In The Best Interest Of Students

There is a lot to like about Nova Scotia’s Action Plan for Education. What ultimately matters is not the ambition but the achievement of successful reform.

Echoing the fall recommendations from the Minister’s Panel on Education, the plan’s introduction is refreshingly candid and direct:

“Time and again, test results show our students are falling behind in math and literacy, nationally and internationally.”

“…we must improve and modernize our school system and that change must begin now,” 

and most importantly,

“At every step of the Action Plan, we have one guiding question: Is this decision in the best interest of students?”

The report provides a very long list of initiatives, a timeline for completion, and a promise to report on progress annually. Some of the key areas:

(1) School Boards: There have been a number of recent instances of school boards being ineffective, and in some cases dysfunctional at the top. A wide-ranging audit will be done. The existing model seems to be too remote from parents to have appropriate impact at the individual school level. At the same time the boards do not consistently implement provincial strategies. Perhaps it is time for an entirely new governance model.

(2) Professional development For Teachers: The report wants teacher development to occur outside of normal teaching periods and the skills learned to be closely linked to teacher assignments. University education programs will be expected to provide skills consistent with the strategy.  This is a big and needed change from a system that provides training based on teacher preferences, and rewards.

(3) Performance Management For Teachers: The Panel explicitly recommended that school board should be able to dismiss chronically ineffective teachers. In response the Nova Scotia Teachers Union (NSTU) argues that section 34 of The Education Act allows for dismissal for Just Cause.

Being a lousy teacher does not necessarily meet the test of just cause, although School Boards are sometimes able to come to agreements with poor performers. Keeping ineffective teachers is unfair to the many good ones, to the students, and to the able young teachers patiently waiting for the chance to prove themselves.

Both appropriate professional development and effective performance management are unquestionably in the best interest of students. Yet these proposals are likely to encounter resistance from the NSTU.

This exposes the fundamental conflict in NSTU wanting to be both a union and a professional organization. As a union their first responsibility is to look after the financial interest of their members. 

(4) More Teaching: There is to be more math and literacy at every level. More Core French in grade six. More hands-on learning opportunities in grades 4-8. New programs in citizenship, cultural histories, and entrepreneurship in high school. More community-based learning programs for high school students. More credits will be needed to graduate.

These are worthy ideas. But if all of them are to occur something else will have to give. The report does not identify any programs that will have to be reduced or eliminated to make room for these initiatives. Nor is there an acknowledgement that more teaching time will be needed, even though, as reported in the Panel’s recommendations: “The Education Act requires that 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.”

The items above are only a sampling. There are initiatives to expand programs and services for pre-schoolers, reduce disruptive student behaviour, enhance inclusive education, implement new teaching technologies, exit principals and school board administrators from the NSTU, engage business leaders in career-based education, and much more. The list is exhausting to read let alone to implement through school boards that often struggle to fulfill basic duties.

The report acknowledges the challenge: “Reports, white papers, and blue ribbon panels that were designed to bring about change often over-promised and under-delivered on public policy issues because they were never implemented,” but insists, “That will not happen with this Action Plan. The stakes are too high for the future of our students and our province.”

The Minister asserts that the plan is aggressive but achievable. Perhaps so. It would certainly be a big improvement. But implementing lasting change in large organizations is very difficult, particularly in establishing accountability at every level of management. We can only hope that the disappointing experiences of the past will not be repeated.

There will be early signs. Twenty-one initiatives are promised for this September, and annual reports each January. Chest-thumping ambition is nice. Achievement is what counts.

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