The close coupling of content standards with standardized testing brought about by Margaret Thatcher’s U.K. government in the late 1980s ushered in a new form of school accountability that has become the dominant education reform model used by industrialized governments around the world (Volante, 2012). Student performance on large-scale assessment measures are intended to hold school administrators and teachers accountable while also providing the “data” to spur system and school-level improvements. Indeed, every single Canadian province and territory administers and reports achievement in relation to these external provincial measures and also participates in varying degrees in prominent international tests such as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) Programme in International Student Assessment (PISA).
The OECD, and PISA in particular, has increasingly exerted a pronounced influence in the governance of education systems both nationally and internationally and forced policymakers to grapple with consistent and recurring challenges, such as achievement gaps between different segments of their national and provincial student populations (Volante et al., 2018). One key achievement gap that is often reported is the difference between high and low socio-economic status (SES) groups. The OECD provides national profiles – which can also be disaggregated at the provincial level – to indicate the differences in student achievement that exist between the most and least socioeconomically disadvantaged students. Countries that possess a higher relative share of low SES students who achieve well are said to have a more academically resilient population.
Redefining resilience in the face of COVID-19
As previously suggested, academic resilience is the notion that there are some students who achieve favourable achievement outcomes despite coming from lower SES backgrounds. Yet, to the average person, the word “resilient” means something quite different. Indeed, the Oxford dictionary defines resilience as “the ability of people or things to recover quickly after something unpleasant, such as shock, injury, etc.” Clearly, the general notion of resilience is much broader than what is typically captured and often widely reported when discussing students and education systems. At the same time, the unprecedented and generational challenges presented by COVID-19 have provided an important impetus to reconsider how we support students in contemporary schools. It is highly likely that the pandemic has created even greater inequities with respect to students’ access to learning resources and supports due to socio-economic factors. Further, the impact of these inequities will impact more than just academic outcomes.
The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the growing necessity of broader notions of academic resilience that recognize important mental health as well as physical well-being concerns in children and adolescent populations – elements of resilience that are typically not captured by large-scale assessment measures. Rarely does a day go by without public recognition of the daily struggles students, particularly those from poorer households, are facing given the upheaval caused by school closures, social isolation, and familial economic losses – to name but a few factors. Certainly, federal resources such as the recently released Guide to Student Mental Health During COVID-19 (Health Canada, 2020) underscores some of the growing challenges students are facing during the pandemic.
Canadian children may be facing an impending epidemic of mental health and general wellness struggles when the virus eventually subsides. For example, a pan-Canadian survey of the impact of the COVID pandemic on physical activity found less than 5 percent of children 5–11 years old and 0.6 percent of youth 12–17 years old were meeting required guidelines (Moore et al., 2020). Similarly, a recent study by the Hospital for Sick Children in Ontario found a staggering 67–70 percent of children/adolescents experienced deterioration in at least one of six mental health domains during the COVID-19 pandemic: depression, anxiety, irritability, attention, hyperactivity, and obsessions/compulsions (Cost et al., 2021). What steps should be taken by policymakers, district leaders and educators, and teacher education institutions to help alleviate these challenges, both in the short and long term?
A multi-level approach to capacity building
There are scant examples within Canada where policymakers report on the overall mental health and/or physical well-being of their student populations. Although international and provincial metrics of student proficiency in such content areas as reading, mathematics, and science abound, measures of health and wellness are typically not reported in a consistent manner or given the same status in policy communities.
Perhaps the Health Behaviour in School-Aged Children (HBSC) survey can serve as a model for provincial/territorial education systems. The HBSC is a cross-national survey conducted in collaboration with the World Health Organization (WHO) that is administered every four years and focuses on the health and well-being of young people (Public Health Agency of Canada, 2020). This survey is administered in Canada to 11-, 13-, and 15-year-olds, and includes much broader aspects of health than those reported by large-scale assessments such as PISA. Provincial governments could develop a similar annual survey to provide more timely comparative data to inform policy directions during and after the pandemic. Ultimately, we need to provide and recognize markers of mental health and physical well-being with the same reverence that has been traditionally ascribed to student achievement measures.
In addition to policy reform considerations, building capacity for more healthy schools will ultimately depend on effective leadership and teaching practices. On a national level, we see Physical and Health Education Canada’s 2021–2024 strategic plan outline the organization’s aim to emerge from COVID-19 with clearly defined intentions targeting pan-Canadian education efforts to improve the well-being of children and youth (Physical and Health Education Canada, 2021). The proposed efforts are wide-ranging and build on current (e.g. Schonert-Reichel & Williams, 2020) and former (e.g. Ontario Ministry of Education, 2017) provincial-territorial healthy schools policy and practice priorities targeting student well-being (i.e. development of national competencies, innovations, testing, sharing of best practices, and professional development). For their part, school districts across Canada will need to devote the necessary resources and provide appropriate professional development opportunities so that teachers are equipped to better identify and intervene in the worsening physical and mental health crisis that is facing Canadian education systems.
Now more than ever, congruent efforts to expand universal screening measures will need to be deployed to address these worrisome trends. Screening in elementary and secondary schools would primarily involve the completion of student questionnaires (American Psychological Association, 2020) – albeit with notable adaptations to account for the unique challenges encountered during distance learning and social isolation. Emerging from this pandemic era of education, measures considerate of academic, personal, physical, cultural, and social circumstances should be considered to promote greater understanding of the relationships between student success and student well-being. Such surveys in provincial and territorial education systems could complement the school climate surveys that many schools and districts already use, but with the necessary specificity to provide more granular data for specific student interventions. Just as governments around the world have echoed the importance of contact tracing to tackle the pandemic, district leaders and teachers will need timely data to help direct their resources and efforts to where they are needed most.
Lastly, any discussion on addressing mental health and physical well-being issues must include considerations for the education of future teachers. Pre-service education programs across Canada will need to continually evolve to ensure aspiring teachers are equipped with the latest pedagogical approaches in both face-to-face and distance learning environments. In addition to instructional time devoted to traditional subject-areas (i.e. language arts, mathematics, science, etc.) is a greater recognition of health and physical literacy, which are regarded as desired outcomes of health and physical education teaching, and important system and school health promotion goals to be achieved (Physical and Health Education Canada, 2021).
Indeed, the COVID-19 pandemic has illustrated with brute force that our traditional hierarchy of subjects, content knowledge, and associated skills are insufficient to “measure” the effectiveness of schools if we expect our students to thrive in a post-COVID world. Collectively, capacity building efforts geared at provincial policy reforms, districts and schools, and teacher education institutions represent a viable multi-level approach to strengthening the resilience of student populations. As one interesting example of a response to this growing need, New Zealand is developing a well-being curriculum that will be integrated across other curriculum streams.
From research to practice and practice to research
Given the novelty of the current circumstances facing teachers and school-aged children across Canada, there will be a need to research and document the relative impact of different school structures and pedagogical approaches being utilized in online, blended, and socially distanced classroom learning environments. Understanding how these different structures and strategies interact and impact the most at-risk student populations will require an iterative process where recent research findings inform teaching and teaching informs subsequent research. This cyclical process is essential to establish a “best-practice” literature that policymakers and school leaders can draw upon to support their students in rapidly evolving school environments.
The effectiveness of these structures and approaches, and the impact of policies and programs utilized during the COVID-19 pandemic, must be rigorously researched and judged against a broader range of success criteria. Unfortunately, most of the current research in many international contexts appears to be focused on “learning loss” – which is essentially the examination of average drops in standardized test scores in different education systems during the pandemic (Kaffenberger, 2021). Yet virtually every school-based practitioner would acknowledge and echo the significant mental health and physical well-being “losses” that students are also experiencing. Certainly, it is possible for our education systems to attend to both the academic and mental health and physical wellness issues of Canadian youth to help build resilient schools.
First published in Education Canada, September 2021
American Psychological Association (2020, September 22). Student mental health during and after COVID-19: How can schools identify youth who need support? www.apa.org/topics/covid-19/student-mental-health
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