Minister’s Panel on Education: Perception versus Policy

“You know, Grant”, he used to say to me, “customer perception is our reality.”

“He” was a boss I once had. A small, mean-spirited, red-headed witch of a man whom I worked for when I first arrived in Halifax, bright-eyed and city struck from rural Cape Breton. In those days he would sidle up to the bar I sometimes tended and, between berating me for wasting his money by daring to put a straw in his Governor and coke and randomly reducing the waitstaff to tears, he would dispatch his own warped-by-whiskey pearls of wisdom.

Gods, how I hated that man.

However, within his bleary eyed talk were some lessons to be learned by a young Cape Bretoner. I learned that steak was better when seared on a grill than when baked in the oven. (I loved my mother to death, God rest her soul, but mercy, she wasn’t much of a cook.) I learned the power a cruel boss has to bring a staff of strangers closer together than many families. And I learned with absolute certainty that customer perception is indeed our reality.

Although all three lessons have remained truisms throughout my life, it is the last of these of which I have been most recently reminded. Because it seems that no matter how much we may try to show people the value of our product, when it comes to Nova Scotia education, it is public perception that dictates how well we are doing. Even in something as important as education, it is perception, not fact, that is reality.

Obviously, the event that brought this mantra back into my focus was the releasing of the Report of the Minister’s Panel on Education, which came out, not without a touch of irony, methinks, the day before Hallowe’en. (I half expected the link to shout out “BOO!” when clicked on it). I have been critical of the report from the outset, and have expressed concerns about both the make up of the panel of experts chosen to lead the endeavour and the questions on the survey. And, based on the results it would seem that my concerns were at least somewhat founded.

But,  for me, it was really in the last section of the survey where the true problem of education reform in Nova Scotia was revealed. The section entitled Charting a Course for Change, with its call for the Nova Scotia public to join the panel in “looking forward to a better future for our students”.  One simple phrase from the conclusion seems to encapsulate, for me at least, the whole endeavour; a phrase that represents a Nova Scotian mindset that seems somehow almost Iago-esque in its persistence in the face of evidence to the contrary.

“The current system is failing our students…”

Tucked neatly away in the conclusion, hidden about mid paragraph, was the panel’s overall summary of the current system. Note, that the statement did not read The current system is perceived to be failing our students, or even, There are some who believe the current system is failing our students. Nope, there it was, a statement of fact proudly presented at the end of the Minister’s Report on Education as a truism; a truism somehow arrived at by the results of a survey that measured, in fact, nothing but perception.

And therein lies the problem. Because there was nothing in this survey that could even remotely lead anyone who had not started out with this as premise to arrive at this as a conclusion. This whole survey was predicated by a perception that Nova Scotia schools are failing.

And I believe that perception is flat-out wrong.

Consider, for example, the conclusions drawn from the data which suggested that half of the respondents were dissatisfied with the current education system. There was little consideration as to what aspect of dissatisfaction was being discussed. Students who were dissatisfied might have been so with their crowded classrooms. Teachers who responded in kind could have been upset about working conditions. Parents because the attention given to their child might not be to their liking. But how does one get from “dissatisfaction” to “failing”?

The report used large-scale standardized testing result to show how we are failing our students, but as I have written elsewhere, those results actually contained data to suggest the complete opposite is true. The report stated “the performance of students in Nova Scotia, on average, falls significantly below the performance of students living elsewhere in Canada” . However, on the exact same page, the report itself explained that when taking a little something called a “confidence interval” into account, this statement was not necessarily accurate. According to the report “When the confidence intervals overlap between two jurisdictions, it means the difference is not statistically significant; that is, the apparent difference in average performance may not be real”.

Difference may not be real? So we were not statistically lower than many other jurisdictions? How does that translate into failing?

There was the perception that there is a need for the DEECD to work to reduce the number of outcomes teachers have to present to students. In fact, that process has been underway for about three years now. There was the perception that elementary classes should focus primarily on literacy and math skills. Again, already underway, much to the chagrin of those of us who support a well-rounded education for youngsters and recognize the value of such things as play  and the arts in childhood development. There was a perception that what was needed to improve education was that school boards should be “empowered” to be able to “dismiss teachers when performance issues warrant.” That power, indeed, is also already very well entrenched.

All suggestions for improvement that are currently in place. How can a system that is already doing the things identified for improvement within a governmental report be considered as “failing” by that exact same document?

How indeed.

Now, I won’t spend too much time on from where I believe this perceived failure of our system originates. I have written about that time, and time and time again. I will also not spend a great deal of time on weighing the merit of what was contained within the report that was of value. Other authors have presented that particular view with much more articulation than I can currently muster. And I will also not pretend to claim that there was not some validity in the responses of the statistically insignificant number of concerned citizens who filled out the survey. The education system can improve, as can all systems. But the concern I have moving forward is what now? Where is all this heading? Because if history repeats itself, the next step in this particular dance will be the enactment of government policy to “Disrupt the status quo.” And if that disruption is based on perception only, then the system, and all its stakeholders,  is in for a rough ride indeed.

Changing perception is a matter of promotion, not of policy. If it is perception that this government wants to change, then that is one pearl of wisdom they may want to heed.

If they choose to not take that advice, well then, I believe I know someone they can call.

And they better not put a straw in his Governor and coke.




Filed under Education Policy, Educational Change, Educational commentary, Public education, Quality education, Standards

2 responses to “Minister’s Panel on Education: Perception versus Policy

  1. Pingback: 2014 : A year of educational opining. | frostededucation

  2. Pingback: Once more into the breach: A word of caution from the front lines of education. | frostededucation

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