Presentation to Select Standing Committee on Education
Monday, December 10, 2001
Is the primary goal of public education socialization, equity of opportunity, shaping good citizens, academic skills, employability skills or a combination of the above?
At random, ask a member of the public or a parent what the goals of public education are and you are likely to get a different answer to the one that many educators will provide.
These differences underscore so many issues. Therefore, our first challenge in reforming public education is stating clearly what we expect students to gain in the course of 13 years of publicly funded education.
I believe very strongly that first and foremost we must agree that virtually every child should be educated in "the basics". That he is able to read, write, use technology and problem solve effectively. I include in this group almost all children with special learning needs. Research shows that we should be able to achieve this basic level of education for 98% of our children.
This is the necessary foundation for all the other "goals" of education. A literate child has the essential tools to access the world around him. A literate child can make choices about his learning. A literate child reads. A literate child has the passport to a productive life and becomes a more effective citizen. A literate child matures into a literate, educated adult who more likely to be understanding, than condemning out of ignorance, of those around him.
Our public ideal is an educated population, engaged and involved in democratic systems and contributing to the economic well being of our province.
Socio-economic status and special learning needs are challenges to be met, not necessarily predictors of outcomes. A child that struggles with reading, writing and/or problem solving knows that they are not keeping up. These children drop out mentally long before they drop out physically. In a global economy, there are fewer and fewer opportunities for those who do not complete high school.
You have been told by other presenters not to lose sight of equity goals when confronted with witnesses who are asking for more of a focus on academics. Education can and does accomplish this. I believe that individual achievement and equity goals are in no way shape or form mutually exclusive goals!!! Achievement for disadvantaged children is about providing equal opportunity in their future lives. It is about breaking cycles that lead to inequities.
We need to focus on core goals for our education system. There are many examples of excellence in our system however, we are asking our schools and classrooms to do more and more, and in the end something has to give. Everyone has an idea about what the schools can or should be doing, but they forget that in any given year a child only spends approximately 10% of their time in school. We need to restructure to ensure that the core goals of public education are being delivered effectively to all students.
It is the system itself, not the individuals working hard within it, that is the barrier to improvement.
SYSTEM THAT RESPONDS EFFECTIVELY TO CHANGING REALITIES
Systemic change is not only desirable, it is essential if public education is to survive.
I believe that the biggest threat we currently face to the existence of public education is the exodus of students and families. The number of home and privately schooled students in this province is increasing dramatically, while the overall population of school-aged children is declining. We need to determine why families are leaving and find ways to meet their needs and attract them back to our public schools.
There is much that we can learn from other jurisdictions where they are successfully meeting this challenge. They have documented a large body of evidence that we must consider while at the same time ensuring that we build our own research capacity.
Sound policy research must be supported, and the results communicated clearly to our policy makers.
We do not have adequate systems in place to replicate success. For example, there are schools and programs that serve at risk students successfully we must more widely and consistently share these practices and this is an area where the Ministry of Education can, and should, expand its role.
Accountability is one of those overused words that is subject to widely differing interpretations and definitions. Everyone agrees that we need more "accountability" but few involved with the education system agree on what that means.
I believe that accountability is the gathering, dissemination and use of information and data in a goal setting and evaluation cycle. I also believe that this cycle needs to be largely public and in place at both macro and micro levels of the system. It is critical that we gauge the impact on student achievement of dollars spent so that we can allocate finite resources effectively.
It isnt enough that we gather information and data, that knowledge must be put in context, shared and acted upon to be meaningful.
I support Accountability Contracts or Performance Plans as many refer to them as a move in this direction. However, a commitment to effective accountability will require fundamental changes to our system of delivering public education.
FIRST: Put responsibility and accountability in the same place. Accountability for student learning must be in place at every level of the education system from the classroom teacher all the way up to the superintendent and Board the buck should stop each step of the way and in both directions.
We need more clearly defined roles and responsibilities and the tools to show the public, parents, students and other stakeholders that what we say is being done, is in fact being done.
SECOND: Ensure that those who have responsibility also have the ability to make related decisions.
THIRD: Spread responsibility out. Include parents, and where appropriate, students in decision making at the school level.
In the interest of student achievement, I believe it is time to consider devolving some governance control to the school level through elected, accountable school councils that are composed of parents, staff and community members. School based decision making can be on an opt in/opt out basis, recognizing that different schools and communities are at different levels of readiness for this responsibility. Experience in other jurisdictions tells us that a critical, and often overlooked, component of shared decision making is providing school council members with training.
Rather than replacing or removing School Boards and district staff this would change much of the focus at the district level from administrative to instructional support. A critical role for a school district, and its elected Board, would continue to be the provision of district programs and sound educational policies and practices. Districts would also continue to be responsible for monitoring growth plans and continuous improvement results, and they would have a role in ensuring equity, supporting failing schools and responding to community requests for choice schools and programs.
FOURTH: While evaluation is currently top-down professional staff should be able to evaluate the services and support they receive.
Parents and students, as the clients of the system, should also be given opportunities for evaluation.
FIFTH: Offer more options and choices for learners, educators and families. Options should allow a closer match between teaching and learning styles; support for family choices, such as year round school for those who choose it; and greatly expanded secondary school options.
A community is not arbitrary lines on a catchment area map. It is the school itself and the people who work, learn and volunteer there. With choice and school based decision making there can be a greater sense of ownership. The whole is often greater than the sum of the parts and this ultimately benefits children.
Teachers and students are the heart of our education system. Skilled instruction is proven by research to be the single most important factor in the success of our students.
We must put more resources into pre-service teacher education programs and look at a provincial focus on ensuring quality focused professional development especially in the areas of instructional strategies, classroom management and assessment literacy.
In order to reflect community values, elected Trustees must be able to freely discuss important public policy issues such as class size and supports available to students.
Trustees currently have difficulty discussing or dealing with many issues publicly because of the blurring of the lines between public policy and employee bargaining.
We must ensure that our elected representatives have the ability to manage the system on behalf of the public our constituency and parents and students our clients.
"It should be remembered as an eternal truth in politics, that whatever power in any government is independent, is absolute also; in theory only at first while the spirit of the people is up, but in practice as fast as it relaxes."
-- Thomas Jefferson, 1819
I believe that the key to ensuring that every child is successful is in ensuring that every child has an adult to look out for his/her needs ahead of all other considerations.
Parents advocating for their children must be treated with greater respect and support. Where possible we should provide training in how the system works and how to advocate effectively for interested parents and parent leaders. We can support community groups in training their members to become mentors and advocate for individual children who do not have a natural mentor. Collectively, we can ensure all children have an advocate.
A child with an adult looking out for his/her interests above all else is a critical goal that contributes to both excellence and equity outcomes.
This is a longer topic than I have time to discuss here, so I invite you to visit my webpage at www.schooltrustee.ca where I have posted two articles, which I have written, on the topic of parent advocacy and special needs students.
Our schools are public assets and should be available to our communities outside of schools hours.
Discussion of a need for change in public education is not criticism, it is a recognition of an on-going reality. Without change there is no growth. Change must also be continual, it is not something you do once.
Our education system does not do change well. We need to build into the system the capacity for change, through cycles of assessment, goal setting for continuous improvement, measurable targets, data collection, and evaluation.
Responding positively and productively to change is about learning in effect we must ensure that our system adopts and integrates the values of life long learning that we promote.
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Maple Ridge, B.C.
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