The education initiatives recently announced by BC Education Minister Don McRae are the best proposals the Ministry has made in 20 years. They should serve as a model for a reformation of public education, but they won’t if the Ministry sees them as merely a minor and temporary component of their much advertised Jobs Plan strategy.
The reason they should serve as a model is that, if fully implemented, the reforms will engage thousands of students who have been perennially unengaged by the school system. The Ministry’s programs were created with the Industry Training Authority; they consist of Discover Trades, Secondary School Apprenticeship (SSA), Accelerated Credit Enrolment in Industry Training (ACE-IT) and Youth Exploring Skills to Industry Training (YES2IT) and put mechanisms in place that will expose students to a wide variety of trades that are interesting, stimulating and lucrative. More importantly the students will come in contact with successful, intelligent, interesting and successful trades people, men and women who make good livings and are enthusiastic about their work. That is of key importance because it provides students with a vision of a positive and attainable future. Of course, they will have to work to attain that future, beginning with school.
Creating the desire to do the necessary work is a component that has been missing from education reform. The “student centered” education reforms of the last thirty years have consistently assumed that the responsibility for learning belonged to everyone, but the students. Time tables, school structure, teaching methods, course requirements, curricula all have been tinkered with, manipulated and repeatedly revised in order to improve poor student performance. Standardized testing has been increased to make schools “accountable” and to cudgel them into making their students achieve higher scores. Not surprisingly, more testing did not really inspire struggling students. However, they welcomed the eased standards, multiple course options, Alternate Learning centres, and relaxed graduation requirements, and even though none of those things improved overall student performance, politicians and educators continued with their efforts to make the system more student centered. Former British Columbia Minister of Education George Abbott announced before his departure in 2012 that, in the future, students and their parents would be creating their own curricula, based on what they wanted to study and what they thought was best for their own future. Of course, this will hardly help underachieving students and their parents who often have only a vague vision of their future opportunities. The new Ministry initiatives do the opposite, providing real concrete options and possibilities and stimulating the desire to work and succeed.
The “learning gap” between Asian students and our students which has panicked so many politicians and educators is based on no more than a difference in the amount of effort Asian students are willing to exert compared to ours. Their families, their communities, the world in which they live provide for them a vision of a future in which, as educated people, they can and will lead significant, satisfying lives. As a result, they want to work to achieve that future. That view of themselves has not been generated in many of our students. Of course, our thousands of high achieving students are now and have always been self-motivated and goal oriented, and out perform almost all other students world-wide. However, they aren’t the students targeted by 30 years of education reform. The joint education/trades programs may finally provide many of those students with a vision of their future that, like their Asian counterparts, will inspire them to put in the effort that a sound education requires: studying, memorizing, practicing, sometimes completing assignments that to a young person seem irrelevant.
For the reforms to be successful, however, they have to be seen, not as a stop gap economic measure to keep jobs in BC, part of a $15 million one time job creation expenditure, but as the beginning of an educational reformation that takes seriously the idea that students must do the work, that high achievement means high effort, but that public education exists to help everyone achieve a place in society that is valuable and satisfying. And if successful, perhaps the Fraser Institute will finally be forced to consider the number of students accepted into apprenticeships as a standard of success equal to that of university admissions.