Jim Tredger on Yukon's education priorities

This is an excerpt from a speech Yukon NDP education critic Jim Tredger gave in the Yukon Legislative Assembly on 22 April, 2015.

Any day that education is discussed in the Legislature is a good day.

Education plays a critical role in all of our lives and it is a continuous process throughout our lives, so I thank the member. This is the right priority. However, I do have to question how we are going about it. I’m not sure exactly what the government is proposing here. I wonder what the value is of embarking on a major curriculum change. It could be completed in two months, or two years — we’re not sure. The Premier, in his speech, mentioned a couple of months — the minister said a couple of years. I suspect that to overhaul our curriculum will take a lot longer, and it is a lot more involved than what is being proposed.

As a principal and former educator, I’m proud of our students. I’m proud of what they’ve done — the universities around the world they’ve attended, the jobs they’ve done in our communities. I’m proud of our school councils and our parents, the First Nations and their belief and involvement in our schools. Much has been accomplished.

When the Premier spoke I was a little bit taken aback by some of the things he said about our system and about our teachers and about our students. It seems that some of his statements — and four pages of his budget referring to this proposed educational change — were so vague as to be meaningless. How could you not agree with apple pie? Some of his statements did not recognize the ongoing and important contributions of our hard-working educational staff, whether they are in the Department of Education, in administrative positions or in the classrooms.

A new vision for Yukon — based on what? The Premier said that not all of our students have the same aspirations. Then he went on to say that, “…despite this, we still offer only one standard — one educational stream through which all students must pass.”

The newly appointed Minister of Education has been making an effort to go to our schools, and I thank him very much for that. Perhaps the Premier would like to accompany him and he would see the differentiated learning happening — the experiential learning. The Member for Vuntut Gwitchin mentioned much of our programming that differentiates learning for our students. Wood Street, community-focused education, blended learning and the rural experiential models are all examples of educational streams that students can take to reach their goal.

The Premier mentions an educational system that is engaging and relevant for all of our students. Let me assure the Premier that that is the goal for each and every one of our teachers and for each and every one of our schools.

The Premier talks about — we used to talk a lot in education about pedagogy. Pedagogy literally means “guiding a child”. We need to bring this back into education. Let me assure the Premier that this idea is alive and well and that teachers every day are guiding our students forward and working hard.

The Premier says that education needs to be a team effort among parents, educators, communities, our partners and all other stakeholders to guide each child toward adulthood. Let me assure you that that is happening. Let me assure the Premier that our parents want to be involved in our school system, that our teachers have ideas and things to bring forward.

The Premier says, to that end, we will be focusing specifically on assessing what resources our schools and our educators require to ensure that those needs can be met. This is not new, Mr. Speaker. In 2009, the Auditor General had this to say: “We expected the Department to be able to identify performance indicators and measure performance results for both Yukon students as a whole and for major student sub-groups … Setting meaningful performance indicators … are key ways for the Department to assess the effectiveness of its programs, services, and policies. We also expected the Department to establish goals, set targets, and benchmark results … we expected the Department to monitor and report actual results, then address gaps and work toward continuous improvement.”

Continuous improvement, Mr. Speaker — that has been the goal of our education system for many — as long as I’ve been involved in it. Continuous assessment and continuous evaluation — try something, see if it works, if it works do more of it, if it doesn’t work, do less of it.

Mr. Speaker, the Premier says: “So this initiative will depend, in large part, on bringing the community back into education.” The community is waiting to be back into education. Parents want to be back into education. Teachers want to be back into education.

Some of the Premier’s statements were contradictory: “We need educators and administrators to provide their professional input.” Yet two years ago this government policy was to silence teachers. When they were called on it, they were told it was a draft. That draft has never been rescinded. It has been just brushed aside, leaving teachers and administrators not sure — where do they stand?

Let me tell you, teachers want to advocate for their kids and let me assure you that teachers know what should be kept confidential. They deal with that every day. Part of their job is to know what they can say and what they can’t. They know what’s personal information. They don’t need a communications officer assigned to the Deputy Minister of Education to tell them whether they can talk about their buffalo hunt or whether they can talk about the needs of their students. They understand what confidentiality is and, in front of them, they see the need every day.

So to say we need to hear from them — we need them back in education — at the same time saying, “We’ll tell you what you can say” — I don’t know; it seems kind of contradictory to me.

Mr. Speaker, a new vision — a new vision according to whom? Who has the government asked about their thoughts on the Yukon? I would like to know what happened to the reviews that the government has already performed on Yukon’s educational system, as mentioned by the Member for Vuntut Gwitchin — the Education Act review, the education reform project, One Vision, Multiple Pathways. In those situations, consultants and Yukon people were hired at great expense to look in detail at our system, to analyze our alternatives. These were major undertakings with visits to all of our communities.

The education reform project was a partnership between CYFN and the Yukon Party government. They were co-chaired — one from each. This was a major undertaking. Concrete recommendations were designed to improve Yukon’s education system. What happened to these recommendations? What happened to the Yukon Party’s vision for education, the New Horizons project? Has that New Horizons become stale already? Has it become “lost horizons”?

This sudden decision to overhaul Yukon’s educational curriculum without any investment in personnel or material resources: Is this a serious attempt to improve our system or is it just purple prose? This unilateral, top-down, here-comes-our-vision approach to education — is this a response to some of the recommendations we have heard from every one of our reviews? Is this a response — as the education reform project says, “a workable and inclusive model”? Is this a response to the decentralization of decision-making and empowerment of school councils and communities? Those areas were identified as essential.

This is a top-down, announce-first-and-consult-later approach to First Nation relationships and to parent relationships. It betrays the very real concerns and efforts of teachers, school administrators and Yukon parents and the work that has been ongoing for years. I won’t go there.

Yukoners would call for an end to the centralization of school-level decision-making. There is a need to address the growing violence in our schools. There is a need to ensure that our special-needs students, or students who are struggling in the school system, are receiving the support and care they need, and that our front-line educators are receiving the support and care that they need to work with them each and every day.

Yukoners would be concerned about the lack of respect for parents and teachers. Yukoners would be concerned that — here we go again — another review, another report, another distraction. We know that our resource rooms are chronically under-supported, creating a vicious cycle that means students who enter resource rooms often remain there. We know, as the Minister for Health and Social Services mentioned, there is an increasing number of students with autism. There is an increasing number of students in our school system with other struggles to learn. Our school system is changing. A direct attempt to address that would be appropriate.

The Premier was right about one thing when he proposed his vague vision for Yukon’s educational future: It does take a village to raise a child. It also takes a government that consults the village before it acts. Notwithstanding the budget speech, the government has a number of commitments to uphold to the community when it comes to education. I have a number of questions about this new vision.

What is the timeline? The Premier talked about a couple of months. The minister talked about a couple of years. Realistically, an overhaul of the curriculum — pretty amazing, given our record so far — in B.C., it takes three to five years to change the curriculum in one subject area. Different grade levels have to be interconnected. Different subject areas have to be matched.

The Premier, in his address, talked about the need for more made-in-Yukon curricula and cited the 20 percent that already exists in the act as not being enough. Is he aware of any school that has more than 20 percent — or even close to 20 percent — of their content locally developed? I’m not. Yet this rush to change the act — we’ve been told many times during this Sitting and previous Sittings how hard it is to change the act. Prior to consultation, we’re talking about changing it.

The Premier talks about partners. Has CYFN been consulted or did they find out about this new plan the way we did, in a budget speech? The Member for Vuntut Gwitchin mentioned the MOU with CYFN. One of the tenets is transparency and respect. One would think before embarking on a major vision, a major or comprehensive review or a major analysis of the education system — whichever we’re doing — CYFN should be part of that.

Parents — how are they going to be involved? Is it going to be through their school councils? Are we going to have community tours? Is it going to be various people going to various places gathering various information? This isn’t clear. But let me assure you, if it’s to be done properly, it can’t be done on a napkin at the dinner table.

The plans have to be put forward and vetted by the partners. The process has to be transparent and open. YTA — have they been told that there’s going to be a new vision for education? Have they been told that there’s going to be a major K to 12 curriculum overhaul — at some time, by someone? “It’s okay, we’ll talk to you sometime about it.”

How does this mesh with the MOU of the three governments — Government of Yukon, Government of Canada and CYFN, as representative of First Nation governments — and their joint education action plan? How does this mesh with it? Have discussions been taking place to see where it fits in? It would be an interesting first meeting. “Since our last meeting, we’ve decided to embark on a brand-new vision for education. Don’t worry. We’ll tell you about it.”

Mr. Speaker, right priority, wrong policy. Our school system is in a state of continuous progress. We learn, we grow, we examine, we use evidence-based learning, we evaluate programs, and then we move forward. We assess the changing clientele, and then we move forward. At best, Mr. Speaker, this motion, this vision and this comprehensive analysis and this direction the government is going off in are a distraction from the real work of what’s happening in our schools. It’s too vague to be useful.

I’m concerned that it comes at a time when the Premier has seen fit to remove the previous Minister of Education, when the Deputy Minister of Education has been changed, and when the Assistant Deputy Minister has been changed. That’s a lot of change just before we embark on a new vision.

I would urge the government to take a step back to allow the educational staff to act on the recommendations of previous comprehensive reviews and visions, to work out a system of governance that is more inclusive, that isn’t centralized and that allows parents and teachers and students to take ownership and responsibility.

How is this different from what was recommended in the education reform project where they identified four areas that would be essential to meet goals — a workable and inclusive model of public school governance, the decentralization of decision-making and the empowerment of school councils and communities, a strategy to address aboriginal language, revitalization and retention — and to that I would add, the culture of Yukon?

Number four — initiatives to address the social and community aspects of Yukoners’ educational needs. 2007 education reform, 2008 and the reaction to it, 2009 and the Auditor General’s report — they all talked about the same thing: the need to engage all of the partners at the beginning of the process so that all of the partners can take ownership and move forward.

One of the things I learned when I was in the school system was that there are a lot of challenges. Each and every day there are challenges. Some of them you can resolve quickly. Some take more time. Some of them are systemic.

Sometimes that can be overwhelming. Sometimes that can be overpowering, but if you can be part of a team, you can grow and learn together and you can accomplish a lot.


Photo: wwworks / flickr. Used under a Creative Commons BY 2.0 licence.