Reducing education gaps between communities top priority, say N.W.T. education officials

The territorial Education Department found that students in small communities fare worse by virtually all key measures, from graduation rates to standardized test scores.

Education evaluation finds stark differences between student achievement in large versus small communities

Jennifer Young, left, government of the Northwest Territories director of planning, research, and evaluation, and John MacDonald, assistant deputy minister of Education and Culture, present the Education Department's evaluation of its education renewal framework. (Sidney Cohen/CBC)

According to a new Northwest Territories Department of Education report, there are "dramatic and alarming differences" in performance between students in regional centres and those in smaller communities. The report recommends a rethink of the way resources are divvied up among the territory's schools. 

The report, an evaluation of the Education, Culture and Employment Department's 2013 Education Renewal and Innovation Framework, which is part of a 10-year plan to "radically change" the territory's JK to Grade 12 education system, was released Friday. 

The evaluation looks back on the five years since the framework was published. Coupled with recommendations from last week's critical auditor general's report on the Education Department, the new report will, the government says, inform a future "action plan" for improving student outcomes.

The anticipated date for the start of that action plan is 2025.

In its report, the department found that students in small communities fare worse in virtually all key measures, from graduation rates to standardized test scores. It also says narrowing the education gap between students in Yellowknife, Inuvik, Hay River and Fort Smith, and students in smaller communities, must be a top priority.

Both findings underscore the findings of last week's auditor general's report on eduction in the N.W.T. 

To do this, the department floats the possibility of cutting programs — specifically those in the pilot stage — and of changing the way money is distributed among schools.

Equal doesn't always mean equitable

In a press briefing on Friday, Education Department officials explained that equal doesn't always mean equitable when it comes to resourcing schools in the N.W.T. 

Jennifer Young, the territorial director of planning, research, and evaluation, said the department has worked to make the same programs available to all students. 

Last week the Auditor General of Canada delivered a critical review of the territory's Education Department. (John Last/CBC)

She added that funding for schools "appears to be equally distributed," meaning, "schools responsible for more students receive more money."

But treating all schools the same doesn't seem to be working. Young said the evaluation suggests that "just because programming is provided equally, and funding for schools is evenly distributed, this does not mean it is fairly or equitably distributed."

'Focus on equity'

Without recommending a reallocation of money outright, Young said the department should "focus on equity."

"Increasing supports to small community schools and students may be necessary to close the achievement gap that was identified through this review," she said.

John MacDonald, assistant deputy minister of Education and Culture, said when it comes to redistributing money among schools, the department can't make those changes without direction from "the new government mandate, and our relatively new minister's direction."

Slow pace of change

A key finding of auditor general's report was that the Department of Education was slow to introduce changes to Indigenous language and culture programming. MacDonald said this slow pace of change pervades the department. 

"There's nobody that feels that urgency and that frustration more than all of us educators who are wanting to see those results move up," he said.

"It's probably one of the most frustrating things I could ever express, and I know that every professional in the system that I've ever talked to feels the exact same way, that it's just slow to initiate change."

MacDonald nodded to external factors that affect academic performance. The auditor general's report noted barriers like unstable home lives, and the legacy of residential school brutality. 

"It's slow and … you know, there's only so much that the education system can control for."