Holding up a mirror to the Canadian K to 12 education system produces a dozen or so jarring images. Over the past year, surveying the 10 provinces and three territories, a chequered pattern emerges with quality standards and student performance all over the map.
For every hopeful sign, troubling concerns represent trends which may, borrowing Dr. Paul Cappon’s apt turn-of-phrase, “leave us internationally-challenged” in the years ahead.
What stands out in the national educational landscape? My own Our Kids Report Card of the best and worst of 2011 in education offers a few surprises.
THE BEST—HOPEFUL SIGNS
• Hitting a Plateau With the Help of Alberta and Ontario
Canadian 15-year-olds achieved respectable results on the latest Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests released Dec. 7, 2010. Driven by Alberta and Ontario’s improved results, Canada finished eighth among 65 OECD countries in mathematics, seventh in science and fifth in reading. When the PISA results sunk in in early 2011, it became clear that Canada had plateaued and five of the top 10 countries were Asian, led by Shanghai (China), Singapore and Korea.
• Driving Higher IB Standards
Only 141 of the 1,926 high schools offering the full International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Programme are located in Canada, but they definitely punch above their weight. A handful of the 14 full diploma “IB World Schools” belonging to the Canadian Accredited Independent Schools (CAIS) ranked among the world’s finest. A brand new cohort of 11 Nova Scotia public high schools also achieved respectable results in May 2011, when 84.7 per cent secured a pass, compared to only 70.3 per cent across North America.
• B.C.’s Online Learning Renaissance
A November 2011 report on K-12 Online Learning, authored by Wayne State University’s Dr. Michael K. Barbour, lauded British Columbia for its innovative leadership in promoting and expanding online learning. Working in collaboration with the B.C. Teachers Federation, that province leads the way with some 88,000 of Canada’s 206,000 registered students, spread over 68 different distance education programs.
• Setting the Early Learning Pace
An Early Childhood Education report, released in November and inspired by the late Dr. Fraser Mustard’s research, called for greatly expanded universal programs to give kids the best possible start in life. Quebec’s $7-a-day program earned that province top spot on a new Childhood Education Index, followed closely by P.E.I. on the strength of its new full-day kindergarten and fresh start initiatives.
• Toronto’s Multiple Choice School Initiative
On Nov. 17, the Toronto District School Board trustees decided to move forward with the final stage in its Africentric school pathway, pledging to establish the first secondary school within the next two years. In addition, the TDSB also approved opening nine elementary alternative learning options, including two academies specializing in boys’ and girls’ leadership, three in sports, two in health and fitness, and two in vocal music.
THE WORST—TROUBLING SIGNS
• Cyberbullying in Schools
The suicide of Mitchell Wilson of Pickering, Ont., an 11-year-old bullying victim suffering from muscular dystrophy, shone new light on the growing incidence of horrendous new forms of bullying. In Nova Scotia, Wayne MacKay, chair of a Cyberbullying Task Force, declared that he was “overwhelmed by the extent of the problem,” after receiving more than 5,000 online responses and meeting with 35 focus groups totalling 1,000 students from across the province.
• Muslim Prayer in School Controversy
On July 8, 2011, the Toronto District School Board touched off a firestorm of controversy when it issued an official statement that the Muslim students attending Valley Park Middle School in North York had a “constitutional right” to pray during school hours. Although the school was 80 to 90 per cent Muslim and had been quietly allowing it on Friday afternoons for a year, it became the latest test case reopening a deeply divisive public issue.
• Withering of Canada’s Education Monitoring Council
On Oct. 10, 2011, Dr. Paul Cappon released the final report of the Canadian Council on Learning (CCL) and raised serious questions about Canada’s drifting K to 12 education system. When CCL disappears in March 2012, an “enormous vacuum” will be left at the very centre of our national education leadership as we soldier on without any effective means for setting Canada-wide performance goals.
• Firing of Elected School Boards
Nova Scotia Education Minister Ramona Jennex shocked everyone in late November 2011 by dismissing the entire elected South Shore school board, the third such action in five years. This time the minister faced a stiff public backlash when local parents rallied to protest the mass firing and to stop pending school closures. Earlier in the year, P.E.I.’s Doug Currie also wielded the axe, firing the entire Eastern P.E.I. School Board, again in the wake of prolonged school closure skirmishes.
Gazing into 2012, spotting the sun amid the gathering clouds requires concentration. Teachers will go into schools each day, as always, performing yeoman service without hearing enough in the way of appreciation. Without the CCL around, provincial education ministers will likely feed off their own glowing media releases, leaving us to muddle through in a more competitive international world. It would likely take an “Occupy the Schools” movement in rural and small town Canada to arrest the relentless process of “big box” consolidation gobbling up small community schools. Let’s hope that the tiresome “War Games” waged by the paid mouthpieces of the “key stakeholders” will subside, so we can focus first, last and always on what’s really best for students.
Why is the overall pattern so chequered? Without the Canadian Council on Learning, where can we look for independent, reasonably balanced assessments of public policy issues? Will 2012 be the year that we rise to the global challenge, open the provincial windows, and start putting students first in education?