Education is Nova Scotia’s Way Out of Woe.

You know, education is a funny business.

I say business intentionally of course. Often times, public education is maligned by critics as, to use the business vernacular,  being too expensive. It is seen as wasteful.  This is a favourite argument of those who present charter schools and multi-tiered educational systems as a solution to what they see as a current public education malaise. And in the eyes of many of those folks, public education is the ultimate crown corporation. I mean, its workers are unionized and overpaid, it is management heavy and bureaucratically entrenched, and it is churning out a sub-par product.

At least according to the critics.

Well, I am a staunch supporter of the public education system. I have never made any bones about that. And so I am often puzzled at how much air time is given to supposed experts who would tear down this system if they could. Because, at the end of the day, the best chance our little province has of getting out of the sorry state it finds itself in is through expanding and supporting public education.

I mean, look around. Nova Scotia isn’t a have not province anymore. It is rapidly becoming a have naught province. Even among her Maritime sisters, she is starting to pale. PEI has always had farming and Anne. New Brunswick has the Irvings and the McCains. Newfoundland has, well, lots. And what do we have? Christmas trees, blueberries and the occasional lobster?

Obviously there is more to our province than that, but as economies change, we run the risk of being left in the dust. But the one area we shine, the one thing we have that is, in my opinion at least,  second to none is a top-notch education system. And it is here where our future lies.

Consider the words of Ray Ivany, the chairman of the five member commission set up by Dexter’s NDP government to look for ways to build the Nova Scotia economy. Ivany, President of Acadia University, spoke in the Chronicle Herald on May 10 of how the people in this province need to build a new mindset. Nova Scotians he spoke to identified that we, ourselves, need to adopt a “can do” attitude. The article spoke of the need for creating a “culture of innovation” and “adding value to resources”. What better device for leading that innovation than public education?

This is far from impossible. The world is full of examples of similar stories where a population simply made a decision to get better. Consider Israel. Recently, in the Globe and Mail, Margaret Wendt suggested that Canada could learn a lot from Israel and its approach to education. Israel has no natural resources it can sell. It is not surrounded by friendly neighbours willing to collaborate. Israel, according to Wendt, can only survive by using its brain power. What if Nova Scotians started thinking like that?

Now, there are many obstacles. But we have the infrastructure, the expertise and the raw material to move our province forward, no longer carrying the weight on our backs, but moving it with our minds. Finland made a similar decision to do just that over thirty years ago. They made a long-term, focussed and sometimes painful decision to support public education in their country, no matter the cost. They built their foundation on the simple idea that everyone had a right to an excellent education, and that public school should be the great equalizer.  Now the Finns have a school system that is the envy of the rest of the world. And before the business model cries “Foul!” around the cost of such ideas, it might be nice to  consider that all that education and innovation brought about a tidy little economic spinoff called Nokia.

Last week, the NDP government sat down with Nova Scotia’s Universities to try to stave off a 100 million dollar shortfall that they may be facing in the next few years. There was some irony in this conversation, as this is the exact number that the Universities told the NDP they would be short when the government cut education funding last year. Still, they are talking. That is a good sign.

Nova Scotia has a highly trained cadre of over 10,000 public school teachers. It has 11 universities, 13 community colleges and somewhere in the vicinity of 450 public schools. This is a tremendous amount of potential. We simply need a collective focus and the will to make education our greatest natural resource.

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3 Comments

Filed under Educational Change, Public education, Quality education

3 responses to “Education is Nova Scotia’s Way Out of Woe.

  1. Hugh d'Entremont

    My understanding of the Finnish education system is that they have reduced costs by eliminating expensive administration and trusting teachers to work professionally producing a high quality product.

    They have created their results without standardized tests and thousands of outcomes. Makes one wonder if teachers were let loose to really do the job for which they have trained long and hard what would happen.

    • I agree wholeheartedly, Hugh. I have long been a fan of teacher autonomy. (If you want a fascinating read on the power of autonomy to bring about creativity, look up Daniel Pink’s “Drive”.)
      The Finns have a very different system than ours, and one that even they suggest we should not try to copy. What is needed is a unique approach to our own needs and using our own resources. Our province is full of excellent educators. I wonder to this day why so many policy makers and politicians still look for answers “from away”.

  2. Grant, I agree with part of what you say here, however in order for these things to work, one must take a step back. Our education system started to disintegrate when we started applying the “business model” to public education.

    The business model requires one thing only to be successful and that is profits. The sole purpose of ANY and ALL businesses is to create profit for its shareholders. Without profit a business is unsuccessful and will fail (close, declare bankruptcy, etc.).

    The board of directors of any business has to consider two things – income and expenses. They have control over both. Income can be controlled by raising the price of the goods or service, introducing new goods or services which are attractive (or expected to be attractive) to the marketplace, and eliminating unprofitable goods and services. For the board of directors to do anything other than seeking profit is poor business and unethical. The shareholders will get rid of those directors and replace them when given the opportunity. All this of course assumes a business that is conducted honestly and without corruption.

    The elected/governing school board is analogous to the businesses board of directors. The CEO of the business is reflected in the position of Superintendent of a school board. In fact there was a brief blip a number of years ago to try to bring school boards even more in line with the “business model” and at that time superintendents WERE called CEOs (Chief Education Officer).

    Of course the problem is there is no income in the public school model. Schools are funded through grants of money provided by various levels of government. The governing board has no control over income and therefore can only make the books balance by controlling – and consequently over controlling – expenses. This is NOT the fault of the governing board, but the fault of the model. Profit – which defines the business model – is in fact, not permitted in the public education system. Again, underlining the point that the business model does not, and cannot work in public education.

    How then, can things change in order for education to be Nova Scotia’s way out of woe? Two things must occur:
    1. We must abandon the practice of using the “business model” in public education and see education as a long term investment with dividends that can not be entered on a ledger. We must go back to the public education model. Education is expensive. Public faith in the education system must be restored and nay-sayers need to stop undermining the good and productive work of those in the classrooms and offices of our public education system.
    2. In order for the first step to work (and for that reason, perhaps this step should be #1) all levels of government must stop misusing and abusing public funds. This is no attack on any political party – over the last several decades all major parties, and in the case of local government many of its players, have demonstrated plenty of poor judgement in fiscal decision and deal making. The wise and frugal spending of money will allow Health and Education – our two most important institutions – to get back to work in the right way.

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