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Archive for the ‘Post-Pandemic Schooling’ Category

KidsandCellphones

Schools and classrooms have changed after successive years of educational disruptions, shutdowns, home schooling isolation, and massive experiments in remote teaching. Serious gaps in student learning, psycho-social impacts, and academic achievement setbacks are now more visible from province-to-province in Canadian K-12 education. What’s less recognized and largely unaddressed is the profound impact of students’ near-total fixation with cellphones and complete absorption in cyberworlds.

Reading, in particular, is severely compromised in revved-up multi-task environments. Today’s elementary and secondary school students are essentially immersed in distractions. It’s next-to-impossible to learn or read with comprehension while keeping one eye on a phone, scrolling for videos, and being constantly interrupted, while attempting to pay attention to your teachers.

Promoters of ed tech have sold classroom teachers, parents and policy-makers a bill of goods.  Today’s students may be far more adept at accessing and using tech toys, but they have been profoundly affected by total immersion in constant connectivity, texting, and time-absorbing social media best exemplified by the incursion of Tik-Tok. Multi-tasking has been normalized and it comes with serious side-effects impairing students’ abilities to concentrate with adverse consequences for teaching kids to read.

Multi-tasking is being exposed as a myth. New evidence-based research is emerging which connects the proliferation of advanced cellphones with distractibility in workplaces and schools contributing to more frequent errors, higher levels of stress, reduced cognitive ability, and lower productivity. Focusing exclusively on banning or limiting cellphones sparks much debate, but it often misses the point.  Teachers are now facing an up-hill battle to reclaim the attention of the pandemic generation of students.

LemovDoug

Identifying the impact of mobile phones and social media is not new, as Teach Like a Champion founder Doug Lemov recently reminded us. American research generated by  Jean M. Twenge and others found that teenagers’ media use roughly doubled between 2006 and 2016 across gender, race, and class. In competition against the smartphone, the book, the idea of reading, lost significant ground. By 2016, just 16 percent of 12th-grade students read a book or magazine daily. As recently as 1995, 41 percent did. Meanwhile, social media was on the rise. By 2016, about three-quarters of teenagers reported using social media almost every day

The onslaught completely transformed teen culture with some detrimental side-effects.  Some 47 % of teenagers use the phone whilst on the toilet, double that of adults. Students who perform a task just in sight of their phone (regardless of if they are using it) do about 20% worse as it still distracts them. In addition, students who are on their phone more in class get worse grades, regardless of gender or previous grade average. Some 60 % of male and female U.S, college students, surveyed in long before the pandemic, reported feeling very agitated when they could not access their mobile phone.

The Pandemic has only made matters worse. When COVID-19 hit in March 2020, virtually everything that might have been competed without smartphones suddenly disappeared. A recent Common Sense Media study found that children’s daily entertainment usage of screens grew by 17 percent between 2019 and 2021—more than it had grown during the four previous years. Overall, daily entertainment screen use in 2021 increased to 5.5 hours among tweens ages 8 to 12 and to more than 8.3 hours among teens ages 13 to 18, on average. These trends were even more pronounced for students from low-income families, whose parents were most likely to have to work in person and have fewer resources to spend on alternatives to screens.

Leading researchers like Twenge sounded early warnings that excessive smartphone use would likely have catastrophic consequences for teens’ well-being, and those seemingly alarmist warnings have been borne out in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.  Teenagers’ reported mental health concerns have spiked with only 47 percent of students reported feeling connected to the adults and peers in their schools. Some 44 percent of high-school students reported feeling sad or persistently hopeless in 2021, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

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School disruptions and closures had a big effect.  Students who said they felt “connected to adults and peers” at school were almost 60 percent less likely to report persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness than those who did not—some 35 percent of connected students felt that way, compared with 55 percent who did not feel connected to school. The socio-emotional distress students are experiencing, according to Lemov, is as much a product of the so-called ‘cellphone epidemic’ as it is a product of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The explosion of Tik-Tok fad is not only a prime example of the pervasive impact of mobile phone culture, but demonstrates how today’s kids can get hooked on continuous social media feeds. Peering inside the “Tik-Tok Brain,” neuroscientists have shown that “the dopamine rush of endless short videos” makes it hard for young viewers to switch their focus to slower-moving, teacher-guided activities. “We’ve made kids live in a candy store,” is how it was described a recent issue of the Wall Street Journal.

Screen time is crowding out teaching and learning, most notable in declining reading proficiency. Spending so much time on mobile phones, even without social media, adversely affects attention and concentration skills, making it harder to focus fully on any task and to maintain that focus. When students are simply unable to focus or pay attention, learning to read through systematic literacy programs or tackling more rigorous academic tasks in higher grades becomes doubly difficult for teachers in today’s classrooms.

Banning or severely restricting cellphones in class is more of a quick fix when the problem is far wider in societal culture and runs much deeper in schools.  “If you want kids to pay attention,” Cincinnati pediatrician and literacy specialist John S. Hutton advises us, then students “need to practice paying attention.” Turning the phones off is wise, but only the beginning in the post-pandemic struggle to foster what Teach Like a Champion calls “habits of attention” and to reclaim today’s students.

How have successive disrupted school years made reaching today’s students a bigger problem for classroom teachers?  How much of the change is the result of remote learning and the further proliferation and dominance of mobile devices?  How can today’s teachers compete with “Tik-Tok Brian” to reclaim students?  Why is curtailing cellphone use, by itself, unlikely to make much of a difference?

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LearningLoss

Two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, the Canadian K-12 education system is gradually regaining its consciousness after multiple shocks.  Three years ago, Ontario education occupied a bubble and the architects of its current school system were fond of routinely referring Ontario as “the learning province” with  a “world class system.”  Prominent Canadian school promoters who saw the COVID-19 education crisis as a golden opportunity to “build back better” with a focus on enhancing social and emotional learning are now beginning to confront the post-pandemic realities.

Now an Ontario education research report produced in April 2022 has dared to break with the official line.  “CANADA HAS BEEN A LAGGARD ON EDUCATIONAL RECOVERY” it proclaimed – and in capital letters. That report on “Educational Recovery” produced by the Laurier University Centre for Leading Research in Education spearheaded by Dr. Kelly Gallagher-Mackay confirmed what international education researchers, most notably Western University’s Dr. Prachi Srivastava, have known for some time. Venturing outside the Ontario-centric education world it’s clear that “other countries have invested far more than Canada in learning recovery and started sooner.”

Most of what Canadian educators know about COVID-19 school disruptions and “learning loss” come from evidence-based data research originating the United States, Britain, and the EU. So, it’s no surprise that the United States and the United Kingdom are way ahead of us in producing learning recovery strategies and programs.  The US has already allocated $2741/student (in Canadian dollars) and the UK $531/student, according to Britain’s Educational Policy Institute. Britain made its initial commitment in September 2020 and funding for learning recovery programs was flowing in the US by January 2021.  In comparison, Ontario has only committed $72/student divided up into support for learning recovery, special education and mental health.

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The student data deficit was revealed for all to see in February 2022 in a very useful People for Education  pan-Canadian scan of Canadian K-12 COVID-related education plans conducted after two years of disrupted schooling. While all provinces and territories were found to have public health safety strategies for schools, few were engaged in “data collection” or had   anything approaching a vision or plan to manage, assess or respond to learning loss or the psych-social impact of mass school closures. None had allocated sufficient funding to prepare for post-pandemic recovery.

Why has Canada lagged behind in recognizing learning loss and getting its policy response act together? That’s not even a question raised in the report. The reason is self-evident to those familiar with Ontario’s educational gatekeepers, recognized stakeholders and researchers in that orbit: Most of the key education influencers and interest groups, particularly in Ontario, exhibit “student assessment aversion” and have resisted, for decades, system-wide student assessment aimed at monitoring and addressing learning gaps and shortfalls student achievement.  In normal times, it  passed unnoticed; but not now when we are facing a formidable learning recovery mission.

The Laurier University report is a credible piece of research, but it, too, came wrapped in what amounted to a politically-driven declaration. That “If I had 1.08 billion dollars” media release has to be one of the dumbest ever to accompany an education research report. Instead of addressing the absence of testing, data-gathering, and negligence in preparing recovery plans, it captured the collective “wish-list” funding appeals of the 34 system insiders assembled by Toronto-based People for Education as part of the background research.

Most of the “education leaders” invited to the January 2022 pre-report symposium were invited to “pitch interventions or approaches” – an open invitation to present familiar funding appeals and pet projects. The result was predictable – a panoply of the usual remedies, including more funding for student well-being, learning supports, supply teachers, psycho-social specialists, and equity initiatives. Almost crowded out on that list was the point of the whole exercise – launching “a renewed approach to educational data and evidence.”

The section of the report focusing on addressing the student data deficit is rife with contradiction. While there’s acknowledgement that “educational data” is now critical to addressing COVID-19 learning impacts, the proposed action plan is fuzzy and contradictory.  Collecting data may be desirable, but there was no consensus on which data or for what purpose. The University of Waterloo research of Scott Leatherdale is trotted out because his COMPASS study is “population-level, longitudinal data” youth public health study is conducted at a distance from the system.

What’s missing from the report is any reference whatsoever to the relevant research conducted on “learning loss” produced by OISE researcher Scott Davies and Janice Aurini, a colleague of Professor Leatherdale. When it comes to provincial testing, the report notes that some participants called for a “pause” or complete halt to the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) tests administered in grades 3, 6 and 9 in Ontario. That’s far from an endorsement of the one Ontario student assessment program capable of filling the data deficit identified as a critical policy issue.

Why is student assessment across the system still a bugaboo two years into an educational crisis with recognized adverse impacts upon student learning?  Is it a matter of ideologues opposed to provincial testing refusing to recognize the new realities? If “data collection” and “learning loss” is such a problem, can it be addressed without reinstituting provincial testing? Or is this essentially a smokescreen to stave off a day of reckoning when we actually see what COVID-19 school disruptions have done to the pandemic generation of students?

 

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COVID19LearningLoss

The COVID-19 pandemic shock knocked out Canada’s provincial school systems and we are now seeing the residual effects. Speaking recently on TVO Ontario’s The Agenda, Western University education professor Prachi Srivastava  cut through the usual edu-babble: “I’m shocked at the lack of planning, at the lack of forward planning in the face of what is quite a predictable outcome,” referring to the short and long-term consequences of mass school closures.

When Srivastava speaks, education authorities should be listening and heeding her advice. She’s one of the few Canadian education researchers attuned to global education development and co-lead author of the June 2021 Ontario Science Table brief on the impact of educational disruption not only in Ontario but from province-to-province in Canada. Back in July 2021, she and the research team issued a follow-up report confirming the cumulative learning loss and social harms inflicted since March 2020 and recommending that, barring catastrophic circumstances, schools should remain open for in-person learning for the foreseeable future.

A pan-Canadian scan of Canadian K-12 COVID-related education plans conducted by Toronto-based People for Education and released in early February, after two years of disrupted schooling, came up virtually empty.  While all provinces and territories have public health safety strategies for schools, few have anything approaching a vision or plan to manage, assess or respond to learning loss or the psych-social impact of mass school closures and none have allocated sufficient funding to prepare for post-pandemic recovery.

A near total lack of student data is seriously hampering our capacity to assess how the pandemic has affected student learning over the past two years.  “One of the problems we have,” Srivastava told the London Free Press, “is that there is no baseline data.”  That is confirmed, in spades, in the recent People for Education report. Only four of our 10 provinces and territories, British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick, are engaged (even in the 2021-22 school year) in any form of data collection, and it’s irregular at best.

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As a G7 country, Canada is purportedly one of the seven most highly industrialized and relatively well-resourced liberal democracies on the planet, and it has, relatively speaking, one of the smallest cohorts of children, some 5.1 million, in elementary and secondary school. With all those resources and one of the most extensive educational bureaucracies in the world, it’s fair to ask why our school systems came up short during the pandemic.

Four mass school closings in Ontario have cost K-12 students some 29 weeks of schooling since March 2020, roughly double the average lost time, 14 to 16 weeks, across all advanced industrial societies. While Ontario leads in weeks claimed by school closures, most other provinces are close behind, with Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, for example, checking-in at 20 to 22 weeks of disrupted instructional time. In the case of Nova Scotia, it’s compounded by the fact that 4 to 6 additional days have been lost to storm day closures where teachers are not required to provide alternative instruction.

Suspending or curtailing system-wide student assessments has compounded the problem. With Ontario’s Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) testing cancelled during the pandemic, there was no way to assess how that province’s two million students were performing or whether they were recovering. “My assessment,” Srivastava claims, “is that we could have used the EQAO in a different way. We could have used it to monitor what the baseline was…then we could have rerun the EQAO.”

The Ontario pattern was repeated elsewhere as provinces, one-after-another, abandoned large-scale student assessments and suspended high school examinations. Maintaining consistent and credible benchmark assessments would certainly have made logical sense and left us better prepared to plan for the recovery. While some provinces, including Ontario and Nova Scotia have restored testing in 2021-22, it’s going to be difficult to analyze without consistent baseline data.

School authorities have failed us during the COVID-19 pandemic and it will prove costly for the pandemic generation of children. A child who was in Kindergarten in March 2020, is now in Grade 2 and will be in grade 3 in September 2022, so pandemic closures will have cost them between 10 and 27 weeks of their schooling, Students in Grade 9 when COVID-19 hit will have had their entire high school years disrupted by closures and mostly ineffective online learning experiments.

Repeated pivots to emergency home learning were detrimental to school age children and families, and education was used as a “pandemic control” instrument without sufficient recognition of the academic and social impacts on children and teens. Public policy devolved into complying with public health dictates, and responding – in ad hoc fashion on the fly – to educator and parent concerns, applying band-aid upon band-aid, from social distancing to bubble to HEP filter units, to secure a modicum of consent, several times, to restart in-person school.

Serious research into COVID-19’s impact on student learning is gradually emerging and, given the preoccupations of our education schools, it originates mostly elsewhere.  Studies in the United Kingdom during COVID-19 point to a learning loss of between 2 months and 2 years, depending upon the educational jurisdiction. One of the few Canadian studies, conducted by University of Alberta researcher George Georgiou, found that students in Grades 1 and 2 in Edmonton and Vermillion performed, on average, 8 months to a full year below grade level on reading tasks at the end of the last school year. More recently, a U.S. study, conducted from 2019 to 2022 by Amplify utilizing DIBELs assessments, found that more than I in 3 children from Kindergarten to Grade 3 fell significantly short of their expected reading level without major and systematic interventions.

A more coherent, integrated and responsive pandemic education recovery plan is now a matter of immediate necessity.  At the risk of sounding like a broken record, the key components of such a plan, repeated articulated by Srivastava, me and others, are hiding in plain sight.  Such a comprehensive plan would consist of three main education recovery initiatives:

  • Revamp the entire K-12 curriculum – recognizing that it’s a massive “catch-up operation” in which parts of the curriculum in each year need to be lengthened, some curriculum moved into the next grade, and other parts missed earlier integrated into the current grade.
  • Boost core competencies and skills in reading and numeracy – close the basic skills gap while introducing pro-social skills throughout the curriculum for all children, focusing on the elementary grades.
  • Implement targeted interventions – focusing on schools with the highest number of disruptions and infection rates, or large numbers of students from marginalized communities or special needs students.

Three years ago, Canadian K-12 education occupied a bubble and the architects of the current school system were fond of routinely referring to Ontario as a “world class system.”  When the pandemic hit, prominent Canadian school promoters saw it as a golden opportunity to “build back better” with a focus on enhancing social and emotional learning.  What a difference a Pandemic makes. It’s now a recovery mission and there’s no room for complacency.

Why did Canadian school systems shut down their student assessment programs during the two-year long pandemic?  What explains the lack of preparedness and the inability to respond effectively in overseeing, monitoring, and reporting on student academic progress and well-being? When can Canadian parents and educators expect to see some strategy and plans for learning recovery in the wake of the pandemic? 

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HybridModelProtestYRDSB21

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.”

HybridModelBored

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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COVIDFatigue

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).

COVID19LearningSlide

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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ZombieIdeasEdASCD

Canada’s schools and the K-12 education system are weathering the most profound crisis and, over the past 18-months, many certainties have dissolved in the face of the seemingly never-ending succession of COVID-19 disruptions. Emerging out of the maelstrom, we are now in a better position to see, grapple with, and set aside a few “zombie ideas” in education.

Prevailing assumptions about mass schooling, ingrained beliefs about ‘minimally-guided’ student learning, and idealized visions of ‘21st century learning’ have been severely tested and found mostly wanting. Entering the school year, our five million students, their teachers and families, are far more attuned to the impact and realities of “learning loss” and the current challenges of tackling the impact upon student achievement and well-being.

What’s most amazing is that a surprising, although diminishing, number of school administrators, education professors, and educators continue to deny the existence of “student learning loss” to the point where it may now qualify as the latest example of a “zombie idea” in K-12 education.

“Zombie ideas,” New York Times commentator Paul Krugman argues are “beliefs about policy that have been repeatedly refuted with evidence and analysis but refuse to die.” Nine years ago, American education historian Larry Cuban, alerted us to their prevalence, especially in relation to popular and inflated claims about “online instruction.”

School closures have cost the ‘pandemic generation,’ from province-to-province, from 8 (Quebec) to 24 (Ontario) weeks of regular, in-class instruction. Prominent Canadian public policy analyst Irvin Studin, president of the Institute for 21st Century Questions, estimates that some 200,000 students, poor and affluent, have been “lost” or excluded from participation in any form of schooling.

Topsy-turvy pandemic education definitely left marginalized and special needs students more vulnerable. That is not in dispute, but there is still a residue of what might be termed ‘learning loss’ denial, perpetuated mostly by education theorists and their allies imbued with romantic ideas once associated with ‘progressivism.’   

A recent examples of this Canadian education school of thought was the response to the “pandemic catastrophe” produced by University of Toronto Schools teacher Josh Fullan, echoing the sentiments of  a vocal group of colleagues at the University of Ottawa faculty of education. Fullan and the University of Ottawa contingent continue to see ‘silver linings’ and urge schools to “honour what students gained amid the pandemic.”  

Learning was disrupted and often imperfect, Fullan contends, but not lost.  “Strong public systems,” “allies at school and home,” and the “adaptability of students” deserve more credit than they are receiving, according to Fullan. That is why he believes that phrases like “catching up” or “closing the gap” should be avoided and, rather remarkably, the term “learning loss” stricken from the lexicon in K-12 education.

Such assertions are simply outlandish on the heals of a global crisis affecting schools, students, teachers and families everywhere. Claiming that “learning loss” either doesn’t exist or is inconsequential (after 18-months of school disruptions) is one “zombie idea” without a shred of supporting evidence and one that “refuses to die.”

A profoundly important recent Ontario study, produced in June 2021 by Kelly Gallagher-Mackay and a team of Ontario Science Table university researchers, documented the extent of system-wide school closures and flagged the problem of “learning loss,” identified and being researched in education jurisdictions around the world.

While the researchers recognized the limitations of the current system-wide student assessment model, they noted the absence of any “learning loss” data in the province and identified the blind spot that compels researchers to utilize and apply research findings from other comparable jurisdictions.  That simply would not be necessary if the “zombie idea” that “learning loss” doesn’t matter was not already heavily influencing the prevailing research agenda in our ministries of education and education faculties. 

 Closing provincial school systems for weeks on end has got to have some academic impact; otherwise, one might ask – if learning is so natural, why do we go to school in the first place?  Without sound, reliable student assessment data, we can only assume that missing huge chucks of schooling, lurching back-and-forth into remote learning, and rapid adjustments to hybrid secondary school schedules, has already produced significant academic and psycho-social consequences for kids and teens.  

            “Zombie ideas” never seem to go disappear in K-12 education. A few months ago, Bryan Goodwin, head of Denver research institute, McREL International, created quite a stir with an ASCD commentary identifying six “zombie ideas” that refuse to die. Learning styles, unguided discovery learning, whole word reading, and teach critical thinking rather than facts made that ignominious list. The peculiar fallacy that “learning loss is of no consequence” never occurred to him, likely because it’s so implausible.

School closures have cost the ‘pandemic generation,’ from province-to-province, from 8 to 24 weeks of regular, in-class instruction and thousands opted-out of any form of schooling. Surely that matters and will have consequences, down the line, for our elementary and secondary school-age students.

Why do “Zombie Ideas” persist in K-12 education?  Is “Learning Loss is of little consequence” the latest “Zombie Idea” to surface and persist 18-months into the massive disruption of regular schooling?  Is it persisting because of educators’ passive and determined resistance to the resumption of system-wide student assessment?  If we keep delaying student testing, how can we possibly know the extent of the “learning loss” in terms of knowledge and skills?

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Most of us can remember stewing in the incredible heat and humidity of those stuffy, aroma-filled egg-crate elementary school classrooms. Years ago, teachers tried to pretend that the heat was not unbearable and let you sweat your way through periodic heat wave days. Window blinds were lowered, lights were dimmed and it was hard to keep from falling to sleep on your arms glued by perspiration to those wooden desktops.

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Most teachers finally gave-in, installing rotating fans, and allowing you to bring cups and containers with water. My late mother believed in attending school under any circumstances recommended running cold water over your wrists.  Educators knew that June heat makes learning next-to-impossible on certain days, but no one studied its actual effects on learning, until quite recently.

Heat exposure in schools, it turns out, does adversely affect student learning and school air conditioning does make a difference. That’s the key finding of a May 2020 American study published by four recognized experts in quantitative analysis in the education field.

Utilizing student fixed effects models and a sample of 10 million students in Grades 10 and 11 who retook the PSATs (Preliminary Scholastic Assessment Test), the U.S. researchers found that hotter days reduce scores, with extreme heat being particularly damaging to performance.  In short, excessive heat disrupts learning time.

Air conditioning schools can have a positive effect on student learning, the study shows. School-level air conditioning penetration, in effect, offsets the heat’s effects on students. “Without air conditioning, a 1℉ hotter school year reduces the year’s learning by 1 per cent,” the researchers found. Hot school days also tend to have proportionately more adverse effects on minority students, accounting for some 5 per cent of the so-called “racial achievement gap.”

The Pandemic has cost us most of two years of schooling as school systems pivoted to home learning, hybrid models, back and forth, interrupting months of in-person schooling. Health risk reduction strategies are now part of school district facilities planning and maintenance practices. Reopening schools forced education authorities to become more aware of, and responsive to, the critical need to ensure healthy school buildings.

One of the best COVID-19 strategies, produced in June 2020 by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, identified the five critical elements of an effective plan: (1) Healthy Classrooms, (2) Healthy Buildings, (3) Healthy Policies, (4) Healthy Schedules, and (5) Healthy Activities. “Breathing clean air in the school building” was deemed essential to the health and safety of students, teachers, and staff during COVID-19 and in post-pandemic times.

Improving air ventilation was at the centre of the proposed plan of action for Healthy Buildings. School authorities were advised to consider a coordinated and flexible approach tailored to the specific conditions in each school site. Increasing outdoor air ventilation was considered a minimum expectation, and the recommended remedial actions included air quality and filtration assessments, portable air cleaners, filtering of indoor air, and the installation of advanced air quality systems, including central or designated zone air conditioning.

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The impact of students’ and teachers’ physical environments on educational outcomes is understudied and deserves far more attention. Excessive heat best exemplified during heat waves does directly interfere with learning. Disparities in physical environments, such as improper or intermittent air ventilation, also seem to contribute to inequality when it comes to serving disadvantaged or racialized communities.

The Pandemic was a wake-up call for educators alerting us to the critical role played by air flows and aerosols in the transmission of deadly viruses. Growing awareness of climate change and global warming has also heightened our sensitivity to rising temperatures and the incidence of heat waves. Median climate change scenarios predict average U.S, warming at 5 ℉ from 2010 to 2050.

Based upon existing estimates of global warming across Canada, we can project, by 2050, how much more heat-disrupted learning we can expect relative to today. It’s safe to predict that there will be more school days in the high 30s with sweltering Humidex readings. Given those climate change prospects and what COVID taught us, investing in improved school ventilation, including air conditioning, looks more like a sensible, longer-term capital improvement in K-12 education.

Putting up with oppressive heat and making-do with existing air ventilation is becoming less defensible in COVID times.  How can students perform up to their potential in steamy classrooms with little or no air ventilation? What is the impact on student attention and learning as measured in test results? Will the COVID-19 pandemic be the deal-breaker in addressing the chronic and unaddressed problem?

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A draft Ministry of Education document, leaked to the Toronto Globe and Mail on March 24, 2021, has, once again, stirred the pot in the volatile Ontario education debate over expanding online learning courses. After a year of school shutdowns and off-and-on online learning, the document revealed that Education Minister Stephen Lecce was considering legislation to make “remote learning” a “permanent part” of the K-12 public system.

News that online learning was here to stay was hardly earth-shaking, but it aroused the usual fears of a ‘hidden agenda’ at Ontario’s Queen’s Park. Was it a way of promoting and advancing “parent choice” or the thin edge of the wedge leading to “privatization’ of public education?  Whatever the motivation, the online learning “boogeyman” was back, a year after the first round of controversy, cut-short by COVID-19 and the abrupt transition to emergency home learning.

Minister Lecce seized the high ground in confirming that online learning would continue in post pandemic times. Keeping schools open for in-person schooling would remain the priority, but plans were afoot to ensure that, in September 2021, parents would be given the opportunity to enroll their children in “full-time synchronous remote learning.” In post-pandemic education, online learning would continue to be utilized to ensure “continuity of learning,” to “mitigate learning loss,” and to provide students with access to a wider range of courses.

Ontario’s teacher union leaders reacted as expected, slamming the move, and especially the absence of any prior consultation with frontline educators. “The move to virtual learning was never intended to be permanent: it was a temporary measure intended to deliver emergency instruction during a global health crisis,” claimed Sam Hammond, President of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO). The proposed plan would, he charged, “ negatively affect students, increase inequalities, lower standards…and put us one step closer to the privatization of public education.” Ontario Secondary School Federation president Harvey Bischof was more measured in his criticism, but asked to see evidence that online learning worked to the benefit of students.

The online genie is out of the bottle and will not likely ever be contained or rationed as a supplement to regular programs again. In the case of Ontario, some 400,000 of the province’s 2 million students or 20 per cent have experienced online learning during the 2020-21 school year. While regular in-person learning is far superior for most students, there’s a good argument to be made for expanding course offerings online.

Integrating online courses into the regular program makes good sense, knowing what we now do about the potential for mass disruptions affecting in-class learning time. The final revenge of COVID-19 may strike again, and having an implementable e-learning plan will be part of all future strategic planning in public health and K-12 education. With the capacity to offer comparable virtual learning, for short periods, it’s hard to justify repeated snow day school closures or shutting down operations for a whole range of calamities, including hurricanes, floods, windstorms, boiler meltdowns, or seasonal flu epidemics.

What the Ontario government was proposing back in 2018-19 looks quite different in the light of the COVID-19 educational disruption. The initial Doug Ford government plan to require high school students to complete four online courses from Grades 9 to 12 provoked a firestorm of opposition. It was eventually scaled-back to 2 courses required for graduation. Three courses suggested as online offering possibilities were good ones, Grade 10 career choices, Grade 11 biology, and Grade 12 data management.

What a difference a year makes in K-12 education. Integrating online learning courses into the regular high school program looked radical, scary and disruptive in February of 2020, on the eve of the pandemic. Ontario’s largest school district, Toronto District School Board, not only publicly condemned Minister Lecce in February 2020 for proposing required online courses, but commissioned a teacher- parent – student survey clearly aimed at torpedoing such a plan. Without any real experience in online learning, 81 per cent of parents and 97 per cent of secondary school teachers opposed what were labelled “mandatory e-learning courses.”

What have we learned since the pandemic turned education upside down? Keeping children in school should be the highest priority because its far superior to online substitutes and even compared to the most engaging live stream lessons and videos. The core mission of schools is to provide academic learning, but today’s education includes a far wider range of learning supports and mission-critical psycho-social services. Missing in-person schooling for weeks on end deprives students and families of important lifelines and aggravates socio-economic inequities.

Integrating virtual learning into K-12 education has become the new post-pandemic education imperative. “Continuity of learning” is now more than an aspirational educational catch-phrase when we have the capacity to shift, much more comfortably, from in-person to mixed hybrid or full-time virtual learning. Completing full courses online, much like regularly logging onto Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Webex platform-supported programs, will become more commonplace and, in time, become a normal expectation for students, teachers and parents everywhere. We have seen the educational future and it includes online learning.

Why does expanding online learning still spark fierce resistance in Canadian school systems? How well did school systems do in transitioning to alternative modes of delivery, specifically hybrid learning and full-time online learning? To what extent was Pandemic Education emergency home learning a fair test of the potential for effective e-teaching?  Is it possible to turn back the clock after absorbing the lessons of the pandemic?

 

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Parents, students and educators are beginning to confront the hidden costs of the COVID-19 pandemic in Canadian K-12 education.  The initial school shutdown from March to June 2020 precipitated a prolonged period of improvised and spotty ‘home learning,’ followed by further experiments in hybrid blended learning, compounded by extended holiday breaks carrying on into 2021.  All of this will have profound implications for student learning and generate new priorities for the ‘Great Reset’ in 2021.

What’s gradually emerging, from U.S. state to state, Canadian province to province, is a clearer picture of the “COVID-19 slide” setting back learning for all students, but particularly for those from disadvantaged, racialized and marginal communities. Postponing provincial assessments simply delays the time of reckoning.

Looking ahead, it’s time to actually confront the profound impact of the COVID-19 onslaught on the ‘pandemic generation’ of students and educators scrambling to adjust to unexpected ‘pivots’ from one instructional mode to another, amounting ting to ‘on-again’ ‘off-again’ regular classroom instruction.

Signs of the COVID-19 slide are beginning to emerge as student impact studies gradually surface, albeit mostly in U.S. states rather than here in Canada. Early on, an April 2020 North West Education Association (NWEA) study rang the alarm bell with some outsized statistical projections of potential learning loss. A McKinsey & Company research summary published in December 2020 provided more reliable estimates of the total potential learning loss to the end of the school year in June 2021.

While the initial worst-case NWEA forecast scenarios have been averted, the cumulative learning loss could still be substantial, especially in mathematics, with students, on average, likely to lose 5 to 9 months of learning by year’s end. Among American black students, the learning loss in mathematics averages 6 months to a year. “While all students are suffering,” the McKinsey & Company researchers claim,” those who came into the pandemic with the fewest academic opportunities are on track to exit with the greatest learning loss.”

Comparable Canadian research on learning loss is hard to find and national media coverage, echoing education faculty research agendas, tends to focus more on the impact on student well-being than on evidence of learning loss. One CBC Radio podcast, posted in November 2020 and billed as COVID Slide’s Impact on Kids Learning,” presented some evidence of the problem, then defaulted to standard pre-pandemic responses, dismissing learning loss concerns and instead focusing on children’s anxieties, mindfulness exercises, and reducing stress through broader and ‘softer’ student assessments.   

Two promising Alberta research studies, cited in passing in the CBC Radio podcast, should not be overlooked. Conducted by University of Alberta educational psychology professor George Georgiou, those studies demonstrate that young readers are lagging behind the learning curve in the wake of the pandemic. 

The first study of changes in literacy test scores, comparing September 2020 results on reading accuracy, fluency and comprehension and with the previous three years,  Student in Grades 2 and 3 performed consistently worse across the three measures and, on average, performed between 6 to 8 months below their grade level.

Professor Georgiou’s second study, funded by Alberta Education, followed 1,000 Grade 1 students on multiple reading tasks from September 2019 until February of that year. He used those results to identify students at-risk and then tested them again in September 2020. Just 85 of 409 children, or roughly 20 per cent, were reading at an average level. Some 60 per cent of the children scored lower in September than in January of 2020, before the pandemic.

School shutdowns and the default to online learning have contributed to the problem. Effective early reading instruction requires face-to-face interventions, preferably with literacy specialists, and that was missing during home learning. No one was prepared for the abrupt shift from in-person to online learning, nor were most elementary teachers skilled enough to implement alternative digital learning programs. 

International research corroborates the early American and Alberta findings and demonstrates conclusively that school closures contributed to an actual COVID slide. In Belgium, where schools closed for 3 months in 2020, learning losses were identified in the final year of Primary School in both mathematics and the Dutch language, particularly in schools with  disadvantaged student populations.

A Baseline Writing assessment for Year 7 pupils in the United Kingdom, where schools were shuttered for 2 months, revealed that students had actually gone backwards. The mean score for Year 7 pupils in November 2020 was roughly equivalent to the Year 5 standard in November 2019. The Year 7 cohort, according to UK writing expert Daisy Christodoulou, were 22 months below their expected level of competency in writing.

Setting new priorities will be critical in the COVID-19 education reset and in preparing for the 2021-22 school year. Shoring up the educational foundations in mathematics and reading will be critical in countering the COVID slide and completing the transition to a technology-enabled system is now a matter of urgent necessity. Some exciting innovations can wait when the shaken system requires stabilizers, socio-economic disparities grow, and students need help to re-engage and ‘catch-up’ in post-pandemic learning.    

What’s standing in the way of addressing the COVID-19 Slide in Student Learning? Why is most of the serious research into COVID “Learning Loss” coming from American education authorities, policy think-tanks, and independent research organizations? If provincial testing is suspended in 2020-21, how will we ever know the impact of the repeated school disruptions? What’s standing in the way of tackling the problem and embarking upon ‘learning recovery’ plans?

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