Presentation to the Prince Edward Island Standing Committee on Education and Innovation

The PEI Home and School Federation was invited to speak to the Prince Edward Island Standing Committee on Education and Innovation on Tuesday, September 30, 2014. The following is the text of the presentation that was delivered. The presentation was followed by 10 minutes of questions.


Mr. Chair, members of the committee, thank you for the invitation to present to you today on behalf of the PEI Home and School Federation.

Our Federation represents local Home & School associations in 53 English language public schools across Prince Edward Island. We count in our membership all of the parents & guardians, administrators, teachers and staff in those schools: roughly 40,000 people who share one important thing in common: direct day-to-day involvement in the education of Prince Edward Island’s children in the home, and in the school.

Provincially, our Federation is an “organization of organizations,” and our primary aim is to support our member associations, and the work they do on a local level.

We are firmly rooted in the notion that regular dialogue, open and transparent communication, and a shared deep engagement in the educational process by all concerned is the bedrock of a successful public education system.

It is worth recalling that the passage of the Free Education Act in 1852 by your predecessors in the House of Assembly was a bold action stimulated by the desire of Islanders – expressed in some 50 petitions – to remove financial barriers to public education. The Special Committee appointed to examine the issue – a committee that is, in a sense, the predecessor committee of your own – wrote, in the preamble to its report to the Assembly:

Your Committee appointed, last Session, to enquire into the expediency of establishing a system of Free Education throughout the Island, have to report — that they find the present system of Education, although liberally supported by Legislative grants in aid of the salaries of Teachers, does not stimulate the inhabitants to that increased solicitude, and consequent efforts to educate their children, a measure which is of such vital importance to the well-being of every country, and particularly so to the inhabitants of this Colony.

The passage of that Free Education Act was, at its core, a result of a broad cry from Islanders: raise our taxes so that we might improve education.
 
And it worked: in two years the enrolment of schools on Prince Edward Island doubled.

This past year, public education has been much discussed in your Assembly, and in the public sphere, and your invitation to present to you today on matters such as “cuts to literacy and other programs and declining enrolment” references a few of the many concerns that have been  discussed around home and school tables over the same period.

I want to begin our Federation’s response to your invitation with challenge to your committee, and to your peers in the Legislative Assembly, and that is a challenge to work to raise the tenor of the discussion of public education in this province.

When matters of public education are raised on the floor of the House, the agenda is set for broader public discussion – in the media, the coffee shops, school staff rooms, at home and school meetings and around the supper tables of Island families.

And while the power to shine light on matters of concern is central to the operation of our democracy, it is a power that can have unintended side-effects if the adversarial nature of the legislative process becomes overheated.

The public education system is, perhaps, the most complicated public system in the province: it’s an interlocking network of parents & guardians, teachers, administrators, support staff, librarians, custodians, bus drivers, crossing guards, and volunteers working to educate some 20,000 students, to provide them with the practical and citizenship skills required to become productive members of our Island society.

Issues that might appear simple in isolation are revealed as complex when examined more closely, but this complexity is often lost in the parry and thrust of political debate and in the discussion of education in the media.

Let me give you an example, one that relates to your request for feedback on “cuts to literacy programs.”

Earlier this year, the principal at Cardigan Consolidated School sent a brief letter to parents updating them on the staffing allocation for this school year, and wrote, in part, that “Reading Recovery will no longer be offered at Cardigan School as it has been cut for the upcoming school year.”

Soon thereafter the headline on the CBC website was “Reading Recovery hit by cuts at 9 Island schools,” and the headline in The Guardian was “Literacy program cut at Cardigan Consolidated.”

And suddenly the public discussion of education became consumed with talk of cuts, and closing rural schools, and the unfair treatment that Cardigan Consolidated was receiving.

Looked at more closely, however, the issue was more nuanced than the public discussion would suggest.

In the Eastern School District “School Organization Plan” presented by Dr. Sandy MacDonald in 2009, the Executive Summary references Reading Recovery directly:

In our smallest schools, ten of which have 90 or fewer students, we are struggling to provide comprehensive programming in areas such as physical education, French, music, and resource-based learning (library). We are also having difficulty providing comprehensive student support services in areas such as guidance, special education/resource and Reading Recovery®.

Dr. MacDonald went on to recommend, in part, the closure of Georgetown Elementary School, indicating that this would lead to increased enrolment in Cardigan Consolidated, resulting in “full-time guidance and enhanced special education/resource programs” in Cardigan.

Ultimately the decision was made to keep Georgetown Elementary School open.

If this hadn’t happened, however, 2013 enrolment statistics show that rather than 4 grade one students in Georgetown and 12 grade one students in Cardigan, there would have been 16 grade one students in Cardigan this fall.

It is in the Minister’s Directive on staffing allocation that we find the requirements for a school to offer Reading Recovery: 25% of grade one students requiring assistance, with one Reading Recovery staff position assigned for every 16 students.

That formula for determining whether Reading Recovery will be offered in a school hasn’t changed in many years, is found in an easily-available public document, a document that, because it sets out the number of teachers and staff available to the boards of education, is a foundational one, a document that all involved in public education should be familiar with.

I relate this to you not to suggest that Georgetown Elementary School should or should not  have been closed, nor even that there are students in Cardigan Consolidated School who could – or could not – benefit from Reading Recovery this year, but rather to simply illustrate that headlines like “Reading Recovery hit by cuts at 9 Island schools,” and the tone and focus of the resulting public dialog, masked important discussion about the real policy decisions that underlay this particular situation in Cardigan and, more broadly, the delivery of education across the province.

In other words, Reading Recovery wasn’t “cut” from Cardigan Consolidated at all: enrolment numbers simply dictated that it could no longer be offered under the staffing allocation model in place.

As I indicated when I began, the PEI Home and School Federation believes in the power of open, regular, transparent dialogue between home and school as a vital component of the public education system.

There were real, important, issues at play in this particular situation in Cardigan, but they were not the ones that received public attention.

We – all of us in the discussion – should have used the opportunity to discuss the need for clear communications between home and school, to re-examine the staffing allocation model to make sure that it makes sense a decade after it was first introduced, and that, for example, it makes sense to mandate delivery (or non-delivery) of programs like Reading Recovery by looking simply at the numbers.

And, indeed, substantive discussion of school attendance zone boundaries, class sizes, and school enrolment.

Discussion of issues like this is exactly what is happening at Home & School, both locally and provincially, every week.

For example, a resolution, passed by our members in 2012, called for “consistent, clear procedures for communicating to parents,” and for affirmation that “parents are encouraged to participate in the life of the school and as active partners in their child’s education.”

A resolution, passed in 2014, called on the staffing allocation model to be modified so that “administrators, counsellors and non-classroom positions” would not be included, so as to provide a more accurate picture of the number of educators dealing directly with students.

Our Federation has passed resolutions encouraging the broad sharing of school health data from the SHAPES survey, on the importance of information technology resources in the home, on parent representation on Department and Board committees, on head lice procedures and on e-cigarettes, to name but a few.

These resolutions come from our local associations, from discussion amongst parents & guardians, teachers, administrators and staff; their substance should not be dismissed, but it is in those discussions that the true power of Home & School lies: everyday communication between home and school.

Another 2014 resolution called on the “Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development to commit to including the P.E.I. Home and School Federation as a partner in the development of a specific strategy and plan … to have P.E.I. students meet the national average, to address the student achievement gap in Prince Edward Island.”

That resolution came, in part, in response to concerns from our members about the results on PISA testing that were widely discussed in the media, and in your Assembly, this spring.

Our members are mindful of the caution that PISA results, and those of other common assessments, measure only a small slice of the complete educational picture in the province, and we recognize, especially looking at the experience in the United States, that single-minded focus on test results can be harmful to the educational process.

But, that said, we believe, as expressed in our resolution, that it’s an issue worthy of focus, and that the way forward must be through a collaborative process involving all parties: this isn’t a challenge that can be matched only by politicians or by administrators or by teachers or by parents… it is only through a cooperative effort to understand how to best apply and measure tests, and how to use the results effectively that we can chart a course forward.

And here too is an area that would benefit from more clear, regular dialog: if common assessments are going to become a permanent part of the educational landscape, then we need to work to increase the understanding of the opportunities and limitations of these assessments, both by parents & guardians and by teachers and students.

And it is in that spirit of dialog and communication that I wish to conclude.

I direct the members of the committee to our website, peihsf.ca, where resolutions passed at recent annual meetings of our Federation can be found as cue to the policy concerns of our members.

But equally as important, I wish to leave you with the message that it is our belief that the way forward to a more effective public education system must be grounded in a positive, cooperative spirit that includes all partners in education involved in regular, constructive dialog.

Education, after all, is not a product, it is a process, and when examined through that lens many of the roadblocks to improvements in our education system occur when that collaborative spirit is interfered with or ignored, when parents & guardians or teachers or staff or administrators are left out of the discussion of important policy developments and implementations.

Fortunately, we have a model, indeed, a clarion model, of how to do this right: when kindergarten was brought into public schools in 2011 its implementation was done through broad consultation with everyone involved. Home & School was represented on the subcommittees in place to guide the process, allowing our members a voice, something that, I believe all those involved would agree, contributed significantly to the process.

That the introduction of kindergarten – a complex exercise with many moving parts – happened in 18 months, and in an environment of open and broad consultation, and that it worked, is something of which all the partners involved can be proud.

In the months and years to come, as we all grapple with issues of shifting and declining enrolment, aging school buildings, changes in education technology, changes in education philosophy, changes in the world around us, it is our hope that that broad, consultative spirit will be ever-present.

I will conclude with the words of Dr. Helen MacDonald, founding president of our Federation, who wrote, in a column in The Guardian in 1952:

In all our work as Home and School members we try to keep in mind that our first and fundamental objective is to promote the welfare of children and youth in the home, school and community.

As your committee guides the development of the public education system in Prince Edward Island, all we can ask is that you to do the same.

Posted by Peter Rukavina on Tuesday, September 30, 2014.