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Posts Tagged ‘Dominic Cardy’

TVDSBBoardOffice

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

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

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

MarcusRyanZorra

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

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

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

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

Adopt a “Community-School Governance Model”

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

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

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

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

FE1MichaelStembitskySchoolOpening2012

Governance Lessons – from New Zealand

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

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

Creating a New Education Leadership Culture

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

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

A Proposed Cure for the Local Democratic Deficit  

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

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

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

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

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MasksSchoolsBBC

The latest COVID-19 variant is “spreading like wildfire” in and around schools by all accounts. With daily case counts reaching 100,000 in Ontario, teachers and parents, with the support of Toronto infectious disease specialist Dr. Isaac Bogoch, are speaking out demanding that mask mandates be re-instated and similar movements are afoot in New Brunswick and all other jurisdictions without such mandates.

“COVID-19 is not over” is the rallying cry as teachers and education workers report record student and staff absenteeism – and are now openly challenging public health authorities to respond to mushrooming case counts.  Masking up in schools has become a strange kind of proxy for public trust in medical science and our public health officials. That’s the underlying but fundamental public policy issue, two years into the never-ending pandemic.

The counsel of chief medical officers of health, once considered unbiased, Manitoba physician Jillian Horton aptly pointed out, is now  being challenged as simply parroting the latest gyrations of politicians.  It hasn’t helped that the CMOHs, in Ontario and elsewhere, went relatively quiet over the past month.

One of the clearest statements came from the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association (OECTA).  The province’s third largest teachers’ union appealed to the province on April 8, 2022 to undo the decision to end masking in all schools on March 21 because teacher and student absences due to COVID-19 are causing “whiplash disruptions to the learning environment.”

Surging case counts and high absenteeism are causing havoc in  many school districts, including the London-based Thames Valley District School Board (TVDSB) and in Scarborough, where one Catholic elementary school of 540 students averaged over 100 student absences a day last week. Similar absentee rates have been registered in mask-mandate-free New Brunswick schools

Lifting mandates with students and staff returning from March break has precipitated a raging controversy, especially in New Brunswick. With the post-March break COVID-19 surge breaking out, the latest Omicron BA.2 variant running rampant and restrictions lifting, Education Minister Dominic Cardy balked at reinstituting masks in schools. “Leave it up to the experts” was his repeated response.

Concerned parents and worried teachers, seeing first-hand evidence of mounting case counts, organized a Change.org petition in early March and began speaking-out, demanding the return of masks and fuller disclosure of actual case counts and rates of absenteeism. The “Protect our Province” (PoP) petition for masks in schools appeared in early March and immediately attracted some 700 signatures Post-March break fears drove the number of signatories up to 1,300 by March 17 and stood at 1,514 in early April.

In the first week of April, a group of 19 pediatricians answered the Minister’s call for expert opinion. “We do not believe we are out of the woods yet with the COVID-19 pandemic,” they wrote in an open letter to Minister Cardy, Premier Blaine Higgs, Chief Public Health Officer Jennifer Russell, and Health Minister Dorothy Shephard.

New Brunswick’ pediatricians confirmed that COVID-19 was an airborne virus, masking and vaccinations were the best protections against infection, and it was time to bring back masking for the rest of the school year. That was to no avail because Minister Cardy kept insisting it was up to public health and Dr. Russell weighed-in holding firm on resisting a mask mandate in schools.

While New Brunswick politicians passed the ‘hot potato’ back and forth, COVID-19 case counts were ripping through the whole Atlantic region. At the time Atlantic Canada had the highest rates of COVID-19 infection in Canada.

On April 2, the Canada Health Agency reported that Prince Edward Island ranked first among the provinces and territories with 350.6 daily cases per week in the final week of March, registering 2,216.6 average daily cases per million.  New Brunswick ranked fifth with 567.0 average daily cases per million, a higher rate of infection than Quebec and Ontario.

When the case counts were released, New Brunswick was also an outlier. Students in Nova Scotia were still required to wear masks and New Brunswick was more restrictive in providing access to testing. In N.B., PCR testing was only available to those over 50-years-of-age, or under two years, or those deemed to be vulnerable or at higher risk.

MasksSchools

Entering our third year of the pandemic, provincial public health officers are committed to keeping schools open for the mental health and well-being of children, but, beyond that, they are all over the map, especially on disclosure of case counts, access to testing, and precautionary measures.

Requiring masks to be worn indoors in schools is a perfect example. On the same day that Prince Edward Island’s medical officer Heather Morrison announced masking in P.E.I. schools would continue, her New Brunswick counterpart Dr. Russell held a media briefing to announce the opposite. While strongly encouraging students and staff to mask-up on their own, Russell claimed that “vaccination is actually more important” at this point in the pandemic.

Navigating our way out of the pandemic is proving to be an uncertain journey full of contradictions.  Following the wisdom of the “experts” in government appears to mean different things from one province to another. It’s made more perplexing when leading pediatricians, most notably Dr. Andrew Lynk and his team at Halifax’s IWK Children’s Hospital, change their positions in response to surges in infections affecting children. That sounds like following the science.

If determining whether mask mandates are necessary is truly based upon medical science evidence-based criteria, one might expect more consistency right now.  What is a medical necessity for some, is a restriction on freedom for others.  When public health experts disagree, someone has to make a decision. Intervening to settle the matter opens the door to further criticism from skeptics hyper-sensitive to any sign of the politicization public health decisions.

What has happened to public trust in our provincial public health officers? With the latest COVID-19 variant ripping through schools and communities, why is there resistance to reinstituting mask mandates in schools?  Is the whole question of mask mandates become a proxy for trust in public health authorities?

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OHRCRighttoRead

Three weeks ago, the earth shook in Ontario and sent reverberations across the Canadian system of education. The Ontario Human Rights Commission ruled that children had “the right to read” and were being denied it in that province’s schools. Most “learning disabilities” labels were actually the result of reading failures, the latest OHRC inquiry found. And most tellingly, students from disadvantaged communities were the most likely to bear the brunt of ineffective reading instruction in elementary schools.

Thousands of Ontario parents with children struggling to read have now broken the silence. Over the past two years, they came forward, sometimes with their kids, to provide heart-wrenching personal testimonies about how current early reading programs have failed them. On February 28, 2022, that Commission, headed by Chief Commissioner Patricia DeGuire and backed by the latest evidence-based research, simply demolished prevailing methodologies and programs which left far too many kids unable to read to a level of functional literacy.

An estimated nine out of ten children are capable of learning to read when provided with the proper instruction. That factoid, generated by International Dyslexia Association (IDA Ontario) research, was confirmed by the Ontario Human Rights Commission. The fundamental problem is that one-third of our youngest students, the vast majority enrolled in so-called “balanced literacy” programs, simply cannot read with the fluency needed in today’s world.

Starting in October 2019, the Right to Read inquiry looked at a representative cross-section of eight English language school boards, including Peel District School Board and Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board, and all 13 English-language faculties of education and Ministry of Education sanctioned curriculum. In addition to listening to a multitude of concerned parents, the inquiry tapped into the research expertise of leading learning disabilities researchers, including Linda Seigel of the University of British Columbia and Jamie Metsala of Halifax’s Mount Saint Vincent University.

While Chief Commissioner DeGuire refrained from pointing fingers, it was clear that current early reading methods were not working and the commission got a “mixed response” from education faculties regarding the findings. That’s no surprise because most faculties provide little if any preparation informed by the science of reading and model curricula based upon the ‘balanced literacy’ dogma peddled by the dominant learning resource providers.

OHRCRightoReadDeguireOHRCRightToReadClass

When one-out-of-three students graduate without reaching provincial or international standards, someone, somewhere, has to assume responsibility for the outcomes. Vulnerable students – those from impoverished and marginalized communities – were already struggling before the two-year-long pandemic school disruptions. OHRC’s legal counsel Reema Kawaja said it best: “No child should go to school for 14 years and not learn to read.”

Current reading instruction methods are deeply entrenched and their defenders have succeeded, for three decades, in sinking periodic assaults on that hegemony. Generations of elementary teachers have stayed the course, rebranding ‘whole language,’ applying the reading recovery band-aid, and fuzzing up the whole question with ‘balanced literacy’ providing continued cover for those same methods.

This transition has been facilitated and enabled by Canada’s faculties of education where teachers are introduced to literacy programs and inculcated in provincially-sanctioned texts and learning materials, exemplified by Fountas & Pinnell, North America’s largest purveyor of ‘balanced literacy’ learning resources, teacher training, and classroom assessment tools.

New Brunswick Education Minister Dominic Cardy was one of the first off-the-mark in reacting to the Right To Read findings. With news of the earth-shaking February 28 Ontario report breaking, he took to Twitter with another impossible-to-ignore and quotable declaration heard across the K-12 education world.

“Our approach to reading instruction was a disgrace,” Cardy tweeted. “We gave teachers a job and didn’t give them the tools to do it. For me, this is the biggest education scandal of the last fifty years.” Just in case you thought Minister Cardy was simply blowing-off steam, he repeated his claim for Brunswick News in much greater detail.

Minister Cardy and his Department were one of the first to wade into the latest iteration of the ‘reading wars.”  “It’s crazy,” he told Brunswick News. “[There are] two camps. One is based upon reality, and one is not. And for a long time, we followed the one that is not based upon reality.”  Like the thousands of Ontario parents, Cardy challenges the prevailing theory that “if you surround [children] with lots of books, they will learn how to read.”

The Right to Read inquiry report may well tip the balance and, it should be noted, Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce was quick to endorse the report and its 157 recommendations for change The most critical of those is Recommendation 30 which fully embraces systematic reading strategies, including phonics, and rejects the still popular ‘three-cue’ guess-the-word methodology.

What is astounding is that the OHRC actually spelled-out in detail the key requirements to successfully teach and support all students:

“ Curriculum and instruction that reflects the scientific research on the best approaches to teach word reading. This includes explicit and systematic instruction in phonemic awareness and phonics, which teaches grapheme to phoneme (letter-sound) relationships and using these to decode and spell words, and word-reading accuracy and fluency. It is critical to adequately prepare and support teachers to deliver this instruction.

Early screening of all students using common, standardized evidence-based screening assessments twice a year from kindergarten to Grade 2, to identify students at risk for reading difficulties for immediate, early, tiered interventions.

Reading interventions that are early, evidence-based, fully implemented and closely monitored and available to ALL students who need them, and ongoing interventions for all readers with word reading difficulties.

Accommodations (and modifications to curriculum expectations) should not be used as a substitute for teaching students to read. Accommodations should always be provided along with evidence-based curriculum and reading interventions. When students need accommodations (for example, assistive technology), they should be timely, consistent, effective and supported in the classroom.

Professional [Psycho-educational] assessments, should be timely and based on clear, transparent, written criteria that focus on the student’s response to intervention. Criteria and requirements for professional assessments should account for the risk of bias for students who are culturally or linguistically diverse, racialized, who identify as First Nations, Métis or Inuit, or come from less economically privileged backgrounds. Professional assessments should never be required for interventions or accommodations.”

The OHRC inquiry report provides plenty of sound research and detailed policy guidance for Ontario, New Brunswick, and other provinces . By the end of next year, 2022-23, the New Brunswick version will be in place in Kindergarten to Grade 2.  It’s already being implemented in a few Ontario pilot schools, including those in the York Region Catholic Distract School Board, north of Toronto, and the Hamilton Wentworth District School Board was the first to commit to acting on the OHRC recommendations.

Tackling the problem will not be easy because prevailing ‘balanced literacy’ approaches are deeply entrenched in most faculties of education.  One of the first to cast a stone was Shelley Stagg Peterson, professor of literacy at OISE/University of Toronto, and , since then, Brock University professor Diane Collier, who represents a group of literacy researchers from nine different education faculties Ontario.

“Reading English is not phonetical; it is visual,” Stagg Peterson wrote in an Ottawa Citizen Letter to the Editor. “If a child has a good visual memory, he or she will be able to read anything they can understand by the end of grade one.”  Then came a couple of astounding statements: “Poor readers can have wonderful careers in many fields. Phonics is a useful tool in learning to read but it is not a method.”

Education faculty literacy professors have rallied in defense of the dominant pedagogy and mandated resources.  “There is no one-size-fits-all for reading,” Professor Collier told CBC News. “A highly systematized, step-by-step approach is not necessarily accessible for all students who have all kinds of needs, so it could further marginalize readers.” Their counter-strategy is clear – paint the Right To Read findings as an endorsement of “phonics” and attack it as advocating a “narrow” approach, sidestepping the findings and the ineffectiveness of current methods.

The Ontario Right To Read inquiry report put existing literacy programs on notice but their defenders, ensconced in the education faculties, are not about to yield or give ground when learning resource alliances and training contracts are at stake. Reading reformers now know that it’s going to be a long siege and will require vigilance throughout the implementation process.

Will the Right to Reading Inquiry tip the balance in the ongoing “Reading Wars”?   What’s entirely different about this latest phase in the struggle to introduce the Science of Reading into classroom practice? What role do giant learning resource publishers and consultants play in perpetuating the status quo in the form of ‘balanced literacy’?  Will provincial learning consultants and education professors recover and succeed in gaining control of curriculum reform implementation?

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SchoolBoardHHRSBLastMeeting

Regional school boards are gradually losing their democratic legitimacy and always seem to be threatened with extinction in one province or another across Canada. All seven of Nova Scotia’s elected English boards were sacked in favour of Regional Centres of Education (RCEs) in early 2018, and Manitoba school boards were recently spared the axe and linger on now claiming to represent the “public voice” in K-12 education. With school governance reform in the air in New Brunswick, that province’s hollowed-out substitute for elected boards, District Education Councils (DECs), are next in line for review.

Deeply troubled by New Brunswick’s current review of education governance options, Canadian School Boards Association (CSBA) president Laurie French produced another ‘Hail-Mary’ opinion column. It would be tragic, she claimed on January 24, if New Brunswick’s District Education Councils (DECs) were swept away in the coming reform.  With school boards under increasing public scrutiny from province-to-province, salvaging that province’s weak sister version of elected school boards has taken on new urgency.

What was remarkable about the CSBA appeal is that it simply repeats the usual feel-good bromides that seek to create the illusion of solving the problem. Salvaging the DECs in their current form would only maintain the façade of ‘local decision-making’ because the regional bodies have simply lost all claim to democratic legitimacy.  Acclamation disease is rampant and voter participation in free-fall, and it is looking, more and more, like it’s time to completely re-invent governance to restore meaningful public voice in that K-12 education system.

Rearranging the deck chairs on the DEC ship will not likely prevent it from capsizing in the coming year. Tuned-out citizens and turned-off parents sent a powerful message in the May 2021 local elections. Out of 68 DEC seats, only 18 (or 26.4 per cent) were contested, leaving the rest ether filled by acclamation or vacant because no candidates surfaced before election day. In Anglophone district council elections, the average participation rate plummeted to 15.6 percent, down from 19.2 per cent in 2016. Only 22,035 electors out of 140,633 cast votes, half the number who voted five years ago.

A post-election survey of electors, conducted by Elections NB and based upon 400 respondents, revealed that some 40 per cent did not vote for certain contests, mostly school district and health authority positions, because they were “not interested.”  Delving more deeply into their reasons, the most common explanation was “I did not know enough about who was running.”  One general comment jumped out: “We didn’t know who they were. And I talked to a lot of people who voted that felt the same way.”

School district governance is in a truly sorry state when few want to run for DEC seats and there’s plenty of blame to go around. Chief electoral officer for Elections NB Kim Poffenroth was absolutely right. “Persuading people to run,” she told CBC News, “in not part of our mandate.” Indeed, and the problem runs far too deep to be amenable to such unconvincing public entreaties.

Claiming that DECs are comparable to elected school boards with trustees representing education districts is almost farcical, given the constraints and limits placed on the authority and responsibilities of local councillors. Most DEC members are completely under the thumb of district administration and that’s plainly obvious watching DEC meetings online.

The DEC coordinating group of chairs, guided by DEC manager Stacey Brown, enjoy privileged access to the Minister of Education, and function more like a private social club than a corporate board. Without any term limits, DEC ‘boardies’ such as Harry Doyle (2008 – Present) and Robert Fowler (2004-2021) come to occupy sinecures. When Fowler stepped down after 16 years, he was succeeded by veteran Joe Petersen (2008-Present) with 35 years of service, including time on his local school support committees.

DECRobertFowler

Twenty-seven years ago, local education democracy was far healthier under the former elected school boards. In the last school board elections (1995), 196 school trustees were elected or acclaimed for 245 elected positions, and 49 had to be appointed. Instead of acting on the key recommendation of the 1992 Commission on Excellence in Education to strengthen school board accountability, then Education Minister Paul Duffie announced, without consultation or warning, that all school boards would be eliminated and elected trustees removed from office, effective March 1,1996.

Since being established in 2001, DECs have focused almost exclusively on system maintenance and utterly failed to connect with the voting public or with the vast majority of local parents. From 2008 onward, the number of seats has been slashed, electoral districts enlarged, and voter participation has dropped with each election. It’s a classic case of what political scientists term the “turned-off electorate” and it breeds growing detachment from elected school district representatives, then a loss of public trust.

Abolishing school district governance without replacing it with a better, more democratic system would be a mistake. That’s what happened four years ago in Nova Scotia when that province’s seven elected Anglophone school boards were dissolved and left to devolve into more highly centralized regional centres for education.

Wiping out elected regional representation is not a solution when it means, in effect, handing over total responsibility to an empowered group of regional potentates with title to match, transforming superintendents into ‘regional directors of education.’ Appointing fifteen regional educational representatives to a Provincial Advisory Council on Education (PACE) provided political cover. The vast majority of Nova Scotia parents have no idea that PACE even exists and, in most cases, have nowhere to turn when policy concerns surface or local matters cannot be resolved by school administrators.

The current crisis at the Greater Victoria School District (SD 61) Board suggests that education governance in British Columbia is floundering. Allowing a regional school board to suspend two publicly-elected school trustees Diane McNally and Rob Paynter whose only crime was asking tough questions is a sign of deeper problems with respect to providing proper public accountability to parents and local taxpayers. It even sparked a vote of non-confidence from the local branch of the BC teachers’ union. The relative silence emanating from the British Columbia School Trustees Association (BCSTA) speaks volumes. Perhaps elected boards are only there to shield district administration and maintain a façade of local democratic representation.

New Brunswick is a good place to start the process of local democratic renewal. That province needs is a complete break with current form of education governance and it will not come from inside the system, but from best, evidence-based practice in governance outside the provincial sector. That sounds like what Education Minister Dominic Cardy has in mind in the months ahead.

Saving the 68 seats on DECs will only sustain the status quo and do little, by itself, to invigorate local school-level democratic decision-making. The Minister’s got it right in a recent Times & Transcript interview: “We actually need more people doing more work who are democratically elected and accountable across the province.”

That’s music to my ears and my 2020 book, The State of the System, makes the case for building back democracy from the schools up over a period of 3 or 4 years. Starting with the creation of school governing councils entrusted with wider responsibilities for school-level management, a more decentralized model would ensure that far more decisions are made where it really counts in the schools by educators working in genuine partnership with parents and community members, including representatives of local businesses and social service agencies.

The DECs as presently constituted are dying of natural causes. One trenchant critic Donald Gallant nailed it in a recent rather terse CBC News story comment: “Who would ever want to sit on those silly committees where nobody listens to anything you say.” That’s the brutally honest truth, but it does not mean that we should turn the entire system over to regional ‘educrats’ and school consolidators in charge of regional facilities planning.

There has got to be a better way forward to invigorate democratic engagement in local decision-making.  It starts by investing time and resources into developing school-level decision-making capacity, attracting a whole new generation of actively engaged parents and educators, introducing term of service limits, and taking the time to build school-based community councils in support of thriving, sustainable communities.

Why are elected school boards constantly trying to stave off the provincial executioner?  What’s wrong with the existing regional school board model?  Are elected boards salvageable or are we better to phase them out and start again?  In doing so, should we start from the schools up?  Will it be possible, this time, to overcome the resistance of the education establishment to  school-level, community-school -based education governance?

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FrenchImmersionClassNB

New Brunswick’s French immersion program, currently serving fewer than half of the province’s Anglophone students, is under review once again.  The latest report, produced by John McLaughlin and Yvette Flinn, in tandem, and released February 2, 2022, proposes that it be replaced by an upgraded core French language program offered to all students. It has, predictably, exposed the language fault line never far below the surface in Canada’s only officially bilingual province.

Judging from the initial reaction, bridging the “two solitudes” through early language immersion in schools is still a dream beyond reach. Ongoing debate over bilingualism, especially in schools, consumes a lot of time and energy, for one good reason – it’s fundamental to the unique regional character of the province. Strangely enough, finding common ground is made doubly difficult by the provincial administrative structure itself, maintaining linguistic separation in the provision of services.

After three policy pivots on different entry points for French Immersion since former Premier Shawn Graham’s 2008 overhaul of the program, a “two-tiered system” continues to adversely affect the majority of Anglophone students. Most New Brunswickers would agree with McLaughlin’s recent pronouncement: “It is time for this exhausting and unconstructive cycle to end.”  Whether dismantling French Immersion is the answer is very much in question.

Watching the debate rear its head again, the searing insights of Hugh MacLennan’s 1945 classic, Two Solitudes, came to mind. While written about Quebec and mostly during the height Second World War conscription crisis, that novel put a finger on the psychological and cultural separation between Anglophone and Francophone which, in some ways, haunts us still.  “Two old races and religions meet here and live their separate legends, side by side,” MacLennan wrote, referring to Anglo Montreal and rural French-speaking countryside villages. “If this sprawling continent has a heart, here it is. Its pulse throbs out along the rivers and railroads; slow, reluctant and rarely simple, a double beat, a self-moved reciprocation.”

Government reports never rise to such poetic elegance, especially in a more straight-forward and less florid provincial culture. That’s a shame because culture and language inspire passion and ingenuity as well as laying bare underlying divisions. Reconciling those linguistic tensions is, after all, what makes both Quebec and New Brunswick unique or, put another way, ‘not provinces like the others.’

MV5BZjIxNTczZjktYWIxNy00ZGTwoSolitudesMovie1977

Contemporary New Brunswick, in spite of a succession of policies fostering bilingualism, remains, in the words of the report, “a bilingual province in name only.” Only 33.9 per cent of New Brunswickers considered themselves bilingual, according to the 2016 Canadian Census. While 73.2 per cent of francophones reported that they spoke both languages, that was the case for only 15.7 per cent of anglophones. That’s not a ringing endorsement of provincial core language programs in K-12 schools.

With a little imagination, we can still see fleeting glimpses of Hugh MacLennan’s Protestant Anglo Montreal in the provincial capital of Fredericton and of the French-Canadian village of Saint Marc-des-Erables in Madawaska. Industrializing villages and towns may not spark the resistance found in the classic novel, but it’s not far fetched to spot contemporary examples of fictional characters like Ontario businessman Huntley McQueen and the odd Paul Tallard, at home in both languages, but trying to reconcile the tensions between French Canadian and English identities.

Over the past two years, the Blaine Higgs government’s proposal to change the French Immersion program in the province has sparked robust debate in both languages.  Blunt statements by People’s Alliance leader Kris Austin that French Immersion was a “failed program” were met with stony silence from Education Minister Dominic Cardy on Global News.

Simply touching French Immersion was enough to send its passionate advocates in the local branch of Canadian Parents for French (CPF NB) into panic mode. Introducing pilot programs in more than a dozen school drawing upon “best, evidence-based practice” in providing enhanced core French suggested that under Minister Cardy the ‘fix was in’ on the likely alternative. That explains why Green Party leader David Coon recently provided a stout defense of French Immersion programs.

Coming on the heels of a provincial review of the Official Languages Act, required every 10-years, the McLaughlin-Flinn report dovetails with proposed plans to create a government department dedicated to advancing the two official languages. It did lift the veil on the stubborn “challenges,” including “confusion over what it means to be bilingual,” the net effect of “intergenerational linguistic tensions,” and how better performing students are siphoned away from mainstream Anglophone schools.

Government reports don’t make a dent when it comes to rectifying entrenched problems. Back in January 2020, Minister Cardy flagged them on CTV Atlantic. A large number of New Brunswick Anglophones lacked access to French Immersion and there was a shortage of French language teachers. “We’ve got a problem with geography,” he said, in that “you’re more likely to access French Immersion in the cities than the countryside [and] we’ve got a problem with teaching capacity.” It’s going to take some time to successfully address such obstacles.

Everyone agrees that French Immersion fades as a favoured option in high school, reflected in sharply reduced graduation numbers. Shrinking numbers in Grades 11 and 12 are a problem that needs to be addressed, according to Dorothy White of CPF New Brunswick.

Developing student fluency in two or more languages is possible, as demonstrated in Quebec and many European nations.  There’s a rather draconian element of compulsion in Quebec where French is the official language buttressed by language laws limiting the use of English in the public sector. In the case of Europe, students are more immersed in a multi-language universe where they can easily travel to visit places nearby where different languages are spoken in the streets.

One constructive proposal in the latest report is to embrace the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, to assess and identify students’ levels of proficiency. Establishing six evidence-based levels of language fluency would help, but the greatest advantage may lie in acquiring teaching resources geared to seeing more students master conversational French and far more at level C2, approaching native fluency.

Former Deputy Minister of Education John McLaughlin, the report’s co-author, is right in recommending a gradual approach to advancing French instruction so as the minimize the potential backlash.  “Set the table properly, get people on board and then create a movement that nobody will want to stop” sounds like it was ripped out of a superintendent’s playbook for school change.

Passion and poetry are more likely to inspire such a movement. At the risk of sounding passionate about promoting French in an Anglophone world, might I suggest going back to the original conception of “two solitudes,” coined by Rainer Maria Rilke and popularized in MacLennan’s novel?  “Love consists in this, that two solitudes protect and touch and greet each other.” Simply put, crossing over and marrying someone from the other side does wonders for bilingualism. Look around and you will see examples of this generational solution.

*Reprinted from The Telegraph-Journal, February 11, 2022.

What can be done to advance bilingualism in Canada’s only officially bilingual province?  Is French Immersion still central to that overarching goal?  What’s standing in the way of graduating more students fluent in French in New Brunswick?  Is it better to improve French Immersion or to greatly enhance core French programs in all Anglophone schools?

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‘Balanced Literacy’ enjoys a charmed life in Canadian elementary education. A whole generation of elementary teachers have not only been taught reading with ‘balanced literacy’ approaches and resources, but employ those same methods in teaching our youngest children to read.  The Canadian province of New Brunswick is typical of most North American educational jurisdictions in its adherence to the dominant approach embedded in its provincially-sanctioned text materials and leveled reading books. 

A “literacy crisis” has finally exposed the source of the problem and New Brunswick education authorities are beginning to connect the dots.  Conservative Premier Blaine Higgs, now campaigning for re-election,  described the “literacy rate” as “an embarrassment that we cannot put-up with any longer.”   Literacy was identified as a priority in Education Minister Dominic Cardy’s October 2018 Green Paper on Education, but the plan of action stopped short of committing to remedial changes.

It took a Twitter spat to flush out the province’s actual plans. On August 5, Minister Cardy took great exception to rumors circulating that New Brunswick was sticking with its conventional provincial literacy strategy, based largely upon the Fountas & Pinnell Literacy program.  “@FountasPinnell is ideological gobbledygook,” he tweeted, and then added “We are moving away from it as quickly as possible.” 

Abandoning the Fountas & Pinnell literacy program would constitute a sea change in the 2017 provincial literacy strategy inherited from the Brian Gallant Liberal government.  It would also mean breaking away from the pack because Fountas & Pinnell’s model of Literacy Level Intervention (LLI) and resources are firmly entrenched in Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Manitoba and other provinces.

Early literacy expert Erin Schryer was stunned by Cardy’s Twitter revelation.  With a Ph.D. in Early Literacy from University of New Brunswick, Dr. Schryer has experienced, first hand, the unintended harvest of the existing strategy and curriculum. As Executive Director of Elementary Literacy Inc., from 2014 to 2018, she embraced “structured literacy” and offered two supplementary volunteer-based reading achievement programs aimed at rescuing struggling readers in the early grades.  

“The science of reading is not new,” Schryer says, “and more and more teachers are questioning standard practice and awakening to the need for dramatic change,” in the form of a more systematic, structured approach where ‘phonics’ is not a bad word.  “Not all can read by osmosis, “she adds, “so we are excluding a large segment of the student population.”

Trying to fix students experiencing reading failure proved frustrating.  “I left Elementary Literacy Inc.,” Schryer explains, “because we were not moving the needle. We couldn’t extend what the schools were doing, so it wasn’t really working.”  Instead of banging her head against the wall, she’s taking matters into her own hands, as CEO since July 2018 of Origins Early Learning Childcare and Academy, serving over 400 children and families in Quispamsis and Saint John.

Challenging the dominance of what Cardy described as “ideological gobbledygook” will not be easy and the Minister can expect subterranean resistance.  ‘Balanced literacy’ is a term appropriated by Fountas & Pinnell as a means of preserving whole word reading pedagogy now under intense attack from educators, like Schryer, armed with evidence based-research demonstrating more conclusively how children learn to read and favouring a more structured approach to teaching early reading. 

Fountas & Pinnell has cornered the early literacy market with a patented a system of reading levels developed by Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell and published by Heinemann to support the use of their Levelled Literacy Interventions (LLI) series of student readers and teacher resource products.  It’s also closely aligned with Reading Recovery, a short-term, one-on-one Grade 1 literacy intervention, exemplifying a similar approach.

The program comes with a Benchmark Assessment System (BAS) that is often used as the primary measure of student reading progress.  Despite Fountas & Pinnell’s 2007 cautionary note about using the reading levels as an evaluative measure, employing it for that purpose is commonplace.  Co-founder of the American Right to Read Project Margaret Goldberg found administering BAS to be a time-consuming exercise and a “poorly-constructed assessment” on students for whom it was not designed, using material that limits student choice, and constrains their access to more advanced grade-level content.  

The most popular reading programs in Canada and the United States, including Fountas & Pinnell, are not backed by science. A year ago, the U.S.-based Education Week Research Centre identified the most widely used reading programs and then subjected each of them to closer scrutiny. The Education Week evaluators found many instances in which Fountas & Pinnell and the others diverged from evidence-based practices. 

Today, it’s widely accepted by reading researchers that programs for young children need to include phonics and Fountas & Pinnell purports to teach young pupils about sound-letter correspondence. In spite of such claims, the focus is on word identification and phonics instruction is so intermittent that students may not actually learn or be assessed on certain skills. Students are mostly taught to approach words in ways that undermine what can be gleaned from phonics.

The F &P system works on the assumption that students use multiple sources of information, or “cues,” to solve words. That may be true for some poor readers, but it flies in the face of evidence-based neuroscience research.  Effective readers, we now know, process all of the letters in words when they read them, and that they can read connected text very quickly. Early reading programs based upon the F &P system teach students to make better guesses, under the false assumption that it will make children better readers. The fundamental problem with that “three cue” approach is that it trains children to believe that they don’t always need to look at the letters that make up words in order to read them.

Many early years consultants and teachers do not recognize, or perhaps even know, that cuing strategies are not consistent with the science of reading. That’s not just the view of Dr. Schryer, but of many leading researchers, including University of British Columbia psychology professor Linda Siegel and Mount Saint Vincent University learning disabilities specialist Jamie Metsala. 

One of the reasons for the disconnect is that school system consultants not classroom teachers generally decide on what curriculum is authorized across a province or a school district. Two-thirds of the teachers surveyed in 2019 by Education Week reported that their school district selected the primary reading programs and materials, and the figure is likely higher in New Brunswick.

Back in December 2019, American Education Week reporter Sarah Schwartz made a telling comment about the state of teacher consultation and input when it comes to evaluating reading programs. “Even when teachers want to question their school or district’s approach,” she reported, “they may feel pressured to stay silent.”  Three teachers from different districts who spoke with Education Week requested that their names not be used in the story, for fear of repercussions from within the system.

What Minister Cardy has done, in criticizing the Fountas & Pinnell system, is to demonstrate that tinkering with the existing program is not the answer.  If F & P is on the way out, let’s hope the province leads the way in embracing a more soundly evidence-based approach recognizing the benefits of structured literacy.

*An earlier version of this commentary appeared in the Telegraph-Journal, Provincial Edition and all daily papers in New  Brunswick.  

What explains the continued dominance of ‘balanced literacy’ in the form of Literacy Level Interventions and supporting reading materials? What does the science of reading tell us about how most students succeed in mastering reading?  Where’s the evidence to support the effectiveness of balanced literacy applied in universal fashion?  Why are so many early elementary teachers so reluctant to speak up to effect change? 

 

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Implementing true inclusive education is one of the most formidable challenges facing Canadian provincial school systems.  Scanning the Inclusion and Special Education policy landscape from province to province, New Brunswick stands out as an outlier. The so-called “New Brunswick Model” adopted in 2006 and formally confirmed in 2012-13 focuses almost exclusively on integrating all students into regular or mainstream classes.

DominicCardyInclusionEducation Minister Dominic Cardy’s recent announcement of a New Brunswick inclusion policy review was welcomed by concerned parents and teachers. Defenders of the existing inclusion model under Policy 322 reacted with dismay and trepidation, and for good reason.  Public consultations have revealed, once again, that the total inclusion classroom is not working for every student nor for far too many regular teachers.  While former Education Minister Jody Carr and his entourage are travelling the world promoting that model, it is on decidedly shaky ground at home.

Everyone today supports inclusive education and there can be no turning back.  Societal changes, human rights advocacy, and the growing complexity of classrooms in terms of capabilities, language, race, ethnicity and gender have combined to forge a broader commitment to truly inclusive education.

What looked progressive fourteen years ago when Wayne MacKay proposed the current N.B. inclusion model has now been superseded by newer, more flexible and more responsive approaches better suited to meeting the full range of student needs. We are also now more attuned to significant differences on the question of how to achieve meaningful, properly-resourced inclusion for all students across the full spectrum of abilities.

A lot is at stake in the latest review of inclusive education policy. That is because the so-called ‘New Brunswick Model’ is a provincial export product and is being considered for implementation in Ireland. An October 2019 report from the Irish National Council on Special Education (NCSE), heavily influenced by Carr’s policy advocacy, tilted in the direction of adopting a ‘total inclusion model’ and it has inspired a fierce debate in Ireland.

The proposed policy reform has put New Brunswick education under the microscope. No other Canadian province has chosen to follow the N.B. inclusion path, and this has been duly noted by vocal critics of the whole scheme in the widely-read Irish Times newspaper.

Much has been made of UN Special Rapporteur Catalina Devandas-Aguilar’s commendation of New Brunswick for its compliance with international human rights declarations. That was, it must be noted, one of the only positive mentions in her report which critiqued almost every other province for their ‘uneven application’ of policies across all public services, including heath, education, housing and transit.

Many educators and researchers in Ireland are puzzled as to why the N.B. model emerged as a preferred option when it is at odds with inclusive policy elsewhere. Most provinces, including neighbouring Nova Scotia, offer ‘inclusive education’ with options ranging from integration into regular classrooms to special ‘resource’ classes to specialized programs in alternative school settings.

Defenders of the N.B. model were rocked a year ago by a series of Toronto Globe and Mail investigative stories focusing on whether “inclusive classrooms” were working for most if not all students. The deeply moving story of Grayson Kahn, a 7-year-old Ontario boy with autism excluded from his school for assaulting an Education Assistant, captured nation-wide attention. It also departed from the usual script – extolling the virtues of inclusion – and, instead, raised serious questions about the difficulties of accommodating children with complex needs in regular classrooms.

Teachers in Canada, including many in New Brunswick, are reporting a dramatic rise in violent incidents disrupting their classrooms, and rising tensions with families who feel their regular stream children are at risk. For the past five years, periodic concerns have been voiced by the New Brunswick Teachers Association (NBTA) over threats to the safety of teachers and education assistants.

Some educators in the Globe and Mail series addressed the so-called ‘elephant in the classroom,’ daring to wonder if inclusion has gone too far for students with very complex needs.  Inclusiveness will not work, they claimed, without “a thoughtful rethinking of how we teach children with diverse needs and how we structure the school day.”

School districts in Canada are beginning to acknowledge the need for “time out rooms” to allow students experiencing meltdowns space and time to recover. Families with children who have intellectual and developmental disabilities are increasingly being asked to pick up kids early, start the school day later or simply keep them home for the entire day.

Complicating matters is the fact that apart from a few advocacy or parent group surveys, most Canadian school districts, including those in New Brunswick, didn’t formally track these exclusions or shortened days until recently mandated to do so.

The N.B. inclusion system is full of holes, judging from concerns raised by parents and teachers during Minister Cardy’s current round of consultations.  Co-founder of Riverbend Community School in Moncton, Rebecca Halliday, was one of those speaking up for changes. She has fought an uphill battle for five years to establish a school for severely learning challenged students. Her struggles mirror those of hundreds of parents and families effectively ‘excluded’ by the total inclusion classroom policy and practice.

Conducting a provincial review opens the door, once again, to providing support for the most severely challenged students and need relief for their exhausted parents. What Halliday’s school struggle amply demonstrates is that it will not happen in New Brunswick without the introduction of a tuition support program being extended to students and families without the means to pay the tuition themselves.

Such a program exists in Nova Scotia where, since September 2004, provincial education authorities have offered a Tuition Support Program (TSP). It not only plugged the service gap, but broadened public access to intensive support programs designed for students with acute learning difficulties. Under the TSP, a small number of private, independent Special Education schools  (DSEPS) (Grade 3–12) not only exist, but fill the gap by providing a vitally important lifeline in the continuum of student support services.

Inclusion is an ideal to which most advanced education countries, provinces and states aspire.  One of the best and most influential international statements, the Salamanca Statement on Principles and Practice in Special Needs Education (UNESCO 1994), continues to inform much of the current policy on inclusive education. Children should be learning together in schools – but not necessarily in one particular setting.

With the exception of New Brunswick, provincial ministries of education take their cue from the Salamanca Statement and are working toward inclusive education by removing barriers and improving student supports across a range of program service options, including intensive support for children with the most complex needs. Today, inclusive education is the overriding philosophy and the real challenge is to ensure that students, parents, and service providers find the ‘right fit’ for every child or teen.

Winning a September 2016 Zero Project prize and recent praise from a UN agency, it turns out, is a dubious honour for New Brunswick because it involves expending so much time and energy defending a regular class setting for everyone, when some fare far better in smaller classes with more intensive resource support and others thrive with more individualized attention.

Instead of merely complying with a UN philosophical declaration, Minister Cardy and the Department would be better advised to study carefully the findings of Nova Scotia’s 2018 Inclusive Education Commission and its prescription. Following that extensive and comprehensive review, Nova Scotia is now fully engaged in building a multi-tiered system of support (MTSS), much better aligned with best practice and evidence-informed research.

  • An earlier version of this post appeared in the Telegraph-Journal, March 5, 2020.

Tackling inclusion stirs up passions and raises sensitive issues, but it’s time to address the key policy questions: Will the New Brunswick Model ever work, given the complex challenges in today’s classrooms?  What are the real and unintended consequences of mandatory inclusion in the absence of other viable, attractive or effective alternatives?  Is the properly-resourced all-inclusive classroom model feasible or sustainable?  If the N>B. model is optimal, why are school districts everywhere tilting more in the direction of implementing MTSS and attempting to support everyone across the full continuum of needs? 

 

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One of Canada’s most prized educational innovations, French immersion programs for Anglophone children, continues to generate fierce debate in various parts of the country.  Since its inception in 1965 in a small school in the Montreal suburb of St. Lambert, QC,, it has spread right across Canada, actively promoted by Canadian Parents for French (CPF), and exceedingly popular among affluent, upwardly-mobile parents seeking every advantage for their children. The French Immersion Dream, espoused by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, was that the program would succeed in producing a new generation of more fluently bilingual Canadians.

Great progress has been made in integrating French immersion into provincial school systems, but the Dream remains as elusive as ever. While the 2016 Canadian census showed an overall increase in the national bilingualism rate, from 17.5% in 2011 to 17.9% in 2016, the proportion was significantly lower among Canadians whose mother tongue is English (9.2%) or another language (11.7%). Perhaps most telling of all, French immersion is floundering in Canada’s only “officially bilingual province,” New  Brunswick, right next door to largely French-speaking Quebec.  

Accessing the opportunity to enrol in French immersion remains a challenge. Some 79% of bilingual Anglophones surveyed in a 2016 survey reported that they learned French in elementary or high school. They also identified the lack of access to French as a Second Language (FSL) courses as a continuing impediment to learning a second official language. One of the most critical contributing factors is the shortage of teachers with the French language proficiency to deliver the programs, particularly in French immersion, where the requirements are much higher than in the reguar stream.

The problems with French immersion in New Brunswick demonstrate, in microcosm, some of the challenges faced by education authorities everywhere outside of Quebec.  While hailed as Canada’s “only officially bilingual province,” making that a reality through changes in education has proven much easier said than done. A year ago, N.B. Auditor General Kim MacPherson produced the latest evidence that French immersion was falling far short of its primary objective of producing more fluently bilingual graduates.

Finding the optimal French Immersion program in the Anglophone school sector has proven elusive to a succession of governments. Three times since 2008 major changes have been introduced in the provincial program, shifting the entry point from Grade 1 to 3 and back again.  In 2015-16, an Intensive/Post-Intensive French program was started in Grades 4 -12.  Current Education Minister Dominic Cardy is so concerned about the problem that he has waded, once again, into what has proven to be a political minefield, arousing language passions on all sides.

N.B. Auditor General MacPherson delivered a clinical analysis of the sorry state of French immersion in Anglophone school districts. That’s significant because French immersion, in 2016-17, enrolled some 40 per cent of all students in the Anglophone sector.

French immersion was far from its fundamental goal of producing a functionally bilingual generation. Just 10 per cent of the 1,624 anglophone students who entered French immersion in Grade 1 back in 2005, the AG reported, actually achieved the N.B. Education Department’s proficiency target of “advanced or better” upon Grade 12 graduation. Some two-thirds had dropped out of French immersion before graduation. Of those who did not drop out of the program, a disappointing 40 per cent met the expected standard.

The N.B. Department of Education’s official “Everyone at their best” French as a Second Language (FSL) slide show strikes an optimistic tone and gives no indication whatsoever that French immersion is floundering in the province. “Grade 1 entry to FI was successfully introduced in September 2017 and will be the only early entry point in September 2020,” it proclaims.

MacPherson was sharply critical of the latest Grade 1 entry point implementation. “Because of rushed implementation,” she found, “school districts could not recruit enough qualified teachers to meet the implementation timeline.“ Teachers lacking the requisite “language proficiency” were hired, she reported, and “significant resources were directed to implementation, and this impacted student performance across the sector.”

The AG’s report also broke an education sector taboo. Some 90 per cent of N.B. students on personalized leaning plans – serving students with identified learning difficulties – were in the English stream, MacPherson reported, making it “very difficult to teach” in those classes. That confirmed what the weight of research elsewhere has shown: French immersion effectively skims-off most of the academically able students.

What can be done to change the trajectory and produce more anglophone students capable of conversing and working in French in that province — and perhaps elsewhere?  Education Minister Cardy is going to launch pilot projects to test alternatives in FSL education.  It may well ultimately involve scaling back on the province-wide commitment to single-track French immersion.

Single-track French immersion is not the only way to enhance and advance French as a Second Language (FSL) programming, and, in every jurisdiction, it tends to peter-out in the final grades of high school. It rarely even reaches students from more economically disadvantaged communities.

Parent demands for French immersion for their children became so high in some Canadian urban metropolitan school districts that it threatened to crowd out regular program schools. Some more successful Ontario school districts, such as Halton District School Board, for example, responded by offering double-track French immersion and multi-track programs with advanced hybrid French language options, utilizing elements of FI. Meeting those demands continues to be a challenge in Halton District and in Peel Region, west of Metropolitan Toronto.

Some of the proposed N.B. pilot schools should be modelling and testing the dual track and multi-track models combining French immersion for the most disciplined fully-committed students, Extended Core French for those seeking enrichment, and Core French for those struggling to read or to survive the daily rigours of school.

Starting with Grade 1 in September 2020, there is an opportunity to pilot double-track and multi-track FSL programs. It makes good sense to look to Montreal, Quebec, for English schools that have higher success rates in producing students with bilingual graduation certificates. Extended or Expanded Core French (wherein students take two or three of the six core subjects in French, in addition to a French class over the whole year) is working in some Montreal English language schools and might well prove popular in the province. If nothing else, it has all but eliminated the extraordinarily high student attrition problem affecting most single-track FI models everywhere.

Shifting French immersion entry points back and forth in New Brunswick has done little to inspire confidence in politicians or pliable provincial education officials. It has bred cynicism and strengthened the influence of those advocating leaving everything alone in French language programs. Fixing the problem carries political risks.

Most education initiatives falter because of poor or uneven implementation and the September 2020 timeline looks too rushed. Whatever Minister Cardy and his Department do, let’s hope they follow the Auditor General’s wisest advice. Education strategies, the AG reminded us, should be based upon “expert research, in-depth needs assessment and the best practices” found in other provinces and international jurisdictions. Put more simply, do your preparatory homework and take the time to get it right.

What are the prime impediments to implementing French as a Second Language (FSL) programs like French immersion in Anglophone Canadian schools?  How important is the milieu in which French language learning is actually taking place?  How has the shortage of French teachers with the requisite proficiency compounded the difficulties? Are there viable alternatives to single-track French immersion that might prove more successful in the long run? 

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Measles outbreaks in the spring of 2019 in the American Pacific Northwest and British Columbia were part of a global revival of an infectious disease that had already affected thousands in Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe. In the wake of that outbreak, the BC Ministry of Health under Adrian Dix acted to require all parents to provide local public health units with their child’s immunization record before beginning school in September 2019. Twelve measles cases in Saint John, New Brunswick, in June 2019, prompted the Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Jennifer Russell to intervene to protect as many as 2,000 people exposed to the disease, ordering up 20,000 more doses of MMR vaccine, protection against measles, mumps and rubella.

Lagging childhood immunization rates are emerging as a major public health concern.  Periodic outbreaks of measles and mumps have alerted the public to the fact that childhood diseases, once virtually eradicated by vaccines, are reappearing in and around schools.

Vaccines remain one of the safest and most effective tools we have to protect ourselves, our families and our communities from infectious diseases. Those are not my words, but those of the Public Health Agency of Canada. The current reality is that we are not meeting our national immunization goals and too many children as well as adults remain unprotected and liable to experience illnesses from vaccine-preventable diseases that can cause serious health complications, some of which carry a risk of death.

Each year in April Health Canada raises the alarm during National Immunization Awareness Week and education programs are announced in an attempt to raise vaccination rates. Our Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Robert Strang, makes regular appeals, most recently in August of 2019, to encourage parents to keep their children’s immunization records up-to- date.

The current strategy is not working in Nova Scotia where only 71 per cent of 7- year-olds are immunized for measles and mumps, some 15 per cent lower than the national provincial average and ranking last among the provinces. In New Brunswick, where it’s considered a “crisis,” the measles and mumps coverage rate at age 7 is 92.3 per cent.

While provincial health and school authorities in New Brunswick, British Columbia and Ontario are tackling it head on, Alberta and Nova Scotia are still vacillating on how to improve its abysmal childhood immunization rates. While Health Minister Randy Delorey dithered, PC Leader Tim Houston introduced a private member’s bill to try to force the government’s hand.

Sparked by the spring 2019 measles scare in the Saint John region, New Brunswick Education Minister Dominic Cardy has championed legislation that would make vaccinations mandatory for children without medical exemptions in provincial schools and day cares.

Taking a proactive approach to combating the resurgence of childhood diseases is becoming common right across Canada. Three years ago, Ontario introduced stricter childhood vaccination regulations and in British Columbia legislation requires the reporting of immunization records. Ontario has far higher rates of reported childhood immunization at age 7 than Nova Scotia. Yet, since 2016, that province has required student vaccinations be up to date unless a parent or guardian can provide medical, religious or philosophical reasons why their child has not received a vaccine. Even when exemptions are granted, families are required to watch a 30-minute video on the importance of vaccines and then sign a document saying they viewed the presentation.

Public health authorities hold sway in Nova Scotia, unlike in New Brunswick, where a proactive Education Minister is leading the charge to meet childhood immunization targets so schools do not become sources of contagion.

Nova Scotia Health Minister Delorey may be deterred by fears of stirring-up the radical anti-vaxxers and setting back the cause. He should be taking his cue from New Brunswick’s courageous Education Minister. Confronting a posse of opponents, Cardy called out the group as conspiracy theorists who “influence, mislead and deceive” parents into thinking their children are at risk if they are vaccinated.

Prominent among the N.B. protesters were former Halifax chiropractor Dena Churchill who recently lost her licence to practice because of her anti-vax campaigning, and California pediatrician Dr. Bob Sears, a well-known anti-vax advocate funded by Vaccine Choice Canada.

Vaccine adverse reactions do happen, but, on balance, immunizing children prevents far worse harms caused by the unchecked spread of childhood infectious diseases. School attendance is compulsory and, in that context, so should immunization aimed at safeguarding children’s health.

Minister Cardy stood his ground defending his legislative changes aimed at achieving the goal of 95 per cent coverage. Growing anti-vaccination sentiment, he claimed, was being fed by social media, and threatened to discourage parents from vaccinating their children, reducing immunization rates below a critical threshold that allows a community to resist an outbreak.

Playing nice does not seem to be working at raising childhood immunization rates. Scare stories spread by anti-vaxxers should not go unchallenged. Claims that vaccines are harmful, in Cardy’s words, are “not supported in fact.” “If you believe in evidence-based decision-making, you have to look at the evidence and the evidence is incontrovertible.”

Childhood diseases such as measles, mumps, diphtheria, pertussis, and rubella can do great harm if left unchecked by regular vaccination. With childhood infectious diseases making a comeback, is now the time to be vacillating on child immunization? Does the school system have some responsibility to ensure that immunization rates are high enough to prevent mass outbreaks in the community?  Should it all fall on provincial and local health authorities? 

  • An earlier version of this research commentary appeared in The Chronicle Herald, October 31, 2019.

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