'I don't feel reassured': N.W.T. MLAs take a ruler to class time reduction plan

The concerns, aired Tuesday night during a public committee meeting in Yellowknife, encompass everything from confusion over the project's real goal to exasperation over the lack of a unified plan for evaluating the proposed three-year pilot project.

'Patchwork' evaluation process, rationale, survey evidence all questioned by committee of regular MLAs

The Standing Committee on Social Development heard a presentation Tuesday night on the N.W.T. government and N.W.T. Teachers Association's joint plan to reduce teachings hours starting this fall. (Guy Quenneville/CBC)

Northwest Territories MLAs are sounding alarms over the plan from the territorial government and N.W.T. Teachers Association to reduce teaching hours at schools across the territory this fall.

The concerns, aired Tuesday night during a public committee meeting in Yellowknife, cover everything from confusion over the project's real goal to exasperation over the lack of a unified plan for measuring whether the proposed three-year pilot project will have the desired outcome.

"I'm not very reassured," said Kevin O'Reilly, MLA for Frame Lake. "We don't have an evaluation process but we're going to go ahead and make the changes?"

'What is it for?'

The association and the territory's department of education want each of the N.W.T.'s 49 schools to be able to reduce the amount of time teachers spend in class with students by up to 100 hours a year — though not all schools are proposing to go that far.

Of the 10 schools that have submitted proposals so far — and the majority of N.W.T. schools are expected to participate — some, including high schools, have opted to only reallocate 45 to 65 hours a year for teachers to use as class prep time and professional development.

The N.W.T. government and the teachers association say teachers in the territory are overworked and need more time to plan classes. (CBC)

But it was the rationale and evidence for the project — as well as concerns over how well it will be monitored — that most concerned MLAs.

Kam Lake MLA Kieron Testart pointed out the inconsistent messaging on why the project is being sought. 

The government and the association have said it stems from a worry that, at more than 50 work hours a week, N.W.T. teachers are overstressed.

But in a handout distributed around the table, a page labeled "Why Change?" simply showed graphs outlining the territory's lower rate of high school graduation compared to the rest of the country.

(NWT Teachers Association)

"What is it for — improving workload or improving graduation rates?" asked Testart of the project.

"I really think it's a combination of both," said Education Minister Alfred Moses.

The same handout included a table outlining how other parts of the country have reduced instructional hours at upper secondary levels.

(NWT Teachers Association )

That prompted Tu Nedhe-Wiilideh MLA Tom Beaulieu to ask Moses if his department had data indicating that schools that had reduced such hours had also seen their graduation rates increase.

Moses said he didn't have such statistics.

"Let's be clear about this," Testart then said of the project's aim, "instead of just trying to cover it with a bunch of statistics. Especially when the department is not prepared to speak to any data they've got on jurisdictions that have lowered their [hours]."

'Patchwork' evaluation?

That wasn't the only part of the presentation that rankled MLAs.

Moses said that because each school will choose to reassign hours differently, the type of yearly post-mortem on the project will differ from school to school.

O'Reilly said that would lead to a "patchwork" evaluation process and pressed Moses and his colleagues for more concrete evaluation measures for the pilot project.

Education Minister Alfred Moses, second from left, and Fraser Oliver, president of the NWT Teachers Association, far right. (Guy Quenneville/CBC)

Fraser Oliver, the president of the N.W.T. Teachers Association, then suggested that the number of sick days taken by teachers, and teacher retention levels, could be useful indicators.

He cited a study in Ontario that found that 50 per cent of teachers had quit their profession due to a heavy workload.

"We certainly don't want to do that," he said.

"These are things we should have been tracking in our education system all along," said O'Reilly.

Moses said that with the project eyed for a fall launch — assuming a majority of MLAs vote in favour of amending the territory's Education Act during this summer — that will give the department and the association time to come up with an evaluation process.

Survey samplings questioned 

Moses and Oliver both cited two studies that showed N.W.T. teachers were overworked.

But Julie Green, the MLA for Yellowknife Centre, said the sample of teachers surveyed was far too small.

Only 36 teachers filled out one study; "112 (out of a possible 705) educators" filled out the other.

"Why are these studies becoming the basis for these changes?" asked Green. 

Julie Green, the MLA for Yellowknife Centre, said the sample of N.W.T. teachers surveyed about being overworked is too small to justify the change to teaching hours. (Guy Quenneville/CBC)

Testart raised another concern: with the class time changes stemming from a memorandum of understanding already agreed upon by the territorial government, he felt pressure to vote favourably for the amendment — or else risk having the government fail to live up to its commitment to teachers.

"I want to judge this on the merits of it, but it becomes difficult when a decision has been made ahead of time," he said.

Frederick Blake, the MLA for Mackenzie Delta, said he would talk to his constituents before making up his mind on the project.

He then suggested that, for some students in his riding, class time is already on the decline.

"A number of parents have raised concerns with me about the amount of school their children are missing compared to when they went to school."


Guy Quenneville

Reporter at CBC Saskatoon

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