A few weeks ago, the Liberal Government in Nova Scotia announced that it was going to be undertaking a massive review of the education system here in the Province. There was, as there often is with the incoming of any new government, an air of excitement as Nova Scotians, particularly teachers, awaited the news of how this review was going to be undertaken. When the announcement was made that the review was going to be handled by a committee of individuals who were either no longer involved or who had never been involved in teaching, the reaction was, not surprisingly, less than warm. “How,” teachers asked, “can people who are not in the classroom understand today’s complex and challenging education system?”
Now, as disappointed as I was with the make up of the committee, I do admit that the exclusion of current, practicing teachers should not have come as much of a shock. This announcement seems indicative of an overall approach to educational change that has been plaguing this province for, well, as long as I have been teaching here. Governments always seem to take a round about way of approaching perceived issues within the system, commissioning reports and adopting recommendations without consulting the very professionals who know the system best.
If you want to know how well this has gone here in Nova Scotia, you need look no further than the most recent series of government initiated reports on education and their results. Consider the 2006 report into the tragic death of Theresa McEvoy. McEvoy, a teacher’s aide and a mother of three, was killed when a young offender, Archie Billard, rammed his stolen car into the vehicle she was driving on a Halifax street. Billard was out of jail awaiting trial on a series of charges. The government’s reaction to the ensuing public outcry was to enlist Justice Merlin Nunn, a retired judge, to look into the matter and file a report. In what was an exceptionally well written and detailed document, Justice Nunn made a total of 34 recommendations, four of which were directly related to the education system.
The problem, of course, was that the recommendations on how education systems could do a better job were made from outside the system, with little consideration of the ability of that system to effectively implement the changes. For instance, Nunn called on schools to provide better methods of enforcing the attendance of students as laid out in the Education Act, and for schools to provide in-school options for students instead of suspending them. On paper, these seemed like reasonable demands. However, what was not recognized in the report was a common policy that existed in school boards at the time that connected attendance to the awarding of school credits. If students missed too many classes, they could fail a course. The changes created in the Education Act by the Nunn commission made this rule, for all intents and purposes, illegal.
Suddenly there was no clear connection between attendance and passing a class. Students who might be prone to absenteeism anyway had no reason to change their habits. Students who were usually good attenders had more of a temptation to skip since there was little a school could do to deter them. As school boards struggled to rewrite policy to fit the new rules, teachers found themselves under pressure like never before to offer students opportunities to make up on missed work. By 2009, the government commissioned another report, this one focused on absenteeism. It made 13 recommendations, one of which included a return to having students meet a minimum time requirement in class to receive a credit. By 2010, the issue had become so clouded that the NSTU had to call upon the government to provide some clarity for schools.
Now, as previously stated, Justice Nunn’s report was exceptionally thorough and quite well written. But all of the confusion and chaos could have been avoided if someone had just asked teachers if the ideas contained within it had merit, or even if they could be implemented.
But, you see, no one asked.
In 2010, we had another report, this one by Dr. Ben Levin. Dr. Levin, a well credentialed expert from Ontario produced a report on the sustainability of Nova Scotia schools that, again, made several key recommendations. Unfortunately, some of these recommendations were already current practice at the time, apparently unbeknownst to Dr. Levin. Others were not relevant within our system, as they actually went against some core beliefs in this Province around the place and value of public education. Finally, some ideas, such as a call for a reduction in large scale standardized assessments and a reduction in the number of new educational initiatives had been a rallying cry for teachers for several years leading up to the report.
So, another government spent precious public funds on a report that essentially told us stuff about our system that,we, as teachers, already knew, had already discarded, or already wanted.
Then, of course, there was the 2011 Cyber Bullying Report, again, a well written and thoughtful document, with, again, many great and, quite frankly, noble, recommendations. However, there were huge issues with implementation. For example, the legislation that arose from the report, the Cyber-Saftey Act, charged school principals with the responsibility of investigating and dealing with cases of cyber-bullying that occur off school grounds and after school hours. Yet there was little consideration of how principals were to actually do this, and what the consequences should be for the bullies. Should they be given detention? Suspended? Expelled?
Well, some might say so, but these actions could be seen to contradict changes made to the Education Act in 2006 when a report, penned by Justice Merlin Nunn, made recommendations against suspending students after the tragic death of Theresa McEvoy.
And the wheel goes round and round.
Look, teachers aren’t perfect. We are, for the most part, just regular folks trying to do the best we can for the kids we teach. But we know the system. We know what works and what doesn’t. We have an honest and vested interest in improving education. And I honestly feel that any committee that reviews the current system without the inclusion of those who currently work within that system is doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past.
Governments are very fond of espousing the idea that, in these challenging times, we need to be looking at ways of doing things differently. Well, if the past ten years or so are any indication, a government placing a high value on the voice of practicing teachers when addressing matters of educational change would certainly classify as different. Although it is too late to fix the mistakes of the past, this committee is still in the infancy of its mandate. There is still time to add a member or two.
I, and many I know, would gladly offer up our services.