23 May 2008

The politics and challenges of education reform in post-Confederation Newfoundland and Labrador (Part IV)

by Philip J. Warren

Challenges For The Future

Looking ahead, there are several challenges in elementary and secondary education that, I believe, need to be addressed. I plan to highlight five of these.

Focusing More on the Teacher and Learning

Many post-Confederation reforms in Newfoundland education did not focus on the teacher in the classroom, but rather on the structure and governance of education. Reforming structure and governance is much easier that improving the teaching-learning process. And when it's done, its gives the appearance of political action by the government in power. As important as organizational changes are, the real challenge is to provide caring, well-educated teachers for the classrooms of the Province, working in a supportive classroom environment. Providing such teachers and such an environment is the single most important factor in improving education, even more important than class size.

I'd like to make a comment or two about the preparation of teachers. It's important for Memorial University as a whole to consider the preparation of high-quality teachers as a top priority. Budgetary and personnel decisions should be consistent with that vision. In addition to providing the resources to guarantee excellence in pre-service education, the University should ensure that the Faculty can also focus on the continuing professional development of teachers. Professors in the Faculty should be rewarded for their service in this area, as they are for excellence in teaching and research. And facilities and resources for teacher education at Memorial should be constantly upgraded. We've only just begun to examine the potential of technology to transform education at all levels.

As a Province, we must continue to address teacher workload issues and provide more support services for teachers, particularly in the increasing number of small schools. While we've made significant progress in these areas recently, in response to the ISSP/Pathways and Shortall reports, there are still too many schools, urban as well as rural, that do not have adequate teaching resources; adequate secretarial, maintenance, and computer-technician staff; adequate bathroom and lunch facilities for teachers; or a comfortable and healthy place where teachers can relax when they're not teaching. Too many teachers who work with children with special learning needs, including the gifted and the talented, lack the necessary supports. Much more must be done to support teachers working with our aboriginal children.The housing needs of teachers who serve in many isolated areas of the Province are not being met. These conditions undermine the enthusiasm and motivation of teachers, and, therefore, negatively impact student learning. They must be addressed.

Promoting Greater Parental and Public Involvement

The meaningful involvement of the public, particularly parents, is another area where reform is necessary. Greater parental involvement can be justified on the basis of efficiency and effectiveness, as well as democracy. Parents can have a huge impact in working with and motivating their children, reinforcing their school-time experiences. What the ISSP/Pathways Report said about the parents of special needs children can be used to describe the feelings of too many other parents: they often feel powerless and marginalized.

I believe that Newfoundland school districts are now too large geographically for effective parental input, using the current model. Ways must be found to increase the involvement of parents and the public generally in school board elections and educational decision-making. Effective school boards are essential to the future development of education, as are effective school councils. We must decentralize more educational decision-making in this Province.

As Denise Pike and her associates at the Federation of School Councils have demonstrated, school councils can contribute significantly to the improvement of student achievement and performance. The time has come for the Department of Education to make the development of a comprehensive parent involvement policy a major priority.

Investing More in Educational Research

Investment in research has been virtually neglected as a part of our strategy in education reform. The reality is that we don't know how to solve many of the educational problems that we face. Certainly, there are no quick fixes or magic bullets. The best way forward is to take the best evidence that we have, try a variety of strategies that seem to have some empirical or conceptual support, assess their results, communicate our findings to all involved, and make changes accordingly. As Gerald Galway has rightly concluded, we need much more evidence-based decision-making in education.

It's interesting to compare the place of research in educational policy-making today with its place in health care. Research in health care has received funding from the Federal Government, something that's not likely in education. The Province, therefore, must address this need, in co-operation with the University and its other partners, because more research, both qualitative and quantitative, will help improve teaching and learning in the classroom.

Providing Sustained Bottom-up and Top-Down Leadership

Local leadership, at the school district as well as the school level, is vitally important in the improvement of education. We must act immediately to increase the pool of potential principals, for example, and improve their working conditions, for it is they who set the tone for teaching and learning. The leadership of principals may be the second most important factor (next to the teacher) in the improvement of student learning. This Province needs a comprehensive leadership strategy in education.

Education reform must be accompanied by sustained leadership from the top as well, focusing on longer-term as well as shorter-term goals. Cabinet ministers tend to establish agendas shortly after their appointment, but all too often, before much has been accomplished, they are moved to another portfolio, and new briefings required and new priorities established. Keeping successful Ministers of Education in their portfolios for longer periods of time would facilitate sustained leadership at the Provincial level. Ministers, of course, must be supported by highly-qualified officials in their Department, who, along with the Minister, keep in constant touch with what's going on in the field.

Recognizing the Political Nature of Reform

Education reform is very much a political process, requiring expert planning and a great deal of hard work. Change in education is very slow, and never moves in a straight line: the direction is determined by the forces at work at any one point in time. And there will always be opposition. Individuals and institutions have a predisposition to maintain the status quo in response to external demands for change. Those who oppose change or lose something in the process will often persist in their efforts to undermine its implementation. Educational leaders must understand the politics of change and be able to work with all stakeholders in the policy formulation, policy implementation, and policy evaluation processes.

Conclusion

I'd like to conclude where I began, by suggesting that education is now in a period of relative quiet and calm. In fact, things are too quiet in education today. With few exceptions, one being the discussion around the importance of establishing an effective appeals process for special needs students, education has received little attention in the media. Education was not a significant issue in the last provincial election. While important changes have been made recently to improve the system (limits on class size in certain grades, a new approach to teacher allocation, the expansion of distance education, more emphasis on the fine arts, which I consider vitally important, and improvements in programs for special needs students), much more must be done, now that we have more financial resources. Education must remain a high political priority in the Province's financial decision-making as it competes with such things as health care and the environment.

I can't conclude without making one more general comment. As a society, we must be more cognizant of the impact of a child's home conditions on education, and what must be done in this regard. There is a strong link between socio-economic background and educational achievement. Studies continue to show that family background is the single most important predictor of educational outcomes: that a child's education is seriously affected by poverty, unemployment, poor housing, poor nutrition, inadequate health care, low levels of literacy in the home, and the absence of appropriate early childhood education programs. There are too many students who come to school unprepared to benefit fully from school programs. It may sound utopian, but these issues must also be addressed.

Newfoundland and Labrador is now known throughout Canada for its unique culture and its oil. Let us also be known across the Country for our commitment to equality and excellence in education. That policy would lay the foundation for the Province's future prosperity and the long-term welfare of all our people.

-srbp-

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