UK Government. He’s a straight-shooter in a field overflowing with ‘happy talk,’ ‘edubabble,’ and obfuscation.  Teachers all over Britain flock to his PD sessions providing sound, practical advice on how to “create a culture” where teachers and their students exhibit mutual respect and effective teaching is, once again, not only possible but central to the whole educational enterprise.

Featured speaker Dr. Metsala, Professor of Education at Mount Saint Vincent University, is one of Canada’s leading authorities on teaching early reading, proves that Nova Scotian’s are sometimes last to acknowledge their heroes in some fields. She is very much in-demand across Canada, especially since serving as Academic Advisor to the Ontario Human Rights Commission Right to Read Public Inquiry from 2020 to 2022.

SMUResearchEDHalifax2022 poster WEBFinal

With Twitter currently under fire from critics, it’s worth noting that researchED was actually sparked by a single, well-timed tweet by Tom Bennett in the summer of 2013. “I launched researchED,” he said back in 2017, “because I wanted a safe space where people could come together… and have a (frank) conversation.” It has surprised him, to no end, that it was considered “quite radical” at the time. Telling the truth in education, he learned, earned you as reputation as a “radical” among education’s gatekeepers and surprisingly large numbers of teacher education professors.

My first researchED conference, in New York City back in May of 2016, completely enthralled me. Seeing Canadian math wizard, John Mighton, founder of JUMP Math, on that program was a revelation, meeting American cognitive psychologist Daniel T. Willingham, and debating educational research findings with fellow educators and researchers got me completely hooked.  That’s how I ended up as the unofficial “Ambassador” for researchED in Canada.


researchED is a real breath of fresh air that has proven capable of firing up frontline teachers, attracting leading researchers, and re-energizing education reformers everywhere.  For most, approaching educational change initiatives with a more skeptical eye comes naturally; for others, new to P-12 public education, it’s nothing short of an epiphany.

With the arrival of researchED in the Maritimes, thoughtful, up-and-coming educators see that there are alternatives to running with the herd and sublimating your concerns about the effectiveness of current practice, particularly when it comes to classroom management and learning to read.

Fresh from a researchED experience, educators, active parents, and commentators are more research-informed and less likely to be mesmerized by pet theories, to swallow educational platitudes, or to repeat common buzzwords.  You will never be quite the same again.

What can we learn from researchED now that it has arrived in Maritime Canada? Can researchED bridge the current divide between educators, parents and policy-makers of differing ideological persuasions?  Do prevailing theories of student discipline and learning to read pass the research sniff test?  Will we seize the opportunities afforded by the return of researchED Canada in the wake of the pandemic disruption?

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