Nunavut schools: stop the lying, stop the fantasizing


Most of us heard Nunavut’s new premier, Peter Taptuna, respond late last month to the territorial election campaign’s biggest issue. He declared his government will bring an immediate end to a longstanding practice that parents, employers and young people are sick and tired of: social promotion.

That’s a brave, unequivocal commitment, founded on a vision that links education to jobs and economic development. We wish him the best of luck.

Over the past year and half, numerous Nunavut residents have used that simple — and somewhat oversimplified — demand as a stand-in for a complex set of grievances about the quality of education that have festered since the 1980s.

But though the idea of getting rid of social promotion sounds simple, it won’t be easy. It’s rooted in formal policies and informal practices that predate the creation of Nunavut.

And it’s linked to many other issues, most of which became weapons-grade headaches for the department many years ago. They include attendance, evaluation, standards, language of instruction and the perennial shortage of Inuit-language teachers.

So it’s unlikely that the Government of Nunavut can move on social promotion without at the same time moving on at least some of those matters.

To be fair, the Department of Education doesn’t advocate pure social promotion. Their way is somewhat different and they use the phrase “continuous progress” to name it. It works within a way of thinking about education they use more jargon to describe: “inclusive education” and “differentiated instruction.”

This means students, regardless of level, still jump from grade to grade within their age group. To make this work, students are supposed to get “continuous learning assessments” within individualized support plans. That’s the feature that makes “continuous progress” different than plain old social promotion.

But the Auditor General of Canada’s recent report on the Department of Education revealed the GN’s inclusive education scheme isn’t working. That’s because too many students don’t get the assessments and special help they need to make their support plans work.

“We found that documentation did not state whether the students received the needed services or adjustments about 75 percent of the time.”

The result? Nunavut now gets social promotion by default.

That’s just one of many findings contained in the auditor general’s education report. It confirms what many teachers, parents and employers have long believed: that Nunavut’s school system descends ever more deeply each year into a bottomless sinkhole of futility.

The auditor general’s biggest finding, of course, is that the Department of Education will not meet its most delusional goal: a bilingual Inuktitut-English education system by 2019.

That goal exists because in 2008, the second legislative assembly Krazy-Glued it into Bill 21, the new Education Act. The GN fantasized that by the 2019-20 school year, 50 per cent of all kindergarten to Grade 12 programs would be taught in the Inuit language. That included Grade 10 classes in subjects such as biology, earth sciences and geography.

Teachers and principals rarely reveal their real opinions about this in public — for fear of losing their jobs. But most never supported the new Education Act. Who can blame them? It forced them to live and work inside a web of lies.

The Education Act could have been much worse. The GN drafted it under strong pressure from Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., whose utopian aspirations exceeded even those of the GN.

NTI demanded a kindergarten to Grade 12 bilingual system be implemented “immediately.” Or by 2011. And with 80 per cent of the program offered in the Inuit language.

In February of that year, Ed Picco, then the minister of education, warned Nunavut would need 200 more Inuit language teachers to meet even the GN’s more modest aspirations.

NTI, which purports to represent the interests of Inuit in the formation of public policy, said that’s no problem. Just lower your standards. Spend less time training teachers.

And if that degrades the quality of education, so what? NTI even said a low quality education might be a good thing for Nunavut youth — because it eliminates opportunities available to all other Canadians: “Nunavut should have no interest in enabling the emigration of its educated people.”

Yes, NTI actually said that, in their 2008 report on the state of Inuit culture and society. They make more unrealistic demands in the 2010-11 version of the same report.

In any event, thanks to the auditor general’s report, we know the GN can’t even calculate how many new Inuit teachers must be trained to meet the Education Act’s bilingual education goal.

At the same time, the GN has partly complied with NTI’s demand through the hiring of unqualified bilingual teachers, who don’t have teaching certificates, under “letters of authority.”

This, along with other factors, has contributed to the school system’s continuing failures — which only increase the temptation to maintain some form of social promotion.

All this means that to get rid of social promotion, the GN must engineer a radical transformation of the school system. Since they already know the Education Act is due for a mandatory review, blowing it up and starting over might one day end up on their to-do list. But if the lying and the fantasizing continue, those efforts will fail. JB

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