There is no crisis in education and that’s the underlying problem

by: Charles Cirtwill

I’m told that during a recent talk to about 100 students studying to become teachers, a representative of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union announced that there is no crisis in education. That person is absolutely right, and that’s the problem.
In Nova Scotia—indeed, in almost all of Atlantic Canada—there isn’t a widespread crisis in education, at least from Grades Primary to 12. Yet for special needs children, for children of Mi’kmaq descent, for children in black communities, and for rural or poor children, the situation is significantly different. Positive improvements aside, I would argue that the evidence supports the continued use of the word “crisis.”
But for the vast majority of us, our schools are not failing. Our kids are graduating in large numbers, and a great many of them go on to further study or their first jobs. Results on our own local and provincial assessments, on the national assessments, and on international assessments tell us we are where we basically have been for several decades: right around, or just above, average.
Yes, our kids are getting a decent education; not the best in the developed world, but not the worst either. Indeed, I have visited some remarkable classrooms in this region with remarkable teachers, where I believe the students are getting some of the best education in the world. With heavy enrolment in fully funded, publicly delivered, highly homogenous programs such as French-language instruction, full immersion, or international baccalaureate education, many children get all of the benefits of exclusive private schools without the cost or the social stigma.
As a result, many parents, students, and teachers are reasonably happy with their schools on a day-to-day basis. Sure, if they visit Alberta or Ontario or Newfoundland and Labrador, they will likely come away with at least one “Why don’t we do that?” question. But they quickly forget it because other issues need more immediate attention and, after all, the system can’t be that bad since their school is generally OK most of the time.
As the grammatically incorrect saying goes, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But it is broke. Despite the slow encroachment of choice into the monopoly system, it remains largely inflexible to individual need and special circumstances. It’s very much “top down” and “one size fits all.” The continued bleeding of not just the children of wealthy people but also the children of desperate or determined parents of less than significant means to private school or home schooling indicates we have a problem, and it’s a persistent one.
The results on the international assessments show us a worrying trend that suggests that while we stand still, others are moving past us or moving farther ahead. Living in a country with all of the advantages we have, “average” might have been great when only the most advanced OECD countries were in the mix, but as countries with real social and economic problems join the list of comparators, “average” becomes less a badge of honour and more a mark of shame.
For the past several years, I have been exposed to both the philosophy and the history of the “Edmonton miracle,” a remarkable shift from a top-down to a bottom-up education system. This approach is a remarkably empowering one for teachers, parents, and students. The system creates a lot of challenges for central-office types with centralization tendencies. This power transformation was even more exceptional because it was launched under the explicit constraint that the new approach would cost “not one dollar more” than the old one.
How is it that such a fundamental reform can not only happen but also have sufficient time to take root and then thrive? It was because of a crisis. Before the transformation, Edmonton was average; indeed, it was arguably failing—failing to educate, failing to graduate, failing to thrive. Parents were frustrated, teachers were frustrated, students were frustrated, the community was frustrated. So when the spark came in the form of administrators willing to give up their power and let teachers teach and parents choose, the tinder lit and the schools were transformed.
Every day I hope we’ll reach our crisis point in education, because until that day comes, “average” is the best we can ever hope to be.

Charles Cirtwill is President and CEO of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies.