As the Public Schools Branch lumbers its way towards the conclusion of the awkward and much maligned process of school reviews, I thought it would be a good time to review the process itself and point out a few learning opportunities for those tasked with the development, administration and delivery of public policy.

I have acknowledged many times before that governing is difficult, but I think those in power could make things a lot easier for themselves if they followed a simple and consistent set of rules.

1: Apply evidence-based decision making

In our age of alternative facts and fake news, it is sometimes difficult to pick through the maze of complex and often contradictory positions put forward by all sides of an issue. It doesn’t need to be like this. Increasingly politics and science are taking divergent paths when it comes to public policy making. Stephen Harper and now Donald Trump have disparaged science and viciously cut funding to scientific institutes who provide governments (and anyone else who cares to access it) with unbiased, objective information. I love science because it is inherently self-doubting. Any conclusion that is reached through scientific study is viewed with suspicion until results are reproduced and confidence in the answers is slowly accumulated. Even then, conclusions are always challenged and treated as tentative. Contrast that with politics, where positions often arrive out of thin air, are frequently unsupported by any sort of evidence, and mightily resist scrutiny.

If you look at the justifications put forward by the Public School Branch for recommending school closures – namely that it will save money, and that small schools provide an inferior learning environment – those positions are clearly not in line with research. If you do a review of the scientific studies on school size and learning outcomes, or the effects of consolidation, both financially and academically, you will find that the research is unequivocal – small schools outperform large ones (see Corbett & Mulcahy 2006; Lauzon & Leahy 2000; Howley et al 2011).

The conclusions of the board are therefore in direct conflict with the evidence. So what is going on here? My best guess is that there is a dogmatic adherence to a worldview that encourages and celebrates bigness and centralization. The preference for consolidation has been going on for a long time. When the Fathers of Confederation met here on PEI 152 years ago, public education was a new concept. The birth of our nation corresponded with the arrival of the industrial revolution, and our school system was created in the image of the factories that were supplying people for the first time with mass goods that without question improved their lives. But we are starting to realize that the factories that are so great for producing chairs and cheerios and Chevrolets do not work so well when it comes to children.

2: Governments should make decisions that create a stronger PEI.

We must answer a question long avoided in public education – what is schooling for? Not everything can be so easily thrust under the microscope of sceptical scientific study, and what follows is my personal opinion rather than the product of indisputable scientific evidence.

I believe education must move away from a factory model based on conformity and of an assembly line which batches children of identical age as if they were all the same, with the same talents, needs and yearnings. Human beings come in all varieties, and to arouse each child’s distinctive potential will require a model that fans the embers of each child’s unique desire. Teaching, at its best, is not a delivery system, it is a stimulatory system. Here on PEI we could create an education system that is the envy of the world – if we wanted to. We have the human and financial resources, the jurisdiction, our size is in our favour; we just need the desire to do it. The same is true for so many other aspects of life on PEI, and our Island is crying out for visionary leadership that recognizes that the vitality of rural PEI is central to the future prosperity of all Islanders. But let’s start with our education system and make it a shining provincial asset that will draw young families from elsewhere.

3: Do engagement properly.

Meaningful consultation is empowering: it respects the input of all participants, and contains within it a genuine effort to incorporate the views of those sufficiently motivated to bring forward submissions. Further than that, top notch engagement would devolve a certain amount of power to Islanders. This might take the form of the Public Schools Branch getting a level of consent from the public, ideally through a consensus-based model of consultation. If it is indeed the case that no final decisions have been made, then any sincere evaluation of the voices of Islanders who have responded to the call for input can lead to only one conclusion: that the recommendations of the Public School Branch are unacceptable to Islanders. In a truly empowering engagement process, this must be taken into account, and I remain hopeful that this will indeed be the case, whether that be in amended recommendations at the end of the public consultations, or a rejection of the current ones by cabinet, who have the ultimate authority on this matter.

4: Slow down.

If nothing else, it is abundantly clear that this is far too complex an issue, and one with such profound consequences, that we must hit pause and give ourselves enough time to investigate all the options that are available before we make potentially irreversible decisions. Yes, there is anger in rural PEI, but that anger has thus far been channelled in an admirably positive manner. I have heard passionate pleas, and vigorous defences of small local schools, but almost always that has been expressed respectfully and from a place of deep knowledge and sincerity. Lesson #1 for the Public School Branch must be to halt this hasty and ill-conceived process, and place a moratorium on school closures until we fully understand what we are doing.

I believe our main purpose in life is to learn: to understand ourselves more fully, and to better  grasp our place in the bigger scheme of things, and in so doing, become better people. We don’t just do this while we are students in school, I believe that to honour our humanity, it is something we need to keep doing throughout our entire lives. There is much to be learned from this recent school review process, so let’s hope that those tasked with making some tough decisions on this file share my desire to keep learning and growing.

-Peter

 

11 Comments

  1. W.Wilkins 24 February 2017 at 6:26 pm

    Once again, on this matter my opinion is likely to find little receptivity in this form – but here goes.

    There are many variables that imped or enable the functionality and desirability of a school. I’d be very cautious about stating that the research is “unequivocal” and that small schools outperform large ones. Indeed, citing Corbett & Mulcahy 2006; Lauzon & Leahy 2000; Howley et al 2011 may very well work against the very position you are trying to advance.

    For one thing, a “small school” in the lion’s share of the research, is usually defined as a school with a population of around 200 students. It’s around that critical number that much of the research suggests that an inter-pollination of professional development, a healthy exposure to a diverse spectrum of adults and students, and a critical mass of shared resources takes place. There is little to no valid and reliable research that suggests schools with a much lower number than 200 students “outperform” large ones.

    Since some of the schools on Prince Edward Island under discussion don’t meet the research definition of a “small school” could it be that the conclusions of the board may not be in such direct conflict with the evidence?

    Having directly taught, administered and performed primary research in both small schools (150 – 250 students), large schools (800+ students) and micro schools (under 100 students) my opinion, unequivocally, is that reductionist conclusions – reducing an argument to too few variables – is dangerous.

    Aesthetically and functionaly, I embrace the idea of a true community based school, However, in my opinion, other than a couple of examples that reside within the French Board on Prince Edward Island, these community based schools do not exist here. A true community based school would functionally represent and meet the needs, on a daily basis, of the full population of that community. For example, services like the public library, social services, medical clinics, senior citizens, theatres and adult learning would operate from the school and the building would be active every evening, weekends, 12 months a year. These “community schools” do exist, but sadly, not so much here.

    So, I agree, evidence-based decision making is necessary. But, what is also necessary is informed interpretation of the research evidence, a deep historical understanding of public schooling and a willingness to be open-minded enough to embrace a vision of schooling that reconfigures that which our system presently delivers. Simply put, the status-quo meets neither the wide ranging needs of our children, nor our communities. Change is difficult, and it’s time for change.

     
    • ACampbell 25 February 2017 at 11:38 am

      Thank you for sharing an informed opinion. I so wish this process was more like this thread, with people advancing ideas and discussing concepts, instead of emotional vitriol that does nothing to find solutions.

       
      • W.Wilkins 25 February 2017 at 2:04 pm

        I agree, we have to work together to find solutions. However, first we have to identify who is “we” and then identify what problems to address.

        As it stands, it appears the general public feels the government is trying to fix something that isn’t broken, and the government feels the general public doesn’t know what’s broken. To this end, useful public discourse about public schooling has been lost in a bureaucratic political bog for a long, long time.

        Until there’s a real effort to bring that discourse back into the public sphere, and back into the hands of the frontline clients (students, parents, teachers, elected trustees) politics will trump pedagogy. And, I can’t find any evidence that’s a positive thing for anyone – especially the children.

         
  2. bayingatthemoon 24 February 2017 at 6:34 pm

    He missed the most important point, Point# 5–Elect members of the legislature who will not vote unanimously in favour of eliminating elected and local school boards so that a Liberal Government given to dictatorial decision-making has a carte blanche to propel a process of closing down rural PEI and its schools beyond or almost beyond retrieval.

     
  3. Bill Kays 25 February 2017 at 8:04 am

    This stuff is not new. I cannot even get past the first point, Apply evidence-based decision making – it cannot happen under the current system, because it hasn’t to date. There are no magic wands and the Greens one seat means nothing, that is evident.

     
  4. CJGL 26 February 2017 at 3:48 am

    A great read, and to rebuttal a comment above by W.wilkins and his discussion on the empirical evidence being conjecture due to our schools not reaching his definition of a “small school”.

    While the study you reference states 200 children, the difference between 150 and 200 students FTE wise for the island schools in the west in most cases would be the difference of maybe 3-4 children per class maximum. While those numbers are smaller than your projected study, I highly doubt the difference would be statistically significant enough to create a variation within the finding of your particular study. Call it conjecture, but I highly doubt it.

    The fact of the matter is, regardless of any empirical evidence on the effectiveness of small schools vs large schools, this is a decision that is being made under the premise of “better learning for all” however other than the cost saving measures and larger class sizes with the POSSIBILITY of more funds added to the remaining scholls, there has been no road map that illustrates just exactly how this is better for our kids. All of the data being presented so far at the public consultations has shown that this in the most part, will negatively effect bus routes, class sizes, teacher allocations (especially in the west) and community economic growth.

    Before any of this can ever be seriously implemented, there needs to be more done than using allocation of students as a basis for a report. To many other factors in these communities are reliant on these schools and I do think there are alternatives where we can make use of our schools in a much better way with rezoning and enforcement of those zones along with developing that community model that you state above.

    Is it a clear and simple solution? No. No it isn’t, but im aware of that, and I just wish our current government was too.

     
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  7. W.Wilkins 26 February 2017 at 12:47 pm

    I more than agree there are no simple solutions; I agree even more we need a “road map”.

    Metaphors don’t shed sufficient light on our schooling challenges, But, if a household trying to manage a budget has an eight seat van and there are twelve people who regularly require transportation, numbers matter. If there are four people who regularly require transportation, numbers matter.

    That said, metaphorically speaking, I wonder if too many people fixate on the van and too few people care about how the van is being used, and where the van is traveling? From where I sit, it appears the van is moving madly off in all directions – and, as long as we have a van, we don’t seem to find that a big problem.

     
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  9. frostededucation 5 March 2017 at 11:27 am

    Hello Peter,

    I wonder if PEI has looked at the 4-day school week model as a possible solution? I know that you are looking at HUB schools, but the success rates on those have been fairly low. There are at least 300 jurisdictions in the US that are operating in that manner, and several in Canada, most notably in BC.
    I have written about this idea a fair bit as a solution here in Nova Scotia, without much success, but PEI seems like an ideal environment.

    Here is a link to a recent article on the topic. If you would like to get some more information, contact me at frostededucation@gmail.com.

    http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/are-4-day-school-weeks-good-for-students-1.3234375

     

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