To be clear: These are my thoughts entirely and do not necessarily represent the views of Edmonton Public School Board, its administration, staff or the Board of Trustees.
I read through the following link and watched the video narrated by Danielle Smith. My first response was- "Hmm... this hits some interesting notes". Some of what is being said is very appealing and I'm guessing it will resonate with many people. Parents who are facing over-crowded classrooms and didn't not receive one of the 18 new ASAP schools may nod their heads in agreement. Parents who wonder why their child, who clearly needs a full-time aid, is instead sharing an aid with other children. The education system is not perfect and it is easy to stand on the outside of it and criticize.
But let's dig a little deeper, beyond a quick emotional response and examine the content (and implications) of the Wildrose education plan.
First of all, I agree with the importance of education, both to children and society at large. This cannot be over-stated. I agree with the notion of returning key decisions (such as, where new schools are needed) back to locally elected school boards, who are closest to the issues, understand the particular needs of their community and are accountable to their electorate. I agree that "one size does not fit all" and that schools need to be flexible in order to adapt to the individualized needs of children. However, some of what is mentioned in this document is already being done (by EPSB anyway) and some of the ideas will create new problems and challenges.
What's already being done?
- Individualized, self-paced learning- We have several options for this within our system. Teachers regularly use methods to differentiate instruction in our classrooms. It's not unusual to have a grade 5 class with kids who span multiple grades and abilities, ranging from new immigrant children who are reading at a grade 1 level to gifted children who are reading at a grade 8 level. Differentiation is de rigeur for the vast majority of our teachers. We also have specialized sites, called Learning Stores, where students can learn entirely at their own pace, with the support of a teacher. Ironically, though, one of our strongest growing alternative programs (Cogito) goes entirely in a different direction: it provides only whole-class instruction. It is, in fact, "one size fits all" and parents are lined up to enter into this program.
- Competition and choice- EPSB, of course, has this already and it is my opinion that it is has its pluses and minuses. Competition is a word that doesn't really belong in education, as far as I'm concerned. It implies winner and losers and I am not comfortable with any of our children being placed in the losing category. As well, choice can breed inequity between schools. Education should not follow a business model- where the strong triumphing over the weak is "okay" or even desired. At EPSB, we are recognizing some of the inequities caused by choice and working to level the playing field. Our pendulum is swinging back a bit, with parents in the new ASAP schools thrilled to have, at long last, a community school for their children to attend instead of sending their children to 19 different schools with 19 different choices. It is clear, as well, that choice is not equally available to all, due to financial obstacles or other barriers. Before any political party wholly embraces choice and competition in their education plan, they should be fully aware of these challenges and develop strategies to ensure equitable access and treatment for all children.
-Flexibility to offer specialized track in trades, arts, music- EPSB does this already. We have schools dedicated to arts/music and the RAP program, CTS courses and the Skill Centre offers trades.
Which Wildrose ideas create new problems or challenges for me?
Funding directly to schools for Operations and Maintenance: Most of our operations funding does go out to schools and it is largely based on a per pupil allocation, however, we realized that this was contributing to the inequity in our system. Small schools, with low enrolment are not only stretched to provide adequate staffing for instruction due to per pupil allocations, they are stretched to provide adequate maintenance. We cannot afford to let the roof go unrepaired, the hallway go unswept or the classroom go unlit, simply because the student population is insufficient to generate enough per pupil operations money. Ensuring the safety of students and providing a healthy, clean environment is not an option- it is a given at every school. In addition, small schools find it very difficult to staff an evening custodian, making the school inaccessible to the community as a resource. So we have developed a more comprehensive formula which addresses some of these challenges.
Continued per pupil funding for private schools: I fundamentally disagree with this. I think public schools, which are publicly funded by all taxpayers, are for all students, regardless of economic status. Private schools are not accessible to all; they are, by definition, exclusive. They are a choice for parents, it is true, but just like my choice to enrol my daughter in piano lessons is valid and real- I do not expect my neighbours to help pay for that choice. I do not believe private schools should be funded (now, at a rate of 70%!) by the taxpayer. The public system provides excellent opportunities for all children. It is, in fact, one of the best in the world. Diverting public funds to private schools contributes to funding challenges for public education.
Reporting Graduation Rates of high schools-This could have also gone in the "already being done" category, as our graduation rates are available, by school, to the public through our fall Trustee results review process. However, I want to talk about the concerns I have with the "public reporting" mentioned in the document. I am assuming this would be akin to the Fraser Institute's public reporting (and ranking) of schools. What may seem like accountability and good information for parents to make "informed decisions" creates a real problem- one that further exacerbates inequities and segregation. High school completion starts well before high school- it starts in kindergarten. It is influenced by every teacher, every class, every school the child attends before they arrive at grade 10. It is influenced by the economic status, stability, health, number of moves and resources of their family through those years. In fact, many would argue it starts well before they even enter school, in the early years 0-5 when most of the brain pathways are laid down. To hold High School X accountable for its results when there are so many factors completely beyond their control which contribute to their overall graduation rate is, I feel, unfair. Rather, let's measure where the kids are when they enter grade 10 and see how they do for the three years they are actually attending High School X. Measuring entry points, as well as exit points, seems more balanced. For parents, this would be a better measure too- how do the high school teachers work with the students who show up at their door? Otherwise, I fear we are measuring which high school has the highest achieving kids showing up and that, I fear, will lead us away from the foundational belief behind public education: educating all students, regardless of economic status, race, beliefs or any other factor.
Replacing PAT with new standardized test- I'm not convinced that a new PAT would be any better than the old PAT. As for measuring "actual improvement and comprehension"...isn't that what teachers do?
Funding to follow special needs students: It does actually... the problem lies with the fact that it's not enough. Currently, the highest special needs allocation does not cover the actual cost of meeting that child's needs. The cost of an aid for a child with severe needs far exceeds the current special needs funding. So the problem has been incorrectly framed: the money is not being held up in some bureaucracy, the schools are not hiding the money in some slush fund or wantonly disregarding the parents' wishes--- the money is simply not there.
Inclusion- The Wildrose suggests that special needs students are being "forced" into regular classrooms and that this is a cost-cutting measure. Inclusion is a journey. As a society, we are growing in our understanding that it is a human right to be included; that it is morally wrong to segregate groups of people who are different or have different needs. We are slowly understanding that it is not legally justifiable to exclude people because they make us feel uncomfortable. All people must be treated equally.
Of all the statements in this document, the following is the one that gave me most cause for alarm:
"High needs students generally need personalized care and attention and it is unhelpful for all involved to have a handful of high needs students dominating the time and attention of teachers and other students."
I have heard many stories of how inclusion has benefited both the child with exceptional learning needs and the "regular" students. I have seen families overcome with relief and gratitude when their child was finally included successfully and accepted as a valued member of the class. It seems children are often much better at this than adults. In welcoming a child with special needs to their class, children learn about accepting and embracing difference. They learn and practice compassion, empathy and understanding. They learn from the child with special needs valuable lessons about tenacity, courage and gratitude. Yes, children with special needs require additional support and this costs money. Yes, sometimes their behaviours can be disruptive. And yes, inclusion does not work for every child. But it is a Canadian right to be offered the same education as other students and to be included (there have in fact been court cases on this very issue).
Where is this coming from? I don't know of any parents who are worried about being forced to be included. They may be (rightly) concerned about UNSUPPORTED inclusion or 'dumping' and I have heard concerns from parents of 'regular' students about the impact on their children, again, if inclusion is unsupported. But, these concerns are far outweighed, by parents of children wanting inclusion: heartbreaking stories of being excluded, marginalized and made to feel unwelcome. We, as an education system and a society, need to be working harder to find ways to support inclusion and to overcome our basest fears that somehow inclusion is going to hurt us and our children. These were the same fears used to condone segregation in the States, not so long ago. Have we learned so little?