On the Brink of Change

Story by George Stephenson & Samantha Turenne

Education Minister Kelvin Goertzen is under no illusions as to what will happen when the report of the K-12 review commission is unveiled.

There will be conflict.

“I know there is going to be controversy around the recommendations because there always is in a report this big,” he said during an interview with The Teacher before he had received the final report. “You can’t look at a system as big as education, one that hasn’t had a significant review for so long, and not have some things that are going to be controversial.”

The review, to be released before the end of March, is the first to be done in decades and will have examined issues ranging from curriculum and testing to possible amalgamation of divisions to poverty and equity. Goertzen said the only issues excluded from the commission’s work were teachers’ salaries, pensions and the education funding formula.
It was intentional to take salaries and pensions off the table.

“That was intended to be both reflective of the fact that we value teachers – we didn’t want them to be under personal stress in that way. We wanted to relieve that sort of concern for teachers.”

Goertzen said he acknowledges there is still some uncertainty and that not all recommendations will be embraced by the public and stakeholders.

However, he hopes when the report, and the government’s intentions, are public, teachers take time to read the whole document.

“The report is going to come out and everybody is going to do what everybody does with these sorts of reports – they’re all going to go to the back to the recommendations … to see which ones affect them the most. That’s human nature. I do the same thing sometimes.

“After that, I would encourage all stakeholders to take a deep breath, give it a few days and look at the report in its totality and try to look at it less from whatever individual perspective and look at it from the point of view of how does it look for the system as a whole.

“My message would be that we all have a great interest in seeing the education system succeed, we all want to see our young people do well. When the report comes out, look at what might impact you the most, but then take a bit of a step back and give it time, recognizing that it’s going to take time for a lot of these things and what does that do to the system as a whole.

“And that’s what I’m going to do, too.”

Given the scope of the report and the thousands of people who commented during the consultation phase, Goertzen expects that changes recommended and adopted will take up to a decade to complete. Legislative changes will likely be necessary in some areas and those alone can easily take a year or two.

But changes that can be made immediately, will be.

“We don’t go through this process just to put this in a cellophane wrapper and leave it on the shelf.”

Goertzen was to receive the final report in February. Before its March release, the government was to determine which recommendations it will adopt, if not all, and when each can be implemented.

“It will come with the staging of what we think are the critical priorities to try to move first. The public will see change fairly quickly, but we’re not going to implement all the recommendations at once.”

He knows there will be disagreements over timing and implementation and even on when improvements will be apparent.

“We’re in a ‘right now’ kind of society, whether we’re ordering food or looking online for information we want to know right now what the outcome of a particular situation is. That’s a challenge because in a large system like health care or education or social services and family services the outcome is going to probably be five to 10 years down the road.”

And what will success look like to Kelvin Goertzen?

“Ultimately it has to be about student outcomes. When you ask teachers or parents what outcomes look like, it is different for everybody and you won’t always get the same answer, so that becomes part of the challenge.

“Some parents will say, for me it’s whether or not my son or daughter is prepared for post-secondary education or prepared for the workforce. You have other parents who have more of a social response that it’s more about citizenship and preparation for that. My guess is that it’s probably a combination of both of those things.

“The challenge is outcomes are years down the road. You can implement changes for something now whether that’s curriculum or how the system is structured and you may not see those outcomes for five, six, seven years.”

One of Goertzen’s goals has already been achieved – a robust consultation period during which thousands of people, including numerous teachers, made presentations in various forms and forums.

“The fact we’re talking about education is really positive. Sometimes you see in political parties everybody says they want to talk about policies and when you have a policy conference, nobody comes. So, I was worried there wouldn’t be the engagement that we were hoping for on the commission. That’s already happened, so for me that’s a big part of the outcome already.”

Goertzen said he did not make any presentation to the commission as to what the government would like to see and only met with the commission to appoint the members and receive a couple of updates.

“I met them (at the start) and said it’s your commission, your report. You can have a free pen other than teachers’ salaries, teachers’ pensions and the funding formula.

“People may not believe this, but I don’t have a lot of particular expectations. I try to keep an open mind on what’s going to be done.”

On the other hand, some issues will obviously be addressed, he said, given how much topics, such as the structure of education, were discussed during the consultation phase.

“I expect there will be some significant changes when it comes to the structure of education. I’m sure they will talk about testing because that’s always an issue. They will talk about curriculum. I hope they will talk about things like poverty and equity in education. Those are always issues, and they should be issues. I would be surprised if there weren’t recommendations that talk about those.”

Goertzen, who has become the Swiss Army Knife of department overhauls, was previously given the responsibility of shepherding through the province’s massive health care restructuring.

He says some comparisons are inexact, in that health care focused on “bricks and mortar” and where services would be provided in what locations.

“The schools are where they are and they’re going to remain where they are. It’s not so much a capital exercise and where services are delivered. It’s different that way.”

Where it is similar is how health and education touch the public.

“In health and education everybody is touched in some way either directly or indirectly. That close connectedness means everybody feels they have a stake in it, but then they also have an opinion in it, which is good, but that makes it hard because those opinions rarely align and can be emotional.”

— This story was originally printed in the March 2020 issue of The Manitoba Teacher Magazine