Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Why are my taxes paying for private club memberships?

Charles Ungerleider, Professor Emeritus, The University of British Columbia
[permission to reproduce granted if authorship is acknowledged]

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos sparked outrage when she funneled COVID-19 relief funding intended for public institutions to private and religious schools. DeVos gave a broad interpretation (policy guidance) to the relief bill that, by the time you read this, will likely have been narrowed through Congressional action and public pressure.

For nearly fifty years, British Columbians have been subsidizing private and religious schools as a matter of public policy, but to date there has been no public objection. British Columbia is not alone. Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Quebec have policies to provide funding to private schools as a matter of policy.

Policy is the mechanism democratic societies use to allocate scarce public resources. If the resource supply were unlimited, you would have no need for policy; you could just drop by and take what you want. By setting public policy, our elected officials make difficult choices about how our scarce resources will be spent on health care, education, housing, sanitation, water, etc.  Not all resource allocation decisions are well considered, but once decided they are often hard to reverse.

Since the late 1970s, British Columbia has been subsidizing the education of students whose parents prefer that they be educated in private schools. Today, the subsidies amount to more than $300,000,000 per year. It is not the amount of money to which I object, though the amount is not trivial. I object to my taxes paying for memberships to private clubs to which access is restricted.

Private schools in British Columbia call themselves independent schools. They are independent only in the sense that they can choose who does and does not attend. Public schools are open to everyone.

Subsidies to parents whose children attend private schools are inequitable. According to Statistics Canada, when private school students are compared with their public-school peers, they are more likely to live in families with two biological parents whose higher income affords such advantages as more computers and books in the home.

The public policy question is: Do we (all citizens) want our scarce tax dollars paying for something available only to a specific group? I think not.

Private schools in British Columbia work to defend their subsidized status by fueling public concern about the increased cost that will be incurred if the students in private school returned to public schools. That is like a private golf club arguing that, if it is not subsidized, it will close and all its members will go to the public golf course, making it more difficult to get a tee-time and more expensive to maintain the greens.  

Private school advocates often frame the issue as one of parental choice about the education their children receive. Parents are certainly free to choose private schools, but they should not be free to use my taxes or yours to subsidize their choices.

Let me put it another way: There is a perfectly good tennis court at the publicly funded community centre near my home. But if I would prefer to play at a private tennis club would you help pay for my membership in that private tennis club?

I didn’t think so.

Reversing the 40 year old subsidy policy will take strong political will to withstand the inevitable and intense lobbying by private schools and their supporters. However, a reasoned and thoughtful campaign in favour of the change by supporters of public schools should be able to sway public sentiment.

I think it is time that we stopped subsidizing the private club memberships for a small, relatively more advantaged, segment of the population.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

COVID-19 was a failed natural experiment in online schooling

Charles Ungerleider, Professor Emeritus, The University of British Columbia
 [permission to reproduce if authorship is acknowledged]

Natural experiments are observational studies of the impact of an event conducted during and afterward, focussing on differences among groups. They differ markedly from true experiments in which individuals are randomly assigned to an experimental group and a control group. The experimental group is exposed to some treatment (a new drug, for example) and the control group is not.

Coincidentally, one of the most famous natural experiments was conducted after a cholera epidemic by John Snow (famous at least among epidemiologists). Water to a region in London was supplied by two different companies. During the cholera epidemic of 1849, the two companies supplied their water from the same polluted region of the Thames, producing similar death rates.  By the time cholera returned in 1853, one of the companies had changed its source of water, creating the condition for a natural experiment. Snow mapped the outbreaks of cholera in 1853 and traced its recurrence to the water supplied by the company still obtaining it from the polluted region of the Thames.

The COVID-19 pandemic has produced a natural experiment in online learning, though not exactly like the cholera epidemic in London. Online learning during COVID-19 has had a markedly different impact on different populations. Statistics Canada data show that the burdens of access to equipment, technology and support fall heaviest upon lower income households. These households have a disproportionate share of students who will have the greatest difficulty making up lost earning time, compounding the existing inequalities.

Students in homes that were relatively well-equipped with a computer and decent bandwidth were able to access the educational material. Obviously that material, and the support teachers were providing, were not available to students in homes with no or little equipment or internet access.

No one considered the online experiences as a substitute for face-to-face instruction or contact between students and teachers. However, one of the unintended but real consequences of online learning was to exacerbate the inequalities that face-to-face schooling tries to eliminate.

Even in homes with equipment and internet there was competition between parents who needed the equipment and bandwidth for working at home and their children who needed them for school. Families with the luxury of time were better able to monitor and assist their children. The differences among all students intensified.  Of course, these were not the only differences in the environments in which students were expected to learn online. Many students do not have a quiet space at home and/or parents who can help them when they struggle with a task. There are students who are on their own because their parents must work outside the home.

Teachers struggled. Many had little or no experience with online learning, video-conferencing equipment, and the content management systems that school boards made available but for which little training was available. Ever resourceful, many resorted to other online resources for help and one another for support. But most teachers were on their own in terms of what and how they planned for, and made use of, online ‘learning.’

There are lessons to be learned from the natural experiment in online learning. It is obvious, the introduction of any new practice or technology requires significant planning. Of course, no one anticipated the abrupt shift to online communication (I resist calling it learning). Those contemplating further use of internet technologies must have a plan for doing so. The COVID-19 online experience makes me wonder if Ontario will rethink requiring mandatory online coursework for secondary students.

It is important to ensure that the conditions for using the technology are favourable. Inequalities in equipment and bandwidth are not acceptable conditions. Requiring teachers to figure things out for themselves is unacceptable. They need preparation for using any new practice or technology.

Teachers should not be preparing on their own. Most teacher unions have sub-sets of teachers organized by grade level or subject. These are often called professional specialist groups or something similar. The membership of these groups is often leaders in the sub-specialty. These groups should work with teachers who have significant experience working with technology and distributed learning to prepare the material that will be used if there is a return to online learning.

If online learning continues, adjustment would be required to the traditional relationship between teachers and students, one that is presently based upon a single teacher working with a group of students (usually grouped by age) based on grade level or subject. This arrangement places enormous pressure on teachers working in conventional face-to-face environments. Online environments increase the pressure exponentially. Online learning (and face-to-face learning) would likely be enhanced if teachers were encouraged to collaborate with one another and have collective responsibility for groups of students. Online learning as it is presently practiced places unreasonable demands upon teachers and poses major challenges that could affect long-term student development.

COVID-19 is likely to recur in the fall and perhaps after. There are steps that can be taken to improve on the largely negative experience. There were many admirable efforts to address inequalities in access by providing computers and free or relatively inexpensive internet. But significant inequalities remain that must be diminished. That will be costly at any time, but they will be an additional burden in the aftermath of the huge expenditures that governments have made during the first wave of COVID-19.

The cost of improving the online experience of students, teachers, and families will need to be weighed against rescheduling schooling to make up the learning time lost by closing schools.  Closing schools during what is likely to be another COVID-19 wave (declaring them ‘unplanned school holidays’) might be preferable on several grounds. Rescheduling schooling as often happens in climates where schools are closed because of weather is much less costly than gearing up for more and improved online learning.

Because it will be difficult to ‘gear up’ before another wave occurs, the inequalities produced by the first wave of COVID-19 are very likely to persist and, thus, be worsened by resorting to the use of internet technologies to address school closures. Rescheduling face-to-face instruction is likely to be more favourable from an educational standpoint because it would not aggravate educational inequalities to the same extent as the hodgepodge that was characteristic of the response to the first COVID-19 wave.   

I belong to the “plan for the worst and hope for the best” school of public policy. I hope there is not a second wave of COVID-19. However, planning for school closures in the event of a second wave of COVID-19 is preferable to repeating the failed natural experiment in online learning during COVID’s first wave that has worsened the educational inequalities that schooling tries to eliminate.

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Why school boards fail to comply with their own policies

Charles Ungerleider, Professor Emeritus, The University of British Columbia

[permission to reproduce granted if authorship is acknowledged]

On November 27, 2019 The Ontario Minister of Education appointed a review team to investigate anti-Black racism and discrimination; lack of cooperation among trustees and between them and the Director of Education; board performance; hiring and promotion policies and practices; workplace equity; the handling of grievances and complaints; and a suite of governance issues in the Peel District School Board. In February 2020, the Minister received the Review of the Peel District School Board. Notwithstanding the formality of the language used in such reports, it was scathing. In March 2020, the Minister issued 27 directions to the Board and on April 28th appointed an investigator to determine whether the Peel board was carrying them out.

The problems that prompted the review of the Peel Board go well beyond their failure to govern effectively, but its failure to govern is among the key problems the board faces. Among the 27 directions, the Minister ordered the Board to engage the services of an external governance expert to “establish procedures and practices for effective, respectful, and transparent governance” and create a permanent position “to provide professional governance advisory services and support to the Board.”

School board trustees usually have no training in governance prior to their election to school boards. However, not long after they take office, the boards to which they have been elected and the provincial professional associations of school boards typically offer governance training. The Ontario Public School Boards Association, for example, offers a suite of 21 modules devoted to various aspects of governance. But the report of the team that reviewed the Peel Board noted:

All trustees acknowledged that they received inadequate training in bylaws, Code of Conduct and key PDSB policies and procedures, and they continue to struggle with the distinction between governance and Board operations. The ability of the Board of Trustees to effectively govern has been limited by the failure of the PDSB to provide a comprehensive orientation for newly elected trustees, as well ongoing professional development and governance advice and support (p. 23-24).

Inadequate preparation and professional development are just two of the reasons that school boards fail to comply with their own policies. Policies are central to effective governance. Students and staff suffer when trustees fail to govern in accordance with their policies, and the public loses confidence in the school system.

Preparation alone is not the only reason why boards fail to govern according to their policies. School trustees too often do not know their own policies and, therefore, do not monitor the impact of those policies. A school board that fails to enforce its own policies in effect has no policies. As the review report makes clear, knowledge of governance is essential for effective governance. Trustee orientations and professional development are essential. Most school board associations do offer new-trustee-orientations and a suite of professional learning opportunities for trustees. 

Even trustees who are knowledgeable about the policies by which they are supposed to govern often fail because they do not monitor compliance with policy or cannot distinguish compliance from non-compliance. Case studies are useful in exploring the intricacies of compliance and non-compliance. However, they are only helpful to trustees in school boards that monitor policy implementation and impact by using metrics and measurement wisely.

There are, of course, trustees who can distinguish compliance from non-compliance but choose not to identify non-compliance in the hope that it will not recur.  “If I overlook what is happening, maybe it won’t happen again.” The head-in-the-sand approach usually does not work. Policy non-compliance has impact. Breach of fiduciary responsibility, discrimination, employment standards violations are just a few of many consequences of looking the other way.

Some school boards have ignored policy non-compliances because they fear that identifying the problems will undermine the public’s confidence in the Board. If anyone is inclined to think that is a successful strategy, they should read the Peel report.

Some trustees rely on the Board Chair to identify non-compliance in the mistaken belief or understanding that the identification of non-compliance is the Chair’s responsibility. It is not. Identification of non-compliance is a responsibility of the Board (not just the Chair) and must be a Board decision.

Non-compliance sometimes arises because a trustee fails to adhere to the Board’s trustee code of conduct. When that kind of non-compliance occurs, and the board members fail to uphold the Chair when the Chair identifies non-compliance, it undermines the authority and integrity of the entire board. Board members must realize that, in such circumstances, the chair is acting on behalf of the Board (not as an individual board member). Failing to uphold the chair’s ruling that a code of conduct violation has occurred threatens the integrity of the entire board.

Judgments about policy compliance and non-compliance, whether about codes-of-conduct or other board policies, should not be made for partisan advantage. It is unfortunate that they sometimes are. That, too, impeaches the integrity of the Board and undermines the public’s confidence in the school district.

The current investigation is just another plot-point in the drama unfolding in Peel. In the meantime, Peel students and parents are being victimized by the drama. Good governance is no mystery, but its absence will cause serious damage for students, parents, the wider community, the morale of employees, and the public’s confidence in the educational system.

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Principles to Guide the Post-COVID Transition

Charles Ungerleider, Professor Emeritus, The University of British Columbia
[permission to reproduce granted if authorship is acknowledged]

Many of those eager to see schools reopen talk about “returning to the new normal.” Leaving aside the contradiction between ‘returning’ and ‘new normal,’ I expect that those who use the term ‘new normal’ recognize that It is neither practical nor feasible to return to the conditions that prevailed before COVID-19. Those conditions were pretty good, but not without their shortcomings. I doubt that the parents of students with special needs, Indigenous students, students for whom the promise of schooling is not fully realized, and students seeking a more challenging educational experience wish to return to those prior conditions.

Suggestions about how the school system should transition from COVID, and what schooling will look like after COVID-19 are numerous. Many seem attractive. Commentators recognize the importance of caution and nuance. Many suggest a gradual approach to “opening” schools from the present state of partial closure (some provinces are providing an on-site education to the children of essential service workers) to schools that are completely open. The provincial health officers will likely authorize regions, boards, and communities to reopen according to different schedules.  

An important consideration is the ordering of the categories of students permitted to come to school. As mentioned, some children of essential service workers are already in schools. Students with special needs - for whom the absence of the support of teachers and educational assistants is a significant impediment to their learning and well-being - might be next. Similar sequencing could occur by grade level. Grade 12 students first, grade 11 next, etc. On the other hand, some have suggested that after grade 12 students return, the next group should be primary school students who are the least adept at managing online learning.

It has been suggested that staging the re-entry of students would enable teachers whose students have yet to return to assist those whose students are re-entering. This would allow for some structural social distancing to occur during the initial period of phasing in but would obviously diminish as successive waves of students arrived.

A related idea is the phase-in of certain subject areas. What we called “solids" in my youth (English, Mathematics, Science, Social Studies) might be first, followed by Art, Music, Physical Education, etc. Another consideration is the timing. It would be prudent to develop a set of contingency plans phased from the worst-case scenario (for example, schools not opening until November), and working back from there to the best-case scenario.

Some have suggested that special consideration needs to be given to early childhood learning and the transition to school for the cohort of children entering school for the first time. Inequality among children in terms of their readiness is a factor that is important to consider.

There are suggestions about facility-usage and cleaning, the possibility of periodic closure should the virus manifest itself in ways the Provincial Health Officer deems to be harmful. Dividing class/cohort groupings in two and alternating the days they attend is one suggestion about maintaining physical distance between students. Another is having half the cohort/class attend in the morning and the other in the afternoon. Attention would need to be given to how to use the time of a reduced day; simply transferring a lesson for 25 students to a group of 12-13 would not be the optimum approach.  A group of 12-13 would however offer an opportunity to students and teachers to combine more group work with teacher-led instruction, and for the teacher to closely observe and coach during the group learning.

Concern has been frequently expressed that virtual learning is exacerbating inequities among students that must be addressed. Some have suggested dividing the cohorts/classes would allow teachers more scope for assessing and working with those students who have fallen behind because of virtual learning.

Whatever form the transition may take, a return to school could be short-lived if the winter flu season causes Covid19 to revive. With that in mind, some suggest that resources should be devoted to developing a more robust and standardize provincial capability for the provision of blended learning, a combination of online education with face-to-face learning.

Active communication between schools and families (not just newsletters or web announcements, but conversations) must be sustained. The transition is likely to continue to be fluid and varied, necessitating common understanding and commitment to new approaches.

Each of the suggestions – and others not mentioned here – are plausible. Each has benefits and deficiencies. On their own, however, they fail to capitalize on the opportunity the post-COVID transition provides for rethinking and addressing the imperfections that impede a good system from being a great system – especially by addressing the needs of the students about whom I wrote in the introductory paragraph.

As readers of this blog know, I have my ideas and suggestions for system improvement. You likely have yours. What we need are principles to guide us in the post-COVID transition so that we do not simply replicate an imperfect system.

The post-COVID transition and the conditions to which the transition leads should ensure:

Safety: the health and safety of students, employees, and their families
Success: improvement in student academic success and well being
Equity: gaps in student learning and inequities among students diminish over time
Evidence: decisions are informed by the accumulated evidence
Respect: respect for Human Rights and democratic participation/voice
Confidence: the public’s confidence in its public schools will be enhanced

Without a set of principles to guide the transition, we do not have a way of making distinctions among the many ideas being discussed and about the conditions we wish to prevail following the transition. Moreover, thinking first about principles forces us to consider what we value and the relative priorities among what we value.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

International Education Before and After COVID-19

International Education Before and After COVID-19

Charles Ungerleider, Professor Emeritus, The University of British Columbia

[permission to reproduce granted if authorship is acknowledged]

The COVID-19 pandemic has reminded many Canadians of the quality of life we enjoy. Stable and well functioning institutions (peace, order, and good government), accessible health care, mostly high performing school systems, and the relative absence of inequality. These are many of the elements that provincial governments and local school boards use to recruit fee-paying, international students to Canada.

International student recruitment is highly competitive. British Columbia competes with other provinces and with other nations for the relatively advantaged students who seek or whose families seek for them an education outside of their home country.

British Columbia has been competitive because of the quality of its schools and the safety and care students enjoy.  British Colombia’s schools are less socially stratified than those of some other countries where school ranking and examinations can determine one’s life chances.

The recruitment of students from other countries makes schools more diverse, providing the opportunity for Canadian students to be enriched through their contact with international students and vice versa. In turn, students who successfully complete a Canadian secondary school program can seek admission to post-secondary study in Canada.

Recruiting fee-paying international students to Canadian schools, and licensing off-shore schools by provincial governments, are what one colleague describes as “asset stripping” by which he means that Canada is stripping other countries of their highly educated young people. By virtue of their Canadian education and enculturation, some international students are more likely to seek to stay – and most important – work in Canada. Those international students who choose to stay help to increase the number of young, working, tax-paying Canadians upon whom older, retired Canadians depend.

All good? Well, that depends upon your standpoint. The more international students are educated in Canada the less likely they are to maintain their heritage language and culture. I know that this is something that most international students do not realize. At least not initially. The parents of international students may recognize the trade off and willingly sacrifice cultural maintenance for an education that will enable their children to have a better life in a country with the qualities Canadians enjoy.

COVID-19 makes the situation a bit dicey for the teachers whose employment depends on international students and for school boards and post-secondary institutions whose revenues are significantly affected by international student enrollment. “COVID-19 hits teacher jobs in Coquitlam school district” read the April 10th headline in the Tricity News. The subhead proclaims, “International student enrolment expected to plummet in wake of global pandemic, layoffs expected for the first time in three years for teachers in Port Coquitlam, Coquitlam and Port Moody schools.” Coquitlam is one of three school boards in BC - West Vancouver and Burnaby are the other two – where revenue from international student tuition accounts for more than 10% of the board’s total budgeted revenue.

The revenues derived from recruiting and educating international students are substantial. The approximately $35 million Coquitlam derives from international student revenues is nearly equivalent to 12% of the money it receives from the basic grant from the Ministry of Education. In West Vancouver, the proportion is 16% ($10 million); Burnaby is 11% ($24 million); Greater Victoria is 9% ($16 million). Overall, international students probably account for about 800 teachers in BC, most of whom work in secondary schools.

The tuition fees charged to international students exceed the per pupil amount allocated by the province for students from British Columbia, often by a significant margin. Some are in the range of 140% to 160% of the Ministry of Education’s per pupil allocation. While some of the difference can be attributed to additional support that international students require (language assistance and counselling, for example), some of the supports and services provided to local students are being subsidized by international students.

The loss of revenue will not be felt proportionally across school boards. More than half of the provincial revenue from international student tuition is received by boards in the metropolitan Vancouver region. Metro boards receive about four times as much as the next region, Vancouver Island. Northern region boards receive about 1/160th of the revenue received by the metro boards.

In addition, the impact will be disproportionate according to grade level. Approximately 85% of the international student enrolment occurs at the secondary school level. The proportion of international students increases from grade 8 to grade 12, with approximately 50% of the international high school students at the grade 11 and 12 level.

The negative impact of COVID-19 on the education of international students is likely to be significant, causing substantial dislocation for them and their families. But, as mentioned above, the impact will not be confined to international students. Supports and services for students from British Columbia will also be affected. The magnitude of the impact is difficult to gauge without knowing the nature of the contingency plans that school boards have made for such an eventuality.

It is doubtful that many parents know school boards are using unstable sources of revenue to fund supports and services for students from British Columbia. They assume that the learning supports their children receive are funded from their tax dollars. If revenues diminish or disappear as appears to be the case in Coquitlam, school boards must reduce staffing and programs. Entreaties to the provincial government to replace the lost revenue from international programs are unlikely to succeed. Even if the Province were positively disposed, which is improbable, facing significant fiscal pressure because of COVID-19 it simply will not have the resources to replace the lost revenue.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Helping parents to survive COVID-19 without teaching

Charles Ungerleider, Professor Emeritus, The University of British Columbia

[permission to reproduce granted if authorship is acknowledged]

In just a few weeks of coping with COVID-19 we’ve learned or rediscovered some important lessons about the part that parents play in the educational process. I do not mean “parents as teachers” of their own children because I do not think parents should or can be asked to take on the responsibility for teaching their children – even when the parent is an experienced teacher. I mean the part that parent-child interaction plays in developing the child’s curiosity about the world around them and their interest in learning.

It will surprise no one that school achievement is related to the home environment. But it is worth remembering while we attempt to cope with COVID-19. There are many no-cost things that parents can encourage their children to do and do with their children if their time permits.

Those who have examined the relationship between home environments and student achievement have observed that households with toys and household objects that prompt children to use fine motor skills help stimulate a child’s creativity. Fine motor skills are developed by scribbling, drawing, colouring, and writing; using scissors to cut; tying one’s shoelaces, buttoning up, putting on a belt, zipping a zipper; using cutlery to eat; opening and closing zip-seal containers; brushing one’s hair and cleaning one’s teeth are all fine motor skills. They are also developed by making toothpick sculptures, completing puzzles, making a collage, playing string games, learning slight of hand tricks, juggling, etc. Making a sock puppet or a paper-bag mask (not for COVID-19), the possibilities are many and can be tailored to the age of the child. All are activities that are fun for both children and their parents that do not require parents to “teach.” These are activities parents just need to demonstrate or suggest.

Playing conversational games is fun and educational. Almost everyone know how to play 20 questions. The alphabet game can be played by two or more. Pick a letter at random (“B”) and category (“animals”) and take turns trying to name as many animals that start with the letter b (bears, bats, birds, etc.). Play this or that? (also called “which would you rather?”) to discover a person’s interests by giving them two choices from which they must choose “bungy-jumping or sky-diving?” Repeat the question many times and encourage the kids to keep track of the choices and compare them with those of friends and relatives. Can you talk on-topic for just a minute? It’s not easy. Put topics on scraps of paper in a bag, draw one at a time, and take turns trying to talk about the topic for a minute. The point here is to have fun using language.

Parents who have time to watch a movie with their children can ask them about what they liked or disliked about the movie, a character in the movie, a plot twist, or the conclusion. One important part of this activity is to ask questions that prompt kids to think about what they’ve seen and to develop a way of talking about what they’ve seen. A second important part is parents listening and responding to what their kids are saying. Parents and their children can do the same activity with a favorite story or novel.

Reading to one another develops oral fluency and expression. Cooking together develops many skills, including recipe reading, measurement, cooperation. Playing board games develops turn taking and, often, planning a winning strategy. Kids can interview relatives by telephone or chat app about what they were like and what they liked when they were their age. It’s likely that the relative will welcome the opportunity.

There are many things parents can encourage their children to do and do with their children that will stimulate mental effort, curiosity, and the use of the skills that the kids have learned in school. They can be done without the parents having to “teach.” They can be done at little or no cost. Although there is a bit of competition in some of the activities, the major emphasis is on having fun.

Let’s encourage parents to interact with their children in ways that will develop their curiosity about the world around them and their interest in learning without requiring parents to “teach” during the COVID-19 Pandemic.

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Lost Learning Time During COVID-19

Charles Ungerleider, Professor Emeritus, The University of British Columbia
[Permission to reproduce if authorship is acknowledged]

COVID-19 has parents concerned about the safety of their children and their educational welfare. Parents know that they don’t have the skills to teach their children. COVID-19 helps them to appreciate that managing the learning of one child is challenging, that teachers’ work is complex.

While parents are clearly anxious about ‘continuity of learning’ during COVID-19, anecdotal evidence indicates that their expectations are less demanding than would be the case if schools were closed because of a labour dispute. They are, nonetheless, concerned about the long-term impact of the loss of instructional time on their child’s learning.

That concern is well placed. My hunch is that schools in British Columbia may not reopen until September 2020 and possibly later than that. I explicitly use the term hunch because it is no more than a guess or gut feeling. Regardless of the duration of school closure, parents are justified in their worry about the time lost in school.

Concern about lost learning time is long-standing, dating to the early 1900s. Although it is sometimes called summer learning loss or summer learning gap, I prefer the term lost learning time because there is no reason to believe that lost instructional time does not have an impact even if it occurs at other times of the year.

The study of lost learning time is complex, but the accumulated evidence vindicates parental concern. Studies[1] indicate that “summer learning loss” is roughly equivalent to about one month of schooling. Losses are greater for mathematics than for reading, likely because students read during the summer, but are less engaged in mathematics. Losses are projected to be larger for older than younger students. Losses are also greater for less advantaged students than for more advantaged students, likely because of the opportunities afforded the former. According to some research, the losses have “lasting consequences.” [2]

Summer learning loss is often attributed to fewer opportunities to use and practice what student have learned during the year. Notwithstanding the efforts of teachers during COVID-19 some instructional time will be lost and the opportunities to practice diminished despite the efforts that teachers are making to ensure continuity of instruction during COVID-19.

At this point, ‘continuity of learning’ appears to differ from school board to school board, school to school and teacher to teacher. Those differences are likely to manifest themselves in what and how students learn during the pandemic. Children in more advantaged families are less likely to be affected negatively than students in less advantaged families because of their access to resources such as personal computers and access to the Internet.  

There are three categories of students for whom lost learning time is most detrimental. Students for whom English is a second language will not have the systematic exposure to the language they are trying to learn. Special needs students will not benefit from the teaching and learning strategies imparted by specialists, and by teachers often working with outside agencies. Low-income students will not have the learning time they need to maintain progress with their peers.

If schools were able to resume during July and August, some of the negative impact of lost instructional and learning time because of COVID-19 might be mitigated. That’s still a big ‘if’ at this point. Moreover, if medical health officials believe that COVID-19 will abate a bit during the warm, summer months and then reoccur in the Fall (and there is no ‘summertime school’), lost learning time would likely have a greater impact.

Restarting schools in July or even August would require significant effort for everyone (parents, teachers, educational assistants, administrators, support staff, school board officials, and of course, students). But a summer restart might just be a welcome and beneficial opportunity.

[1] Cooper, H., Nye, B., Charlton, K., Lindsay, J., & Greathouse, S. (1996). The effects of summer vacation on achievement test scores: A narrative and meta‐analytic review. Review of Educational Research, 66, 227–268; Burkam, D. T., Ready, D. D., Lee, V. E., & LoGerfo, L. F. (2004). Social‐class differences in summer learning between kindergarten and first grade: Model specification and estimation. Sociology of Education, 77, 1–31; Entwisle, D. R., Alexander, K. L., & Olson, L. S. (2001). Keep the faucet flowing: Summer learning and home environment. American Educator, 25(3), 10–15.
[2] Alexander, K. L., Entwisle, D. R., & Olson, L. S. (2007). Lasting consequences of the summer learning gap. American Sociological Review, 72, 167–180.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Coping with COVID-19

Coping with COVID-19

Charles Ungerleider, Professor Emeritus, The University of British Columbia


[Permission to reproduce if authorship is acknowledged]

The suspension of school-based learning has taxed the ability of school systems to provide the educational programs required by legislation. But the provision of education programs is not all that school systems do. In many locations, children depend, at least in part, on the meals provided at the schools they attend. This is especially true of children who are homeless.

All indications are that school systems have been making care for students their priority, especially for those who are the most vulnerable. Many districts have organized meal and food distribution programs. In Los Angeles, the second largest school system in the US, corporations have donated toys, art supplies, diapers, wipes, baby food and blankets. A Teamsters local worked around the clock to delivered items to the 64 “Grab & Go Food Centers” in the district.

Instructional programs vary from student to student, school to school, and district to district.  My granddaughter in grade nine in Los Angeles has one live, on-line class per day (Math on Mondays, English on Tuesday, Science on Wednesday, etc.). Each class is approximately one-hour long, including brief breaks. Many teachers use a chat feature to pose questions to students and answer the questions student have. There is no student to student interaction, something my very social granddaughter misses greatly.

Some classes include on-line quizzes about the material previously presented. All have complementary assignments to reinforce what has been taught. When I asked my granddaughter, she said, “it’s pretty much like school without being with your friends!” She works, attending class and doing homework about 5½ to 6 hours each day. “It’s not too bad,” she says. “My friends and I miss each other, but we’re getting used to that.”

Other systems appear to have been challenged to do much more than just assign work that students must do on their own or with the support of their parents. Parents struggling to support their kids have developed a new appreciation of the work that teachers do. People for Education Canada reports that one parent quipped, “Now that I’ve home-schooled my 6 year-old for 30 minutes, I realize that teachers should be paid at least $1 million per year.”

I saw a funny video clip of a parent ranting about the implicit expectations placed on parents to keep their children on task, the challenge parents have when their children ask for help, parental fear of exposing their ignorance to the children, etc.

School boards in British Columbia have been developing their plans. Suzanne Hoffman, Superintendent of Schools for the Vancouver School District, the second largest in the province in terms of student enrollment, says that the VSB has four priorities:

  • Ensure the health and safety of students, staff and communities.
  • Communicate thoughtfully, transparently and in a timely manner.
  • Provide connections to ensure students feel valued and have a sense of belonging and community.
  • Continue learning opportunities so that all students can successfully transition to their next phase of learning.

The VSB has already taken steps toward the first priority by promising to continue feeding students who depend upon schools for some portion of their daily nutrition. Regarding the rest, Hoffmann says that “school staff will reach out to provide further information on plans about how students can access materials and belongings from their schools, potentially some ideas about the continuation of learning, and plans to support the most vulnerable students and their families.” It isn’t clear yet what steps the VSB will take to ensure that the educational programs of students continue. Hoffman realistically points out that whatever the VSB does “. . . will not be perfect and there will be bumps along the way.” No doubt!

Similar efforts are likely going on in all school boards across the province. Although there appears to be some cooperation among BC’s education partners, the challenge of providing for the continuance, if not the continuity, of education seems primarily to rest with individual school boards. According to the Ministry’s FAQ “ Each school district and independent school authority will develop a plan that best responds to the needs of their local community.”

That worries me for two reasons. Larger school boards have the advantage being able to capitalize on scale economies that benefit larger entities. Smaller and more remote school boards whose students are more dispersed are likely to have a harder time mobilizing their resources. My second concern is about a patchwork of educational opportunities. I use the term ‘opportunities’ because I am reluctant to refer to them as programs since they are not likely to have the coherence that one expects from a program.  I fear that educational inequalities will be exacerbated by differences among districts.

I am also concerned that educational inequalities within school districts will be exacerbated because less advantaged homes are unlikely to have the technology, bandwidth, and supports that more advantaged homes enjoy. Families for which food and shelter security are issues with which they cope everyday have fewer resources that they can devote to the support of the education of their children.

Some of these challenges can be mitigated if the provincial education organizations work together, pooling their knowledge and resources. The British Columbia Teachers’ Federation can bring expertise to the design of instruction. The BC School Trustees Association can determine how shared resources can mitigate some of the disadvantages that smaller school districts are likely to have. The BC School Superintendents’ Association, the BC Principal and Vice Principals’ Association, and the BC Association of School Business Officers can pool their expertise about logistics. The Knowledge Network may be able to play a role as TVO/ILC, the Ontario Ministry of Education’s provider of distance education, does in Ontario.

This kind of cooperation and coordination will require each school district and each association to see beyond the horizon of its own interest to foster the common good. This will be difficult, but not impossible. We’ve seen how well BC has addressed public health and safety during COVID-19. I am confident that the same can be done in education under the leadership of the Ministry of Education. It should ensure standards are met and the education of students is not at greater risk because of differences in capacity and resources.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Educational Myth-busting: School Rankings

Educational Myth-busting: School Rankings

Charles Ungerleider, Professor Emeritus, The University of British Columbia

[Permission to reproduce granted if authorship is acknowledged]

It isn’t often that I have the luxury of watching television, but, when I see Discovery Channel’s MythBusters I smile. The hosts use their knowledge of science to entertainingly debunk myths. I’ve often thought that, if the program did some education myth-busting, it would be doing a public service.  The problem with my idea is that busting educational myths depends on logic and evidence, topics that don’t have much visual appeal.

One persistent myth about Canadian schools that deserves to be busted is that you can tell a lot about a school from its rank among other schools. In fact, school rankings are, at best, misleading and, at worst, dishonest.

The methodology used to produce school rankings compares each school with every other school being ranked. Those comparisons are mathematically adjusted to distribute the results (school scores) so that half of the schools fall below the average school score and the other half of the schools above the average.  When I point that out to parents, someone correctly points out, “That means that, if all schools improved by 50%, there would still be half of the schools below the average score.” 

People who produce school rankings based on student achievement conveniently ignore some of the other flaws in the logic. For example, they ignore that student achievement is a product of all the prior in-school and out-of-school experiences that a student has had up to the point when achievement is assessed. One implication of a highly mobile society is that holding a school accountable for the achievement of the students currently enrolled in that school probably places too much weight on the school’s influence and understates other influences. 

What we know from the lengthy history of studying student achievement is that, while schools – and especially the quality of instruction that students receive in schools – matter, factors outside of school matter more! Parental influence is one of the factors affecting how and how well students achieve in school. The amount and quality of interaction between parents and their children makes a difference. The value that parents ascribe to school and the respect they have for teachers affect how their children view their school experience and their teachers. 

Family income affects student achievement in several ways. Families living in impoverished circumstances have children who are less healthy. Those children are typically less likely to have seen a dentist or a doctor than their more advantaged peers. One reason is that parents struggling to make ends meet often work multiple low-paying jobs. If they take time from work, they lose pay. If employers think they are taking too much unpaid time off, they risk being replaced. Under such circumstances, the necessity of a visit to the dentist or physician can become a luxury that they cannot afford. 

On the other hand, more advantaged parents have time and resources they can invest in their children. They can ensure that their children receive regular dental and medical checkups. They can afford more nutritious food. They can attend school meetings and meetings with their children’s teachers. In addition, they can afford experiences such as after school activities and summer camps that are beyond the reach of their less advantaged peers. All other things being equal, children whose parents are better off reap educational advantages and benefits. 

Children who live in more challenging circumstances sometimes struggle with school work. If they are in classes where the students come from varied backgrounds, they benefit from having peers who are not struggling – especially if the more advantaged peers are in the majority. If children live in impoverished communities and attend school with children who also live in impoverished circumstances, they are deprived of the positive peer influences of those youngsters who live in advantaged circumstances.

Although the truth behind school rankings is not as visually appealing as investigating the cause of an explosion or a failed missile launch, it should make everyone – especially parents – think twice about the conclusions they draw from school rankings.   

Enjoy your Spring break (blog will resume in a few weeks)

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Teaching: Complexity and Making a Visible Difference

Teaching: Complexity and Making a Visible Difference

Charles Ungerleider, Professor Emeritus, The University of British Columbia

[Permission to reproduce granted in authorship is acknowledged]

Teaching is complex work. It involves making an enormous number of decisions each day. All but the most trivial decisions require consideration of factors that interact with one another in seemingly countless ways.

Many decisions arise unexpectedly: decisions about responding to conflict among students, unexpected interruptions, unpredictable misbehavior, etc. Many decisions can be anticipated: decisions about lesson content, sequencing, selection of illustrations and examples, questions, etc.

On its own, instruction is massively complex--too complex to rely on experience alone. Discerning what works and what does not by examining one’s experience would be like looking for a blade of grass in a corn field. Carefully planned and executed studies are helpful guidance but relying on a single study would be foolish. It would be ideal if the carefully planned and executed study was repeated many times under the same conditions. There are unfortunately too few carefully planned and executed studies that have been replicated multiple times.

Instructional decision-making is too important to be left to the imperfections of our own experience or even to a single study however well it might have been performed.  Although imperfect, looking across studies of the same topic can provide more guidance. Over the course of the last 30 years or so, meta-analytical work has provided needed guidance for policy and practice, despite the difficulty of distinguishing the signal from the noise in the complex classroom environment.

John Hattie points out that any number of decisions a teacher might make can lead to some observed change in student performance because in education “almost everything works.” He recommends that, to minimize the risk of adopting policies and practices that may only make a marginal difference, teachers adopt practices that have a visible impact.

In his books, especially in his 2009 book Visible Learning, Hattie reports the results of his meta-analysis of studies that purport to address the same phenomenon and identifies practices that have a visible impact on student achievement.  All the practices Hattie enumerates that make a visible difference in student learning are, as one might expect, associated with how teachers teach rather than the conditions affecting their work.  That doesn’t mean that working conditions are unimportant, but it suggests that the preparation, support and professional development of teachers are where most of the attention should be directed.

Hattie identifies way-points to educational excellence that are specifically focused on teachers and teaching. They are:

1. Teachers are among the most powerful influences in learning.

2. Teachers need to be directive, influential, caring, and actively engaged in the passion of teaching and learning.

3. Teachers need to be aware of what each and every student is thinking and knowing, to construct meaning and meaningful experiences in light of this knowledge and have proficient knowledge and understanding of their content to provide meaningful and appropriate feedback such that each student moves progressively through the curriculum levels.

4. Teachers need to know the learning intentions and success criteria of their lessons, know how well they are attaining these criteria for all students, and know where to go next in light of the gap between students’ current knowledge and understanding and the success criteria of: “Where are you going?”, “How are you going?”, and “Where to next?”.

5. Teachers need to move from the single idea to multiple ideas, and to relate and then extend these ideas such that learners construct and reconstruct knowledge and ideas. It is not the knowledge or ideas, but the learner’s construction of this knowledge and these ideas that is critical.

6. School leaders and teachers need to create school, staff-room, and classroom environments where error is welcomed as a learning opportunity, where discarding incorrect knowledge and understandings is welcomed, and where participants can feel safe to learn, re-learn, and explore knowledge and understanding. (Hattie, 2009, P. 238-239)

Because teachers are the greatest influence on student achievement, governments that want to improve outcomes should make their preparation, support and professional development a priority.


Hattie, John. (2009). Visible Learning. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Who really cares about school board elections?

Who really cares about school board elections?

Charles Ungerleider

Professor Emeritus, The University of British Columbia

[Permission to reproduce granted if authorship is acknowledged] 

Although sometimes fiercely competitive among the candidates, school board elections receive little attention from eligible voters. Political scientists R. Michael McGregor and Jack Lucas open their 2019 article about the correlates of school board voter turnout with the declaration: “If turnout is an indication of public engagement in an election, then most Canadians are distinctly disengaged from school board politics.”[i] Ouch!

            It seems likely that citizen disengagement has at least two negative consequences. One is that disinterest in school board politics means that school trustees are not accountable for the decisions they make, except to the narrow constituency from which they draw their support. The second is that the lack of accountability to local electors leaves provincial governments as the main agencies holding school boards accountable.

            Infrequently and typically with reluctance, a school board is ‘fired,’ and an official trustee appointed in its place. When Vancouver School Board Trustees failed to approve a budget under guidelines the Ministry of Education had set, the Board was dismissed, and an official trustee appointed for the school district. The trustees who had been dismissed petitioned the court saying, among other things, their rights to liberty and equal protection of the law as enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms had been infringed.

The court disagreed. In its ruling, the court ruled that the trustees had “no status to bring the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to their aid” because only individuals were accorded rights by the Charter. “Creatures of statute like a school board” or “members of a board acting in their official capacity” had no such rights. “Even if they had a constitutionally protected liberty to be school trustees, they had no absolute right, and lost their status when they failed to comply with a constitutionally valid statutory requirement.”[ii]

Ten years later, an Alberta court rejected an argument by the Alberta School Boards Association that reforms introduced by the government “. . . violated their right of reasonable autonomy which extended to elections, recruitment, management and fiscal control.” In part of its judgment, the court ruled that “. . . school boards did not have an expressed or implied constitutional right to reasonable autonomy,” possessing only “rights and powers delegated to them by the province.”[iii]

In other words, although they may have been democratically elected, school boards and the individual elected as trustees have only the standing and authority granted to them under provincial legislation.  This was evident when Nova Scotia eliminated its seven elected school boards, replacing them with a provincial advisory council on education whose 12 members are government appointees. As was the case in Vancouver and Alberta, there were those who considered the change undemocratic. Professor emeritus Wayne MacKay, an expert on educational law and constitutional matters observed:

[It’s a] lesson in how important and powerful the provincial government is in relation to education. School boards are simply a delegate of the province and they can create them, they can take them away.

McGregor and Lucas go on to report the results of their study that they say is the “first individual-level study of school board elections ever conducted in Canada.”  Their study of the Calgary Board of Education found that those who vote in school board elections are likely different from those who vote in municipal council elections. Voters in school board elections are more likely than voters in municipal elections to be highly educated parents who favour partisan positions that are often “left-leaning.”

McGregor and Lucas observe that “studies of school board elections in the United States, where turnout is similarly low, have noted the potential influence of well-organized groups in low-turnout elections that may have distinctly different interests from the wider population” (p. 924). While it would be dangerous to make strong inferences from a single study, the outsized influence of well-organized groups in low-turnout Canadian school board elections may explain why, once elected, trustees find it difficult to see beyond the horizon of their own electors' interests to govern in the interest of all citizens, and why, from time to time, provincial governments find it necessary to intervene on behalf of the wider community.

As decisions are increasingly made by provincial ministries, school boards become less important. Diminished school board importance and low voter turnout for school board elections are likely harbingers of the future of school boards.

[i] McGregor, R.M. and J. Lucas (2019). Who Has School Spirit? Explaining Voter Participation in School Board Elections. Canadian Journal of Political Science 52, 923–936.
[ii] Weinstein v. British Columbia (Minister of Education), [1985] B.C.J. No. 2890
[iii] Alberta School Boards Association of Alberta v. Alberta, [1995] A.J. No. 1317