This past week I had the opportunity to join Radio One’s On The Coast host, Stephen Quinn, and fellow panelists Ann Whiteaker, past president of the B.C. Confederation of Parent Advisory Councils; Jerry Li, Grade 11 student from Surrey, and Peter Cowley, Senior Vice-President of Operations and Director of School Performance Studies at the Fraser Institute, in looking at the state of public education in BC. The forum, which was hosted at Vancouver Technical Secondary School in Vancouver, used the tagline “Is BC’s Public Education System Broken?” Unfortunate, because while I do appreciate the question makes good media sense, it is not a productive starting place for a conversation about what we need to do to improve upon one of the world’s top public education systems.
I would have liked more of a chance to explore the system we want, to have engaged on how to keep it moving forward, and to discuss what a greater focus on the pedagogy and practice that will be required for schooling in our future world would look like. However, the forum did highlight the passion of those who work and participate in the public education system in British Columbia. Hopefully, there will be more public input and conversations soon (and more listening to the voices of young people!) focussing on the learning our kids need and the education system this will require.
The forum podcast is available here (the forum was held in hours two and three, though there is a good interview with the Ministry of Education’s Superintendent of Achievement, Rod Allen, in hour one). There were also active, and good conversations on Twitter, which one can still find by searching #otcforum. Several thoughtful reflections on the event have also been received, including this one from Jenny Arntzen.
Finally, on this topic, in advance of the session, each of the four panelists was tasked with the homework of putting together two minutes of material describing the greatest strengths and weaknesses of British Columbia’s public education system. The notes I prepared for the conversation are below:
The greatest strength in BC is our consistent, high levels of achievement; we do really well for most kids – from graduation rates to international assessments – we are one of the top performing jurisdictions in the world. Educators from around the globe flock to BC to learn our secrets, and international students, for example, see our schools as highly desirable.
We have an incredibly diverse clientele, far more diverse now than even 10 years ago; we have been challenged by funding, yet our achievement levels have continued to improve.
And at its core, this is all about outstanding teachers and administrators – highly-skilled, dedicated, passionate teachers investigating new ways – embracing technology, and giving so much to the life of the school from athletics to the arts. There is nothing more important than the connection teachers make to students and we get that right. There is a total commitment to doing the right thing for every student – it is very impressive.
The system is not broken.
Ironically, this strength is also a weakness. It is hard to transform a system that is highly successful – why change when we are doing well? We have to come to grips with the understanding that while it may be reassuring for our kids’ schooling to look a lot like our schooling looked like, this will not prepare our kids for the world that we are in and they are entering.
We need to transform the system to a new place – more of just the same is not going to make us better; we need to connect and network the brilliant pockets of innovations blossoming around the province.
We need to address the increasing relevance and engagement gap for kids – particularly as students move to high school – kids tell us their engagement is waning.
We need to ensure the system is reflective of the world we live in with an increased focus on skills and competencies, real world learning and less content focussed.
We need to better figure out how to meet the needs of students that don’t see university as their first option after Grade 12.
To be very clear, we are in this transformation from a position of huge strength – becoming a better version of us.
Hopefully, this is the first of many opportunities this year to move conversations about public education in BC to the mainstream.