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Posts Tagged ‘Pandemic Learning Loss’

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School’s out and the first reliable reports on pandemic learning loss are appearing in the United States and, far more slowly, from province-to-province across Canada. In some school systems, education leaders and regional superintendents are breathing a sigh of relief and far too many are acting like the disruptions of two-and-a-half years of pandemic learning are over. But the first wave of student assessment scores reveals many students — especially from kindergarten to Grade 6, but all the way to Grade 12 — are behind with school closures, remote learning, and irregular school schedules to blame.

During the COVID-19 pandemic America’s schoolchildren lost out on from 16 to 70 weeks in the classroom. Most pupils received some form of virtual schooling which varied greatly in quality and quantity. While many parents recognized the risk to health posed by keeping schools open, they—and teachers—were concerned that lessons taken at the kitchen table were less effective than those in a classroom. Weathering one wave after another of the pandemic, and particularly Omicron, led to repeated schedule disruptions and reversions to remote/home learning. Early student test results show just how much childrens’ education has suffered during the pandemic.

            Standardized student assessment tracking in the U.S. was far more extensive during the pandemic and the Brookings Institution has reported lower levels of achievement, with younger children hit the hardest. Graduation rates dropped and fewer kids were pursuing post-secondary studies. It’s doubly difficult to identify and assess learning loss in Canada because our education authorities simply suspended provincial testing and, in many cases, final examinations.

Wilfrid Laurier University professor and researcher Kelly Gallagher-Mackay pinpointed the nub of the problem in Ontario and elsewhere: “we don’t have public data on how Ontario students are doing, so we are a lot more in the dark.” That’s problematic because “the risk with educational issues is that they can multiply if they’re not addressed,” she told The Toronto Star. It also has compounded effects: if students’ confidence or sense of preparedness have taken a hit, they may be more inclined to opt for programs they feel are easier, rather than more challenging ones that down the line provide more post-secondary opportunities.

Canada’s largest school district, Toronto District School Board (TDSB), produced Grade 1 Reading data that raised some alarms. TDSB data from 2020-21 for in-person schooling compared with 2018-19, reported students were 3 percentage points behind, while those in virtual schooling were 9 percentage points behind. The board is tracking student well-being and achievement, as part of its COVID-19 Pandemic Recovery Plan, to identify groups most impacted and where interventions are needed

An authoritative November 2021 American study of pandemic education impact, produced by Clare Halloran and a research team for the National Bureau of Educational Research, demonstrated how the shift in schooling mode to home learning adversely affected test scores tracked over 2020-21 across 12 different U.S. states. Student pass rates declined compared to prior years and that these declines were larger in districts with less in-person instruction. Passing rates in math declined by 14.2 percentage points on average, but somewhat less (10.1 percentage points smaller) for districts fully in-person. Reported losses in English language arts scores were smaller, but were significantly larger in districts with larger populations of disadvantaged students who were Black, Hispanic or eligible for free and reduced-price lunch programs.

Studies in Britain also show that the longer kids were in remote learning, the worse they fared. That’s particularly worrying in Canadian provinces like Ontario, where students lost out on about 27 weeks or more of in-person learning from March 2020 to the end of June 2022. Judging from the June 2021 Ontario Science Table study, Canadian provinces lost more days, averaging about 20 weeks, than similar jurisdictions in the U.S., U.K. or the European Union.

            The Canadian province of Nova Scotia is, as usual, a reliable bell-weather for K-12 education. Province-wide assessment was suspended completely in 2020-21 and then reinstituted in 2021-22.  The latest test results were embargoed until the last week of school in June 2022, posted on an obscure Nova Scotia Education website under PLANS, then released without any notice or comment. Putting them out at the tail end of the year all but guarantees that they escape public notice.

            Studying the latest installment of Nova Scotia provincial student results, covering the 2018-19 to 2021-22 period, it is easy to see why they are buried on an obscure public website.  Nothing was reported covering Grade 3, the critical first step in monitoring the acquisition of student competencies in reading, writing and mathematics. Instead, the province released Grade 6 results showing, as predicted, a pronounced achievement decline, most acute in mathematics and writing, but also affecting reading competencies and comprehension. 

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            What are education authorities attempting to hide?  Grade 6 Mathematics results (2021-22) dropped to 64% achieving expectations, down 6 % from before the pandemic. In the case of Grade 6 Reading, some 71% of students met the standard, down 4% since 2018-19. Going back ten years to 2012-13, the achievement slide is actually gradual and continuing, perhaps worsened by some 22 weeks of COVID-related school closures from March 2020 to June of 2021.

From school district to district, student achievement in 2021-22 was also highly irregular, ranging in Grade 6 Mathematics from Halifax RCE (67%, down 6%) to TriCounty RCE (50%, down 14%). In Grade 6 Reading, the comparable figures were Halifax RCE (74%, down 3%) to TriCounty RCE (61%, down 6 %).

Some marked progress has been made in addressing the problem of underperformance among marginalized and racialized students. In Grade 6 Mathematics, for example, African Nova Scotian students’ scores have risen from 36% (2013-14) to 55% (2016-17) and then held firm at 54% (2019-20) before the pandemic.  For Indigenous students, Grade 6 Reading has risen from 64% (2013-14) to 65% (2016-17) and then reached 74% (2019-20), just 2% below the provincial mean score. 

            The declines in Grade 6 Mathematics and Reading in Nova Scotia post-pandemic are perhaps predictable. What is more concerning is the longer-term trend toward an “achievement slide,’ revealed starkly on publicly- reported provincial assessment results over the past decade. Grade 6 Mathematics scores, for example, have plummeted from 73% (2012-13) to 71% (2018-19) to 64% (2021-22), a drop of 9 points.  In Grade 6 Reading, the slide is gentler from 76% (2012-13) to 74% (2018-19) to 71% (2021-22).  In short, somewhere between one-quarter to one-third of all students are not functionally literate or numerate at the end of elementary school.

One of Canada’s leading international education experts, Paul Cappon, warned ten years ago that Canada was becoming “a school that does not issue report cards.”  Suspending student assessment during the pandemic, then re-instating tests on a limited basis is bad enough.  Holding-off on releasing student results until everyone is on the way out for the summer holidays suggests that Dr. Cappon’s prophecy has come to pass, even after the biggest educational disruption in our lifetime.

What was the full extent of the learning loss experienced by K-12 students over the past two-and-a-half years? How reliable are the initial assessments coming out of the United States, the UK, and the European Union states?  Why is it next-to-impossible to assess the pandemic impact on Canadian students?  By limiting student assessment, rationing the results, then issuing partial sets of results are Canadian school authorities cushioning the blow or merely deferring the day of reckoning?  

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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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