The Students First movement has now spread to Canada and taken on a decidedly different form. On March 28, 2011, concerned parents and citizens from across Nova Scotia gathered at a Public Forum in Halifax and released a bold declaration of principles, entitled “Students First Nova Scotia.” Drafted by a group of 16 Nova Scotians, the Declaration proclaims that “students should come first” in education, not “adults in the system.” It calls upon concerned citizens to rally behind a reform agenda exhorting education authorities to “elevate teaching, empower parents, raise standards, and spend wisely.”
Few of the Nova Scotia movement’s founders are motivated by Michelle Rhee’s American crusade. It has arisen out of a different set of conditions and owes more to the Edmonton model of “school-based management” and the Alberta model of “school choice” within public education than to the wild and wacky world of American education reform. With other OECD nations looking to Alberta for their reform ideas, the Nova Scotians are simply following suit.
The Declaration was introduced by four public school parents, Steven Rhude of Lunenburg, Catherine Levy of Choice Words Group, HRM, Peggy Chisholm of Fall River, and Rhonda Brown of Hammonds Plains. “It’s about time we put students first, and that’s why I am stepping forward,” says Chisholm of Fall River, one of the founding group members. “We need a system that is more flexible and adaptive to the needs of every student,” declared Levy. “Putting students first,” Rhude stated, ” means preserving community schools, like ours, the historic Lunenburg Academy.”
The Public Forum on “Putting Students First in Education,” sponsored by the Schoolhouse Institute and the Atlantic Institute for Market Studues (AIMS), attracted concerned parents and educators from across Nova Scotia. Michael Zwaagstra, author of What’s Wrong with our Schools.. And How can we Fix Them? was the featured speaker and he shared the platform with a reaction panel of prominent citizens and parent activists, including Doretta Wilson (Society for Quality Education, Toronto), Charles Cirtwill (President of AIMS), and Denise Delorey (Save Community Schools, Antigonish)
The Public Forum is now online and can be viewed at: http://live.haligonia.ca/halifax-ns/community/19384-putting-students-first-in-education.html
The emerging Nova Scotia school reform movement reminds me so much of the excitement generated in the early 1990s in Ontario by an earlier generation of determined reformers. Toronto Globe and Mail education columnist, Andrew Nikiforuk and his widely-read “Fifth Column” was a major catalyst. The founder of OQE/SQE, Malkin Dare, was there from the beginning, raising alarm bells about Whole Language and putting “quality education” on the public agenda. Those were heady times when the Coalition for Education Reform could fill Toronto’s Metro Hall and turn out booklets that called the entire Ontario system to account. That led to Dr. Joe Freedman’s national campaign for the restoration of standardized testing and the introduvction of Charter Schools in Alberta.
School reform in Canada seems to go in cycles and it is not really connected with such movements elsewhere. The “old progressives” continue to promote student-centred education, safely ensconced in provincial ministries, school boards, faculties of education, and teacher unions. When new accounability reforms are introduced, they can be quite effective in appropriating them and turning them to different purposes. “Lower the hurdles” provincial testing, “guaranteed pass” policies, and system-wide student reports are prime examples of ther remarkable capacity to “dumb-down” the whole system. Raising standards and promoting parent engagement, it seems, is never a cause that goes away.
The Students First movement is merely the latest example of school reform activism. Students First Nova Scotia plans to begin the process of formally establishing itself as an independent voice in Nova Scotia public education. Parents and citizens across the province will be invited to sign the declaration and join the fledgling movement for school reform. http://www.aims.ca/site/media/aims/StudentsFirstNS%20principles.doc
The rise of Students First Nova Scotia raises a few critical questions: : What causes school reform movements to arise in Canada’s provinces? How important is leadership, an entrenched, ossified school system, grassroots support, and a coherent set of reform ideas? Why do some reform groups like Society for Quality Education and People for Education survive, while others fall by the wayside? What lessons can be learned that might ensure the success of today’s reform initiatives?