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Who's reviewing Nova Scotia's education system? By Ben Sichel

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.
Who are those folks on the Liberal-appointed educational review panel?
Who are those folks on the Liberal-appointed educational review panel?

This article was originally published on the excellent No Need to Raise Your Hand, a website on education and related matters

A teacher told me the other day she’d like to be on an official panel that reviews dentistry practices. As a person with teeth, she feels she has a good understanding of how the job works.

She was joking, of course, and in reality commenting on the comprehensive P-12 education review panel named by minister Karen Casey last week. Casey announced that former lieutenant-governor Myra Freeman would be chairing the panel of six.

During the 2013 election campaign the Liberals promised a comprehensive curriculum review if elected, saying there had been no such review for 25 years. However, the government now says the review will be broader than just curriculum – “[e]verything is on the table,” including things like the length of the school year, according to Minister Casey.

The nature of the review had always been a bit ambiguous. During the campaign the promise was often spun to sound as if schools were teaching the exact same curriculum today as in 1988, when people still had phone books and “text” wasn’t yet a verb.

This is of course not the case. Individual course curricula are frequently updated and reviewed (some more frequently than others) and new courses are regularly piloted and implemented.  The Department of Education often re-jigs course requirements, assessment schemes, and much more, for better or for worse.

Still, the fanfare with which this panel was announced indicate that it might shake things up more than usual. In a few weeks the panel will announce to the public how its consultations will function. Already, though, its composition gives reason to be wary.

Myra Freeman herself seems well respected, at least among several educators I’ve spoken to. She is a former teacher with decades of experience – though, as a colleague has pointed out to me, none since the 1990’s, ironic given that the panel is being sold by emphasizing how much the world has changed in 25 years. Freeman also piloted the first Lieutenant-Governor’s teaching awards in partnership with the Nova Scotia Teachers’ Union. (A cynic might also point out that her long-standing connections to the Liberal party probably didn’t hurt in her selection.)

The rest of the panel consists of:

“Gordon MacInnis, vice-president finance and operations at Cape Breton University; Mike Henderson, the former vice-president of manufacturing at Stanfield’s Limited and an active member of his local school community; Tina Dixon, a mother of three school-aged sons from Bear River; Donna O’Connell, an educator with 40 years of experience in various roles; and Kyle Hill, a Rhodes Scholar in physics from Yarmouth who now works for a Toronto-based consulting group” (Chronicle-Herald).

Tina Dixon is listed on the Bear River First Nation’s website as its education director. The Chronicle-Herald article above lists her as a “mother of three,” presumably so that she is not purported to represent the Mi’kmaw community’s views on education – organizations such as the Council on Mi’kmaq Education or Mi’kmaw Kina’matnewey would be better suited to do that. Still, it seems a bit bizarre that her experience in education wouldn’t be mentioned in the media.

Donna O’Connell of Pugwash is a teacher and longtime school board employee from Pugwash. Beyond that, there’s not much information on the internet about her views on education.

Having teachers on a panel about education makes sense. However, notable is the lack of representation from the Nova Scotia Teachers Union. The NSTU is the elected, representative body of public school teachers in the province, and thus should have a member on the six-person panel. Instead, the NSTU is a member of the “partners’ advisory group” to the panel, which also includes “school boards, universities, African Nova Scotians, Mi’kmaq, Acadians, youth and business.”

When a democratic body exists to represent teacher views in the province, why appoint two retired teachers, seemingly at random, instead of a representative from that body?

Gordon MacInnis is the other panelist with experience in the world of education, as vice-president of finance at Cape Breton University. As a chartered accountant in a university, however, it’s unclear what knowledge he has about the inner workings of P-12 public schools. In a province with five faculties of education, it seems a more natural choice may have been someone from one of them.

The world of business seems to be well represented on the panel, however. Mike Henderson is a 34-year veteran of the corporate world, now in retirement. “I’m really going in with a blank slate,” says Henderson, who gives no indication to the media as to his views on education.

Finally, raising some eyebrows is the appointment of Kyle Hill, the employee of a seemingly innocuous “Toronto-based consulting group,” according to the Chronicle-Herald article. The firm Hill works for is BCG (Boston Consulting Group), a major business strategy corporation which has its hands in all means of education privatization initiatives across the U.S.

BCG, and those which like it who push so-called education reform (actually now the status quo in the U.S.), use familiar narratives to push privatization in America’s public schools: schools in America are “failing”; self-interested, lazy teachers and their unions are holding back America’s children; “higher standards,” gauged by constant standardized testing, are what is needed to help the poorest students; schools with high failure/dropout rates should be shut down and replaced with semi-private charter schools.

To the reformers, there is no such thing as chronic underfunding, systemic racism, overcrowded classrooms, or poverty. Or, if there is, they are “no excuse” for students not to succeed.  Never mind thatpoverty is the main factor in students’ lack of success at school. Never mind that charter schools can cherry-pick students to raise their aggregate test scores, pushing students with special needs back to the underfunded public schools, now a greater distance from home as public schools close down. Never mind that charter schools, as private entities, are not subject to regulation and oversight in the same way public institutions are.

One of the darlings of the education reform movement is Teach for America (TFA), which puts inexperienced, minimally trained college graduates into two-year placements in some of the U.S.’s toughest inner-city school districts in a massive project reminiscent of the Peace Corps. TFA is facing a growing backlash for its practices, which at best fail to address the systemic problems facing inner-city youth and at worst create a scab workforce of low-paid, disposable teachers who replace experienced teachers during rounds of layoffs.

Canada currently has no program equivalent to Teach for America. But Kyle Hill is trying to change that. Along with Adam Goldenberg, a Yale law student and former federal Liberal speechwriter, Hill is trying to launch Teach for Canada, an organization similar to TFA but which would send young grads into “rural, remote, and Aboriginal communities.” I’ve outlined here and here why I think this is a bad idea. Others have too.

Now, I’ve met Kyle Hill. He seems to be a nice person who means well. BCG, his employer, is a huge firm, and Kyle says he’s never worked on any of its education-related projects. He also insists Teach for Canada has no affiliation to TFA and promises it would only ever send its program participants to schools where no other teachers were available. (It’s worth noting this was TFA’s original policy as well, until “a bad case of mission creep” set in.) As well, he says his placement on the education review panel has nothing to do with his Teach for Canada project.

Still, the fact remains that the only person under 40 the minister chose for this panel is the architect of this highly controversial project run by non-educators. Is this the perspective we want for the review of our education system?

The Liberals’ language around curriculum review was alreadytroubling during the election campaign, focusing on “aligning the needs of our economy with the skills of our students.”

Of course, students need to learn to function in the world around them. But education is about much more than job-skills training. How might the panel view things differently if it included, say, an anti-poverty advocate? An African Nova Scotian educator? A youth mental health expert? Much is made of the so-called “math crisis” in Nova Scotian schools. Will crises of child poverty, of high pushout rates among Black students, or of mental health be considered just as important?

Michelle Gunderson, a veteran elementary school teacher from Chicago and activist with the Chicago Teachers’ Union who I had the chance to meet last summer, recently published this thought on her Facebook page:

“That so many people think education means college and career readiness makes me think we’ve lost our collective minds. The purpose of education is to live a good and purpose-filled life.”

I agree. How about you, education review panel?

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