As March break begins to wane here in Nova Scotia, two different but inevitably intertwined developments have risen on the Canadian educational landscape that have caught my eye. Taken individually they are not particularly spectacular, but taken together they provide an interesting view into what has become the true dichotomy of Canadian education: What we want to achieve and what we are willing to pay for.
Under the first category: What we want to achieve comes Simona Chiose, education editor for the Globe and Mail. On March 11, she began “a commentary series that will connect the changes and challenges in colleges and universities with those in our public schools and in society.” According to the write-up, the paper has called on “university deans and presidents, colleges, industry leaders and students to contribute their voices to the discussion”. The first series of articles includes discussion by a university dean on how Universities are changing, a call for a closer connection between school and work by a bank vice chair, and consideration of what I like to call “teachnology” (although I am sure I have not coined this phrase) and the classroom, including massive open online courses (MOOCs) written by Chiose herself.
Balancing this call for creative new ways of viewing education was a development under the second category: What we are willing to pay for. This was the announcement of massive cuts to education budgets in Canada’s wealthiest province.
Now, although neither of these developments is surprising in and of itself, it is the stark reality represented in both that warrants comment. On one hand you have the pundits from a variety of sources opining on ways education needs to improve to allow Canada to compete in the global marketplace, and on the other you have governments who are unwilling to pay for those improvements. And it does not seem to matter where you look in the country, Alberta, B.C., Ontario or Nova Scotia, or which political party is in charge, the Tories, the Liberals or, heaven forbid, the supposedly socialist NDP, the message to the education systems is the same. Cut budgets, fire teachers, streamline programming and do a better job of educating our kids.
It is this double message that gets me so frustrated at times. I am baffled at how governments in places like Alberta can recognize the importance of supporting businesses with huge subsidies, but at the same time not recognize the inherent economic (not to mention social) value of a properly funded education system. I lament at how, in Ontario, a government could imagine that removing fundamental and constitutionally guaranteed rights from teachers through the now repealed bill C-115 was somehow going to improve the quality of education being offered in the classroom. And I was outraged that our own NDP government in Nova Scotia could spend over two hundred million dollars on a shipyard contract that might bring in new jobs in the skilled trades while at the same time trying to save less than 75 million dollars by cutting education and tossing 700 teachers out of work.
Education is changing. And, like everything else these days, it is changing at an unprecedented rate. Never, in the history of mankind, has so much been available to be delivered to so many by so few. And I, for one, welcome these changes and am excited by the massive potential that such developments as MOOCs represent. However, just like in any system, value must be placed on supporting the people who will be the conduits of this change. Teachers need more resources. Schools need more teachers. And school boards need more money for both.
It is rather telling that under one of the articles included among Ms. Chiose’s initial offerings, there is a link to a related story about how, due to budget cuts, the Toronto District School Board will be laying off about 250 teachers this fall. So, it seems that whether you live in an area of declining enrollment like Nova Scotia, in an area of exploding enrollment like Alberta, or somewhere in between, the budget axe continues to fall.
Like Chiose, teachers see what is possible for our schools. We also see clearly what is standing in the way.