Who’s reviewing Nova Scotia’s education system?

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A teacher told me the other day she’d like to be on an official panel that reviews dentistry practices. As a person with teeth, she feels she has a good understanding of how the job works.

She was joking, of course, and in reality commenting on the comprehensive P-12 education review panel named by minister Karen Casey last week. Casey announced that former lieutenant-governor Myra Freeman would be chairing the panel of six.

During the 2013 election campaign the Liberals promised a comprehensive curriculum review if elected, saying there had been no such review for 25 years. However, the government now says the review will be broader than just curriculum – “[e]verything is on the table,” including things like the length of the school year, according to Minister Casey.

The nature of the review had always been a bit ambiguous. During the campaign the promise was often spun to sound as if schools were teaching the exact same curriculum today as in 1988, when people still had phone books and “text” wasn’t yet a verb.

This is of course not the case. Individual course curricula are frequently updated and reviewed (some more frequently than others) and new courses are regularly piloted and implemented.  The Department of Education often re-jigs course requirements, assessment schemes, and much more, for better or for worse.

Still, the fanfare with which this panel was announced indicate that it might shake things up more than usual. In a few weeks the panel will announce to the public how its consultations will function. Already, though, its composition gives reason to be wary.

Myra Freeman herself seems well respected, at least among several educators I’ve spoken to. She is a former teacher with decades of experience – though, as a colleague has pointed out to me, none since the 1990’s, ironic given that the panel is being sold by emphasizing how much the world has changed in 25 years. Freeman also piloted the first Lieutenant-Governor’s teaching awards in partnership with the Nova Scotia Teachers’ Union. (A cynic might also point out that her long-standing connections to the Liberal party probably didn’t hurt in her selection.)

The rest of the panel consists of:

“Gordon MacInnis, vice-president finance and operations at Cape Breton University; Mike Henderson, the former vice-president of manufacturing at Stanfield’s Limited and an active member of his local school community; Tina Dixon, a mother of three school-aged sons from Bear River; Donna O’Connell, an educator with 40 years of experience in various roles; and Kyle Hill, a Rhodes Scholar in physics from Yarmouth who now works for a Toronto-based consulting group” (Chronicle-Herald).

Tina Dixon is listed on the Bear River First Nation’s website as its education director. The Chronicle-Herald article above lists her as a “mother of three,” presumably so that she is not purported to represent the Mi’kmaw community’s views on education – organizations such as the Council on Mi’kmaq Education or Mi’kmaw Kina’matnewey would be better suited to do that. Still, it seems a bit bizarre that her experience in education wouldn’t be mentioned in the media.

Donna O’Connell of Pugwash is a teacher and longtime school board employee from Pugwash. Beyond that, there’s not much information on the internet about her views on education.

Having teachers on a panel about education makes sense. However, notable is the lack of representation from the Nova Scotia Teachers Union. The NSTU is the elected, representative body of public school teachers in the province, and thus should have a member on the six-person panel. Instead, the NSTU is a member of the “partners’ advisory group” to the panel, which also includes “school boards, universities, African Nova Scotians, Mi’kmaq, Acadians, youth and business.”

When a democratic body exists to represent teacher views in the province, why appoint two retired teachers, seemingly at random, instead of a representative from that body?

Gordon MacInnis is the other panelist with experience in the world of education, as vice-president of finance at Cape Breton University. As a chartered accountant in a university, however, it’s unclear what knowledge he has about the inner workings of P-12 public schools. In a province with five faculties of education, it seems a more natural choice may have been someone from one of them.

The world of business seems to be well represented on the panel, however. Mike Henderson is a 34-year veteran of the corporate world, now in retirement. “I’m really going in with a blank slate,” says Henderson, who gives no indication to the media as to his views on education.

Finally, raising some eyebrows is the appointment of Kyle Hill, the employee of a seemingly innocuous “Toronto-based consulting group,” according to the Chronicle-Herald article. The firm Hill works for is BCG (Boston Consulting Group), a major business strategy corporation which has its hands in all means of education privatization initiatives across the U.S.

BCG, and those which like it who push so-called education reform (actually now the status quo in the U.S.), use familiar narratives to push privatization in America’s public schools: schools in America are “failing”; self-interested, lazy teachers and their unions are holding back America’s children; “higher standards,” gauged by constant standardized testing, are what is needed to help the poorest students; schools with high failure/dropout rates should be shut down and replaced with semi-private charter schools.

To the reformers, there is no such thing as chronic underfunding, systemic racism, overcrowded classrooms, or poverty. Or, if there is, they are “no excuse” for students not to succeed.  Never mind that poverty is the main factor in students’ lack of success at school. Never mind that charter schools can cherry-pick students to raise their aggregate test scores, pushing students with special needs back to the underfunded public schools, now a greater distance from home as public schools close down. Never mind that charter schools, as private entities, are not subject to regulation and oversight in the same way public institutions are.

One of the darlings of the education reform movement is Teach for America (TFA), which puts inexperienced, minimally trained college graduates into two-year placements in some of the U.S.’s toughest inner-city school districts in a massive project reminiscent of the Peace Corps. TFA is facing a growing backlash for its practices, which at best fail to address the systemic problems facing inner-city youth and at worst create a scab workforce of low-paid, disposable teachers who replace experienced teachers during rounds of layoffs.

Canada currently has no program equivalent to Teach for America. But Kyle Hill is trying to change that. Along with Adam Goldenberg, a Yale law student and former federal Liberal speechwriter, Hill is trying to launch Teach for Canada, an organization similar to TFA but which would send young grads into “rural, remote, and Aboriginal communities.” I’ve outlined here and here why I think this is a bad idea. Others have too.

Now, I’ve met Kyle Hill. He seems to be a nice person who means well. BCG, his employer, is a huge firm, and Kyle says he’s never worked on any of its education-related projects. He also insists Teach for Canada has no affiliation to TFA and promises it would only ever send its program participants to schools where no other teachers were available. (It’s worth noting this was TFA’s original policy as well, until “a bad case of mission creep” set in.) As well, he says his placement on the education review panel has nothing to do with his Teach for Canada project.

Still, the fact remains that the only person under 40 the minister chose for this panel is the architect of this highly controversial project run by non-educators. Is this the perspective we want for the review of our education system?

The Liberals’ language around curriculum review was already troubling during the election campaign, focusing on “aligning the needs of our economy with the skills of our students.”

Of course, students need to learn to function in the world around them. But education is about much more than job-skills training. How might the panel view things differently if it included, say, an anti-poverty advocate? An African Nova Scotian educator? A youth mental health expert? Much is made of the so-called “math crisis” in Nova Scotian schools. Will crises of child poverty, of high pushout rates among Black students, or of mental health be considered just as important?

Michelle Gunderson, a veteran elementary school teacher from Chicago and activist with the Chicago Teachers’ Union who I had the chance to meet last summer, recently published this thought on her Facebook page:

“That so many people think education means college and career readiness makes me think we’ve lost our collective minds. The purpose of education is to live a good and purpose-filled life.”

I agree. How about you, education review panel?

16 thoughts on “Who’s reviewing Nova Scotia’s education system?”

  1. Thanks for sharing your comments Ben – always a good read. Maybe we should start a ‘shadow education review panel’ consisting of some folks that actually work in the #NSed trenches?

  2. Not a terrible read Ben. Thank you for sharing. You raise the question of why teachers aren’t on the review panel, mocking those that don’t have teaching experience as not being ‘qualified’ to review the education system. I disgree.

    “A teacher told me the other day she’d like to be on an official panel that reviews dentistry practices. As a person with teeth, she feels she has a good understanding of how the job works.”

    Instead of dentists, let me proffer another profession: police officers.

    Doesn’t your whole argument rests on the argument that only teachers are qualified to review teachers? I disagree with that premise – because the longstanding question of any liberal democratic society has been: who watches the watchers? By that, who do we trust to review those in positions of authority?

    Let me use the example of review in the context of police forces. Given the abysmal state of police abuse and brutality in this country (Ian Bush, Robert Dziekanski, G20 protests, Sammy Yatim, etc.), would you trust a review of police officers by other active police officers? Of course not. Why? Because you would (and should) challenge its legitimacy, independence, and validity of the review. How can we trust police officers to review – and especially, criticize and condemn – their colleagues and friends. If you had active-duty police officers (or…in this case, members of the NSTU), you would also question the efficacy of the review process. At the very least, the optics would be suspect.

    In order to preempt these questions, you would need to establish the independence of the panel first and foremost. You would want some people with expertise, but also individuals that come from outside education (with no pre-set assumptions about existing practices). Obviously, it would be wonderful to have a mental health expert, but this is a case where it would always be better to have more. IF there’s a mental health expert, you would complain that there aren’t enough black people, or enough women, or enough rural representation, or enough inner-city people, or enough administrators, or enough union representatives, or enough Aboriginals, or enough single moms, ad infinitum. Let’s just agree that panels can always be improved, but at some point, it gets unrealistic. The panel is fine as it is.

    Ben, I encourage you to approach this panel with an open mind. I fear that you’ve already made your mind up that you will oppose it because you fear it, and are already looking for reasons to hate it. I hope you will come to see that independent review is a healthy process for any profession. As a resident of Truro, I think it’s past time that we reviewed our education system – and especially our educators.

    1. I don’t accept the validity of your comparison, John. It’s not that I think only educators should be on the panel, but that the organization that represents educators should at least have a representative. The premise of the education review is to look at improving the ed system, not to look at egregious abuses of power like the ones you mention from the police. How does it make sense to shut out current teachers completely?

      The composition of the panel is not “fine.” By choosing business people over any of the other groups you mention you’re already choosing the kind of perspective which will be privileged. It’s easy to say it’s “fine” when issues like mental health or over-representation of African Nova Scotians in the youth prison system don’t affect you. (Not that I presume to know your background.)

      1. I definitely agree that the NSTU deserves some say in the process – but I stand by my original assertion that the independence of the panel is paramount. And teachers represent only one, albeit legitimate, viewpoint. Teachers are not being shut out. I can only presume that the NSTU will have an opportunity to meet with the panel to air their perspective. But ordinary citizens deserve to share their input as well. That’s democracy. I, for one, would not be comfortable nor candid if I knew there were teachers on the panel.

        For your interest, I’m a 2nd generation Nova Scotian mulatto. I know very well about the inequality that afflicts this province. When I was growing up on the northern edge of Halifax many years ago, I knew all too well how being spat at by white Haligonians felt. But I stayed in this province because it’s my home.

    2. Actually, if a review of the police system and its culture were commissioned, I would welcome the input of the rank and file. Most officers would be quite reluctant to gloss over the actions of the few bad apples and would have far less “butt-protecting” to do than those who are higher in the organization. Further, they would also have far less to gain by cherry-picking flaws in the organization to advance their own corporate gain, as is often the case with private companies who are in competition with public services. Unions are not the Evil Empire and it is a fallacy to believe that the Teachers’ Union is somehow detracting from students by promoting better classroom conditions for the teachers who serve those students.

      1. I doubt that if you were a rank-and-file officer, you would feel safe about criticizing your colleagues and friends. Every police officer is ambitious, and it is not a wise career move to be the bad apple that criticizes your own organization.

        Censorship can come from above or within. Governments that try to censor us are obviously abhorrent. But the real bad censorship is when we self-censor ourselves, saying things that are on our minds but that we calculate to not be a smart thing to say, even if it’s right.

    3. John, if the panel was meant to review the conduct of teachers you would have a point. However, the panel is meant review our education system as a whole. Who else would know the ins and outs of curriculum, or policies regarding such things as inclusion and attendance? Reporting processes and the effectiveness of recently implemented technology are things that CURRENT teachers have input about, and we would love to have a chance to voice our opinions for once. But sadly, public opinion of teachers is so low that any input from us would be seen as just another way we are trying to get out of work. Teachers have concerns, serious concerns, about the path our education system is headed. Many teachers would tell you that we need a shift toward old school methodology; current practices implemented by our government (whenever Alberta and Ontario are about to can them) are failing our kids! We would know…we see if everyday. Believe it or not, we are professionals with many years of education and more importantly first hand experience; would a health care reform value the input of doctors and nurses?? I would hope so. And parents should expect the same for any reform that will impact their child’s education!

      1. My name is Johnston. Or Dr. Markham, if you prefer. Not John.

        I don’t deny that teachers have a legitimate voice in this discussion. But you’re not the only voice. I’m confident the panel will meet with teachers and take your perspective into account. How could it not? I am just arguing in favour of an independent panel without current teachers. Nobody is denying that teachers shouldn’t participate in the education review process, but why does that necessitate a seat on the panel? The panel is there to listen.

        And I disagree with you that the panel is not intended to review teacher conduct. With all this media attention about how teachers are sexually abusing students and whatnot, I very much hope that these youngsters are accorded the protection they need by the panel. Teachers need to be watched. Any residential school survivor will agree with that.

      2. While I appreciate that some are distrustful of teachers, especially from marginalized communities, I think the composition of the panel points to greater trust for the business/financial community than for current teachers, which I think is wrong-headed. While the panel is supposed to listen, everyone listens through their own lens, and there is an obvious advantage to being represented on the panel at the innermost level. Denying a spot to the people I mentioned in the original post while providing it to businesspeople and a Teach for Canada founder already set a tone for the type of perspective this panel will have.

        I apologize for calling you the wrong name above; it must have been because the e-mail address you used to sign in, which popped up in my e-mail notification, had “John” in it.

    4. If the police force were being review it woyld be to look at how they handled those specific situations. I think the purpose of this study is not to look directly at how educators teach in a specific classroom, It is to look at the WHOLE system. Professionals in the frontlines need to be consulted. The problem continues…. we allow people that haven’t been in classrooms for years, or ever for that matter to make decisions.

  3. Oh, my – where did “all this media attention about how teachers are sexually abusing students” come from? I think someone has an issue outside the topic of reviewing the Education System and whether it is effective and capable of actually helping our future generations become educated.

  4. You have raised a critical issue, Ben. Since the announcement of the Education Commission, the real puzzle is not who was appointed but rather is who is NOT on the panel. Your assessment of the appointees is quite sound, but you missed the Yarmouth connection between Kyle Hill and Zach Churchill.

    Virtually everyone who has spoken with me about the Panel was quickly able to identify a much stronger cast of appointees. It’s truly shocking to see no one from Nova Scotia’s faculties of education found worthy of appointment. You and I know many talented current teachers with educational breadth and policy chops. The Nova Scotia Chambers of Commerce have education committees and no one from that group was deemed worthy. The same is true in the areas of 21st century learning, teen mental health, special education, and workplace education.

    So far, it looks like the Educational Review is all process with no clear agenda except to continue to “prepare students for the 21st century economic world.” The Minister was also quick to say “I’m not saying there’s anything wrong. We just want to make things work a little better.” It’s tempting to speculate on whether the medium (Process) has become an end in itself. Without a fire in the belly, the status quo is assured. Is that the real end game? If it is, it doesn’t really matter who gets to pad their resume.

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