Don’t rush changes to Yukon’s school calendar

The Yukon Party government's current attempt to force a new, standardized school calendar on all communities has garnered a good deal of recent media attention.

COMMENTARY

by Jim Tredger

The Yukon Party government’s current attempt to force a new, standardized school calendar on all communities has garnered a good deal of recent media attention. Since the minister’s plans were made public, I’ve been contacted by dozens of concerned students, parents and educators who believe the proposed changes don’t reflect their needs. I’ve heard their concerns and my message to the minister of education is this: Don’t rush changes to Yukon’s school calendar.

On the surface, the minister’s plan sounds nice. We’re told that more instructional hours will improve student learning outcomes and a standardized school calendar for all Yukon schools will expand course options for rural students through distance education. These are good things. The problem here isn’t the minister’s goals. Instead, the way he’s going about them is all wrong.

The brief window for public consultation is poorly timed and too short. What’s the rush? The proposed changes will have far-reaching implications. Yukon people, and especially our students, deserve better than a quick process that doesn’t allow for meaningful discussion.

It’s ironic that a government that decries low participation in school councils is now acting in a way that might very well drive participation even lower. As it stands, local school councils can, with the minister’s approval, set their school calendar. Standardizing the school calendar strips this important role from school councils, thereby reducing their ability to influence the delivery of education in their communities. Why would a person want to join a school council to advise a government that seems to have little interest in listening?

The proposal to increase the number of days in the school year is based on the minister’s stated belief that Yukon students need to spend as much time in the classroom as other Canadian students to be able to compete for university admissions and jobs.

However, the relationship between instructional days and educational outcomes isn’t that straightforward. For example, Yukon students perform better than students in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut despite having fewer days in the school year. To be clear, our students need an adequate amount of quality classroom instruction, yet they also need time outdoors to connect with and learn from the land and the community.

It’s overly simplistic to say that more days in the classroom will lead to better student outcomes, especially if that classroom time is competing with students’ desires to experience longer hours of daylight after a cold and dark winter. Perhaps longer school days without an increase in the number of days would help achieve the desired effect. In other words, we ought to look at the quality of time students spend in the classroom and not just the quantity as we work towards better educational outcomes.

I’ve heard from people in Pelly Crossing, Mayo, Dawson City and Ross River who said a standardized school calendar does not meet their unique needs. The current school calendars for Pelly Crossing and Mayo reflect the importance of allowing students to spend time on the land. For Dawson, the school calendar allows students to compete for seasonal work in the tourism industry, which ramps up after the May long weekend. For Ross River, the school calendar accommodates the important fall moose hunt.

The bottom line is that the communities differ from Whitehorse in many significant ways. Within reason, the school system should be responsive for those differences. One size does not fit all.

The minister claims a standardized school calendar would expand course options for rural students through distance education. Specifically, the department has said that a standard calendar would allow rural students to participate via videoconferencing in courses that are offered only in Whitehorse.

The minister seems to have a narrow and out-dated idea of distance education. Instead of forcing rural distance learners to adhere to a strict classroom schedule dictated by Whitehorse, modern distance learning techniques could make learning more flexible. Web-based tools allow for instruction and interaction using text-based discussion groups and live and recorded video. In other words, videoconferencing rural students in to ‘live’ classes in Whitehorse is not the only option. There are creative ways to deploy distance education that do not require a standardized school calendar.

After years of relative inaction from the Yukon Party government, it’s time to make real improvements to our education system. We need to close the performance gap between Whitehorse and rural students and ensure the system meets the needs of all learners, their families and communities. To do this in an effective and lasting way will require a more inclusive, open and creative approach than the minister’s current top-down exercise.

Jim Tredger is the NDP’s education critic.