Nova Scotia·Opinion

Time to disrupt the status quo in education, says Graham Steele

Imagine my surprise when we were informed that the first item on the list — the department's very highest priority, the number one "ask" — was getting teachers to return to lunch-hour supervision.

We need to talk about the hard issues weakening our schools, says Steele

In the report, Disrupting the Status Quo, the six-member panel found half of Nova Scotians surveyed were not satisfied with the public school system (iStock)

My first jaw-dropping moment in government was over education.

It was early in our first year and I was sitting in Treasury Board — the cabinet committee that makes major spending decisions. Its responsibilities include giving high-level direction on collective bargaining.

The Department of Education was coming in to outline their negotiating strategy for the next round of talks with the Nova Scotia Teachers Union. I was keen to hear what they had in mind. We knew that any significant education reform would have to start with a bold bargaining agenda.  

So imagine my surprise when we were informed that the first item on the list — the department's very highest priority, the number one "ask" — was getting teachers to return to lunch-hour supervision.

That moment encapsulates for me the concrete-like rigidity of Nova Scotia's education system: small issues are treated like big issues, and big issues aren't even open for discussion. 

Worse, anybody who questions the prevailing orthodoxy is labelled a teacher-basher, a union-basher, or someone who just doesn't love kids. I am none of those things, but there are seven hard truths that need to be said out loud.

Not every idea is a good idea

First: There is a natural, healthy tension between professional educators (teachers, principals, academics) and non-educators (parents, school board members, politicians). Non-educators have to accept that education is a discipline, backed by research and experience.

Not every idea is a good idea. The way we were taught two or three decades ago is not necessarily the way it should be. At the same time, it should be possible for non-educators to be heard respectfully.

What is the problem?

Second: We will get nowhere until we figure out what the problem is. If the problem is poverty, then let's say it out loud, and deal with it. If poverty's the real problem, no new curriculum will help.

If the problem isn't poverty, that probably means we're doing something wrong that other provinces are doing right. That's uncomfortable, but we have to say it out loud, and deal with it.

Too much control

Third: The Nova Scotia Teachers Union exercises, by way of collective bargaining, too much control over the school system. The minister's action plan contains a long list of items that will have to be negotiated with the NSTU.

The list includes teacher certification, assignment, performance and discipline. Those are management functions. Once these functions are encased in contractual language, as they are now, it is almost impossible for managers to manage.

Different unions needed

Fourth: It is farcically dysfunctional for principals to be in the same union as the teachers they are managing.

Do we need school boards?

Fifth: Elected school boards do not add value. The Tri-County audit was a wake-up call. The school boards are so geographically large now that any idea of "community control" is meaningless.

For example, the community schools in Maitland and River John, both threatened with closure, see the school board as a distant bureaucracy, not an organization that's there to help and support them. 

Speaking in whispers

Sixth: Teachers do not feel free to speak out loud. That's a shame, because their knowledge and experience in the classroom is the bedrock on which any reform will be built.

Too many teachers are afraid of contradicting the NSTU, or to raise a taboo topic like special education. So they keep their thoughts to themselves, or speak in whispers.

Roadblock to renewal

Seventh: Current hiring practices are a roadblock to renewal. Too many retired teachers are called back as substitutes, taking the maximum hours permitted by pension rules and blocking new teachers who need a toehold in the profession and in the province.

Even if a new teacher lands a position, they risk later being moved around from school to school, unable to build relationships with students, families, and colleagues.

The biggest, boldest actions taken by the McNeil government in its first year were the reshaping of labour relations in the health-care sector. If we are even to begin to realize on the Freeman panel's promise of "Disrupting the Status Quo," we need the same boldness in education.

Without it, we'll go back to negotiating lunch-room supervision with the NSTU.

And the Freeman report will become another dust-catcher on the education minister's shelf. 


Graham Steele

Political analyst

Graham Steele is a former MLA who was elected four times as a New Democrat for the constituency of Halifax Fairview. He also served as finance minister. Steele is now a political analyst for CBC News.