N.W.T. inflating graduation stats by 30% as system 'falls short': auditor general's report

In its first audit of the territory’s public education system since 2010, the federal Office of the Auditor General found the territory had little idea whether its programs were working.

Obligations on Indigenous languages, community education not met, says report

A file photo of the N.W.T. Legislative Assembly. A new audit of the N.W.T. education system has been tabled Thursday. The last audit was in 2010. (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

An audit of the N.W.T.'s education system found the territorial government was accidentally inflating graduation rates by almost 30 per cent, and had little idea whether its efforts to improve the system were working.

That's according to a newly released report from the federal Office of the Auditor General tabled Thursday in the N.W.T. Legislature, which focused primarily on a period from 2015 to 2019.

Glen Wheeler, the principal on the audit, said in a news release that they found shortfalls "in every area of the education system."

The audit found that the territory's Department of Education, Culture and Employment is failing to meet its obligations to provide Indigenous language education and equitable access to programming across the territory.

Wheeler said the department had made some improvements, but its methods of assessing those plans were "rudimentary." Data produced by the department was unintentionally misleading as a result, he said.

Instead of developing standard metrics to evaluate student success, the territory issued a slew of "ambitious" action plans and renewal frameworks, which officials with the department called "unrealistic."

It will now be the task of the newly-minted Minister of Education, Culture and Employment R.J. Simpson to develop a response to the audit. (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

Large numbers of students were ill-prepared for high school, and large percentages dropped out, the report also found.

On Indigenous language education, the audit said the department "did not assess how many instructors were needed or for which languages" and failed to monitor student progress.

In a press conference after the tabling of the report, Wheeler emphasized the urgency of improvements to Indigenous language education.

"Given the issues with respect to retaining and revitalizing Indigenous languages, in our opinion, the department was just too slow," said Wheeler.

It will now be the task of the newly-minted Minister of Education, Culture and Employment R.J. Simpson to develop a response to the audit.

The initial response from the department said the territory had accepted all of the audit's recommendations.

Ambitious plans, little evaluation

The territory's Department of Education Culture and Employment oversees the territory's public school system, from junior kindergarten to Grade 12. It delegates delivery of school services to 10 regional education bodies, which the report says employs 800 educators and oversees 8,500 students.

The report describes a department that has often advanced ambitious plans for renewal, but has gathered little evidence on whether those plans are working.

We should be under no illusions, education is a very difficult area.- Glenn Wheeler, Principal auditor

Prior to Simpson, the department was headed by the current premier, Caroline Cochrane, who ended her time as minister with a strongly-worded warning that the territory's education system was "failing our children." At the time, she said it would be up to the assembly she now leads to review the Education Act, to allow more participation from Indigenous governments.

Caroline Cochrane ended her time as education minister with a strongly-worded warning that the territory's education system was 'failing our children.' (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

The report shows, to date, the department has made little effort to address regional disparities in education. Instead it asserts that "all efforts it undertook" would reduce the differences in outcome between Yellowknife and remote communities.

When asked if parents should be concerned about the quality of education their children are receiving, Wheeler said it "isn't our place to say."

However, he said both educators and parents should take confidence in some improvements implemented in the wake of a 2010 audit, like the Elders in Schools program and the Northern Distance Learning program.

Wheeler said he hoped the audit provided a "pathway" for the government to make improvements that will have real impacts for teachers, parents, and students.

But the report acknowledges that some factors influencing the system, like the remoteness of communities and the impact of residential schools, are "beyond the department's control."

"We should be under no illusions, education is a very difficult area," Wheeler said. 

"A lot of these recommendations are getting at very complex areas. Some … are easy to implement immediately. Some take some time," he said. "It's incumbent on the departments to keep the momentum."

Second audit in 10 years

The audit is the first into the territory's education system since 2010, when the auditor general found the government had improved access to education and graduation rates, but was not collecting adequate data on student performance.

In response to that audit, the territory developed a 10-year "Education Renewal and Innovation" initiative and, in 2015, a three-year "action plan."

That plan hasn't been updated since 2017, and the news release says the government has failed to fulfil its own "ambitious plans to renew the education system."

The department scheduled a technical briefing on "the first five-year formative evaluation" of the initiative for Friday.

'We were doing too many things': minister

In a scrum with reporters after the release of the report, Simpson said the territory's next improvement plan is already being drafted. It will have "lofty goals," he said, but will also take "a more focused approach."

"Sometimes we were doing too many things," Simpson said in a scrum with reporters after the report was tabled. Previous action plans, he said, were "a bit much."

"I've heard that personally from educators," he said.

Improving educational outcomes for K-12 students was also in the mandate of the previous assembly.

Premier Cochrane was not made available for comment.

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