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Paul W. Bennett: Time to kill the ‘zombie idea’ that learning loss doesn’t matter


Canada’s schools and the K-12 education system are weathering a profound crisis and, over the past 18-months, many certainties have dissolved in the face of the seemingly never-ending succession of COVID-19 disruptions.

Emerging out of the maelstrom, we are now in a better position to set aside a few “zombie ideas” in education.

Prevailing assumptions about mass schooling, ingrained beliefs about “minimally-guided” student learning, and idealized visions of 21st century learning have been severely tested and found mostly wanting. Out of the turmoil, our five million students and their teachers and families, are far more attuned to the impact and realities of “learning loss” and the current challenges of tackling the impact upon student achievement and well-being.

What’s most amazing is that a surprising, although diminishing, number of school administrators, education professors, and educators continue to deny the existence of student learning loss to the point where it may now qualify as the latest example of a zombie idea in K-12 education.

“Zombie ideas,” New York Times commentator Paul Krugman argues, are “beliefs about policy that have been repeatedly refuted with evidence and analysis but refuse to die.” Nine years ago, American education historian Larry Cuban, alerted us to their prevalence, especially in relation to popular and inflated claims about “online instruction.”

School closures have cost the “pandemic generation,” between eight weeks in Quebec to 24 weeks in Ontario of regular, in-class instruction. Prominent Canadian public policy analyst Irvin Studin, president of the Institute for 21st Century Questions, estimates that some 200,000 students, poor and affluent, have been “lost” or excluded from participation in any form of schooling.

Topsy-turvy pandemic education definitely left marginalized and special needs students more vulnerable. That is not in dispute, but there is still a residue of what might be termed learning loss denial, perpetuated mostly by education theorists and their allies imbued with romantic ideas once associated with “progressivism.”

A recent example of this Canadian education school of thought was the response to the “pandemic catastrophe” produced by University of Toronto Schools teacher Josh Fullan, echoing the sentiments of a vocal group of education faculty at the University of Ottawa. Fullan and the faculty of education contingent continue to see “silver linings” and urge schools to “honour what students gained amid the pandemic.”

Learning was disrupted and often imperfect, Fullan contends, but not lost. “Strong public systems,” “allies at school and home,” and the “adaptability of students” deserve more credit than they are receiving, according to Fullan. That is why he believes that phrases like “catching up” or “closing the gap” should be avoided and, rather remarkably, the term “learning loss” stricken from the lexicon in K-12 education.

Such assertions are simply outlandish on the heels of a global crisis affecting schools, students, teachers and families everywhere. Claiming that “learning loss” either doesn’t exist or is inconsequential (after 18-months of school disruptions) is one zombie idea without a shred of supporting evidence and one that refuses to die.

A profoundly important recent Ontario study, produced in June 2021 by Kelly Gallagher-Mackay and a team of Ontario Science Table university researchers, documented the extent of system-wide school closures and flagged the problem of learning loss, identified and being researched in education jurisdictions around the world.

While the researchers recognized the limitations of the current system-wide student assessment model, they noted the absence of any learning loss data in the province and identified the blind spot that compels researchers to utilize and apply research findings from other comparable jurisdictions. That simply would not be necessary if the zombie idea that learning loss doesn’t matter was not already heavily influencing the prevailing research agenda in our ministries of education and education faculties.

Closing provincial school systems for weeks on end has got to have some academic impact; otherwise, one might ask: if learning is so natural, why do we go to school in the first place? Without sound, reliable student assessment data, we can only assume that missing huge chunks of schooling, lurching back-and-forth into remote learning, and rapid adjustments to hybrid secondary school schedules, has already produced significant academic and psycho-social consequences for kids and teens.

Zombie ideas never seem to disappear in K-12 education. A few months ago, Bryan Goodwin, head of Denver research institute, McREL International, created quite a stir with an ASCD commentary identifying six zombie ideas that refuse to die. Learning styles, unguided discovery learning, whole word reading, and teach critical thinking rather than facts made that ignominious list. The peculiar fallacy that “learning loss is of no consequence” never occurred to him, likely because it’s so implausible.

School closures have cost the pandemic generation, from province-to-province, from eight to 24 weeks of regular, in-class instruction and thousands opted-out of any form of schooling. Surely that matters and will have consequences, down the line, for our elementary and secondary school-age students.

Sean Speer: The federal public health agency needs to get back to its core functions


Over the coming days, The Hub will publish mandate letters for the incoming cabinet ministers that set out a series of bold policy prescriptions that would cumulatively tilt Canadian politics towards a different and better future.

The best antidote to anger and frustration is aspiration and purpose. The campaign has demonstrated how urgently Canada’s body politic needs such a remedy. There’s no time to waste. It’s time to get to work.

Dear Minister of Health,

I am honoured that you have agreed to serve Canadians as the Minister of Health.

As you know, our government must have a both a short- and long-term orientation. The immediate priority is to help the country through the COVID-19 pandemic and to catalyse a post-pandemic recovery. Getting Canadian businesses and families to the other end of this crisis is the key to restoring stability and optimism in our economy and society.

Beyond that, though, over the long term, we face many opportunities and challenges including geopolitical instability, aging demographics, climate change, reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, long-term fiscal challenges, low productivity, and slow growth.

Each of these issues could easily consume a government’s attention, focus, and resources. But we do not have the luxury of prioritizing one or some of them. They require similar levels of energy and ambition if we are to lay the foundation for a different and better future for Canadians.

An emphasis on the future is a much-needed antidote to the growing anxiety and pessimism in our country. Even before the pandemic, too many Canadians worried that their children will not have the same opportunities and living standards as them. The pandemic has exacerbated these concerns and cast a pall of uncertainty over our economy and society.

In this context, Canadians have grown skeptical of the ability of government to put aside partisan differences or short-term political advantage and make the hard yet necessary choices to mitigate our long-term challenges and accentuate our opportunities. It is incumbent on us to prove to Canadians that their skepticism and doubt is unwarranted. We must rebuild their trust through our actions and choices.

This principle extends to all aspects of governance. Our government must live up to the highest ethical standards, including openness, honesty, and accountability. I expect you to reflect these values in your work. It is critical that we honour Canadians’ trust in us and the history and dignity of the institutions and roles that we occupy.

Our immediate policy priorities flow from the best ideas and rooted in evidence. As the Minister of Health, I would ask that you work with your colleagues to deliver on the following key priorities:

  • Conduct a comprehensive review of the Public Health Agency of Canada with the goal of eliminating as much of its programs and operations that are duplicative of provincial public health organizations as possible and instead rationalizing its core activities on the crucial federal function of global pandemic monitoring and control, emergency preparedness planning including pandemic-related research and stockpiling medically-necessary goods and equipment.
  • Amend the Canada Health Act to enable provinces and territories to adjust the single-payer model to reduce coverage, on a means-tested basis, for hospital and physician services in exchange for increasing public coverage, in a fiscally-neutral way, for presently non-insured services on behalf of low-income Canadians.
  • Clarify that the Canada Health Act permits publicly-funded yet privately-delivered services with parameters in place to ensure fair access and prevent human resource shortages in the public health-care system.
  • Work with the minister of finance to reform the Medical Expense Tax Credit to make it refundable, larger and more generous so as to help Canadians without employer-provided health insurance or who are not eligible for current public drug programs to be able to purchase individual private insurance.
  • Reform the Canadian Institutes of Health Research’s funding processes to enable more breakthrough-type projects by experimenting with replacing the peer review process with lotteries and prizes in order to eliminate the tendency towards “gatekeeping” and incremental research.
  • Work to harmonize various of the department of health’s regulatory processes – from drug approvals to agriculture and agri-food regulatory approvals – so as to accept scientific inputs submitted in other jurisdictional processes and even possibly adopt harmonized decision-making with peer jurisdictions such as the United States.
  • Conduct a comprehensive review of the federal department of health to ensure that its activities are not duplicative of provincial and territorial health ministries and instead are focused solely on areas of federal jurisdiction.

I know I can count on you to fulfill these responsibilities and help to deliver a different and better future rooted in prosperity and opportunity for all Canadians.