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Deani Van Pelt: Some schools thrived during the COVID-19 crisis. What can they teach us?

Commentary

Remember the first three months of the COVID-19 pandemic? In many ways, the world seemed to shut down in mid-March 2020—and schools shut down right along with it. Students languished. Teachers waited. Parents struggled. For months. Right?

Not so fast. Although this ennui may describe the pandemic-era education experience—or non-education experience—for some, a recent study shows that this was certainly not the case for all.

A survey of Ontario independent school principals found that despite the sudden closure of all school buildings, almost half of the schools surveyed did not miss a single day of instruction. In fact, on average, these schools missed less than four days of instruction during the transition to emergency remote learning.

In addition, the study found that for the remainder of the school year, students at these schools received and participated in twice the government’s recommended daily instructional time. Many students even thrived during this period, as student agency and self-directed learning increased.

These students were engaged in their learning. In many ways, their needs were met, at some level, throughout. Almost all of these schools offered special education services before the mandated closures and continued to do so—albeit in new forms—throughout this period. Of course, this is not to dismiss or downplay the very real and serious struggles of some students, or the many experiences, never to be regained, that COVID-19 stole from all students.

But even under the weight of burdensome constraints, the good news continued. Celebrations took place with weekly chapels that often attracted hundreds of community members, and the majority of schools ended the year with unique drive-by or virtual graduation and learning celebrations.

How did this happen?

It certainly can’t be explained by wealth or bulging revenues. Indeed, the opposite is the case. To constrain expenses, three-quarters of the schools surveyed laid off staff (with half laying off between 11 and 30 percent of all staff members). In addition, in order to continue serving enrolled families, 83 percent offered some financial relief to those in need.

No, this success is explained, at least in part, by the community surrounding the students and the heroic dedication of their teachers.

So which schools are we talking about here? Are they the fictitious institutions invoked in a recent national newspaper column in which John Robson declared pandemic education a failure and asked readers to imagine “private schools rather than public schools being ordered to cease in-person instruction in this pandemic. They would have, of course,“ Robson imagines with us. “But then they’d have worked hard … to make online learning better rather than working hard to justify its mediocrity, because they’d have been free to innovate …”

Indeed, the schools in this study expended little energy complaining. Many teachers cut short or cancelled March Break plans and worked hard right from the beginning of the pandemic to make online learning better. In line with Robson’s imaginings, these schools are independent. They are also typically small, rural, and not well-heeled, serving mostly middle-class families.

Educating about 10 percent of all of Ontario’s independent school students, three-quarters of them are elementary schools (grades JK–8), 13 percent are secondary schools (grades 9–12), and 12 percent are combined schools (JK–12). Their size is worth noting, too, as 94 percent have fewer than 400 students; in fact, three of every five have fewer than 200 students. The average annual operational cost to educate each student is about $9,000, most of which comes from the parents of those enrolled and the school community.

In times of plenty, but particularly in times of crisis, communities will surround, support, care for, and engage.

Some might conclude that as we restructure K–12 education to become more crisis-proof, the funding should follow the child, not the system. At least for the moment, I’d say let’s leave the funding question aside and just look at the structure that permitted such a quick and effective pivot from in-person, classroom-based instruction to entirely virtual remote schooling.

While the study is filled with many gems worthy of a thoughtful reader’s gaze, two features, in particular, glisten: human-scale education and community-situated schooling.

The size of these schools cannot be ignored. School designers—and I don’t just mean architects of physical space—must attend to school size. Let’s acquaint ourselves with the literature on human-scale education from the UK and the EU and build human-scale schools where each student, each teacher, each family is known and cared for. Paul Bennett’s The State of the System: A Reality Check on Canada’s Schools is a great place to begin.

Community also matters. When principals lead (and not merely administer) schools that operate autonomously but within and accountable to a local community, those schools become vibrant places of engagement and contribution. In times of plenty, but particularly in times of crisis, these communities will surround, support, care for, and engage.

Parents will work closely with teachers, and community members will roll up their sleeves, doing whatever it takes to ensure the school and the students thrive. Industrial-scaled schooling and distant “local-district” bureaucracies simply cannot compare—they’re structurally incapable and lack the tacit knowledge for such a response. Charles Glenn and Jan De Groof’s Balancing Freedom, Autonomy, and Accountability in Education provides fabulous fodder for thinking about the design of autonomous, accountable schools.

Utopian? Fictitious? No. Actual schools in Canada where real students thrived and real teachers excelled. During a global crisis. I’m not sure how it remains defensible to keep such opportunity from any of our students for even one more day.

Patrick Luciani: Push back on the new theories breaching high school history classes

Commentary

A few weeks ago, an old acquaintance, now a successful academic at a major Canadian university, sent me a copy of her new book on the teaching of Canadian history in schools. It came with a note that read, “you’ll hate it!”

When a friend sends you their book it must be read or at least given some attention. I did, and she was right, I hated it.

I was going to keep my opinions to myself. Why risk offending a friend? I changed my mind. My acquaintance has garnered a reputation in her field among the progressive teachers of Canadian history. As citizens, we should know what our university departments of education are up to. I believe it is a service to the wider public debate that someone read her work and take up the challenge it represents about how modern educational theorists think and experience our country’s past.

The book starts off well enough noting how the traditional Canadian classroom has changed dramatically. Today 19 percent of Canadians identify as visible minorities. By 2031, 30 percent of Canadians will have a mother tongue other than English or French. With half the population in our major cities born elsewhere, more students will have no or little link or interest in Canada’s history.

The population of Aboriginal Canadians is also growing rapidly; they are younger and more urban. In short, the racial makeup of our classrooms is changing fast. To be relevant, high school history teachers are going to have a tougher job keeping students from falling asleep during lectures about the Battle on the Plains of Abraham or who shot D’Arcy McGee.

Now comes a new idea that says our teaching of history “has been notorious for promoting a one-dimensional understanding of national belonging far from the realities and stories of most young people today.” This old version of Canada, by which we mean Anglo and French history, “leaves out the violent history of colonialism, the state’s perpetration of continuous racial injustice, and the desire to make, and keep, Canada white.”

Now that’s a theme that should wake up the kid at the back of the class. This last point is rather odd given that Canada is accepting millions of visible minorities from around the world. But let’s not get distracted.

The book’s author wants to find a new “we” in Canada “to deconstruct the stories we have been told and to find new ways to put them back together again.” Here she suggests “meaningful learning”, which I take to mean that students are the subject in the classroom and teachers the objects. She wants to teach kids about a Canada that reflects their lived experience.

Forget about understanding how nations rise and fall, how wars start or end, or bothering to read great books

My only interest in high school history was doing as little studying as possible. The idea that I wanted history, or any subject, to reflect my ethnicity as a minority would have been absurd. I doubt that’s changed for most students regardless of their ethnicity or background.

Let’s continue. Rather than students learning from teachers, teachers learn from students, where students from various backgrounds can bring to the classroom their view of the world from their cultural experiences. The word “contextualized” is used liberally to the make the point. This will somehow make classrooms more relevant so all voices are heard.

This can best be done by introducing a good dose of Critical Race Theory, the idea that racism is endemic in Canada, that liberalism, objectivity, meritocracy actually support white supremacy, and that the “structured” stories we tell each other must be drowned out by “counter-stories” and the “experiential knowledge” of people of colour.

As the author says, “reading history through a critical race theory lens places the analysis of race and racism at the forefront of understanding society.” Just as the New York Times 1619 Project in the United States claims that slavery and racism are at the heart of the American experiment, Canada should follow and find our own colonial grievances.

It also demands that we stop seeing history solely through the eyes of white men. Once we apply the analysis of post- structuralism or post-modernism to the white man’s grand narrative of history — and that means patriarchy, white supremacy, and capitalism — the whole structure “is one quick breath away from collapse.”

What about multiculturalism? Do the theories of Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, names peppered throughout the book, have anything good to say on the subject? No hope here since multiculturalism doesn’t respect diversity and actually keeps us in the dark about how people are manipulated and exploited.

It’s not that history will be taught differently — it’s that there’s no need to teach it at all. When you have a Marxist key to study the past based on power, sexism, oppression and exploitation, all of Canada’s problems come clearly into view. Essays and assignments in this environment practically write themselves.

Forget about understanding how nations rise and fall, how wars start or end, or bothering to read great books like Paris 1919 by the Canadian historian Margaret McMillian. Or reinterpreting history as new historical information emerges. Forget about Gibbons and Rome, the Renaissance, the vast intricate histories of China, Europe or India or how Canada managed to stay free of the U.S. and create a country free and prosperous.

There was a time when the contagion of critical race studies infiltrating into our high schools looked remote. Now it has breached the walls and is spreading fast.

Of course schools should teach the role of racism and discrimination in our history, but CRT goes right past understanding and straight to indoctrination and social engineering. At its root, CRT rejects rationalism, individualism, capitalism, enlightenment values. Some even argue that property should be redistributed on a racial basis.

As with all good intentions, the law of unintended consequences emerge. In a recent study where so-called non-stigmatized groups are “educated” about the discrimination against stigmatized groups, the result leads to more paternalistic attitudes by the non-stigmatized group, not less. The reason is that the stigmatized group is seen as more helpless and less competent. If ever there was a more damaging result for all racialized groups, this is it.

Maybe Arthur Schopenhauer was right that kids shouldn’t be introduced to thinking until the age of 16 and before that they best be occupied by learning arithmetic, math, grammar and memorizing historic and geographic facts. Asking them to reason about anything else is a waste of time since they know so little of life in any event.

In any event, parents in the U.S. are starting to push back. What will be the reaction here and how far will it go? So far it looks like my old friend’s side is winning. That has to change, and change quickly.