Without a doubt, there are major problems within the public education system in Nova Scotia.
These past few months of negotiations – although side-tracked at times by issues like wages, pensions and long service awards – made it clear that teachers in the province are not happy, and they want change now.
That seems a reasonable request, in light of the consensus among teachers, the government and most Nova Scotians.
It is simply unfair that teachers are required to do things they should not and expected to meet demands they cannot, all without the proper supports to accomplish much of anything.
Some of the main complaints centre on the unrealistic expectation for teachers to be all things to all students. All too frequently, teachers are trying to shape young minds in large classrooms with students of all academic capabilities, without an adequate number of teaching assistants, without the ability to teach students according to their abilities, and most importantly, without any ability to administer discipline or maintain control.
Teachers are also universal in their disapproval of the new on-line system for taking attendance and evaluating students. They claim the new system forces them to spend too much time inputting data and not enough teaching children.
Another frequently noted problem – like those pointed out by nurses and health care workers – is the cumbersome bureaucracy, which prescribes new guidelines, expectations, goals, and procedures for teachers every time a new government is elected or a new education minister takes the helm.
There have also been many comments about professional development requirements for teachers, and how they are nothing more than lost days of instruction that do little to serve students or teachers.
If the province is worried that teachers are not keeping up with changes in their profession, inundating them with so many changes, so quickly, before they have a chance to review, provide input, and become acquainted, will not help. And if the province is truly concerned about the performance levels of teachers, they can introduce measures to effectively conduct such evaluations without disrupting the academic calendar.
On the topic of evaluation, there are mixed opinions on the necessity of standardized tests. While some might argue it is the only way to evaluate how schools and students compare, the more compelling argument is that the results of these tests are not at all reliable since students frequently do not take these tests seriously, and this adds to more lost time for instruction.
This brings up the need to give teachers more control over their classrooms. Teachers must be allowed to remove disruptive students from their classes, otherwise there are no consequences for unacceptable behaviour. And school administration must be involved and empowered in this process.
Students who either cannot, or do not, meet educational standards and expectations need to be evaluated properly by their teachers. For the system to function properly, that means failing students.
Although the issue of mainstreaming within classrooms has been the subject of successful legal challenges and upheld by court decisions, it is not working for students in Nova Scotia.
Students who excel, who have above average intelligence, or are well behaved, solid students require their own classes where they can be challenged and taught at their level, with others of similar abilities.
Students who struggle with basic literacy, who have diagnosed learning disabilities, who have behavioural issues, or who simply learn at a different pace than others, are not at all well served by being forced into a classroom with others unburdened by such obstacles.
This will require an investment from the provincial government to hire more specialized teachers and assistants, and enhance current supports.
Once the educational bureaucracy is brought to a sane level it will be much easier for the Department of Health and Wellness and the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development to partner to provide more mental health and other health care services.
As was done with regional health boards, the best way to redirect resources into schools and classrooms is by reducing the number of school boards (leaving possibly three school boards for the province) and have School Advisory Councils work directly with the amalgamated school boards and the education department.
Not only does this empower parents and communities, it removes red tape, and the money saved by operating those school boards can be transferred to schools and classrooms, which is especially important for this cash-strapped province.
Without a doubt, there are changes needed. It remains to be seen whether this or future governments will have the stomach to commit to bold measures, and whether teachers can speak with one voice to help foster these and other much needed changes.