Scares, Misadventures, and Reversals in Canadian K-12 Education

Published: January 3, 2013

A national report card for 2012.

If it bleeds, it leads, or so it is said in North American television newsrooms.  And that maxim certainly applied to the popular coverage of school-related matters in 2012.  Two horrible school tragedies, the suicide of cyberbullying victim Amanda Todd and shooting rampage at Newtown’s Sandy Hook School deeply affected students, parents, teachers, and schools right across Canada.  Driven by those shocking events, cyberbullying and school security dominated much of the public policy agenda nearly everywhere in Canadian K-12 education.

Media saturated events like the British Columbia teen’s suicide and the Newtown massacre also tended to obscure more significant, longer-term tectonic plate shifts like a truly landmark  Supreme Court Special Education decision and Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty’s meltdown aggravated by Bill 115 and mass teacher walkouts.  It was, looking back, a year marked by more by scares, misadventures, and reversals of fortune than giant steps forward.

The Best – Hopeful Signs

  • Early Learning Advances

Out of the blue in late May, 2012, Nova Scotia  Premier Darrell Dexter visited a Halifax family resource centre, unveiled a discussion paper Giving Students the Best Start,  and announced that Nova Scotia was finally joining the national parade for universal early learning programs.  It was a direct response to the Canadian Council of Child Development’s recent 2011 Early Years Study praising Quebec and P.E.I. and giving Nova Scotia low marks ( 5 out of 15) for its current patchwork of services. With Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty under fire for his costly Kindergarten program, the Nova Scotia move bolstered the case for universal, publicly-funded ECE starting at age 3.

  • Cyberbullying Initiatives 

Nova Scotia was first out of the gate when Wayne MacKay released his March 2012 report, There’s No App for That, setting the public agenda for a strategic, long-term strategy to curb bullying and cyberbullying in schools.  After the teen suicide of Amanda Todd in September 2012, the nation-wide public outcry was for firmer, clearer punitive responses, including the criminalization of serious repeated online offenses.  McKay’s community-based, preventative approach survived the initial sniping and is gradually winning over those preferring direct deterrent action.

  • Championing of Curiosity in Schools

A first-time author, Zander Sherman, burst on the scene in August 2012 with The Curiosity of School, a searing indictment of every aspect of schooling, from kindergarten to university. Since its inception, the home schooled author contended that the North American school system has remained “Prussian” in philosophy and orderliness, killing natural curiosity in children  and thwarting their desire to know the world around us. Coming from a lone wolf outside the education system, yet reinforcing Sir Ken Robinson’s powerful TED Talk message, it was nothing short of earth-shaking.

  • Right to Special Education Decision

A landmark Supreme Court of Canada decision on the Jeffrey Moore case in November 2012 has dealt a surprise blow to all-inclusive, one-size-fits-all public education. Waving aside the financial concerns of a North Vancouver school board, the court found that the board had discriminated against a dyslexic child who was not given adequate help to attain literacy. “Adequate special education is not a dispensable luxury,” Judge Rosalie Abella ruled.  “For those with severe learning disabilities, it is the ramp that provides access to the statutory commitment to education made to all children in British Columbia.”

  • Junior High Goes Prime Time

 The CBC-TV sitcom, Mr. D, starring comedian Gerry Dee and focusing on a bumbling Middle School teacher at fictional Xavier Academy (Citadel High School), achieved respectable ratings and returns for a second season.  From the antics of Mr. D faking it through lessons to the paranoid VP and the small battles over copy machine access, it’s an exaggerated version of daily life in schools.  The Globe and Mail’s John Doyle listed the show as one of the top 5 “shows that mattered” over the past year.

The Worst – Troubling Signs

  • The Ontario Public Education Meltdown

Facing a $14.4 billion deficit, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty acted on economist Don Drummond’s report on Ontario public service costs by authorizing a two-year freeze on teacher salaries and an end to banking of sick days.  Education Minister Louse Broten introduced Bill 115, the Putting Students First Act, to implement the new contractual arrangements.  Secondary school teachers withdrew from all voluntary extra-curricular activities and, in December 2012, the Elementary School Teachers Federation of Ontario (EFTO) staged a series of massive one-day teacher walkouts shutting the schools.  Amidst the turmoil, Premier McGuinty abruptly resigned, seemingly perplexed by wreckage of his 2003-2011 educational legacy, including massive Early Years program spending and a 24% increase in teacher salaries.

  • Plight of the Severely Learning Disabled and Autistic Children

Somewhere between 2 and 4 per cent of all school children and teens, numbering from 2,100 to 4,200 in New Brunswick, are reportedly struggling with serious learning challenges, while served mostly in inclusive regular classrooms.  During a 2012 five-year provincial review of Inclusive Education, Harold L. Doherty of Facing Autism in New Brunswick lambasted the radical inclusionist review co-chair  Gordon Porter for abandoning autistic and serverely learning disabled kids by denying them access to intensive, research-based intervention strategies and programs.  His legitimate concerns and those of the New Brunswick Learning Disabilities Association (LDNB) fell mostly on deaf ears.

  • Alberta Education’s Finnish Dalliance

Canada’s recognized provincial leader in education, Alberta, strayed a little during 2012 from its recognized Model of Education based upon pursuing higher standards,  parental choice, charter schools, and local school accountability.  With the tacit approval of a former Education Minister, the Alberta Teachers’ Association hired Dr. Andy Hargreaves to produce a new directions policy paper.  That September 2012 study, entitled A Great School for All..Transforming Education in Alberta drew heavily on the Finnish Education Reform agenda and proposed a Fourth Way for K-12 education investing in teacher development and phasing out provincial testing and student results-based teacher evaluation.  When the plan got a chilly reception in Alberta conservative circles, a new Education Minister Jeff Johnson distanced himself from the Finland-inspired reform plan.

  • Closure of Urban Inner City and Rural Schools

Save community schools groups fought school closures in critical battlegrounds, opposing school consolidation and the spread of “Big Box” suburban schools and rural K-12 regional Education Centres.   In downtown Regina, SK, Real Renewal led by Trish Elliot  and Carla Beck succeeded in slowing the pace of inner city school closures, only to be confronted by pricey Minneapolis-based Fielding Nair Open Concept Design schools. A Small School Summit held in Bridgewater, NS. in January 2012 set the stage for a province-wide Small Schools Initiative, spearheaded by Kate Oland, Michelle Wamboldt, and Randy Delorey.  Inner city high schools in Kingston, Ontario, and Moncton, New Brunswick, were threatened with closure and students joined with urban activists like KCVI’s Lindsay Davidson to temporarily stave-off the shuttering of older schools.    With no resources, social media became an effective tool to mobilize their supporters.

  • Cold War on School Choice

Massive teacher labour disruptions in Ontario and earlier in British Columbia adversely affected tens of thousands of students and their families.  Aside from The Globe and Mail’s Gary Mason and the Ontario-based Society for Quality of Education (SQE), few spoke out in favour of real alternatives or to challenge the prevailing ‘One System for All’ ideology.   A January 2012 report on the sad state of Online Learning created a minor kerfuffle, but the SQE’s polished three-part video series, Our Children, Our Choice, was treated like a radioactive substance.  Real alternatives to the standard, ‘one-size-fits-all’ school system remained few and far between, particularly in Ontario outside of the GTA and throughout Atlantic Canada.


Paul W. Bennett, Ed.D., is Director of Schoolhouse Consulting, and Adjunct Professor of Education at Saint Mary’s University, Halifax, NS. He is also author of Vanishing Schools, Threatened Communities: The Contested Schoolhouse in Maritime Canada, 1850-2010 (2011).