Education Minister Caroline Cochrane was blunt in the legislative assembly on Aug. 13: The territory’s school system is “failing” the children of the NWT, and it was the next assembly’s responsibility to fix it.
“Our children are our future. We keep saying that,” she said. “If we really believe that as a society, we have to put our energy, we have to put resources behind that, and the next government has to focus more on that.”
Cochrane cited NWT’s low graduation rates, which Statistics Canada reported were 55 per cent in the 2015-16 school year – that sit’s at 24 per cent lower than the national average.
She also noted the territory’s low early development index, indicating persistent vulnerability among young children in the NWT. Based on numbers from the GNWT, 42.1 per cent of children in the territory were vulnerable under the index’s measures of physical health and well-being, emotional maturity, communication skills and general knowledge, social competence, language and cognitive development.
Those challenges are more acute in smaller communities. The GNWT’s report on early development found almost two thirds of children in communities were considered vulnerable. And a GNWT fact sheet stated graduation rates were “consistently lower in our small communities, which dropped by 12 (per cent) in 2015.”
“(A full educational review) is needed across the Northwest Territories,” she told MLAs in last Tuesday’s assembly.
She added that strategic leadership was lacking in key areas: Some district’s educational authorities don’t use long-term plans. “That is not okay,” she said. “How can you actually do a strategic plan if you don’t have long-term plans?”
Concerns over an ailing education system is nothing new. Challenges were apparent in the 2015-16 test results in the territory.
Out of the total community enrolment, 27.1 and 17.7 per cent achieved acceptable results on their ELA (English Language Arts) tests, respectively in Grade 6 and 9. And 20.7 and 8 per cent of students in the communities outside of Yellowknife achieved acceptable results in their tests in Grade 6 and 9, respectively.
Excluding absentees or incomplete tests partially improves those results, but conversely leads back to underlying issues of poor school attendance. Regarding those late rates, Cochrane said in May “Everybody … has been blaming everybody else” over the poor attendance impeding student success.
Tackling these issues should be a priority for the next government, she said.
“I don’t know who will be in the House, but I am hopeful that one of the regular MLAs or Cabinet will actually grab this and bring it forward because I think it is time,” said Cochrane.
It would have been more apropos for Minister Cochrane to update the house on what ECE has been doing to further the ongoing education overhaul already in the works. Did she forget that in 2013, ECE embarked on a 10-year reform of the K-12 education system that promised innovation, renewal and ‘rethinking of the school experience’ (https://www.ece.gov.nt.ca/en/services/education-renewal)? Education that fails children also fails tax payers and the public deserves to know exactly what the last six years of reform has consisted of, what measures of accountability prove ECE is on the right track and how much it has all cost to date. Hopefully there was more to the renewal plan than adopting Early Development Index (EDI) assessments if only to use poor test scores as an argument for the implementation of Junior Kindergarten like it was the heralded game changer. Surely ECE has some plans for the remaining four years of reform? Or is ECE already distracted by the distant image of a shiny polytechnic?