Pandemic education crisis: Canada is failing to tackle ‘lost year’ in K-12 education
For the sake of students, we need national educational leadership that isn’t hampered by provinces serving their own interests.
Canada’s existing national education co-ordinating body, the Council of Ministers of Education (CMEC), will prove unequal to the challenge of tackling the recovery from what some analysts see as a “lost year in education.” Students have experienced adverse effects on their learning, achievement and well-being.
While public calls have arisen for a more robust pan-Canadian presence in kindergarten to Grade 12 education, CMEC as it’s currently constituted is not the answer.
The council has devolved over the years into a shell of an organization, little more than an exclusive club presided over by the 13 provincial and territorial ministers of education.
Nudged provinces into larger-scale assessment
While providing a forum for annual discussions, CMEC’s scope of activity is restricted by the need to respect provincial jurisdiction.
Founded in 1967, CMEC did at one time perform a critically important role in forging pan-Canadian educational co-operation and nudging Canadian provinces into larger-scale student assessments.
Sparked by uneven Canadian student mathematics performance on the 1988 International Assessment of Educational Progress, CMEC initiated in 1989 a national testing program, a form of which still operates today. The Pan-Canadian Assessment Program, begun in 2007, assesses Grade 8 students (or in Québec, Secondary II students) in reading, math and science.
Under the leadership of Paul Cappon, director general from 1996 to the early 2000s, CMEC began to focus on establishing national indicators in core skills (mathematics, reading, writing and science) and embracing participation in international assessment programs.
Cappon wooed and won over the provinces, then paved the way for broader participation in programs such as the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) flagship Program of International Student Assessment (PISA).
Support for expanded student testing was galvanized by warnings of a looming literacy crisis affecting Canada’s global competitiveness, which was amplified in an influential 1992 Economic Council of Canada report.
Assessment in global context gave purpose
Preparing Canada’s provinces for PISA and other international assessments gave CMEC its rationale and sense of purpose. In 2000 and 2003, when Canadian 15-year-olds fared well in the first two rounds of PISA, CMEC’s viability was secure.
Cappon’s 2004 departure left CMEC rudderless and a shell of its former self, chaired by the provincial and territorial education ministers, serving on two-year rotations. Cappon initiated authoritative, evidence-based pan-Canadian research and performed excellent national advocacy work in his next role with the Canadian Council on Learning, but that body shut down after losing funding in 2010.
CMEC devolved into a secretariat, convening meetings, producing short reports of aggregated data and research briefs amplifying the strengths of kindergarten to Grade 12 education. Provincial ministers held sway, ensuring that CMEC served the interests and upheld the reputations of the member provinces.
Highlights strengths, minimizes deficits
Most of CMEC’s recent reports about student assessment in the body’s “Measuring Up” series compile aggregate student performance data, comparing countries and provinces, but tend to highlight strengths and minimize deficits.
CMEC’s latest research brief “Are You Smarter than a Fourth Grader?” released in March 2021 is a thinly veiled rationale for putting more emphasis on “reading literacy,” defined as the capacity to understand and communicate in many forms and contexts rather than on reading fluency and comprehension, two critical indicators of reading effectiveness.
Of course, in Grade 4, students’ capacities to understand increasingly complex texts and vocabulary is important, but the point is that in post-pandemic times, children already struggling with basic reading are going to need urgent support.
Pandemic learning loss
Policy-makers missed the early warning signals of pandemic learning loss, which have fallen unevenly on students from disadvantaged, racialized and marginalized communities.
Provinces made school closure decisions without any real knowledge of their impact upon student learning and well-being. A few months into the pandemic, in the fall of 2020, we had to look elsewhere (for example, Belgium), to learn that students in the middle grades suffered learning losses in mathematics and actually went backward in the case of language and writing skills.
It took a U.S. management consultancy research summary, published in December 2020, to identify and provide reasonably reliable estimates of the total potential learning loss (amounting to five to nine months) to the end of the school year in June 2021.
Where was cross-Canada analysis?
To get an idea of how students were doing when it came to early reading, Canadian educators had to rely on two Alberta research studies, conducted by University of Alberta educational psychology professor George Georgiou, that demonstrated young readers are lagging behind the learning curve in the wake of school shutdowns and the default to online learning.
CMEC didn’t publish a comparative cross-Canada analysis of school closures or the effects on students. Instead, the best public information to date about this comes from research commissioned by the Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table. That study, released in June 2021, documented the actual number of instructional days lost province-to-province. It revealed the impact of mass and localized school closures, multiple models of educational provision and gaps in support for students with disabilities and socio-economic disadvantages.
But researchers said gaping holes in data research adversely affected their capacity to develop learning recovery programs.
Student absenteeism, disengagement, dropouts
It became clear early in the pandemic that there were gaps in how aware schools or provinces were of student attendance or school participation.
Policy reform advocate Irvin Studin has drawn attention to the cohort of children who fell through the cracks last year, and who are now either totally disengaged from or missing from public schools. Will they now be regarded as the human casualties of two years of disrupted education?
Replacing CMEC has more resonance in the wake of the pandemic shock and its destabilizing effect on kindergarten to Grade 12 education. It’s time to rethink and restructure a body that’s now simply an aggregation of provincial authorities inclined to protect their own interests.