It has been some weeks now since the government released what was to be plans for reinventing the education system in Manitoba. Yet, a fog still lies over the future of education in Manitoba.
When the process started a couple of years ago, the government appointed a commission that would hear presentations and deliver a report outlining recommended changes. The commission hired world-renowned education consultant Avis Glaze. The report was completed a year ago.
But while the government sat on that report while the pandemic churned on, it also moved the commission report to the back burner and created its own stew of recommendations on the front element.
Then last month it released three documents at once, hundreds of table-bending pages covering research, recommendations and legislation (Bill 64). One was the commission’s extensive report. But it was now superseded by the government’s own report. And that was joined by hundreds of pages of legislation to clear any legal hurdles in implementing what the government wants.
To sort out the documents and their contents is not easy. From public consultation to final “actions” much appears lost in translation.
The government adopted some commission recommendations, ignored others or simply took parts and dropped parts without explanation.
For example, the commission was charged by the government to examine six “imperatives” in education. During the course of hearings, it expanded that mandate to 10 imperatives, all outlined in its report.
In its report, the government discarded the imperatives and came up with four “pillars” under which recommendations were spread and then drafted a 300-page piece of legislation.
The path from public consultations to the commission to the government report to the legislation is fraught.
One might need, like TV detectives, a wall with string connecting the dozens of floating pieces – the commission, the government report and legislation. At the end of the day the only thing you might realize is that you need another ball of yarn.
While the government report continually suggests its recommendations are based on the commission report, that is not always the case.
In the most-publicized aspect – the elimination of school boards and creation of 15 “regions”, the commission made no such recommendations.
It did recommend governance involving both appointed and elected trustees and amalgamation of divisions down to six or eight.
The government doesn’t explain why it substantially altered that recommendation or why some school divisions were left on their own. One major question has been why Winnipeg becomes one massive region (250 schools, 100,000 students), while the Hanover division (19 schools, 8,500 students and the home of the former minister of education) remains untouched.
The government’s new structure will see creation of new roles for principals and creation of a number of appointed boards to oversee school operations.
School Community Councils of parents and caregivers will be established in every school and given broad authority to have input into many aspects of school administration. Also being established is a Provincial Education Authority and Provincial Advisory Council on Education. All positions will be appointed and overseen by the province.
While the government nods to the commission, the commission did not recommend creation of this bureaucracy.
In fact it issued a warning about appointed boards.
“This approach is susceptible to partisan influence and allegiance, and appointments can be rescinded with or without cause.”
While the government implies its recommendations derive from the views of the commission, in this, and other areas, it is no more reflective of reality than those of a funhouse mirror.
Another example is the observation by the commission: “People want to know that those who are making important decisions within the education system, including elected trustees, are well qualified with knowledge and experience necessary to fulfill those responsibilities.”
It also leads its report with the observation: “The research in education states quite convincingly that teachers and principals are most influential in improving student outcomes.”
On the other hand, the government report mentions parents far more than teachers.
As the Winnipeg Free Press pointed out the term parent “is mentioned 74 times in the BEST strategy; in comparison, teacher is mentioned 60 times.
The question arises whether parents in general are those “qualified” and “knowledgeable” people? If parents themselves thought so, they wouldn’t be sending their kids to school, they’d be teaching them themselves.
It’s not to denigrate the input of parents, but the government document does not explain why or how the creation of the new bureaucracy will improve student outcomes.
This is not to say that the commission report, if released on its own, would have been viewed as perfect. There are recommendations that would have sparked much controversy.
But what it does have is pages of research and public input to support their decisions. The government report does not on many actions it plans to take.
For example, the commission report goes into detail about the issue of poverty and student outcomes. The government report barely acknowledges the issue.
In an interview with CBC Radio, Education Minister Cliff Cullen simply said that will be handled through the government’s overall poverty reduction strategy. Actually, the government has promised in its report to establish a task force to examine poverty and education, as recommended by MTS.
The government can point specifically to recommendations that are reflective of the commission report. But if that report provided the foundation for the government’s list of actions, where were the commissioners when everything was released?
When the reports of government-appointed commissions and task forces are released it is most often with a government acknowledgement of which recommendations it will adopt and which need further study or which will be dropped.
And when that happens, there are commissioners or at least the chairs of the commission available to answer questions.
One can imagine the outcry if, say, the federal government had re-imagined and rewrote the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission into its own document and its chair was nowhere to be seen when it was released.
As this is being written, it has been more than a week since the education release and not a single commissioner has been quoted publicly about their support of the government’s actions or lack thereof.
But this is just the beginning.
While the government’s goals are clear, much of the rhetoric around reaching them still call for detail.
Implementation will better show the province’s intentions and help lift the fog over many of the vague actions being proposed.
As the government leaves the commission report to the archives, it should take note of one paragraph from that document:
“This is certainly not the time for failure; we cannot afford to miss the mark. Our children’s success and the effectiveness of the education system cannot be left to chance. There are no second chances or margins for error when the future of our children is at stake.”
– Originally published in the April/May 2021 issue of the MB Teacher
George Stephenson is a writer/contributor for the MB Teacher magazine.