Yukon education five years later

The Yukon Government and First Nations kicked off the Education Reform project almost five years ago in August 2005.

The Yukon Government and First Nations kicked off the Education Reform project almost five years ago in August 2005. “The Government of Yukon is committed to working with First Nations to improve success rates for aboriginal students and indeed for all students,” said Yukon Party former minister of Education John Edzerza at the time.

Since Edzerza has rejoined the cabinet, let’s check in on how much progress was made by his colleagues during his sabbatical. Since politicians tout education as a priority, and Edzerza himself had time for two political careers (in the NDP and as an independent), there should be lots to talk about.

The Education Reform report was released in 2008. It has been followed up by a host of initiatives and consulting reports, including the secondary programming review, which itself spawned a plethora of “pillar committees” and working groups covering everything from experiential learning, trades, special needs education and French. In addition, the Department of Education has produced a new section on Yukon First Nations for the Grade 5 social studies curriculum.

That’s the activity at the Department of Education. What has happened in the schools?

We’ll start with some statistics. Statistics don’t tell the whole story in education, of course, and the department’s published figures may have to be taken with a grain of salt after the auditor general’s harsh criticism of their “misleading” reporting on graduation rates.

There are reams of statistics available, some helpful, some not, so let’s look at math and language arts in Grade 9 now and five years ago as a rough guideline.

Grade 9 is a good year since students across the Yukon write the same Yukon Achievement Test exams. Grade 9 also captures children who have spent about half of their school careers in the system since Education Reform began. Plus, relatively few students have dropped by that point, a factor which affects Grade 12 statistics.

The latest Yukon Achievement Test data available is for the 2008/09 school year. In language arts 9, 78 per cent of students had passing grades in the Yukon, up from 67 per cent in 2004/05. However, the number achieving “excellence” (defined by the government as a score above 80 per cent) fell from 24 per cent five years ago to just 13 per cent last year.

That’s how many passed and achieved “excellence.” In terms of the average score, this has hovered around 60 per cent, ranging between 59.2 per cent and 62.5 per cent since 2001. Worryingly, the average for First Nation students last year was just 48.5 per cent and three of the 10 Yukon schools for which separate data are available had averages below 50 per cent.

In math 9, 66 per cent of students had passing grades five years ago but that was down to 61 per cent last year. And the number achieving “excellence” fell from 24 per cent to 16 per cent.

The average math scores seem to be trending down. They were around 60 per cent earlier in the decade but have been below 57.5 per cent for three of the last four years. The average for First Nations students was 43.4 per cent and two of the nine reporting schools had failing averages.

So much for the test results. How are we doing at that other perennial educational pain point: attendance? Here the statistics for all grades show that, over the last five years, the number of days missed by Whitehorse non-First Nation students has fallen from 16 to 14 days. For rural First Nation students, it has remained flat at 29 days. That’s the equivalent of a month and a half of school missed each year.

Statistics don’t capture everything in a school, but it does seem strange that we don’t see more movement in the statistics after years of official effort and millions of dollars spent. What could explain this?

One possible explanation is that Education Reform and the secondary programming review have significantly improved our children’s education, but in areas other than math, English and attendance.

Another is that the reforms are going to work well, but just haven’t filtered through to the students yet. This is backed up by an informal Yukonomist survey of high school teachers, several of whom used words like “none” and “can’t think of anything” to describe what has changed in their classrooms as a result of the secondary program review and its pillar committees.

If this is true, it’s sad that the process is taking so long. According to the department’s latest statistics, every year about 400 Yukon children reach graduation age, but around 160 don’t graduate. As the years of education reform tick by, that’s a lot of high school dropouts.

The third option is that the Department of Education is expending a lot of energy on internal meetings that don’t make any difference to kids in the classroom.

We don’t really know. But it’s troubling.

In any case, it looks like some parents have taken education reform into their own hands. The Kumon math and reading support centre is one of the busiest establishments on Main Street after school.

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