Archive for January, 2023


The proposed plan to change French-language education by eliminating French Immersion in New Brunswick’s Anglophone schools is facing a firestorm of resistance.  An initial mid-January 2023 live-streamed media conference announcing ‘public consultations’ was cut-short after 29 minutes. Then tempers and emotions flared up at the first meeting of the four scheduled ‘public consultations’ which hardened into a wall of opposition from January 17 to 25, 2023 in Moncton, Saint John and Fredericton.

Tampering with French Immersion in New Brunswick and elsewhere is a perilous undertaking in K-12 education. It now appears that “touching the third rail” in that province may claim its latest victims.

N.B.’s French Immersion advocacy group, Canadian Parents for French, led by Chris Collins, not only mobilized parents and teachers, but succeeded in disrupting the planned ‘consultation’ management process. It was exposed as a rather ineffective attempt to apply the Delphi Technique strategy of seating in circles, designed to contain and diffuse the dissent.

As a strategy for managing ‘public consultations,’ popularly known as the “World Café,” it essentially crashed and burned. “Manufacturing consent” can and does backfire, especially when utilized in thinly-veiled fashion to ‘ram through’ school reforms or facilitate school facilities changes such as school closures.

Organizers in New Brunswick were totally unprepared for the crowd, unable to answer fundamental questions, and a harried-looking Minister went on the defensive, first threatening to “dismiss” the unruly crowd, then conceding that, if not enough French teachers could be found, it would be started in grade 1 and delayed at the kindergarten level. By the end of the consultations, he was now insisting it was “not cast in stone.”

N.B. Education Minister Bill Hogan has been dealt a bad hand. Appointed in October 2022 to succeed Dominic Cardy, a confident, fluently-bilingual public performer, he finds himself fronting a massively unpopular French language education initiative which is opposed by as many as three out of four New Brunswickers. What’s worse is that a rushed implementation is planned for September 2023 and the initial 22-odd Language Learning Opportunities (LLO) pilot programs were never properly assessed in terms of their effectiveness in improving the fluency and proficiency of students.


Hogan and Deputy Minister John McLaughlin survived the initial skewering on January 17 at the Gowan Brae Golf and Country Club, but the Minister was essentially mobbed at subsequent public meetings. Crowds arrived early, challenged the “world cafe’ format and took to the microphone to denounce the plan.

The Minister and his senior staff were left scrambling under the glare of extensive media coverage. All the signs point to either a full retreat or an impending implementation disaster. After two years of planning and almost two dozen pilot projects, how did to come apart so fast?

The sacking of Cardy deprived Premier Blaine Higgs of his most effective and persuasive communicator and the Department never recovered.  Without Cardy fronting the project, the remaining trust dissolved among French-speaking New Brunswickers as well as the province’s most articulate Anglophone bilingualism advocates, French immersion parents and graduates.

Political skeletons sometimes get released from their closets at the most inopportune times. Few remembered Blaine Higgs’ 1989 Confederation of Regions (CORNB) leadership campaign pledge to eliminate immersion until it resurfaced again in a politically-damaging October 2022 CBC News NB commentary.  From that point on, the fix was in on the high-risk policy proposal.

Education Minister Hogan and his senior officials have broken all the rules in the textbook on how to implement successful education reforms.  It’s all neatly synthesized in one of my favourite sources, David Tyack and Larry Cuban’s 1995 modern classic, Tinkering Toward Utopia. It begins by taking stock of previous initiatives and learning from the past.

In the case of New Brunswick and French immersion, that means asking whether any other Canadian province has ever succeeded in eliminating the program and learning from past mistakes. The prime example would be former Minister Kelly Lamrock’s politically bruising 2008 attempt to delay the entry point to grade 6, then grade 3, eventually abandoned in the face of fierce opposition. Then, as now, it was all based upon the claim that the province was, according to Maclean’s Magazine “failing miserably at graduating bilingual students.”

Education reform initiatives proceed, in stages, from “policy talk” to “policy action” to “implementation.” In the education sector, changes falter mostly during implementation. The key reasons are: short timelines, lack of leadership capacity, or insufficient human or resource support to make it work. Implementation is much slower and more complex and governments tend to move on to other priorities. That explains why evaluation of initiatives, including data-gathering, falls far too often by the wayside.

Overcoming the gravitational pull of the status quo is not easy and, in the words of American education psychologist Robert Evans, most initially embrace “change” with as much enthusiasm as they do “changing a baby.” Inspiring and skillful leadership is required to “overcome the initial sense of loss” and convey a sense of renewed purpose going forward.

Introducing an upgraded universal French language program in place of French immersion is unlikely to work. With an election ahead in the fall of 2024, it all looks to be based upon ‘election cycles’ rather than ‘policy change cycles.’ Even if the change in French language program gets authorized, it will be far too rushed in its implementation, half-baked in conception, and impossible to staff, given the dire shortage of French teachers with the requisite competencies.

Public engagement is quite distinct from ‘public consultation’ and thrives under the right conditions and requires an open approach and a genuine commitment to breaking the mold. Being open, transparent, accountable and responsive does require unique, well calibrated skills. In the education leadership field, it often involves unlearning ingrained practices and habits. Finding a common cause, sizing-up the conditions, leading with questions rather than answers, and meeting groups where they are all critical ingredients.

New Brunswick’s disastrous public consultation taught us a fundamental lesson about engaging citizens and building support for reforms. Canadian ‘public engagement’ specialist Don Lenihan (Middle Ground Engagement, Ottawa) now calls it “deliberative public engagement.”  It may work in New Brunswick if the provincial government realizes that it’s time to start again, from ground zero, to find an acceptable solution to raising the numbers of bilingual graduates from New Brunswick’s Anglophone schools.

Why is French Immersion the “third rail” in Canadian education politics?  What sparked the New Brunswick government to tempt fate by proposing its replacement with a universal upgraded core French program? Why did the “Delphi Technique” attract attention and ultimately provoke a backlash? Will the setback completely stall further reform efforts? Is there a better way of finding a constructive path forward?

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The Pandemic upended Canadian provincial systems and school lockdowns at their height affected the lives of some 5 million students and their families. Three years after its onset, the impact of the COVID-19 disruption is beginning to show in terms of student learning loss, foundational skills deficits, and psycho-social after-effects. While initially disoriented and slow to react, education authorities and researchers now recognize that a new set of priorities has come to the fore –‘learning recovery’ and closing the learning gaps in literacy and numeracy, falling heavily on students from racialized and marginalized communities.

Tackling racism with new policy mandates, advocating for the hiring of more diversity, equity and inclusion officers and collecting race-based data have not only lost their urgency, but stalled in their implementation, especially outside the Greater Toronto Area and our more ethnically-diverse cities.  One elementary school principal from Central Ontario surveyed in the spring of 2022 by the Toronto-based funding advocacy organization People for Education put it best: “School closures and COVID interruptions have greatly impacted the depth of learning and conversations around anti-racism. Greater continuity would certainly be beneficial to those efforts.”  Simply stated, priorities have changed at the classroom level in Canada’s schools.

That is why the latest People for Education report (January 2023) surveying anti-racism policy in Ontario and elsewhere is problematic and raises more questions than it really answers. Written by two younger researchers, Robin Liu Hopson, M.A., Director, Policy and Research at People for Education, and  Kaushi Attygalle, Senior Research Associate for YouthREX, it focuses almost exclusively on rates of compliance with federal and provincial anti-racism strategy, legislation and directives. Most of the data is actually derived from two sources – data mined from the official websites of Ontario’s 72 publicly-funded school boards and self-reported survey responses from Ontario-based school principals. The report on “anti-racism’ policy, rather predictably, found “significant inconsistencies in the execution of these strategies.”


With the Pandemic still lingering and its after-effects increasingly visible, the report frames the fundamental problem as one of confronting racism and Indigenous injustices by taking “a closer look” at “discriminatory practices and the role that they play in perpetuating systemic racism.” It pivots off-of the findings of the 2022 Independent Special Interlocutor’s report, Missing Children and Unmarked Graves and Burial Sites associated with Indian Residential Schools.”  Residential school atrocities and isolated acts of overt racism are identified as critical because they “triggered discussions on discrimination and signaled calls for equity in Canada.”

Much of this selective, qualitative, data-limited study is informed by the conception of “anti-racism” and supporting analysis of American academic Ibram X. Kendi, and his 2019 bestseller, How to be an antiracistAnti-racism, according to Kendi is: “Belief in equality among all races, and that racial inequality is an outcome of problematic policies and power imbalances.”  It starts with the assumption that “race and racism” is at the root of inequality rather than class or other disadvantages, racism is harboured in institutions, and “different treatment is necessary for equal outcomes.”

Provincial education authorities, school districts and individual schools are assessed in the 2023 People for Education report solely on the basis of their compliance with government mandates, stemming from the 2019 federal anti-racism plan, funded at $45-million and covering three years, to promote “long-term action towards increasing equitable access to and participation in the economic, cultural, social and political spheres.” Provincial anti-racism policy in Ontario actually dates back to 2017 when it was enacted into law in the final year of the Kathleen Wynne Liberal government. Since then, only two other provinces have followed suit, British Columbia and Nova Scotia, both in 2022. Overall, fewer than half (six) of our 13 provinces and territories have developed policy initiatives ranging from developing strategies and action plans, forming advisory councils or committees, to passing new legislation.

                Provincial anti-racism work (tapping into $30-million in federal funding for community programs and $3.3-million for public education programs) fell far short of its objectives.  A recent Toronto Star news report by Kristin Rushowy (January 15, 2022) parroting the People for Education media release claimed that progress was slowed by the pandemic. That’s only partly true because an earlier November 2020 Parliament of Canada review reported only modest progress, mostly funded by federal monies.

Securing racial profile data for school systems and most other public institutions is now part of the anti-racism policy agenda and figured prominently in the People for Education findings.  Out of some 1,000 Ontario principals surveyed, representing 20 per cent of all schools, 86.7 per cent self-identified as “white,” followed by 5.2 per cent Black, 3 per cent as South Asian, 2.7 per cent East Asian, and 2.3 per cant Indigenous.

“The numbers are so stark,” said Annie Kidder, the group’s executive director. “It definitely points to a problem in the system when you are thinking of all the results where race comes into play and how important it is that we work harder to have a system where the staff, all the staff, are reflective of the students.” That buttressed the report’s key finding: “the homogenous racial profile of school principals is in contrast to Ontario’s population, which comprises more than half of Canada’s ‘visible minority’ population.”

The overwhelmingly “white” Ontario school-level leadership is definitely more geared up for ‘anti-racist work’ than district school boards. Some 94 per cent of principals reported providing staff professional development “specific to anti-racism and equity,” and 73 per cent had included “anti-racism” in their local School Improvement Plans. School districts, guided by elected school boards ostensibly representing the public, were far less compliant. Fewer than two-thirds of school boards (64%) reported collecting “race-based  and/or demographic data,” only 28 per cent had an explicit “anti-racism policy, strategy or approach” and one out of four boards (26%) made no mention of “anti-racism” in their posted equity policies.


None of the survey questions posed by People for Education researchers actually focused on gathering data that really matters: the incidence of racial acts or race-related violence in the schools, the ‘reading failure’ connection, growth in anti-racism staff complements, local resistance to disclosing racial data, and teacher skepticism about the effectiveness of top-down policy initiatives.

Much of the passive resistance may be attributable to a broader awareness of the continuing education crisis. Student literacy is identified by Illuminate Education and many American school authorities as “a social justice issue” especially relevant to Black and minority students. Each year, over four million U.S. grade 4 students are added to the population of non-readers and, according to the World Bank, living in “learning poverty.” A year ago, the Ontario Human Rights Commission Right to Read Inquiry, found reading failure to be an urgent matter  of “social justice,” for children affected by learning disabilities, marginalized or struggling with “intersecting conditions.” What’s most peculiar is that– so far– the literacy crisis disproportionately affecting disadvantaged children has been brushed aside by the very organization now urging compliance with “anti-racism” mandates.

Why have federal anti-racism initiatives in schools been stalled in their tracks, even in Ontario?  Will ‘top-down’ anti-racism policy directives work to root out racism and, more importantly, reduce the incidence of racially-motivated discrimination and violence?  How much of the impetus for collecting race-based data comes from the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) and its GTA board allies?  Is there a danger that racial-profiling will backfire – breeding deeper ‘racial identity’ divisions and providing evidence which only reinforces harmful and debilitating stereotypes? 

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Artificial intelligence has finally arrived in a big way in the form of its latest edtech innovation, OpenAI’s ChatGPT.  The intelligent chatbot which surfaced in November 2022 can spin well written essays and even solve mathematical equations in seconds. It could well be what is known as a ‘game changer’ in education, particularly in the higher grades, colleges and universities.

Teachers everywhere are awakening to a new reality: assignments requiring regurgitation are fast becoming obsolete and classroom practitioners will have to up-their-game to stay one step ahead of the robots. That’s a tall order for school systems accustomed to moving at a glacial pace. It’s also a lot to expect of teachers in the wake of the pandemic education setback.

The initial wave of reaction to ChatGBT hit like a tsunami and most of it sounded apocalyptic. San Francisco high school teacher Daniel Herman’s feature article in The Atlantic, “The End of High School English” (December 9, 2022) predicted the worst.  Teenagers, he wrote, have “always found ways around hard work of actual learning,” from Cliff’s Notes in the 1950s, to “No Fear Shakespeare” in the 1990s to You Tube videos and analysis in recent years. For most, writing an essay, at home or in school was the moment of reckoning. You were “on your own with a blank page, staring down a blinking cursor, the essay awaiting to be written.”


The arrival of ChatGPT, a tech marvel that can generate sophisticated written answers to virtually any prompt, customized to various writing styles, will likely further erode school writing programs. It will also, in some cases, signal the end of writing assignments altogether, eliminating writing as a critical skill, a recognized metric for intelligence, and a teachable skill.

One of North America’s leading authorities on literacy and cognitive science, Natalie Wexler, responded to such dire predictions with a short essay in Forbes (December 21, 2022) in defense of continuing to teach writing at all levels. While ChatBGT may be able to produce good essays, she claimed, that did not make writing obsolete.

Millions of students, at all levels, including PSE, continue to struggle with their writing. In the United States, Wexler reminded us, only 27 per cent of Grade 8 and Grade 12 students performed at the proficient level or above in recent national assessments.  In other words, most students lack proficiency in expressing themselves in writing.

Surveying Canadian student writing assessment scores, based upon incomplete data from province-to-province, indicates that our students only perform marginally better.  One April 2019 York University study of Ontario undergraduate university students found that some 41 per cent of 2,230 students self-reported that they were “at risk in academic settings because of limited levels of basic skills” and some 16 per cent indicated that they were totally lacking in the required skills, particularly in writing, test taking, and academic study skills.

Writing involves far more than acquiring a skill. Here Natalie Wexler explains why: “When done well, [writing] isn’t just a matter of displaying what you already know—although it’s crucial to have some pre-existing knowledge of the topic you’re writing about. The process of writing itself can and should deepen that knowledge and possibly spark new insights. So when students use ChatGPT, they’re not just cheating whatever institution is giving them credit for work they haven’t done. They’re also cheating themselves.”


Writing also has significant related benefits. When students write about something they are studying – in any subject – it provides ‘retrieval practice’ and improves their retention of the material. Building their store of knowledge in their long-term memories makes it, in turn, easier to acquire more knowledge. “Prior knowledge about a topic is like mental velcro,” Marilyn Jaeger Adams reminded us. “The relevant knowledge gives the words of the text places to stick and make sense, thereby supporting comprehension…”

Explicit writing instruction, beginning with the sentence, also helps students understand the texts they have been asked to read. “The syntax of written language is more complex than that of spoken language, with constructions like subordinate clauses and the passive voice,” writes Natalie Wexler. “Many students don’t just become familiar with that syntax through reading. But when they learn to use those complex constructions in their writing, they’re in a much better position to understand them when they encounter them in text.”

An initial alarm about ChatGPT was sounded in December 2022 by South Carolina college professor Darren Hick who caught one of his students cheating by using the chatbot to write an essay for his philosophy class.  The essay on David Hume and the paradox of horror was found to be machine generated and Hick imposed a sanction for plagiarism. It was a test case for what is sure to  follow from the Winter Term of 2023 onward.  Reacting to reports of such cases, New York City public schools, America’s largest school system, decided to “block” access to ChatGPT in all of its schools.

The incursion of Chat GPT will likely have disastrous consequences if teachers are now deterred from teaching or assigning writing in their classes. Coming out of the pandemic, we now have a serious literacy crisis, varying in severity from province-to-province, here in Canada. With so much emphasis on correcting reading deficits, student writing does not get the attention it deserves. The last thing we need is a technological innovation that makes it easier for students to progress without actually mastering writing.

Will classroom teachers be up to combating the invasion of the writing bot? Will school systems attempt to block access to the technological marvel? Will we look for technological patches like TurnItIn.com, reprogrammed to detect, identify and counteract plagiarism, the outward expression of breaches in academic integrity? In the initial phase, will it come down to a battle between rival bots?

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