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Archive for the ‘Pandemic Education’ Category

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Much of the critical fire generated by high school scheduling changes during the COVID-19 pandemic marathon is directed at eliminating the hybrid model and driven by harried and exhausted teachers. “It doesn’t work” is the rallying cry and the obvious short-term solution is to axe what is labelled as an “inferior” model of teaching and learning. Delving more deeply into the raging issue, the source of the trouble is more complicated because it’s precipitated more by reactive pandemic timetable shifts and rooted in broader “design-change” innovations.   

The Pandemic not only turned school systems upside-down, but radically altered its priorities. Toggling back and forth between in-person and online learning became the ‘new normal’ and it has completely up-ended a whole series of ‘design-change’ plans to transform high schools. Regular video-conferencing and remote learning render some of the favoured minimally-guided teaching strategies much less effective, particularly ‘project-based-learning’ and extended group activities. Securing and sustaining student engagement means keeping lessons short and, ideally, no longer than 45 to 60 minutes.  

The more fundamental structural problem facing high schoolers– the length of the instructional periods in minimal guidance spaces—tends to escape close scrutiny. “It’s not just about headsets and webcams. That’s not the problem,” York Region parent  Shameela Shakeel  told The Toronto Star. “The problem is that the children at home are not really connected to the classrooms. There is a big disconnect.”

Two years into the pandemic, the most potentially damaging high school scheduling change has been the so-called ‘quadmester system.’  Introduced in Ontario districts as part of the public health response to COVID-19 in 2020-21, it thrusts students into compressed courses for two long periods each day over half the normal time, while shifting between in-person and online learning. It survived this year in the York public board and a few others with higher-than-average COVID-19 case counts.

School superintendents and high school principals are favourably disposed to ‘block’ schedules with longer and longer class periods. Long before the pandemic hit, they were nudging their school districts, one-by-one, over time, to abandon year-long (linear) courses, offered in 45 to 60 minute slots, normally in packages of 6 or 8 courses over the course of 36 weeks.

Design-change models in Canadian K-12 education have recently been aimed at finishing-off the conventional “Carnegie Unit,” the time-based metric for weighing the value of courses and awarding course credits. Under the Copernican model, pioneered in Canadian high schools in the 1980s, classes were taught for longer periods over the day and over semesters, normally covering one-third or one-half of the year.

The latest iteration, first piloted in Alberta in 2008-09, promoted by the University of Calgary-based Galileo Education Network, and expanded since, removes the standard instructional time requirement and allows students more time, or less time, to complete the course work. According to these Calgary faculty of education professors, the conventional full-year course model exemplifies “assembly line” education and is a “traditional and increasingly irrelevant way to organize student and teacher learning in education systems.”  

The Galileo Education “High School Flexibility Enhancement” project was conceived of as a “high school redesign process” with, it turns out, little or no evidence-based research into its actual affect on student achievement.  “Flexible blocks of learning time, credit recovery options, project-based coursework and teacher advisory groupings” are the priorities, all consistent with what used to be termed “progressive” reform.

Pandemic shifts appear to have advanced the school scheduling change movement. In the summer of 2020, British Columbia secondary school leadership teams seized the opportunity to reorganize around “learning cohorts” and, in five weeks, completely re-designed their school timetables around instructional groups with fewer classes for longer periods of time.

In preparing for the current year, B.C. school boards based their decisions on two documents which echoed Galileo “design-change” theory: a Vancouver school board white paper, prepared in April 2021 by Saskatchewan school change theorist Dean Shareski, and a Canadian education policy research article written by the Galileo Education Network consultants. Student engagement and well-being are prioritized over academic learning and timetable changes justified as a means to the larger end of secondary school transformation. 

The BCSTA “Secondary School Timetable Options” brief, for example, includes a rather skewed “Semester/Linear/Quarter” Model Comparison chart described as “a subjective overview.” Setting aside the one-sided critique of conventional structures, the chart acknowledges that full-year course schedules are still “seen as best meeting the needs of students and programs with an academic focus,” may “provide the best overall quality of learning,” and may be “more effective for intense learning opportunities.”

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The “Quadmester’ model survived an onslaught of opposition in May and June of 2021, mostly emanating from the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), Canada’s largest school district. Students, teachers and parents coalesced around a #No Quads/ No Hybrids” movement to rid the system of a high school schedule deemed detrimental to student learning, achievement and well-being. Excessively long classes, the “crammed curriculum,” and the accelerated pace of learning precipitated its abandonment at the TDSB and limited its forecasted growth in Ontario.

Recent teacher and parent protests against the hybrid model get it half-right. Students were hurt by the imposition of hybrid blended learning last school year and teachers have exposed its glaring flaws: split focus, clunky online platforms, irregular connections, and exhaustion resulting from ‘double duty’ teaching timetables. Deadly long periods and students completely ‘checking-out’ are of much greater concern to students and parents. 

Adopting the Quad System only compounded the problems plainly visible during the hybrid model high school scheduling experiments. Looking longer-term, design-change schedule reforms such as ‘quadmesters’ will likely have greater adverse impact. Let’s hope students and parents will not be wooed into accepting an imperfect and improvised solution introduced under crisis conditions.   

What’s changed since the Pandemic up-ended high school education?  Do previous “design-change” innovations fit the radically changed teaching-learning conditions?  Has the rapid introduction of remote learning alerted us to more of the advantages of shorter, more purposeful teaching strategies?  In the light of the pandemic, is it time to rethink high school redesign based upon experimental super-block schedules?

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Back in June of 2011, Dirk Van Damme, Head of the OECD’s Innovation and Measuring Progress Division (IMEP), stunned a Toronto gathering of prominent international educators at OISE with a rather harsh assessment of the state of education research.  “It’s mostly of low quality,” he said, “and we need to be more hygenic when using the word research.”

While Van Damme recognized that education research was improving, he claimed that much of the “research” lacked credibility because researchers began from “fixed ideological positions” and limited their work to “small scale” projects with limited broader applicability. He warned then, a decade ago, that we were not “preparing students for 21st century challenges.”

The most recent national study, “Children and Schools During COVID-19 and Beyond,” produced for the Royal Society of Canada by University of Ottawa’s Tracy Vaillancourt and a team of researchers, provides us with a rare opportunity to examine the state of the field. Surely, a team of widely-known university researchers could produce evidence of how the massive disruption and school closures have impacted the learning of 5.7 million Canadian students in the “pandemic generation.”

Studying the Royal Society Policy Briefing report does give you a pretty good sense of the current shape and quality of faculty of education-based research. Social and emotional well-being and children’s mental health are the clear priorities of the vast majority of researchers, mostly trained in child psychology and educational sociology. It’s little wonder, then, that the report emphasizes the social and emotional impacts and focuses, to a large extent, on “notable threats to children’s well-being, educational success, and healthy development” in that order.

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Vaillancourt and her research team do convey a sense of urgency. “We are on the cusp of a ‘generational catastrophe’ that requires swift action to mitigate the harm,” they claim, and we now need to keep schools open. “Schools must be the first to open and the last to close” is the mantra repeated throughout the report. Why we need them open seems to revolve mostly around their 21st century mandate to ensure educational equity and provide social and emotional security for children. Judging from the report, the COVID-19 crisis may well have reinforced the commitment of researchers  to transform schools into “therapeutic institutions” for all children.

What’s strange about the report is the absence of official Canadian data on learning impacts and a call for education gatekeepers to collect and disclose mission-critical data on student achievement, absenteeism, behaviour, and graduation standards. Closing the achievement gap and addressing “learning loss” do not figure in the general policy proposals.  Buried among the ten recommendations is this revealing statement: “We need a precise account of who was impacted, how and for how long, so we can take appropriate steps toward providing systems and services that better support them moving forward.”

Lead author Vaillancourt’s cornerstone essay on the COVID-19 impact on children’s mental health, including school closures and social isolation, is original, reliable and evidence-based, and so is Jessica Whitley’s research summary on the impact on vulnerable children. Few would quibble with this assessment: “Many children and youth have experienced disengagement, chronic attendance problems, declines in academic achievement and decreased credit attainment during the pandemic, with the impact far deeper for those already at-risk.” Learning loss, we can infer, is only of real consequence when it applies to struggling students or those from marginalized communities.

One of the nine essay chapters, “Estimates of Student Learning During COVID-19 School Disruptions,” does cut to the heart of the matter. University of Toronto researcher Scott Davies and University of Waterloo professor Janice Aurini confront the problem squarely: “School disruptions over 2020 and 2021 have likely had a significant impact on children’s learning.” We know this from international research documenting significant “learning shortfalls” during March to June 2020 school shutdowns and more recent international studies showing “learning loss” during online instruction in the spring of 2020.

What we do know is worrisome. “Canada lacks high-quality and largescale data that can be used to directly measure any impacts of those disruptions on student achievement,” Davies and Aurini confirm. “Compounding this problem, provinces like Ontario cancelled their planned standardized testing in 2020 and 2021, precluding the possibility of comparing achievement shortly before and after the school closures. Available studies of achievement are limited to single school boards or handfuls of schools, or parent and teacher surveys that can only capture their perceptions of student learning.” (p. 52) With few exceptions, Canadian researchers have also ignored sound research on “the summer slide” which formed the basis for early estimates of COVID-19 school shutdown setbacks.

Forced to rely upon international studies and research data models, Davies and Aurini claim that the spring of 2020 disruptions alone resulted in “enduring 3-month learning shortfalls and gaps growing between the quartiles up to 1.5 years.” “Most Canadian students struggled, as did students elsewhere in the world,” they conclude, “gaining little ground and soon disengaging from schooling partially or fully.” While students resumed more normal patterns of learning during the interrupted 2020-21school year, the problem was compounded when students “reached a threshold of ‘pandemic fatigue’ and grew tired of online learning.” (pp. 59-60).

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The long-term impacts of “learning shortfalls” are now surfacing, again documented first by international research (UNESCO 2021 and UNICEF 2021). The only significant Canadian research, so far, focuses on social and emotional impacts, often to the exclusion of academic achievement. Poor mental health obviously adversely affects student achievement, but – as Davies and Aurini, point out – the reverse is true because “students who feel they are not achieving will have their well-being compromised”

False binaries bedevil Canadian education research and are much in evidence throughout to RSC report.  The whole idea that prioritizing academic achievement is at odds with priorities for student’s well-being is not really defensible. That faulty assumption was nicely laid to rest in 2020 by University of Cambridge researcher Tania Clarke in a research article exposing “the dangerous discourse of ‘trade-offs in education.”  Academic achievement and student well-being are, more often than not, reciprocal and mutually reinforcing. Simply put, doing better academically improves your outlook and sense of well-being.

The COVID-19 school closures have demonstrated the need for better achievement data for guiding evidence-based policy making in Canadian education. That research gap is exemplified, once again, in the RSC report. Some of the RSC chapters, particularly those produced by University of Ottawa professors Andy Hargreaves and Joel Westheimer, attempt to steer public education away from measuring learning and setting clear expectations. Like much of the current school change literature, those essays privilege student-well being over academic achievement, denigrate the term “learning loss,” and seek to limit or eliminate completely system-wide student assessment.

Actual data from parent surveys, school district reports, and quantitative studies suggest a major disconnect between such educational experts and parents and classroom teachers.  Surveys conducted by the Alberta Teachers Association (ATA 2020) Canadian Teachers Federation (CTF 2020) demonstrate the depth of parent and teacher concerns over erosions of children’s skills and mental health. After the first phase of COVID-19 shutdowns, parents in the Hamilton-Wentworth Board also expressed a strong desire for more teacher-led synchronous learning activities during regular school hours. The vast majority of parents, when given the choice, still opt for in-person schooling, with the possible exception of those who live in multigenerational households. Summer learning loss recovery programs have, according to Davies and Aurini, proven popular with parents who choose them for their children.

The identified “learning shortfalls” will not go away. Here again Davies and Aurini caution us not to brush the problem aside because the COVID-19 school disruptions may well “trigger a series of negative consequences” in the coming years. Taken together with the solid evidence of adverse mental health impacts, the soundest RSC essays simply cry out for high quality and timely data that can guide educational policy while also speaking to the legitimate concerns of parents, teachers and the public.

What’s missing in the current approach to combatting the “learning shortfalls” and psycho-social impacts of COVID-19 on children, teachers and families? Consistent, reliable, and evidence-based data.   More specifically, we need a national educational body to support the ongoing creation of seasonal learning data in which sizeable numbers of students are tested biannually in fundamental literacy and numeracy skills, first in September and then again in June. Such research is already conducted in many jurisdictions around the world. Our leading experts, Davies and Aurini, could not identify a Canadian jurisdiction anywhere in Canada that routinely uses seasonal learning designs to generate the kind of data that can assess interventions aimed at developing students’ well-being and learning. The COVID-19 disruption has made such research more critical than ever. It would provide the kind of data that can assess interventions aimed at developing students’ learning and well-being. Seasonal learning designs that test students at the end and beginning of consecutive school years can also identify the kinds of students that need extra support and the times the year in which they need those supports.

The cumulative impact of school disruptions on proficiency in the foundational literacy and numeracy skills is visible for all to see. Focusing on student well-being in isolation is not the answer and an accumulating body of research, mostly generated outside of Canada, is demonstrating why.  Davies and Aurini at least provide some “estimates” as to the likely learning shortfalls.  Today’s short-term losses, they claim, “may amplify as children move up grade levels and fall farther behind their peers.”  Being better prepared for the possibility of future closures is now a systemic priority and that simply won’t happen without better data that can track the challenges and successes of our students.

The August 2021 RSC study reveals both the strengths and weaknesses of faculty of education research, but all research is handicapped by the paucity of student data. “All policy decisions are made by leaping over the data,” Dr. Bernard Shapiro once said, twenty years ago. Now we know that the critical data is actually missing in K-12 education and it’s time to demand better from the gatekeepers.

Where is the data on the impact of COVID-19 shutdowns and disruptions in Canada on student learning and psycho-social development? What does the Royal Society of Canada report reveal about the preoccupations and implicit biases of education researchers?  How many of the RSC research summaries reaffirm school change theories common before the pandemic? Why, in a collection of nine different studies, does only one confront squarely the lack of reliable student performance and well-being data?

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Eighteen months ago, the COVID-19 pandemic hit us and turned the K-12 education world upside down. School superintendents responsible for regional districts were left scrambling to find their bearings, like everyone else. School shutdowns sent the vast majority of their employees, teachers, district staff and in-school personnel home for weeks on end. Chief superintendents found it lonelier than usual at the top of regional systems of education. Instead of delivering stirring speeches to captive audiences of educators, many resorted to producing improvised, low-tech inspirational Zoom videos to get the message out to ‘the system.’ Frontline educators, in all likelihood, barely noticed because they were totally absorbed in shifts to “emergency home learning,” hybrid model scheduling, and ministering to the needs of anxious children and parents.

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The conventional structure and routines of school district administration, based upon in-person schooling delivered in bricks-and-mortar schools, gave way to what Michael K. Barbour and Can-eLearn aptly termed “toggling between shutdowns” from March 2020 to June 2021. Such disruptions affected top-down educational leadership by playing havoc with the normal ‘span of control’ extending from central office to principals and teachers in the classroom. An April 2021 Canadian study of “pandemic shifts” in British Columbia secondary schools let the cat out of the bag. Caught off-guard by the massive disruption, schools defaulted to pre-COVID practice focusing on ensuring the “social well-being’ of students, an approach in which “academics took a back seat,” even after the resumption of in-person schooling.

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What were Superintendents actually doing during the pandemic education crisis? It was difficult to determine, until quite recently, when some research evidence materialized in British Columbia. It was produced by West Vancouver superintendent Chris Kennedy, one of B.C.s most networked school leaders and a leading champion of “21st century learning.” His study, “How British Columbia School Superintendents Spend Their Time,” submitted for his PhD in Education dissertation at the University of Kansas, demonstrated how hard regional bureaucrats work, but – far more significantly – what absorbed their time during the COVID-19 interrupted 2020-21 school year.

Some 59 of B.C.’s 60 superintendents participated in Kennedy’s survey of superintendents’ work and so they were very representative of their peer group. The B.C. group of CEOs is top-heavy with men, 39 of 60 or 65 per cent, even though K-12 education is largely a women’s field in that province and right across North America. Since 2012, the BC Ministry of Education has embraced system “transformation” and its main tenets, innovation, personalization, and inquiry, usually packaged as “21st century learning.” “Being a passionate learning leader with a strong background in curriculum and assessment,” Kennedy reports, “is now mandatory for the superintendent position.” Getting ahead, typically involves engaging with C21 Canada’s  CEO Academy, generously funded by learning corporations and purveyors of educational technology for schools.

The Pandemic completely disrupted the B.C. school system and threatened to completely derail the implementation of that massive transformation. While the B.C. Learns initiative was high sounding aspirational, and technology-driven, it was conceived when online and virtual learning enrolled 6 to 8 per cent of all students, not the 100 per cent thrust into e-learning, at various times, during the pandemic. The sheer speed and scale of the transformation overtook curriculum and program innovation plans, leaving superintendents, curriculum consultants, and local principals scrambling to keep up with changes in delivery, cohorting, scheduling, and assessment.

Superintendents are often heralded as visionaries, generating outsized expectations, only to find themselves enmeshed in operational problems and spending much of their time ‘putting out fires.”  During the COVID-19 disruptions, with the education house on fire, the B.C. superintendents were compelled to keep their heads down and focus on the immediate and urgent. Thirteen of the 59 superintendents surveyed revealed that they were caught up in the “tyranny of the urgent’ and fully 20 of them, one-third of the group, made direct reference to “urgent issues” dominating their time and eating into longer-term planning and implementation of systemic transformation. One first year superintendent reported that he/she had “no control over my time” and felt “pulled in many directions.” Putting out fires during the pandemic was widespread. “When something comes up in the district, it takes over everything,” was a common refrain. “Priorities are dictated by emergent situations.”

One prime indicator of the COVID-19 impact was revealed during B.C. administrative planning sessions involving superintendents and senior staff during the 2020-21 school year. Prominent Canadian education consultant Dean Shareski, a super-positive former Moose Jaw principal and author of Embracing a Culture of Joy (2016), was hired as the provincial facilitator and attempted to work his usual magic on the assembled educators. Famous for his “Learning is a Joyful Act” motivational school district presentations, Shareski attempted to seize the opportunity to promote “school improvement,” “21st century skills,” “global citizenship,” and “competency-based assessment.” Superintendents, senior administrators and high school principals defaulted to immediate and practical concerns.

Superintendent Kennedy’s final June 2021 thesis, completed under the guidance of Dr. Yong Zhou, a Chinese-born scholar turned American education progressive, made the case that superintendents worked harder than ever, often over weekends, to stay on-top of their responsibilities. Many and perhaps most regional education leaders experienced the stress of the “tyranny of the urgent” and, perhaps for the first time, “a lack of control.” COVID-19 was, in Kennedy’s words, “all-consuming” and involved working long hours with external partners, including public health and ministry officials.

B.C.’s “Pandemic Shifts” are packaged by Shareski as innovations consistent with OECD prescriptions for the educational future. He’s quite adept at winning over B.C. audiences by referring to Finland as “the world’s best educational system” and citing a New York Times piece claiming that B.C. is essentially ‘the new Finland.’ Pandemic high school schedules such as “quadmesters” are invoked as examples of ‘building back better.’

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That’s quite a stretch, judging from Kennedy’s research findings:  New high school schedules were adopted in response to public health mandates and many chose to view it as “necessity is the mother of invention.” While Shareski and his camp followers waxed philosophical about “silver linings,” only a minority of superintendents saw it that way. The minority who did saw advantages in getting rid of long-standing pre-COVID irritants and accountabilities, and specifically provincial assessments, student grades, and conventional marks-based graduation requirements.

How did COVID-19 impact senior education administration? What challenges to management control were presented by the shift to ‘emergency home learning’?  With regular educators teaching students at home or online, were school administrators sidelined and, if so, for how long during the March 2020 to June 2021 period?  Will the massive shift to online learning during 2020-21 ultimately help or hurt the movement for system transformation?    

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