On June 6th, 2020 members of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF) launched a petition calling on their Federation to dissolve partnership with researchED, a divisive and populist organization hostile toward progressive education. This hostility marginalizes teachers who centre equity in their pedagogy and are anti-oppressive and anti-racist in practice.
Almost two weeks (and 600 signatures) after the launch of the petition the partnership was severed and a refund issued to OSSTF. A statement by researchED distanced itself from the substance of the petition, while continuing to recruit Ontario teachers.
The statement did not take accountability for members’ concerns. We are writing our history into institutional memory to raise awareness of researchED ideology and influence.
A partnership with good intentions:
In 2017, the OSSTF passed a motion to enter into a partnership with researchED. This partnership entailed working with the Canadian organizing committee to plan a spring 2018 education conference open to OSSTF members and other educators in Ontario and beyond. The proposal detailed how attendees would hear from experts in education and learn about so-called evidence based practice that they could use to challenge board and ministry imposed initiatives. That year, the partnership cost members $200,000, paid for from their dues.
Rather than narrow the distance between research and practice, researchED determined the disciplines where knowledge was defined. Conversations about social justice and equity were not seen to be part of “evidence,” which focused almost exclusively on the three Rs.
The conservative history of researchED:
researchED was propelled by a group endorsed by and affiliated with British Conservative Party politician Michael Gove. Gove is an architect of a broader movement to extend private influence over schooling, justifying its policies by reconceptualizing ‘equal opportunity’ under the discourse of the new right. The ideological project of Gove is carried out by researchED, where race is conflated with poverty; this is where racist rhetoric and oppressive politics proliferate.
researchED gained prominence with a handful of ‘big stars’ who circulate internationally. These not only include the founder and “Behaviour Tsar” Tom Bennett, but also Joanna Williams, David Diau, Katharine Birbalsingh, and Robert Pondiscio. Some of them have presented or sent delegates to present for organizations they represent in Canada. Their reach extends to international education (i.e., Teach First and Ark Foundation led by former Gove adviser) and online learning (i.e., Oak National Academy, recruiting from Teach First). researchED presenters are explicit about the importance these organizations play in influencing politicians and policy makers.
researchED is waging a quiet revolution on progressive education. Touted as a “grassroots insurgency” into the “windmills propelling the modern education state,” researchED was exalted by Canadian Coordinator Paul Bennett as a breath of fresh air.
On his blog, Mr. Bennett has established a pattern of taking aim at progressive educators, a group he terms the “usual suspects,” and progressive ideas, such as knowledge mobilization, social emotional learning and, more recently, the progressive movement itself.
This is not to suggest that progressive education is without fault; rather, the premise that the movement is antithetical to “evidence” is both false and divisive. Ontario, for example, is clear about the importance of explicit, systematic, and direct instruction in their curriculum documents (2005, 2013, 2020). These methods are not distinct from, but integrated with, inquiry learning, community building, or project based learning. They are central to universal design and differentiated instruction.
A history of resistance by OSSTF members:
The first ever researchED conference in Canada took place in Toronto in November, 2017. Months before the conference, a prominent progressive educator raised concerns about platforming consultants like David Didau, whose independent research has been held to scrutiny for encouraging scientific racism. Teachers also voiced their concerns. Collective advocacy resulted in a venue change because hosts were concerned about the affiliation, and David Didau was subsequently pulled from the lineup of speakers.
researchED Ontario was held in spring 2018. Attendance at the 2018 conference prompted members in District 25 (Ottawa-Carleton) and District 20 (Halton) to formally raise concerns about the narrow scope of pedagogy and the promotion of values that did not align with the OSSTF.
By 2019, Members of Provincial Executive and Provincial office staff were aware of members’ concerns about researchED, which were first raised at the local level. However, OSSTF proceeded with planning for the next researchED Canada conference scheduled for the spring of 2020.
By February of 2020, prominent Ontario educators were withdrawing or refusing participation. With awareness about and resistance to the partnership growing, pressure was mounting on members of the Provincial Executive to terminate the partnership.
Months later, amidst a pandemic that highlighted social inequality, the global movement for Black lives reignited activism within the OSSTF membership, most notably from District 19 in Peel, to combat anti-Black racism in their school board and union. Inspired by their leadership, OSSTF members from Halton, Ottawa-Carleton, York, and Toronto, formed a committee to oppose the researchED partnership. Throughout June they reached out to respective district leaders and coordinated a petition, which built a case for immediate termination of the partnership.
One day before the petition was scheduled to launch, a committee member spoke directly with the President of the OSSTF, Harvey Bischof. While the substance of the call did not preclude the possibility of termination, Bischof indicated that the Executive would need more time to discuss concerns before a final decision could be made.
Undeterred by the delay, the petition to dissolve the partnership with researchED proceeded as scheduled on the morning of June 19th. By the end of the day the petition had over 250 signatures. Two days later, the committee wrote an email to the Provincial Executive imploring them to end an embarrassing partnership before the petition was amplified formally through districts. We received an immediate response that assured us that our concerns were being taken seriously.
On June 25, the Union announced that they retained an equity consultant and released a statement about addressing anti-black racism. The OSSTF recognized that this would be a major culture shift but stated that they were listening to members. Bischof soon followed up on the letter through a phone call; by the end of the conversation, we were certain the partnership would soon be dissolved. Days later, researchED Canada released their statement.
As Canadian teachers, we do not need a call for revolution against progressive education. We need meaningful partnership with academics conducting research in all disciplines that intersect with education, under regulated ethics protocols, and formal collaboration with colleagues.
We hope this serves not only as a call to unilaterally reject the conservative agenda of researchED, but also a call to build a better progressive movement together. By actively centring marginalized voices in our union, we can prevent oversights that compromise our commitment to protecting and enhancing public education.
Jamie Mitchell is an Ontario Mathematics and STEM teacher, OSSTF member, and recipient of the Prime Minister's Award for Teaching Excellence
Beyhan Farhadi is a postdoctoral visitor in the Faculty of Education at York University, an Ontario English teacher, and OSSTF member