As the Public Schools Branch lumbers its way towards the conclusion of the awkward and much maligned process of school reviews, I thought it would be a good time to review the process itself and point out a few learning opportunities for those tasked with the development, administration and delivery of public policy.
I have acknowledged many times before that governing is difficult, but I think those in power could make things a lot easier for themselves if they followed a simple and consistent set of rules.
1. Apply evidence-based decision making.
In our age of alternative facts and fake news, it is sometimes difficult to pick through the maze of complex and often contradictory positions put forward by all sides of an issue. It doesn’t need to be like this. Increasingly politics and science are taking divergent paths when it comes to public policy making. Stephen Harper and now Donald Trump have disparaged science and viciously cut funding to scientific institutes who provide governments (and anyone else who cares to access it) with unbiased, objective information. I love science because it is inherently self-doubting. Any conclusion that is reached through scientific study is viewed with suspicion until results are reproduced and confidence in the answers is slowly accumulated. Even then, conclusions are always challenged and treated as tentative. Contrast that with politics, where positions often arrive out of thin air, are frequently unsupported by any sort of evidence, and mightily resist scrutiny.
If you look at the justifications put forward by the Public School Branch for recommending school closures – namely that it will save money, and that small schools provide an inferior learning environment – those positions are clearly not in line with research. If you do a review of the scientific studies on school size and learning outcomes, or the effects of consolidation, both financially and academically, you will find that the research is unequivocal – small schools outperform large ones (see Corbett & Mulcahy 2006; Lauzon & Leahy 2000; Howley et al 2011).
The conclusions of the board are therefore in direct conflict with the evidence. So what is going on here? My best guess is that there is a dogmatic adherence to a worldview that encourages and celebrates bigness and centralisation. The preference for consolidation has been going on for a long time. When the Fathers of Confederation met here on PEI 152 years ago, public education was a new concept. The birth of our nation corresponded with the arrival of the industrial revolution, and our school system was created in the image of the factories that were supplying people for the first time with mass goods that without question improved their lives. But we are starting to realise that the factories that are so great for producing chairs and cheerios and Chevrolets do not work so well when it comes to children.
2. Governments should make decisions that create a stronger PEI.
We must answer a question long avoided in public education – what is schooling for? Not everything can be so easily thrust under the microscope of sceptical scientific study, and what follows is my personal opinion rather than the product of indisputable scientific evidence.
I believe education must move away from a factory model based on conformity and of an assembly line which batches children of identical age as if they were all the same, with the same talents, needs and yearnings. Human beings come in all varieties, and to arouse each child’s distinctive potential will require a model that fans the embers of each child’s unique desire. Teaching, at its best, is not a delivery system, it is a stimulatory system. Here on PEI we could create an education system that is the envy of the world – if we wanted to. We have the human and financial resources, the jurisdiction, our size is in our favour; we just need the desire to do it. The same is true for so many other aspects of life on PEI, and our Island is crying out for visionary leadership that recognises that the vitality of rural PEI is central to the future prosperity of all Islanders. But let’s start with our education system and make it a shining provincial asset that will draw young families from elsewhere.
3. Do engagement properly.
Meaningful consultation is empowering: it respects the input of all participants, and contains within it a genuine effort to incorporate the views of those sufficiently motivated to bring forward submissions. Further than that, top notch engagement would devolve a certain amount of power to Islanders. This might take the form of the Public Schools Branch getting a level of consent from the public, ideally through a consensus-based model of consultation. If it is indeed the case that no final decisions have been made, then any sincere evaluation of the voices of Islanders who have responded to the call for input can lead to only one conclusion: that the recommendations of the Public School Branch are unacceptable to Islanders. In a truly empowering engagement process, this must be taken into account, and I remain hopeful that this will indeed be the case, whether that be in amended recommendations at the end of the public consultations, or a rejection of the current ones by cabinet, who have the ultimate authority on this matter.
4. Slow down.
If nothing else, it is abundantly clear that this is far too complex an issue, and one with such profound consequences, that we must hit pause and give ourselves enough time to investigate all the options that are available before we make potentially irreversible decisions. Yes, there is anger in rural PEI, but that anger has thus far been channelled in an admirably positive manner. I have heard passionate pleas, and vigorous defences of small local schools, but almost always that has been expressed respectfully and from a place of deep knowledge and sincerity. Lesson #1 for the Public School Branch must be to halt this hasty and ill-conceived process, and place a moratorium on school closures until we fully understand what we are doing.
I believe our main purpose in life is to learn: to understand ourselves more fully, and to better grasp our place in the bigger scheme of things, and in so doing, become better people. We don’t just do this while we are students in school, I believe that to honour our humanity, it is something we need to keep doing throughout our entire lives. There is much to be learned from this recent school review process, so let’s hope that those tasked with making some tough decisions on this file share my desire to keep learning and growing.