Posted February 19, 2016
The province’s Education Action Plan was released just over a year ago with a clear central theme: “At every step of the Action Plan, we have one guiding question: Is this decision in the best interest of students? It is that motivation that will move the Plan forward.”
Some good work has been done, but most of it involves organizing committees and working groups, which is inoffensive, or spending more money, which is popular among those directly affected. The hard stuff has yet to be addressed, and the report is measuring inputs, not outcomes.
Among the hundred or so commitments in that plan was an undertaking to provide annual updates on progress. The first report has now been received.
The plan rested on four pillars, each with a specific set of tasks to be achieved. At considerable risk of over-simplification:
A Modern Education System: Much of this is about coordinating better with communities, other government departments, and the business community. Many of the actions involve reorganization of functions or establishment of various working groups.
An Innovative Curriculum: A principal focus is increased emphasis on math, literacy (and appreciation of the language), history, and culture of the groups making up our diverse population. Technology is to be used, coding is to be taught, and entrepreneurship promoted.
Inclusive School Environments: Steps are promised to help students with learning, social, or behavioural issues to succeed and transition to employment or post-secondary education.
Excellence in Teaching and Leadership: Teaching standards are to be established and performance management systems put in place. University programs are to be aligned with the new teaching standards.
A lot of what has been achieved so far is foundational. The most visible changes are the additions of 52 math mentors and 50 Reading Recovery teachers, and introduction of new ceilings on class sizes in the early grades.
Spending more money on these and other initiatives is entirely in keeping with the platform on which the Liberals were elected. But that platform also included a promise to balance the books by the final year of the mandate. To achieve that, the government needs to take a hard look at spending on education that is not cost-effective.
Teachers are still being rewarded with substantial pay increases for completing development programs regardless of whether the skills acquired are needed or used. Universities are still churning out about 300 new B.Ed.s every year, each subsidized to the tune of $12,000.
This even though there are thousands of graduates who work outside of teaching, have left the province, or are underemployed as substitutes. In Halifax alone, almost 1,400 qualified teachers compete for substitute work.
Some of these items are on the agenda for discussion with the union, including:
• Changes to the school year, including the scheduling of teacher professional development
• Allocation of professional development funding and generation of new requirements for teacher certification
• Creation of a robust system for teacher performance management
• Linking of teacher assignment directly to credentials and experience
• Strengthening of the process for addressing poor teaching performance
In a commentary last week, educational consultant Paul Bennett observed that “student achievement results continue to spiral downward.” It is not reasonable to expect those results to respond this early to the new initiatives, any more than one would expect an infection to improve the moment one starts taking antibiotics.
But Bennett’s comment raises a critical question: What are the appropriate measures of success?
It is not enough to have implemented the various actions in the plan. Streamlining curricula, improving homework guidelines and codes of conduct, reducing class sizes, adding teaching resources for math and literacy, improving relevance of continuing education, and performance management for teachers are not the ultimate goals. They are means to an end.
What does success look like? Student achievement results compared to other jurisdictions and our own track record are improving. Employers and post-secondary educators report greater satisfaction with the skills and knowledge of high school graduates. A larger proportion of young people are successfully completing post-secondary programs.
These and other measures of outcomes should be the headlines for future annual reports. Those measures will tell us if the plan is delivering results “in the best interest of students.”
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