‘Education costs money, but then so does ignorance,” said Sir Claus Moser, the famous education statistician from the London School of Economics.
The Yukon has been paying the price of ignorance for years. (Full disclosure: your columnist is a school council chair.)
Talking to parents, children, teachers, principals, First Nations and Yukon government officials — just about anyone — you can sense the frustration.
As our council noted in a recent letter to Education Minister Patrick Rouble, the Yukon’s graduation rate is 18 points below the national average.
The average child in a rural school is absent about 50 of the 180 school days.
There are schools in the Yukon where the average score on the Math 6 Yukon Achievement Test is below 30 per cent.
We are not setting these kids up for success.
Think about how much tougher it will be for them to catch up later — to have the skills and confidence to start their own business; to meet the entry requirements for heavy equipment training at the college; to help build a First Nation government or beat Outside applicants for a top job at YTG, or to be a role model for their own kids.
That’s where the costs come in.
Statistics Canada says 12.3 per cent of Canadian high school dropouts were unemployed in 2006 versus only 6.5 per cent of grads.
A National Bureau of Economic Research paper suggests high school graduation can reduce the chance of going to jail by more than three percentage points.
The data goes on and on.
Everyone knows all this. The question is: what should we do?
A lot of people think the answer is nothing.
They believe the education system is unreformable. That it soaks up money and can’t be changed.
In the last 10 years a number of experiments have demonstrated real change is possible. There are many different approaches from all sides of the political spectrum.
So let’s just look at one example with a few similarities to the Yukon.
This is Regent Park in Toronto, which suffered high absenteeism, a 56 per cent drop-out rate and poor learning outcomes.
Enter the Pathways program.
Interestingly, it was driven by the Regent Park Community Health Centre and not the school board.
“Our mission is to ensure that young people from at-risk and/or economically disadvantaged communities achieve their full potential by getting to school, staying in school, graduating and moving on to post-secondary programs,” says Pathways.
Pathways staff work in and out of the schools with at-risk youth, offering tutoring, mentoring and financial support for children who join.
Pathways workers are proactive, meeting with parents, teachers and even helping find summer jobs for members. Pathways staff are not teachers, but work closely with educators in and out of the school.
The results are clear. Absenteeism is down 50 per cent. And since absenteeism is a powerful leading indicator, the drop-out rate in Regent Park has dropped to 10 per cent from 56 per cent in 2001 according to the Toronto Star.
We don’t know if Pathways would work in the Yukon, but it’s clearly possible to make things better.
We don’t yet have action plans from the Yukon government’s high school programming study or the Education Reform project, started in 2005 in partnership with Yukon First Nations.
But what might an eventual action plan look like? Based on successful projects elsewhere, it could look like this:
Education needs to be a real priority, not just a rhetorical one.
The Yukon government has de-prioritized public school funding since 2004 compared to nearly every other government department, with a falling share of the Yukon budget going to public schools and opening up a $15-million gap.
The government’s pace on Education Reform has not indicated a sense of urgency.
Kids in Grade 9 in 2005 when it started will be graduating — or not — this year. Premier Dennis Fentie and his ministers need to show us more leadership, more action and more money, starting in the upcoming budget.
Ambitious goals and the data to track real progress
One part of the government showing leadership is making it clear that the status quo is unacceptable. Let’s set some bold targets and see if we can meet them.
For example, let’s reduce the absenteeism rate to 10 per cent. Let’s cut the drop-out rate in half in five years.
And let’s have no schools averaging under 50 per cent on the Yukon Achievement Tests.
To back this up, let’s have more information on how each school is doing on these goals available to students and parents.
Well-led schools, with empowered principals, innovative programs and engaged parents and communities. Pathways won’t work everywhere.
But whatever the folks in Regent’s Park did to invent Pathways to meet local needs could be done in Takhini or Teslin.
One thing blocking this today is resources.
It’s hard for principals to start innovative programs like this when they are already scrambling to find learning assistants and educational assistants for challenged students.
And unlike Toronto, where rich corporate sponsors helped out, parent councils here rely on bake sales to supplement their $5,000 budgets.
And beyond funding, the government has to encourage and reward innovation and experimentation on programs that will look different at each school.
As the best principals here already show, the job description of every principal needs to change from administering policy to leading education in their community.
Programs must cross the line between school and community.
In many cases, what happens in the classroom is not the root cause of the problem.
Successful programs straddle the line between school and community. They also recognize that teaching is a full-time job and provide additional staff.
A teacher with a full class load can’t spend 30 to 60 minutes a week mentoring 10 at-risk kids, meeting their parents and resolving issues.
That’s adding a whole extra work day to an already full teaching load.
Fortunately, we already have examples of Pathways-like things happening in the Yukon.
For example, when a frontline social worker talks about a student in residential care with the classroom teacher, or when a student talks to the Vuntut Gwitchin community co-ordinator located at FH Collins.
We probably need to do more of this.
It’s worth noting that we haven’t talked about curriculum, organization charts or policy committees yet.
That’s because this columnist has not heard of a project where these “head office” factors decisively improved outcomes for children.
These elements might help, but they are likely not the most important.
The problems people are trying to fix at head office — unresponsive programs, poor outcomes — might best be tackled by fixing the school-community partnership.
In the Yukon, this might look like well-led schools with more program funding operating their own versions of Pathways in a tight partnership between the principal, parent council, community groups and the relevant First Nation and Yukon social services agencies.
Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist, children’s author and chair of the Whitehorse Elementary school council