There was irony aplenty this past week with the Liberal government’s warp speed adoption of consultant Avis Glaze’s quickie study of educational governance, called “Raising the Bar” (RtB). Item one was the death sentence recommended for democratically elected school boards. There are a couple of relevant items here, but let’s begin with the notion of representation.

Two weeks ago, the Liberals warmly welcomed the report of the Independent Commission on Effective Electoral Representation (EER) and did not dismiss even the dubious idea of adding seats to the legislature. The EER report is a prelude to redrawing the province’s electoral map. It focuses on “more effective representation” for Acadians and African Nova Scotians in the House of Assembly, but many of its sentiments seem equally valid when applied to any public decision-making body, including school boards. The commissioners’ more ringing declarations in favour of electoral democracy include:

  • “The fundamental principle of democracy is sovereignty of the people, that is, we confer the right to govern on people we elect,” and
  • “There are many ways to participate in a democracy, but the method that underpins all others is the right to vote.” (italics mine)

It’s ironic that the EER report, singing the praises of voting and electing representatives, would come out less than a fortnight before the RtB report dismissing the validity of those activities. And if there are degrees of irony, consider how effective representation of African Nova Scotians in educational matters is handled in the two reports.

African Nova Scotian seats

Although the electoral commission didn’t have much to say about elected school boards, the EER did point out the value of the seven seats reserved for African Nova Scotians on English language boards across the province. In addition to providing boards and senior administrators with an African Nova Scotian perspective on education, the commissioners cited the benefit of giving political experience to board members “and even unsuccessful candidates for the position.” The commissioners urged the government to “always consider the broader roles and significance of the African Nova Scotian school board seats.”

So much for that recommendation. In their response to RtB, the Liberals said they want to fire the elected African Nova Scotian members, along with almost everybody else who sits on a school board, and replace their input by beefing up an already existing appointed advisory committee known as CACE (Council on African Canadian Education). That would likely not qualify as “more effective representation” in the political process.

There was also a politically interesting paradox in the way the Liberals turned their backs on their erstwhile allies at the Nova Scotia School Boards Association. It will be recalled that it was the school boards that led the charge against the NDP government’s attempts to scale back education grants in recognition of the continuous decline in enrolment. It was the school boards association that came up with the inflated figure of $65 million in education cuts. That number found its way into Liberal campaign propaganda and, seven years on, continues to be the preferred Liberal response whenever a New Democrat MLA dares ask an education question in the legislature.

The school boards association, fearing the worst, greeted Avis Glaze’s appointment with a statement in the fall calling for the review of school boards to be “thorough” and “evidence-based.” Glaze conducted a whirlwind study, holding 91 meetings with 500 people over a three-week period. Lots of activity, but thorough? And her evidence on school boards seems to consist mainly of media reports of well-publicized school board pratfalls.

Liberals to school boards association – thanks for helping us win the 2013 election, now off you go.

(This is not to deny the dysfunctional nature of several school boards, but if dysfunction provides grounds for eliminating democratic representation there would have been a justifiable military coup in Washington months ago).

CSAP and administration

It was also ironic – i.e. “happening in the opposite way to what is expected” – that the only school board that is going to be allowed to continue is the Conseil scolaire acadien provincial (CSAP). Glaze’s report says all of the right things about the Acadians’ struggle for survival. And compared to some of the other boards the CSAP seems to have avoided scandals. However, given that one of the reasons for getting rid of school boards is to cut down on administrative costs, the CSAP would appear to be a leading candidate.

Based on the tables published in RtB, CSAP was by far the most administratively top heavy board in the province. As the table shows, in 2016-7 CSAP had one administrative FTE for every 41 students, more than three times the provincial average.

Students/administration FTE by board 2016-7

CSAP 41/1
South Shore 88/1
Tri-county 90/1
Strait 101/1
CB Victoria 106/1
Chignecto 113/1
Annapolis 130/1
Halifax 220/1
Provincial Avg 124/1

Given that Halifax, at 220 students per administrator, is the lightest in administration, economies of scale obviously factor in. And in the case of CSAP, the fact its 22 schools cover the whole province from Cape Breton to Yarmouth may account for at least some of its bureaucratic bloat. Glaze’s report doesn’t say.

Trashing student achievement

Administration is not the only piece of her report in which the numbers and the narrative don’t quite match. Glaze pulls no punches when it comes to criticizing Nova Scotia’s education system for its student achievement outcomes. She cites data from two sets of tests and declares: “The results in these tests are simply not good enough. Nova Scotian students, parents and communities deserve better.”

The evidence in her report says Glaze is being too harsh. Two sets of tests are cited. The first, the Pan-Canadian Assessment Program, tested Grade 8 students across the country in 2013. The Nova Scotia results were not great – our Grade eights were fifth among the provinces in science, tied for sixth in math and seventh in reading. There was another round of PCAP testing in 2016 but the results have not yet been published so we don’t know whether there has been improvement over 2013.

The more recent test results presented in the report are from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), sponsored by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. In 2015 PISA tested 15 year-olds on science, math and reading. Nova Scotian students were fifth in each discipline, and in every case they trailed only the wealthier and/or larger provinces – British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario and Quebec. Among the smaller or traditional “have-nots,” Nova Scotia students were tops. And except for math – where there was no improvement over 2012’s poor showing – the 2015 results for Nova Scotia 15-year-olds were better than those achieved in 2012.

We should want our education system to be better than mediocre. But exaggerating its failings in order to justify drastic and hasty change risks undermining the primary goal of education, which is the search for truth. And that’s maybe the most troubling irony of this report.