P.E.I. Education news bad, confusing

Published on October 31, 2015

Hal Perry

Education on P.E.I. is swirling with various announcements and developments in recent days - most of it bad and the rest mostly confusing. News was circulating last week about a big government announcement coming for education. It was so big that no one could talk about it even off the record. Yet, there was Education Minister Hal Perry telling the annual meeting of the P.E.I. Teachers’ Federation (PEITF) about it.

Mr. Perry was light on specifics because he apparently didn’t have them - but said details would be released in the next few weeks. If he didn’t have the specifics then who exactly does? Is there some consultant or task force about to present a landmark report which the minister is going to accept, sight unseen?

Mr. Perry calls it a new direction to give a stronger voice to students, parents and front-line educators. It will also get teachers more involved in setting policy directions and develop new partnerships among parents, educators, community leaders and government.

It all sounded exciting and progressive. It seemed that happy days are here again. Other shoes started dropping the next day.

P.E.I.’s English Language School Board said it is launching an investigation into why so many elementary school children are struggling with reading and writing, after provincial student assessment results released earlier last week revealed alarming results.

Pulling kindergarten into the school system happened six years ago and was supposed to pay dividends for younger students but these assessments suggest otherwise. The alarming part is that no one is able to pinpoint why this is happening, even though test results show this is an ongoing, three-year trend in Island schools. It doesn’t take rocket science to point a finger at significant cuts to teaching positions over the last few years. The province has cut 106 teaching positions since 2012.

A lot of teachers have been reassigned to different grade levels which cause a loss in traction every time it happens. This year the province cut seven literacy coaches from the school board.

Mr. Perry acknowledges there is obvious room for improvement but he pointed out these results were better over last year. That is small consolation. He then noted a review is underway on the provincial assessments to ensure they are not adding to teacher workloads at the expense of teaching time. So the assessments themselves are now the problem?

Then a new English board policy was released this week on school changes or closures. It seems more schools will close but there will be more public involvement before the closures actually take place. It’s not much consolation but at least it’s a shift from when closures were announced first and then public meetings were held to justify them.

Also this week, contract talks broke down between the province and its teachers. Labour peace seemed to have been restored last June when the province backed down in the face of wide protests and rescinded cuts to some 29 teaching positions. That brought teachers back to the bargaining table after they walked out, claiming bad faith bargaining. Thirty days of talks this fall failed to resolve issues and now teachers are headed to binding arbitration for the first time in 15 years.

Teachers say there is poor connection between understanding the needs inside P.E.I. schools, programs announced by the provincial government and management by the school boards. The PEITF observes that various parties don’t seem to be working together right now.

So where does Mr. Perry’s major announcement fit into all this? Maybe it will alleviate concerns for teachers, help solve the assessment issue and keep schools open. But it doesn’t involve various partners and even the minister isn’t sure what’s coming. As for the assessments, it seems no one knows the problem so how can the announcement design solutions to fix them?

There is a growing, unsettling perception the department is spinning its wheels and various elements inside the education system are getting caught in the morass created by the province.