Education Under Attack: A Commentary On BC’s Failing Education System. Emily Mittertreiner, Canada

 

Over the last few months, Vancouver and other large cities have seen a steady stream of rallies and protests calling for improvements in funding, teaching style, and standardized testing in the public education system. Although nobody is quite sure how to approach the issue, students across the province of British Columbia can agree on one thing: it is time for an education reform.  Many believe that while generations of students have progressed and changed as a whole, the education system has not matured with them. Not only that, but the system is not being provided with the appropriate resources, funding, or attention required to initiate radical change.

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The provincial government and the Vancouver School Board both claim to be acting in the interests of students, but are they really? [SOURCE]

The Vancouver School Board (VSB) suffered a tremendous initial $21.8 million budget shortfall this year, resulting in continuous negotiations between the VSB and the provincial government that nearly resulted in the firing of the entire board when they vetoed the province’s proposed budget. Dakota Reed McGovern, a Vancouver student who is extremely active in the campaign for education reform, sums up the problem beautifully: “I think right now [that] the feud between the provincial government and the Vancouver School Board is an interesting one, because both of them are claiming to represent student needs,” he says. “I find it a bit controversial, given the fact that they haven’t actually reached out to students.” The budget shortfall has brought what students and parents claim to be “ludicrous cuts to extra-curricular and even essential components of many schools”. Many school music programs—some of which host impressive groups that travel out of the country to perform—were threatened with the impending removal of band, choir, and strings orchestras. The city’s “Gifted Learning Program”, a valuable resource for precocious students and children with learning disabilities, lost a number of full-time positions. Career support workers, anti-homophobia and racism mentors, technology specialists, Braille teachers, and online-learning staff suffered job cuts as well.

This year, the school board had to sack the equivalent of twelve full-time and one part-time clerical support positions, including the permanent removal of my school’s only secretary. It is unclear how the schools affected will operate without administrative help, but it seems like all unfilled duties will have to be taken on by students, which takes away from valuable learning time. With Mini Schools and other enrichment programs across the city suffering similar cuts, it’s becoming evident that the school board does not value these programs the way students do.

At this point, you might be wondering how the system has become so underfunded. Well, the provincial government funds schools on a per-student basis, and for senior students, a per-course basis. This means that the more students a school has, the more funding they receive. At first glance, this model seems sensible; a school with more students should cost more to operate, correct? Unfortunately, this is not always true.

Imagine two schools, both with forty classes of students. School A has twenty-eight students per class, while School B has thirty students per class. School A, in total, has eighty fewer students than School B. Because annual funding from the government averages to approximately $7000 per student, the government gives the school board $560,000 more for School B than for School A. However, it is unlikely that it costs $560,000 less to operate School A. Costs of heating and cooling, teacher salaries, and maintenance of the facilities would virtually be the same. Because, essentially, schools have some median expenses that are not affected by the number of students.

This method of funding is problematic. The primary problem stems from Vancouver’s current cost of living. Many families—especially immigrant families living on the East Side—can no longer afford to live in Vancouver proper, and are consequently moving out to suburbs, like Surrey and Maple Ridge. This is bringing down enrollment in schools on Vancouver’s East Side, making funding even more scarce for schools that already deal with many at-risk youth. Looking at it from this perspective, it is no wonder that the VSB has proposed to close twelve schools in the district, mostly on the East Side. This includes two secondary schools that are home to numerous Aboriginal, special need, and other at-risk children. Closing these schools and moving the students to schools in the district that are farther away would disrupt their education and well-being, making it even more likely that they choose to skip classes or even drop out.

Another problem that arises from the per-student/per-course method of funding is the pressure put on senior students to have full timetables, even when it’s not in their best interests to do so. I’ve talked to numerous students that have no desire or need to take two elective courses on top of their six academic courses or who would greatly benefit from having two or three blocks free to work a job. Unfortunately, their school requires them to take a full course load since the government will give out more money for full-time students. Problems like this are evident in many schools–including my own–and these erratic changes and flawed politics are taking a toll on the student body.

I attend Prince of Wales Mini School, an enrichment program hosted at Prince of Wales Secondary School in Vancouver, B.C. This year, I said goodbye to two of my favourite teaching staff, who were not only my educators but also my mentors, role models, and friends. The VSB was unable to pay their salaries and thus, they were let go despite cries of protest from the student body. As mentioned earlier, our school’s only secretary was let go at the end of this year. She was responsible for booking and organizing school trips, overseeing the admissions intake process, and handling finances and fundraising initiatives. It is likely that these responsibilities will now be handed off to the senior students, who already have university applications, part-time jobs, and provincial exams to deal with. Although an unfair and less-than-perfect solution, giving the students the leftover administration duties is the only practical way to keep the beloved Mini School open to motivated and high-achieving students from all walks of life.

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Mini School students from across Vancouver team up to protest cuts that would leave their school without secretaries or sufficient funding. Source: Matthew Beck

These stories of abrupt change shine a light on one of the biggest issues with British Columbia’s school system, as well as the systems in many other jurisdictions around the world. It is not focused on the students, and for a public program whose intent is to foster growth and curiosity in the young generation, this is a huge problem. In today’s world, where university recruiters and job scouts are looking for so much more than just good grades, it is imperative for the schooling system to adapt and mature along with and for the students that depend on it. More and more frequently, I hear fellow pupils expressing utter distaste towards school, and surprisingly, it is often the smartest and most innovative students in my classes that are heard complaining. It is not that they dislike learning or hate doing work; it is the old-fashioned, memory-based way in which we are all expected to learn that puts a bitter taste in the mouths of would-be keen students.

Students, including me and many of my peers, have been victim to the extremely narrow and impractical provincial curriculum. I know students who have designed their own computers and robots, but still perform atrociously on science tests. I know students who adore reading and writing, but still scored low on the grade 10 mandatory Provincial English Exam, because it is a multiple-choice test that barely takes into account writing capabilities. As I am a queer-identified youth, I will have to look to outside resources to learn about LGBTQ2+ history because it will never be mentioned in class. I will have to seek out my own adult mentors to get a crash course in same-sex sexual education, because it is too much of a taboo to be discussed in school. Kids will have to look someplace else to learn to do their taxes or apply for loans, because independent living and adulting is clearly not a priority in the eyes of our ministry. Students with an interest in politics or religion will need to immerse themselves in extracurriculars because those subjects are considered too controversial to be discussed properly in school. Anyone dealing with mental health issues is better off figuring out their own way to deal with their problems, because schools are much too absorbed with teaching the ministry-prescribed curriculum and gearing up for standardized tests to address concerns such as anxiety or depression.

In my first week of Grade 10 Math, my teacher stood at the front of the room holding what looked horrifyingly like a medieval torture device. She explained that it was a Vernier Calliper, a tool for accurately measuring miniscule amounts. The school’s callipers were inundated with rust and squeaky screws, and we tried to hazard a guess on how long it had been since someone had actually used one. “When will we ever use one of these in real life?” a student asked. “Probably never,” the teacher replied. “But it’s on the Provincial Math Exam, so you need to know it.” The same thing happened a few weeks later, when the teacher attempted to teach us how to factor and calculate integers using coloured chips and plastic yellow rods. “I understand how to do it on paper, but I can’t learn with these chips. It’s not my learning style,” one of my classmates groaned. “I don’t like them either, but it’s on the exam,” the teacher said. By no means is she a poor teacher; in fact, she’s one of the best. However, there’s only so much she can do when the ministry has prescribed such a linear curriculum. It doesn’t matter how great you are at a subject; if you can’t follow the exact steps taught by the ministry, you might as well not bother.

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Vancouver students gather on the steps of the Central Library for the BSCA’s Rally for Justice in Education. Source: Boris Perdija

Luckily, it’s not all bad news. There are a number of British Columbian students that have decided to reclaim their student voice and attempt to overturn the education system. One organization in specific, the British Columbia Student Alliance (BCSA), has made it their personal mission to “create a better education for future generations”. Their ultimate goal is to establish a board of representative Student Trustees who have as much legislative power regarding youth education as official adult trustees. This week, I attended the Vancouver Rally for Justice in Education hosted by the BCSA, and listened to passionate youth discuss the importance of an education reform. Many of these students talked about how their creative minds and curiosity for learning have been continually discouraged by strict curriculums and restrictive systems.

The former president and co-founder of the Alliance, high school graduate Dakota Reed McGovern, talked about his education at Windsor House, a schooling system modeled after Summer Hill School in England. A “Democratic Schooling” strategy is used, where the students, parents, and teachers all have an equal voice. Students choose which days they go to school, what courses they take, and what kind of projects they do. Instead of communicating through report cards, the teachers and parents have individual conferences to talk about the progress of each student. The school focuses on interdisciplinary learning, personalized lesson plans, and student-led projects. They emphasize on what seems to be a rare concept in today’s society: that students can, and should be, allowed to take responsibility for their own learning. In the 11th grade, McGovern began developing and teaching a Comparative Civilizations course at Windsor House, a great example of a student taking leadership and responsibility for his own education. He was also extremely active outside of school and organized rallies and spoke to VSB officials in his free time.

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Senior student Dakota Reed McGovern leads a Comparative Civilizations class at Windsor House School. [SOURCE]

I believe that alternative schools like Windsor House need to become the norm. Teachers at these schools recognize that students are all different, and that we all have our own interests, ideas, needs and preferences. It it more than just half-heartedly administering a “learning styles test” or a “personality quiz” at the beginning of the year, because never have I ever seen a teacher actually take this information and apply it to lesson plans accordingly. It is heartbreaking to see the levels of apathy in today’s students, but who can blame them? Many of us have been told for years that only adults know what is best for us, or that we are lazy and ignorant (a mindset that really only serves to make us feel even more lazy and ignorant). As Mr. Wormwood once eloquently said in the beloved book Matilda by Roald Dahl: “I’m smart, you’re dumb; I’m big, you’re little; I’m right, you’re wrong, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

In short, if you take away anything from my article, I hope it is the radical notion that students are human too! We want funding for our band programs and fair salaries for our beloved teachers. We want LGBTQ2+ and women’s rights history in our social studies curriculum, and proper counselling and mental health resources for First Nations and at-risk students. We want a say in how we learn and what we learn. We want to be treated like human beings that can handle responsibilities and make decisions, because no matter how long the adults in our lives shelter us for, we will inevitably have to take their places as mothers, fathers, teachers and doctors. We are the only ones who will suffer from the consequences of insufficient education, and we are the ones who will need to figure out how to repair the damage that has been done. As the students of British Columbia dive back into their school routine this fall semester, I urge them to keep in mind their own beliefs and ideas, and I hope that they all, whether as large as the rallies for the BCSA or as small as speaking their minds in a class discussion, stand up for their right to define their own education.

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