Rebuilding education


Don’t look now — but it’s “education week” in Nunavut. Education Minister Ed Picco proclaimed it this week, and at the same time, threw in a couple of “days:” Teacher Appreciation Day on March 23, and Early Childhood Educators’ Appreciation Day on March 26, which is, um, er, today.

Missed it? Don’t worry. Just about everyone else did too. And there’s no evidence that many of your friends and neighbours heard about it either. Given the education system’s many woes, not to mention the low opinion with which most Nunavummiut regard their school system, that’s just as well.

At the same time, Picco announced the creation of a 10-member education advisory committee, to be drawn from the ranks of front-line educators working at all levels of the system. Its job is to “provide direction and guidance for the development of a Nunavut Education System.”

Wait a minute. Isn’t that what the Department of Education’s highly paid staff are supposed to do? The Department of Education, from the deputy minister on down, already employs a small army of advisors, policy analysts, coordinators, officers, specialists, curriculum developers and so-called “education consultants.”

The answer, likely, is that the minister wants reliable information and advice from independent sources who actually know what’s going on inside Nunavut’s classrooms, and not from self-serving civil servants. That’s a better way of getting advice than to indulge in expensive, time-wasting public meetings, where it’s often the biggest loud-mouth who sets the agenda.

If that’s the case, then the 10-member committee isn’t a bad idea, because Picco has no easy task. Breathing some life into Nunavut’s burned-out school system is going to be a lot tougher than replacing a burned-out school building.

In other parts of the country, young aboriginal people are flocking to colleges and universities in droves. They’re earning advanced degrees, assuming leadership roles, and above all, gaining power over their own lives. In Nunavik, for example, many leadership positions and influential jobs are now filled by young Inuit with university degrees. Some are fluent in three languages.

That’s not happening in Nunavut. The people of Nunavut are rapidly falling behind the rest of the country, and it won’t be long before Nunavut’s scholastic decline degenerates into an enormous tragedy.

Over the next four to five years, Picco will be expected to deliver more Inuktitut curricula and learning materials, reduce the drop-put rate, pass a new Education Act, and against all odds, raise standards. He’ll be under pressure to put more money into daycare, adult upgrading, vocational training, and to create a trades training centre somewhere.

Our unsolicited, and possibly unwelcome advice? Keep it simple, and stick to the basics.

The first task the education department should do, and quickly, is to figure out what the school system should do, and want it shouldn’t do. Unless the Government of Nunavut does that, any attempt to amend the Education Act, restructure the system, and pour more money into the system will be pointless.

After that, the department should figure out how to handle education governance. Right now, Nunavut’s grandly entitled “district education authorities” are little more than Mickey Mouse talk-shops for professional meeting-goers.

If they’re going to exist in the future, then the government should supply some reason for their existence. If they’re to be given real authority, then the government should be prepared to supply these bodies with competent advice and administrative support. If not, their name should be changed to “school committees,” which is what they really are right now.

At the same time, the government should make a decision about the ridiculous school tax, which property owners pay without have any control over how it’s spent. If the government decides not to give the school tax to local education bodies, then they should get rid of it altogether.

Finally, once the government figures out what the school system is for, they should figure out ways of measuring how well they’ve done to get there. That means the application of Nunavut-wide academic standards, and some form of testing to ensure that the public has tools they can use for holding the government accountable for its work in education. JB

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