In the current Saskatchewan teacher’s labour dispute you keep hearing the teachers talking about “classroom complexity.”

Here’s what that really means: mainstreaming all students into the same classroom has proven to be an abysmal failure, as has “social promotion” meaning that no one can fail.

No one will actually use those words, however. They could be considered mean, hurtful, politically incorrect, etc.

They’re also true.

Talk to a teacher – any teacher. Ask them how many grade levels they have to prepare their lessons for. Rarely will you hear everyone is at the same grade level. A Grade 8 teacher might do their standard lesson, but they also have to do one for the kids that are several years behind in reading capacity. And then there might be a few that are essentially illiterate. And there may be a few kids who are autistic or have other issues which might require them to have an education assistant if they’re lucky.

Saskatchewan added 20 per cent to its population in the last 15 years, but has not built enough schools, so many classrooms are overcrowded. And many of those are immigrants with no command of English, but English as a Second Language instruction is a shadow of its former self.

One teacher told me of middle year students who don’t know the proper way to use this subtraction sign. Others can’t do three-digit multiplication. And there are numerous students whose literacy is nowhere close to where it should be, if it exists at all. You’re constantly trying to teach to the lowest common denominator.

On top of that, you have numerous kids who are enormous distractions in the classroom. Did you know that there is such a thing as “screamers?” Kids who will scream at random and for lengthy periods of time?

Another teacher had a student that several times a week, sometimes a day, who would have violent outbursts, throwing things and upsetting desks. This teacher kept an “evacuation bag” handy for the frequent occurrence where the remainder of the class had to be evacuated to the library. Since every child has a right to education, they wouldn’t boot the student out, and had nowhere else to send him. How much did any of the other students in that class learn?

If that’s not enough, the incredibly left-leaning “progressive” education faculties and ministries of education across Canada have done away with traditional learning methods, especially in mathematics. Kids are taught to “explore math” – find things out for themselves. For those who haven’t figured it out, mathematics is built on the backs of giants – Archimedes, Newton, Pascal and so on. Sorry, mommy, but your kid likely isn’t Sir Isaac Newton. He should be taught the standard mathematical algorithms that his grandparents were taught.

Remember – those old-school methods that produced the engineers that got man on the moon using slide rules?

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. So when you combine ineffectual 21st century teaching methodology that doesn’t properly teach the basics and add in a healthy dose of social promotion with the fact that no one is allowed to fail anymore, and here you are. We have kids in high school who are functionally, if not totally illiterate, in classes where they can hardly learn.

No wonder in recent weeks Saskatchewan found out its math and reading test marks put us at the bottom of the pack. How could they not?

The prophet who foretold this

Did we know this was going to happen? One person sure did. One of my best friends of 30 years, Michael Zwaagstra, is a long-time Manitoba high school teacher who wrote a book published in 2010 called What’s Wrong With Our Schools: and How We Can Fix Them. Along with his co-authors Rodney A. Clifton, and John C. Long, Zwaagstra identified 14 years ago basically everything that’s coming to a head today.

And in those 14 years, we’ve had the time to see an entire cohort of students progress from Kindergarten through graduation. And here we are – teachers with picket signs because their classes are overwhelming them due to “classroom complexity.”

Michael’s been writing about education for about two decades now with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy and more recently the Fraser Institute. He’s a senior fellow at both. You’ve likely heard him on the Gormley talk show.

As an example, Zwaagstra wrote Dec. 27, 2022. “Growth mindset isn’t the only fad in our schools. Learner-centred pedagogy, often called student-centred instruction, is also hugely popular. In essence, learner-centred pedagogy requires that students should, to the greatest degree possible, direct their own learning. It’s often summarized by the popular slogan that a teacher should be a guide on the side rather than a sage on the stage.”

Generally speaking, most kids can’t organize a two-car funeral parade, let alone direct their own learning. Yet this is just a small example of the claptrap that the educational complex has foisted upon our students, or as Zwaagstra says, “Useless classroom fads turn students into guinea pigs.”

Michael’s focus has largely been education should go largely back to the basics reading, writing, arithmetic. He stresses social promotion is a complete and utter failure. And he’s been preaching this for a long time. But just as Eisenhower warned against the military-industrial complex, the very same thing exists within the left-leaning bleeding heart liberals of the education complex, within the educational facilities and ministries of education across the country, including in Saskatchewan.

As Dr. Jordan Peterson often says, it starts in the woke, progressive universities and their faculties of education. It’s filtered through the entire system, from the ministries to school divisions to those who lead “professional development” to the unions. Most recently, the Saskatchewan Ministry of Education in this past year said you must mainstream everyone. No more pullouts.

Special ed

Well, this is precisely what’s part of the issue is here. The reality is that no one wants to say it, but we have to bring back what used to be referred to as “special ed,” and do so widescale. We have got to separate kids according to their mental capacity, behaviour, and also their academic advancement, and fail those who haven’t advanced. If a student is being continually disruptive, they must be separated and offered something they can handle. It’s not nice, it may not seem fair, but is it fair to all the other students if they can’t learn? Because they haven’t been.

In fact, the provincial government flinched on this on Jan. 8, offering a pilot for “new specialized support classroom” in eight school divisions for the next year and a half. This is for all intents and purposes special ed, without calling it that.

It’s not enough. Not by half.

Cut off at the knees

We did have a chance about seven years ago to fix some of this. In Saskatchewan, we had one Minister of Education, Bronwyn Eyre, who was going to do something about all this, back in August, 2017. Eyre was eager to incorporate a lot of principles from Zwaagstra’s book. She referred to Zwaagstra’s work in media interviews, and she was bound and determined to implement serious changes.

But she made a misstep and six months later, with a new premier, she was shuffled to Energy and Resources before any serious changes were made in education. In all my years of journalism, Eyre has proven to be one of the most capable ministers I’ve ever dealt with, so it is a crying shame she never got to clean house in education. But even so, the resistance within the ministry would have been fierce, if not insurmountable.

As Zwaagstra wrote in 2017, “Eyre can also expect fierce resistance from within her department. Many of the people working in the department were previously superintendents and curriculum consultants. Most have climbed the career ladder by espousing progressive education ideas and enacting progressive policies.”

The reality is if Eyre had been able to accomplish what she wanted to do back in 2017, we wouldn’t be here today. Teachers would not have been on picket lines in -30 C.

Failure has many fathers

But those very teachers in many ways have themselves to blame as they froze their rears off. The reality is failure has many fathers, and current situation in our schools has many to blame. Education faculties have spent the last few decades moving away from what we know worked to what has proven does not work. The ministry, division staff and teachers union have been in lockstep down that path. And now, when its all falling apart, the teachers are blaming the government. Where were the teachers union representatives when the lords of the education faculties pushed the idea that no one could fail? The old-school teachers gritted their teeth and sat down, because speaking against the new orthodoxy was a sure way out the door, and they were nearing retirement. Ask any old, recently retired teacher – they’ve had enough of the bovine feces.

The Ministry of Education took the faculties of educations’ frankly stupid ideas and implemented them wholesale. If you want examples, just read Zwaagstras numerous writings, columns and papers describing it over the last decade and a half.

The apparatchiks with the ministry and school divisions are just as much to blame for the current situation, if not moreso. That’s the principals, superintendents and consultants. They implemented these policies.

And the teachers need to take some blame themselves. If a kid can’t read in Grade 8, it’s because the Grade 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7 teachers passed that kid when they should have flunked until they attained the grade level required. And if that Grade 8 teacher passes that kid onward, they’re just passing off the problem to the Grade 9 teacher.

If the teachers, collectively, had any sense over the last two decades, they would have put a stop to this nonsense. They should have stood up, en masse, at their in-services and professional development days and union meetings and said, “This is stupid and must stop!” And I’ve spoken to older teachers who very much wanted to. But, again, here we are.

How to fix it

We should get back to the basics. Focus on reading, writing and arithmetic before anything else, and make sure kids actually understand those before advancing in grade.

We cannot treat everyone the same because they are not the same.

And we’ve got to realize that we have to allow people to fail because if they don’t fail in school, they will fail in life.

I am a personal example of this. I flunked out of mechanical engineering. You sure as hell wouldn’t want me to build your bridge because I wasn’t very good at advanced math. Would you trust an engineer who was socially advanced through his degree? Would you trust a surgeon who was passed because we can’t hurt people’s feelings?

And it goes all the way back down to kindergarten. My stepdad failed Grade 1 because he could not read. Well guess what? It worked out for him in the end. He eventually got caught up. He became an excellent reader and earned a diploma in petroleum engineering technology.

The path the education system has taken the last 20 years has been a path to ruin. This has become abundantly clear. But will anyone have the courage to finally fix this? Maybe they should start with Zwaagstra’s book, and go from there.

Brian Zinchuk is the Publisher of and this commentary was originally published by the Frontier Centre for Public Policy,