by Ken Taylor, Piers Macdonald, Shakir Alwarid, Fred Smith and Don Roberts
In 1990, after five years of consultations and with considerable fanfare, a new Education Act was proclaimed in the Yukon legislature. It was called Partners in Education, and it became the vehicle for massive change in how the education of our children was managed. It provided a paradigm shift in the way we approached teaching and learning.
In particular, special needs students and their teachers were supported with unprecedented levels of funding and personnel resources. Innovation was encouraged, and indeed expected.
It was a time of renewed passion, hope, and determination for many educators, their students, and parents. It was at this time that many of our most innovative programs were developed. To those of us who were intimately involved with this evolving vision, it seemed as if nothing was impossible. And it felt good.
Sadly, we are confident in saying that for many of our current educators, this is no longer the case. Parents still care deeply about the education of their children, staff in schools still make tremendous efforts on behalf of their students, and First Nations and members of the Department of Education still try their best to support those in the front lines. In spite of this, it just doesn’t feel as good anymore, and that needs to change.
The most obvious question that comes to mind is, “What has changed?” The answer is both simple and complex at the same time, but the essence lies in the breakdown of the partnership and the goodwill that drove the development and implementation of the act 25 years ago.
The “partners in education” in 1990 consisted of the Yukon Teachers Association, First Nations, parents, and the Department of Education. These four entities set aside traditional differences to develop a collective vision for a new way to work with students. We believe it is time for them to do it again.
The YTA has never been stronger, with leadership that enjoys a high level of support from its membership. Parents have significant authority within the structure of their school councils and school board, and an articulate collective voice with the Association of Yukon School Councils, Boards, and Committees. First Nations are governments in their own right, with an Umbrella Final Agreement and self-government agreements that empower their collective voices as never before. The Department of Education, renamed Yukon Education, has more people working there than ever before with considerable resources at its disposal. At no time in the history of the territory have the “partners” been so well positioned to be spectacularly successful in leading the learning of our children, but rarely have they been so fragmented in their collective efforts.
There are many incredibly talented people working in the education community, and they deserve a lucid, focused, collective plan to follow from their most senior leaders – the premier, the minister, and the deputy minister. That plan should not be invented behind closed doors, top-down, but should be developed in a way that encourages full discussion and can openly examine dissenting opinions. It should be developed with the full participation of the partners in education, and it should be an ongoing process. These partners need to set aside their growing animosities and put our kids first. Of course there will always be competing visions, but that does not preclude a meeting of minds on the big issues.
Trust is a rare commodity among those working in the education field right now, and that is unacceptable. Communication – real, open, honest communication is often missing among the partners. The education system has become closed with people feeling shut down, left out, or at risk if they speak up. It is time for leaders to lead, partners to partner, and negative naysayers to seriously consider the importance of the task at hand. What is at risk is the education of our children, and that is what should be put first in every discussion and before every decision is made.
The 2014/2015 estimates for spending in public schools in the Yukon (capital and operations and maintenance) indicate that almost $149 million will be spent on behalf of our children. To put it another way, that’s about $29,000 per student. Clearly, we don’t lack the resources, so the question becomes: do senior leaders have the will and the commitment to take up the challenge of becoming better – much better – than is currently the case?
We recommend that the premier and his education minister convene a meeting of the partners in education to begin the task of renewing and reinvigorating the partnership. We respectfully suggest that the partners resist the urge to demand more resources, but instead look for answers to some troubling questions that have been shared with us. It’s time to move forward together, and you are the leaders that have been given the responsibility to lead.
Ken Taylor is a retired Yukon school administrator and a past president of the Yukon Teachers’ Association; Piers Macdonald is a former premier and minister of education; Shakir Alwarid is a former deputy minister of education; Fred Smith is a former Yukon school administrator and superintendent; Don Roberts is a former Yukon school administrator and cabinet minister. All were closely involved in the development of the Education Act.