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Ruthless truth telling

Economist John Maynard Keynes believed in "ruthless truth-telling." Keynes wasn't just a brilliant academic, but also a "real world" British policy maker. He thought it was critical to be acidly clear about the facts.

Economist John Maynard Keynes believed in “ruthless truth-telling.” Keynes wasn’t just a brilliant academic, but also a “real world” British policy maker. He thought it was critical to be acidly clear about the facts. Otherwise, complacent policy making might lead to disaster.

So what would Keynes have thought about the latest Pan-Canadian Assessment tests, where Yukon students averaged last in reading and science as well as third from the bottom in math? These are the authoritative tests run by the Canadian Council of Ministers of Education, covering Grade 8 students nationally except for Nunavut and the N.W.T.

Christie Whitley, the head of the Yukon’s public schools branch, said the results were “not unexpected” and told the media that it was important to recognize a lot of students are doing well but there are also many who are not.

I can guess what Keynes would have thought of those talking points.

Coming in at the bottom of the pack is one thing. The Yukon has very different demographics from the provinces. Keynes would want to know about the trend.

The Yukon spends more per student than any province, and the public schools branch launched education reform in 2005. This was followed by the branch’s high-profile New Horizons initiative in 2008. After several years of work we should expect to see improvements in the data.

Let’s have a look at Language Arts 9, a core subject, and with a broad sample since most dropping out occurs later. The Yukon average from 2002-2010 was 60.7 per cent. In the most recent year, it was 59.2 per cent. If you look at the chart, there is not an upward trend.

How about Math 9? The branch didn’t include math results in its most recent annual report due to changes in the Alberta-designed tests. Going back to the 2008-09 report, the average Yukon Math 9 score was 58.7 per cent from 2001-09. In 2009, it was 56.6 per cent. Eyeballing the chart shows a slight negative trend. A look at the individual school results shows that four schools had averages in Math 9 below 52 per cent in 2008-09 (individual school data in all subjects also excised from the latest report).

Standardized tests aren’t everything, of course. How about attendance? The average rural First Nation student missed 29.25 days, on average from 2001-2009. In the most recent year, the figure was 29. The data for 2008/09 shows a positive shift in Whitehorse, but absenteeism was still above levels for 2001-04. Data for the latest year is not included in the branch’s latest report either.

The graduation rate in 2009-10 was 69 per cent, but we don’t know the trend since comparable data from earlier years is not available.

The Pan-Canadian statisticians also assessed the trend in English reading, using rigorous methods to make sure the 2007 and 2010 results were comparable. Only the Yukon had a “statistically significant” worsening in performance.

The balance of the evidence suggests stagnating results, despite years of consulting projects, strategic plans and New Horizons conferences.

The branch generally responds to poor test results and other criticism by trotting out long lists of things they are working on. Many of these sound good. But Keynes would ask if we had confidence that public schools management was implementing these ideas effectively.

The first worrying sign is that the most recent employee survey shows only 35 per cent of Department of Education employees have “confidence in the senior leadership of my department.” Then there’s the rebuilding of FH Collins high school, where the latest chapter in the debacle is a two-year delay announced this week after work had already begun on the site.

And don’t forget the mishandled francophone school board court case. This case is important since its mishandling sheds light on management at public schools branch. Yukon Supreme Court Justice Ouellette described several public schools branch managers in scathing terms in his judgment, describing one’s “evasive manner” and calling another “not reliable.” He claimed that a senior manager “intentionally tried to deceive the Court” about special-needs classes, and eventually ordered the branch to pay $1.5 million in court costs and damages for “acts of bad faith.” Supreme Court justices do not do this kind of thing lightly.

My confidence was further shaken when the branch told the media that it was working on reducing primary class sizes. This surprised me, since I was involved at my children’s school in protesting the new staffing formula, which the branch introduced in 2010. This formula actually cut educators at schools where 63 per cent of the Yukon’s elementary students go. One school ended up with four primary classes with more than 22 students the following year. Somehow the branch spends more per student than any province, but still manages to have many primary classes bigger than the Ontario maximum of 20.

I also asked a current elementary school council member about reducing class sizes. “News to me!” was the reply. I am also told that the Staffing Allocation Advisory Committee hasn’t even met this school year.

All of this might have consequences in some organizations, but so far this remains the management team entrusted with our 5,100 students and $93-million public schools budget.

The whole topic of education performance is difficult to bring up, especially with so many talented and hardworking teachers in classrooms around the territory. But it is critically important, perhaps the biggest single lever we have as a society to address future unemployment, poverty and other social ills.

Keynes would probably ask us to ask ourselves how honest we are being about how our children are doing in school. And he would ask us to think again about whether we really believe public schools branch leaders and their latest strategic plan will really make things better.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels.