02 December 2011

The value of education, redux #nlpoli #cdnpoli

The most recent report from the Council of Ministers of Education of Canada shows that Grade 8 students in Newfoundland and Labrador score among the lowest in Canada for tests of mathematics and below the national average score for English.

Education minister Clyde Jackman, a former teacher himself, has tried to shift attention away from what the results are:  yet another reminder of the dismal state of the province’s educational system.
None of this is surprising.

As SRBP noted in August 2010, the province’s population consistently scores poorly in national evaluations of reading comprehension and mathematics scores.
Reading and writing is a challenge. 
Almost half the adult population of Newfoundland and Labrador doesn’t have a literacy level that would allow them to “function well in Canadian society.”  
Basic math skills are an even bigger problem. 
Almost two out of every three adult Newfoundlanders and Labradorians don’t have the skill with numbers and mathematics – they call it numeracy – to function well in Canadian society. 
Numeracy is actually a far greater problem because it involves not just an ability to add, subtract, multiple and divide.  Numeracy also involves logic and reasoning, probability and statistics.
The problem is not a lack of money.  The provincial government spends significant amounts on education.   Ask any provincial Conservative and that’s about the only bit of informational they will cite that rings true.

Other politicians want to spend even more money on education.  In a  demonstration of the findings about problems with logic and reasoning, these well-intentioned souls advocate policies that would not produce the desired result.  In fact, evidence suggests that the ideas like free university tuition would make worse the issue of access for people from low income families.

The problem is not that we don’t spend enough.

The problem is  that we do not recognise there is a problem in the first place.

Clyde Jackman’s response is typical.

Nor do we collectively seem to appreciate the extent to which education is the foundation for future success both individually and collectively. 

Social  progress.

Economic development.

Improved health.


All come from improved education.

The third order problem is that what changes or reforms we have pursued in the past decade have been the wrong ones, driven entirely by the wrong motive.  The collapse of the educational system in 2005 under the Conservatives to a series of five super educational districts was entirely an exercise in bureaucratic consolidation of power.

The current school districts are too large, as former education minister Philip Warren noted in 2008.  Additionally, the 2005 reforms took the community out of education.  The reforms that Warren and his cabinet colleagues initiated in the 1990s aimed at increasing local control of education and of giving parents a greater level of involvement in education.

Recent changes to the school system in the metropolitan St. John’s area are an example of the pernicious, deleterious effect the 2005 school board re-organization has wrought. Education bureaucrats in the government department and the school district concocted a plan among themselves, discarded an earlier understanding with parents and then engaged in a cynical manipulation to force their pre-conceived outcome on those directly affected by their decisions.

It is no accident that all of this took place in an environment in which political leaders and their associates took every effort to stifle debate, ruthlessly attack those who dissented and pushed attention instead toward crusades that were, in truth, little more than political Punch and Judy shows.

Some of those who fought most zealously for the political theatrics are now shifting their stories, trying to ignore their own past involvement in making the mess. Others have not. They all still rattle around in the Echo Chamber.

The state of education in our province, like the state of our politics, is a sign of the extent to which we have turned away from the values that we once shared as a society.  We have lost sight of what is valuable and lasting and replaced it with the superficial, the trivial.

The first step to changing that is to recognise there is a problem.

And with yet more evidence that the provincial education system is failing, the problem is getting harder and harder to ignore.

- srbp -