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Geoff Johnson: We don’t need another royal commission on education

Everyone — parents, the B.C. Teachers’ Association, universities and trustees — loves the prospect of a new royal commission on the state of education in B.C.

Everyone — parents, the B.C. Teachers’ Association, universities and trustees — loves the prospect of a new royal commission on the state of education in B.C.

What’s not to love? It has been 30 years since commissioner Barry Sullivan travelled across B.C., holding 66 public hearings, 54 meetings with teachers and taking part in 23 student assemblies.

The resulting report, A Legacy For Learners, authored by an impressive assemblage of public and independent educators, recounted that the commission also received 2,350 written and oral submissions from individuals and groups.

The provincial government of the day accepted nearly all of the commission’s 83 recommendations, including a blueprint for an innovative curriculum program known as Year 2000.

Now, with the B.C. Liberals desperate to form a new government, the throne speech promises a new royal commission into education.

Whoa, slow down! Here is a modest proposal from one who lived through it all and is on record as having attempted to implement much of it: Before instituting a new commission, B.C. education would be better served by a thorough and transparent examination of what happened to the Sullivan recommendations.

Such an examination should use as its guiding preamble the last paragraph of the 71-page report, which stated in uncompromisingly apolitical terms: “We know that our goals can be achieved through the creation of a climate of trust and good faith, and a new awareness that special interests must be balanced against the need for consensus and compromise in the interest of the greater public good. In a province long noted for its political fractiousness, this is a task of no small order.”

Some things are slow to change, if they ever change at all. Let us take a quick look at some of the report’s recommendations and how have they fared under eight premiers and 20 or so ministers of education in the past 30 years.

The recommendations covered a broad range of operational considerations:

• the nature of the school curriculum and how it serves students;

• the professional responsibilities, activities and preparation of teachers;

• the appropriateness of the current school-finance system; and

• the relationships among governance and administrative systems and their role in facilitating learning.

Looking just at just those recommendations concerning curriculum and instruction, teaching and learning, the report included suggestions that:

• developmental criteria, rather than chronological age, be used in selecting the educational placement of children entering school;

• the provincial government and local school boards should introduce legislation and policy changes to enable schools and school districts to establish ungraded primary divisions;

• teachers use an interdisciplinary approach in their teaching;

• teachers instruct in a minimum of two different subject areas and work in interdisciplinary teams, at any given grade level;

• the Ministry of Education develop and distribute curriculum documents that provide examples of interdisciplinary relationships and articulation among subjects, and between course content and the life experiences of learners.

A major recommendation was that, on an experimental basis, school districts provide learners opportunities in keeping with their needs, interests, and varying rates of achievement.

None of these recommendations are pie-in-the-sky academic dreaming. The recommendations for improving learning were based on sound research and evidence of successful practice elsewhere and in isolated instances here in B.C.

Even after 30 years, none have been fully implemented. Why not? One example would be the fate of the recommendation that report cards be anecdotal — that reports tell the full story of a child’s progress, not just the A, B, C, D rankings that provide little information about something as complex as how individual children learn.

Former premier Mike Harcourt recalls “huge complaints” about the anecdotal report cards. But nobody delved into the multi-faceted reasons for the “huge complaints.”

In all likelihood, as with many good ideas, problems arose from excessive haste, lack of pilot projects, lack of contact with the reality of schools or the expectations of parents, and some internal contradictions in the proposal itself.

Blundering into a new royal commission without a thorough examination of what happened last time is almost guaranteed to see public education go through the same “ready fire aim” cycle as before.

So, slow down folks. Public education deserves better than that.

Geoff Johnson is a retired superintendent of schools.