“If the system is in a state of conflict or dysfunction, that can only have a negative effect on students. . . when the department and boards are at odds, that can have a corrosive impact. All of that has been happening in Nova Scotia. . . Consider two recent assessments. . . the Pan-Canadian Assessment Program (PCAP), and the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). . . The results in these tests are simply not good enough. Nova Scotian students, parents and communities deserve better outcomes.”
This rather damning assessment of the Nova Scotia education system came from education consultant Dr. Avis Glaze in the introduction to her report on public education in Nova Scotia, Raise the Bar. If you recall, this was the report that led to the removal of principals from the NSTU, the abolition of democratically elected school boards, and saw us come within a hair’s breadth of experiencing our first-ever illegal teachers strike.
Yup. That’s the one.
Now, I am not here to yet again pan Dr. Glaze, or her report. I have expressed my views on that particular moment in Nova Scotia history quite clearly in a number of locations. However, just this week another report, this one from a group called Children First Canada had me recalling those still stinging words.
The report called “Raising Canada: Election 2019” was prepared by the organization with the help of the O’Brien group out of the University of Calgary. The report painted a fairly damning picture of the disconnect between how well Canadians think we are doing for our kids and a rather jarring truth. According to the authors, “The majority of Canadians rank this as a top 5 or top 10 country to raise a child, yet the harsh reality is that Canada ranks 25th out of 41 OECD countries for children’s well being.”
The report looked at ten separate metrics of risk, and pretty much across the board, the picture that was painted for Canadian kids was less than rosy. Whether it was child abuse, mental health, or youth obesity, Canada’s record is shameful. One third of Canadians has experienced some form of child abuse. In 2015 we had one of the highest rates of teen suicide. Over one quarter of Canadian kids are considered obese. (Atlantic Canadian kids have the dubious distinction of leading in that particular category.) Considering the numbers, the word “shameful” seems a rather mild descriptor.
What struck me so soundly as I read through the report, beyond my obvious alarm, was the way in which so many of these issues, or more particularly, the finding of solutions for them, has so often been downloaded by governments onto the public school system. In an attempt to lower obesity rates, schools are encouraged to provide more activity time. In an attempt to lower suicide rates, students get lessons on warning signs and prevention measures. Discrimination (risk nine) is countered with “respect for all” campaigns. Bullying (risk ten) is tackled head on in classroom. Food insecurity (breakfast programs). Infant mortality (Parenting courses). Lack of immunization (Immunization programs.) For almost every indicator of risk to our children that was on the list, governments have turned to public schools and the people who staff them to provide solutions.
To be fair, that is a burden we carry pretty proudly. We want your kids to be healthy, to be successful, to actually make it to graduation. And we are heartbroken when they do not in ways that only someone who has been a teacher can understand. But what got me hearkening back to those words from Dr. Glaze was not our burden or suicide rates or Canada’s ranking overall. What struck me was our record on child poverty.
It has been no secret that Nova Scotia has the highest rates of child poverty in nation. There was extensive media coverage on that issue a few months back when it was revealed that child poverty rates in Canada were dropping everywhere but in Nova Scotia. Between 2015 and 2017, our childhood poverty rate rose from 15.7% to 17.1%. That’s an almost ten percent increase in the number of poor children in our schools. At the same time, it should be noted that it has been widely recognized that socioeconomic status is one of the most, if not the most, important determinant in predicting a child’s success at school.
Then consider this.
In the 2016 PCAP results which measured reading ability in Canadian kids, Nova Scotia saw 85% of its students score a level 2 or better on the test. (Level 2 is what PCAP considers as “baseline proficiency”). That was three percentage points behind both Alberta and Ontario and four behind BC. The 2015 PISA results, which measured Science proficiency, saw Nova Scotia rank fifth in the country, outperformed, in order, by Ontario, Quebec, BC and Alberta. The gap between first and fifth? Less that eight percentage points. Finally, when it comes to math instruction, the 2012 PISA results showed that when it came to offering quality education to rich and poor kids alike, Nova Scotia was determined to have the most equitable system in the country.
Let’s just for a moment assume that, during the time frame covered by these tests, our kids were also suffering from thoughts of suicide. And from obesity. And from bullying and from child abuse and from any other number of risk factors identified by the “Raising Canada” report. Let’s also recognize that during this time, they were legitimately and undeniably becoming some of the poorest kids in the country.
Do that, and then tell me with a straight face that our test results “are simply not good enough”.
Child poverty can not be addressed in our classrooms. That particular risk factor can only be addressed in Province House. The reality of our situation in Nova Scotia is not that our schools are failing our kids; our government is.
With a nod to Dr. Glaze, Nova Scotia students, parents and communities do indeed deserve much better outcomes.