For Better Schools

“The current system is failing our students and the public has sent a strong message that there is an urgent need for change.”

That is the essential conclusion of the Minister’s Panel on Education. Their report joins those of Ivany and others in making a valuable contribution to public policy. 

The recommendations are wide ranging, and the panel wisely counsels that they should not all be implemented at once. That is not a valid excuse for indecision. Rather, it means that Minister Casey must now make some clear choices, to be followed by carefully staged implementation.

She promises an action plan in January: “When I hear that 50 per cent of Nova Scotians are not satisfied with the education system, I know that it’s time for the change.”

The report is informed by extensive surveys and consultations. Survey results and verbatim comments are sprinkled throughout the seven themes and thirty recommendations.  

Here are a few key proposals:

(1) “Establish common and stringent criteria for admission into teacher education (B.Ed.) programs, including high academic qualifications, aptitude for teaching, and alignment with labour market needs in Nova Scotia.”

Comment:  It is not for the province to tell universities how to run their admissions. But it can have its own criteria for certification. Only students meeting the criteria would have the hope of a Nova Scotia teaching certificate upon graduation. Nova Scotia currently trains far more teachers than will ever be employed here, and certifies more who study elsewhere.  The idea of having stringent criteria is excellent. The province should only fund universities for students entering their programs having met those criteria.

(2) Require that: “Teacher certification requirements are designed to meet system and student needs. Initial teacher classification, advancement in classification levels, and pay increases need to be tied to system requirements and strong performance in assigned duties.”

Comment: Taken literally this is a radical and welcome change.  “Nova Scotia made the transition to an outcomes-based framework for education in the early 2000s”, but the way teachers are classified and paid is based entirely on inputs—basically years of experience and the number of courses the teacher has passed. These are highly imperfect measures of teacher effectiveness, particularly since passing courses is rewarded whether or not the learning from those courses is needed or used to improve student achievement. It is unfortunate that the definition of outcomes is currently defined by what is taught rather than what students learn from that teaching.

(3) “Implement a provincial performance management system that recognizes teaching excellence, supports professional growth, and empowers school boards to dismiss teachers when performance issues warrant.”

Comment: It is very important to celebrate and reward excellent teaching. Equally it is wrong to retain teachers who are unable or unwilling to do the job. It is not fair to the excellent math teacher if the students she starts with every year are likely to be far behind because of weak teaching in the grade below. It is also wrong to retain poor teachers when there are so many well qualified young teachers waiting for a chance to prove themselves.

(4) The report observes that the curriculum is overcrowded, and that Nova Scotia’s Education Act requires that post-primary “students receive between 300 and 360 minutes of instruction each day. It is noteworthy that most schools are close to the 300-minute end of the range.” Though curiously not in the numbered recommendations it adds: “…the department should encourage school boards to use more of the time allowed in the legislation for student learning.” 

Comment: The recommendation seems so blindingly obvious that it is hard to see why it is so weakly expressed. Shouldn’t 360 minutes be the norm as long as Nova Scotia continues to perform below national averages?

(5) “Consider if supervisory staff—including principals, supervisors, directors, and superintendents of school boards—should be members of the same union as teachers”

Comment: Again, a correct, but rather meekly articulated recommendation. To the outside observer it is puzzling why employees who are clearly in management roles should be in a union at all. For those positions it is doubly important to have effective performance management—first and foremost to celebrate and reward excellence, but secondly to prevent teachers from being burdened with ineffective leadership.

(6) Teaching is a demanding job at the best of times but the system adds three burdens that make it harder. “It would appear that neither students with special needs nor their peers are being served well” by always putting them in the same classroom. Add to that the challenge of “social promotion” of students, meaning they do not have an adequate foundation at the beginning of the new school year. Finally, “Schools also require effective mechanisms for responding when student conduct is dangerous, unlawful, and/or disruptive to other students’ ability to learn.”

Comment: Give teachers a chance! More resources are needed to support each of the situations described above. Social promotions and the approach to including special needs students need to be rethought. And disruptive students need to be dealt with in a way that protects the learning experience of well-behaved students.

Conclusion: The report can be found on the Department’s website and is well worth reading. The Liberals have made Education their central theme. The report confirms the critical need and clear opportunity for improvement. Some of the needed changed may face union resistance. When Minister Casey reveals her action plan in January Nova Scotians will be looking for evidence of strong and decisive leadership.

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