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Posts Tagged ‘Nova Scotia Education’

Effective school councils, at their best, truly engage parents and give them a meaningful voice in shaping school-level policy affecting students. Far too many of them devolve into ‘window dressing’ and instead expose the limits of parent involvement. When schools shut down in March 2020, local parent consultation committees were rendered almost invisible and sidelined in many school districts. Nine months into the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s time to take stock of that impact with a provincial case study of the current state of local school-level parent engagement.

A recent CBC News Nova Scotia investigation by Brittany Wentzell provided penetrating insights into the state of School Advisory Councils (SACs) in Nova Scotia, a middling Canadian province often seen as typifying the national mean. If Nova Scotia is at all representative, the grassroots level of the P-12 education system has been reduced to either empty shells or gone missing during the pandemic. That unsettling CBC News investigation also suggests it’s time to look seriously at proposed governance reforms and sound, implementable policy alternatives to rectify the problem.


Functioning SACs are actually getting harder and harder to find in Nova Scotia. Out of 333 N. S. school websites examined by Wentzell between November 19 and 23, 2020, only one-out-of-four had posted online any recent meeting agendas, minutes, or meeting dates. A majority of school websites had blank or outdated sections on school councils.


Public and parent inquiries are routed to school principals. School administrators jealously guard the identities of SAC members, citing privacy concerns. It’s become next-to-impossible to find out who’s on your local SAC, let alone bring any local concerns forward. The same critical flaws exist at the provincial level with the nearly invisible Provincial Advisory Council on Education (PACE).


The promise of “enhanced school councils,” first articulated in Dr. Avis Glaze’s January 2018 report, Raise the Bar, has not materialized in any way, shape or form. If anything, school advisory councils are weaker and less effective now than before the province’s elected school boards were eliminated nearly three years ago. Vocal critics of the abolition of Nova Scotia’s elected English school boards three years ago were so absorbed in trying to save the existing system, that most failed to recognize a bigger threat to local democratic voice, the potential for even further weakening of local educational participation and input into decision-making.


School advisory councils first arose in the 1980s in response to two main public pressures: rising concerns about the responsiveness of larger and more complex school district bureaucracies and growing community demands for greater parental involvement in schools. The first Canadian school councils were established under a 1989 B.C. School Act reform which directed that province’s 75 school districts to form a parents’ advisory council in each school to advise “the local board of school trustees, the principal, and staff, on any matter relating to the school.” Most provincial school council initiatives, including that of Nova Scotia, originated between 1992 and 1995. Encouraging local school-level administration to consult with parents did not work, so, province-after-province, from Alberta to Nova Scotia, made school councils mandatory in every school.

The Nova Scotia model was an outgrowth of the proposed structural reforms initiated by Dr. John Savage’s Liberal government in the mid-1990s. Initial plans to decentralize educational decision-making with school-based management (SBM) and governance were abandoned. While the N.S. SBM pilot projects were judged a success, school-level administrators were cool to assuming expanded responsibilities with more accountability to local parents.

School governing councils were effectively neutered. With the exception of Quebec, such bodies across Canada were all consigned to an “advisory role” so as to contain and limit their influence on the shaping of school, board or provincial policy or practice.


School Advisory Councils in Nova Scotia remained almost unchanged from 1996 onwards. Although they were supposed to be mandatory, not every school had one and many were competing for parent loyalties with the longer-established holdover school branches of the N.S. Home and School Association. Like their Ontario counterparts, many SAC’s got into school fundraising and strayed from an explicit policy advisory role.


School boards consolidated and retrenched, and superintendents gradually expanded their authority over not only elected boards, but the whole P-12 school system. In the 2014 report, Disrupting the Status Quo, the Myra Freeman commission found half of Nova Scotians dissatisfied with school system performance and saw the potential for improved governance with “less duplication of services” and “more openness” to working across boundaries inside and outside the system. The Nova Scotia School Boards Association (NSSBA) and its member boards operated in a peculiar educational bubble. When the decision to dissolve all seven English school boards was announced, it hit the leading members of NSSBA and most regional board chairs like a bolt out of the blue.

The Stephen McNeil government, acting upon Glaze’s 2018 report, abolished the English boards and promised a “more coherent and responsive” school system with “enhanced school councils.” Three public accountability initiatives proposed by Glaze were shelved: an independent student assessment agency; a self-governing college of educators; and an education ombudsperson for students and parents.


Education Minister Zach Churchill brushed aside my March 2018 AIMS report, Re-Engineering Education, calling for “enhanced school councils” with a three-year development plan to establish effective and more meaningful a new model of school-community-based education governance. A comparison chart of school-level governance models was provided utilizing World Bank decentralized governance research which identified some 28 specific powers that could be delegated to establish newly-constituted “self-governing schools.”


Instead of enhancing school advisory councils, Churchill and his Education Department have actually weakened the grassroots education bodies. Eleven of the twenty-eight possible roles/responsibilities were enshrined in the 2017 Guide for School Advisory Councils, and the latest iteration, issued in 2019, actually removes some of the previous roles and responsibilities.


The new N.S. SAC guide provides a mandate that is much fuzzier and far more limited in its scope. Completely missing under the new mandate are: advise on the criteria for principal selection, school discipline, and needed school repairs; monitor and report on class sizes; review the annual School Calendar and the annual School Improvement Plan; serve on School Review (School Options) and Site Selection committees; and provide feedback on the School Annual Report to the community.


The cure for Nova Scotia’s democratic and accountability deficit is actually worse than the original disease diagnosed by Dr. Glaze– inflexible, muddled-up, increasingly distant, and unresponsive elected regional boards. It’s hard to see how enfeebling school councils serves the interests of local parents, teachers, employers, or the engaged public. Whether Nova Scotia is indicative of trends province-to-province is a matter requiring further study and investigation. What the case study does reveal is that allowing school councils to atrophy only brings us one step closer to ‘accountability-free’ education.

What impact has the great COVID-19 pandemic disruption had on local school-level democratic governance? How representative is the situation in Nova Scotia? Why did public engagement with parents fall by the wayside during the first phase of the pandemic? Would schools have been better prepared to weather the pandemic if they had stronger school-teacher-parent relations? Is the time ripe for establishing school-based governance and management?

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Student report cards are a critical point of contact with parents and that’s why they attract more critical scrutiny than other aspects of K-12 education.  Most parents seek clear, intelligible, individualized, regular student progress reports with understandable grades, while student assessment consultants come up with wave-after-wave of changes modeling the latest proposed innovation in assessment practice.  That explains, in many ways, why the subterranean issue never seems to disappear.

Every five years or so, school authorities from Canadian province to province attempt to revamp their student report cards, usually aimed at challenging the prevailing orthodoxy. Introducing outcomes-based student assessment in the 1990s produced a new impenetrable language accompanied by “competencies” and hundreds of “micro-outcomes.”  Repeated attempts were made to replace letter grades in elementary schools and percentage marks in high schools with outcomes-based reporting and newly-constructed scales of development in learning. That initial wave produced what have become standardized, digitally-generated provincial or school district report templates.

Most top-down report card modernization plans end up imposing heavier reporting loads on teachers and leaving most parents baffled. Six years ago, Nova Scotia parent Marshall Hamilton spoke for perhaps hundreds of thousands of parents: “I don’t see my child in the comments.”  “The language doesn’t really give the parent or the child any idea of critical feedback,” he explained to CBC News. ” I can probably figure out more about what the curriculum is meant to do than to understand my daughter’s performance in that current curriculum.”

Student report cards in Canadian school systems are, in theory, intended to provide ‘meaningful information” to parents and guardians on “how their child is progressing in school.” Since that wave of parent criticism six years ago, Nova Scotia’s student reports have become far clearer and more intelligible with actual marks from Grade 7 to 12 , but there are still a few missing pieces.

Legitimate concerns about teachers’ classroom conditions and workloads sometimes prompt initiatives to “streamline” reporting that have unintended consequences.  Surveying his daughter’s November 2018 Grade 6 Nova Scotia report, former teacher Kristopher Snarby was surprised to see that it provided no feedback on subject courses representing over half her weekly schedule. Report cards from Grades P to 6, Snarby discovered, only contained marks and comments on Language Arts and Mathematics, providing no marks, comments or attendance for any of her other subjects. The standard provincial report template simply did not fit his daughter’s school, where multiple teachers taught a variety of subjects.

Those report card changes originated back in March 2018 as one of the recommendations to “streamline” November reports from a provincial teacher advisory body, the Council to Improve Classroom Conditions. The problem, as framed by the Council, was “time-consuming” reporting processes and reports that were “confusing to parents.” The solution: reduce “data entry for teachers” and provide “integrated comments” for only two subjects, Language Arts and Math.

Making reports less comprehensive with fewer subject specific comments would never fly with parents who, after all, are the main consumers of those reports. If they were ever asked, they would also likely favour reports with more definitive feedback, including individual student assessment test results in Grades 3, 6 and 8.  Elementary student progress reports that provide feedback on integrated subjects also tend to obscure how students are actually performing in two critical areas, reading and numeracy.

Providing parents with reports including their own child’s provincial assessment scores would remedy that omission. That is not such an outlandish idea when one considers the latest teacher-friendly innovations (Christodoulou 2017) in student assessment reporting. Most North American school authorities are actually providing more and more information not less on both school standards and individual student performance.

Take Ontario, for example. Students in Ontario are all tested in grades 3 and 6 and, while they do not appear on school progress reports, the independent Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) provides parents with a detailed individual report on their child’s progress, benchmarked against provincial student performance standards.

The EQAO individual student report card for Primary Division (Grades 1-3) provides incredibly detailed feedback on reading, writing, and mathematics, reflecting four distinct levels of achievement. It’s also relatively easy to identify how students actually measure up in their performance.

The Grade 9 EQAO math test is a component of the regular school report, accounting for up to 10 per cent of a student’s math mark. Ontario students are also required to pass a Grade 10 Literacy Test or remedial Literacy course to secure a secondary school diploma.

Parents in Ontario are encouraged to work together in partnership with their teachers to improve student learning. “Talk to your child’s teacher,” the EQAO report advises, “about how these results compare to your child’s daily classroom work and assessment information.”

Providing parents with individual student reports on provincial assessment results would be a step forward, but integrating them into Grade 3, 6, and 8 school district reports would be even better. Then parents would be able to see, on one report, how students were performing not only in local schools, but in relation to provincial standards.

What Canadian education needs is more parents like Kristopher Snarby keeping an eye on changes in the system. As a former teacher, he is particularly alert to “teacher-speak” on reports that are “not really intelligible for parents.” “Feedback is critical for parents,” Snarby says, and “that’s why what’s on student reports  really matters.”

Do Student Report Card reforms make matters better – or worse — for parents and students?  Can we find the right balance between providing meaningful, individualized reports while easing teachers’ workloads? What can possibly be wrong with giving teachers more autonomy to make more personal, pointed comments about actual student performance?  Would it be helpful to see both teacher assessments and provincial test results on those reports?  

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The Canadian education system is largely provincially-driven and stands as among the most decentralized among the member states in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Within the small group composed of a dozen provincial/territorial ministers known as the Council of Ministers of Education Canada (CMEC), the Atlantic province of Nova Scotia tends to exemplify a “middling province,” almost routinely finishing in the middle-of-the-pack when it comes to national and international student assessment results.

While Nova Scotia education is widely seen as “median Canadian,” it might also be viewed, in some respects, as a bellwether.  It may be hard to imagine Nova Scotia as “the leading sheep of a flock, with a bell on its neck,” but the province may well be where national trends are most visible.  With the abolition of Nova Scotia’s seven English school boards in March 2018, national education observers are taking more interest and wondering if it is an omen of things to come elsewhere. If so, reading the signs of public disaffection may provide a few vitally-important lessons.

A November 2018 Public Opinion survey commissioned by the Nova Scotia Teachers Union revealed that the Stephen McNeil government’s structural education reforms are far from popular with the public. What is clear, based upon an analysis of responses to all of the questions in that the NSTU survey, is that there are educational lessons for governments elsewhere.

Centralizing education in April 2018 through the elimination of the seven English school boards created more problems than it solved. Of those Nova Scotians who think public education is getting worse, over three-quarters (78 per cent) believe it is because the structural reforms have made the system “too centralized” (30 per cent), reduced input from community/local groups (24 per cent), or eliminated regional input from boards (24 per cent).

More than half (52 per cent) of Nova Scotians polled rated the quality of public education as “fair/poor,” very much in line with surveys going back to 1992. Whatever the problems, some 82 per cent of Nova Scotians still hold teachers in relatively high esteem. The most critically important current public concerns identified were, in order: lack of support for special needs students (74 %), violence in classrooms (72 %), poor student achievement (67 %), lack of leaning supports (65 %), and teacher morale (65 %). Fewer than 60 per cited teacher workloads, class sizes, and student bus issues.

Provinces looking at following Nova Scotia in abolishing their elected school boards would be well advised to take a closer look at Nova Scotia and the legacy of that decision. Eliminating the seven English school boards and replacing elected board members with an appointed Provincial Council on Education (PACE) is looking more and more like a serious blow to both public accountability and school-level democratic participation.

With the exception of sweeping aside elected board members, nothing much has changed and it’s actually reaffirmed bureaucratic rule. Regional Superintendents of Education have come out on top and preside over eight school districts without any real school-level accountability. School-based management and governance was squashed, aided and abetted by School Advisory Council Chairs comfortable in their current roles.

Two more provinces, Quebec and Manitoba are reviewing the status of their elected school boards and have signaled that they may be moving to eliminate those democratic structures.

Quebec Education Minister Jean-François Roberge confirmed in December 2018 the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) government’s policy commitment to abolish school boards.  He made that statement right after meeting with representatives of the Quebec English School Boards Association (QESBA) and its French counterpart, the Fédération des commissions scolaires du Québec (FCSQ),

“Let’s be clear: the Quebec government will turn school boards into service centres and will abolish school elections,” Roberge said in a Facebook post. “We’re open to comments, but we will not deviate from this plan.”  He also contends the move is necessary.“It is imperative to bring decision-making closer to those who know the students by name,” he said.

Manitoba could well be next. Former PC education minister Ian Wishart announced in 2018 that a provincial governance review would take place and it is to be released in 2019.  The Manitoba School Boards Association (MSBA) strongly opposes amalgamation, claiming that the savings would be minimal and it’s a question of democracy, transparency and accountability.

All is not well with Manitoba’s existing boards. The Winnipeg School Division (WSD) was the subject of a scathing report in 2015 that criticized the irresponsible conduct and performance of trustees. In 2016, the province ordered a third-party audit, after noting that while the school board had made progress in transparency and accountability, an independent review was still required. The WSD continued “under a dark cloud” for a number of years with growing concerns that too much business was being conducted behind closed doors. While the WSD may have improved, news in January 2018 that the Louis Riel School District had suspended a school trustee, without explanation, suggests that transparency and accountability may be just a slogan.

One outspoken Manitoba trustee, Patty Wiebe of Pembina Valley, MSBA Region 2 Director, urged fellow trustees in early December 2018 to send out a consistent message that elected members speak for their communities: “That we are your local elected officials. That we represent your voice when it comes to how your schools are run, and how important that voice is,” she said. “Schools are the hubs of your community, it’s important to have local voice when it comes to governing those buildings and what happens in those buildings.”

The Brian Pallister government in Manitoba has said everything will be examined during the education review, including proposals to eliminate or amalgamate school boards.

School board promoters can, and do, damage to the cause by conveying confused and contradictory messages about the philosophy and purpose of elected boards — and the expected role of elected trustees. One veteran school board consultant, Stephen Hansen of BoardsworkCA, provided a recent example of what has gone sadly wrong in school board governance.

His “New Years Message to School Trustees” espoused the sort of governance philosophy that has rendered elected board members totally ineffectual. Judging from the established ground rules, trustees are expected to behave much like children in grade school: Focus on policy and don’t mess with administrative matters; think corporate interest/regional and keep your distance from local groups; respect the code of board solidarity; express your views in a respectful manner; act as a goodwill ambassador; and come prepared to meetings (i.e., do your homework).

Giving the public a voice and bringing local concerns to bear on board decisions are not even mentioned as core responsibilities. No school reformers need apply because the rules of engagement are a recipe for toadyism. It’s just the kind of thinking that spelled the end of elected trustees in Nova Scotia.

Hardened, unresponsive, insular and unaccountable school boards tend to self-destruct.  That was the case in Nova Scotia and may well be what is happening in provinces such as Manitoba and Quebec. If Quebec and Manitoba go the way of Nova Scotia, seven of the ten provinces (including New Brunswick, Newfoundland/Labrador, and Prince Edward Island) will have eliminated elected regional school boards and adopted far more centralized educational administrative systems.

Simply brushing aside local democratic control of the schools is definitely not the answer if we wish to retain a semblance of public accountability in the education sector. Provinces eliminating elected regional boards without replacing them with locally-responsive, school-based governance alternatives can expect the same kind of backlash witnessed throughout 2018 in Nova Scotia. That’s in no one’s interest.

Will Nova Scotia turn out to be a national bellwether for educational  centralization? What lessons can be learned from the elimination of elected boards in Nova Scotia? Looking ahead in 2019, has public resistance to elected boards, as presently constituted, stiffened in the mold? Why are provincial and regional school authorities so resistant to alternatives such as school-based governance? 

 

 

 

 

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