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Archive for the ‘Education Shake-Ups’ Category

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Every time the top education bureaucrat turns over, the accompanying shake-up has profound implications for provincial school systems. Education ministers come and go at the whim of premiers and the electorate, it’s who runs the bureaucracy that really matters.

Few outside the system notice such seismic events. The schools chug-along seemingly unaffected by bureaucratic upheaval. In my home province of Nova Scotia, it’s largely contained within the Education and Early Childhood Development headquarters, aka the “Trade Mart bunker.”

The recent unceremonious departure of Nova Scotia’s latest Deputy Minister, Cathy Montreuil, left most teachers, parents and reporters scratching their heads. Learning that she received a $227,289 severance added to the intrigue. It begged the fundamental question –  did she jump or was she pushed?

Three weeks before the termination announcement, current Minister of Education Becky Druhan ran interference. “We have accomplished so much in one year, and we’re just getting started,” she said in a posted, and remarkably positive, You Tube video. When the news leaked out, she was nowhere in sight.

Montreuil is typical of most DMs in Nova Scotia education. First appointed in March 2018, she served for four years and one year after a change in government. Over the past 20 years, six top officials have held the post, including Dennis Cochrane (1999-2009), Rosalind Penfound (2009-12), Carole Olsen (2012-13) and Sandra McKenzie (2014-17). All lasted four years, except Olsen who served under Darrell Dexter’s NDP and was sacked after 18 months when the Stephen McNeil Liberals took power.

Since 2003, nine elected politicians have served, so far, as Education Minister. Three held office under the Progressive Conservatives, Jamie Muir (2003-06), Karen Casey (2006-08), and Judy Streatch (2009). Two held the post in the Dexter government: Marilyn More (2009-11) and Ramona Jennex (2011-13). Under the Liberals, Minister Casey returned for a second stint (2013-17), then was replaced by Zach Churchill (2017-21), and briefly by Derek Mombourquette (February to August 2021).

How Montreuil performed and what she accomplished is far harder to ascertain, given the veil of secrecy enveloping the department, code-named DEECD. It can, however, be pieced together with a little digging through a mass of disaggregated information.

Deputy Minister Montreuil was hired out of Ontario in March of 2018 with two fundamental responsibilities: (1) to oversee the abolition of elected school boards and centralization of provincial education management; and (2) to implement the 2018 Inclusive Education Commission recommendations.

Elimination of Elected Boards

She carried out the first task with quietly effective and managerial efficiency. All seven elected English boards were dissolved in favour of Regional Centres of Education, run like duchies by newly elevated Regional Superintendents. Public accountability counterweights – a College of Educators, an Education Ombudsperson, and an arms-length student assessment agency – all proposed by Dr Avis Glaze in her infamous January 2018 report, never saw the light of day.

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Curtailing Parent Voice and Input

A Provincial Council for Education (PACE) was installed, strictly for closed door advisory purposes, composed of a dozen hand-picked members. The contentious and NSTU-dominated Council on Working Conditions was also brought under tight control.  Enhanced authority for School Advisory Councils (SACs) as envisioned by Glaze never materialized.  A CBC News Nova Scotia investigation, conducted by Brittany Wentzell, revealed that most SACs actually atrophied between 2018 and 2020, including many whose web presence and meeting minutes disappeared.

Inclusion Confusion

preliminary research report published in September 2020 by University of Ottawa professor Jess Whitley and her associate Trista Hollweck indicated that Inclusive Education reform stalled in 2019-20. While $30 million had been spent and 364 new positions added, implementation was not going smoothly, even before the massive pandemic disruption.  Shifting of roles caused confusion, new roles lacked clarity, and misalignment presented obstacles to providing effective support for students.

Many regular classroom teachers remained committed to the “pull-out” model of Special Education and continued to rely heavily on resource centre teachers for ongoing support. Psycho-social specialists were still coming to terms with the shift from supporting students to in-servicing classroom teachers.  The final review, focusing mostly on staff engagement rather than impact, was never released to the public or provincial legislators.

The Litmus Test — Student Achievement

Improving academic student learning and well-being are fundamental priorities for all top education bureaucrats. In Nova Scotia, during Montreuil’s tenure, the results were mixed at best. Student performance, measured by standardized test scores, stagnated or declined from 2018 to 2022 for most students, with the possible exception of African Nova Scotians. Two-and-a-half-years into the pandemic, after school had been cancelled for 22 weeks, the results were posted, without official comment, at the end of June 2022.

Studying the latest installment of Nova Scotia provincial student results, covering the 2018-19 to 2021-22 period, it was easy to see why the Minister remained silent. Nothing was reported covering Grade 3, the critical first step in monitoring the acquisition of student competencies in reading, writing and mathematics. Instead, the province released Grade 6 results showing, as predicted, a pronounced achievement decline, most acute in mathematics and writing, but also affecting reading competencies and comprehension.

Conclusion – Musical Chairs in Education

Removing a top bureaucrat sets off a chain reaction in the education bureaucracy. In this case, the Tim Houston PC government simply reverted to past bureaucratic practice. Resurrect a veteran bureaucrat to fill the hole and respect the existing hierarchical pecking-order, booting Halifax Regional Centre for Education (HRCE) Regional Superintendent Elwin LeRoux upstairs to ADM and replacing him at HRCE with his second-in-command, Steve Gallagher. In short, it’s education’s version of musical chairs all over again. All of this raises the question of whether such self-perpetuating bureaucratic systems simply run themselves.

Who knows what Deputy Ministers of Education really do? Why do elected Ministers of Education absorb all the public flack? Is there any way to assess how they actually performed in their roles? Does it even matter in self-perpetuating bureaucratic systems?

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