The second Friday in June of this year marked the passing of a few significant milestones that were rather unique. First, it was Friday the 13th, which in and of itself is often a reason for pause. Second, there was a full moon. If you have ever had any question about the validity of the claims that a full moon can affect people in odd ways, ask a school teacher. Having these two events coincide on one of the last Fridays of the school year was certainly some sort of cosmic joke, particularly since it was raining and many students were stuck inside for the entire day. The thirty-five years that experts say will need to pass before these two events coincide again may not seem like long enough.
This particular Friday also marked, perhaps not cosmically insignificantly, the last day for Nova Scotians to provide feedback to the government on their opinion of public education in the province through the online Minister’s Panel on Education Consultation Survey.
The cosmos, it seems, has a rather warped sense of humour.
Now, I have had concerns about this panel from the beginning, and I will admit to being a bit prejudiced against the survey from the get go. Although the survey called on people to help “…pave the way to a brighter future for public education.” twenty years in this business has taught me to be less than optimistic about the positive impact on students of change that is instituted because of public opinion.
To its credit, the survey opened benignly enough, with a fairly simple self-identification piece, followed by a request for information from respondents on their overall satisfaction with Nova Scotia’s public education system. The choices went from “Very Satisfied” to “Very Dissatisfied”, and there was a spot on the survey for written comments. The survey, to this point, seemed rather logical.
It was after this, however, that it took a proverbial “right turn at Albuquerque”.
The very next section asked respondents to express their opinions on “Teaching and Learning” in the Province, and was by far the largest section of the survey. The eight questions on this subject were double any other, seemingly indicating that this was the largest area of concern for the panel. The first three statements requested opinions on whether “Students receive highly effective teaching“, if “Students are engaged in their learning“, and if “Students receive helpful feedback” about their school work.
Despite my initial negative feelings towards this project, methinks I may not have protested enough.
My problem with this line of questioning is simple. How could anyone who is not sitting in a classroom answer any of these questions with any sort of validity? There are ample opinions already out there on the topic, that’s for sure; one simply need read the Saturday paper to get those. But to what extent can any educator’s ability to effectively engage students be measured by someone who has never seen the educator teach? How valid is a response measuring the engagement of students in regards to their learning if it is made by someone who has never watched them learn? I recognize this was an opinion survey, but what good does it do to find out, for example, what percentage of Nova Scotians think students are/ are not engaged in learning without applying some measure as to why they have arrived at a particular conclusion? The collectors of the data may disqualify the responses of those who identified as not connected to the education system, but then why ask the questions in the first place?
The same section of the survey also asked a fairly pointed question about teacher qualifications, requesting a level of agreement with a statement which read:
“Teachers today are well prepared to respond to the needs of students (for example:teachers have the right skills for the grade levels or subjects they are teaching).
The extent to which the general public is able to effectively measure the “…skills for the grade levels or subjects [teachers] are teaching” also remains, for me, a sticking point. Unless one knows what skills are necessary, how can one sensibly comment upon whether teachers possess them? Again, finding out what the general population thinks about the skills of teachers seems counterproductive at best. If 85% of respondents think I have the skills to teach my grade level, does that mean I possess them? Of course not. However, considering all the hysteria that has recently emerged about teacher qualifications, one can already hear the education critics crowing if 85% of respondents think teachers do not have the necessary skills.
This whole section risked becoming nothing more than another “Back in my day…” reflection, where folks may have been tempted to apply their own experiences as a child in grade school to the system as it stands today.
The next section, worthy of four questions, was also somewhat concerning, not for what it asked but for what it didn’t. The section began with an overall judgement of how effective Nova Scotia curriculum is in ensuring that “…students are learning the right skills“, and was followed by three points dedicated to, in order, 1) math skills, 2) literacy skills, and 3) problem solving skills. Any other purpose for curriculum beyond these “right” skills, such as creating responsible citizens or teaching kids to express themselves through the arts, was apparently not worthy of comment.
Another section of four questions was dedicated to how well students are prepared by schools to transition to the workforce or post secondary institutions, which hints of leanings toward the idea that public education predominantly exists to train students to get a job.
Finally, I found it somewhat indicative of a rather skewed vision of public education that the section dealing with Equity and Human Rights warranted only two questions.
The entire survey seemed to suggest a narrow purpose for curriculum, a “jobs first and foremost” mindset, and a basic questioning of what people think of teaching practices they may, or may not, be familiar with.
Did I mention Friday the 13th?
The survey is closed now, and at the end of the day, the value of the entire process will be determined by what the panel does with information. There are still conversations to be had, but if this document is to set the tone for the entire debate, then we may be in some trouble. I recognize the value of consultation, and I relish the idea of people coming together to determine collectively a course for public education in Nova Scotia. I do, however, have a very real concern that the language used in the online survey will produce results that will only provide more fuel to what has already shown the potential to become a very dangerous anti public education fire.
The last thing the education system in this province needs is another round of policy decisions made by politicians because of what they think people know.
Full moons and Friday the 13th be damned.